A diatribe against the “state of things” is inevitably misplaced and misdirected: its audience is never where you want them to be. And so I don’t feel too foolish condemning vitally important thoughts to a blog entry– diatribing against nothing and no one in particular. How important can all this really be, anyway? “Not very!” This is how we view all these statuses and “likes” and comments and moments of sharing on the internet: superfluous mostly, perks, add-ons, where everything is virtually optional. Is it that way, or do we let it be that way? What are we afraid of? I tend to think that we aren’t demanding enough of ourselves. Or rather, we are afraid of exposing ourselves, afraid of extending our hand, revealing the precariousness of our positions and the vulnerability of our existence. But structurally, we don’t and can’t know what “exposing ourselves” entails. Moreover, we don’t even know if we are technically capable of it– that is, if there is a technique or any one technique capable of handling this abrupt exposure of “man to man himself.” We don’t know if this has anything at all to do with intention, or if it hasn’t already run infinitely far ahead of us…
It’s a vain dream of mine: that we would all spend hours on our tiny virtual messages, even if they only took a few minutes for someone else to read. Artists of the visual and plastic have always grappled with this paradox: countless hours of precise effort renders a product that can be surveyed in seconds. Regarding modern art, many in the causal audience even say, “A three year old could have done that!”; but even David’s massive endeavors are passed over quickly for the sake of the lunchtime break, that notorious reprieve from perception. But the artist does not know about lunchtime; he despises its numb lightness and the stupid conversation it fosters. But let’s not fault the artist for being too frivolous or too serious, at least no more than we fault the causal audience member for their haphazard or unthinking engagement. For my argument today, what is at stake in a painting, a plastic creation, or a virtual message is this: the virtualization of an indeterminable amount of real activity.
What divides the artist from the audience-member comes down to this: their relationship to the real activity and the virtual result. We traditionally draw this distinction along the artist-artwork line. The audience member only seems to be able to conceive of the latter; it remains mysterious to them insofar as it remains an object and not a world. For the artist, the very perception of an artwork implies the real activity of artistic production, for “artistic production” is synonymous with the real activity of the artist’s life and world. This is therefore the conundrum for the artist: there is no reliable way to differentiate between the real and the virtual, between the artist and his medium or artwork. For the average audience member, especially in our day and age, the idea that the virtual and the real cannot reliably be differentiated is childish. This carelessness on the part of the audience is matched only by the frustration of the artist, who finds him- or herself in a double bind: there is no tangible result of their activity that is not virtual, but the internal demand seems placed much higher. The artist wants to show just this: while the product of my activity is virtual, both this product and my activity were real. And they can be real now, too.
The “one shot” approach present in the causal museum-goer extends everywhere. It’s greatest image is in the constant flux of thoughtless, virtual back-and-forth messages. Ironically, where the virtual register is supposedly just a viaduct to the real register — as in the exchange of pictures, the advertising of products, the resale of merchandise, etc. — everyone overlooks the fact that only the virtual has made all this possible. We seem to come close to the virtual sphere to the very extent that we shy away from it. We want to virtualize ourselves to the extent that it conducts our “real life” in personally desirable directions. Much more intimidating is the total virtualization of ones real life, the total immersion in the virtuality of our “real” identity. This is the challenge that the artist has long been charged to live up to: make a media or medium out of oneself. Again, this is what prevents the artist from viewing his own or another’s artwork from the outside, for to do so would be to deny that the virtual product is in fact the medium of existence. The only way to experience it is from the inside, no matter how foreign it may seem; but one experiences it from the inside to the very extent that the one experiencing it becomes virtualized, becomes susceptible to media.
Today, when everyone’s reaction is to decry or avoid the media, it is my view that we ought to become drastically more susceptible to it. Not to the cable networks and gossip magazines, because these make it quite easy to remain on the outside, surveying virtual celebrity-realities while remaining on the “real side” of their own life. To become more susceptible to media or “mediumization” implies this intuition: all known forms of media are unsatisfactory. The technique for full exposure is lacking; it requires incessant innovation and invention. This is both the rapture and confusion of an artist before someone else’s work of art: it is as beautiful as it could be, but it just won’t do for me. I’ve got to conduct my own media experiments and pursue them unto the end, even as my media apparatus is contaminated or instructed by countless others.
Mediumization of “me” is the on-going result of my pro-active attempt to virtualze that “me.” I draw myself into the uncertainty of being-me and into the uncertainty of being-multiple, or being-more-than-me. I draw myself toward an “other” more intimate to me than I myself am. These sentences betray nothing more than a theoretical sentiment when viewed from the standpoint of an outside observer, a child’s foray into abstraction. But I do not believe that the authentic artist is able to read such sentences as mere abstractions, because what is at stake in my own virtualization is the creation of media absolutely singular to me, and yet absolutely extended beyond me, insofar as “virtualization” implies the stretching-beyond-the-real, which has always been the vocation of the artist. In other words, when the given conditions cannot satisfy my own demand for beauty, it is time to turn myself into the condition of possibility for the beautiful. It is time to make it so that existence can’t exist unless I am one of its unconditional points of access as an indispensable medium. This is what is at stake with “virtual justice.”
The speed at which we can read these words too easily conceals the giant spread of time that led to this moment of existing. Similarly, we feign that we can read the enormity of the world in one glance and then cast aspersions. We have to learn how to situate ourselves on more tectonic levels and cast off the petty appraisal. It implies that we actually give a shit about ourselves, which is rarer than it seems. It means spending more time with things, even the little things that instantaneously blip by. This inevitably implies a total reevaluation of how we allocate our attention and time, how we “spend” it.
Perhaps the biggest atrocity committed by reading is that it cannot help but overlook these hours, erased by the demands of concision. The reader cannot help but be an audience member, for writing erases itself and denies its own evidence. In a sense, this is its only goal: to hide in the piece of writing the very fact that writing occurs. It wants something true to jut out from the morass of “thinking out loud.” It wants to bridge the gap when all the evidence points to this: there are only gaps. And the writer, in virtualizing himself, i.e., in committing to his craft, denies his own existence (admittedly or not). There are only these large expanses of effort that, once deposited in some product, are consigned to oblivion, concealed behind the thoroughly virtualized product. But then again, who cares about a man’s infinity of lost hours, if it has led him to say just one true thing?
This one true thing is, inevitably, only virtually true when appraised from the outside, i.e., when the virtual product remains virtual: unperceived. It becomes the whole truth when it becomes your truth, i.e., when the virtual product becomes real. Again, that is not something that this writer can do. He can only erase his trail, or rather, it can only vanish behind him. In the end, he turns the museum goer’s common sense on its head: it was he who was virtual, through and through. Only his virtual product, his virtual identity, is “real.” It cannot but be a reconstruction; and the effort required to deduce a biography is doomed to failure. Reading says much more about the reader than the read. Again, that there was no reality outside of this virtuality is easily decried as nonsense or pointless skepticism. This is why the philosopher is weary when his friends read his works, and why strangers have a much easier time entering into the existential grooves his self-virtualization maps out. How will a friend (who is obliged to have lunch with the loon eventually) avoid feeling like the whole work is a game, an invention, an artwork, an expression, and thus miss the only crucial dimension of the work (namely, that he who reads it becomes it)? But yet again, tongue in cheek or not, we affirm: the audience member is nowhere to be found…
We lose our way when we think that if monumental effort isn’t matched by monumental reception our efforts have been wasted. The precise opposite is the case: we have to work tirelessly without expecting anyone to pay attention to it, because inevitably no one will (including yourself). We cannot be assured that there will ever be an audience for us; and who could demand one? In this sense, the oblivion of the virtual suits the dire plea for existence perfectly. Only in this way does our articulation avoid the ugliness of self-marketing, which ruins every writer ever known. Only in this way do we “actualize ourselves” while steering clear of the realm of “self-interest.” For if there is no audience for these words, how could I ever be tempted to lie? And if I recognize outright the futility of it all, how could I ever be discouraged? As Cornel West suggests after admitting the impossibility of achieving any semblance of Romantic wholeness: it’s a matter of how you fail and what comes of this “failure.” Seeing this clearly, I have no choice but to explain the strictures of my own method and to adhere to them as closely as possible, lest I betray myself and waste myself by cutting corners. I can’t waste your time if I don’t cut corners. Whether or not you cut them — or waste your life — is totally up to you.
Whereas the past leaders knew who their target audience was, in this day and age, we reach out to virtual nomads and share resources in precarious and unplanned ways. Whereas the sheer physical presence of the revolutionary social body was once capable of effecting more than a momentary blip in the social radar, we are now consigned to a media and political machine that ignores the message of the masses not because it cannot hear the message but because it refuses to acknowledge the existence of masses even when they have coalesced. We have to find a way to coalesce the common, nameless body into a virtual body, and so to give place to the “absent center” of community. This does not mean that we will cause anyone to listen.
(It was Marx and his most adept followers — I’m thinking of Laclau in his Emancipations especially — who perhaps first thought of this: the “proletariat” was not a given reality, but quite literally a virtual reality that had to be constructed and organized in opposition to its enemy, the bourgeois. Perhaps the prototype for this is the exiled Jewish community or the persecuted early Christian community. In any cast, the center of the universal community of humanity is an empty space open to contestation and representation in opposition to its current oppressors. In other words, it is a virtual “category” whose demands exceed the demands of what is given-in-the-real. It also exceeds the instrumentalization of the human group; here, Marxism is again on the right track, insofar as the only “end” for human existence is the actualization of its own capacity to produce itself. But the rigor of this concept is as undeniable as it is disconcerting: proletarian success implies its own destruction. Wherever it achieves reality, it has already lost sight of the demands placed on it– demands that come from the community and which are virtually infinite. This is not the place to go in to all this.)
This task — coalescing or constellation of the voice of the nameless “third party” (untouchable, outside, discarded) into a virtual body or medium for existence — where other speaking-existing beings can resonate — is not structurally different from what artists have always done, and they have always begun their task by “virtualizing” themselves. Today, the avenues available to us for this end are more numerous than ever, and its risks thus come incrementally closer to us. A personal existence of my own is, with each passing day, proving to be much more absurd than any artistic delusion of “virtual justice.” But let’s admit: this will never nullify the singularity of my pain. Again, it is these infinite expanses that get passed over in a breach which are, in fact, most incredible, but also most virtual in terms of the real result. This is a somewhat fucked up way to relate to oneself; the history of art and literature also records this. Will we risk ourselves? And what do we really put at risk if we do?
The message from outside can only be heard when it is understood to have emanated from the inside, at least in part. (In reference to a broader theoretical economy, this is the idea of “resonance.”) This is another way of saying: unless the virtual product is animated by the real activity “artistic production” or living, you can’t even really say the virtual product is really there. Otherwise, the epicenter of the message stays “out there” and thus any consequences it might have are actually inconsequential. Otherwise, the virtual is not seen for what it is: being the result of a realization, it requires subsequent realization for it to be actual. Perhaps the trick is this: only what is virtually there can really, in a subsequent development, be there. What is real will have been— as in a moment of meditative pause, when the immanent evidence of the it-will-have-been is virtually everywhere.
Virtual justice means embracing the virtualization of life without succumbing to the illusion that this makes life any less real. Mediumization of oneself (“art”) pushes this question to the extreme and suggests that “the real mostly lies in the virtual.” Virtualization means the immersion in a media; and as I am trying to conceptualize it, it means immersion in a medium which does not yet exist. In other words: immersion in oneself. In this sense, it reveals that what’s real is not prior to the real moment of revelation. Realization and virtualization go arm-in-arm in the co-creation of artist and medium. There is no need to reintroduce a philosophy of becoming because what is “becoming” is not “me” or Being but this virtual medium which is totally fortuitous. It is broken out of hand; there is no unity for anyone involved. I am not promised salvation or fulfillment in becoming-virtual; nothing like “meaning” is guaranteed. Here, we should return to our initial question as to the status of exposure and whether or not it can be “willed.” Of course it cannot: exposure is always unexpected. But then what would we make of the moods of the artist? Cruel bolts of lightening delivered by no God?
Becoming-virtual means exposing oneself to the unexpected track, where one listens as much to the medium as to oneself. It is my belief that the great writers and artists of all ages have been measured by their courage to become-virtual or to become-a-medium in the sense that I have been outlining. We only have our own sense of responsibility to go on, or our own guilt. These are not necessarily ominous moods. We are indebted to no one but “ourselves”– in the empty-center, universal way. There’s no expiation of this indebtedness; but who would want that? That would be like demanding the solidity of a reality once and for all; we know what religious dogma and patriotic patronizing has done with these wishes, and we know that the urge to unify ends in the search for victims. Infinite indebtedness is tied to gratefulness qua a finite come-what-may. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a frenzied hurry to change, irreversibly, for the good. It means it doesn’t have to be frenzied. Its grace is in its movement– moving elsewhere.
This post began as a short comment about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and has spiraled out into the virtual artifact you see before you. As Barack Obama emphasized in his MLK Jr. message this January 16th, 2012, “There’s nobody who can’t serve; nobody who can’t help somebody else.” In our day and age, we know that if we do not uphold this call, if we do not help our brothers and sisters, the tyranny of the Gods does not come crashing down on us. Nor is there a socially-minded public who will hold each of us accountable: disregard for our fellow man is often rewarded in our society. Turning men into tools is the very model of “turning a profit.” We have to resist this and recognize when we are being turned into tools. One of our options is to “virtualize” ourselves or to make-ourselves-a-media; but every gesture of charity partakes of virtualization, at least in the sense that I have given it in this post. Otherwise we will fall pray to any number of making-us-tools, but they will not of our own doing. There is quite the difference between a tool and a medium, even if a medium — like the blogosphere — can so easily be misconstrued as a “tool.” The relation between tools and mediums, as well as charity and self-virtualization, ought to be investigated in more depth.
Martin Luther King Jr. left behind quite the legacy of self-virtualization or making-oneself-a-medium. It is a boring objection to say that he would have never phrased it like this. But who can deny the evidence here? Unfortunately, of those magnificent human beings who have made-themselves-a-medium, many of them have been murdered: Christ, Mani, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, MLK, Lincoln, Kennedy. All of these people devoted themselves to “self-virtualization” insofar as they became the truth that they were. Truth is indeed frightening; so is the risk implied in total virtualization. But the end result is not necessary assassination coming from a threatened and supposedly “real” outside world. The on-going virtualization of the world as such should continue to help us steer ourselves toward the possible avenues for charity that this virtualization opens up.
Folks like Jared Loughner or Anders Behring Breivik were unable to embrace their virtualization and sought to retain an element of their “real identity” outside of it; this led to blathering, mad, or prejudiced virtual products totally divorced their real actions; they denied becoming a medium and instead chose murder. On the other side of the spectrum, virtualization has created hitherto unforeseen possibilities for charity. Take the Libyan people for example, where the empty signifier “Libya” allowed these people to organize themselves and their diverse desires toward a common, even if unknown cause. Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movement was not only a movement on the streets of New York; rather, it extended throughout the whole blogosphere, and all over Facebook, spawning countless new relationships and conversations. I am very encouraged by these developments, even as I must bear witness to my own situatedness in the ongoing realization that we are virtual by pursuing my own virtual tract. I take for my model the courage embodied by Alan Sondheim’s virtual exposures, which you can find at alansondheim.org. While my emphasis in this post has been on “self-” virtualization, what I have intended waves the banner of charity in a most sincerely Christian-universal way, in the spirit of MLK Jr., who said quite simply, “I just wanna leave a committed life behind.”