digital humanities digital rhetoric object-oriented rhetoric

playing the regimes of attraction

Last weekend, we drove down to DC for a soccer tournament in which my son's team was participating. During the 16-hour trip there and back, we listened to an audiobook, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's a sci-fi novel set in a dystopian future where the main characters spend most of their time in a virtual internet/game world called the OASIS (the ontologically anthropocentric sensory immersive simulation). The novel's plot is largely an easter egg hunt with the prize being ownership of the Oasis itself. The hunt, developed by the now-deceased creator of the Oasis James Halliday, is filled with the nerdy 80s trivia that Halliday loved. I won't say it is a great literary achievement, but it was fun to listen to while driving through central PA. Elsewhere this weekend, I was also revisiting Levi Bryant's Democracy of Objects, which I've been teaching in my Speculative Realism graduate seminar, and we spent some time on Monday discussing Bryant's concept of regimes of attraction. 

This may seem like apples and oranges to you, but these are two sides of the concept of virtuality that I explored in The Two Virtuals. Briefly, as we know, the Deleuzian virtual is a monistic substrate. As Bryant writes, "Deleuze's constant references to the virtual as the pre-individual suggests this reading as well, for it implies a transition from an undifferentiated state to a differenciated individual. If the virtual is pre-individual, then it cannot be composed of discrete individual unities or substances. Here the individual would be an effect of the virtual, not primary being itself." The digital virtual is nothing like this. Perhaps virtual reality appears to be made of some monistic malleable materiality but it is, of course, code: ones and zeros, or even better, voltage intensities across a circuit. Deleuze's real virtual lies beneath all that even further. In Democracy of Objects, Bryant undertakes a motivated reading of Deleuze, identifying particular passages where he leans in a different direction, toward a more pluralistic, less monistic, virtuality, which eventually leads Bryant toward his concept of virtual proper being.

This got me wondering if virtual proper being might not be an ontology that is in some respects closer to the way that VR functions, or is imagined to function in a novel like Ready Player One. Bryant writes that

The virtual proper being of an object is what makes an object properly an object. It is that which constitutes an object as a difference engine or generative mechanism. However, no one nor any other thing ever encounters an object qua its virtual proper being, for the substance of an object is perpetually withdrawn or in excess of any of its manifestations.

And then later, he adds, "The virtual proper being of an object is its endo-structure, the manner in which it embodies differential relations and attractors or singularities defining a vector field or field of potentials within a substance." In the move from a common substrate to these virtual/hidden individual "generative mechanisms," this seems to me more like the generative mechanisms behind artificial life. Certainly it would be fair to say that the algorithms that drive such objects are only ever simulations or models of the singularities and attractors that operate virtually. I don't want to take this analogy too far. However, I wonder: if we could hypothesize some extra-dimensional position outside of the virtual-actual ontological circuit Bryant describes, would that position offer us a vantage that might be analogous to the human user examining the codes and manifestations of sofware objects in VR?

In any case, the development of virtual spaces offers a useful way to think about how regimes of attraction might operate. Bryant describes these regimes as follows:

Regimes of attraction should thus be thought as interactive networks or, as Timothy Morton has put it, meshes that play an affording and constraining role with respect to the local manifestations of objects. Depending on the sorts of objects or systems being discussed, regimes of attraction can include physical, biological, semiotic, social, and technological components. Within these networks, hierarchies or sub-networks can emerge that constrain the local manifestations available to other nodes or entities within the network.

In short, regimes of attraction place external limits on how the virtual proper being of an object might manifest itself. As it already stands, every object has an endo-structure that already places limits on what it might be (otherwise, virtual proper being would be the same as monism). However those manifestations are further limited by exo-relations, which form the regimes of attraction. As a result of this intersection, objects are neither entirely free to mutate in any fashion nor are they overdetermined by their context. To think about this within the analogy of a virtual reality space, one might say that any object that one creates will have an endo-structure that limits its operation and possibilities for manifesting. For example, Bryant uses the extended example of a blue coffee mug to talk about the mugs power "to blue" and how that manifests itself differently depending on regimes of attraction such as available light sources and the sensory capacities of the objects perceiving the mug. The same sort of mechanic would operate in a virtual world, just as most virtual worlds have game engines that govern things like "gravity." Those engines are part of the endo-structure of objects. The fact that one (or one's avatar) finds herself on a large planet with a particular gravitational field (or a virtual version of such) is then part of the regime of attraction that manifests your feet on the ground and constrains movement in specific ways. Virtual worlds often work this way, even though clearly they don't have to. 

Ready Player One offers a peculiar vision of how the endo-structure of a VR world might develop out of a pre-existing set of regimes of attraction. That is, if we were to imagine, for a second, that someone actually created the Oasis, at the outset its limits would be defined by things like available computing technologies, processing power, programming languages, etc.: in other words, the material substrate on which any VR world would be built. The Oasis in the novel becomes further shaped by its creator's obsession with the 1980s: Dungeons and Dragons, early video games, computers, sci-fi novels, anime… the whole geek lexicon. This obession becomes built into the mechanics of the Oasis itself, along with those other technological elements. Parzival, the novel's protagonist, navigates the Oasis through his deep research into this culture.

How do we want to think about a VR world as a real object? We've seen this conversation among OOO folks about whether or not Popeye is real. In OOO terms, for an object to be real it must be able to exist independent of external relations. So a statue of Popeye is real. However, there is also something like an idea of Popeye that can be trademarked: is that a real object? Can something that is symbolic or encoded be real, independent of its local manifestations in a book or on a screen? Perhaps. So, for example, if a character in World of Warcraft finds a magical sword, which she can sell or trade, even for US dollars: is that sword a real object?

I would say that one potential error to avoid here is in imagining that virtual worlds are separate from the "real world." They aren't worlds inside of worlds. A digital photograph is as real as a printed photograph. An ebook is as real as a printed book. A digital movie file is as real, as material, as a movie on a reel. Virtual characters have a material manifestation as well. They take up physical space on a hard drive somewhere. They should not be mistaken for their local manifestations on a computer screen, though it is only within the particular regimes of attraction of that software and hardware that they become viewable as characters. Otherwise they are just data files.

Maybe this is a good analogy for a pluralist virtuality, like virtual proper being. Without the proper regime of attraction, virtual beings are unreadable, inaccessible. With the right regime, they become manifest in particular ways, not their true form of course, but a form that can relate and acquire agency. That would suggest though that virtual being can be altered by altering its local manifestation, which is something we already know in OOO right? Virtual beings cannot directly interact; only their local manifestations (for Bryant) or sensual objects (for Harman) can be encountered. But real objects (their virtual/withdrawn states) can be destroyed through these interactions; there must be feedback. If they can be destroyed then it makes sense that they can also be altered without destroying them–not just altering their local manifestations but their virtual/withdrawn states as well, while allowing the object to still be the same object…. just different. In other words, we can paint Bryant's blue coffee mug yellow, and it will no longer manifest blueness. It will lose that virtual power. It's virtual proper being will be altered. And yet it is still the same mug. I don't see why that should be a problem. We can have a discussion about how much change is required to make something into a different object, but that's for another time. 

What this indicates to me is that if we think about a pluralist rather than a monist virtuality, then we create an ontology where the particulars of an object's virtual dimension are alterable through its local manifestations, which in turn are alterable through the regimes of attraction in which it emerges. This creates a condition in which we can proceed experimentally in devising different regimes for the purpose of shaping virtual being. Our ability to know the results of those experiments might always be limited but the principle that such mutations are possible seems to make sense. 

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