Virtual reality is weird. By its very nature, VR asks users to immerse themselves in a digitally simulated “world” and think of it as reality. An invitation might involve putting on a headset, grabbing some hand controllers, perhaps headphones for sonic proximity, and opening the door onto whatever world is on the other side. For both experienced users and the majority who haven’t even tried VR, it remains a weird phenomenon.
I want to argue here that the weirdness of VR is not captured by the way it looks, nor the way it invites users to experience simulated spaces. Rather, as China Mieville writes of the new weird movement, VR “enweird[s] ontology itself”. As its name suggests, VR is a conglomerate of real and virtual worlds that produces strangely entangled and affective experiences; to embrace such experience establishes an ontological middle-ground for critiquing VR’s immersive potential.
Immersion has become expectation. As a consequence, there is a collective failure to unpick the intricacies of what immersion means and how users inevitably play a part in it. To acknowledge how VR feels is to challenge the idea that immersion is inherently ‘good’ or ethically devoid; it enables awareness that proximity and movement are felt and that sometimes these factors can implicate compromised senses of agency, which developers and audiences alike need to be more aware of.
Immersion’s etymological roots are tied to affectively charged sensations— being submerged, drenched, flooded by the feeling of somewhere or something else. Such sensations are at the roots of “the weird’s” evolution, but manifest through more subtle affective encounters. The weird hints at the conflicts and ruptures between this world and others through the “encroaching” of an experiential outside onto the human subject (Fisher, 2016).
VR highlights the weird contours of this reality by affectively evoking the weirdness of entering another. By untangling VR from predetermined expectations of absolute immersion, there can be more active awareness of the unravelling sensations of interacting with virtual worlds. Its “dualistic” ontological model must be reconsidered: the chaotic, messy and material potential of VR persists.
Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books.
Krivoruchko, E. (2017) A study in Interactive Mechanics for Virtual Reality. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/176951948.
Miéville, C. (2008). M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire: Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or? Collapse IV ed. R. Mackay.
Ontological weirdness, socioeconomic banality
Thanks for this take! I wish I were familiar with the works cited so I could respond in terms of what you're advancing. Do you think there's anything to be said of VR's weirdness (or "enweirding of ontology") in light of the banality of its socioeconomic reality? Certainly, none of the big tech companies (nor the influencers; the evangelists) are pushing for the kind of Shklovskyan de-familiarization that would appear antithetical to immersion as promised in, say, mainstream VR games. Interactive VR seems to frequently promote the notion that the user can become some kind of superhero (not dissimilarly from the vicarious promise of Marvel movies). 360° films are often sold as being windows to mindfulness or empathy. Neither of these broad marketing strategies, as you imply, foregrounds the weirdness of VR. I suppose a broader formulation of what I'm pondering is, do you think a reconsideration of VR's ontology (esp. as chaotic, messy) reveals much about its possible cultural trajectories?
The weird, the eerie, the uncanny, the queer . . .
As a philosopher, I love the idea of "enweirding ontology itself"! So thanks for this analysis of virtual reality. Like Dooley, I am not (yet!) familiar with the literature you cite--but now have it on my reading list. As I read through this week's analyses, I am struck by a series of what seem to be cognate terms marking our different entry points into thinking about VR and AR. Mumtaz and I are attuned to what's queer, Dillon (and Alexander implicitly) engage the phenomenological experience of uncanniness, and you talk here about the weird (which Fisher, it seems, distinguishes from the eerie). I'd love to think together about what the areas of overlap and difference are in utilizing these different lenses.
In her Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed analyzes the experience of queerness--or of 'slantwise' perception--as one of disorientation. The uncanny (unheimlich, unhomely) is experienced as unsettling insofar as it is both strange and familiar. (Perhaps this is equivalent to what Fisher discusses as eerie? I don't know yet.) You suggest here that that the weird is experienced as a "sensation of conflict and rupture" between what is and isn't 'real. Are these different affective states? And/or similar conditions with different origins? And/or different readings (through varied disciplinary lenses) of a similar phenomenon? Or something else?
Thanks, Shellie! I don't know if you have seen this, but Alison Bennett & Megan Beckwith have done some awesome work with the relationship between vr and queerness https://refractory-journal.com/30-bennett-beckwith/ and make some similar analogies r.e. queering perception etc.
I'm also thinking a lot about Ahmed's work, particularly r.e. orientation (what do these technologies implicitly assume about users/how might the objectified tech be different for different users/do these technologies presume certain kinds of orientation?).
For Fisher, the weird and the eerie mark two different kinds of affect (modes of perception and encounters with the subject). I believe Fisher differentiates between the two by seeing the eerie as kinds of landscapes without the human in them (stillness; sparceness) where the weird is something that shouldn't be in this world; it is very much in the 'everyday' but marks a kind of intrusion from an ontological elsewhere. It shares a lot with the uncanny, but rather than the unfamiliar/familiar, it is more to do with an absolute inside/outside (this world/elsewhere). That's my take at least!
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