On the Aesthetics of Virtual Reality

“If we behave like those on the other side, then we are the other side. Instead of changing the world, all we’ll achieve is a reflection of the one we want to destroy.” – (Jean Genet)


  1. In order to reshape reality, to expand ourselves in it in a more totalising way, we first of all surrender reality.
  2. By ‘reality’, we mean ‘the

    world as it is’, which is mysterious, aggressively unyielding and presents itself to us in endless ways. We distinguish this external reality – this mysterious and versatile fact – from ‘reality the concept’, ‘reality’ the signifier, whose function is to assure the structure of our thought, dividing everything into two domains: that of ‘the real’ and that of ‘illusion’. It is through this ‘concept of reality’ – The Reality Principle – that we are invited to receive and consolidate the legitimate world and reject illegitimate impressions. The result: that this separation of illusion from the real gives us a world ever more intensely real (and in this, unreal, in the sense of its inhuman alienation.). The Reality Principle, and its underlying driver, Production (for the domain of ‘the real’ is achieved by intellectual production) are the fundamental agents in the continual unwinding of our Western thought.

  3. Our concept of The Real defines all actuality at the expense of the legitimacy of any experiences derived from illusion, non-sense and the dream. Whereas modernity partitioned psychology into various organising categories: the Ego, the superego, the id; the conscious and unconscious mind; Mortido and Libido; VR’s principle function is to short-circuit the moral borders that divide these concepts and re-integrate Unreason with Reason in a cycle of exchange through the medium of ‘the scene’.

Death of Affect

  1. The Realizing Gaze (that perceptual habit through which we distil the legitimate world) reduces the world to what is evidenced, to what can be said, to what survives critical scrutiny, to what makes moral or logical sense, to what favours ‘positive outcomes’, to what mitigates risk or negativity. Though in one sense Nietzsche was right: that man is condemned only to know ‘truth’ through the limitations of his nervous system; in another sense, this pursuit of truth limits the potential of this nervous system and surrenders man to a language of certainties, revealing as it does a will to self-objectification; that is, he subjects himself to a language he invented to govern objects – that man is quantifiable, visible, sayable; that everything must be justifiable.
  2. Kant’s Pure Reason and Categorical Imperative are a lot like this will to self-objectification. For Kant, right moral action requires a stripping away of self-interest, of passion, of emotion, and only then the correct, rational action is apparent. Kant’s imperative then requires the stripping away of the theatre of illusions, the environment of feelings that make up the ‘scene’ of some social interaction or scenario.
  3. This hyper-sanity and extreme rationality creates a deadening effect akin to Ballard’s death of affect. The boredom of the rational world and the subsequent appetite for increasingly ‘psychopathological’ sensations (‘psychopathology’ being the illegitimate domain of ‘mental health’ and ‘sex’). Rationality promotes a systematic social order of contractual and negotiated relations; of compromises and the identification, evaluation and management of all forces. Beneath this, there exists a world of unspeakables, a domain of incentives and drives that the language of social weights and measures is unfit to express or provide for. Baudrillard contrasts this linear and essentially self-alienating ‘sociality’ with the more cyclical, immersive concept of ‘symbolic exchange’.

Symbolic Exchange

  1. Symbolic exchange is based on Bataille’s notion of transcendence: that our most intense experiences of existence occur not when we accumulate and conserve, but only when we transcend reason in moments of extreme expenditure. For Bataille, human beings (through the necessities of work) have become habitually rational, increasingly individuated and ‘discontinuous’; he believed that an experience of continuity – a sense of oneness with all things – could only be achieved in moments of moral transgression, rational suspension and energy overflow. The values and processes of morality and reason are, by their nature, of a discontinuous order, there to facilitate work. Transcendence of reason (and therefore continuity and profound involvement) demands the violation of reason in moments of waste, sacrifice, destruction, festivity, profligacy, violence and so on.
  2. Baudrillard derives his notion of symbolic exchange from Bataille’s observation that the destruction of value can be as important as the creation of value. He takes the rational exchanges of modern, productive societies, where value equivalency (in terms of money and utility) is the objective, and contrasts it with pre-modern societies, where value exchange is aesthetic, symbolic and contextual. He defines symbolic exchange:
    “In symbolic exchange, of which the gift is our most proximate illustration, the object is not an object: it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value. The object given has symbolic exchange value.” (Baudrillard, 1981)
  3. In pre-modern societies, Baudrillard says, symbolic domains such as life and death were not opposed, but were seen as coextensive (Arcypanjin 2008). In such societies, for example, festivals may reanimate the dead among the living; the destruction of wealth may enhance one’s social status (potlatch); during a hunt, huntsmen may dress as animals and thereby unify with the animal’s spirit. In production-based societies, exchange is linear. That is, accruement in the positive domain is perceived to be more desirable than anything found in the opposing negative domain. Life then is opposed to death and is to be cultivated at the expense of death. In the pre-modern, ritualistic society, exchange is cyclical – death is symbolically reanimated to compliment life; death may be staged in sacrifice to bind a community with God in a life-death spectacle; the masked hunter joins with animals and nature as he hunts, etc.
  4. Death is the symbolic counterpart and reply to the fact of life and life is the symbolic counterpart and reply to the fact of death. In the rational exchanges of modern, productive societies, life is the positive domain and death the excluded, shadow domain. In premodern societies, life and death are cyclical, not linear; coextensive, not opposed; ritualistic, not socialistic; one returns to the other in as much as one defines and demands the existence of its other.
  5. A similar approach can be applied to ‘truth’ – that it demands its reply in ‘illusion’ or ‘non-sense’; that every expression of truth demands its own refutation or deflection; that it secretly wishes it could disappear. The productive society neutralises and negates any possibility of reply – reality is reality, the truth is the truth. It abolishes the cycle and condemns itself to an interminable one-way transaction.

The Scene and Morality in the Age of Transparency

  1. So, human morality and, in particular, human interaction, needn’t be viewed only in terms of principled codes and good character. It may also be viewed in terms of symbolic exchange and ‘the scene’. A ‘scene’ may be understood as an exchange environment from which signs, gestures and behaviours derive their meanings, elicit replies and reconfigure the environment according to what was returned. ‘Bad behaviour’ has a symbolic exchange value in its appearance as ‘bad behaviour’ and effects the respondent in more profound, traversal ways than merely eliciting a moral response. The distinction between play and reality here may become incredibly blurred.
  2. Traditional morality used to account for symbolic effects in its private dimension: the police did not get involved in domestic disturbances, victims were apportioned a degree of potential responsibility for the crimes in which they were involved, society kept secrets and was able to cover up its crimes and misdemeanours. Today, in the age of transparency, where everything at once has the potential to become visible on a democratised global and social media, where every transgression is endlessly discussed with no permissible language of defence – privacy and the secret are increasingly destabilized. Nor is there any possibility of psychological denial here – you are no longer a secret to yourself, no longer a game played with yourself. The spotlight-eye of our global media mirrors our own self-consciousness. In this, we are abolishing, in the name of ‘progress’, the negative side of symbolic exchange and in turn, adding more fuel to the necessity of some negative reply. We are intensifying our consciousness of negativity, the awareness of our need for it and we are incentivising our full, open complicity in its exercise.
  3. Society is not just the story of progressive change in a ‘positive’ direction – a direction which, as we have seen, can only (reasonably) oppose death with life. Society is also the story of resisting the positive domain, sometimes through apparently rational arguments and sometimes just through acceptance, complicity and the concealment of negative events: “Just let’s not talk about it” vs. “speaking out”. Society has been in many ways protective of its negative domain precisely because it recognizes, as do the individuals within it, that it needs it.
  4. This necessity of counter-truth must have been the motivation for Brigitte Lahaie – the rogue signatory of the petition protesting the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment. Lahaie, an ex-porn-star turned agony aunt, was publicly condemned for claiming in a TV debate that she knew “from her heart” that “some women enjoy being raped”. This is surely the extreme counter-truth of the dogmatic, regulatory gaze of Rape Culture? And why on earth not? Rape is a heavily charged symbol – the Great Horned Beast of Western black magic – it defies all the positive signs: liberty, individualism, agency, attainment, sociality, the value of quantifiable pleasure over the ambiguities of non-pleasure, the association of pleasure with self-governance, consent as the objective measure of acceptable sex. There is no greater thought-crime than to enjoy rape from the perspective of the victim. Or maybe there is – maybe to insist that the risk of rape is necessary enough to the transferrent energies of sex that one can tolerate dangerous behaviours and events under certain circumstances.
  5. The transparent society is in all this a challenge to privacy and private morality. Beyond privacy’s literal meaning, there is something symbolically sinister. Etymologically, it derives from privatie meaning ‘a secret deed’ or ‘mystery’ – it is a concept more from the order of pacts than that which created contracts.
  6. Transparency – configured as opposing the negative with the positive – despises privacy as privacy necessarily conspires with the Devil and refuses to measure or say. It therefore seeks to end privacy – everything visible, everything quantifiable. Privacy, and therefore negativity, are required then to reply – the reply being that this opposition of negative and positive becomes an untenable moral system. It’s for such reasons that we might conjecture that symbolic exchange starts to appear as a viable moral alternative to that of oppositions which now seems to loom ominous with the grinding threat of its own absolute fulfillment.

VR: Visualisation and Hallucination

  1. We will be honest about VR – VR reflects the impossibility of living, it is one area of retreat for those oppressed by the abolition of negative exchange; it is only a subsidiary, an ancillary, perhaps, of the world that is to come.
  2. VR provides wherever life cannot give experiences intensely enough or immersively enough; or rather, it provides and conditions us to accept scenic experiences and negative exchanges under conditions where the body is never put at risk.VR gamifies Evil; it puts people back into a world of safe accidents and psychological uncertainties. It re-relates us in scenic terms (albeit bodiless) and as much as it threatens to supplant life with its horizon of interactive dreaming, it feeds back into life with its own interrelational dreams – its own vision of exchange.
  3. In the worldly morality of oppositions, those forces resonating between individuals, between groups, between institutions or systems of ideas; between any other matrical node, are conceived of in terms of ‘power’. The symbolic, behavioural, and gestural expenditures of one node are measured against the detriment to the agency and freedom of other nodes; against the perceived impact of these forces in shaping ‘negative psychologies’ or responses. This is not the case in VR scene-relations – the concept of ‘power’ is irrelevant compared to the measures of intensity, immersion and involvement which, in and of themselves, require challenges and threats to individual agency and all manner of concepts in the positive domain. Positive and negative concepts become symbolically positive or negative in the context of a wider game environment and one’s depth of involvement becomes the higher value.
  4. VR lacks touch and embodied movement – in this, it has been criticised for ruining the immersion. Instead however, what we see is a renewed emphasis on a kind of mystical or magical ‘visualisation’ – sensation through deep, elaborate description/imagination. VR embeds its users in a place between wakefulness and dream (in dreams and hallucinations, sensations are not ‘real’, you do not really move and yet you feel these things as if they were really happening). This is precisely what magical visualisation seeks to accomplish – the realization of imagined sensations and the focused, projection of one’s avatar into non-existent environments. This is McLuhan’s ‘discarnate man’:
    “The discarnate TV user lives in a world between fantasy and dream, and is in a typically hypnotic state, which is the ultimate form and level of participation” (McLuhan, 2018)

    The difference in VR is that fantasy, dream and participation are all amplified. With the democratization of VR (through engines like Unreal and platforms like Sansar or High Fidelity) everyone can project their dream, live out some fantasy, become the object of someone else’s dreams and fantasies.

  5. And the real-world too must be shaped by this waking-dream, this real-time projection of the collective unconscious. Indeed, it is already the case: Baudrillard has it that in postmodern societies, ‘production’ has given way to ‘simulation’. The system of production results in the creation of technologies and models of reality which, under simulation, reach such a point of abundance and symbolic high-definition that they begin to take the place of the reality they described. So, one adopts one’s model of reality and thereon, one is on a path governed by the rules and encryption-codes of that model and its descendents. We see the proliferation of lifestyles, ideologies, institutions, interest groups, platform hosts, media outlets, academics and writers – power becomes increasingly diffuse, no longer belonging to just a king or state, and here we have a force-matrix structurally ripe to host any number of role-plays or symbolic exchanges.
  6. McLuhan describes the shift from visual space to acoustic space. That is, literary society would lead to a dominant emphasis on the visual senses and in this emphasis, reality was conceived to be linear, quantitative and classically geometrical. The literate society inaugurated a mechanical society which then gave way to the electric society. Electricity extends the whole nervous system and plunges us into acoustic space which is holistic, qualitative and has a complex, paradoxical topology with no fixed points of reference.
    “Acoustic Space has the basic character of a sphere whose focus or center is simultaneously everywhere and whose margin is nowhere.” (McLuhan, 1989)

    This aesthetic mode of conceiving reality seems well-suited to a matrical world of nodes and often arbitrary forces with origins and traversals you can barely begin to trace. It is certainly well suited to the projected dream-realm of virtual reality and social media.

  7. The world is already then taking on a character attuned to that aesthetic reonance required as the ground for symbolic exchange and indeed, it is this world that has birthed the concept. Interestingly, Zizek too has made the point (albeit by more familiar roads) that the end-game of contractual relations is a world of sadomasochistic contracts in which consensual slavery becomes the highest expression of freedom (Zizek, 2018). He joins Lacan in saying that at the end of Kant’s pure reason (which Zizek sees as being expressed in ‘political correctness’), we end up with Sade’s hedonism. In any case, these extremes of negative exchange are already taking place throughout the virtual world and it seems the real-world too is making ready to accommodate them – the GG Allin gig as the simulated alternative to the ‘safe space’, which too is a simulation.


Arcypanjin, (2008). “Baudrillard and Symbolic Exchange”, Symobolic Echange URL: <> (last viewed: 03 February 2018)

Baudrillard, J. (1975). The Mirror of Production

Baudrillard, J. (1981) For a critique of the political economy of the sign.

Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death

McLuhan, M. (2018). “The Medium is the Message”, BBC: Archive on 4. URL: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09nqnxw> (last viewed: 28 January 2018)

Kellner, D. (2015). “Jean Baudrillard”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/>

McLuhan, M. (1989) The Global Village: Transformations of World, Life and Media in the 21st Century.

Nietzsche, F. (n.d.). “On truth and lies in an extra-moral sense”. The Nietzsche Channel. Oregon State University. URL: <http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm> (last viewed: 3 February 2018).

Zizek, S. “Sign a contract before sex? Political correctness could destroy passion”, RT (25 December 2017). URL: <https://www.rt.com/op-edge/414219-sex-political-correctness-relations/> (last viewed: 28 January 2018).

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