Leibniz, Baudrillard and Virtual Reality

C.J. Keep
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario Canada K7L 3N6
Early in the eighteenth century, Leibniz envisioned what might fairly be called the first reality engine. Central to the argument of the _Theodicy_ (1710), is the claim that the mind of God comprehends an infinity of possible worlds, each of which exists *in potentia*. Of these, only one was brought into being, because only one --the actual world in which we live-- fulfils the divine plan for creation. For Leibniz, this world is the best of all possible worlds precisely because it is the only one which the Almighty chose to instantiate. "God must needs have chosen the best," he writes, "since he does nothing without acting in accordance with supreme reason" (128). [l. 67]

The Theodicy concludes with a journey that anticipates both the nature of virtual reality technology and the epistemological problems arising from it. Extrapolating on Laurentius Valla's _Dialogue on Free Will_, Leibniz tells of Theodorus' dream in which the goddess Pallas guides him through an infinitely large pyramid, each hall of which contains, "as in a stage presentation" (371), a fully realized possible future. The pyramid is a series of tactile, three-dimensional, but wholly fictional environments through which Theodorus can physically move and experience the full spectrum of sensory stimuli --sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. He can, moreover, control the degree of representational detail of each scene with a wave of his hand. Pointing to a book which appears like a pull-down menu in each room, Pallas explains,

         It is the history of this world which we are visiting .

         . . . Put your finger on any line you please . . . and

         you will see represented actually in all its detail that

         which the line broadly indicates. He obeyed, and . . .

         lo! another world, another Sextus [came into view].


The sense of depth, of fullness and representational plenitude, that Theodorus experiences in the worlds populating the great pyramid -- and the ability to interact with those worlds-- are the goals of virtual reality technology, or VR. Current attempts to realize these goals usually require the user to don a headset which completely encompasses the field of vision, and one or more other items of peripheral hardware such as a glove or a body harness. These input devices are equipped with remote sensors which translate the body's movements into a stream of digital information. Thus trussed up, the modern day Theodorus is connected to the "reality engine," a high-speed graphics-oriented computer. This sends to the headset a three-dimensional image of a virtual environment -- a classroom, for example, or the surface of the planet Venus. When users, completely immersed in "cyberspace," turn their head, walk forward, or crouch down, the image moves accordingly. The use of stereo sound effects and the ability to pick up or move objects within the virtual environment help reinforce a visceral sense of "being there." [l. 107]

The verisimilitude offered by current state-of-the-art VR technology is somewhat short of that depicted in the 1991 film _The Lawnmower Man_. The advanced computer graphics which provide some of the film's special effects present alternately glorified and demonized images of virtual worlds which are simply beyond the current state of the technology. Even the well-funded NASA/Ames project has only been able to produce a cartoon-like environment, one lacking the texture, detail and gradations of colour necessary to produce a truly convincing "reality." But we should not underestimate the pace of developments in computing. Not twenty years ago, computers filled entire rooms and could still perform only rudimentary tasks. Today the same tasks could be performed by the microprocessor in a wrist watch. Thus when Michael McGreevey of the NASA/Ames project says he will walk on a *virtual* Venus in the next two years, I suspect we should believe him.

The possibility that we will be able to mould and shape our own private alternate worlds, that there will exist for each of us a means of realizing some personal Platonic ideal behind the mask of a stereoscopic LCD display, raises serious issues concerning the epistemological status of the real. If the virtual can offer the complete range of sensory experiences available in the empirical world, and if, as some proponents claim, VR can even optimize those experiences such that the real comes to seem a pale shadow of the virtual, how will one still differentiate between the sign and the referent? Is this the telos of a world in which, as Baudrillard claims, the real "is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models" (3), in which "the very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction" (146)? [l. 139]

The virtual gave Leibniz no cause for alarm. On the contrary, the Theodicy posits the existence of "an infinitude of possible worlds" (128) not in order to volatize the model of a fixed and determinate uni-verse, but to reinforce it, to justify the ways of God to men. This vision of a multi-verse, all contained in the halls of a giant reality engine, concludes with Theodorus' ascent to the very apex of the pyramid. There, in the most beautiful of the rooms, he discovers the actual world and is overwhelmed by the experience:

         Theodorus, entering this highest hall, became

         entranced in ecstasy; he had to receive succour

         from the Goddess, a drop of divine liquid placed on

         his tongue; he was beside himself for joy.  We are

         in the real true world (said the Goddess) and you

         are at the source of happiness.  Behold what

         Jupiter makes ready for you, if you continue to

         serve him faithfully. (372)

The existence of an infinite plurality of alternate schemes for creation only serves to renew Leibniz's faith in the one which God chose to instantiate.

Early initiates to the mysteries of cyberspace report a similarly epiphanic response. Howard Rheingold claims that many users of VR technology undergo what he calls a "conversion experience," a moment in which the sense of having moved into a wholly fictional reality grips the person with the certainty of a new found faith (14). The ecstasy of the VR experience recalls the Greek root of the word, ekstasis, meaning to stand outside oneself, to feel your sense of self projected to a point outside that occupied by your body. Where Theodorus' ecstasy essentially leads him back to himself, to the corporeal body that inhabits the actual world, VR tends toward an almost religious sense of transcendence. The advent of the virtual announces the end of the body, the apocalypse of corporeal subjectivity. According to Randal Walser and Eric Gullichsen, two of the field's major architects, [l. 176]

         In cyberspace, there is no need to move about in a                     

         body like the one you possess in physical reality. 

         You may feel more comfortable, at first, with a

         body like your "own" but as you conduct more of

         your life and affairs in cyberspace your

         conditioned notion of a unique and immutable body

         will give way to a far more liberated notion of

         "body" as something quite disposable . . . . You

         will find that some bodies work best in some             

         situations while others work best in others.  The

         ability to radically and compellingly change one's

         body-image is bound to have a deep psychological

         effect, calling into question just what you

         consider yourself to be.  (quoted in Rheingold,


In the ecstatic realm of the virtual, all things become pliable, changeable, improvable. We could, for example realize Prufrock's dream of living as "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," 73-74), or experience the sense of incorporeality, of having no body at all. VR shares none of Leibniz's faith in the supreme wisdom of God's creation, but rather looks to abandon it, to step outside the body in search of as yet unthought combinations, relations, and forms.

The virtual then perhaps offers a way out of the cultural and epistemological dead-end of Baudrillard's theory of hyperreality. The real ceases to be real for Baudrillard when it comes to resemble itself, when the difference between the sign and its referent is obliterated and the subtle charm of the trompe-l'oeil gives way to the endlessly repeatable perfection of the digital code. The hyperreal is the condition in which art, as Andy Warhol recognized, is everywhere, and everything, from Campbell's Soup cans to reproductions of photos of Marilyn Monroe, is art. The real, Baudrillard claims, "has been confused with its image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality" (_Simulations_, 152). [l. 215]

The crisis of representation derives precisely from this catastrophic collapse of difference; when the sign and the referent are drawn together in an "implosive madness" (_Simulations_, 147), the space that is representation disappears. But it is in this space which is no-space, a virtual space, that the virtual is born. For some critics, such as Benjamin Wooley, VR is associated with, even seen as the apotheosis of, Baudrillard's concept of the hyperreal, and in one sense this is justified; VR strives to simulate not only the look of the real, but also its feel. For all that it leaves the body ecstatically behind, VR valorizes, even fetishizes, the five senses in order to produce its visceral sense of verisimilitude. In so doing, VR looks forward to a time when its simulated worlds will seem more real than the real, when the latter will come to have the uncanny sense of appearing similar to the virtual.

The strain of VR technology which tends most dramatically toward the dead end of the hyperreal is, not coincidently, the one fostered by the American military. The "Super Cockpit" program of the U.S. Air Force, slated for completion in 1996, arose from the recognition that the technological sophistication of the next generation of fighter planes would outstrip the ability of human pilots to monitor effectively all of the two hundred various gauges, meters and electronic read outs crammed into their cockpits. Placing the operator in a virtual environment, however, removes the ergonomic obstacles to delivering death at mach three --even as the pilot himself disappears behind his headmounted display screen. The ecstasy of virtual combat, the unlimited freedom that results from the increasingly mediated nature of technological warfare, is hungrily anticipated in an article from _Air & Space_ magazine:

         When he climbed into his F-16C, the young fighter

         jock of 1998 simply plugged in his helmet and

         flipped down his visor to activate his Super

         Cockpit system.  The virtual world he saw exactly

         mimicked the world outside.  Salient terrain

         features were outlined and rendered in three

         dimensions . . . . Once he was airborne, solid

         cloud cover obscured everything outside the canopy. 

         But inside the helmet, the pilot "saw" the horizon

         and terrain clearly, as if it were clear day.  His

         compass heading was displayed as a large band of

         numbers on the horizon line, his projected flight

         path a shimmering highway leading out toward

         infinity. (Thompson, 75-76) 

                                                               [l. 261] 

The Super Cockpit program differs significantly from simple flight simulators. In the *hyperreal* Super Cockpit, the work performed in the virtual space is also work done in the real world; when the "young fighter jock" downs a "bandit" by pushing "a phantom button on a virtual display screen," then it is not a virtual person but a real person who dies in the bright light of a real air-to-air missile.

The thanatotic impulse of the military's VR programs, I would argue, draws out the distinctly masculinist will-to-power inherent in the attempt to re-make the world, to finally take on the divine powers of creation. The hyperreal can perhaps be seen as the swan song of the historical project known as "man": a desperate bid for transcendence in the dying days of male hegemony in which the masculine subject imagines himself disappearing down a "shimmering highway" paved with microchips.

Paradoxically, however, it is at the point where the virtual most completely approximates the physical world, when VR seems to collapse the distinction between the sign and the referent, that it illuminates difference. At the asymptotic limit of representation, VR breaks free of the gravitational pull of the actual and opens a new space for the imagination. The difference: Where the *hyperreal* is constituted by the play of surfaces, by a paralytic fascination with exteriority, the *virtual* offers images with depth, images which one can enter, explore, and, perhaps most importantly, with which one can interact. The virtual is thoroughly interior. Unlike cinema, for example, or the photograph, the virtual takes you inside spaces, lets you be surrounded. But its depth is not that of the absolute ground which guaranteed the sovereignty of the real; VR's depth is self-reflexively fictional, tentative, open to change and adaptation. [l. 294]

For Jaron Lanier, a software designer widely considered the "guru" of VR, the virtual constitutes a "post-symbolic" order. The empire of the sign collapses when one no longer requires words, numbers, keyboards, and screens. Extrapolating from his early efforts to create a computer language that replaced alpha-numeric strings with pictograms, Lanier sees the virtual as a means by which people can regain a kind of immediate relation to their work. "Information is alienated experience," Lanier claims, but when people are no longer divided from their tasks by a screen, and can, in effect, enter into the realm where the work is performed, alienation gives way to visceral experience. "When you make a program and send it to somebody else," Lanier told an interviewer in 1985, "especially if that program is an interactive simulation, it as if you are making a new world, a fusion of the symbolic and natural elements. Instead of communicating symbols like letters, numbers and pictures . . . you are creating miniature universes that have their own internal mysteries to be discovered" (quoted in Rheingold, 159).

The interactive nature of VR is at the heart of Lanier's vision of post-symbolic communication. Tele-presence, the ability to project a virtual body and sense of self to any location connected to a telephone line, allows people separated by even the greatest of distances to meet and collaborate in a virtual space. Moreover, because cyberspace is eminently malleable, the meeting place itself may become the means by which we communicate with one another. Lanier's company, VPL Research, for example, recently conducted a demonstration called "Day Care World." Two architects, one in Houston, and the other in San Francisco, donned cyberspace suits, sensor-fitted leotards which turn the entire body into a remote input device. The architects telecommuted to VPL's headquarters in Redwood City, California, where they met inside a computer to design a daycare centre with virtual imaging tools. Upon completion, they were able to "reduce" their simulated size to that of a child in order to better understand the problems the building's future occupants might have with their design. [l. 330]

VR returns representation to the body at the very moment that it frees us from it. In the realm of the virtual, one communicates again with the inflections of voice, the subtleties of facial expressions and the dramatics of hand gestures. In offering us alternative bodies, it offers us alternative body languages.

The utopian impulses which atrophied in the age of the hyperreal, in the age of our mute transfixion before the sign, are revived in the age of the virtual. The literature of its enthusiasts beckons us to a land of digital milk and honey:

         Only a tradition bound to the precious object as

         commodity would find problematic the replacement of

         'reality' by a 'simulacra of simulations' . . .

         Moralistic critics of the simulacrum accuse us of

         living in a dream world.  We respond with Montaigne

         that to abandon life for a dream is to price it

         exactly at its worth.  And anyway, when life is a

         dream there's no need for sleeping. (Youngblood,


Others, noting VR's relation to the military apparatus and its potential as a kind of electronic opiate for the masses, are less enthusiastic. Kevin Robins, for example, argues this "cynical substitution of simulation for reality can only superficially overcome the alienation of our social existence; our pain will return to haunt us as nightmares the more we seek refuge in the 'dream' of virtual reality" (114). [l. 359]

The portentous fears of critics like Robins, or films like _The Lawnmower Man_ (in which VR is responsible for transforming an innocent simpleton into a Nietzschean *Ubermensch* with homicidal tendencies --and a Christ complex to boot) are expressions of a kind of panic, a panic arising from loss of the comforting assurance of the real, from the desire to return to the certainties of the symbolic. What these fears overlook, or attempt to repress, is the simple fact that it is too late to go back to some putative "real true world"; we already live, and perhaps have always lived, in the virtual. When computer graphics programmer Alvy Ray Smith proclaims that "reality is 80 million polygons per second" (quoted in Rheingold, 168), he is making more than a statement about the amount of pictorial information required to simulate the look and feel of a physical object. He is telling us something we have always secretly suspected: that reality is an effect, a historically, socially, even technologically determined means of regulating and representing experience.

Virtual reality technology is already being used to help bio-chemists at the University of North Carolina discover new molecular combinations. American surgeons can practice on virtual cadavers. Japanese consumers can choose their kitchen cabinets in a virtual mock-up of their own homes. This past summer, "Virtuality" arcade games have shown up in shopping malls, dance clubs and exhibitions across North America. For fifty dollars, you can pit your wits against a gun-slinging cyborg. And the French consortium which now owns Lanier's company, VPL Research, has already announced the opening of the first virtual reality theatres.

The virtual is here. The issue now is whether we allow it to remain the province of the techno-military apparatus and the vertically integrated entertainment corporations, or whether, like the personal computer, it can be appropriated to the task of dismantling the structures of "Truth" which would pin us to some "Authorised King James Version" of The Real. Leibniz was right: the actual world is but one room in the unnumbered halls of the multi-verse. And from this crucial insight we must find our own way to the apex, to the uppermost hall of the pyramid. There we shall knock on the door and wait to see who answers. [l. 399]

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss et. al. New
York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Eliot, T. S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." _The Waste Land
and Other Poems_. London: Faber & Faber, 1988. 9-14.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. _Theodicy_. Trans. E.M. Huggard.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.
Rheingold, Howard. _Virtual Reality_. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Robins, Kevin. "The Virtual Unconscious in Post-Photography."
_Science as Culture_. 3, no. 14 (1992): 99-115
Thompson, Stephen L. "The Big Picture." _Air & Space_. (April/May
1987): 75-83.
Wooley, Benjamin. _Virtual Worlds_. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Youngblood, Gene. "The New Renaissance: Art, Science and the
Universal Machine." _The Computer Revolution and the Arts_. Ed. R.L. Loveless. Tampa: University of Florida Press, 1989. 8-20.
C. J. Keep
Queen's University

This essay in Volume 3 Number 2 of _EJournal_ (September, 1993) is (c) copyright _EJournal_. Permission is hereby granted to give it away. _EJournal_ hereby assigns any and all financial interest to the author, C.J. Keep. This note must accompany all copies of this text.