On the curious etymology of virtual
Do you naturally assume it was better then than it is now? Do you seek out the authentic, the original, the old? Do you have contempt for the ersatz, cheesy, slick and plastic new?
Do you have a sense that in the beginning, there were secrets encoded in the universe that you hope to discover before you die?
Then you may have a fatal disease called “GF,” the Genetic Fallacy.
Do you think that basketball before the three-point shot and liberal interpretations of travelling or carrying or fouling was any “truer” than more recent forms? It may have been gentler and more civilized and easier than watching the Billy Budd of Basketball, Steph Curry, get mugged night after night, but it wasn’t more “authentic,” was it?
There’s an irresistible magic in believing that the original captured some natural essence, some “aura” as Walter Benjamin called it, which has been corrupted and degraded by copying and translations, a kind of cosmic game of Telephone.
If you’re theologically inclined like me, then you’re committed to the belief that there was a Perfect If Unknowable Source of all things, and He spoke in a Holy Tongue. There is an irresistible magic in supposing that at the moment of its creation, something was pure and perfect. To us true believers, there’s no fallacy in GF.
Religion aside, this is what the Brits used to call the Tory view of progress. Things always tend towards decadence. We are always slouching toward Bethlehem. Or as Gresham’s Law implies, The bad drives out the good. When you’re afflicted with GF, the future is a bleak vista of diminished horizons, where vinyl then leatherette then bonded leather drive out animal skins.
There is a corner of the GF ward reserved for academicians. Here, we hide our madness by practicing etymology as a more respectable pursuit, a kind of occupational therapy. We etymologicians are forever seeking that perfect seizure of revelation, trying to uncover some lost original sense in a word that will reveal the truth of things. We imagine whole lost universes and understandings in a three-letter root.
Which brings us to the curious etymology of one of the sexiest words in our language, virtual. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Accompany me on an archeological excursion to ancient Rome. The Latin virtus meant valor or courage on the field of battle, stoutness of heart in a soldier. Virtue was inherently masculine. In fact, the word occurs on the first page of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, that most macho of historical narratives. But where did that trope come from?
Strip away yet another layer beneath the ancient Roman ruins, and you discover virtus came from the Latin for man, vir.
Dig yet deeper and we find that the root of vir was taken from an even earlier proto-Latin root (probably Hindo-Sanskrit or Greek) for stick, twig, or rod and, naturally, phallus.
Now fast forward to modern centuries. By the 18th century, virtue had evolved to serve almost exclusively as a euphemism for a woman’s ability to preserve her virginity before marriage. In the 19th century, Nietzsche quipped that “virtue, which originally meant virility in a man, came to mean chastity in a woman.” In one stroke, he marks the genealogy of the word, contrasts two cultures (ancient Roman, modern European), and also martials evidence for his own Tory (and perhaps sexist) view that Western culture has become increasingly feminized and thus has shrunk the arena for (manly) heroism.
But perhaps he forgot that the Romans also had a word for a woman of valor or courage, virago — a female warrior of man-like courage. In latter days this, too, is forgotten however: virago, a valiant woman warrior came to mean a woman who went to war against her husband with a pan in hand, a harridan or shrew.
This dual movement of vir exposes a decay in our aspirations, both as men and women. As we grow more civilized, we become confused about the sexes. Both manly vigor and womanly valor dissolve in the mists of time to be replaced by powdered wigs and waltzes.
Nietszche’s complaint about the feminizing of European culture is traced in our literature. Ian Watt, my professor at Harvard, said (in his book The Rise of the Novel) “the first true novel” was Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novel about a young woman of virtue, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740). Within a year, Pamela became a runaway bestseller and overnight sensation. Henry Fielding, at the time a lawyer, was repulsed by its sanctimony and wrote a slim parody of it, Shamela, almost as soon as he read it (1741). Through slight changes in color, Fielding portrays Richardson’s earnestly virtuous and pious Pamela as a shameful low-class wench. Inspired by her mother and sisters, Shamela angles to trade her pretense of virginity – she was formerly a prostitute – for marriage to a gullible Squire Booby. The women who, er, mentor her are constantly swearing upon their virtue, which they’ve also sold off many times before.
It was the sexist notion that virtue was exclusively female that led Fielding to then write Joseph Andrews (1742), the story of a young man of virtue and then later his long masterpiece, Tom Jones. Both use the same model as Pamela: innocents try to retain their virtue in a corrupt world. But Fielding’s heroes become comic figures because they are men intent on preserving their virginity, an absurdity in 18th century England. But it’s a conceit that enables Fielding to portray a robust ideal of morality and a realistic view of the decadent world that would have pleased Nietzsche. Fielding shows us that in an era when virtue is reduced to spurious parlor room notions of female chastity, we lose more muscular ideals of virtue. Meanwhile, the world around us is corrupted and decaying.
From Virtue to Virtual Reality
So where did the word virtual come from, the name appended to that multi-billion dollar economy for a technology-yet-to-be invented called “virtual reality” or cyberspace.
We call it virtual reality because it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s an oxymoron. It’s “not real reality.” Virtual therefore means “that which is essentially true though not actually, factually, completely so.”
This peculiar application of the word comes from that other uniquely masculine attribute: the vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first such application of this sense in the 12th century. Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Not long after, it is attached to the idea of Divine influence. Indeed, OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is “the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being.”
So we might say, with apologies to Nietzsche, that
Virtue, which once meant manliness in a man, comes to mean godliness in God.
Beginning as the literal stick or phallus, vir becomes metonymically associated with the essence that flows from man, then with the essential ideals of manliness (among the ancient Romans), and then with the metaphysical ideal of essential powers for good flowing from Godhead into the universe.
Finally, however, this deification of the word, by making the virtue of virtue as abstract as possible, invites a fatal postmodern turn. Virtually comes to be mean essentially: that is, for all intents and purposes, as far as anything important is concerned, for all practical purposes, the same thing. Finally, in postmodern philosophy á la Derrida, essences are taboo. Every fixed idea or value are all to be deconstructed, are all always already deconstructed. There are no essences, only representations of them. Thus the essence of the thing is no more real (or illusory) than the word we use for it. Virtual, which used to mean the fixed essential reality of something deriving from a transcendent authority, now collapses into its opposite. It is the word we use for the collapse of a deeper realism into illusion.
Which brings us to virtual reality, that great oxymoron. Will computers one day simulate reality enough to trick our senses into thinking we are some place we are not? That’s the dream. “Virtual reality” is a great sell-job of a monicker for it. The word hypes the promise. It’s the most vaporous of vaporware. It implies that the computer simulation somehow captures the essence of reality, that for all practical intents it is almost but not quite really real, when even the promise is not yet realized. In other words, all our examples of virtual reality, like today’s version, the Oculus Rift, the darling of Mark Zuckerberg, is virtually virtual reality. I tried a version of wearable 3D glasses in 1995. It made me nauseous. I wonder if this is better.
Pardon my skepticism. Yes, I’ll grant that if the medium is the message, then how we experience reality will be seriously and effectively altered inside cyberspace, maybe even essentially altered, once it even kinda works. Perhaps a technology spun out of simulations of our nerve net will redefine the body in space even when there is no there there. You can’t get a “realer” change than that.
The Tory view
The story of cultural evolution is recorded in these etymologies. Simple, violent, manly virility becomes feminine virginity becomes universal virtue. Our culture moves from stick to metaphorical phallus to ethics to aspirations to divinity, from monkey to man to manliness to godliness.
But then, in postmodern times, truths becomes truthiness, nothing is essentially true in itself, and all virtue becomes just another vain delusion as reality becomes virtually real.