In Defence of the Virtual
L. Vir = man
Ir. Fir = men
L. Virtus = moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth.
The seven cardinal virtues = justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, charity.
The word “Virtual,” as used in philosophy, means the sum total of all possibilities. I’m not referring to computer games, etc., where reality is simply copied in electronic form.
I’ll use Quantum Mechanics as an example of the philosophical virtual. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal tells us that we cannot know both the position and the velocity of a particle. That being the case, if we know the velocity of the particle, we must depend on probabilities as to where the particle might be. In some places the probability is quite high, in others quite low. We can calculated these probabilities for each position, and represent these probabilities as a Wave Function.
So, the Wave Function shows us a Virtual World. A world were the particle could be at any point. To a certain extent, the particle has a virtual existence at each and every point. If, through observation, (and by loss of our knowledge of its velocity) we do find out where the particle is, we say the Wave Function has collapsed. All the virtual positions of the particle cease to exist.
Slavoj Zizek gives the example of light. Say for example the colour of a rose. There is a huge spectrum of light coming from a rose. The eye, being limited in nature, is only able to apprehend a tiny area of this spectrum. In our observation, we have collapsed a huge virtual range of possibility into our limited perception of a red rose. And so, the eye, “actualizes” light, by limiting it (as far as we humans are concerned.)
Quantum Mechanics gives us a view of an actual world emerging from a virtual world. As Gilles Deleuze puts it, following Spinoza, the production of reality is a limitation or negation of the virtual multitude. But, this is not a one off event by any means. Reality is being constantly actualised anew from the womb of the virtual.
Deleuze, following Kant, speaks of two fundamental modes of being in the world.
The first, and most simple, is called the Connective Synthesis of Production. It’s syntax is: …and then…and then… and then…
This is life at the instinctual level. The baby feels hungry, and then he cries, and then he feeds at the breast, and then stops feeding and then he sleeps and then…
The second is called the Disjunctive Synthesis of Recording. It’s syntax is: Either…or…or…
This is life at the properly human level. The baby is feeding – his mother’s smile catches his eye. Either he continues feeding or he stops and enjoys the smile or he remembers the song his mother sang yesterday or…
As is clear, the Disjunctive Synthesis of Recording implies memory. And memory implies the virtual. Once we have memory, we have an infinity of possible alternatives (it’s no coincidence that Capitalism tries to destroy memory. Margret Thatcher’s infamous threat to the human race was: TINA, There Is No Alternative.)
Again, returning to Zizek’s example of the red rose, while the eye, through it’s physical limitation, actualizes (thus reducing) light, it also expands light, through memory. On seeing a rose, we not only see a red plant, but that rose is woven into a huge range of associations and memories – from the Rose of Tralee, to Shakespeare, to a Rose that once cut our finger, to roses placed on the grave of a loved one, etc. etc.
The Virtual in Irish Republican Tradition
All of this will seem quite familiar to anyone who has been schooled in the traditions of Irish Republicanism, at least since 1922. The de jure 32 County Republic has always been separated from the de facto British constituted free state.
The term “de jure,” today meaning “of law,” comes from the O.Latin ious, lit. "sacred formula.” cf. Avestan yaozda- "make ritually pure" (Avestan is the East Iranian language in which the texts of Zoroastrian scripture are written c.2000BC.)
“De facto” comes from the Latin facto, abl. of factum "deed, act"
L. factum "event, occurrence," lit. "thing done," neut. pp. of facere "to do"
So, even from the perspective of etymology, which often betrays hidden meanings in terms we have long taken for granted, we get the distinction between the sacred virtual and the thing actually done. The contrast between the sacred Revolutionary desire, and the often obscenity of Revolutionary actuality.
Categories of the Virtual
Marx claims that there is one special characteristic, in every era, be it Primitive Communism, Feudal, Capitalist or Communist (or any other possibility) that sets man apart. That characteristic is what Marx terms "free conscious activity." The word "activity" covers all types of labour, including thinking or physical labour. But what makes this activity "free," and what does Marx mean by "free?" Marx realized that in the human race, labour \ activity is not connected to any specific task. Capitalism had proved this to be the case. Labour is abstracted from any particular purpose - hence the term "abstract labour" that Marx often uses. Most animals carry out their activity according to instinct. (I say most, as it may well be that some of the higher animals have some level of freedom from instinct) They gather berries, or hunt, because they are genetically programmed to do so. And, for most of human history, if you asked any person why he or she did what they did, they would have been amazed at such a question. The peasant worked the land, the carpenter made tables etc., because that was their position in life. They were born to it.
But, capitalism changed all that. The peasants were driven off the land, and were forced to sell their labour, as a "thing" on the open market. No longer did they do what they were born to do - but only what the capitalist would pay them to do. As Marx puts it in Das Kapital, the peasant had become "Vogel frei," or Bird Free. He was free as a bird, and just as without land. Labour then was no longer connected to any specific job. Labour was something that humans did, and could be applied to any task.
And if labour is free of instinct and free of any specific purpose in capitalism, then it was always free of instinct or purpose - but had been artificially tied down during Primitive Communism and Feudalism. Labour, according to Marx, is a free force.
Marx contrasts Abstract Labour with Concrete Labour. Concrete Labour is the labour we are actually doing at any time. This labour is, of course, tied to a purpose. I could have done many things, but I have limited the possibilities, and actualised my labour.
So we see that Abstract Labour remains in the virtual. Does that imply that it is less important than actual labour? Only if you consider being a machine to be more important than being human.
It was Freud’s greatest discovery – even greater than his work on the unconscious, which had been anticipated by many before him, including to a very high degree Nietzsche – that not only is human labour abstract, but human desire is equally abstract. Our sexual and other drives are not instinctually determined. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905, Freud describes the infant as “polymorpheously perverse.” In other words, the infant will get sexual pleasure from any and every part of its body. He or she must be trained to direct his desire towards the genitals and towards sexual reproduction. This is in complete contrast to most of the animal kingdom, where sexuality is strictly determined, by instinct, towards reproduction.
Again, we see that desire in reality does attach itself onto some goal – it does become captured, and this is the whole purpose of advertising, propaganda, etc. to capture and limited our virtually limitless desire.
Abstract Desire remains in the virtual, and out of this limitless virtual, Concrete Desire is actualised.
It was Gille Deleuze who introduced this category to philosophy. And, in some senses, this category is the most difficult to imagine. In his The Logic of Sense, 1990, Deleuze refers to the contrast between Being and Becoming. Being is always in the present, what is actually happening now. Becoming is always to come, or has already happened. Since Becoming is separated from the actual, as Zizek puts it in his book Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Cnsequences. “pure becoming suspends sequentiality and directionality.” Zizek gives the example of zero degrees Celsius. In reality, in the actual, it always has a direction. Water is either freezing or melting at this point. But, considered as a process of pure Becoming, this point is bi-directional. Water is colder than it was, or warmer than it will be.
Evolution and Becoming are not the same thing. Evolution is a series events in the present. One event following the next. Evolutionary events are strictly determined by context. They remain at the level of instinct and environment. In the evolutionary world, it really is true to say “there is nothing new under the sun.” Political reformism remains at the level of the evolutionary.
Becoming is different, in that it is abstractable into the realm of the virtual, the realm where all is possible. Becoming transcends instinct and environment. In effect, as Deleuze puts it, Becoming transcends history. All Becomings are radically new.
The French Revolution was such a Becoming. In a world where reality was the subjugation of the masses, and the best that “historically” could be expected would be that reformers would work to slightly ease that subjugation, something new was born. The idea that each person had equal rights, and that the old could be swept away in a violent Revolution. Of course, in reality, things didn’t work out that way. New elites were formed, and new, and sometimes more oppressive forms of subjugation were put in place.
We see here, clearly, the virtual becoming in the abstract (the equality of men, etc.) being actualised into history as something very much more limited. The actualisation falling, even, to the level of a parody of the virtual.
While repetition is impossible in evolution (nothing ever happens the same way twice in the real world), in the case of abstract becoming, repetition is the rule.
Lets take a series of repetitions: The French Revolution, the 1798 Rebellion, the 1916 Rising, the October Revolution.
Its clear that something is being repeated in this series. It is nothing actual. The places, people, circumstances, etc., are all different. They all failed, in reality, in very different ways.
Its clear that what is being repeated is a virtual becoming. A becoming of mankind as a being of freedom and dignity.
Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Its clear that if 1000 volunteers took over City Hall in Belfast, and held out against British troops for a week, they would not have repeated the 1916 Rising. They would merely have carried out a Real Live parody of 1916. What was new about 1916 would be entirely absent. When the new is repeated, it always looks entirely different. In the same way, when we hear people rattling off lines from Marx as proof that what they are saying is right, they truly betray everything that was new about Marx, everything that made Marx a Revolutionary. To repeat the new of Marx, we must betray the letter of Marx.
As Deleuze puts it, the new is always outside of the sequence of time. The French Revolution, the 1916 Rising, the October Revolution, remain as shining stars, equally bright regardless of time or distance. All eternally co-exist in the virtual.
Indeed, for us as humans, for us humans who do not want to regard ourselves as money grubbing, instinctual, machines, these eternal moments structure time, as we move towards the next explosion of the new.
It is those who constantly run after the latest trend or fashion who are condemned to never experience the new. They are merely juggling the same set of pins, over and over again.
For Deleuze, the new, the virtual and the eternal and ultimately all the same thing.
I became more and more aware of the possibility of distinguishing between becoming and history. What history grasps in an event is the way in which it is actualised in particular circumstances. The event’s becoming is beyond the scope of history. Becoming isn’t part of history; history amounts only to the set of preconditions, however recent, that one leaves behind in order to “become,” that is, to create something new.
Deleuze gives the example of the NeoRealist cinema in Italy. Yes, it came about in the circumstances of the destruction of Europe by WW2. But the Neorealist cinema is not reducible to these circumstances. It is something new that could not have been predicted by these circumstances.
In the same text, Deleuze writes:
It is fashionable, these days, to condemn the horrors of revolution. They say revolutions turn out badly. But, they’re constantly confusing two different things – the way revolutions turn out historically, and people’s revolutionary becoming. These relate to two different sets of people. Men’s only hope lies in a revolutionary becoming; the only way of casting off their shame or responding to what is intolerable.
In explaining this idea of “two different sets of people,” Zizek gives the example of Kant. There is one Kant of the extraordinary creative impulse, and there is the other Kant who betrayed that impulse in the compromises he made in his work. One can then repeat Kant in two ways: Either by sticking to the letter of his text, or by betraying his text, and seeking to find again the explosive spirit of his thought. Put in Irish Republican terms, its only by betraying the letter of 1916, that we can really be true to the spirit of 1916.
The Virtual Republic
So, we see that those who claim that the 32 County Irish Republic doesn’t exist are entirely missing the point. The 32 County Republic is this virtual becoming, that we are condemned to always fail to realise in actuality. Does that mean we should stop trying? That we should accept reality? That we should be content to exist at the level of evolution \ reform? That would be to give up on our humanity.
Instead of the constant production of reality from the virtual, Capitalism tries to inflict a solid and unchanging reality, i.e. the hegemony of private capital. In Deleuze’s terms, Capitalism collapses the Disjunctive Synthesis of Recording into the Connective Synthesis of Production. In doing so, it denies us what is most human in us, i.e. the ability to bring forth a multitude of worlds from the virtual. It denies us the power of our memory. The old person’s stories are no longer heard, they are drowned out by the sirens and flashing lights of commodity culture, i.e. a global sameness, consisting only of immediate instinctual satisfactions – one after the other in a mindless series. As is often noted, Crack Cocaine is the drug par excellence of Late Capitalism.
A Unitary or Self Consistent Framework Vs Totalization
Republicanism is the bourgeois ideology par excellence. It was the Republican revolutions of the 18th century that completed the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. But, Republicanism, as with all aspects of bourgeois ideology, has always had an inherent tendency towards Totalization, i.e. the reduction of the entire social field to one or two axioms (An axiom is an unprovable statement – such as “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” which is then used to build a whole system of thought – every other part of which can be proven, so long as the unprovable axioms on which they are based are accepted - in the case of Capitalism, private property). This totalization of the social field inevitably results in naked Fascism, whenever these axioms are felt to be under threat.
So, in giving our allegiance to the 32 County Workers Republic, are we not in danger of Totalization, and thus Fascism?
The danger is certainly there. But only if we fail to forget the vital distinction between Self Consistence and Totalization. A self consistent framework is one which literally gives to it’s self some compass of meaning. Saussure was very clear about this. Language has no possibility of meaning anything, or having any social function, if there is not some form of unified conceptual framework among it’s speakers. For example, societies generally have some sort of taboo against “incest.” For that to have any effect, each society will have to have some general acceptance of what the concept “incest” actually is supposed to mean. We in the James Connolly Soviet have given ourselves a constitution, which gives us a conceptual framework in which to operate. But, unlike a totalizing system, a self consistent or unitary framework does not attempt to reduce the social field to, or explain the social field with, one or two concepts.
As Marx and Engels point out in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
In short, Capitalism reduces everything to money. It is a totalizing system. Indeed, it’s is the only totalizing social system that has every existed in human history. A Unitary, or Self Consistent Framework, in contrast, encourages a vast network of friendships and free flowing social alliances, based on a multiplicity of motives and desires. Having such a framework is the very possibility of free social ties, as without it, we would remain at the level of instinct, i.e. desire would be reduced to instinct, or be captured in the rigid codification of Primitive Communism and Feudalism, or we would remain trapped within the “degenerate system of generalized equivalence” of Capitalism, as Neitzsche termed it.
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