"Nervous Views from Within : Towards an Immersive Intelligence"

Note: This paper/talk was delivered at the GMD-Institute for Media Communication - MARS, Schloss Birlinghoven, Sankt Augustin, Germany (http://www.gmd.de/MARS) on October 16th, 2000.

I wish to talk today about an emerging optic related to the immersive aspect of virtual reality and how this optic may help us to unframe our normalizing consciousness. As part of Roy Ascott’s Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), at the University of Wales College, Wales, U.K I conducted research into the untheorised immersive ideals behind immersive virtual reality art: that is art which has a continuous but coherent quality – an art which attempts to include everything of perceptual worth within its domain ambiently but coherently in an overall, enveloping totality that is concerted, continuous, and without evident frame or border. The reason for the research was to develop a dialogical cross-examination of art conducted through the incipient concept of immersionability, so as to define both an historical sense of aesthetic immersive visuality and to place this previously untheorised optic into a wider cognitive and social context. The primary subject of this research is immersion then: an experience which is the indispensable characteristic of virtual reality. The fundamental change in aesthetic perception engendered by immersion - a perception which is connected to the ideal of total-immersion in virtual space - identifies certain shifts in ontology. This understanding was achieved through a broad inquiry into the histories of virtual reality, philosophy, and the visual arts and has lead to the formulation of an aesthetic theory of immersive consciousness indicative of immersive culture.

After reviewing the results of my research into the ideational background and paradigmatic implications of aesthetic immersion, I can now state that the balance of evidence points to a definite correlation between immersive ideals and as if imaginable desires for extrasensory (i.e., non-narrowly empiricist) distributed disembodiment (i.e., a loss of cognitive body-image involving the enthused transmigrational expansion of boundaries and a yearning to penetrate and merge characteristic of spirituality (ignudo spirto). Hence the role of immersive art remains the necessary prosthetic task of artificially facilitating such an unrestricted state and as such remains associated with the most fleeting elaborations of artistic consciousness. This erudite desire to exist in an anti-mechanistic state of expansion is temporarily realized (albeit symbolically) in engaging immersive art. As such, immersive art posits itself as a meta-symbol of and for expanded human potential.

This is important in pursuing an advanced inquiry into the interactive arts, in that interactivity to me is not merely the ability to manipulate and modify a virtual world, but the substantial ability of the immersant to self-modify (self-re-program) his or her sense of self. In this estimation, aesthetic immersion adheres to and fosters Kendall Walton's theory of make-believe, as deliniated in Walton’s book "Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Art", in which Walton sees art as a generator of "fictional truths" which through art's inventiveness invites ontological self-modification via the immersant's participation in the creative process. The key value of immersive fictional truths in terms of formulating a theory of immersive art, however, lies in their underscoring the fiction behind the assumed "real" mechanistic perspective when seen as empirically true and universally valid instead of as conventional and contingent idiosyncratic compliances.

The foremost salient aspects of my research have shown that various perceived possibilities for extrasensory psychic disembodiment are produced through aesthetic immersive enclosure when the subject is placed inside the perceptual circuitry of a particularly lavish (i.e., aesthetically-informationally intense) proprioceptive feedback-loop whereby aesthetic immersive consciousness renders a lightness of being. This lightness of being is supported by a metaphorical spatial consciousness of passage principled on the electron transport conditions of the nerve cells.
Hence, the aesthetic immersive sensibility is a system of submerged dispersion in linked neurological self-programmable operation with the tough dictates of submission - rather than any organization of hackneyed singularity. Indeed the conceptual dialectical exchange between the disembodied/ecstatic and the bound/submissive conducted within the ambient optical array of immersive space (conceived of as teeming, continuous, and homogenous) constructs the neural-metaphysics (i.e., the basic neurologically informed concepts of existence) of aesthetic immersion as well as its, what Vladimir Nabokov would consider to be, "combinational delight".

Fixed point-perspective generally configured pictorial art in the West since the Renaissance. Immersion's fundamentally spherical, all-over perspective of dynamic thresholds cast a fraction of art on its course since the Fin-de-Siècle. This marginal tendency has now amply flowered in VR-art as art theory began shifting VR away from its initial paean to illusionistic trompe l'oeil. In VR-art's immersive optic the need for a 360° cognitive-vision enlivens receptive and organizing attributes of peripheral awareness and, as such, intensifies thalamic input to the cortex by making the active thalamic neurons in that region fire more rapidly than usual.
Moreover, with this immersive vision there is a shift to a more conscious peripheral mode of perception which entails a deautomatisation of the perceptual process (whereby more emphasis is placed on what is on the edges of sight and consciousness) thus presumably adjusting the immersant up to an expanded and fuller consciousness. This emphasis on the peripheral utilizes the Deleuzian broad scan; Gilles Deleuze's non-linear dynamic conceptual displacement of a view along any axis or direction in favor of a sweeping processes in space/time. Hence immersive vision may acquire an increasingly computational-like encompassing range useful in expanding the customary (160° vertical by 180° horizontal) FOV outward so as to increase situational awareness.

Such a developing syncretistic visuality would adhere to the assertion that the history of the human world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen. Such an approach to visuality automatically undermines what Hal Foster calls the "rhetorical conventionality of sight" and this conventionality's "perseverance as an epistemological model".
In virtual immersion conventional optic models may be surpassed, for immersed in a VR simulation we can exchange eyes with another person and see ourselves and the world from their vantage point - or indeed, see ourselves from any vantage point. These aspects of view-switching - in conjunction with the goal of extending conscious awareness through a non-linear, non-lateral entwined spherical series of small glances which criss-cross – evidence key immersive ideals and their relationship to critical distance. Thus what has been suggested to me by my research is a widespread human desire to pursue extended consciousness through immersive excess. This is not remarkable in that Georges Bataille showed us that sanctioned excess is generally found in much of art's perceptible richness and that the syntax of art is inner excess. In accord, I have concluded that aesthetic immersion is about stimulation through excess of our internal perceptual circuitry.
However, one might ask for more of an explanation for this widespread desire for the aoristic (without horizons) non-logocentric excess suggested in what I have described as the inexorable entirety found in total art. The answer to this question, which I inevitably put to myself, was found when reading Gilles Deleuze's "Spinoza: Practical Philosophy". In it Deleuze points us towards a recognition of our desires' productiveness, as he indicates how desires propel us to move towards greater or lesser states of sublime wholeness "depending on whether the thing encountered enters into composition with us, or on the contrary tends to decompose us...".
In the case of immersive awareness as brought about through convincing total art models, immersive consciousness is a "continual awareness of this passage from greater to lesser, or from lesser to greater"; an awareness which potentially helps remove the subject out of her or his glib indolence. That persuasive quintessence of immersive total art which agrees with our inner tendency to model ourselves as vast but whole hyper-beings beckons the theoretical viewer/participant (what I call the ‘viewpant’) to form a ripe neuro-philosophical totality (inexorable entirety) with the suggested hyper but accordant possible world experienced in the immersive total art work. This forming of a developed neuro-philosophical hyper-totality, however, requires overcoming the dominant esprit of our time, which has been deconstructive of totalities. But if biocomputationaly achieved, such hyper immersive fabrications may function in accord with Friedrich Schelling's tenant that through art the mind may come to a full awareness of itself.
In that I am evoking the word hyper, and the phrase hyper-linked, in relationship to being and art here, I shall briefly summarize the basis of the hyper concept as adapted from the procedures of hyper-text, hyper-media and hyper-reality. The strategy of hyper-anything includes principles of networked connections and electronic links which give multiple choices of passages to follow and continually new branching possibilities. The total-hyper-being model of existence then, especially when placing emphasis on tabulating an evasive omni-perceptual orb, is the self-re-programmable internal function which explicitly offers a furtherance in envisioning internal anti-hierarchical models of ourselves. Such functional defamiliarizations can be also understood as a desiring procedure for instituting a sense of united-hyper-being, which is itself a preparation for and almost inevitable instigator of it. Thus immersive total art is inherently anticipatory of this desired state as it invites the subject to look forward to displaying her or his own synthetic capacity in tabulating an extended range of perceptions. In this sense, the immersive total art context ratifies through synthetic non-alienation Walter Benjamin's Brechtian alienating-based aspiration to close the gap between the art and the audience.

Immersive awareness/optics increases then in relation to immersive total art modes of presentational ideas which correspond to self-presentational ideas of ourselves. It follows then that immersion's ideal motif of 360° display offers the immersant an ideal liminal internal experience by re-locating inner being within an enclosed total art indeterminacy - an energy which functions in expanding our syncretistic visual-mental field. Immersive consciousness is essentially a cognitive challenge to our habitual sensibility then; a challenge to find the fullest possible cognitive-visual resources to cope with the expanded context of immersive total art's excess; and a proposal that implies that those cognitive-visual resources are available, if as yet undefined.

Moreover, syncretistic cognition, when generated in aesthetic rapport with immersive total art, is a generative set of non-linear dynamic relations (rather than a sealed proclamation) whose method of poly-dispersion frequently (and paradoxically) yields a plethoric sense of non-logocentric hyper-embodiment (i.e., a sense of neurological all-overness) antithetical to its submissional essence. Hence aesthetic immersion is consistent with Georges Bataille's intellectual comprehension of excess (itself suggestive of the human cortex with its vast array of micro intra-cortical nerve connections) as a mercurial movement which surpasses entrenched limits. The intensity of indeterminate dithyrambian excess as experienced in dynamic immersive total art is key to this cognition.

This awareness of course includes a comprehension of the institutional and materiality of electronic immersive technologies along with their effectiveness for creating modalities of experimental hyper-corporeality. As the material mechanics of construction are generally hidden within immersive environments (so as to aggrandise their seductiveness), full immersive consciousness demands that the immersant be consciousness of the technical attributes and institutionalized context which surrounds and supports the immersive apparatus even while participating in the hyper-corporeal/spacio-temporal configurations of it's omni sweep.
Such a self-referentiality would follow an anti-mechanistic, semi-formalist, demystificational approach towards the immersive process, thereby producing for itself a level of post-materialistic, meta-awareness. Such meta-awareness requires temporarily overcoming the transparency of the medium (which is the preconditional disposition required for total-immersion) so as to defeat illusionist trompe-l'oeil seduction where the medium is not seen (is transparent) so as to present an illusionistic faux world as real. This prerequisite is indispensable in that an art which strives for technical transparency of the medium strips the viewpant of at least one level of criticality.

The work of the Malevichian Russian Formalists/spiritualists in the early part of the 20th century has a key place in this meta-comprehension of shuttling back and forth between artistic levels of awareness. This reflexive approach engages the immersant in a game of in and out which runs counter to Brenda Laurel's declared goal of computer invisibility for VR worlds. The value in taking such a dynamic, semi-formalist approach towards immersion lies in its capacity to reveal the perceiving operational datum of perception (i.e., seeing seeing, and/or seeing the unseen therein); an operation which, in Dr. John Lilly's terms, helps reveal the metaprogramming aspect of immersive situations.

Formalism is a self-metaprogrammable immersive tool when it rigorously stresses immersion's own formational principles. But there is more to it than that. When semi-formalist immersive awareness is allowed to go into overdrive it may pick up cognitive/psychological information simultaneously with materialistic understandings from different spaces in the work, adding to one's self-metaprogrammatic list of probables. Thus through non-representational/semi-formalist perception, immersive meta-consciousness becomes aware of its own aesthetic capacity to unite and synthesize, a capacity which reminds us of our programmatic power over our own biocomputer. Appreciating the capacity of summational wholeness through self-metaprogrammatic semi-formalist awareness is a dominant constituent in full aesthetic immersive satisfaction.

By refusing the dichotomised, utilitarian, manageable codes of representation with free non-logocentric associational operations, latent excess triggers a multitudinous array of synaptic charges and thickens visuality to the extent that it prevents the achievement of a determinate, definitive inspection of aesthetic immersive space even while conveying the impression of totality via the unification operation of the unconscious human desire for spatial summation. This excessive threshold component of the immersive aesthetic adds - to the usual signals in the internal circuitry of the human biocomputer - enough uncertainty to make new configurations of the self probable by organizing the internal energies of the self more broadly via disembodiment.

The subsequent and ultimate aesthetic benefit of the immersive act then, is in attaining a prospective realization of one's own perceptual circuitry as a self-re-programmable phenomenological operation. Thus the immersive synthetic total art model offers an alternative visual regime of and for the self-programming psyche in that mental-visual range is extended (via latent excess) and hence is counteractive to ontological foreclosure. With aesthetic immersion's quantitative appetite to surpass visual confinements, the human subject is ready to algorithmically escape and exceed previous limits in accord with the implied infinity of our expanding aoristic universe. Indeed intellectual, perceptual and political boundaries have historically been the immersive ideal's nemesis.

This self-re-programmable ontological operation occurs specifically in a constructed space between the immersive art and the subject, similarly to the way Wolfgang Iser locates the encounter with a written text by its reader in a third realm of indeterminate interaction which he calls the "work"; a transaction situated "somewhere between" the text and the reader. However, unlike a written text, the self-re-programmable ontological adjustments and modifications one makes during the process of coming to understand a kaleidoscopic-like total art work of submission/excess omni-directionally, never ceases and sensorial closure is never evoked. Hence, in accord with Bell Hooks's understanding of antithetical liberational learning as exciting exchanges of ideas that never end, aesthetic-informational excess approaches an oppositional Foucauldian "kind of ecstasy" within the receptive subject. This "kind of ecstasy" potentially found within aesthetic-informational excess is particularly liberational in that, as Brian Massumi tells us, "if there were no escape, no excess or remainder, no fade-out to infinity, the universe would be without potential, pure entropy, death".

Aesthetic immersion's non-linear and indeterminate latent excess then facilitates our desire to transcend the boundaries of our customary human cognition so as to feel that state of unconditionally which Hegel called the absolute (our absolute sense as an unalloyed being akin to non-being) by way of a neuro-metaphysics conveyed through immersive total art's necessarily ambient milieu. This extrasensory dispersion, which presuppose a loss of fixed reference points, implies a diaphanous neural-metaphysics constructed around the disembodied psyche's enhanced identity as non-site consistent with Jean-François Lyotard's assertion that metaphysical concepts have been realized in the contemporary world. By the synthetic psyche taking up in immersion an anti-position of circuitous non-site, we can ascertain that the immersive sensibility is essentially non-logocentric, ecstatic, variational, non-hierarchical, and excessive. It is particularly excessive in that immersion deframes and overwhelms the envelope of hardened fixed-point (i.e., window) perception with aesthetic input and hence is an excess of and for the prosaic gaze as it offers an immersive scope beyond our perceptual capabilities. Indeed, instead of nicely proceeding along towards an expedient comprehension and appraisal, immersive latent excess actually opens up an oppositional anti-mechanistic space of self adumbration for the self-re-programming ontologically minded by revealing the loose limits of our solipsistic and hedonistic inner circuitry. The latent excess necessary for triggering such an immersive keenness offers to the self-re-programming immersant a scope of sensibility beyond that which Jacques Derrida identified as typical of the consolidated, passive, spectator/consumer. Indeed in our heavily materially oriented, technologically accelerated, information saturated culture, where experience is increasingly prescribed, facile, and fast, thoughtful languor coupled with dynamic immersion in the discursive circuitry of perspicacious excess satisfies an essential need for immersive cognitive-visuality consistent with the interpretative theories of both hermeneutics and the phenomenology of perception.

In this respect algorithmic immersive total art fulfils the negative dialectical ideal of art as affirmed by Theodor Adorno. Adorno upheld the view that the radical potential of art lies in formal innovations which refuse to allow its passive consumption, demanding instead an active-critical intellectual involvement (inherent in the latent excess of the immersive aesthetic) in opposition to unthinking assimilation. It is for this reason that immersive total art possesses a negative dialectical felicity of its own.

Indeed the negative dialectical confrontation with non-knowing typical of immersive total art's aorist excess is an important component of immersive consciousness' intellectual satisfaction, as the entire benefit of addressing the espoused ideal inherent in immersive omni-perception exists in attempting to adhere to an exciting transmissible hyper-state which exceeds, transcends, and overwhelms our former inner territory. However, this transmissible hyper-state is only probable when the two fundamental grades of immersive sensibility, which I distinguish as (1.) cocooning and (2.) expanding, are in dialectical co-operation. When these two directions of extrasensory sensibility connect and co-operate within a vast, synthetic, aesthetic, immersive topophilia (wired with an excess which consequently disallows itself to be readily grasped), what we sense is our being becoming subliminal. It is this sense of incomplete aorist excess (latent excess within immensity) that draws the eye and mind in and conceptually sublimates our being in the interests of the construction of the ontological state of synthetic hyper-being. In this sense, immersive consciousness is a pregnant consciousness where an emerging hyper-ontology concentrates attention on inner, developing, self-programmable selfhood in a correspondingly expanded way to the latent-excess laced environment with which it is preoccupied.
This immersive consciousness suggests a sense of immense inner incomplete excess as in this state of immersive consciousness one is never presented with concluded consequences, as there always remains some further qualification to be made and some new perspective from which an idea or percept may be observed. In this sense total-immersion helps constitute a post-Hegelian consciousness, as Hegel maintained that no idea has a fixed meaning and that no form of understanding has an unchanging validity.
Dr. John Lilly's explanation of this phenomenon is that the immersant imaginatively takes over the perceptual space and "fills it with programs, metaprograms and self-metaprograms which are modified in the inner perception as if an external reality equivalent". Thus this ontology is centered even while its ontological boundaries seem to disappear by moving out in all directions, as the meta-programming ego attempts to fill the aorist excess with well-being. This would indicate that when cognition becomes looped with and in aorist excess it begins to feed-back comprehension.

This feed-backing of comprehension thereby draws well-being's self-attention inwardly towards the inner self-referential bio-circuitry; circuitry usually occupied with perceptual demands of a different, more standardly outward, kind. This is a valuable maneuver in that once one has meta-programmable dominion over self-suggested models of inner aorist excess from inside the circuitry (i.e., once one imaginatively participates in the mental construction of the proposed aorist excess, and one is able to visualize and vary the parameters of the well-being self satisfactorily in accordance with the aorist excess' propositions) one's sense of ontological involvement may reciprocally rest in this state in actuality. Hence, we may realize (and self-program ourselves with aorist excess to surpass) our limitations and lazy assumptions as programmed by the petite bourgeois world-view.
Within immersive, non-linear, multi-dynamic, aesthetically-informationally intensive total art our ontological sensation of well-being may attempt to break out of its architectural and bodily constraints by the attraction of the art's 360° extra-sensorial propositions superseding and over-saturating our visual-mental norm, thereby stimulating within the immersant a sense of private adaptability to expansion by evoking dimensions that are much larger than our normal cognitive-optic capabilities are used to tabulating.
To review: total-immersion expands the measure of cognitive-perception through well-being's enthused synthetic contact with an impossible non-linear excess and, thus, is a superabundance of and for the imagination. In that within the state of total-immersion the ontological distinctions between space and body elusively commingle in states of dis/hyper-embodiment, total-immersion makes extensive demands on our previous facilities of critical reflection by addressing our inarticulate ideal connections; the extrasensory concatenational sphere between the subconscious and the conscious realm that cannot easily be expressed in words but of which we can be occasionally appreciative.
Consequently, the important apex of this process of immersion is not that of disembodiment, but rather that of disembodiment's generation of a shimmering hyper-embodiment where self-referential conscious and unconscious self-perceptions become extended, enhanced, and connected.


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