What is the Virtual? Pierre Lévy

Lévy's writing grew prolifically towards the end of the nineties so that by the new millenium his work formed a large, influential and coherent body. Since his style often shifted between the erudite and the popular he had attracted an eager audience ranging from the readers of Magazine Litteraire to the MEPs of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It would be unfair to label him as an apologist for the burgeoning information society although his theme is often bordering on the evangelical, no, Lévy does examine the human condition in cyberspace bringing to bear interesting and illuminating theoretical approaches to understanding the Information Society at the start of the new millenium.

A professor in the department of hypermedia at the University of Paris VIII, he had half a dozen books to his name by the time he published Qu'est-ce que le virtuel? This book heralded a new maturity in his thinking. He had found the confidence to investigate more complex issues in the formation of Cyberfrance by drawing on his reading of Deleuze. "Le virtuel" gives contemporary French thought a clear definition of the virtual and, while not coining the neologism "hominisation", he brings it into play in French and European culture in an innovative and persuasive way. The new vocabulary and the new concepts that this philosopher of post-industrial France prepares in "Le virtuel" are greedily absorbed into the culture of the growing class of thinking knowledge mediators across the metropolitan francophone world. French universities have a tradition of professionalising and intellectualising the role of the knowledge mediator in the old broadcast media and have quickly begun to treat the Internet and the Worldwide Web in the same thoughtful and reflective way. Lévy along with other philosophers of la Toile (the web) provide this technologically literate class with the intellectual tools it demands to make sense of the new cultural imperatives of francophone cyberspace.

I'll now look in detail at the new concepts he opens up which have gained currency and now inform thinking in 21st century France. "Le virtuel" opens with the spectre of Paul Virilio, Lévy asks if it is necessary to believe in Virilio's terrifying implosion of the space-time continuum which Virilio best expresses in his long dialogue "Le pire". Tellingly, Lévy avoids giving his readers the necessary reference to pursue this antithesis in the 'selective, annotated bibliography' of "Le virtuel". Instead he proposes to express a pursuit of the human or to show the increasing use of networked computing in everyday communications as a humanisation process and as such, as a good thing.

He employs historical precedents in his rhetorical formation of the concept he calls "hominisation". To do this he conflates the humanist and modernist project by saying that, despite the brutality of the current crisis in civilisation, the strange changes we are living through can be reassessed in the light of the continuing human adventure. Take language, for example. The historical emergence of language, a very human thing, gave us direct access to the world of the past. Humans no longer needed to exist in the here and now like animals. The storage property of language meant that we could re-visit the past, moving with ease between then and now. This, Lévy says, is humanisation; the ability to create oneself with language, a tool of the virtual. With this tool of the virtual humans can open new spaces and complete a cultural apprenticeship which is much faster than the biological evolution which the non-human being has to wait for. As humans emit sounds, stories, music, pictures they contribute to a world outside of normal reality and outside of present time. It is this making external the internal and the internalising of the narratives available in the public sphere that is both humanising and is the process of virtualisation.

His evocation of times past or, in his words, le passe herité and les choses absentes, step over the existential ethos of living in the here and now. On the cusp of the new millenium he uses this sentiment of a return to the past to give comfort to a generation of 21st century screenagers. This may seem to make him slightly reactionary, however, he is also the writer who spent the first part of his project defining a new collectivism which he had found in the newsgroups of the web that he repeatedly explained was profoundly different from the collective hysterias of fascism and stalinism that gripped popular thought in the first half of the 20th century.

It is worth explaining this position since he relies, quite rightly in view of the exposure he received in metropolitan France in the mid-nineties, upon his audience being familiar with his position on collective intelligence and Internet communication. His is a neat archaeology of social communication with three strata visible to the structuralist eye. First, a tribal age where spoken transactions and the absence of the written ensured that face-to-face communications were always conducted in the same context. The boundaries of the tribe removed misunderstanding in these verbal transactions. The second age was that of the printed word and broadcast media. Powerful élites could transmit their message directly to an unanswering and aquiescent audience. However, context was removed, misunderstanding arose and the rôle of mediator was introduced. Finally, the networked age dawned and once again tribes with the same needs and interests could communicate directly across vast distances without need of publisher, broadcaster or knowledge mediator.

What is virtualisation? Lévy must tackle this question in a work called Qu'est-ce que le virtuel? In his answer to this he introduces the names of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres but wishes to work in the another direction from them. His study analyses the transformation from one mode of being to another, like Deleuze, but studies the move from the real towards the virtual. It is this upward movement from the real towards the virtual (ce retour amont) which he thinks characterises the development of the human species. The virtual is not the false nor the imaginary. The virtual is the power that something has of becoming something. A tree is virtually present in a seed. The virtual and the actual are simply two ways of being different.

Virtualising something consists of discovering a general question to which that thing can reply and then in moving or mutating the thing in the direction of the question. The virtualisation of a company makes an illuminating case study. Information and communications technologies, like ISDN links (Numéris) mean that the staff of the company can be geographically separate and hence near to the service they provide. The datacommunications links provide access to shared data; remote clerical staff can all interrogate and update the same files with only a few seconds waiting time, a type of cooperative tele-working. This virtualisation moves from a stable solution, that is a single head office near the service provided, to a permanently posed problem. The new business leader must constantly ask, how do I coordinate all this? Wheras the norm in business is to move from a problem to a solution, virtualisation mutates a traditional or known solution to a problem which is completely other.

The term virtual can be applied to help understand the documents of the Internet. As you read this text it is clearly here with you, possibly printed on an A4 sheet. But consider the text of a document on a web server. That text can be called and presented on any screen connected to the web; in fact you may be reading this on the screen of a networked computer. The text and the networked screens therefore have a virtual relationship in Lévy's terms, since the power or potential exists for the text to appear anywhere. The problems this poetential creates also adds to this notion of virtuality, especially when the text is a hypertext. As soon as it arrives on the screen of a distant computer the original file on the server may be erased or the hypertext links to other documents be altered by the file's owner. That text being read on the screen is suddenly problematized, it was an original when you first called it from the server but now it is a mutation or the original on the server is a mutation.

  © 1999 Charlie Mansfield

Email charlie.1.mansfield@british-airways.com
Charlie Mansfield works in the area of Electronic Commerce, in Britain and France.
His main research interest is in the role of the Internet in European Dialogue.
He is a member of the « Internet Atelier » at l'École Normale Supérieure in Paris.


Pierre LÉVY (1998) Qu'est-ce que le virtuel? Paris, La Découverte Poche 49. Essais ISBN 2-7071-2835-X 160 pages 45FFr.

Pierre LÉVY (1997) Cyberculture: Rapport au Conseil de l'Europe dans le cadre du projet « Nouvelles technologies : coopération culturelle et communication » Editions du Conseil de l'Europe, Editions Odile Jacob [http://www.odilejacob.fr/fr/index.html] Novembre 1997. 313 pages.
ISBN 2-7381-0512-2

Pierre LÉVY, Interview on Vers une Anthropologie du Cyberspace published on the web at "Propos recueillis par Christian Perrot"
Ce texte est aussi publié dans la revue "Nouvelles Clés".

Pierre LÉVY, Magazine Littéraire, Hors-Série: 1966-1996 la passion des idées. pp. 116-119. Prof Pierre Lévy, Paris-Saint-Denis. « L'Universel sans totalité »