The Future of the Dream Body in Virtual Reality
What is virtual reality? As technical considerations have dampened much of the free fancy that the term originally engendered and washed away from the bedrock many wild speculations, we are now in a position to answer this question more soberly. One surprising idea remains: Virtual reality will become a technology "not just of the brain and mind, but of the soul."1 This doubtless seems like more wild speculation. I will argue that, on the contrary, it is a natural outgrowth of a particular cultural perspective, one that is very familiar to us.
Before giving our full attention to this topic, a brief overview of virtual reality (VR) is in order. In technical terms, it is the hooking up of computers to the five senses to create a variety of otherworldly experiences. The goal is to immerse the cybernaut in the virtual environment, and to allow for as much possibility of navigation as in the actual environment.2 It doesn't tax the imagination to envision how this aids architects, for instance, as it grants them the ability to see how the environments they create feels before they commit them to a final, material form. Without touching scalpel to skin, surgeons can perform countless practice operations. Though these are now the most accomplished applications of VR, interest in them is generally confined to a small group of specialists.
It is VR as entertainment that has excited widespread interest; and it is VR as a spiritual endeavor that is closest to the hearts of those technologists and commentators at the forefront of its development. One of the more striking examples of this is the frequency of religious terminology in Howard Rheingold's Virtual Reality, in which he describes his own "baptism" in the virtual environment, the "religious conversions" of other key figures, and the "laboratory cathedrals" where they carry out their research.3
Given the increasingly prominent role of technology in our daily lives, such devotion may not seem that strange. A little reflection will tell us that technology makes some of the same promises as religion: security, connection with others, a hand in history. But just as surely as its gifts pile up and its promises are sweetened, so there is a point where it falls silent and no longer bring us to our knees. Something of the divine must lie outside control of human hands.
As a technology of the soul, virtual reality claims just the opposite: There is nothing that cannot be built into a virtual environment. Rheingold makes the still stronger claim that there is something in the virtual environment that naturally leads the cybernaut to ecstatic, that is, religious experience. And Robert Romanyshyn, who is both timidly critical and boundlessly hopeful on this point, assumes that dream consciousness and consciousness in the virtual environment are for all practical purposes identical. This last assumption goes to the heart of VR as a technology of the soul: It is an attempt to rewrite -- literally in computer code -- the dream's connection to religion. This paper is a critique of that project.
ß Ecstatic Experience and the Impress of the Linear Perspective in VR
Timothy Leary's presence in VR circles is only one factor in the coinage and immediate appeal of the term "electronic LSD."4 More important is the idea that the virtual environment is inherently psychedelic or mind-manifesting. Presence in a virtual environment is assumed to expand the mind just as presence in the territory of the divine is thought to expand the mind whether or not the experience is fully understood. What was formerly thought to be a direct line to the divine, the dream, also shares many obvious similarities with the virtual environment. VR grants a measure of control over a dream-like world, giving cybernauts the ability, as in Brenda Laurel's cave, 5 to pick and choose archetypes.
Rheingold traces this kind of technology back to the Greek Mysteries, the Paleolithic, and the decisive move away from hunting and gathering. The first virtual environments were carefully crafted to first clear, then expand the minds of the participants. Ecstatic experience was at the heart of these ceremonies, and as the decisive move away from hunting and gathering approached, the ceremonies were increasingly used as tools to neutralize the old notions and to instill the knowledge necessary for agricultural production. Laurel is quite explicit about what both she and Rheingold think VR adds to this tradition: The transmission of values and cultural information is one face of VR. The other face is the creation of Dionysian experience. The piece I find important to both of those functions is the notion of being in the living presence of something. With the ceremony of the kiva, one is in the living presence not just of other people, but of an event that is happening in real time. No matter whether you look at the information function or the Dionysian one, the idea of it happening in real time and in the present location, both activities require people to be in the same place at the same time. What VR has done that is so discontinuous is get rid of real space as a requirement. Cyberspace has the potential of being able to make real space go away as a mediator of experience.6 But doesnít making ìreal space go awayî suggest a break from this model of transcendence? The initiation ceremonies Rheingold describes were carefully circumscribed events designed for specific cultural ends, with the knowledge gained therein rippling out into the greater community. VR does not seem to fit this model except inasmuch as it is a temporary “expansion” of consciousness.
The most telling point in Laurel's analysis is the idea that cyberspace can make real space go away while maintaining the "living presence" of a person or an event. The kiva ceremonies took place underground, a fact that sets them at a clear remove from VR, where the physical environment is first deadened, then reworked according to human specifications. Taking space away does facilitate interaction (and this is primarily what Laurel is referring to) in that I can "be with" someone who is thousands of miles away; I can become a crow outside of my dreams. Endowed with this power, can I then restore the world's living presence? Would I even want to restore all the excrescencies of civilization, the infuriating way that my family sometimes stands against me, the flock of doves that suddenly wraps itself around me, cripples me in mid-flight and releases me to fall helplessly to the ground? Whatever I decide, I now have a hand in the living presence of the world, a measure of control with which I can deaden its sting.
The history offered by Rheingold and Laurel cannot fully account for virtual reality as a technology of the soul. Specifically, it gives us no purchase on technology itself as a dream of control, as a symptom perhaps, of a greater uneasiness with unknown. Robert Romanyshyn's treatment of the linear perspective is helpful here; unfortunately, its complexity prohibits a full and easy elucidation. Thankfully, it is not necessary to tease out the details in order to find the impress of the linear perspective in the virtual environment. It will be enough to show how the world is organized within it, and how that redounds to the religious experience in VR.
The linear perspective began as an artistic technique, a way of representing the world that was taken up and codified by Leon Alberti during the Renaissance. He first assumed a point of separation, "a window," between himself and world, between the artist and the material of the world that is to be represented. He then established a center point as "a limit for the height of an object" in the painting, which, when extended, becomes the horizon. Using these as points of reference, he then traced a grid over the window, thus breaking down the material to be represented into manageable units. This new world, the one that is built back up from the grid, is the world of linear perspective.
This may seem like a formal explication of a natural fact of vision. I look down a city street and see, stretching toward the horizon, objects that I know to be about the same size becoming progressively smaller. This is a style of looking at the world with which I have a long and intimate history, and the discrepancy between what I know and what I see does not disturb me. It is, on the contrary, deviation from this style -- as in the phantasmagoria of movies, when a face is pulled from out of the crowd and fills the screen -- that is likely to disturb us; a fact that illustrates just how deeply rooted the linear perspective has become since Alberti's time, when it was regarded "as a trick, 'a mere Fata Morgana that could be disproved by simple geometry.'"7
That it is difficult to see outside the linear perspective attests to the power of its technological instantiations. Photography, television, computers, the concrete forms of Alberti's window, have all imposed its conditions on our experience. They have become the boundary between self and world, and have to that extent helped foster a "spectator consciousness." Some images of this spectator are familiar and come easily: a lonely soul, aching for friendship, tapping on a keyboard; a family "glued" to the set, the only movement among them the languid rise and fall of a finger on the remote control. These images grace greeting cards and so may well make us smile, but they nevertheless illustrate the disembodied presence of the spectator; for "emphasizing the eye as the means of access to the world also means de-emphasizing the other
There are other good reasons not to let these images rest. Consider a "remote control" both as a device and as an approach to the world. Recall that Alberti cast a grid over the world to break it down into manageable units. As taken up and refined by science, it has become particularly important in fostering a certain approach to the natural world. “The modern experiment fosters a shift in the relations between self and world. The phenomena of nature no longer matter as they are given. On the contrary, they now matter only as they are placed under the conditions of mind, that is, under the experimental arrangements established in advance of their appearance. The shift is from the created order of nature to the creation of meaning established by the self in its withdrawal from the world.”9 The world that science has built back up from this grid is one of mathematical certainties, natural laws -- in short, a reality that is set down in advance of our experience -- a remote control.
In one sense, then, science has brought us closer to the world in that it has given us a thoroughgoing understanding of the workings of nature. But it does not give us our experience of nature. The scientific attitude that lays a grid over the world must first drain the world of felt experience. I cannot build my experience from these raw data; I do not know the tests at Bikini Atoll as a union of hydrogen atoms. Indeed, they are a testament both to how much the scientific attitude has brought us and at what price. Such a display seems reasonable only after a certain deadening of the natural world has already taken place, and it has become grist for the mill of scientific progress.
Yet, the specter of the Bomb has faded somewhat, and it may no longer bring home the pervasiveness of the linear perspective as a style of thought. Our inner world, it seems, could not be farther removed from the "cold" logic and objective observations of science. How different from this is the warmth of the television, the purr of the modem, and the glow of the computer screen! "Isn't our mounting passion for information technology ample evidence," the technologist adds solemnly," of our hunger to fill out our inner world?" It is, but in a way tightly circumscribed by the linear perspective. The conversation that goes on over the modem is between two interiorized subjects, between whom all traces of bodily interaction have been etched away into words on a screen. Just as with television, vision becomes the primary means of interacting with the world.
No form of information technology fits better into this framework than virtual reality. Alberti's window has become the computer screen, the world on the other side of the window, cyberspace. The scientific vision of the world is realized in cyberspace, where everything is directly quantifiable, predictable, and amenable to the human will. But as the cybernaut moves through the window, through the computer screen into the virtual environment, the irrational again asserts itself. Ecstatic experience, claims Rheingold, is built into its very foundation.
It is worth underscoring the importance of the grid in our framework as it has served to close the window and confine the subject to "a world of nature in which everything that cannot be explained, that cannot be measured and made equal through the rule and the number, disappears."10 As the linear perspective became the dominant cultural metaphor, all that was irrational -- especially religious phenomena like angels and demons -- having no hard factual basis in the world, became mere "figments of the imagination." What was banished from the world was taken up into the subject. As Romanyshyn put it, "The demons have moved inside. They have become our nightmares and our dreams." And to that precise extent, "the reality of the unconscious was born"11 of the linear perspective.
A certain reluctance at this point is understandable. We are familiar with the unconscious in its mature, problematic form, but that does not seem to ease the burden of imagining its deliverance into reality. It is perhaps easier to approach it from the other side, that is, as the twilight of participatory consciousness. There are doubtless times when this type of consciousness still holds sway: being 'one' with a crowd, for instance, brings some to their feet to cheer, others to tear enemies limb from limb. In either case, it brings about behavior that one would not normally do alone, when one maintains a separate, 'hidden,' interiorized presence. With the ascendancy of the linear perspective, a "place" inside the self began to assert itself, began to obtrude into and confound the ego. It harbored what was unknown but was nevertheless influencing the self in some way. As Jung liked to say, the unconscious is modern man's reminder that he is still not "master of his own house."
Science offered no peace for the battles that raged on outside the rule of number; the subject could not ignore them. What occurred in light, continued in the dark,12that is, became unconscious, part of the Protean army that moves through the dream world. Romanyshyn writes, “The new self, engendered by this vision of a homogeneous world, retreats behind the window, taking with itself its monsters and dreams. The world of clarity and light opened up on the other side of the window is complemented by the world of shadows and of night on this side of the window.” As a direct descendant of this self, the cybernaut is the answer to this inner darkness. If the world is safe, passive, and predictable on the other
side of the window, the next natural step is to move through the window, through the computer screen to be resurrected in a virtual form.
This is an ecstatic experience in that it frees the figures of the unconscious from their convulsive catalepsy inside the subject. But if we take these figures as symbols, once they are inside the virtual environment they can function only as signs: their inner movement ceases. What stubbornly resists control of the dreamer, that which erupts from the turmoil of his life into his dreams, becomes immediately tamable when he approaches it as a cybernaut. As a technology of the soul, then, virtual reality promises to make the unknown known, once and for all.
Inasmuch as the dream body canít satisfy this promise, its future in the linear perspective is resurrection in a virtual form. Only after it is endowed with the light of the virtual body will it cease speaking in unknown tongues, and adopt the single, all-encompassing voice of the computer code. Of course, we can imagine another future for the dream body, and to that end the rest of this paper is devoted to exploring the world of lucid dreaming.
ß Transplanting the Dream Body into Virtual Reality
Stephen LaBerge is perhaps the most popular commentator on the history and meaning of lucid dreams (those in which the sleeping person becomes fully aware of being in a dream). He now runs the Lucidity Institute, which "promotes research on the nature and potential of consciousness" and also offers a line of "lucidware."13 It is his interpretation of the "nature" of consciousness, particularly inasmuch as it is built on the philosophical foundations of the linear perspective, that is most interesting in terms of the future of the dream body. These very same foundations seem to rise up under Romanyshyn's "The Dream Body In Cyberspace," in which he expresses great enthusiasm for cyberspace as the next royal road to the unconscious. Imagining a future for the dream outside the linear perspective, then, will take us outside their work.
In order to do this, we have to first tear ourselves away from the surface similarities between the dream body and the virtual body. To begin, both function only when awareness of the physical body is put on hold. The physical body is a kind of shadow of the virtual body, contorting with the action in the virtual environment. The dream body, too, is much like a shadow of the physical body, but more in the archetypal sense of holding unconscious contents. It is in this sense that it necessarily turns the dreamer inward, toward parts of him/herself of which he/she is not consciously aware.
The closest LaBerge gets to this archetypal version of the dream body is in his vision of "The Highest," in which the lucid dreamer relinquishes control of the dream to something beyond the ego.14 At this level the lucid dream is a kind of lesson to the ego, a way of training it on some more powerful, higher outside force. Romanyshyn argues that such a lesson may be just what the ego needs: “...we can say that while dreaming, we are in the dream; the dream is not in us. Upon awaking, however, ego consciousness reverses this relation and distances itself from the dream. The dream is now in the dreamer; the dreamer is no longer in the dream. Ego consciousness becomes the observer of its dreams, thereby allowing the possibility of subjecting them to interpretation. A fantasy of control and mastery of the dream arises...”15 Though they will ultimately go in different directions, both Romanyshyn and LaBerge begin with the idea that after experience with a higher outside force, you are that much less likely to identify solely with the ego, with what is known.
To the extent that the virtual environment can draw out the unknown, then, it would seem to accomplish precisely the same thing as lucid dreaming. This is one of the possibilities Romanyshyn sees in VR. He asks, “Will virtual reality be another way of mastering the dream, amplifying the hegemony of the Cogito that would purify itself of the dream? Or will it serve to remind waking consciousness that the dream belongs to reason and that, in having a dream, we are also always had by it? Will its technology serve the same function that the dream served in relation to the symptom- as the "royal road to the unconscious"?16 Romanyshyn here suggests that the virtual body may serve the same function as lucid dreaming as LaBerge defines it in its most accomplished form. In this formulation, the dream world is more or less expendable as long as we maintain the dream body, or dream consciousness, in some other form. I will return to this issue below, for it is the point through which slip the paradoxes in Romanyshyn's understanding of cyberspace. It is, moreover, the point on which LaBerge's version of the dream body will eventually turn.
Given that only the best lucid dreamers are able to control the dream environment, the dream body would seem to be the seat of all activity. Most are able to manipulate objects in the environment only through the dream body; rarely is one able to mentally change the environment or call up different scenes. It would seem, then, that lucidity and the dream body are inseparable. But if this body is merely a by-product or residue of the waking body, then it is no longer essential to lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming, contends LaBerge, has little to do with the dream body. “As I explained in Lucid Dreaming, "out-of-body experiences" often give us the compelling impression that we have two distinct and separate bodies: the physical, earthly body and the more ethereal, astral one. In fact, a person experiences only one body, and this isn't the physical body, but the body image-the brain's representation of the physical body. The body image is what we experience anytime we feel embodied, whether in our physical, dream, or astral out-of-bodies.”17 Where then is the seat of lucid consciousness? Is the shedding of the dream body a stage toward more sophisticated lucid dreaming?
A paradox emerges if we try to integrate this view of the dream body with dreams of the Highest. What exactly is it that yields to this higher power? LaBerge sets up a kind of hierarchy of techniques with which the dreamer can eventually rid himself of the dream body, and become an "ego-point" in the dream world. “Now lets take a radical look at the brain's body model. If it isn't representing the position, activity, or condition of the physical body, why should it need to maintain a model of the appearance, functionality, topology, or form of the physical body? As Tholey puts it, "The experience of one's own body in a dream is merely a phenomenon transferred from the waking state and is essentially expendable." This allows us to throw overboard even more metaphysical baggage and really travel light.” 18 Tholey adds that if you still desire a body, all you need to do is inhabit another one somewhere in the dream scenery and take over its "motor system."19 What is true of the dream body, then, is true of the dream world as well: it is merely a representation.
This conclusion shows just how small a role the unconscious plays in LaBerge's version of the dream world, serving mainly as a reservoir of past perceptions for use in the brain's model of the world. Given LaBerge's understanding of consciousness, the most that the dream world can be is a simulation. “The basic task of the brain is to predict and control the results of your actions in the world. To accomplish this task, it constructs a model of the world....When asleep, the brain acquires little information from the senses. Therefore, the information most readily available is what is already inside our heads-memories, expectations, fears, desires, and so on. I believe that dreams are a result of our brains using this internal information to create a simulation of the world.” 20 If we accept for the moment that the dream world and the dream body are merely simulations, then the Highest, indeed all contents of the dream must arise out of the dreamer himself; thus when he yields, it can only be to a representation that can ultimately never speak outside the limits of his/her consciousness.
In this view, virtual reality would seem to be the perfection of lucidity. It both brings the dreamer out into the world and allows him to contact others in dream space (a possibility of lucid dreaming LaBerge entertains briefly, only to reject it as "not yet scientifically proven"). If, as Romanyshyn suggests, "the technology of virtual reality is not only mimicking the dream but is also remaking reality as dream," then it surmounts the limitations LaBerge sees as inherent in lucid dreaming.21
Is the translation of dream consciousness, even in theory, as easy as Romanyshyn makes it sound? On this point Romanyshyn's analysis, as Rheingold's, is at best sketchy. The most Rheingold is sure of is that the virtual experience is an ecstatic experience, and he is content with offering suggestions on how to manage it. Romanyshyn is more forceful: “[VR] collapses the difference between the real and the imaginal, fact and fiction, waking and dream. In cyberspace we are on the borderline of these categories....The borderline, I suspect lives in cyberspace, and when we enter cyberspace, I suspect we enter into borderline experience. To be in cyberspace is, in effect, to be on the borderline between waking and dreaming. Or perhaps it is better to say that, to be in cyberspace is to live a confused blending of waking and dreaming. But, however we might say it, it is apparent that in cyberspace one is, in effect, awake in one's dreams.”22 Though he does not use the term, Romanyshyn here assumes a direct correspondence between VR and lucid dreaming, indicating, perhaps, that he has found a new vein of the linear perspective.
It is difficult to locate evidence of such a find. He seems less concerned with tracing the roots of VR in the linear perspective than in searching for where it might take us, and how to turn it to our advantage. This neglect leads him to make some very bold statements: “Virtual reality is dream consciousness now made visible, public, and programmable. Cyberspace is the u-topic place where the dream maker, once called the unconscious, has become conscious.” 23 However nicely phrased, there are many difficulties in this pronouncement. It seems to come very close to the idea that the body is a mental simulation, which has no organic connection to the world and can be transferred at will to the virtual environment. Once you swallow this idea, it seems natural to then start bullying the unconscious around, to write it into a code as if it were a sum of mental events. In short, his formulation bespeaks the limits imposed by the linear perspective: an eclipse of the body, a distance from the world, and, more important, an attempt to program the unknown.
It is this last point that it is most difficult to reconcile with Romanyshyn's treatment of the linear perspective in Technology as Dream and Symptom. Recall that the unconscious became a problem when all that was irrational in the world, uprooted by the rise of modern science, was taken into the subject, driven into the unconscious. It would seem to bring us to a terminal paradox to then say that cyberspace, the realization of the scientific vision of the world, now brings us closer to precisely that which it alienated us from. "Programming" dream consciousness, on the contrary, takes us in precisely the opposite direction, and continues the project of making the unknown known through technology.
This is not a question of the right software, but whether imagination and the dream can ever be merely a matter of "technological wizardry." Part of what may be at work here is Romanyshyn's search for ways out of what he calls technology's "eclipse" of the imagination.24 As the dominant cultural metaphor, technology has captured the imagination and the dream, thus undercutting their transformative power. His hope is that cyberspace will usher in "a dramatic reversal"25 of technological consciousness, and return imagination and the dream to their organic, reflective foundations. This hope rests on an incomplete picture of the meaning of the unconscious; specifically, on how it expresses itself in the dream world.
ß Dream and Existence
If Romanyshyn's analysis of the dream body in cyberspace leads us to a terminal paradox, we may be able to find our way out by looking more closely at what it means -- or whether it is possible -- to rewrite or program dream consciousness into a computer. To this end, I will try to locate the extent to which the dream world can be made to speak without first translating it into a virtual environment. In short, I will offer an interpretation of the dream world that neither relegates it to an entirely subjective experience, nor silences it while bringing it into the world.
"To dream means: I don't know what is happening to me."26 Binswanger ends Dream and Existence on this thought, and it is here that I will begin. Control of the dream world is part of the allure of both lucid dreaming and VR. As we have seen, LaBerge finds the unconscious to be an unnecessary concept for dream interpretation. This view of the unconscious robs it of all connections with the world. If we are to install the dream in the world, we must first find world in the unconscious. The first step toward this is admitting, with Binswanger, that to dream means to confront something that, while not necessarily foreign to me, is, at least initially, outside my control.
Yet, I can only admit this when I am awake, when I can muster only a shadow of the dream consciousness. By saying it I have, in effect, restored to myself a measure of control and distance from the dream world. But this mastery collapses each night, and the uncertainty therein robes me of all assurances, restores to the dream its proper significance. LaBerge's ego-point is nothing more than an assurance that everything must ultimately remain within the province of the human will. Foucault strikes through the limitations of this version of the dream world while considering a fragment from Heraclitus. “What constitutes the idios cosmos of the dreamer is not the absence of perceptual contents, but their elaboration into an isolated universe. The dream world is a world of its own, not in the sense of subjective experience defying the norms of objectivity, but in the sense that it is constituting in the original mode of a world which belongs to me, while at the same time exhibiting my solitude.”27 Foucault here reinstalls the dream into the world without ascribing an ontological status to the dream body. The dream body is neither an epiphenomenon, in the sense that LaBerge sees it, as something that may just as well be done away with, nor does it possess a status independent of the dreamer. It is precisely as important as the physical body is in the physical world in that it is our primary means of intercourse with the dream world. That it is perhaps easier to leave the dream body does not mean that it is dispensable or that shedding it results in a more profound lucid experience. However we induce them, flights from both the dream body and the physical body are meaningful only inasmuch as they mark a turning away or turning toward the world. I will use an example from my own lucid dream experiences to make this point clear.
During the past few years, riots have been a fairly consistent theme in both my lucid and non-lucid dreams. They usually occur in cities that I am either familiar with or have lived in, and I usually know at least a few of those involved. I had my first lucid dream in which a riot was the central theme only after they had occurred in a number of other non-lucid dreams. My initial reaction after achieving lucidity was, not surprisingly, to flee. In another dream, I tried to mediate a peace. Achieving lucidity allowed me to directly address the primary figures of the dream's theme. New veins of meaning were opened up through my bodily awareness as I decided to turn toward or away from the dream's heart, the riot. Becoming an ego-point would have opened up a new experience of the scene that might otherwise have remained inaccessible. But it is important to keep in mind what I am giving up in that decision, and how a disembodied experience will translate into my exploration of the dream's theme in waking consciousness.
Becoming an ego-point is merely a different way of situating myself in the dream. While trying to broker a peace in the dream mentioned above, for instance, all the people in the dream assembled into two long lines, and silence fell over the scene. I decided at that point to flee. I could have ìescapedî into the body of one of the people in line. But if we take this scene to be a product of some issue in my waking life, this is no escape at all. There is nothing in the dream that does not speak this theme; and there is nothing in the theme that does not in some way bear the imprint of the physical world.
In short, all the elements of the dream lie on the horizon just as any object, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, is open to an "indeterminate number of perspectival views."28 I will not know it any more clearly by inserting my ego-point into it, nor can I simply take over elements of the dream world, as other bodies or animals. If I do, I am only changing my orientation to a world part of which must forever remain secret from me.
Is it possible to rewrite dreams like mine into a virtual environment? Given the pace of this technology, the potential to duplicate specific scenes and craft them to individual tastes cannot be far off. In what way does a virtual object resemble an object from a dream scene? The most pressing difference is in the way each gives itself to you. A virtual object can hold only so much information as the programmer puts into it. Again, this is not something that can be overcome by hitting on the right software. However sophisticated the artificial intelligence of the system may be, it will never be able to duplicate my orientation toward a dream theme; and this for the simple reason that the contents of the theme hold meanings that are obscure to me, that I bring to light only by changing my orientation toward them.
Virtual environments are thus restricted in their very construction, built, as they must be, on an understanding of perception inherited from the linear perspective: that coming to know the world is a process of intellection, a process of fitting our perceptions to those laws that natural phenomena must obey. There is no hiddenness in the world that cannot be rooted out cognitively. Any endeavor to distill the body into an ego-point, which is then inserted anywhere in the dream world, holds to these very same premises of perception. To return to the riot dream, the objects that I perceive there do not give themselves over to me all at once, nor can I think them into submission. Merleau-Ponty made this point clear: “If, for example, I look at a cube, knowing the structure of the cube as it is defined in geometry, I can anticipate the perceptions which this cube will give me while I move around it. Under this hypothesis I would know the unseen side as the necessary consequence of a certain law of the development of my perception. But if I turn to perception itself, I cannot interpret it in this way because this analysis can be formulated as follows: It is true that the lamp has a back, that the cube has another side. But this formula, "It is true," does not correspond to what is given to me in perception. Perception does not give me truths like geometry but presences.” 29 Virtual environments must be built around frozen presences that stand for the object as something like an assemblage of pictures of that object in the world.
This point delivers us back to the role of the unconscious in the dream, which LaBerge tosses out as unnecessary and Romanyshyn sees as being taken over by VR. Even if we set aside the question of its higher functioning, we can see at once that it is an integral part of the dream's structure. The world speaks through it, giving the figures in the dream their stubborn separateness, their intelligence apart from the dreamer. My actions in the dream draw out this intelligence, and to that precise extent I make the unknown known through them. A virtual environment can only provide a pale approximation of this intelligence by reducing it to a random order of possible responses to my actions.
On only one occasion have I forestalled a riot while lucid. Sensing that it was about to start, I ran to what seemed to be the core group of rioters, fell to my knees and begged them to stop. Everything became very still. They looked at each other, at me, then at each other again. No riot, no bloodshed; no real peace, either, and I woke up feeling dissatisfied. To say that I had not made a concrete advancement, though, would be to miss the real benefit of lucid dreaming. Only while lucid can I make a concerted call to the world, and thereby open up part of it previously unknown to me.
A virtual environment, in contrast, can offer only a random response: the stillness that ensued after my groveling may just as well have been uproarious laughter; the silence and puzzled looks, hearty slaps on the back. Would this leave me with the same affective punch line, my lack of peace? Assuredly not, and my joy at having finally won over the rioters might also delude me into thinking I have made real progress, when in fact I have only pushed more deeply into a wilderness of mirrors.
Far from freeing it from its safe confines of the imagination, all attempts to rewrite the dream into the virtual environment shut it off from the world, and install a mode of perception within it inherited from the linear perspective. This is not to say that the dream can't be made to speak within the linear perspective, only that it will function accordingly to an entirely different, non-productive grammar inside the virtual
Once we free it from LaBerge's straight-jacket notions, lucidity offers the possibility of delivering the dream from the safe confines of the imagination. But we should not let this newfound freedom carry us away from the basic structure of the dream, for it is merely an elaboration of that structure, a pointing of consciousness toward the dream world. Nor should we let it carry us away from the integral relationship between the dream body and the physical body: both are engraved by the world, both never operate but in relation to it, and together they form "the system of all my holds upon it."30 That this system must necessarily admit the unknown in some form should not disturb us, but should rather turn us toward the dream body, to draw up its sap as light.
1 Porush, D. "Cyberspace and Transcendence," Omni, April, 1983, 4.
2 Rheingold, H. (1991).Virtual Reality. New York: Summit Books. Immersion and navigation a the two characteristics that distinguish VR from other quasi-virtual forms such as television and movies. I will borrow Rheingold's term, cybernaut, to refer to a person in a virtual environment.
3 Most of the key figures claim to have had some sort of conversion experience. Religious terminology, therefore, is not just Rheingold's spice, but a central ingredient of the technology. Later in Virtual Reality, Rheingold concentrates on the ecstatic experience, which he connects more with the general public's idea (including his own) of VR than with the specific description of any one researcher. Rheingold describes two "out-of-body" experiences of his own after his initial baptism. See Virtual Reality for the following descriptions: conversion
experience, 77, 89, 99, 185; baptism, 187; laboratory cathedrals, 186.
4 Ibid., 54.
5 I first heard Jason Lanier (a few years ago on a news program), known as one of the more eccentric luminaries in this field, describe VR as having "all the possibilities of the dream world." Brenda Laurel's work bears out this relationship between dreams/mythology and VR. A rare
female luminary in the almost exclusively male VR world, she has created a virtual environment based on Plato's Cave. The cybernaut can choose and assume the form of symbols on the walls.
6 Ibid., 345. This is Laurel's response to Rheingold's question as to the relationship between ecstasy and the virtual environment. The Kiva is a Hopi ceremony designed to induce altered states of consciousness, and, in the opinion of Rheingold, Pfeiffer, and Laurel, a method of
disseminating religious and agricultural knowledge.
7 Romanyshyn, R. D. (1989) Technology as Symptom and Dream. London & New York: Routledge, 41.
8 Ibid., 42
9 Ibid., 80
10 Ibid., 44
11 Ibid., 44
12 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 106. This is an adaptation of a Latin phrase Nietzsche quotes at the beginning of section 193: Quidquid luce fuit, tenebris agit ("What occurred in the light, goes on in the dark"). The rest
of this small section is devoted to the power of lucid dreaming to enrich experience -- specifically, the meaning of "rising" and "falling." These two terms occupy a central position in Binswanger's work Dream and Existence, treated later in this paper.
13 LaBerge, S. Ph.D., & Rheingold, H. (1990) Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine, 304. Lucidware is equipment designed to provide queues that "awaken" the dreamer to the fact that he is dreaming. One of the products in this line, "The DreamLight lucid dream induction device," looks much like the virtual-reality headgear. Whenever it detects REM sleep, it initiates a sequence of lights that the dreamer sees in the dream and thereby becomes lucid.
14 Ibid., 292
15 Romanyshyn, R. D. "The Dream Body in Cyberspace," Psychological Perspectives. Spring-Summer, 1994, 29, 102.
16 Ibid., 98
17 LaBerge, 111
18 Ibid., 114
19 Tholey, as quoted in LaBerge, 83
20 Ibid., 117
21 Romanyshyn, "The Dream Body in Cyberspace," 101.
22 Ibid., 101
23 Ibid., 101
24 Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, 6.
25 Romanyshyn, "The Dream Body in Cyberspace." 101.
26 Binswanger, L. "Dream and Existence," Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 19, no. 1, 1984-5, 102.
27 Foucault, M. "Dream, Imagination and Existence," Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 19, no. 1, 1984-5, 51.
28 Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). The Primacy of Perception. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 15.
29 Ibid., 14
30 Ibid., 18
Back to top of page References
Binswanger, L. & Foucault, M. (1986). Dream & Existence , ed. Keith Hoeller, Seattle: Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry.
LaBerge, S. & Rheingold, H. (1990). Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, New York: Ballantine.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The Primacy of Perception, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Nietszche, Friedrich. (1966). Beyond Good and Evil. trans. W. Kaufman. New York: Random House.
Porush, D. "Cyberspace and Transcendence," Omni, April 1993, 4.
Rheingold, H. (1991). Virtual Reality, New York: Summit Books.
Romanyshyn, R. D. (1989) Technology as Symptom and Dream, London and New York: Routledge.
Romanyshyn, R. D. "The Dream Body in Cyberspace," Psychological Perspectives, Spring- Summer 1994, 29, 90-103.