I was reading some philosophy this evening, as is my wont and my job, when I had one of those moments when several disparate threads of philosphical reading and reflection came together into what I considered a pretty wild revelation. The past two winters, my PhD supervisor has been teaching a graduate level seminar on the thought of Gilles Deleuze, a notoriously difficult French writer of philosophy. One of the concepts that has been most puzzling in that seminar, and in Deleuze’s writing generally, is the virtual.
I’m not going to go into what we speculated about the nature of the virtual, because I don’t have time this evening to write out all that speculation. We talked about Henri Bergson’s metaphysics, the mathematics of differential equations represented in phase space, the nature of possibility. We tried to figure out how something could be real but not actual. I could go on, but I won’t. I have lunch plans in fourteen hours, and I may run out of time. Also, I want to qualify this post with the fact that I’m not yet familiar enough with the French language secondary material on Deleuze to know whether this idea has been articulated there already. But I think I have figured out exactly what this concept is.
The virtual existence of any body is a complete set of all that a body can do. Here’s how I figured it out:
1) A body’s mathematical representation as a phase space is a representation on an n-dimensional map of every possible state of that body. We talked in the seminar about the virtual being ‘something like, but not quite’ phase space.
2) A possible state of a body is something that body can do. I can run, eat, sing (poorly), impersonate the voice of internationally acclaimed film director Werner Herzog. But I am not doing any of that right now. None of these actions are actually being done as I write this, but I can do them.
3) Understand the possible states of a body as contained within the structure of that body itself. This could sound weird, but all you’re doing is considering the capacities of a body to be part of that body. A capacity is a real part of a body, even while that body is not acting with that capacity at the moment.
4) A capacity not enacted right now is a real part of a body, but not actual because it isn’t enacted. A body can do this capacity, but doesn’t all the time, or maybe even ever. I can develop my voice into a deeply rich baritone and embark on an eccentric music career. But I won’t. That’s a real capacity I have, so is really part of the structure of my body. But it will never be actualized.
All that a body can do (keep your eyes open, Spinoza fans, Deleuze was one of you too) is the virtual aspects of that body. That’s Deleuze’s language for discussing a body’s capacities, what a structure is capable of, even if that body never develops that capacity. The capacity is always part of that body, even if it is never actualized. Deleuze calls that virtual.