Almost really real: What the curious etymology of the word “virtual” tells us about the future of VR   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual

Stick figures

Virtual has an interesting history as far as etymologies go. Screen shot 2016-02-25 at 3.43.22 PMIn ancient Rome, virtus meant “valor” or “courage” on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of The Gallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should 

Rely more on valor [virtute] than on artifice and stratagem.

We shouldn’t be surprised that, when we dig deeper, we find its even more ancient root, vir, means manBut if you’re a Derrida-inspired etymologist like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the original image or metaphor that is imbedded in the ancient root of the word. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean so elemental a word as man? In Hebrew, the word for “man” – adam – is not only the name of the first man, but also embraces meanings or is related to words for “earth” (Adam was formed from the earth), “blood,” “red,” and more. In other words, the Hebrew word compresses the story of Creation  into the three root letter (a-d-m): God creates man from the earth, a being of flesh and blood. 

So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. There is the fundamental root equation: stick is a phallus or vice versa, and thus the concepts of man and other manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it means rod.

Now fast forward to modern English. By the 18th century, virtue evolves to serve almost exclusively as a euphemism for a woman’s ability to preserve her virginity before marriage. In the 19th century, Nietzsche quipped,

“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 Europe), and also marshals evidence for his own view that Western culture has become increasingly feminized and  thus has declined and become effete. The arena for manly heroism has shrunk. We can trace this evolution (or devolution, as Nietszche would have it) even in the female application of vir. The Roman word virago described a woman warrior of man-like courage. In Latin (Vulgate) translations of the Bible, Adam also uses it to describe Eve as a woman of valor. In later English, however, virago devolves to mean a woman who is overly aggressive and wages war only against her husband, a harridan or shrew.

Screen shot 2016-02-26 at 8.01.45 PM
Queen Artemisia, Persian virago who warred against the Romans

Despite what we think of his politics (which among other things inspired Hitler) Nietszche was right. The history of the word virtue exposes decaying aspiration. As we grow more civilized, both manly vigor and womanly valor dissolve.

Nietszche’s complaint 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 story, told entirely in personal letters. Pamela, a pretty servant in the estate of a wealthy and dashing squire, resists all inducements and her own feelings to hold on to her virginity until she marries the squire. Entitled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740), it became a runaway bestseller almost immediately.

Henry Fielding, at the time a lawyer in England, was repulsed by the book’s sanctimony. Almost as soon as he read it, he wrote a slim parody, Shamela (1741) which also becomes a bestseller. Fielding portrays Richardson’s earnestly virtuous and pious Pamela as a shameless wench. Aided by her mother and sisters, Shamela plots to trade her virginity (she was formerly a prostitute) for marriage to a gullible Squire Booby. Mother and sisters constantly swear “‘pon their virtue,” which they’ve also sold off many times before.

The notion that virtue was exclusively female led Fielding to take the satirical trope in Shamela more seriously in the comic novel he writes next, Joseph Andrews (1742), the story of “a young man of virtue.” He then ups the ante yet again in his long masterpiece, Tom Jones. All three works use the same trope as Pamela: innocents fight to retain their virtue in a corrupt world. But Fielding’s heroes remain comic because they are men intent on preserving their virginity, an absurdity in 18th century England.

Fielding’s naive moral men are a lens through which the decadent world seems so much more forlorn. Nietzsche was pleased. He prized the work of Fielding for showing us that when virtue is reduced to pathetic parlor room notions of female chastity, we lose cultural vigor. The world around us is corrupted and decays.

The road from Virtue to Virtual Reality goes through Derrida      

This peculiar application of the word virtue 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.” Eventually, it is also attached to the idea of Divine influence, and to that other kind of invisible influenza, the virus and virulence. 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.

There’s one more turn left before we get home to our time, and it’s a particularly late 20th century one.

Making the virtue of virtue as metaphysical as possible, even attributing it to God, attenuates its aboriginal connection to sticks and phalluses. This in turn 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, it’s the same thing. In postmodern philosophy á la Derrida, essences however are intrinsically self-contradictory. The root words and concepts underlying any of our ideal essences, as Derrida shows throughout his work, can be deconstructed to show a paradox. There are no real essences, only representations of them, and they form because they some difficulty in culture demands we bridge or disguise the paradox. Concepts like “gifts,” “hospitality,” “forgiveness,” “mourning,” “memory,” “writing,” “difference,” “religion,” even “philosophy” embrace their opposites and so pose impossible contradictions if we dig deeply enough (perform an “arche-writing” of them he says, punning on “arche-ology”). Any fixed idea or values can and should be deconstructed because our attachment to essences are illusory and ideological and incites us to all sorts of mischief.

Derrida suggests the essence of the thing is no more real than the word we use to signify it. Virtual, which by the 18th century meant the fixed essential reality of something deriving from a transcendent authority, collapses into its opposite. It is the word we use for the collapse of the deepest realism into illusion. Now when we say something is essentially or virtually true, we mean to subtly suggest its opposite.

The future? Most vaporous of vaporware

Let’s review before we move to the future. The trajectory of the root vir moves

  • from its aboriginal primordial meaning, stick
  • to a metaphor stick phallus
  • to metonymy for the whole man of which the phallus is a part
  • to its abstraction to manliness
  • to the abstraction of manly qualities like chastity so far removed from its source that it can be applied to a woman
  • to the abstraction of abstractions: seminal metaphysical power to influence that is worthy of God. 

The story of cultural evolution is recorded in this vector. The primate’s stick becomes a man, becomes simple, violent, manly virility becomes feminine morality becomes universal virtue becomes Godly.

Then finally, when we think we can’t go any further, we turn it into a word of sly self-denial. In postmodern times, truths becomes truthiness, nothing is essentially true in itself. The arc is long. It vectors up the graph of abstraction until it asymptotically goes higher than heaven and disappears in a puff of nihilism.

What does it portend for the future of the virtual? Will it come back to Earth? Will computers one day simulate reality enough to trick our senses into really believing we are some place we are not? That’s the dream, anyway. In truth, at least today, “virtual reality” is at best aspiratonal, at worst a great monicker for another vaporware sell-job, hyping the sizzle not the steak.

You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious…but  you know what?

(Takes a bite of steak.)

Ignorance is bliss.

– Cypher, The Matrix (1999)

VR is the most vaporous of vaporware. It implies that the computer simulation captures the essence of reality, that for all practical intents it is almost but not quite really real and so maybe somehow better and sexier than reality itself. 

I tried a version of VR in 1995, wearable 3D glasses. I thought I’d get a hard on. It made me throw up.

Pardon my skepticism. Yes, 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 doesn’t just make us nauseous. Perhaps a technology spun out of simulations of the brain will redefine the body in space even when there is no there there. Maybe quantum mechanics really does implicate consciousness so when we get to robust quantum computers, we’ll have real magic. You can’t get realer than that. 

 

2 thoughts on “Almost really real: What the curious etymology of the word “virtual” tells us about the future of VR   

    1. Thanks for the high praise, Asher. I hope you find it helpful and use it well in your own work and thinking. Of course, Derrida and Wittgenstein are my heroes.

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