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Reviewed by:
  • Handbuch Virtualität ed. by Dawid Kasprowicz and Stefan Rieger
  • Erik Born
Dawid Kasprowicz and Stefan Rieger, editors. Handbuch Virtualität.
Springer VS, 2020. 680 pp. 56 illustrations. US$109.00 (ebook).
ISBN 978-3-65816-342-6.

Like many current publications, the Handbuch Virtualität gains further significance from the remote work, virtual events, and social distancing attendant to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Seminar’s readers hardly need a reminder of the “new normal,” they may need to recall the different sense of virtuality at the moment the volume was conceived (2015) and published (2017–20) to appreciate Kasprowicz and Rieger’s prescient arguments. Even before the current pandemic, the normalization of virtuality, its transformation of existing institutions, and its saturation of everyday social practices indicated sea changes across media, [End Page 327] culture, and society. For instance, the virtual object under review—a 15.9MB PDF/A file replete with hyperlinks, bookmarks, and even an update button—was necessitated not by the pandemic but by the format of Springer’s Living Reference Series, an online-first initiative that gives readers access to reference works before they are printed and authors the opportunity to update them afterwards.

Categorized primarily as a contribution to sociology and anthropology, the multidisciplinary Handbuch should appeal further to Germanists working on contemporary simulation, alternative worlds, digital cultures, and virtual societies. Instead of imposing their own unified a priori definition of virtuality onto contingent contexts, the co-editors refreshingly invited contributors to report on the term’s meaning and significance in their respective fields (6–7). At the deliberate expense of terminological precision, therefore, the project attains insights into a striking plurality of practices, discourses, and institutions, most of which still resonate with the central sense of virtuality as an as-if mode (11–13). Although the Handbuch focuses on contemporary virtuality, primarily in Germany and the United States, there are also indications of the concept’s longer history (13–17), which some contributors trace back to mid-twentieth-century patents for heads-up displays and immersive entertainment systems (618–22) and others to premodern scholastic debates (104–07).

As a result of the Handbuch’s definitional and methodological leeway, the quality of contributions also varies. On average, the contributors are well versed in seminal theorists of virtuality, including Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, Jaron Lanier, N. Katherine Hayles, Steve Woolgar, Paul Milgram, and Ray Kurzweil (e.g. 26–33, 388–91, 513–15, 657–60, passim). Beyond this topical framework, moreover, many entries spell out the analytical stakes and disciplinary controversies surrounding foundational figures in media studies (e.g. Friedrich Kittler, Marshall McLuhan), literary and cultural studies (e.g. Franco Moretti, Michel Serres), and, above all, social systems theory (e.g. Elena Esposito, Bruno Latour, Niklas Luhmann). Although the omission of several other key philosophers (e.g. Pierre Lévy, Brian Massumi) is warranted given the volume’s primary orientation to the social sciences, readers will want to know more than what is provided in brief mentions of the influential discourse of cyberfeminism (387, 506, en passant) about women technicians and virtual reality artists (e.g. in North America alone, Carolina Cruz-Neira, Char Davies, Lisa Jackson, Brenda Laurel, Nancy Paterson, and Nicole Stenger). If one result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to illustrate the unequal distribution of virtuality across social groups, geographic regions, and historical periods, many entries will require further qualifications in future studies.

For Seminar ’s readers, the most apposite entries are likely to come from the section on “Virtuelle Wissenschaften” (404–98). In their overview of “Virtuelle Philologie” (425–54), for instance, Christina Lechtermann and Markus Stock reflect on the difficulty of using the term virtual for what is commonly called “computational humanities,” “computer-based editions,” or “digital humanities” (426). Besides a nuanced discussion of premodern textuality, they provide introductions to digital text editing and metadata creation, along with a [End Page 328] detailed bibliography documenting influential computer-based research projects (447–54). Instead of addressing the similar impact of digitization on historical research, Stefan Jordan’s account of “Virtuelle Geschichte” (455–71) examines long-standing historiographical controversies about “facts” and “reality” in computer games, historical...


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