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Interactive Realism: The Poetics of Cyberspace

Author: Daniel Downes
Publisher: Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005
Review Published: March 2009

 REVIEW 1: Yara Mitsuishi

Interactive Realism is elaborated by Daniel Downes as process and method. As process, it refers to the dynamics of the "social world with a variety of tools, languages and material artifacts, and these tools refer back to our embodied experience of the world" (12), which is applied as method to understand cyberspace, the main subject in question. For Downes, Internet and cyberspace are not synonymous: Internet is conceived as the technological infrastructure while cyberspace is a communicative environment, "a kind of meta-virtual reality wherein people can use computer-mediated communications to interact with one another in alternate and complementary social spaces" (6). This work is contextualized within the field of media ecology, and explores the relationship between technology and psyche.

Based on these premises, Downes addresses subjects such as immersion, presence, interactivity, virtual spaces and communities, and does so in terms of the tension -- a "transcendental intimacy" (120) -- between reality and language in digital environments. In each chapter the discussion is dislocated from main subjects towards the relationships between them, demonstrating the dynamics of interactive realism as method. The arguments in the debate are carefully examined, offering the reader balanced and multiple positions on the subjects. The contextualization of the debates and theoretical constructions is precise and developed in different levels, from the most abstract socio-philosophical level to the debates pertinent to cyberculture and information technologies.

However, as some subjects are vague theoretical notions seldom linked to examples, such as cyberspace, digital technologies, and virtual reality, it becomes distant to those audiences who privilege a "concrete" and specific approach to these topics. The reader will not find a detailed analysis on each particular subject. Also, as this book was published in 2005, it does not offer to the reader the latest accounts on the many discussions addressed along the text.

Chapter one introduces the notion of interactive realism, emphasizing the importance of metaphor in the construction of knowledge by structuring thought -- hence, a performative tool to construct realities. The author explains: "When mapping our position in a world of discourse, we engage in a kind of play -- a fictive, virtual making of possibilities -- that is a kind of poetics, a link between language and making" (16). Metaphors are central to understand this play between reality and digital environments.

The influence of technology in shaping individual and/or interpersonal experiences is the main argument of chapter two, drawn from a detailed analysis of the works of Michael Heim and Mark Poster, among others. This discussion is further elaborated in chapter three by the analysis of two metaphors: the prosthetic other and the artifactual self (cyborg). In this chapter, "other" and "self" refer to the relation between human and technology. Cyberspace -- this communicative environment where self and other interrelate -- is analyzed through subjects such as image, embodiment, and perception. This debate is developed through the intersections of these subjects, conciliating dichotomist perspectives. Downes suggests that "the opposition of image and reality, like the opposition of the virtual and the real, is misdirected" (69).

Two dichotomies -- transparency and opacity, immersion and critical distance -- are discussed along chapter four, as the experience of an "oscillating process of proximation and distalization in our social interactions" (71). This theoretical elaboration focuses on, but is not limited to, virtual communities. Downes suggests that "the proliferation of Internet communities can be seen as a form of dramaturgical play that captures the spirit of the Enlightenment social imaginary" (100), since the engagement in virtual communities implies raising issues as norms, order, affinity, and social cohesion. In this debate, the author questions: how does technology affect the construction of communities?

Chapter five addresses cyberspace "landscapes," conceived as "an ensemble of material and social practices and their symbolic representation; it is a social product that embodies a point of view" -- or, in other words, "visual transcriptions of social practices" (102). In this chapter, Downes reviews once more the debate between utopians and dystopians on technology (and cyberspace), highlighting how the utopian mode of thinking influences the construction of virtual environments or "mirror worlds." The notion of mirror worlds is conceived as software models of representation, or as a "chunk of reality" (112), thereby consisting in "attempts to construct a spatial metaphor that can be easily sedimented in social practice" (114). The relation between images, representations, digital technologies, and reality is drawn along this chapter, where Downes argues the importance of embodied perception: "From embodied experiences we make metaphoric associations" (120).

The notion of heterotopia is central in chapter six, where Downes examines "how we create and preserve a variety of coextant virtual environments and social scripts" (123). Virtual places are related to the metaphor of the map, since maps make a connection between the material and the symbolic. This chapter deals with subjects as history, memory and social imaginary, interweaving the works of theorists such as Foucault, Ricoeur, Vattimo, Baudrillard, Boulding, Mitchell and Poster, among others. In my opinion, this promising discussion was underdeveloped in this brief chapter (in comparison to the other chapters), as it deals superficially to the crucial topics in question: social imaginary, ideology, and memory.

In this text -- or world -- of balanced perspectives, metaphors, and relationships developed along Interactive Realism, the reader might feel lost at times while following the relations between issues and the construction of arguments. Although the argument flow is compromised along the book, the quality of the theoretical constructions is impeccable, offering to the reader new insights to the existent bibliography and a solid basis to the arguments in favour of the method proposed.

Yara Mitsuishi:
Yara Mitsuishi is a PhD student at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture (Communications, Philosophy, and Sociology) at Concordia University in Montreal. She is interested in the relations between digital games/virtual worlds and everyday life from semiotic and phenomenological perspectives.  <mitsuishi@gmail.com>

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