Stage Performance in the Age of Virtual Reality: Part II

by Professor Lee Horvitz
Miami University
Middletown, OH
Tel. (513) 424-4444, ext. 296

While my remarks about virtual reality (henceforth also termed 'VR') and performance are critical, they do not tend in the direction of a 'death' of discourse. Just as video has not ended and will not end reading, so VR will not end live performance. On the other hand, I do not believe that technologies leave experience unchanged. I assume that technologies affect existence importantly by structuring both how we experience and know and what we experience and know: they help structure, then, how we understand ourselves. Presumably such would especially be the case for a technology that explicitly claims to provide a form of reality.

While I am continually astonished by how many people believe technologies are only innocent helpmates, my assumption seems non controversial to me, and so here I am just going to proceed on its basis without defending it and to consider how the technology of virtual reality might structure our experience of theater. More specifically, my question is, Why go to a live performance? This question raises the relevant issues, since VR could dispense entirely with live performance. Indeed, much of the appropriate technology exists; the rest will.

To consider this question, first a little preliminary work.

a) What do I mean by 'virtual reality?' b) Why might our era be called the 'age of virtual reality'? After addressing these two points I will consider certain more specific issues about VR and performance and argue that there are important reasons to attend live performance.

b) What is virtual reality? A la Aristotle, let's define it and then give its parts. A scholastic use of 'virtual' already mentioned by Professor deLuce is helpful: the virtual is the same in effect but not in actuality. For us, the same in effect is produced through computers. I will distinguish two related senses of the contemporary term, one strong and one weak. In the stronger sense, 'virtual reality' denotes a totally immersive computer simulation, where by 'totally immersive' we mean 'with the full range of sensation and interaction.' The Holodeck from 'Star Trek' is at the moment the best example we have of this. In a weaker sense 'VR' means any phenomenon that approximates to this stronger sense. To see what I mean, let me distinguish the parts or structural facets of VR. Following Michael Heim's analysis, I separate VR into six parts: simulation, interaction/interface, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, and networked communications. 'VR' in the weaker sense, then, describes a phenomenon that has some but not all of these parts. We could argue about which parts are necessary and which are sufficient.

c) How might our time legitimately be called the age of virtual reality? It certainly is not yet the age of VR in the strong sense: we are a long way from the Holodeck. Yet the technology will come. But the age of virtual reality is an age in which live performance will be dispensable, and more and more performers are taking us in that direction--for example, the George Coates Performance Works in San Francisco. But this is the age of virtual reality in another, related, sense, an age in which how we perceive and feel and know and judge is mediated by how VR conceives of or importantly structures experience. Indeed, VR expresses essential tendencies and possibilities of our culture and so of our future forms of understanding existence. Since theater is an important form of understanding, VR will affect theater whether the performance uses it or not.

In what follows, I typically have both senses of the word in mind. Out of all that could be addressed concerning VR's effects on theater as a form of understanding, I want to focus on the VR image and VR perception. My specific question, then, is, How does a VR structuring of perception affect performance? Just what is the virtual reality mise en scene in the sense of the encounter between performer and audience? The ramifications of the answers are far- reaching and as yet not fully knowable. I can offer here only a few thoughts, which, I hope, are thought-provoking.

Let me explain the function of theater that I will use to test the performance capacities of VR. There are, of course, many functions to theater, but the one I will highlight is its function of symbolic renewal. To perform the test, first I need to make some remarks about this essential function of theater; second, we need to see how virtual reality might affect our dramatic experience of the symbolic. I will focus on the capacity for participation in the symbolic and argue that such participation requires, among other factors, the presence of the perceiving, existing body. The problem for VR and theater, then, is that virtual reality's form of embodiment, really pseudo-embodiment, as I will explain, undercuts the opportunity for full symbolic participation.

To discuss the symbolic function of theater, out of the numerous forms of thinking about symbolism I will refer to Victor Turner's and Paul Tillich's discussions. Turner argues that within culture there is a dynamism of structure and anti-structure, calling the events of anti-structure 'the liminal' and its experience 'communitas.' I want to consider theater as a form of the first level of this process--the existential or spontaneous communitas, for as Turner says there is something existential about communitas as a whole. What is communitas? It is a way of renewing social recognition and understanding, and it revitalizes through participation in symbolic enactment. Communitas allows for a recognition of the sentiment of human kindness; it represents the expression of those dispossessed--as marginal or inferior--by functioning structure; communitas is concrete and spontaneous; it represents an altered way of being-with one another, which Turner finds best expressed by Buber's notion of the I-Thou relationship.

To sum up, communitas provides the opportunity for a revitalizing of existence through opening up a participatory space in which to reconnect communally with basic meanings and understandings of existence. Besides this idea of revitalization, there are two other important points from Turner on ritual and the symbolic: i) symbolic participation works through multivocity of meaning and ii) the regeneration typically involves remembrance. I will return to these points below. Put these three together and we have a sketch of the structure of ritual. We also have basic components of what I want to attend to with the symbolic function of theater. Before doing so, let me add to these remarks about Turner a point from Tillich.

Tillich emphasizes that the symbolic provides the site for the crossing of sacred and secular. Theater may do the same, and thus not only attempt to reconcile the natural and the social, as does ritual according to Turner, but it also may open up a space in which the sustaining ground of the profane or everyday isbrought before us. What I want to highlight is that in both ways the symbolic provides a liminal site for the renewal and contestation of truth, the point of which can be the renewal of meaning and even, perhaps, transcendence to a universality. Our symbolic participation is through this renewing contestation of truth. For us, who live more in a discourse, or system of representation, than a forest of symbols, symbolic reconciliation of the natural and social, the profane and sacred, occurs in a search for more complete and deep understandings of ourselves through assessing the truth of basic narratives. This dramatic investigation serves a ritual function. Through this opportunity for contestation and affirmation, theater provides a site of possible regeneration, a form of active remembrance, not primarily of what was but of what we are, such that we recognize and can identify with what we might be. Through the liminal space of theater there is an event of possible reattachment to our sustaining narratives through participation in this communitas. I will argue that the bodily presence of performer and audience brings necessary dimensions for this act of participation to be successful, dimensions which can not be presented through VR.

Since theater depends on perception, dramatic symbolic renewal requires a certain kind of presence of the perceived, or even of its image, and that the electronic simulation of VR will not carry this kind of presence. If I am correct, it will follow that VR theater will not be able to perform one of theater's essential functions for the VR mise en scene will not allow for the appropriate event of presence between performer and audience. To understand why not, I will briefly discuss Merleau-Ponty's work on perception and Emmanuel Levinas's thinking about the ethical.

From Merleau-Ponty, the key concepts are that of the flesh and of the intertwining, or chiasm. According to Merleau-Ponty perception is not built up out of responses to the stimulation of raw sensations, but rather it is hermeneutical. Thus, he calls perception 'an inspired exegesis.' How does perception itself perform this interpretation of the world? Everything depends on how we exist in the world, and as corporeal we exist in the intertwining or chiasm or perceiver and perceived made possible by the flesh. What does this odd claim mean? By calling the body flesh, Merleau-Ponty means to assert that the body is elemental, an incarnate principle of activity and synthesis he calls 'interrogation.' By interrogation he means a process of self-discovery through encountering and coming to know that which we are not. What are the relevant characteristics of this principle? All perception is like touch in that the perceiver is co-disclosed along with the perceived. We are involved in a reciprocal arc--the chiasm--such that there is a sense in which perceived things perceive us, rather like in touching there is a felt modification and expression of the body. In this negotiation between interior and exterior horizons, in this meeting of person and world, perception vivifies and espouses the world.

What makes this possible? There is a 'connecting tissue' (speaking metaphorically) lining perceptible and perceiving bodies. The effect of this tissue is that the perceptual realm is characterized by the kind of possibility Merleau-Ponty calls latency, or the entity's possibilities of expression. This ubiquitous, mutual latency Merleau-Ponty calls 'flesh.' The most important point about flesh is that it makes perception--and so understanding--an event of interpretive openness. In perception, and so in all existence, we are drawn out of ourselves and the world is drawn to us through an event of mutual disclosure. Now, there is flesh because we are corporeal, obvious enough when we take 'flesh' in its literal meaning. It is the body's presence, then, that places us in the world fundamentally as an event of openness. According to Merleau- Ponty, then, through perception, as well as motility and gesture, we are incorporated into the universe we interrogate and exist in the heart of the world. Now, only if the person lives in the world in this manner will there be the possibility for full participation in the symbolic renewal through theater. VR does not provide for this form of dwelling.

Before I say why, let me introduce a helpful, ethical principle about the body from the philosopher Levinas, one which will also show why VR undercuts participation. He argues that the realm of value exists because of the claim made on me by being brought before myself through my encounter with the face of the other. The face is the presence of responsibility. I would extend this claim to the entire body of the other. For both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, the presence of the body is the dynamic inscription of truth at the heart of experience. As Merleau-Ponty claims, this fact rests on a symbolic relation that structures the background of all perception and experience. To be a person, then, is to dwell in the symbolic. He writes:

There are enigmatic experiences. They have a name in all languages, but a name which in all of them also conveys signification in tufts, thickets of proper meaning and figurative meanings, so that, unlike those of science, not one of these names clarifies by attributing to what is named a circumscribed signification. Rather, they are the repeated index, the insistent reminder of a mystery as familiar as unexplained, a light that illuminates but is itself obscure. If we could rediscover within the exercise of seeing and speaking some of the living references that assign them such a destiny in a language, perhaps that would teach us how to form our new instruments and first of all to understand our research, our interrogations themselves.

Given this view, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas claim that the interpretive disclosure required for symbolic participation is based on bodily presence. Here we have as a claim about existence per se the components of the symbolic sketched above: multivocity, connection to a sustaining mystery and source of meaning, the gesture of revitalization. All of these rest on the interrogative presence of the body as flesh and the claim of the face on our desire, an elemental and corporeal I-Thou relationship.

Given the above, what are the possibilities of VR for the theater as a place of communitas? How does VR structure perception and by extension the capacity for symbolic participation? I will consider these questions by considering virtual reality's claim to be a certain type of reality and this reality's latency for participation in symbolic renewal. Let us consider four of our six aspects of VR: simulation, telepresence, interaction and networked communications. Simulation works by picturing information--data-- and it does so by applying algorithmic procedures; it mathematizes the perceivable and perception. Is such simulation the same in effect but not actuality as what it simulates? Considering Baudrillard's thesis about the simulacrum and hyper reality makes us wonder, for the VR world seems to be a perfect example of the simulacrum. The simulacrum, as the exchange of signs and images only, does not picture a reality but rather helps us hide the fact that there is no reality being imaged by the simulacrum. Clearly there could then be no participation in the symbolic. Indeed, the VR world is metonymic, not metaphoric, associative, not connective, and therefore inadequate to convey theconnectedness symbolic participation is meant to reveal.

But what do we get with this simulation if not an image of the real? The answer seems to be 'spectacle.' As the ultimate proliferation of the image, VR specularizes experience as such. VR would inevitably, then, make spectacle the most important part of theater. Here the term recalls Aristotle and his inclusion of spectacle as one of, albeit the least important, parts of tragedy. But of course we use 'spectacle' differently here. For Aristotle spectacle refers to the technical machinery of the production, while here it refers to a mode of perceiving and experiencing.

Besides the consideration about the specularization of existence, I have a second doubt about simulation's capacity to invoke participation. As stated, VR mathematizes perception. But then what happens to perception? The sensory cannot be mathematized and still retain the latency and openness of the flesh, nor the claim of the face, both of which are necessary for symbolic participation. The presence of the body as flesh is not mathematizable; as abstract, the mathematized necessarily is disembodied. Perception is altered such that the body is acted on through the stimulation of sensation, joined by simulation, not by an invitation to the interrogative wholeness of the person through the latency of the flesh. We see here a basic metaphysical problem with VR's claim to be a reality: mind/body dualism.

So there are good reasons to question the capacity of VR presence--simulation--to be same in effect as live performance for dramatic symbolic participation. Yet VR does claim to have not only presence but enhanced presence: telepresence. NASA uses this, for example, to explore Mars through robotic apparatus on the planet surface. Here the remote is brought into view, but there is not the soliciting, opening presence of the naturally perceived. Rather, there is a distantiation between perceiver and perceived. One sign of this position is that the perceivers have an inordinate amount of control over the presence of the perceived, and so the integrity or autonomy of the perceived is lessened. Indeed, telepresence isolates as much as it connects; it does not bring about the mutual openness that is necessary for symbolic participation.

Now to the aspect of interaction/interfacing, which in the overt sense constitutes participation according to VR. Coates provides a perfect example from theater. He wants to construct the theater as what he calls a 'smart room,' through which he presents a simulated, in whole or part, production such that the audience is presented with a range of decisions and outcomes and is allowed to affect the performance technologically. Further, Coates wants widely separated audiences to interact through telepresence with and in the same show.

Does VR interaction provide the kind of participation required for symbolic renewal? I doubt it. Why? First, believing it does seems to confuse 'causally affecting' with 'participating.' Second, the interface is not a face to face, and thus one's latent capacities are not appealed to in their wholeness or depth. Further, without the claim of the face the crucial value dimension of this symbolic participation is lost. Third, taking television and computer games as my keys, I am inclined to think that the VR spectacle, even if interactive, leads to a passivity or triviality based on the non-presence or remote presence to experience. The person is distanced, not drawn in: in this mode we do not espouse, nor are we drawn out; we may expose without being exposed, as Professor deLuce has Erving Goffman putting it. VR creates a non-participatory form of watching by fragmenting the person through making experience a combination of simulations coupled with appropriate bodily stimulation.

As part of their defense on this participation count, VR performance people tend to say that fourth-wall theater is non-participatory and argue that the audience as merely watching is being passive. Whatever breaks the 'merely watching' would contribute to participation. So the argument goes. Against this claim about fourth-wall audiences merely watching, I would argue that at its best such theater is participatory by leading to critical thought made possible through the distance of reflection, a point we have already heard in Part I of this talk about concert performance from Gould. This distance is not created by interaction with specularized experience; indeed, that event is more 'merely watching.' As for networked communications, what this seems to do is merely spread the reach of the other three. It creates a quantitative increase, but not a qualitative change in responsive capacity and therefore not a change in the capacity for symbolic participation.

What philosophical conclusions might we draw about VR and then apply to theater? I will draw one by returning to an earlier point: VR's mind/body dualism. VR assumes simulation--its form of presence--is real because it brings about sensory stimulation and we can more or less interact with the simulations. This view in turn assumes that we are related to the world through sensation, which then is worked up by the mind into perceptual objects; this latter assumption is utterly discredited, principally because it rests on an untenable dualism that mistakes the integral, interrogative nature of perception already discussed. Dualism is untenable as well because consciousness cannot be disembodied. Consciousness is rooted in perception, and perception is bodily. We are moved to know due to a mutual disclosure to each other, a disclosure that occurs through and with the body for it is our medium of dialogical access. Yet assuming consciousness can be disembodied lies beneath the view, for example, that telepresence is personal presence and that the interacting/interfacing is like encountering the face in a face to face with another whole person.

This talk of dualism leads to the following, final question: What differences does the presence of the human body in performance make? As Growtowski says, all that theater can provide uniquely is the presence of the expressive, living organism. So what is it we should focus on about this presence in performance? First, if what I have sketched using Merleau-Ponty and Levinas is correct, then its presence is necessary for theater to perform one of its essential functions. Second, let us look at the tension that the performer might fail to achieve, an oft-noted aspect of live performance that Glenn Gould points out. I do not think the most important issue here is that this tension shows the artifice of performance or that performance is a 'blood sport'; rather it points to originality in the performance, the sign of which is that each performance starts again from zero.

This originality Merleau-Ponty calls the body's 'natal secret.' What does this mean? Each moment of human, embodied existence is a coming into being of the new, with all the fragility and unknown promise of the born. Dramatic symbolic participation needs to utilize a similar structure. Put otherwise, as a phenomenon of birth before a phenomenon of making, life's horizon of possibilities is not entirely determinate and escapes the project of thorough technological control. As programmed, VR, however vast, in principle cannot be the new and original in the way mentioned. The reason is that as programmed it does not exist within the interrogative horizon of surprise--the ecstatic, the natality of experience. But communitas does exist within this horizon.

Finally, as Growtowski argues, the body's presence and participation signifies a sacrifice in the form of a giving. For this ritual of invitation and giving to occur the presence must take the form of the flesh and the face, which VR does not. For at least three reasons, then, the presence of the performer's body, not its simulation, makes all the difference.

In conclusion, VR is not the same in effect as live performance. Technologies create differing symbolic environments and so potential for ritual. Ritual transmits knowledge, and that transmission depends to a large part on the form of its appearance. For the ritual effect--the participation in communitas--I have been considering, we need the appearance through the presence of the body in its full courage and fragility. VR does not provide this; rather, VR expresses an ancient and recurring technical dream of turning the natural into the artificial, the creative into the productive, the born into the made. Typically, it does this by trying to forget our materiality and project a pure ideality, a profound moment of bad faith. In doing this it limits the kind of reality it can claim to be and the kind of theater it can make.


Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford, 1993)

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti- Structure (Ithaca 1969)

Paul Tillich The Dynamics of Faith (New York, 1957)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Intertwining--The Chiasm found in The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, 1968)

Lee Horvitz
Miami University