There might be a temptation to see everything “virtual” as somehow synonymous with “fake” or “not real,” or in the case of the digital/cyber/online, as a “game.” This would seem to be, at least according to some philosophers and social theorists, a serious misunderstanding of what is “real” and what makes up “reality.” Dreams occur only inside our heads, and yet we do not often hear of people speaking of dreams as if they had not actually experienced them, as if they were not a part of their personal, lived reality. Dreams may be of events that are entirely imagined in sleep, or they may be reruns of those that have actually happened to us — either way, the idea of dreams as “fake” makes little sense. (We are not even considering the many historical cases of important actions undertaken because a leader felt directed to do so by his dreams.)
Real is not the opposite of virtual. Reality is constituted by both the virtual and the actual, the ideational and the concrete or material. This is the essence of an argument put forth by Rob Shields (2006). In his article, “Virtualities,” he explains that virtualities are part of the intangibles of lived experience and how we understand that experience:
Intangibles are often a mixture of abstractions, potentials and ‘virtualities’ – ‘things’ that have a ‘real’ existence, even if they can’t be seen or touched. Virtualities are not just ‘ideas’ but things: a code, habitus or class that exists even if one cannot treat it as a tangible object. Gender is a case in point – not a tangible ‘thing’ or materiality, not simply ‘sex’, but rather a performative identity, a theoretical object with predictive power, independent of the age or form of the body itself. Even the body has been argued to be much more than its material ‘stuff ’ (Butler, 1993). One could add race – neither just ethnicity nor skin colour but something held to exist in popular racisms. Yet racialization is neither reducible to a single material aspect of a body nor even a single category of embodiment – the shape of noses or other equally debunked trait which has been latched on to as an indicator of difference. Signs are independent of a given set of print characters or vocalizations. ‘Social facts’ including identity and social groupings are intangible but are widely felt, defended and held to exist – community, the public, gender, race, the ‘global’. (Shields, 2006, p. 284)
Virtualities may exist only in virtue of other relations or they may become manifest only in their effects. The virtual can be defined in different ways, from that which is not actually so, that which is only potential, or objects or states that exist but are not tangible, that is, not concrete. The real and the virtual are not opposed: the real incorporates the virtual, and the concrete.
Where it gets complicated involves the long-held theory-practice dualism, between thinking and doing. The question is whether thought, and especially expressing and communicating thought, is to be considered as somehow outside of practice. Yet, intuitively even, we know that there is a very basic difference between communicative action, and action on things/people, etc., between angry speech and actual warfare. Comments? Ideas? Please post below.
Shields, Rob. (2006). “Virtualities”. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2): 284-286.