Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Virtual

In social science, for example sociology, attempts are made to interpret actual events. The stories constructed by sociologists and anthropologists are argued to be more than mere abstractions, and more than statistical predictions - they are held to convey something that is really taking place 'beneath' the surface of events. Thus, for example, an uprising may be interpreted and argued to be a manifestation of class tensions around economic entitlements. Understanding global economic relations as intangible but powerful 'virtual' relations frames our attitudes and actions towards national economic instability and the popular experience of change in the job market. 'The virtual' becomes a template for understanding and reacting to events in everyday life whenever societies face a situation in which distant events (a corporate merger) have local impacts on a related but quite a different register (prices for a service).

Table 2.1 The virtual and the concrete
Real (existing)
Possible (not existing)
virtual (ideally real)
abstract (possible ideal)
concrete present (actually real)
probable (actual possibility)

The real qualities of the virtual, such as a memory of an event, distinguish the virtual from the unreal, or even surreal, qualities of the abstract. But the strength of Table 2.1 is that it allows us to both distinguish the virtual from - and relate it to - worlds of material existence, the mathematical worlds of probability and possible occurrences, and the abstract world of pure idealizations. These relationships are mediated by human agency, the flow of time and concurrence of place - something that is captured in the everyday language of surprise at transformations, the calculation of risk and the invoking of spirits. A risk or myth, an event or dream draws on all aspects of the real and possible. Contemporary cognitive science and neurology shows Proust to be incomplete: in any dream one could find not only the virtual but the concrete present of neurochemistry, hormones and the electrical exchanges of brain cells. A caution against reducing to one element or another is therefore in order. None the less, the table has an analytical and heuristic value: we can learn by considering social action in terms of each of the four aspects of the tetrology and in terms of their exchanges with each other. Walter Henry in a trenchant analysis points out that all communication involves the concrete (voice, inked letters), the virtual (coded meaning), the abstract (ideas), and the probable (author's intention) (Henry, 2001). These categories are woven together in everyday cognition and interaction. Thus it is not a matter of drawing on one single category - we rarely find pure examples of the virtual - but an assemblage of the terms. This explains how in imprecise everyday speech it is often difficult to demarcate where a naming of materiality, such as a useful product, stops and a projection of probability, shaded with abstract belief and glossed over with virtualities such as a brand name begins.
There is thus an axis of realization between the possible and real, and an axis of actualization between the ideal and actual that are characterized by very different relations. Above all the performative relations of actualization challenge us to rethink identity relations characteristic of the process of realization (Rob Shields: The Virtual pp32-33).


Déjà vu exemplifies the sensation that the present has already been experienced in a dream. The actual-real present is lived in a surreal, dreamlike state as virtual, or ideal-real.

Ritual actualizes latent possibilities, conjures the past with a view to altering the present.

Symbols represent and thus make present abstractions by giving them a form.

Myth formulates the past as an idealization, purifying it of factuality in favour of moral and ethical ends.

Chance is the abstract idea of the play of probability.

Predictions formulate the abstract ideals into calculations of the actually possible.

Risk is our pragmatic approach to probability - we take risks on the chance that a computable probability will not actually occur.

Fate describes a present or an outcome as a future prescribed as an actuality.


Miracles are said to occur when the non-existing ideals suddenly materialize.

Abstraction conceptualizes the concrete present as a pure (non-existing) idealization.

Premonitions are visions of probabilities in the felt form of emotional sensations. They are real idealizations of actual possibilities.

Foretelling the future casts a calculated, possible outcome as something that has already been conceived, imagined and possibly represented.

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