Virtuality of Language

David Ellis '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Cyberspace & Critical Theory

Technology has reversed semiosis, so now the real object -- the traditional referent -- refers to its symbol or sign. Jean Baudrillard presents this idea and some of its corollaries in "Simulacra and Simulations," which details the digital paradigm shift and its effects on our perceptions of truth and reality. The explication and justification of his argument hinge on understanding virtuality, which underlies contemporary modes of existence and experience, as a distortion and inversion of being.

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models -- and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. [Baudrillard, p. 167]

Our interpretation of reality is always influenced by media, even if only common perceptual and linguistic agents. When mediated by "advanced" technology, the separation between real and unreal is indistinct, but this is equally possible with language alone. The performative power of magical incantations is enabled by qualities inherent in the words themselves: The meaning produced by such a word is not a reference, but a way to exert direct control over the world by subverting the border between signifier and signified.

Hyperspace is not requisite for the sort of semantic distortion Baudrillard describes, but is perhaps produced by such distortion. "Hyperreality" could be defined as a type of semantic distortion, so that a village shaman can create a sort of hyperspace (or consensual virtuality) with his rhythmic chanting. Baudrillard also claims that immersion in virtual reality precludes illusion, or erroneous perception of reality:

Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. [Baudrillard, p19]

Alternately, the state of "hyperreality" could be seen as inherently illusory. The real is impossible because it has been replaced by persistent (if protean) illusion. This is similar, perhaps, to the distorted and potentially inverted reality conjured by a magic-user.


1. If virtual reality is a technology that warps reality, how is it different from psychoactive drugs -- including hallucinogens like Ecstasy and Marijuana?

2. Are the "combinatory models" that result in virtual reality essentially different from those involved in language production?

3. Does persistent hyperreality create a cyborg self?

4. What distinguishes the cyborg self from a practitioner of magic, who can commune (with spirits, daimons or humans) without physical presence?

5. Are the cyborg's tools -- cellphone, email, joystick, and remote control -- comparable to the magician's spells of summoning, binding, and conjuring? Does technology enable a form of magical power and influence?


Baudrillard, Jean. "Simulacra and Simulations" in Selected Writings Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. 166-184.

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Last modified 7 March 2005