VIRTUAL PLACES: IMAGINED BOUNDARIES
& HYPERREALITY IN SOUTHEASTERN EUROPE
Introduction: From Hyperreality to VR
It is quite often remarked that the construction of ethnic or cultural boundaries is arbitrary. This arbitrariness is not open to debate. As a matter of fact, contemporary anthropologists regard the concept of a "nation" as something similar to the concept of "race" - namely, it is a concept with which some people do operate, but "in reality," it has no "objective" meaning. This, of course, does not invalidate the fact that people do act based on their presuppositions and preconceptions which include ideas derived from this concept. Thus, even something that does not exist "in reality" can produce very serious and real consequences.
This positioning on either side of what some (or many) people regard as real is sometimes regarded by contemporary theorists as something that has to do with hyperreality (Eco 1986, Baudrillard 1995). Hyperreality is a reality constructed and artificial - but with the full awareness of the participants in this reality. It is a reality that exists while at the same time negating (or even denying) other realities, but the fact that the participants (and creators) are self-conscious of its artificiality opens numerous possibilities for paradoxes. Hyperreality is a place (or area, domain, field, etc.) where all the paradoxes meet and co-exist, side by side. The paradoxes are made obvious (apparent) through the media - and this is something that clearly distinguishes the hyperreal from the end of the 20th century from the surreal or any similar concept. The media input enables people to see (and become aware of) themselves as others. The nature of contemporary technology (Netscape, film, TV, video) makes this imagery extremely widespread (especially in the "West"). It also makes all the paradoxes of the contemporary world more apparent.
Both Virtual Reality (VR) and certain concepts (especially when it comes to boundaries, traditions, or naming) connected with Balkan politics present interesting examples of hyperreal constructions. VR is also known as "artificial reality," "virtual worlds," and is also taken to represent "a visual form of cyberspace." According to Howard Rheingold in Virtual Reality, "Virtual reality is the revolutionary technology that immerses you in a computer-generated world of your own making - a room, a city, an entire solar system, the interior of a human body. With the aid of computer gloves, a Star Wars helmet and some super-sophisticated software, you can now explore the uncharted territory of the human imagination with all your senses intact."
As Jerry Isdale writes in "What is Virtual Reality?", it is also seen as "a way for humans to visualize, manipulate and interact with computers and extremely complex data." It is my belief that delineating places in Southeastern Europe can be related to this, insofar as it presents a way of visualizing, manipulating, and interacting with certain highly ritualized notions (such as "nation," "history," "tradition," etc.) and extremely complex data. The trick is that these complex data are made to look simple and straightforward. To give two examples:
1. The Republic of Macedonia
For some quite extraordinary political reasons (some of which look as if they have been taken from Ionesco's "theater of the absurd"), Macedonia is faced with very specific problems: their neighbors claim that it doesn't exist. Albania claims that the western part of the country (where the majority of ethnic Albanians live) should be given huge autonomy and probably eventually should be annexed to Albania itself. Serbia and Macedonia have some unresolved territorial disputes, and the majority of Serbs believe that Macedonians are just "Southern Serbs" (a term used during the Serbian occupation, between 1912 and 1941). Bulgaria claims that, while Macedonia as a country exists, Slav Macedonians do not, and that they are, basically, just Bulgarians who have not yet realized their "true" (that is to say, Bulgarian) identity. Most recently, Bulgarian government has determined that there is actually a Bulgarian (and not Macedonian) ethnic minority in the northern Albania. Finally, Greece believes that Macedonia's close relations with Turkey (one of the first countries to recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name) pose a threat to Greece. This attitude is connected with the Greek denial of the existence of a Slav Macedonian minority (15000-50000 according to estimates by Helsinki Watch) in its northern province and the refusal to grant to this minority such basic rights as the use of its own (Macedonian) language.
The Macedonian language is recognized as a distinctive South Slavic language by all the countries in the world with the exception of its neighbors Greece and Bulgaria. Because of Greek pressure (the northern Greek province is also called Macedonia), Macedonia was, in April 1993, admitted to the UN (and afterwards to other world organizations) only under a temporary (it is still in use now, in September 1997!) name: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is still being referred to by this temporary name (or by the acronym FYROM) in official communications from the UN, EU, US, and other world organizations - but this term (and being referred to by it) almost all Macedonians find very offensive.
So, Macedonia is a new country that perhaps exists and it is inhabited by people claimed and at the same time denied by their neighbors. Macedonia not only provides some interesting examples for the concept of hyperreality - it is hyperreal itself!
2. The Republic of Slovenia
A sense of hyperreality exists for Slovenia as well, for it was throughout its history. Michael Benson, in "The Future is Now," describes Slovenia as "a country so thoroughly suspended between East and West, for so many centuries, that it actually disappeared. Or, to be more precise, it didn't appear at all - until the spring of 1991, that is. Slovenia's limbo within this East-West "twilight zone" - most recently, between the great Orwellian blocks of the century's second half - did nothing to lessen the struggles fought on her soil. (Hemingway's First World War novel A Farewell to Arms, which chronicles the carnage of the Socha Front, never once mentions Slovenia - despite being set almost entirely within the borders of the present-day republic.) Slovenia's obscurity on the global stage, the concomitant inconsequentiality of her fate, have made the Slovenes unconsciously attuned to historical and ideological pressure changes."
The attunement to changes has its limits. They become most obvious in the communication with their neighbors, on the political plane. Although most Slovenians would consider themselves as "civilized," this is not a view shared by their northern neighbors, in the Republic of Austria. Thus, as Slovenian cultural critic/ideologist/philosopher/psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek claimed in The Guardian in 1992, some European nations tend to regard their southern border as the border between "civilization" and "savagery." The southern border represents "the end of the world as we know it" - it is where the "civilization" ends and where the "savagery" begins. This is the case with Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.
Of course, no one denies that Slovenia exists (although there seem to be some problems with the existence of ethnic Slovenians in southwestern Austria), but it is quite interesting to see something (a country, a nation) arising out of nowhere. Creatio ex nihilo at its best.
VR in the Balkans
The software and specialized equipment for the VR (including Image generators, manipulation and control devices, Data Gloves and Head Mounted Displays [HMD]) helps create an environment where almost everything is possible. In the VR world, an individual is fully immersed into a world which he/she feels and experiences as real or objective. All the senses adjust to this. The feeling of "belonging" to a VR environment is complete. A user adjusts herself/himself to a different rate of motions (slower than "outside" the VR environment), since sudden moves can create a sense of nausea and great discomfort. However, there are some problems and possible health risks.
The CyberEdge Journal #17 has published a summary of the findings of a study done at the University of Edinburgh on the eye strain effects of the use of the HMD. "The basic test was to put 20 young adults on stationary bicycle and let them cycle around a virtual rural road setting using a HMD (...) After 10 minutes of light exercise, the subjects were tested... "The results were alarming: measures of distance vision, binocular fusion and convergence displayed clear signs of binocular stress in a significant number of the subjects. Over half of the subjects also reported symptoms of such stress, such as blurred vision."
As diagnosed by John Nagle, stress symptoms can also include falling on/tripping over real world objects, simulator sickness (disorientation due to conflicting motion signals from eyes and inner ear), eye strain, etc. It seems that the adjustment to the VR is not very compatible with living in (and experiencing) the actual or physical reality (a term used by Jaron Lanier in 1996 in an interview by Adam Heilbrun).
I believe that this is an important point to be taken into consideration when discussing the matters of Southeastern European and Balkan politics. In their own particular ways, politicians and theorists from this part of Europe tend to construct their own VR environments, creating (and re-creating) their countries as Virtual Places. These Virtual Places exist in both time and space, and their presence can be fully experienced by their virtual citizens.
For example, some of the leading Serb historians regard the 13th century as the beginning of the Serb "statehood." It is perfectly useless to try to explain to them that the notions of "state," "nation," or "statehood" (as they are used today) originate in the post-Renaissance Europe (from the 17th century onwards). For most Serbs, the battle of Kosovo in 1389 is seen as the act of defense of Europe against the Ottoman (or Muslim, Islamic, etc.) threat. The collapse of the Serb medieval state that followed (in mid-15th century) is seen as the ultimate price paid for free (that is to say, Christian) Europe. Thus, Europe owes to the Serbs its understanding, recognition, financial assistance, etc.
In another example of a Virtual Place positioned in time, Slav Macedonian nationalists claim their right to a Greater Macedonia, based on the conquests of Alexander the Great, approximately 1,000 years before Slavs even came to the Balkans. This strange construct would include what is today the Republic of Macedonia, as well as parts of Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania. As such, in the virtual space, it overlaps with other Greater constructs: Greater Serbia (which should, apart from Serbia and Montenegro, also include parts of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and the whole of Republic of Macedonia), Greater Bulgaria (Bulgaria, Macedonia, parts of Greece and Albania), and Greater Albania (Albania, parts of Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia). As already noted above, the very existence of some countries (like the Republic of Macedonia) is incomprehensible for some others (in various aspects, for Serbia or FR Yugoslavia, Greece, and Bulgaria). From the official Greek standpoint, for example, its northern neighbor is totally "virtual."
While these constructs are logically incoherent, inconsistent and mutually incompatible, they function quite well in virtual space. They also feed each other and are in a sense dependent on each other. The problems of (possible) communication are solved in an elegant manner: there is no communication, chosen representatives of "the people" usually just repeat what they are told to say and what they always believed they should say: that their nation is the oldest, the best, and always right, and that they have suffered the most. Thus, they should be granted all the privileges for "their" version of these Virtual Places. They are supposed to blend with and eventually supersede real places.
Concluding Remarks: Virtual Exits?
An important thing to be noted here is that any or all versions of these Virtual Places cannot be regarded as either true or false. They are all true - within their respective historical/cultural/ethnic/traditional premises. Within a Virtual reality, a Virtual environment simply exists. As put by the Critical Art Ensemble in their VIPER Lecture: "VR's primary value to spectacle is not as technology at all, but as a myth." It is put to (practical) use only when a user puts on Data Gloves, HMD, and turns on her/his computer. Hence, it is both impractical and impossible to argue with the proponents or creators of Virtual Places - they are always right, since they are forever locked in their own virtual environment.
One of the most obvious effects of the prolonged use of VR is that a user feels a little dizzy afterwards and moves a little slower than "normal" - adjustment to a different environment takes some time (this is sometimes referred to as a "VR leg"). It would be unproductive (except, perhaps, to make fun of such a person) to ask a person who has just taken off his/her HMD to perform some strenuous physical task, to jump or run, etc. A "fundamental loss of orientation" occurs - to borrow Virilio's expression.
Following this, I do not see any point in expecting that ideologists, theorists, politicians or advocates of Virtual Places should act or behave in a manner more in tune with what is sometimes regarded as a "proper behavior" (that is to say, to use rational arguments, to be able to discuss points of views of other participants in a discussion, to accept that they can sometimes be wrong, etc.). One should always bear in mind the particular environment which they see and feel as theirs, in which they feel comfortable, and act accordingly. One way of coping with them would be to always include qualified psychologists and computer experts familiar with the VR in all the negotiating teams and intermediary missions dealing with the Southeastern Europe. I believe that this could greatly enhance mutual understanding and probably ensure much better communication. The other way should be quicker and more efficient, but perhaps too abrupt and not very diplomatic: just to switch off the computer.
With many thanks to Igor Markovic, and acknowledging my debt to Vuk Cosic and CTHEORY (Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, editors). This text was originally published in CTHEORY on 10/29/1997, www.ctheory.net.
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