The Virtual.

Author:Bench, Harmony
Position:Book review

The Virtual. By Rob Shields. Key Ideas. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp xvi + 246, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.

The Virtual, a volume in a series of equally ambitious titles (Culture and Racism are other titles in the Key Ideas series), is not a survey of literature on the virtual, but instead represents the author's own relationship to the subject. Thus Rob Shields' study takes an unwieldy concept and grounds it, for the most part, in everyday experiences. The virtual is integral to both work and play; it supports the continuous function of economies at local and global levels, and provides imaginary spaces for escapist fantasies. Each chapter presents a different approach to the virtual, offering readers an expansive, yet focused, view of the virtual that Shields patches together in a portrait of contemporary life. Shields begins by showing that the virtual is not synonymous with the digital or the simulated. Nor, he argues, is the concept entirely new. Virtuality has an established history in religion, philosophy, and the visual arts. Thus a contemporary treatment of the virtual ought not limit itself to cyberboosters, video games, or dot.coms. Instead Shields argues, "The virtual has become a key organizing idea for government policies, everyday practices and business strategies" (xv). As such, a historically broad and nuanced consideration of the virtual is important for cultural studies. Shields carefully tracks the relationship of the virtual to material reality, taking account of people that virtual technologies and theories of the virtual have tended to displace or ignore.

Shields begins his analysis of virtuality with sixteenth-century debates over the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. "[T]he conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ [was] actually real, material body and blood, insisted the Church. 'Virtually real,' argued Reformation theologians" (5). The virtual is defined in part by its proximity as well as its opposition to the actual; the sacrament is essentially Christ's flesh and blood according to Protestants, but is not actually so. This disjuncture between the virtual but real 'in essence' and the actual frames Shields' discussion. He relates the virtual to dreams, memories, and absent presences. Although lacking concreteness, the virtual is no less real or consequential for its intangibility. Virtuality is further linked to the virtuous; to spirituality...

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