[This is the first of the pages being fed back into the blog. It’s a bit heady, but it has some bearing on the matter of correspondences which I will be talking about in the near future.]
I picked up the idea of the virtual from Gilles Deleuze and it is a concept that has much utility as we set out to discuss what it means to talk about the spiritual world. On this page, I am going to provide a brief introduction to the concept and its applications to occult philosophy. To get at this Deleuzian approach to the virtual I will need to do four things:
- distinguish this use of the term from another popular use of the term.
- define this term.
- detail the relationship between the two uses of the term which partially justifies the same word being applied to both.
- highlight how all of this can inform occult thinking.
1. The first part is a via negativa / neti neti sort of affair, so I will start with that. The term ‘virtual’ most often appears in contexts like ‘virtual world’ referring to things like a MMORPG setting and other well-described fictional environments. It suggests both artificiality and falseness, though not always in equal measure. The virtual in this sense is closely aligned to Baudrillard’s account of the simulacrum, which parasitically models itself upon ‘real’ phenomena but interposes itself between a subject and its objective world, becoming for the subject experiencing it a (pseudo)world.
This use of the term ‘virtual’ describes a mode of representation and the way in which we can become entangled in our representations so thoroughly as to lose awareness of the objective reality upon which they are derived. While modern technology has made this possible on a massive scale, I don’t think the phenomenon is in any way modern or technological. Our capacity to relate directly to an image seems to be a fundamental aspect of our species’ cognition, one that allows us to efficiently model, predict, and project ourselves into the world. The ideas we have of how our neighborhood is laid out, what people and objects populate it, forms something of a virtual world, a simulacrum.
It is important to note that this use of the word ‘virtual’ often skirts the boundary between false and artificial. A virtual world is always artificial, but it isn’t necessarily false. Often, even where it is initially false, we can project it into the world, using it to guide how we act upon the world such that the world receives and grounds our idea. This projection can be transparently magical, but it can also be thoroughly pragmatic, as when we build a road or Disneyland. So, this virtual is fundamentally a question of imagination.
Imagination, subjective v. objective, intention, artificial, and false. Those define the framework of a virtual that I will generally refer to under the name of ‘simulacra’ and ‘imaginary.’
2. This is not what I am talking about here. The ‘virtual’ that I am referring to finds its origins in structuralism and refers to a pattern of relationships which join specific things in a network of communication. The process by which this virtual pattern manifests between concrete things is called actualization, and we can distinguish the virtual pattern from all of its more or less fully actualized exemplars.
The specific things between which a virtual pattern manifests can be quite disparate, but they don’t have to be. The same virtual pattern can manifest between a network of people and a network of rocks, but it can also manifest between several networks of images, characters, and concepts. While we might call this formalism mathematical, this model suggests instead that the domain of mathematics is a specific approach to the virtual, neither its source nor its form.
By putting things into relationship with each other, these patterns make possible formal transformations in those relationships. Structuralism discovered this most startlingly in the domain of myths and folktales, revealing how stories that seemed only distantly related to each other were actually permutations of a common set of elements, some of which were more actualized in one story than another.
Each actualized network is also joined to other actualized networks with which it shares a common pattern. There is a special sort of indirect communication that occurs between them which is difficult to describe but occurs by a piece of one network resonating with another along sympathetic elements. These sympathies are discovered, however, only through experience and experimentation.
Virtual v. actual, objective, network, pattern v. thing, relationship. These are the terms that define this use of virtual.
3. These two uses of the term ‘virtual’ do interface with each other, but for the sake of clarity I am going to use different terms for each within this section. When I talk about the first sense of the virtual, I am going to call it ‘imaginal’ whereas when I talk about the second sense of the virtual, I am going to call it ‘structural.’
The imaginal is not necessarily connected to the structural, but the structural can actualize itself more readily in the imaginal than in many other domains. The representations of the imaginal are plastic and more subject to the sort of organizing that expresses itself through the structural. It is no accident that the early structuralists found evidence for their subject in myth and folklore as the freedom of imagination made possible rapid patterning.
The freedom of the imaginal, however, also sets up a potential conflict between it and the structural. The objective determinations that the structural actualizes can be lost in the subjective assertion of intentions that animate the imaginal. New elements can be introduced which distort the structural pattern, and the elements within the structure can be arranged in a manner counter to the pattern of that structure.
The structural also inspires and strengthens the imaginal, sometimes strengthening their coordination and other times intensifying the implicit tensions between them. Structures educate the imagination in the possibility of permutation, providing examples of how elements can be arranged in representation to make other representations possible, to stir the imagination of the imaginer and that of their potential audience. Often, at the core of a major aesthetic transformation we can glimpse a structure that motivates and energizes it, even when the aesthetic that it inspires proceeds according to a distorted expression of the structure’s pattern.
4. I am going to suggest that proper occult work is structural even as it stimulates and is stimulated by the imaginal. Occult work also opens the horizon of that work into the transtemporal dimensions of the structural, toward the structures as they crisscross and zigzag between blocks of time. These structures remain virtual, though, unless they can be actualized. This is where ritual and contemplative work enter into the picture in a big way, as the productive trading zone between the imaginal and the structural, through which the structural can take on the cloak of intention and projection.
Ideally, the imaginal work is the gateway for this work, not its destination. Much as we construct simulacra in the world, so too can the imaginally-moderated structures develop actual projections in objective life. These aren’t the only ways that structures manifest, though. Structures can manifest in any network of things, including in the ‘wild’ outside of our human projections. These manifestation, while less directed and plastic, are also more durable and intense.
We can develop relationships to these wild structures, too, entering into the sort of indirect communication through which resonance can be achieved and the pattern transmitted and developed within a more human framework. It is also through this communication through the structural that we can bring the wild patterns into greater harmony with human ones, begin the work of integrating the networks through their relationship to a common pattern.
Through this model, we can appreciate more keenly how we can slip from structure into imagination, how we can easily supplant our experience with a structure for the imaginal play it can inspire. We can also appreciate the diversity of structurally sound imaginal work, of how the same structure can actualize through different sorts of stories and personae, without necessarily being just fantasy.
Coda. There is a Kabbalistic correlation for these two virtuals. The structural movement resides in the relationship between Tifaret and Keter/Da’at, in the channel often associated with Saturn and abstract philosophical matters. The virtual movement unfolds in the relationship between Yesod and Malkuth, in the channel often associated with the Moon. The relationship between the two virtuals can provide us insight into the relationship of those two channels in a more pure fashion, unsullied by a confusion of the actualized planetary network and the virtual structure of the sefirot themselves.
Between the two, as I understand, there is a relationship that also develops both according to the nature of the elements of the central pillar, but also through the relationship that develops between the broken fragments of the channel between Gevurah and Binah. This subtle dimension of the imaginal virtual’s responsiveness to the structural virtual plays out in the diagonal channels that weave the three pillars more tightly together.