Digital Media and the Question of Virtualism

By: Nicholaus Gutierrez  

Media studies has a strong tradition of materialist responses to what I call virtualism: the naïve utopian belief in the digital as a virtual “cyberspace” that serves to liberate subjects from the inferior world of bodies. By emphasizing the material histories and infrastructures of digital objects and the people who made them, the goal of materialist scholars is to rescue digital cultures from the ideology of the virtual as a metaphysical, neo-Platonic realm, and to bring to light the technical functions of computers that are usually hidden behind the graphical representations of our screens. Yet the term “virtual” persists in common and technical discourse, doing the work of stitching together concepts that we tend to bifurcate (representational/real, immaterial/material, distant/present), and in each case, it works to signify the immateriality of processes and potentials that seem to be a structuring element of the digital and computation. In this paper I engage with some early critiques of virtualism that grew up around VR technology and the Internet. Although critiques of virtualism remain powerful correctives to its ideological dangers, I argue that they tend to insist on a notion of embodiment that ends up disavowing immateriality in full, thereby inadvertently recreating the binaries that they had sought to overturn. The concept of the virtual—given not as a techno-utopian fantasy but a concept rooted in categories of ontology, process, and emergence, might serve to provide a theoretical picture that incorporates materialist interventions even as it provides new vectors for theorizing computation.

Virtual, Ideology, Materialism, Digital Media, Internet
Media Theory
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Nicholaus Gutierrez

PhD Candidate, Rhetoric, Berkeley Center for New Media, UC Berkeley, United States
United States

Nicholaus Gutierrez is a PhD candidate in the department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies digital media, with an interest in the relationship between materiality and immateriality in digital objects. He is currently working on a dissertation on the concept of the virtual.