The Violence in the Virtual

If the process instigated by Nietzsche and carried forth in postmodernism is indeed the obliteration of any cogent distinction between simulation and reality—as in the ‘Aura of the Digital‘, for instance—then this process must obtain not just for matter, or money, or social mores, but moreover for violence as well: the distinction between virtual and physical violence, too, must wither away, and the two become increasingly interchangeable.

This interchangeability is now readily seen, in the virtual-to-physical direction, in the steadily growing list of mild insults and disagreements that are classified as “violence”, such as “microaggressions” or “victimizations” or “damaged self-esteem” or “being made to feel unsafe”. But it is the other, virtual-to-physical direction that is even more alarming, for there lies the possibility that visualizations and simulations of violence–the most pitiless and realistic of which already saturate our entertainment and popular culture–will cease to be even distinguishable from physical carnage, so that, being already inured to, accepting of, and indeed amused by the one, we will find no credible grounds for rejecting the other.

To repeat, “physical violence” can only be seriously considered more objectionable than “simulated violence” so long as there remains a trusted demarcation between “the physical” and “the simulated”. And yet this demarcation has already been mightily breached: it has become a cliché by now in popular discussions of physics to speak of “the universe as simulation”, the “holographic principle”, and so forth, while even at the heart of physics there has been an undeniable evolution towards sheer mathematical abstraction, exemplified in “quantum wave functions”, “metric tensors”, “string theories”, and even in much older notions like “action at a distance”. As for the side of simulation moving to become physics, one has only to skim the endless encomiums in the media to the coming “Internet of Things”, “augmented reality”, or “the mirrorworld” to see this complementary prong of the attack gleefully underway.

In sum, we have de-realized the universe from under our feet–and seem still hungry to carry the process to its every last logical conclusion. And so what sheer credulity is it to think that violence, alone, will somehow remain exempt? That it will keep its place, or content itself with mere gestures, sentiments, images? To think, as some do, that violence will only ever continue to move in the first direction, from physicality into virtuality, is hopeless–not simply because there is no compelling reason (let alone law) for that motion not to reverse but, even more problematically, because the direction itself necessarily becomes arbitrary once the real/virtual distinction is lost. The only thing that can stop the disintegration is a faith in the difference, faith in the Real—though that, too, has its problems.

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