Virtual Contentions

The allegory implies that the actual world is but a shadow of the world of ideas; for instance, any triangle in the world is an imperfect instantiation of the idea of a “triangle”. What often escapes commentary is that in Plato’s story it is the physical world that is “virtual”.
— (Boellstorff 33)

         The distance between the virtual and the real/actual here is worth noting.  The assertion allows for a little (if any) difference betwixt “virtual” and “real” ethnography, or really, human experience of any kind. Experience and ethnography are necessarily mediated and culturally constructed in this view. Culture is held up as the penultimate linkage in the human experience, a prism in which to experience the world (223).  Second Life is shown to be a community and a place built not of reductive simulation, but of practice and techne, just any other shared human spaces.

           Interestingly, prior ethnographies of online communities are critiqued in Coming of Age in Second Life for a perceived necessary reliance on holding the space online in comparison with the actual.  Boellstorff specifically decries the work of Miller and Slater[5] as some of the earliest anthropologists (2000) to advocate this approach, but the view permeates the work of internet theorists at-large for at least a decade prior:

Cyberculture : A far flung, loosely knit complex of sublegitimate, alternative, and oppositional sub-cultures whose common project is the subversive use of technocommodities often framed by radical body politics… Cyberculture is divisible into several major territories: visionary technology, fringe science, avant-garde art, and pop culture.
— (Dery 1992: 509)

         Cyberculture here, as defined by Dery in Flame Wars, is a frame for which to think about digital interaction explicitly as oppositional, necessarily “alternative” and “sub” cultural.  The delineation suggests a claim to authenticity of the real, and a refusal to accept communities online on their own terms.  Still though, Dery points to a struggle to differentiate between community, culture, place, and technology. 

      The ethnographer present in this work is not the overly self-reflective social scientist critiqued by Geertz in I-witnessing (1988: 73-79.)  Instead Boellstorff’s claim to the proper way to attend a subject in Coming of Age in Second Life is more akin the moves of Strathern’s thrust in Gender of the Gift (1998), in allowing ethnographic claims to be made, and holding them up alongside the views of the culture’s participants.  In doing so, the space between subject and object is wholly problematized, signaling a certain impossibility in achieving truth claims, and a universality of the human “virtual” experience. 

        Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life is the contrast, an ethnography of the material domains in design, technology, and people responsible for the Second Life universe.  It is analogous to Second Life as Making Law (Latour 2010) is to French Law, read as an account of assembled actants conspiring to produce a thing much larger than it’s parts.  Making Virtual Worlds exposes the injunction of objects into to the cultures and meaning-making of Boellstorff’s work, generating a different kind of truth claim.  The works’ author, Malaby, seems far more interested in the elements involved in the technological mechanisms dictating Second Life

        Servers correspond to separate areas of Second Life, and office hours, dictated by clocks regulate changes to corresponding virtual universe.  Users build up virtual cityscapes, debug and vote on system-wide (cosmological?) policy.  Lag-time, a result of comparably low-bandwidth connections, drastically changes other users experiences.  Paperwork, as in any bureaucracy, enforces certain hierarchies and standardizes practices.  Malaby’s truth-claims of Second Life are that of a complicated network of things and people, giving precedence to the material factors which combine to allow Second Life to take place.  Malaby claims Second Life as a matrix of material forms, enabled to exist only through an enabling process involving many objects and humans together. 

        What's there then, as a proper truth-claim? Both account for part of what makes Second Life exist, function, but to different, arguably political aims.  Is there a more holistic methodology to be found, or a more inclusive question to be asked?  I assert that the key topic, partially addressed in both works (but never fully articulated) is the articulation of an ontological frame for virtual study. 

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by millions of legitimate operators… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light arranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding”
— (Gibson 1984: 67)
Virtual connotes the actual without arriving there. This gap between virtual and actual is critical: were it to be filled in, there would be no virtual worlds, and in a sense no actual world either. This is ultimately a reconfiguration of the binarism between nature and culture, and its boundary-marker is the distinction between “online” and “offline”.
— (Boellstorff 19)

              Phillipe Descola’s four ontologies on display in Beyond Nature and Culture (2006) mark a potential turning point for ethnographic study. Looking past the taxonomy Descola provides, he also provides a direction having the capacity to direct the discipline to new terrain past the approaches of post Writing Culture cultural studies and the material, network focused drive of the STS approach.  What is proposed by Descola in Beyond Nature and Culture is not the destruction or the end of the Western/naturalist mode, but a recognition that the aforementioned break is one option among the 4 (albeit fractured, and sometimes slippery) permutations Descola calls “systems of properties that humans ascribe to beings” (139).  His ontologies, those systems human beings use to discern other beings and forms. 

            His intervention then is to not simply to introduce the topic of alternate ontologies, but to posit the ubiquity of humans both utilizing and comprehending more than one mode in the everyday. The notion is that all humans are ontological bricolants, to borrow Levi-Strauss’s phrase. Going as far as to mention the possible animistic tendencies of vocalizing frustration at a computer screen, Descola is aware of cracks in western dualism, and marks one of it’s more glaring contemporary examples.  Hyper-networked communications, and more broadly, human relationships with standardized, processed information is arguably at the largest crossroads since the invention of the printing press or the first cave drawings.  Virtuality, if stretched back to the beginnings of culture, should have something akin to epochs or Foucault’s epistemes.  Finding these demarcations of the way collectively understand other beings moves the question past epistemology and into the ontological realm. 

         The realm of ontology of the virtual becomes another staging ground for research to those in the field, a schema that sustained fieldwork on sites of virtuality could potentially reveal the intricacies of. William Gibson, in claiming the neologism cyberspace in the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, denotes it notably as a “collective hallucination…unthinkable complexity…lines of light arranged in the nonspace of the mind” marking both the aforementioned tendency of othering the virtual while drawing symmetry to the practice of any mediated truth-claims.  The question should no longer be if hating someone in Second Life is the same as hating someone in actual space.  They are separate realities, with contingent ontologies.  What would it mean, existentially, to be able to shift characteristics of identity such as gender or race in one world, while remaining or shifting in another?  Do we remain the same human beings, and how do we relate to other with the same opportunities?  Virtual space and many new platforms of communication are affording new possibilities for reality(s). 

        These new possibilities are potentially never fully embodied or realized.  Human beings have temporal constraints, in jobs, natural disasters, and other actual things need attending to in order to afford the virtual to transpire. There’s a potentially fracturing of one’s reality, an explicit enlivening of Descola’s contention of human beings’ ability to qualify more than one ontology.  This is where and why study of a virtual ontology must include the material aspects, the technologies which afford us opportunity, and the networks of design, bureaucracy, and other human beings which together, afford us the virtual.  A holistic view, arguably a work of perennial philosophy in the realm of mediated communication, must be the methodological way through. Taking into account both accounts of meaning making and the procedural assemblages which afford the aforementioned “cultural processes” to take place. The aim then would be to provide the ethnographer with a new, useful device for mapping concepts of human interaction: with each other, with non-humans, with their environments, with their realities. 


Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life : An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Dery, Mark. Flame Wars : The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1984.

Descola, “Beyond Nature and Culture.” Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology, Proceedings of the British Academy 139:137-155.

Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives : The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Langlitz, Nick. Unpublished working manuscript of Neuropsychedelia. 2012

Latour, Bruno. The Making of Law : An Ethnography of the Conseil d'Etat. Cambridge, UK Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

Malaby, Thomas. Making Virtual Worlds : Linden Lab and Second Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009

Miller, Daniel and Slater, The Internet : An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford New York: Berg, 2000

Peirano, Mariza. When Anthropology Is at Home: The Different Contexts of a single Discipline. Annual Review of Anthropoogy, Vol 27 (1998). Pp 105-128

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community : Bomesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.

Strathern, Marilyn. The Gender of the Gift : Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988