- Welcome To The Pharmacy: Addiction, Transcendence, and Virtual Reality
1. The Question of Addiction and Transcendence
It has become a truism to say that virtual reality (VR) is addictive. Case, the protagonist of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, dreams of connection to the net like a junkie jonesing for a fix. In Jeff Noon’s novel Vurt, you get to cyberspace by tickling the back of your throat with addictive, government-produced feathers. Verity of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz sports nanotechnology implants that compel her to enter virtual worlds into which she sinks with feelings of deep bliss. As in Vurt, in Pat Cadigan’s Synners, everything’s an addiction: cyberspace, people, rock and roll.
But let’s move away from fiction. Graphic cyberartist Nicole Stenger, a self-professed neo-Platonist, writes, “[a]nd what if the passage to a new level of humanity actually meant abolishing indeed the natural one, or at least some part of it? . . . Will it not require immense effort to recover from this enhancement of the senses, from this habit of perfection? [Stenger 57]. Michael Benedikt, editor of Cyberspace: First Steps, deems VR “a new and irresistible development in the elaboration of human culture and business under the sign of technology” [1; my emphasis]. Ad copy for “Origin,” a VR game, reads, “You must die to learn how to live. . . . Death is not an option. It’s an addiction.” And an article in the New York Times titled “The Lure and Addiction of Life on Line” displays a graphic of a bespectacled male, tapping away at a computer located inside of a panopticon-sized rendering of a globe to which the avid user is happily chained [see Asciu]. From advertisements to scholarly texts, it is difficult to find any writing about VR that does not engage in and, as I will argue, rely upon the rhetorics of addiction. William Gibson dubbed cyberspace a “consensual hallucination.” That was 1984. In 1996, critic Robert Markley rechristened VR “a consensual cliché” . Surely, the “addictiveness” of cyberspace contributes to the sense of tired familiarity. My question is this: Why does cyberspace have to be addictive? What work is addiction doing in discourses of virtual reality?
In this essay, I’m concerned with the production of what might be called hyper-real transcendence. Jean Baudrillard, in his influential schema “three orders of simulacra,” identifies a first, “natural” order in which “a transcendent world, a radically different universe, is portrayed . . . in contrast to the continent of the real” . I propose that a third-order, hyper-real, transcendence has survived the collapse of the distance between the model and the original. This transcendence relies on rhetorics of disembodiment, [End Page 77] immortality, and extra-human reproductive and generative powers within virtual spaces. Such spaces include scholarly and technical essays about VR or cyberspace, science fiction, advertisements for VR games, VR game narratives, and other advertising copy that borrows from current discourses of virtuality. My discussion takes place in a field crowded with talk of the death of logocentrism and the end of phonocentric culture. 1 Derrida has written that “scientific language [e.g. computer code] challenges intrinsically and with increasing profundity the ideal of phonetic writing” [Grammatology 10], the logocentric relation of voice to mental experiences. Baudrillard writes mournfully that the “third-order” world of simulated simulacra, of hyper-reality, leaves “no room for any kind of transcendentalism” . Baudrillard and Derrida write with differing affects of the same effect—the waning or death of the foundation of Western notions of transcendence. In this tradition, transcendence commences with the penetration of the self by a supra-enlivened Other, whether that other be a king, a god, nature, the voice of logos, the Law, or an abstracted version of vitality itself. Particularly, I question the persistent coupling of rhetorics of transcendence with rhetorics of addiction. My initial point will be that following the established Western logocentric tradition, rhetorical relationships of addiction between VR users and VR narratives are the “software” with which hyper-real transcendence is produced and sustained. In other words, VR demands, as the price of transcendence, that the user become of the medium...