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Performing Virtualities

Performing Virtualities: Liminality on and off the 'Net'
Rob Shields

1. The Realism of the Virtual

What is contrasted in the real versus virtual dichotomy which dominates not
only popular but academic discussion of computer-mediated
communication and digital environments? When sociologists and political
economist think the virtual, it is often simply in relation to the real and a
series of dualisms which pit the human against the technological, the
developed against the underdeveloped, the natural against the artificial. If
not, then it is an evolutionary matrix of technologies or scales of interaction
which pre-determines the logic of analysis. These attempts to section the
mass of data have the advantage of simplifying phenomena but the
fetishization of processes and their fixation on reifying complexity into a
simple plane of reference hampers thought from moving beyond merely a
strategic summation.
Nor can the term, virtual simply be dismissed as an overused and underdefined label. Rhetorically, it is one of the most important marketing terms
for the development of a putative high tech, knowledge-oriented virtual
society _ not much of a question-mark about that.
In many discussions, virtual is vaguely, and unhelpfully, contrasted with
real. But to describe something as virtual indicates that it is not strictly
according to definition, as in virtual office, which to say, not literally an
office as one might understand a built office to be, but an office in effect.
This example illustrates how being not quite, say, an office can shade into
being a new form of the office which necessitates a change in the definition

and presuppositions. It is thus with all things virtual. To say one is virtually
or almost finished a task, indicates that it is complete for all intents and
purposes but not formally so. To put the definitions all together, a task could
be said to be really not actually complete, even if it is virtually complete.
The virtual is anything, That is so in essence or effect, although not
formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the
effect or result is concerned. (Oxford English Dictionary(OED)). It most
common form is the adverb virtuallyin respect of essence or effect, apart
from actual form or specific manner or in effect... practically, or to all
intents (OED)as in almost or virtually complete. Perhaps we should not be
surprised that this usage arose in Reformation debates concerning the
quality of the Christian communiondid eating the host at mass amount to
receiving or communing with Christ by mouth, as well as spiritually?
Virtualism is the Calvinistic doctrine of Christs virtual presence in the
Eucharist. As a 1654 source cited in the OED puts it, We affirm that Christ
is really taken by faith.... [although] they say he is taken by the mouth and
that the spiritual and the virtual taking not sufficient.
So what do we contemporaries believe about presence, embodiment and
faith...? Virtual is an adjective quickly becoming a proper nounThe
Virtual a place, a space, a whole world of ersatz graphical objects and
animated personae which populate fictional, ritual and digital domains as
representatives of actual persons and things. Commentators have not failed
to remark that these virtual avatars, agents and objects not only stand-in for
flesh-and-blood persons and physical materials but they can have
significant and shocking impacts on the real-life status and well-being of
people (Hillis 1999). Although artists and writers have imagined virtual
personae, for example, as more adequately represented by avatars (for
example, representing oneself in a computer-generated environment as an
animated cartoon character), as Christine McCarthy (2000) has shown,
rarely are they more than a outline of a pointing hand. The mundane reality
is more like a line of code in a database which records and polices a
persons relationships within a digital domain and by extension in everyday
life. This is not only the pre-determined and prescribed movements
available to a iconic hand, in other cases, such as financial transactions and
entitlementsa credit profile is ones virtual identity for banking purposes,
as far as institutions are concerned.
In the case of digital domains spawned by computer-mediated
communication, The Virtual more strongly troubles the nominalist and
positivist sense of a bounded reality as lived, face-to-face experience by
ushering a whole series of (realist) objects which are conventionally held to
exist or are detected via probabilistic inference, mathematical modeling and
computer-generated visualizations of things which may be impossible to
experience directly in everyday life or which are unrepresentable in the

traditional conventions of paper media (such as 2D and 3D graphs or

axonometrics and linear perspectives). These virtuals might be distant;
might be something invisible but nonetheless significant in its effects, or
might be references to informal arrangements or latent factors. For
example, even on a strictly local scale, the term virtual teams has come to
describe more than far-flung work groups managed through email and
phone or videoconferencing. They have become all groups that are
assembled to address particular types of problem, to respond to crises or to
pursue very specific projectsspringing into action with the lightness of
electrons, and winding up their operations at the conclusion of a project. If
these teams are fleeting, they can be recalled back into existence, like a
computer file redisplayed on a video screen (see Lipnack 1997; Hughes
1998). They are virtual if only because they are neither face-to-face nor
propinquitous (local); rather they are far-flung, intangible, and latent. Their
supporting infrastructure is a rented communications link and thus they
leave few tangible traces other than email records and archived
videoconference recordings. All such virtual objects, sets and environments
have an existence which is less typical of the phenomenologically presentat-hand and more typical of the non-existent and non-present, such as is
the status of mathematical sets which exist only by virtue of their members
(Table 1).
Qualities of Virtual Objects and Environments:
-invisible but significant
-informal latent
[Table 1. Virtual Objects and Environments]

The Digitally Virtual

What are virtual spaces? Virtual implies a space or a spatial relation; it is
places, relationships, values. It uproots and carries off everyday spatial
relations, places, relationships and values. In the case of digital domains or
environments, virtual space is a product of the recasting of communication
as a space or environment. However, the telephone has long intervened in
our sense of the world as a space of distance by providing virtual auditory
spaces in which, usually, a person in one place is brought into earshot, so
to speak, of a person in a distant place (see Ronell 1989). Calling a
telephone conversation a type of virtual space forces us to re-examine the

oddness of the idea of a virtual space which is imagined to be enduring and

independent of geographical spaces. The spatialisation of communication
as an multi-variable environment rather than a bi-polar line of exchange
back and forth between two callers comes with addition of the visual. While
futurists long anticipated videophones this was rarely conceived of as a
full-fledged environment, merely an animated image to go with the speaking
voice. The Virtual is imagined as a space between participants, a
computer-generated common-ground which is neither actual in its location
or coordinates, and nor is it merely a conceptual abstractions, for it may be
experienced as if lived for given purposes. As Bogard points out, virtual
spaces cannot properly be said to be in the same locale as one or the other
of the participants (2000). Virtual spaces are indexical, in Pierces sense, in
that they are interstitial moments (Shields 2000a; see also Elmer 1998).
But, as Christine McCarthy warns in her study of an virtual building (2000),
because of its intimate relation to the material, any notion of escape into
cyberspace will be a faked departure, a foreign domesticity.
In digital domains, the network, in all its computing and
telecommunications infrastructure, the conventions of digital addressing
and of data processing, precedes space in an even more literal manner
than Baudrillard could have dreamt of when he remarked, the map
proceeds the territory (1990:1). Even the current notion of the website is a
gloss on what is a strictly codified manner of retrieving and displaying data.
Webpages themselves are composed out of linked elements such as
graphic image files, punctuated by hypertext links to other data and files.
Hypertext links as indexes caught on the threshold of departure, signalling
to another page or text. It is paradoxical because it appears to be an interior
gateway. To indulge in an architectural metaphor, it is less a portal to the
outside and more like a hidden passage in a building a door to the inside,
that leads out somewhere else, reinforcing the sense of self-sufficient
totality achieved in the Net. Ambiguity thus becomes mystery in the
absence of a span across a clear categorical divisions (in this case,
distinctions such as inside and outside, here and there, break down)
(Shields 2000a).
Webpages do not distinguish between internal and external, the native and
the foreign. They are so riddled with links to data stored elsewhere that it is
a leap of imagination indeed to conjure up what we call, without examining
its lack of wholeness, a page. It has the being of a set not an object per se.
In virtual space, it is not unusual to discover that such partial objects come
to be re-imagined as complete wholes. The illusory quality of virtual identity
reminds one of Deleuze and Guattaris question, What is the individuality of
a day, a season, an event? ... a degree, an intensity, is an individual,
a Heccit that enters into composition with other degrees, other intensities,
to form another individual. ...these ... imply a flutter, a vibration in the form

itself that is not reducible to the properties of a subject. In short, You are
longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between formed
particles, a set of nonsubjectified affects. You have the individuality of a day,
a season, a year, a life... (1987:253, 262). The iconography of any object
which is composed of parts, or which must be imaged as an abstract totality
on the basis of an encounter with only a small part of it (such as, for
example, a continent, a city, even a people), goes into crisis because
being dramatically altered by the digital processes of representation in any
number of virtual spaces.
This spatialisation extends beyond understanding that digital domains will
be treated as virtual spaces, it includes cooperation in the treatment of
these spaces as serious domains of action with an equivalence status to
face-to-face, embodied interaction. Part of the necessary performative
competence is an acceptance of the conventions mapping the virtual and
the real onto each other. This amounts to saying that the virtual is a type of
ideality that must be performed, that it cannot subsist without being
actualized as material, as embodied.
Digitally virtual spaces have an elusive quality which comes from their
status as being both nowhere and yet present via the technologies which
enable them. However, just as these environments are not spatial per se,
but only virtually so, they also have duration but strictly speaking, neither
history, nor a future. Of course there is a history of virtual spaces and of the
technologies that make possible the transposition of interaction away from
the limits of the human voice into various media. But inside a virtual space
itself, there is only the immediacy of the scenario displayed. This
presentism (Maffesoli 1996) temporalizes virtual space making it, and
processes or events in it, something that always happens now, in the
present. Although they can be archived, creating a form of virtual history,
both virtual space and virtual objects are merely retrieved and recreated in
whatever present moment one might chose to witness them in. One may go
back to a previous webpage or virtual room but one may also jump as far
back or forward as one wishes. A sense of elapsed time must be
accomplished by developing a spatial narrative of the path that one has
taken and which might be retraced. Researchers in the United Kingdoms
Virtual Society? Research Programme have argued that, The ICT industry
works with axiomatic ideas about memory as storage (of data and of the
means to access data). But, what counts as adequate remembering?
(Harvey et al 2000) is a question answered in advance by a rationale
geared to the predefined needs of software functionality, not remembrance
or reverie.
Perhaps there is a gut recognition of this distinction. While software has
been created to provide time lines and virtual tours of historical sites, there

is no virtual Auschwitz. Virtual memorials focus on testimonial and eulogy

text over monumentality (see for example, the Virtual Vietnam Memorial
at These often include testimonials to a person
or a form of Visitors Guest Book commentary on the power of physical
monuments, or of remains, which the virtual supplements but does not
It is not just that monumentality might be difficult to render because of its
multiple-levels of meaning (see Lefebvre 1991). The social and moral force
of sacred and historic sites rests on their ability to create a sense of
timeless historicity of positive moral value whereby the collective past is
stitched into not only the present, personal life of a witness but into the
social future. This form of remembrance (of values) is not only recollection,
but repetition (continuing to hold those values). This is also true in a
negative manner, as attested to in the many debates over the risk of
memorials being treated as celebrations of past wrongs atrocities: thus, war
memorials are criticized as celebrating war, as well as remembering the
dead. Such geographical places are topoi, mnemonic figures for
remembering by. As indexes of specific (and we must add, reified) elements
the past, they are also thresholds; liminal zones, on the cusp of the present
and past. As such they are the infrastructure of a memo-technology by
which people come, among other things, to understand their personal
biographies in relation to the historical narrative of a group (Kirmayer 1996).
A search of the internet reveals not only virtual worlds but also: virtual
hospitals; florists; virtual tours and virtual tourists; many games (virtual
Pool); towns (eg. Springfield Mass., or Santa Cruz Cal.); music, malls,
virtual girlfriends ( in Australia has long been one of the most
famous websites); an ancient Egyptian virtual temple (which is probably
throughly contemporary and accessed via an American server), and a
virtual Jerusalem (which leaves one wondering about whether or not
heaven could be described as virtual?). In as much as these pose a
challenge to actual institutions, sites or embodied practices (of retail
consumption, for example) the evocative power of these virtual alternatives
may well lie in the concealed manner in which they evoke some notion of a
desirable ideal. This might include frictionless transactions (online
banking), the overcoming of distance (virtual support groups), a pure state
of perfect service (ecommerce), unquestioning love (virtual friends), sexual
dominance (virtual porn) an omniscient view (webcams) or complete
information (web desktops) or pure sociality (virtual community) and so on.
The multiple uses of virtual hint at more than the strictly digital; the term
has connotations of effectiveness and success. The virtual assimilates a
sense of the ideal, of the possibility of alternative actualizations of those
ideas, and of the pure form of objects, characters and relationships.

The virtual is indeed a desirable epithet, redolent of its barely-masked

links to the concept of virtue (with which is shares a root in the medieval
Latin virtusfrom vir, man). In this older usage, a virtual person is what we
might understand in more contemporary usage a person of some
outstanding virtues, Possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities; or,
an embodiment of divine power (OED). Virtual personae, objects and
environments increasingly take-on the powers and influence once held as
inalienably human and embodied attributes. As People disappear into the
medium itself (Bogard 2000) The criterial for sorting out the human and the
animatronic, here versus there; ingroup versus outgroup disappears.
Intimacy can be built only on abstract commonalities (ie. stereotypes),
entangling not only social relations but geographical positions and
relationships in a form of trust which is rarely found in urban social
2. Philosophy and Virtualism
Drawing on Bergsons Matter and Memory, Deleuze (1988) and Lefebvre
(1989:381-85), the virtual as an ontological category can be examined
against the ideal and actual; the possible and abstract; the fatalistic and
utopian. Only on this basis is it possible to understand the relationship of
the virtual with other performative spaces, and the achievement of sociable
relations, including trust and intimacy, within virtual environments and via
computer-mediated interaction.
Like set theory and other virtual objects, philosophers such as Bergson and
Deleuze have pointed to the virtual quality of memories or fictions, and
argued that they are real in their own terms. Dreams, for example, often
seem so real, so lived, that we might confuse them with an actual
experience. Evoking Bergsons admiration for Prousts recovery of the
unwinding passage of time in A La Recherche du temps perdu, Deleuze
contrasts the virtual with the actual, arguing that the opposite of the real is
the possible. This is a formula repeated by Deleuze commentators such as
Stivale (1998) and Hardt:

The possible is never real, even though it may be actual; however, while the
virtual may not be actual, it is nonetheless real. In other words, there are
several contemporary (actual) possibilities of which some may be realized
in the future; in contrast, virtualities are always real (in the past, in memory)
and may become actualized in the present. Deleuze invokes Proust for a
definition of the states of virtuality: "real without being actual, ideal without
being abstract" (Deleuze1988:96 after Bergson, cited in Hardt 1993:16).

Bergsons approach is better, but nonetheless misleading in contrasting the

actual, the virtual, the real and the possible in such a manner that the terms
become entangled. It helps to put Deleuzes terms as a table. If one
struggles to put meaningful terms into the matrix that is created, the
expected correspondences between terms in the same row and column
dont appear. There distinctions between the terms are not clear, however.
In many of his commentaries, Deleuze leaves one floundering to conceive
of a possible, that is, a non-existing virtuality. He himself argues this is an
impossibility, a null-set (See Table 2). Sketching in the real and actual as
the material (in square brackets) produces a Platonism in which the real
includes both ideal forms and material objects (cf. Badiou 2000). The
abstract, understood as a transcendental that exists only in concept but not
in reality, fits poorly.

Real (existing) Possible (non-existing)

Virtual :


Actual :



[Table 2. Bergsonian matrix contrasting the virtual and actual]

Deleuze goes on to clarify these terms in a manner which suggests

another reading and arrangement of the terms in which the primary
distinctions are between the actual and the ideal as well as the real and the

the "virtual" can be distinguished from the "possible" from at least two
points of view. From a certain point of view, in fact, the possible is the
opposite of the real ... but, in quite a different opposition the virtual is
opposed to the actual. ...The possible has no reality (although it may have
an actuality); conversely, the virtual is not actual but as such possesses a
reality. (Deleuze 1988:96)

It follows that the direct opposite of the actual is the ideal, not the
virtual. The virtual is outside not only the abstract, but also the material (that

which exists actually), in a continuum of forms of the real and possible. This
is a continuum of soft oppositions in which relations between the terms are
as significant as the distinctions between them. For example, the virtual
might feed and nurture the possible and is in a dependent relation to the
actual in most social theory - although Deleuze deliberately sets out to
show that the reverse is the case (on this point, Deleuze brings together
both Spinoza and Bergson). The abstract is a possible ideal (expressed as
concepts); and an actual possibility is expressed as a mathematical
probability (see Table 3). Material and virtual spaces are dominated by their
relations with each other, as points of identification, temporary addresses
(Grossberg 2000) as well as their commitment to the temporalized realms
of becoming which make up the possible. While many will see this as an
argument over semantics, it is essential to get the relations between the
virtual, the real and the possible right, if one is to preserve the option of
utopian reform, which is couched not only in the virtual but in the abstract
and probable. (This, I would suggest, is the root of a Marxist theorist such
as Lefebvres deepest objections against Bergsonism in all its forms).

Real (existing)

Possible (not existing)

Ideal :



Actual :



[Table 3. Matrix of the forms of the real and possible]

The second table may yield the same aphorism. However, it specifies the
position of the virtual as an interstitial state and space between the material
and abstract. It also forces us to attend to the socially constructed quality of
any distinction we might want to make between the virtual and other forms
of lived experience as a distinction with the concretely material, in parallel to
the completely theoretical, and dubious, distinction set up between ideal
exemplars and contingent, actual cases (see De Landa 1998).
In this philosophical schema of the virtual and its others, qualitative
relations between the terms can be sketched in on the diagonals as well as
between the major classes such as the real and the possible. For the
relation from the virtual to the abstract are a two-way street characterized
by the movement of the imagination in one direction and resemblance in the
returning direction from the abstract to the virtual. To wit the possible is
that which is "realized" (or is not...)... subject to two essential rules, one of
resemblance and another of limitation. For the real is supposed to be in the

image of the possible that it realizes. (It simply has existence or reality
added to it) (Deleuze 1988:96-7). Similarly the relation from the material to
the probable might be glossed as forecasting and realization on the return.
This is not the place to sketch in all of the relations between the terms, but
the table is suggestive (where does one place fetishism, revolution, risk and
the operations of science?): The virtual, on the other hand, does not have
to be realized, but rather actualized; and the rules of actualization are
....those of difference or divergence and of creation. (Deleuze 1988:97)
This actualization takes the form of performance in the one direction and
intuition in the opposite direction (Badiou 2000:48). The actual is always
objective and the virtual is subjective... "the affection of self by self"(which
Deleuze sees as time 1989:83). The really actual is characterized by its
quality of differentiation precisely because of its performative character.
Rather than allow the material the positivist virtues of self-identity and
stability, it is real (it is realized and actualized) only in as much as it is
enacted, an observation made also made by de Certeau who comments
that a sidewalk is only such if it is reserved for pedestrians; if it is driven
upon it is merely part of the roadway (1984). Thus, While the real is in the
image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the other
hand does not resemble the virtuality that it embodies(Deleuze 1988:97).
The material is thus characterized by not only differentiation and nonidentity but by innovation, simulation, and transitoriness (1994: 212).
What are the stakes in drawing out the mutual inter-relation of material and
virtual? It is the relations between terms or cells that are most significant
because each cell in the matrix bears the charge of the other cells. They
are indiscernible (1989:81-2; Deleuze at some times even casts actual and
virtual as joined in the material 1994:209). This interdependence
destabilizes the tendency to treat the material and the virtual as reified
states. The real is always both ideal and actual and the contrast between
virtual and material merely serves to differentiate and mobilize our
conception of the real.
3. Liminal and Virtual
A longstanding history of re-performing virtuality may be identified in range
of activities from carnival to risk accounting. These are performative
matrices which mobilize the socially real by re-actualizing the ideal in
alternative and often utopian performances which contrast with prevailing
settlements and habituses. Whether by carnivalesque inversion of the
social order, the liminal suspension of norms, or the queering of social
regulation, the virtual is re-invoked and re-performed. Something of this
relation can be found in both the history of the carnivalesque and liminality,
as well as in the case of the virtual spaces of digital domains.

Retrospectively, it is clear that there has been a history and succession of

socially virtual worlds. These anticipate the ability of information and
communications technologies to make present what is both absent and
imaginary. That is, they actualize the ideal by embodying and performing
the philosophically virtual (as it has been sketched above). At the same
time, it would be remiss not to observe that liminoid genres and spaces
realize the possible. They traffic in the impossible perhaps to an even
greater extent than the probable through mechanisms such as the inversion
of social order or the suspension of production. Traditional carnival days
coincided with the events of the spiritual calendar. The carnivalesque is an
actualization and realization that joins the abstract and virtual in a
miraculous performance which has the strange quality of thus polluting the
real with the possible, mixing up the actually real (ie. the material) with the
actually possible (ie. the probable). Hence its revolutionary potential (and a
hint about the relations involved in the truly revolutionary).
The cinema is one example, but any number of rituals create, through a
willing suspension of disbelief (for EuroAmericans), milieux in which rules
other than those which conventionally govern the face-to-face interactions
of actual bodies are the norm (for example, flash-backs and other temporal
re-orderings, leaps from scene to scene and superhuman powers). For
most cultures, however, the collective conjuring of altered modes of
perception and understanding are more common practices (Cove 1989).
The virtual spaces that populate the anthropological literature are lived
more strongly than the mere consensual hallucination envisioned for
cyberspace (cf. Gibson 1984). Rituals inaugurate liminal zones which are
the performative settings for rites of passage such as puberty or marriage
(Turner 1974). These zones allow what is often a symbolic death or removal
from one social status and birth into another. In between is a time out of
time on the limen (threshold) of membership in a new group or a new
social status. In these ritualized periods, the classic anthropological studies
focus on how initiates are instructed in their new identity and responsibilities
(cf. Van Gennep).
Liminal zones share the characteristics of virtual spaces. The rules of
quotidian face-to-face life are suspended or even inverted in a
carnivalesque of norms. In their place, special rules of engagement rule the
moment and the space. Like liminal zones and events, virtual spaces are
liminoid in that they are participated in on a temporary basis, and
distinguished from some notion of commonplace everyday life. Although in
recent media-stunts, people attempt to purchase all of the necessities of life
via online shopping sources for a full year. However, they do not remain
logged-in participants in an online, virtual environment for the whole period,
merely direct their consumer spending to retail sites on the World Wide

In other ways, virtual spaces supercharge and finally overpower qualities of

liminality, such as Victor Turners famous dictum that liminality is betwixt
and between stages in the life process, located in special zones often
between the urban/civilized/members and the wilderness/nature/outsiders
(Turner 1974). Virtual space is not only betwixt and between geographical
places in a non-place space of telemediated data networks, but participants
take on specific usernames or identities, many surreptitiously engage in
activities they might not otherwise engage in. The greatest power of The
Virtualand perhaps its most widely discussed featurehas been in
providing a matrix in which new modes of being and practices of becoming
could be experimented with. In its early stages through the 1970s and
1980s, both few and tenuous guidelines were provided for the metaxis of
the actual and the virtual, such that identities in one realm could be shed in
the other. This charged, affectual space gains its character only as an
extension of the rhythms and encounters of virtual bodies, sociable
exchanges and animated tracings of vectors of hypertext links, none of
which the space pre-exists even virtually. A liminal zone provides the
potential for assuming new identities, and thus The Virtual became a
liminoid space but not one directed at rites of passage, but rather at
experimentationlike those other, sacred liminal spaces of advanced
economies, the scientific laboratory (compare Woolgar 1988; Latour 1999).
The digitally virtual is betwixt and between, a threshold between at least
one immediate lived milieu and the distant ground of the other(s). In it,
everything is representational, a convenient fiction by which participants
meet but only figuratively; elements interact in essence but not physically.
Even where there is no obvious performance, beyond the transmission,
bricolage and the animation which is the labour of the technologies
involved, there is always an innately human work of metaxis, translation
and imagination which transposes digital action and virtual encounters to
the world of living animals and objects.
Digitally actualizing the philosophically virtual
The significance of digitally virtual spaces is to realize a new mode for
actualizing the philosophically virtual. Online interaction involves performing
the virtual and negotiating our relation to the virtual on an ongoing basis.
Not only is the quality of ideal-ness mobilized. Virtual space appears to
have been accompanied by an adjustment of spatio-temporal categories to
create a new ground of action, impacting the territorialization of the social
(as a taken-for-granted plane of immanence) and of society (as an order of
power relations). While one might be skeptical of the journalistic visions of a
virtual society of telecommuters and net-addicted shut-ins, a more analytic
focus reveals the virtualization of social spaces, action and qualitative shifts

in categories which underpin value judgements in the spheres of justice,

politics and economics.
The Virtual rebounds on the material and the abstract. Instead of
supplanting material, physical interaction, feminist critics have shown how
people remain embodied and subject to risk and harm. This changes the
Enlightenment tradition of simple dualisms of not only here and there, inside
and outside, but of concrete and abstract, ideal and actual, real and fake,
and transcendent and immanent. The either-or model is shifted in a tangible
and everyday manner into a system of hybrids of the old dualisms which
are best understood as intensities and flows.
How then might performance be understood not only in the case of the
virtual but as a more general mediating action between the possible and the
real? Who and what performs? The tenses of this verb and the careful
regulation of what is admitted into the category of acting subject of this
performance signals a deep-seated settlement of the terms of agency and
causal flows. What does performance accomplish? As the spatiotemporal
contours of actionable domains which support agency change, so changes
in agency and interaction follow. The Virtual infects the actual as a
metaphor which moves from the realm of digital domains and computer
technologies to become an organizing idea for government policies,
everyday practices, and managerial strategies. The Virtual shifts the
commonsense notions of the real away from the material. The virtual, as in
a virtual organization, is more heavily invested with notions of collective
performance and inhabitation than an a priori architectural object such as
the factory or the office.

An occupant still must occupy the disciplinary occupy or to do more than take up space: "we live through a space which
brings with it its own structuring of use into which we inject our own kinetic
sense" (Davies 1990: 59).
Inhabiting is, therefore, inherently corporeal and suggests an adjustment
between body and the...environment: ...making it ours, articulating those
pleasures that can be accommodated and seeking ways of weaving in
those pleasures for which the space was not planned (Roderick 1998:4).

But in this sense, one can properly speak of the Virtual Society which is a
mere representation which plays on the cachet of virtue, and the liminal
open-field of the virtual in contrast to the regulated and legislated domains

in areas such as labour relations, equity and health and safety legislations,
worker-entitlements and unionized work-organization, and any tacit
practices of politesse in the workplace. There is a noticeable investment in
the rhetoric of the virtual society including corporations such as Mitsubishi
and Sony (see for example, This appears to also
be the case in North America, despite the European observation that, there
is an uneasy fit between the rhetoric of virtuality and the day_to_day
problems of running an organisation (Hughes et al 1998).
Like other liminal zones under capitalism, such experiences and sites
generally become commodified as package tourist attractions, not sacred
places which are the sites of Cures or pilgrimage destinations. Much of the
popular discussion of computer-mediated communications amounts to
domesticating virtual spaces and bringing it out of its liminoid statusa
realm of illicit information (how to build a nuclear bomb etc. etc.), the resort
of the repressed that contemporary culture generally excludes or refuses to
grant a place to (the obese, those physically challenged in one way or
another), an arena in which forbidden desires are unleashed, and a
subculture populated by mythified figures such as the hacker. Artists
functioned as prophets of the potential of the virtual as a liminal space (see
Virtual Museum, Linz; the annual Ars Electronica Awards; Stelarc 1998).
From the virtual as a threshold onto the effervescence of cultural margins,
the internet becomes more and more a pay-per-view, pre-screened
information service. In place of the old, a fun, child-safe Web, family
computers and smart-appliances as domestic servants. Illegal child
pornography, the illicit, and the uncontrolled continues to issue from and
anonymous access providers. rogue states, and non-EuroAmerican
societies with deeply-ambiguous attitudes towards the globalization of
Western values. However, the internet is now more than ever integrated
within the commercial structure of a metered-economy operated by
machines for the benefit of a global class of virtual agents such as holding
companies and large shareholders such as North American pension-funds.
If not strictly speaking intelligent machines, these assemblages (see van
Loon 2000, this volume) of humans, virtual agents, algorithms and other
softas much as hardtechnology, are intelligence machines, both
dispensing information and gathering knowledge about users. As a
continuation of on-going processes rather than a development from tabula
rasa, one can still ask sociological, economic and political questions of.
What is the relation between The Virtual and social inequality, liberation and
self-determination (see also previous articles: Elmer 1998; Hutnyk 1997)?
The 1990s appear to have seen societies in retreat from the liminoid
qualities at first celebrated in visions of cyberspace and the virtual society
(see also ESRC Virtual Society? Research Programme 1999). Some of
these societies, such as Singapore and China resorted to physical

disconnections and policing of the virtual. Others, resorted to the

sophisticated monitoring apparatuses of their militaries and private
communications surveillance systems. This is a continuation of the ongoing
struggle to domesticate the liminoid, to territorialize new representations of
the world as a space of distance, difference and present-absences. Veering
away, from a virtual society to a canalized, controlled abstract society of
intelligence machines, is an illustration of the territorialization of the virtual,
to use the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari (1987). This is, however, an
ongoing process. If social settlements of power/knowledge and action are
re-inscribed in a new time-space regime - one in which the virtual figures
more prominently that it did in the past - then surely new social outcomes
become possible; or, relatively speaking: a virtual society. Whether the
artists of the undisciplined, early stages of the internet have found a
people, cannot yet be answered, for The Virtual is a work-in-progress.
This is the meaning of the question-mark after any epithet such as virtual
society or virtual space.
My thought was much shaped by a seed grant and conferences hosted by
the National Centre for Geographical Information and Analysis, at Santa
Barbara, and the Metaphor Magic and Power Conference at Drake
University, Des Moines, Iowa, (see Shields 2000a) as well as to colleagues
in the Virtual Organization of Expertise and Knowledge Project funded by
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canadas Challenges and Opportunities of the Knowledge-Based
Economy Strategic Theme
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