Patologías de la realidad virtual by Teresa López-Pellisa: A Review

Patologías de la realidad virtual: Cibercultura y ciencia ficción (2015, Fondo de Cultura Económica) by Teresa López-Pellisa is a necessary book. As Naief Yehya writes in the Prologue, “Cada vez es más claro que en nuestro tiempo las relaciones sentimentales con los dispositivos tecnológicos materiales o inmateriales han dejado de ser una extraña perversión para volverse la nueva normalidad” (12). I’m reproducing these words here on the day when I’m meeting novelist and robotics engineer Carme Torras to start work on the English translation of her novel La mutació sentimental, an excellent SF novel which I have often mentioned here. La mutació deals, precisely, with this ‘new normality’ and warns us against the absurd sentimental attachment that we’re developing for, in this case, robots. Carme Torras’s novel is set in a near future when robots will be everybody’s domestic companions although the malaise diagnosed in it is by no means fantastic neither futuristic. Sherry Turkle, as I have also commented here, has analyzed brilliantly the strange bonds growing between children and elderly people and their robotic pets and how impossible it is to turn these bonds into something less irrational.

Teresa López-Pellisa diagnoses in her book five disorders concerning our relationship with cyberculture: “esquizofrenia nominal”, “metástasis de los simulacros”, “el síndrome del cuerpo fantasma”, “misticismo agudo” and “el síndrome de Pandora”. Before these ailments are described in detail she launches into quite a long digression about the confusing way in which we use the terminology associated with the digital domain. Following the nomenclature developed by Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras, she proposes that we correct the misuse of ‘virtual reality’. She asks us to distinguish between “espacio virtual”, “espacio digital” and “espacio real”. ‘Real space’ is more or less self-explanatory –‘more or less’ as the author herself realizes that all kinds of philosophical questions (and the Matrix trilogy…) must be left aside to accept that there is indeed a ‘natural’ space which we tread daily. In contrast, the concepts of “virtual space” and “digital space” require some radical reconfiguration of our vocabulary, for de las Heras and López-Pellisa claim that virtual space is, basically, the product of our imaginative capacities and cognitive system lodged in our brain, whereas digital space is a specific kind of virtual space generated by computers. She also asks us to refine the way we use the very concept of the digital space, distinguishing between cyberspace (i.e. digital space maintained online) and other types of digital space, not necessarily online. This reconceptualization is certainly appealing as it reminds us that our brain is a potent generator of virtual domains, both when we’re awake and, most particularly I would add, when we sleep. Yet, after three decades of using ‘virtual reality’ to actually mean ‘digital space’ it is unlikely that the vocabulary can be corrected in the short or the long term. Likewise, unless I am wrong, few digital spaces are off-line in this voraciously interconnective online world for which no digital device is off-limits.

The first section of the volume offers not only a (re)definition of virtual reality along the lines I have mentioned but also an extensive genealogy, which invites us to consider the predecessors of the 20th century technologies leading to the computer and the digital space. Beginning with Plato’s cave, López-Pellisa includes in her historical overview the invention of pictorial perspective, the diverse automata, and the many visual spectacles developed in the 19th century, including cinema. Her survey of the 20th century runs from Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine (1945) –the PC’s greatest ancestor– to augmented reality, passing through William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the SF classic that made the words ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘cyberspace’ popular all over the world in the 1980s. The impression the reader gets reading this well-informed segment is that all the names, dates and data that López-Pellisa contributes should be part of our general culture. They’re not. Alexander Graham Bell or Guglielmo Marconi are household names but Vannevar Bush is not –much less Jaron Lanier, to whom we owe the very concept of ‘virtual reality’.

At the beginning of the second part of the volume, which describes the five pathologies previously named, López-Pellisa declares unambiguously that she considers virtual reality a sick patient, though by no means a terminal one. It is her purpose, she states, to classify the diverse ailments and to make the reader aware of their existence rather than offer or demand a ‘cure’.

‘Semantic schizophrenia’, the first syndrome analyzed, refers to the imprecise, ambiguous way in which we use the vocabulary connected with computers. López-Pellisa expands in this segment on the basic warning against the misuse of the computer-related semantic field of the volume’s first part, albeit also in other directions. Thus, she refers to ‘Don Quijote’s syndrome’ (her own label) as the condition preventing the compulsive visitor to the diverse digital spaces from disconnecting. She does not mean that individuals no longer recognize the difference between reality and fantasy but that they choose digital virtuality as a refuge from reality –which offers incidentally an interesting re-reading of Alonso Quijano’s madness. The author also gently reminds us that ‘virtual reality’ does exist, if only as software in very real computers without which it would not survive.

The second syndrome, or ailment, diagnosed is the ‘metastasis of the simulacra’, a certainly unnerving terminology used to name the condition of those fictional texts which not only offer “distintos niveles de virtualización al generar diversos entornos virtuales en el texto, sino que además nos proponen mundos artificiales digitales en el marco del espacio virtual del texto literario, con realidades virtuales que configuran el discurso metadiagético en el texto” (105). The main characters, whether they are the protagonists of a story by Bioy Casares or Neo in Matrix, are disconcerted by the discovery that reality is unstable and entering metastasis with a cannibalistic alternative virtual domain. The list of examples that López-Pellisa explores is quite impressive and has the great virtue of mixing Spanish-language and anglophone texts, with examples from other languages, which is not that usual. In the case of this syndrome the author warns that although we are very far from being console cowboys needing a daily fix of cyberspace surfing, like Case in Neuromancer, there’s no need to fetishize Reality, with a capital R.

The ‘phantom body syndrome’ criticizes the radical transhuman aspiration to disconnect body and mind, supported by their claim that the organic human body can be replaced by computer hardware and also that the mind is akin to software. Following lines of thought that transhumanists call ‘bioconservative’ but that those concerned prefer to ‘moderate posthumanism’, López-Pellisa accepts our cyborg nature –already proclaimed by Donna Haraway in 1985: “Somos transhumanos ciborgianos y ciudadanos de un futuro en el que la convivencia entre lo natural y lo artificial estará tan normalizada que dejaremos de emplear estos términos como algo dicotómico” (137). She is, however, extremely critical of the radical transhumanist (or extropian) assault on the body: “Me resisto ante la afirmación de que el cuerpo está obsoleto, ya que supondría asumir la propia obsolescencia del cuerpo humano y aceptar que si el cuerpo desaparece, nos extinguiremos” (165). The fourth syndrome, ‘acute mysticism’ connects with the third one, as it merges the disembodied ideal of radical transhumanism with nebulous notions of what constitutes the soul and with a selfish longing for immortality. López-Pellisa does not hesitate to call this cultural disorder dangerously irrational and, hence, as damaging as a virus.

Finally, the section devoted to the ‘Pandora syndrome’ is, no doubt, the best one in the volume. Here the author’s own voice is most clearly heard for –and this is really the only major objection to be made– in the rest of the book her argumentation is overwhelmed by a constant barrage of citations. This is habitual in PhD dissertations and it is indeed the case that Patologías de la realidad virtual is derived from López-Pellisa’s own thesis. Yet, the heavy weight of the quotations is also to be blamed on the Spanish academic tradition, which still mistrusts the argumentative essay and in which authority is built on the basis of humbly accepting one’s low position in the hierarchy of the many predecessors.

In this segment, in contrast, the author uses her predecessors in the field to reinforce a strong feminist voice, which is very critical of men’s fantasies of female exploitation, centred on the figure of the artificial woman. The originality of her approach is that she rejects Galatea to focus on Pandora, for whereas Pygmalion lives happily with his statue turned into a compliant flesh-and-blood wife by no other than Venus, the male protagonists of the stories analyzed in this segment come to a bitter end when they try to control their rebellious Pandoras. The gamut runs from the classic tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, “The Sandman” (1817) to Craig Gillespie’s film Lars and the Real Girl (2007) among many other examples focusing on ginoids, “maquiniféminas” and virtual women. A controversial point which López-Pellisa raises is that even though all these stories present dehumanized women, they actually reflect men’s dehumanization and inability to deal with actual human peers. Misogyny, in short, backlashes to destroy its defenders.

To sum up, then, this is an absolutely recommended volume which contains in just 280 pages plenty of food for thought. Of a very necessary kind.

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Acerca del autor:
Sara Martín Alegre
The Joys of Teaching Literature

Acerca del libro:
Patologías de la realidad virtual
Teresa López-Pellisa