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Real Virtuality: About the Destruction and Multiplication of Worldby Ulrich Gehmann and Martin Reiche, EditorsTranscript-Verlag, Bielefeld, 2014467 pp., illus, b/w. Paper, €44,99ISBN: 978-3-8376-2608-7.

Reviewed by Gabriela GalatiPlymouth UniversityReal Virtuality is an anthology edited by Ulrich Gehmann and Martin Reiche. Divided in five chapters, it features articles by 21 authors and several by the editors themselves. The main problem that this book has is the complete conceptual confusion of the editors, who were supposed to define a line of research for it around the concept of “real virtuality”, but completely fail to do so because their research and writing does not reach a minimum academic level: not conceptually, nor methodologically. In addition to this, the book, and especially the editors’ introduction and articles, have not been revised by a professional English copy editor, which makes many passages difficult to read and to understand, and includes grammatical mistakes evident even for a non-native English speaker.

In the “Introduction”, Gehmann and Reiche advance more or less explicitly that the anthology addresses an always-increasing virtualization of the world, at the same time that virtual worlds are becoming more real. They oppose a “material”, “real” reality, to a “virtual” one; however, they don’t clearly define which definition and theoretical framework they are using for “virtual” until page 121, and after five articles.

The editors state that the process of virtualization is especially strong in current times, but that it hasn’t started today. The “virtualization of the real” would have begun approximately in the Renaissance: They mention the gardens of Bomarzo and Villa d’Este as examples of the first attempts to create “real virtual spaces”—even though humankind has been creating other (virtual) worlds since Lascaux. At this point one also realizes that the authors are using indistinctly “space” and “world”, and also “virtual” as a synonymous of “artificial”—for instance, on page 32, illustrating his article “The Frame Context”, Gehmann includes a photograph of two mannequins in a shopping mall window with the caption “Virtual individuals in a real community”; thus apparently, for the editors, mannequins, as well as any artistic and architectonic production are not part of reality. Accordingly, the editors never define the acceptation of “world” they are using either in the title of the book, in the Introduction nor in their articles—“The Frame Context” by Gehmann, “The World as Grid” by Gehman-Reiche, “The Destruction of Space by Augmentation” by Reiche, and “Explorable Space” by Reiche-Gehmann)—so it is never clear if they understand it in the context of a narrative theory, in an Aristotelian sense, or what do they refer to with the word “world”. The same problem comes about with their use of the word “space”, and they seem to understand that “a space” implies “a world”, as for instance on page 11:

“Moreover, since these understandings of space embody a pre-understanding, they are often used implicitly, without addressing them as what they are: prejudices in literal terms (pre-conceptions), implicit but nevertheless basic assumptions about what ‘space’ and hence, ‘world’ is (or should become), at least in the characteristics constituting what is seen as describing its relevant parts.”

The lack of clarity in defining a theoretical framework and a proper methodology resulted in a thesis proposed for the whole anthology on page 9 that is difficult to decipher both for the use of language, and for the conceptual chaos: 

“To recur to Lefebvre’s saying, our thesis is that all the productions of space examined in this anthology can be comprehended in their social and life world-implications only if the respective understanding of spatiality underlying them is considered. An understanding formulated in different disciplines and hence, perspectives, technical as well as academic and artistic ones. Since the respective conception of the spatial inevitability influences the diverse models (so our thesis) which led to the respective world, and to the attempts to shape realities to be examined here.”

The analysis of all the inconsistencies could go on; however, it wouldn’t make any sense to move forward with this review had not been the case, oddly enough, that the great majority of the articles included in it are well written, are relevant research in their field, and some of them really stand out:

On chapter 1, entitled “The Beginnings”, Sabine Wilke's article "The Scientific Image in the Anthropocene. Nature, Painting, Diagrams and Maps in Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos and Beyond" brilliantly analyzes how aesthetic strategies in Humboldt's narrative aimed at opening the reader to the understanding of nature, and how visualization actively produced, at the same time that shaped knowledge.

On chapter 2, "The Unfoldings", Irus Braverman's article "Good Night, Zoo. A Children's Guide to Humanimal Spaces" examines the descriptions and the appropriations of space in a children's bedtime story about the zoo through what could be called a posthuman theoretical framework—i.e. Donna Haraway feminist metaphor of the cyborg—to address the blurring of the human-nonhuman dimensions, in the use of space as well as language, and finally of the boundaries of subjectivity itself.

Katerina Diamantaki's "The Ambiguous Construction of Place and Space" on chapter 3, "Virtualization Gains Momentum", is definitely one of the most compelling in the book. The author addresses how digitalization changes the perception and redefinitions of space and place, as well as the changes it implies for social relationships and identities. Without falling into Manichean perspectives, she concludes that some social spaces are given in physical spaces, other in the virtual ones, but this fact does not make necessarily ones more real than the others. 

Another remarkable article in the book is Panagiotis D. Ritsos’ “Mixed Reality. A Paradigm for Perceiving Synthetic Spaces”, which opens chapter 4, “Facets of Acceleration in Hybrid Spaces”. The article presents excellent philological research on the development of Augmented reality (AR), Augmented Virtuality (AV) and Mixed Reality (MR) proposing that the idea of space in the virtual world functions as an extension of the physical space: not as a virtual representation of it, but as symbolic environment, as an extension of social and individual experiences and ideas.

In “Beyond the Visible Autonomy”, on chapter 5, Erhan Öze proposes to think Autonomy as a crucial concept for Internet users to preserve and control their “private virtual spaces” on a terrain, the Internet, in which control and violation of privacy is becoming common ground.

To conclude, this anthology is almost a mystery: at least 20 articles that pose questions and arrive to interesting to conclusions around topics such as space, art, technology, digitalization, photography, representation, augmented reality, virtual environments, subjectivity, autonomy, and others, gathered together in a book that presents the above mentioned problems; it is difficult not to wonder how this group of authors ended up contributing their work to such a publication.



Gabriela Galati is a PhD Researcher at Plymouth University. She is currently Professor of Theory and Methodology of the Mass Media at NABA-Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano; Lecturer in Media Art Theory at Domus Academy and Director at FL GALLERY, Milan.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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