Virtual Objects

These are a few thoughts relating to the origin and function of these mental representations. These representations are manifested throughout this week’s reading. There are the virtual objects of Deleuze, the uncanny automata of Freud and Jentsch and the virtual machines and human simulations that conclude Liu’s chapter. What connects these representations are their formation and effect on the psyche and the relationship between the object as constructed in the mind versus the object as seen in reality.

Deleuze’s description of the virtual object accounts for how representation is conceived in the mind. His virtual object, while bound to intention, appears also to be bound to the body. Deleuze begins his description of the virtual object using the child as his example. While the child’s goal may be to obtain an object of sorts, Deleuze claims that “the child constructs for itself another object, a quite different kind of object which is a virtual object or centre and which then governs and compensates for the progresses and failures of its real activity” (99). The virtual object appears to be, according to Deleuze, a means by which to traverse, evaluate and extend the goal to other objects, as he illustrates by the child opening a book, even if he can’t read. However, the conjuring of this action is still of the body, incorporated into it, while at the same time an external object. This leads Deleuze to define the object as a “partial object” (100), which is only a fragment, because it can never be real, and is but a figuration of the mind. These figurations are so powerful that they help constitute our memory and our understanding of the past, what Deleuze defines as “shreds of pure past.” Still, and perhaps most interesting in Deleuze’s work, is the concept that while incorporated into the body, virtual objects can be incorporated into “very special objects such as toys or fetishes” (101), but are not “integrated” (101) with the object. Instead, the virtual object remains “struck there” (101) unable to have a unity with it. A gulf is created between it and the real.

Does not this description wonderfully mirror the uncanny automata and valley of Liu’s work? In her description of Jentsch’s notions of the uncanny, she notes that in his list are the very toys, the “catalogue of dolls and automata” (loc. 2446) mentioned by Deleuze here not because they are virtual objects, but because they are animate. This leads Liu to discuss the work of Hoffman’s The Sandman, which intrigued both Jentsch and Freud, concluding, unlike the two theoreticians, that Olympia is not the only automaton of the fiction, but Nathanael, juxtaposed against this other automaton, is himself an automaton. She asks the reader, “Let us consider the writer Hoffmann as the puppeteer who sets in motion those literary puppets who are designed to tease our emotional and cognitive reaction to what he terms the uncanny” (loc. 2625-2626). If Hoffman has constructed this automaton with the reaction that we perceive in it our emotions and psyche, is it not a real object forever stuck slightly outside of the grasp of the virtual? In this way, could the “uncanny” itself be represented not only as a kind of virtual object, but also a virtual object for the psyche itself? Could the Uncanny Valley described by Mori have a corollary in the gulf between virtual and real object?

It appears to be not so simple. After debunking a kind of false Uncanny gulf in the Colby experiments, Liu, points instead to Minsky, quoting his statement, “we will be able to install in a human form an intelligence uncannily close to our own” (loc. 2861-2862), underscoring the significance of the uncanny, in the Freudian sense. Could fabrication of a true and uncanny virtual object in the mind of an artificial intelligence make it see itself as human? What would the uncanny of a machine be as it looked beyond itself into the world or real objects around it? This is encroaching upon the realm of science fiction, surely, and fascinating to contemplate.

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