How has our relationship to our digital technology and devices affected our conception of reality? This is the question that Teresa López-Pellisa addresses in her recent study. As the title suggests, she identifies five “pathologies” in filmic, literary, and other “bodies” that reflect a distorted perception of digital environments, their possibilities, and their relationships to reality and to ourselves (69). At the end of each diagnosis, she suggests what healthy concepts of technological virtual reality (VR) and its possibilities might look like. Simply put, the study examines human fantasies (both fears and desires) regarding digital VR—although the author curiously avoids using those two terms.
López-Pellisa’s approach depends on Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras’s definition of virtual space as “generated by the cerebral activity of the human being,” and digital space as “a type of virtual space ... created by the technological activity of man” (20; all translations are mine). I cannot help but note that it is appropriate that a scholar from the land of Don Quixote defines VR thus, as the famous knight-errant effectively creates his own virtual reality based on novels of chivalry. Treating digital VR as existing on the same plane as every other representation produced by the human mind allows LópezPellisa to do some interesting things: locating its origins in cave drawings, for instance, and tracing it through contemporary digital devices, or providing a history of computational technologies from the abacus to today’s microprocessors. She analyzes representations of the virtual not only in the arts but in philosophy, mythology, religion, cultural theory, and futurology—a study of one type of simulation through others. For the author, then, digital VR is simply “a new type of fictionalization” (21) that possesses five fundamental characteristics: it is a human production, digitally simulated, interactive, polysensorial, and occuring in real time (20).
The first of the five pathologies, “nominal schizophrenia,” designates the semantic entropy that the terms “virtual,” “cyberspace,” and “virtual reality” have suffered through chronic misuse, to the point that they have become hyponymous for a multitude of unrelated concepts. The second, “metastasis of simulacra,” refers to the “propagation, proliferation, penetration, and invasion of simulacra into the ‘fabric’ of the real,” eating into reality itself (99-100). Following Baudrillard and Žižek, the author agrees that digital VR can and is being used to erase the “referent,” such as the real-space consequences associated with actions (e.g., soldiers carrying out an attack via computer, unable to observe the flesh-and-blood consequences). With respect to fears that digital VR is replacing real-space reality, she observes that the former also exists in real-space and thus cannot replace it. Neither, she asserts, should we “convert Reality into a fetish or something sacred,” concluding that VR (like literature or theater) offers the possibility “to reflect upon and incorporate them [virtual concepts] into everyday life” (123). Here the reader sees the author’s methodology for the rest of the study: the examination of two opposing attitudes toward representations of VR.
The author’s third pathology, “phantom body syndrome,” designates the notion that it is possible to do away with the body as one can with a limb, but without negative effects such as “phantom limb” pain. Engaging in the contemporary dialogue on the posthuman, she echoes Herminio Martín’s identification of a “Promethean” branch pursuing the improvement of homo sapiens through bionic augmentation, culminating in a “Faustian” transhumanist desire to transcend humanity by transferring the mind into a mechanical/digital device. In opposition to this techno-utopian fantasy are groups of bio-conservatives who see such possibilities not as human evolution but as the end of humanity. For López-Pellisa, the fundamental question is: “[d]o we have bodies, or are we bodies?” (164); her response is that “we are embodied subjectivities” (166). She dismisses the binary opposition between artificial and natural (and hence the opposition between transhumanist fantasies and bio-conservative fears) by invoking Rodríguez de la Hera’s observation that humans have been augmenting their natural capacities since they began using tools, that homo sapiens is also homo faber, and that technology is part of our nature (126).
The fourth pathology, “acute mysticism,” imagines humanity occupying cyberspace paradises through an emigration she calls “digital technometempsychosis” or “techno-reincarnation” (182), as seen for example in Frank Tipler’s “Omega Point” theories. Its critics warn that such a possibility would erase both the temporal and spatial coordinates of human existence (178) and, in addition, would lead to totalitarianism (177). The author rejects the combination of “gnosticism, science, alchemy, Aristotelian materialism, and Platonic and Pythagorean mysticism” (169) that she finds in the former, in particular in Tipler’s “religious-technological” attitudes (189).
López-Pellisa’s final pathology is the “Pandora syndrome” of male-created simulated females. She identifies three types: gynoids (female robots programmed as sexual slaves), maniquiféminas (“womannequins,” female mannequins or dolls), and virtual women. She posits that these representations are reactions to the changing role of women in society, and again notes two contrary trends. The predominant one envisions simulated women as onanistic sexual objects (betraying birth envy, a need for intimacy, a desire to possess the ideal woman or to substitute for a dead lover, or an expression of loneliness) (229-30). The other trend “utilize[s] [the artificial women] as a denunciation and metaphor of the social situation” (198).
López-Pellisa’s study truly shines when she discusses how concepts of digital VR are related to structures of power, as when she observes that acute mysticism is “a virus for which there is practically no antidote: can one fight against faith or the desire to be immortal?” (190) She calls for us to “separate objectives and possibilities of a technology such as VR from any religious ideology. The soul is an invention, a social creation, a tool of domination and control that has been instrumentalized by mechanisms of power for centuries, and we cannot allow them to put the prefix “cyber-” in front of it to continue indoctrinating the masses with falacious promises such as immortality or eternal youth.” (190)
She complains that “[t]his hermeticism, digitalism, techno-hermeticism, millenarianism or regenesis has been mutating for centuries, reproducing the Vatican’s same hegemonic Judeo-Christian structures” (190).
As she does with the “Phantom Body” syndrome, López-Pellisa takes a middle path, rejecting both the utopian and dystopian visions of VR: humanity will continue to evolve in a miscegenation with its technology, but without utopia, dystopia, or a mystical union with the creator. She calls for taking advantage of new technologies “to innovate (invent) and not renovate (repeat and remake) the same models: we should abandon the old and distance ourselves from the Judeo-Christian and Platonic world view as the only way to contemplate the world” (191).
López-Pellisa’s study is well-written, scrupulously researched, and particularly rich in theoretical sources in Spanish, English, French, and Italian. The list of works discussed is equally impressive, making her bibliography and filmography excellent resources. Her textual analyses offer many fascinating insights that unfortunately cannot be detailed in this review. At approximately $18 US dollars, its price makes it accessible to individual scholars. For those who read Spanish, it will be a very useful text both for research and in the classroom.