Annotated Entry – Burbules Virtuality

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.

I’ve previously used these annotations to look at the organization of pattern language in Lemay and the rhetorical functions of interfacing in Carnegie.  For my third annotation, I want to take these concepts to their logical ends using Burbules’ “Rethinking the Virtual” (2006), which reimagines virtuality not as a (traditionally considered) product of technologies of access but rather as the product of the effect of these technologies in terms of the concept of immersion (to this end, Burbules notes that some authors would describe the genre of science fiction literature as one of “virtual realities” (163)).  Secondly, Burbules argues that virtuality must be reconstituted without the distinction between the “virtual” and the “real” based on assumptions that VR offers an “illusion” which substitutes manufactured space for “real” space (which is both non-manufactured and unproblematically “direct”):

The virtual should not be understood as a simulated reality exposed to us, which we passively observe, but a context where our own active response and involvement are part of what give the experience its veracity and meaningfulness. Hence the virtual is better seen as a media concept, neither real nor imaginary, or better, both real and imaginary. In this sense ‘virtual reality’ is a misnomer (163).

For my own project, this reformulation immediately raises several questions which must be reconsidered in virtuality: a) to what extent can we still consider production and mediation technologies to be deterministic in defining virtuality?; b) how should we consider “immersion” as a manifestation of “canny” experiences rather than “buy-in” with the uncanny?; c) what is the rhetorical function of existing in virtuality when virtuality is defined not by mechanism or technology, but by subjective experience?

It is necessary, in Burbules’ conceptualization, to realize that within computing (and especially interactive entertainment) the “bifurcation of the synthetic and the real has obscured a deeper understanding of what is changing in the ways that we make and explore our worlds, mediated by and through new technologies” (165).  The problem, then, is to reveal these changes through specific approaches (or “aspects”) to the concept of immersion.  Burbules offers four such aspects of virtual experience (“telepresence”) to consider (166-67):

  1. Interest: experiences allow us to consistently discover and interpolate new elements, content, or nodes of interactivity–even upon consistent return to the same spaces/experiences/technologies/mechanics.  However, interest is again subjective–“what is interesting to me may not be interesting to you”–which, while potentially challenging also accentuates the personal immersive context of virtuality (166).
  2. Involvement:  according to Burbules, “an experience is involving when we have a reason to care about what we are experiencing: we pay attention to it because it concerns us in some way” (166).  This might be connected to aesthetics, to mechanics, to narrative, to personal or structural goals.  Burbules notes that involvement might be parsed as a product of involvement – or not (for instance, it may be that it is perceived as personally, socially, or contextually necessary or important).
  3. Imagination:  Similarly, imagination manifests in virtual spaces when “we can interpolate or extrapolate new details and add to the experience [because] actively going beyond what is given is part of what engages us deeply in it” (166-67).
  4. Interaction:  Finally, experiences are interactive when users/experiencers of virtuality can participate within it–“not only perceptually or intellectually but also through embodied action and responses” (167).  Again, Burbules notes that limiting this interaction to a technological environment is “a mistake” because components such as relaxation, participatory body language, rhythmic participation (such as with music), make a “synthetic” space feel more real–i.e.: accentuate virtuality and virtual participation.

These acts of participation are, within “networked settings” functional components of “part of the pleasure of discovery,” which, the author gives as an example, might be why we label so many web browser applications with “intrepid names like ‘Explorer’, ‘Navigator’, and ‘Safari'” (170).

Burbules continues on in the conclusion to explore the emergence of the “cyborg self” (171), and the facts of embodiment in virtual spaces and virtual time.  Most significantly, he argues that:

In the end, it is not the existence of new technologies that has raised questions about the necessity of our bodies for our sense of identity; it is a much larger cultural shift that foregrounds the ‘performative’ rather than ‘essential’ character of our embodied selves […] the embodied self is seen as an artificial constraint, falsely prioritizing one dimentsion of identity (which is iteself a changeable social construction) over others […] it is experienced as tremendously liberating not to allow an embodied ‘fact’ [as the ‘real’ body] to be so determining; and the virtual is proving a fascinating zone of experimentation in how people can move beyond these embodied physical facts, not necessarily for the sake of ‘escaping’ them or denying them, but for changing what they mean to themselves and to others (173).

The value of this, for me, is in considering the concept of digital or virtual embodiments within the context of visual rhetoric and the communication of philosophical, intellectual, and personal applications of these aspects within my object of study, The Witness (2016).  I’ll go more into this in coming weeks, but I do think it’s worth consistently revisiting these questions – how does the title communicate virtuality? How many levels of virtual ‘scope’ are present in the text (hint: a lot more than just one)? How do players experience virtuality, and what is communicated by the opaque and transparent virtual experiences?  What can be communicated to players who have a developed awareness of their virtualities (within a game space which encourages mindfulness and philosophical practice in virtual spaces)?

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.



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