Postmodernism and the Oculus Rift: A Re-Centered Dislocation
Image credits: The Independent.
The rise of virtual reality has been predicted for decades. Technological critics have alternatingly fantasized over and lamented its possibilities, seeing it as either a method to transcend the limits placed upon us by our physicality or as a new ‘opiate of the masses’. Now that products such as the Oculus Rift are realizing this concept, however, it is moving from the realm of theory to one of practice. The impacts it might have on our state of being are illustrated by examining Fredric Jameson’s conception of multinational capital and the postmodern era.
In the view of Jameson, postmodernism is a cultural dominant – a “conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features.” It structures and shapes all culture, while still allowing for a wide range of disparate styles and features to emerge beneath it. This explains why it is so hard to characterize a ‘postmodern’ work – it has no single distinct and ubiquitous feature; instead its traits follow a certain ‘cultural logic.’
This cultural logic emerged as part of a historical process, inherently intertwined with the development of capitalism. Jameson cites Ernest Mandel’s theory of the stages of its growth, and applies to each a different cultural norm. The initial stage of market capitalism structured its culture via realism, emphasizing rationality and coherence. Subsequently, the imperialist stage was structured by modernism, as newfound relationships of domination forced individuals and artists to delve deeper into the surreal and abstract to conceptualize a rapidly changing world.
In our contemporary world, the mediated images promulgated by technology have self-replicated so completely that the original referent is no longer accessible to us.
The current stage is what Jameson terms late or “multinational” capital, and he sees it as the purest form of capitalism – its “prodigious expansion into hitherto uncommodified areas… the penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious”. With this expansion, contemporary technology can no longer be represented as in the past: television “articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself.” To the television and the other innovations of the postmodern era, Jameson applies “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum’—the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.” In our contemporary world, the mediated images promulgated by technology have self-replicated so completely that the original referent is no longer accessible to us – instead, we face a new depthlessness that exacerbates a sense of spatial disorientation.
Jameson sees the prime impact of our postmodern era as being “the incapacity of our minds to map the great global multinational and decentred communicational network.” Postmodern technology transcends “the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world”, creating an “alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment.” The overwhelming diffusion of images around us decenters our existence and replaces former feelings of anxiety and alienation with a sense of fragmentation and diffusion.
Jameson feels that by reorienting ourselves to the world of multinational capital, we may "again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle."
Only through a new process and aesthetic of cognitive mapping can you relocate yourself within your external reality in a politically resistive way. Jameson feels that by reorienting ourselves to the world of multinational capital, we may "again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.” Thus, Jameson hopes that new forms of art and representation will precipitate a new struggle against the overwhelming world of multinational capital.
This phenomenon of spatial dislocation has reached a critical point with the arrival of the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality (VR) devices. The fact that Oculus’s product is named the Rift is a reference to how, in the words of creator Palmer Luckey, VR “creates a rift between the real world and the virtual world.” This idea of a ‘rift’ is especially interesting considering what Althusser conceived of as “the rift between existential experience and scientific knowledge.” In his view, the world in its totality is unrepresentable – one can only hope to use religion or ideology as a sort of framework by which one can navigate.
Unsophisticated forms of VR exacerbate this Althusserian rift. New York Times journalist Virginia Hefferman described her experience with an Oculus Rift prototype as a disembodying experience, stating that “uncanny illusions produced by the Oculus headset had indeed cleaved an unbridgeable rift between the evidence of my senses and an awareness of space and time deeper in my body.” Most believe that this physical virtual-reality sickness is produced by a “brutal conflict among sensory inputs,” mirroring Jameson’s idea that “we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace.” Perhaps VR will provide the necessary conditions to transcend our former methods of comprehension and complete the process of fragmentation.
The question remains as to whether adding a sense of depth to these forms will invalidate the postmodern cultural logic or accentuate its effects by adding a new dimension.
However, more advanced VR devices show a possibility to breach this rift, although potentially in even more fragmentary ways. They transcend even Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace, replacing it with a world of depth with which we can interact. Jameson held that with contemporary technology and postmodern design, the world “loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density.” With the experience of enhanced VR, the sense of depthlessness has been transcended. Virtual images are layered so incredibly densely as to simulate the threads of an entire new existence, replete with motion and space. Thus, one of the fundamental tenets of postmodernism is turned on its head. The question remains as to whether adding a sense of depth to these forms will invalidate the postmodern cultural logic or accentuate its effects by adding a new dimension.
The concept comes close to rearticulating a form of the postmodern sublime. For Kant, the object of the sublime was “not only a matter of sheer power and of the physical incommensurability of the human organism with Nature, but also of the limits of figuration and the incapacity of the human mind to give representation to such enormous forces.” It embodies a spirit of exhilaration in the face of what one can hardly comprehend in its magnitude. With VR, this sublime is of a magnitude previously inconceivable, but also is no longer tied to a sense of the unrepresentable. Everything will be readily available, and easily explained as by the inexorable progression of technology.
The euphoria this new iteration of the sublime provokes is well-documented. Hefferman refers to it as “presence”, the feeling of being “suffused with the conviction that you are in another world.” When VR stimulates presence, the user gets “a profound sensation of space, causing you to forget you’re staring at a screen.” In this sense, proper VR experiences seem to cast Jameson’s assertion of technology’s spatial disorientation in a new light. He viewed postmodern forms as “a constant busyness [that] gives the feeling that emptiness is here absolutely packed, that it is an element within which you yourself are immersed, without any of that distance that formerly enabled the perception of perspective or volume.” As VR adds depth and space to our perceptions of images, it seems possible to rediscover that feeling of distance and volume, of being fully centered in a reality – albeit a reality which is not our own.
This sense of space provokes the same feeling – euphoria – that Jameson saw in postmodern existence. In Hefferman’s words, “if nausea is the body’s dysphoric response to the uncanny, presence is the euphoric one.” Once VR is properly articulated, it promises to replace the dislocation that earlier attempts evoked with a sense of awe at one’s place in a new existence. Jameson felt that in the postmodern era, “feelings—which it may be better and more accurate to call ‘intensities’—are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria.” He saw the decentred self as almost euphoric because it is dissociated from anxiety and all true feelings and concerns. VR accomplishes this same task, except by keeping us centred in a new and complete, yet transient, reality.
As VR adds depth and space to our perceptions of images, it seems possible to rediscover that feeling of distance and volume, of being fully centered in a reality – albeit a reality which is not our own.
The immersive nature of VR does reflect Jameson’s conception of the goals of postmodern structures. Jameson argued that “ideally the mini-city of Portman’s Bonaventura ought not to have entrances at all…for it does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute.” Similarly, Hefferman relates that “when I listened to developers talk about their eagerness to “immerse” audiences in multisensory experiences, I thought I detected a less savory desire to imprison them in programming — to leave them with no sensory exit.” VR is just the latest iteration of this trend towards self-contained, all-encompassing realities.
The Rift has limitless possible applications: already, Internet artists such as Ian Cheng are taking advantage of its possibilities to create immersive artscapes. Some possibilities are less refined: the singer Father John Misty begins his song “Total Entertainment Forever” with the lines:
Bedding Taylor Swift
Every night inside the Oculus Rift
After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes
And now the future's definition is so much higher than it was last year
It's like the images have all become real
And someone's living my life for me out in the mirror
In the New Age we'll all be entertained
Rich or poor, the channels are all the same
Misty neatly encapsulates the potential of VR as an equalizing force – the servant gets to experience euphoric highs despite his servitude. However, it also shows its role as an opiate of the masses. Class conflict is irrelevant once the simulacrum has fully inundated our entire perception and our true lives have been replaced by a second life tailored to our own tastes. In the words of Neil Postman, “who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” The answer to this question will define the role that virtual reality plays in shaping our collective futures.