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  • Virtualities
  • Calin-Andrei Mihailescu (bio)
Margaret Morse. Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. xii + 266 pp.

For those who still ignore that even saying “hello” to their neighbors will eventually help the sales of shaving foam in this village, Morse’s book is an eye opener. It also, and perhaps unwill-ingly, casts doubts over the revered unity of the universal High-Fiction operator which sent simulation on its way to absorbing the totum simul within a chronic, painless frame. Since eternity’s halving period has started diminishing fast—it presently stands at 18 months—and since the willing suspension of disbelief has almost entirely seeped into a “You Can’t Believe It’s not Butter” sowhat-titude, it’s high time to break the “as if” in pieces. Had Morse attempted to dismantle Fiction Inc. by twisting its “als ob” shibboleth, she would have pressed too hard a question upon cultural studies. Instead, she preferred to stay within this colorful realm and bank on a world viewed as virtually virtual and only possibly—thus indifferently—real. The book thus furthers our age’s poverty of comfort as a series of dedramatizations of anything that goes (transcendence included), provided it goes techno.

Virtualities takes a mobile, at times compelling look at virtual realities and their enveloping category—cyberspace, while declaring itself concerned with “issues” that “are cultural rather than technological” (18; not an easy program to follow for, in the absence of radical questioning, one can hardly dissociate between the culture of technology and the technology of culture). The book’s main focus on the “virtual relationships that people in physical reality have with machines and images” (6) requires both thematization of the contact surface and a discussion of “how to park your physical body” on the threshold of the virtual world. “The membrane between virtual and material reality is an actual and easily verifiable second skin,” writes Morse (18); “[u]nder [this] electronic skin one can adopt virtually any persona and experience a written world of images and symbols as if it [End Page 203] were immediate experience . . . .” It’s not clear why one’s phantas-matic activity is freed from the bonds of materiality within an electronic skin. In a different context, Morse refers to the present availability of SmartSkinTM or “‘ultra-high-molecular-weight-cellu-lose-polymer,’ which is permanently electrically charged so that it firmly binds to the skin surface, now made slick, smooth and, as a result, youthful” and of Betamax Carotene+TM, “a melanine layer (or ‘suntan’ without the sun)” (133), which makes it possible for one to acquire a “second, fortified skin.” Arguably, technology and demography may well make us all next of skin to each other one day, but this is conducive to neither an overly communitarian dermacracy nor a restoration of aisthesis. The “second skin” is as real as a prosthesis or as Achilles’ shield, wherefrom its non-virtuality. As here, elsewhere Morse gets mildly carried away by the metaphors called forth to enable her discourse, among which are those organizing cyberspace: frontier, highway, cave, net, theatre, and game.

“‘Cyberspace,’ writes Morse, “suggests the enigmatic qualities of a space of dreamlike condensation that doesn’t take actual room” (178; the term comes from Neuromancer, the bible of cyberpunk, where William Gibson defines it as a “a nonspace of the mind,” and “the place where the bank keeps your money”). Common sense questions are, thus, asked right away, and the responses Morse provides are not lacking in interest, even if her analyses tend to stay at the skin level. The question of space marginalizes temporality to such an extent that it not only once induced in this reader the feeling of rocking himself in the cradle of Saussurean synchronicity. Morse is, I think, correct, and, certainly in agreement with most critics, when she writes that “virtual space can be distributed discontinuously over physical space” (187). Her take (101ff.) on de Certeau’s distinguo in The Practice of Everyday Life between place, defined as a proper, stable, and distinct location, and space, composed of intersections of mobile elements, taking into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time...

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pp. 203-206
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