Alexander Reid, The Two Virtuals
University of Central Florida
Citation: Weaver, Beth. “Alexander Reid, The Two Virtuals.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 5, 2008. doi:10.20415/hyp/005.r02
Abstract: Review of Reid, Alexander. The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition. Indiana: Parlor Press, 2007.
Alexander Reid's latest book explores the dramatic effect the two virtual "realities" — emerging new media and a minor philosophical tradition — have upon our professional lives and the future of higher education. The first virtual is the virtual reality produced by the fruits of modern computing and deals with producing representations of reality. The second virtual is a philosophical mindset that maps a continuous materiality "from which objects unfold in a perpetual flow of mutation" (4). It lies in the periphery of more familiar postmodern concepts, such as deconstruction, the rhizome, and simulation. Reid asserts that the second virtual allows us to approach the first "in critical and productive ways" (3).
According to Reid, the adoption of new technologies has created a cultural rift that is especially felt in higher education, which is "divided between enthusiasm for the integration of technology into education and concerns about the effects this technological emphasis will have on traditional, especially humanistic, educational values" (3). This rift can only be mended if we draw on the philosophical virtual. The book offers crucial insights pertaining to ways to negotiate the shared spaces of the electronic world. It is recommended for studies involving computer research, rhetoric and composition, new media studies, postmodern and critical theory, psychology, economics, anthropology, and robotics.
Drawing on the question Derrida raises in Without Alibi: "Where is to be found the communitary place and the social bond of a 'campus' in the cyberspace age of the computer, of tele-work, and of the World Wide Web?" (210), Reid explores critical and productive methods that aim toward Derrida's version of a "university without conditions" — one that will allow the time and space necessary to create a strong sense of community. One of these methods is deconstruction. He asserts that it is only the deconstruction of the cybernetic simulation of knowledge that will allow the unfolding of the unpredictable to become the materiality of distributed cognition. He emphasizes that only then will the humanities "move beyond its allegiances to enlightenment and modernity and participate in the coming community of singular beings, whatever they may be" (194).
In the first half of the book, Reid establishes the material, historical, and theoretical context for the transformations taking place. In the second half, he explores virtual-technological spaces such as Gregory Ulmer's "widesite," which "acts like a compass to chart affective currents in the intersection between the body, the conscious, and institutions" (149). Throughout, he makes clear his basic premise that new media is much more than "simply slapping a picture into an already existing essay" and then posting it on the Internet. Instead, it is "part of a broader intellectual shift in the way we understand cognition, consciousness, and subjectivity, our relationship with information, our practices of composition, and the means by which we will develop productive relationships with one another" (194).
He launches his chapters with "The Evolution of Writing" in which he asserts that "objects in the world have meanings outside of their immediate local context and use. This externalization of information into the social landscape becomes a necessary step in human development" (30). The existence of written text, for instance, allowed early writers such as Plato to study in a way not possible before. Reid then examines the mechanized media of the nineteenth century to demonstrate how the mechanization of the composition process initiated a new level of cognitive exteriorization. The typewriter, in particular, transformed the relationship between author and writer.
"Compositional space," an intriguing concept for Reid, draws upon the ideas of Jean Baudrillard to explore the disappearance of the real. According to Baudrillard, "Simulation is no longer that of a territory ... It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (qtd. Reid 81). Reid asserts that Katherine Hayles's argument for an "embodied theory of consciousness" accounts for the role of both bodies and machines, crucial if we are to develop an "ethical, ecologically and socially responsible technoculture" (95). This process will involve new challenges posed by the seductive powers of simulation. In "Waking Up in the Machine," Reid discusses a plethora of cutting-edge concepts from multiplicities and the becoming of thought, to Cartesian and topological spaces. He then offers a chilling perspective of the ways machines have the power to enslave our minds if we do not become aware of the ways we use them as tools.
Reid begins the second half of the book by discussing how the two virtuals challenge and reshape conventional notions of authorship and composition to the point that contemporary theories of embodied and distributed cognition are transforming both compositional processes and the university culture. Furthermore, long-standing values of intellectual property are being questioned and reformulated. He describes reshaping as "a matter of understanding writing as a topological, cognitive process of unfolding that integrates multiplicities of networked technologies into the production of media" (127). He argues that it is in the site of intersection between two texts, the "point of quotation," where it becomes possible to study the process of exchange. As Reid argues, "[u]nlike the exchanges of traditional translation, here there are no fixed rates. Instead, these exchanges are gifts, information offered to the other with the ethical awareness of an always-already existing interdependency" (132-133).
Reid then provides a detailed exploration of the types of interconnectivity that expand beyond the "firm borders" of conventional rhetoric. He observes that types of hyperconnectivity include both arboreal logic as well as rhizomatic possibilities. Reid directs attention to the free-form tagging on websites such as Del.icio.us and flickr.com to explore alternate ontologies other than conventional cataloguing. Whereas arboreal conventional catalogues assume a universal perspective, Reid explains that cataloguing systems are not designed to organize content, but to organize books and are therefore not appropriate for all subjects. Books — which are physical objects — can only be organized one way, whereas electronic files can be organized on the fly. Tagging is thus an organic post hoc method, different from earlier ad hoc conventional cataloguing methods, with the difference being that tags develop with use. Therefore, "rather than assuming objects have 'essences' (which become catalogue subjects), objects unfold and their traits of expression become potential sites for connection" (139).
Next, Reid investigates Gregory Ulmer's "widesite" project which, if successful, will produce "a tool for affective-proprioceptive attunement whereby the writer can navigate affective currents" (143). Such an approach will not only open up opportunities to develop compositional practices of rip/mix/burn, but it will also create "the possibility for an unfolding of thought, for the emergence of an unpredictable becoming" (149). Reid emphasizes that the learning takes place in the "movement:"
[T]here is an engagement with the unfolding of cognition into subjectivity, the space where individuals and groups are articulated as such ... Ulmer parallels the historical development of new media literacy ... with the emergence of a new syncretic culture that combines the previous Western syncretism of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture with the values of "Afro-Caribbean" culture. This combination reflects the cultural development of the Americas in the twentieth century as well as the consequences of the contemporary global economy. (149)
Reid then explores how teaching hinges upon a theory of space-time, exemplified in the cliché of the "teachable moment." Although experiments in writing techniques are not new, Reid claims that "the constraints on discursive practices have less to do with how we might be able to imagine composition than they do with other institutional values and interests" (157). He discusses the difference between theoretical/constative knowledge and "performative" knowledge which, borrowing from Derrida, he defines as "knowledge that does work" (162).
Reid adds that by establishing performance boundaries, "the university seeks to insulate itself, to create independence from the demands of the marketplace and other 'real world' institutions" (162). Yet in the contemporary university, "the production of marketable works is the hallmark of the growing academic capitalism in which we see partnerships between industries and universities" (163). This trend reflects an unfortunate shift from liberal education to training to the point that the capitalist logic of efficiency determines course and program offerings. According to Reid, a major problem arises due to "the collapse of the distinction between constative and performance discourse under the pressure of cultural critique on one side and capitalist market pressures on the other" (163).
Reid claims that what is required is a means to pursue professional activity without falling into an ideological marketplace. The purpose of the curriculum is thus to provide students with the material context in which opportunities for both experimenting with writing practices and reflecting critically upon such practices are facilitated so that students man develop individual strategies.
As Reid points out, "[i]f pedagogy cannot be separated from goals, even if the goal is simply 'learning,' that goal or point can be abstract and non-deterministic in the unfolding of pedagogic activity" (177). Learning can then become much like rip/mix/burn "in which consciousness unfolds through an injection of contagious data into a network of distributed cognition, followed by a proliferation of that contagion unfolding rhizomatic potentialities or virtualities, which are then reduced ... into the actualization of thought in the conscious mind" (178). In this approach, "right brain" development is fostered, as well as the ability to grasp "the big picture" by being able to conceptualize on a large scale.
In the final chapter, "Whatever Discipline," Reid acknowledges that while "the influence of capitalism on higher education is long-standing and widespread," according to Noam Chomsky, "the integrity of the university ... depends on its functioning as basically a subservice institution. That is, raising questions, challenging received ideas, seeking to gain truth and also understanding in any domain" (182). Where then is to be found the communitary place and social bond of a 'campus' in cyberspace? This the major question Reid revisits in his closing thoughts. New media, he insists, is a "cultural force" that will not go away. Instead, it will "transform higher education" if we do not allow capitalism's hold of global culture to snuff it out.
Reid's insights are wrapped around a theory advanced by archeologists that creative explosions occur roughly simultaneous with the development of symbolic behavior. Just as archeological records map the emergence of symbolic behavior in the production of jewelry, cave paintings and related technologies, dramatic changes in patterns of human organization and interaction have occurred and continue to occur in light of the dramatic shifts now occurring in virtual worlds. One cannot help but come away from this book seeking new opportunities resulting from the dramatic shifts of the virtual worlds. It is highly recommended not only as an introductory text for new media studies, but as a thought-provoking, absorbing investigation into the challenges faced by higher education in a media-driven world.