The Materiality of the Virtual

I’ve always had reservations about what Mizuko Ito described in an essay titled “Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon” as “a descriptive tendency to equate online or virtual worlds with a dematerialized realm of pure information, unfettered by the constraints of real life” (88). Apart from Slavoj Žižek’s insight of how our everyday reality and social relations is always-already suffused with the virtual, these online or virtual worlds cannot but be “enabled and policed by sociotechnical structures of extension and control that are distributed through global computer networks” (99), networks that are in part the products of multinational corporations and military research and development. Hence, the virtual is not simply the realm of free imagination: “Close attention to technological contingencies will help to counteract the tendency to see global informational networks as an unimpeded free flow of information and cultural capital in a purely symbolic realm” (101). Oftentimes, what we find in virtual or online spaces are simply the reinscription of the dominant social relations of class, race, and gender that we find in the real world. So while the phenomenon being dissected in Ito’s essay (Multi-User Dungeon) seems dated with the advent of Web 2.0, I still find affinity with Ito’s endeavor “to look at Internet culture as contingent on and located in both semiotic and material technologies” (89). ■


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