Jules Law, “Victorian Virtual Reality”


This entry considers the lines of continuity between certain aspects of Victorian popular culture and those turn-of-the-21st-century forms of (and aspirations to) real-time, immersive entertainment that we dub “virtual reality.” I argue that virtuality has two aspects, one historical and one phenomenological, and that the middle of the nineteenth century provided templates for both. Like several other scholars (most notably Clayton, Byerly and Plotz), I see the aspiration to virtuality manifested in realist as well as illusionistic genres. I trace virtuality to the Benjaminian concept of the “aura,” but offer a new reading of that term as an historical phase (with a terminal point) rather than as an historically produced essence.

This paper considers briefly, and in a theoretical and speculative way, how nineteenth-century genres and media anticipated the technical challenges and cultural fantasies of modern “virtual” technology. Undoubtedly a host of heterogeneous technologies within nineteenth-century British culture vied to produce sensations of immanence and immediacy: technologies as varied as the Romantic lyric, the sensation novel, dioramas, chiaroscuro, the stereoscope, mesmerism, and the phonograph. My account focuses on the theoretical underpinning of these technologies and concludes by looking at virtuality as it manifests in a classic realist novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

The template for nineteenth-century ideas about the virtual can be located in William Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, with its tension between the famous “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” and the reprobated “craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies” (98, 99). In these rival formulations we see the familiar opposition of emotion to information that Wordsworth’s manifesto enshrined for a generation of Romantic writers, but we see as well a more subtle, troubling, and intractable dynamic: a tension between two opposing valuations of what we might call “immediation” (an instantaneous, ostensibly unmediated act of communication in which meaning or sense is conveyed without loss or lag).[1] In cultural processes of immediation, Wordsworth finds both the spontaneity that sustains and the rapid communication that kills the spirit: two ideals of temporal abridgement that are each other’s negation.[2] And for Wordsworth, the two opposing forms of immediation are, at one extreme, urban and technological (the product of mass-productive and mass-cultural forces), and, at the other extreme, intuitive, personal, and pastoral. In short, then, Wordsworth represents the leading edge of a culture in which simulated experience was understood to be at once more immediate and more ghostly than the real, and in which technology was at once handmaiden and traitor to an ideal of unmediated experience.

Literature has long served as a humanistic technology that promised to deliver other worlds: that is, to create a world we might immerse ourselves in or to transport us from present circumstances to other places or times. In this minimal sense, the claims of modern digital virtual-reality technologies are simply an innovation on an old theme. True, virtual-reality technology does generally lay claim to two specific criteria or phenomena that would distinguish it from earlier media and genres: namely the illusion of full-body mediation and the sustained simulation of real-time. But given that almost any discourse attempting to define or convey the phenomenological character of virtual reality necessarily has recourse to a conventional repertoire of literary-critical and art-critical terms (transport, transcendence, immersion, immanence, immediacy, negative capability, etc.), the question inevitably arises: to what extent can digital virtual reality be categorically distinguished from its own genealogy?[3]

My goal in this essay is to show how the nineteenth-century struggle over immediation anticipated the structural concerns of modern virtuality. Theoretically, this study draws on two substantially different accounts of virtuality. First, a poststructuralist account, in which the illusion of presence promised by modern virtual technology is no more than an extension of the phenomenological paradox (of simultaneous presence and absence) built into the very first technological apparatus: language. And, second, an historicist account, derived from the work of Walter Benjamin, in which virtuality is the residue of certain nineteenth-century developments in the history of technological-reproductive processes (mass-publishing, the photograph and phonograph, etc.). My argument is that the categories underpinning our current concept of virtual reality were elaborated in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that they represent a significant innovation upon earlier cognate concepts and traditions: e.g., the sublime as negation of self, gothic uncanniness, poetic and painterly tropes of “transport,” and enlightenment conceptions of science as a prosthesis extending the manipulative force of the human will.

In the following sections, I first elaborate a working definition of virtuality, then outline an essentially deconstructive reading of Benjamin’s account of nineteenth-century mechanical reproduction, then turn to the relationship between the stereoscope and virtuality, and finally examine the relationship between virtuality and realism in a concrete literary instance, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

1. Virtuality

What is virtual reality (VR) technology? Despite its widely (and variably) represented perfection in a host of futuristic narratives over the past 30 years, it has, of course, been only crudely approximated in practice.[4] Most of our fantasies about VR are drawn from the realm of fiction, despite our residual conviction that all but the final few technical details and obstacles have been solved and that it is now a technology within reach. It is nonetheless to that incipient ideal—often elaborated in conjunction by fiction and theory—rather than to the status of any accomplished technology subtending it, that I will be referring here. Cultural discussions of virtuality over the past 25 years have ranged from those centrally based on the particular features of specific technological innovations (e.g. Jaron Lanier, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson) to more philosophically speculative studies that use “virtuality” primarily as a metaphor for a post-human society (e.g. Brian Massumi). I will be most concerned here with conceptions of the virtual emerging from the work of scholars engaged equally with technology and theory, specifically Marie-Laure Ryan, Margaret Morse, and N. Katherine Hayles.

Ryan’s work has been most productive for those seeking to identify threads of continuity between VR and earlier cultural forms. Ryan depicts Western art since the middle ages as a history of the dissolution and re-assertion of surfaces. Both in the visual and the literary realms, art oscillates between an “immersive” ideal (which strives to occlude the material medium) and an “inter-active” (which strives to heighten consciousness of the medium).[5] In the visual realm this shifting dynamic can be traced in the relative privileging of painterly tangibility vis-à-vis perspectival depth of field.[6] The viewer either stands outside the painting, engaging with it, or gives over to the fiction of entering the represented world. Ryan sees these two opposing dynamics as staking out in advance the twin—if bipolar—ideals of VR. On the one hand, we have the “immersive” ideal, instantiated in simulated, multi-media sensory experiences, operating in real time, and realistic enough to cancel out (to varying degrees) the subject’s awareness of their actual physical circumstances (e.g. VR headsets). On the other hand, we have the inter-active ideal, instantiated in point-and-click media, articulated through “links,” and operating with a highly attenuated sensory palette (e.g. the internet). In the former case, one dons a prosthesis with the goal of becoming unaware of it; in the latter case, one remains highly conscious of manipulating a prosthesis. Ryan’s account has the advantage of assimilating VR neatly to an entire longue durée of representation, one that has powerfully conditioned our responses to art in terms of surfaces and depths, a set of tropes not only active but still tactically useful across various media. The disadvantage, of course, is that such an account erases the historical and material specificity of the digital medium.

The transformative nature of that medium is more significant for Hayles’ and Morse’s accounts of virtuality, both of which seek to encompass the breadth of Ryan’s theorization while preserving some sense of electronic media’s distinctive role in the virtual. Hayles defines virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns” (13-14) while Morse defines it as an imaginary relationship in which we treat a machine as if it were a person (one that seems to know, moreover, where we are) (6-11).[7] For me, the crucial question raised by Hayles’ and Morse’s work is whether we can identify the virtual as a specific form of representation that both foregrounds and requires the mediation of technology—in the hard-science rather than the philosophical sense[8]—without necessarily requiring the particular mediation of digitized information. Is there a distinctive region of representation to be identified between “correspondence to reality” on the one hand and fantasy, illusion, hallucination, on the other? And can this region be defined in terms of the necessary mediating role of technology in producing it: a machinic, industrial-era technology less generic than Derridean technics but not as highly specific as digitality?[9] And do these conditions correspond to a particular historical period—the middle of the nineteenth century? If so, is it possible that the rapid obsolescence of certain mid-nineteenth century mass-cultural products provided the blueprint or idiom for understanding the emergence of the virtual at the end of the twentieth century—an emergence that we might justifiably call a re-emergence?

2. Aura

My thesis, as I’ve outlined above, is that the conditions for the production of modern virtual reality were formulated in the middle of the nineteenth century. In order to pursue this argument, I offer—at first by way of analogy but then by way of actual historical explanation—a polemical, deconstructive account of Walter Benjamin’s theory of the aura. The outlines of this theory—articulated in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—are familiar enough. Before the era of mechanical reproduction, people encountered aesthetic objects in contexts still at least metonymically connected to the circumstances of their production and to their imagined scenes of use (that is, to horizons imagined by their producers).[x] Though the residue of these originating circumstances could indeed become progressively attenuated—as in the case of the peregrinations of manuscripts—its traces could not be completely erased (217-252). In the popular understanding of Benjamin, such a residue constitutes the “aura” of a work of art, and it is this aura that is absent from any mechanical reproduction of the work—say, a printed book or lithograph. In such a reading, Benjamin’s account is classically logocentric: aura and origin are coterminous; the aura is strongest when the work of art is closest to its origin.

But, of course, at its origins, the work of art is precisely not a work of art. There is, it turns out, a prehistory even to origins. Before art, in Benjamin’s account, we had “cult,” “magic,” and “ritual,” and, strangely enough . . . “use value.” According to Benjamin, art is itself an historically specific development: many objects become art only after being removed from their original scene of use, which was as un-self-conscious instrument of ritual: “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (224). A couple of paragraphs later Benjamin recalls the “situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art” (225). So, the aura does not attach to an object from its inception; the aura is—both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, we might say—an evolved phenomenon, an historical phase. As Miriam Bratu Hansen argues, “Benjamin suggests that aura as a medium of perception—or ‘perceptibility’—becomes visible only on the basis of technological reproduction” (343). In short, technology makes the aura.

Now let us ask, according to Benjamin, when does the aura disappear—not the aura of individual works of art, but the aura as historical phenomenon? Individual auras are phased out by mechanical reproduction: by printing presses, lithographic and phonographic reproduction, etc. But this phase of mechanical reproduction is itself surpassed: for the telos, f mechanical reproduction is apparently to strip art of its origins far more fundamentally than the process of mere copying accomplishes.[11] As Benjamin writes: “To an ever greater degree the work of art produced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224). And Benjamin gives as his classic example the photographic negative: an original designed not for direct consumption or aesthetic apprehension in and of itself but only for the purposes of reproducing images that can in turn be consumed. Though Benjamin does not say so, this is a categorically different kind of lost aura. The aura here is not so much lost as irrelevant; the relevant conditions for producing it have themselves been lost. In this reading of Benjamin the “aura” is not an ur-phenomenon or originary phase progressively attenuated by the onward march of history and technology. It is, rather, a specifiable and discrete phase of historical development: it both comes into being and passes away. The very concept of the aura makes no sense in an era of technological production, an era of simulacra without privileged origin; but it equally makes no sense before techniques of mass reproduction and dissemination or distribution. The aura, then, belongs to an ephemeral and transitional state of development in the history of technology. In short, the aura was produced by the nineteenth century, in a brief efflorescence of mechanically reproductive technologies that were themselves quickly eclipsed by technologies that skipped an initial phase of direct address to an audience.[12]

This history of the aura is relevant to the history of virtual reality because the two share a common phenomenological predicament. It is a predicament that we can trace to the ontology of the sign itself, but nonetheless a predicament that reached a certain expressive crisis in the nineteenth century. In the well-known Derridean analysis, to apprehend form (that is, to apprehend something as having form, as being legible) requires apprehending it as a trace, as the reappearance or reiteration of a previously encountered form.[13] Apprehension is recognition; without recognition we are simply bombarded with sensations. The two zero-degrees of meaning on either side of the sign are, thus, the wilderness of pure singularity, on the one hand, and mindless, mechanical repetition, on the other. In between these two extremes, the sign is constituted as an intuition in which we are already conscious of a loss, of something receding from our grasp.

So, while on the one hand a successful aura or a successful virtual experience would erase that nagging difference that reminds us that we are not quite fully, not quite authentically, not quite un-self-consciously in the moment, it is easy to see how from the perspective of modern critique no form of mediation could ever succeed in such a way;[14] it would be pure psychosis to lose the framing reference that reminds us that we are looking only at a representation. In this regard, the irreducible consciousness of a concrete medium, which both Hayles and Morse have asserted as the inevitable residue of even the most digitally transformed representations, is essential to virtual reality—indeed, is what distinguishes it from hallucination. This experience of concrete mediation need not be pervasive throughout the virtual experience; but it is particularly prominent at the margins and gateways of that experience, the transitional moments where one moves from reality to virtuality. So contemporary virtual-reality narratives compulsively and reflexively point to the concrete borders and boundaries of the virtual experience. In Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, when Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to convince a skeptical Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) that they are actually in a virtual world—a constructed dream—he points not to any aspect of the moment but rather to the narrative borders of the scene. “How did we get to this café?” he asks her. “Do you remember coming here?” While it is not clear that any good post-Freudian would assent to the assertion that normal consciousness is characterized by the ability to state confidently how we got to where we are, the criterion does nonetheless help distinguish virtuality as a genre from affiliated genres that also play with the relationship between “normal” or “conscious” reality and “dream” or “unconscious” realities.[15] So, virtual-reality narratives assert, almost against their own will, a disjunctive, breaching relationship between real and virtual experiences. Virtuality is experienced as a sudden—and technologically induced—usurpation of consciousness.

3. Novel

My aim in the remainder of this paper is to locate an incipient concern with virtuality at the heart of nineteenth-century realism—that is, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Nominally it is beyond a doubt that the novel has a working definition of the “virtual.” For example, Mary Garth’s action in refusing to burn Peter Featherstone’s alternate will, we are told, has “virtually determined the production of this second will” (282). Additionally, Will Ladislaw’s actions in seeking out Dorothea Casaubon at church constitute a “virtual defiance” of his cousin’s prohibition against visiting her (381). Every action or event in the novel is understood to be surrounded by a penumbra of hypothetical consequences entailed or proscribed by logic, and such penumbras constitute a virtual reality.[16] There is nothing particularly remarkable about this. But the novel has more exotic and specific kinds of virtuality in mind as well. Casaubon’s life goal is to establish the connections that will animate or illuminate a field of data, to make it “intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of correspondences”: in short, to construct a virtual world (47). But clearly, not every represented world is a virtual one. Standing before a representation is one thing; being possessed by it is another: “For my part I am very sorry for him,” writes the narrator; “[i]t is an uneasy lot at best . . . to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold” (244). Standing before a fully articulated world; being immersed in it. Are these the inevitably alternative, irreconcilable poles of virtuality?[17] Or is the virtual, for Eliot, only that simulated, hypothetical world into which we can enter or by which we can be possessed? Elsewhere in the novel, Eliot constantly imagines alternative lives or plots as stage-sets or stage machinery outside the time of the play; in other words, as highly elaborated sets that can be inhabited or traversed but without any sense of enchantment or animation. Here are three particularly resonant examples:

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful lovers, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. (Eliot 140, emphasis mine)

Each remembered thing in the room was disenchanted, was deadened as an unlit transparency . . .  (Eliot 240, emphasis mine)

It may seem strange, but it is the fact, that the ordinary vulgar vision of which Mr. Casaubon suspected him—namely, that Dorothea might become a widow, and that the interest he had established in her mind might turn into acceptance of him as a husband—had no tempting, arresting power over him; he did not live in the scenery of such an event, and follow it out, as we all do with that imagined “otherwise” which is our practical heaven. (Eliot 380, emphasis mine)

Each of these passages, in a different way, depicts a hypothetical world as a fully articulated space that nonetheless does not come alive (or, to reverse the trope, that one does not become alive to). A space that one inhabits, but without conviction: and this, I would argue, constitutes Eliot’s conception of virtuality. As I will try to show in the all-too-brief readings that conclude this paper, such virtual worlds tend to be imagined in the novel as the products of a deliberately enhanced visual depth of field. At the same time, however, the potential space of action opened up within them is strangely neutral or cancelled. A field saturated with information and a field potent for action turn out not to be the same thing.

In attempting to establish Eliot’s concern with the relationships among realism, science and virtuality, I will cheat a little by beginning not with Middlemarch but with one of Eliot’s earliest works, the explicitly gothic “Lifted Veil,” and by reading Middlemarch through its lens. Throughout the story, the narrator, Latimer, is consistently afflicted by violent usurpations of consciousness. Visions consistently “break in” upon him, ushered in by the “clang” of metal (9), in the same sudden and violent way that the maid’s confession at the end of the story is precipitated by a postmortem blood transfusion. The story, as I have argued elsewhere, thus leaves us posed between two very different readings, one of which stresses advanced scientific methods, and the other of which stresses the phenomenology of consciousness, as the source of virtual experience.[18] Middlemarch somewhat attenuates this picture of states of consciousness violently succeeding upon one another, but the mode of attenuation is not to deny the violence of virtual experiences, but rather to correlate them with a specular—rather than visceral—apprehension of alternate realities, and to connect these to a deliberately exaggerated sensation of depth of field. I will look at two pairs of scenes in the novel, one concerning Lydgate and the other concerning Dorothea.

The novel’s first scene of virtual reality involves a sudden and shocking transport from a real to a constructed world, if one little anticipated by its subject. Lydgate, in a studied break from his galvanic experiments—though still, it will turn out, under their dispensation—is watching his crush, Madame Laure, on stage, where she performs for real the act that the play requires her to simulate: the stabbing of a husband. This action abruptly projects Lydgate into the scene: he “leaped and climbed, he hardly knew how, onto the stage” (151). The transition is spontaneous and un-self-conscious.[19] In the new world in which he finds himself on stage, every aspect of the fiction maps detail for detail onto reality, as we might expect of a fully elaborated virtual world. For instance, as part of her subsequent confession, Madame Laure insists to Lydgate that her foot “really” slipped, which he reasonably takes to mean that she had not intended to kill her husband. But when she follows this up immediately with “I meant to do it,” we understand that she is not contradicting her previous statement—“my foot really slipped”— but rather explaining it (153). Her foot “really” slipped only in the sense that it did not fictionally slip. From the perspective of characters on the stage, events on the stage unfold in real time with real consequences. There is nothing abbreviated or dreamlike in what happened; it is virtual, not fictional. Of course, for the reader, the real subject—or perhaps I should say the relevant subject—here is Lydgate, not Madame Laure. And the virtual world that for Madame Laure is produced by a script is for Lydgate produced by a precise combination of technical circumstances: not the simulation of acting, but the chiaroscuro lighting of the theater, the manipulated depth of field of the proscenium space, the residue of galvanic experimentation. All of these produce the spark that propels Lydgate suddenly and spontaneously into a virtual world. As if to emphasize the functional centrality of visual depth of field to his virtual experience, the narrator even imagines Lydgate looking back at his “real” self from his virtual vantage-point:

had two selves within him apparently and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us. (152)

This trope, and the technology of theater, are rejoined in one of our final views of Lydgate, where he sees his life sliding into an at-once magical and banal virtuality: “it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into the pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance” (602).

In both these scenes, Lydgate looks back at his real, diminished self from the vantage-point of a hypothesized self. And both scenes evoke the traditional trope of the prospect; but something new is added here. The correlation of visual depth of field with specular mastery that is the signature effect of the prospect tradition is supplemented in these scenes by the suggestion of technological intensification. And what technology does is precisely to double the world. The alternate reality is not quite a prophecy and even less a dream (for instance, the rhetoric and analogy of dream-like states is completely absent). It is a virtual world, self-consciously constructed and mapped out with precision.

To clarify the important distinction between this concept of virtuality and more conventional tropes of dream-like alternate realities, we might contrast Dorothea Brooke’s famous first apprehension of map iconRome with an equally famous apposite passage in Little Dorrit. For Amy Dorrit, the “unreality” of map iconVenice is articulated through Romantic tropes of dream-like haunting (in her case, by the shadow of the Marshalsea prison).[20] For Dorothea, though, the double perspective of Rome has nothing dream-like about it. It is, rather, a formal clash of alternate possibilities, and it requires an “electric shock” to establish any passage between them. Dorothea gazes at

the long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. (Eliot 179-180)

Like Lydgate, Dorothea has a palpable sense of gazing back at one possible life from the vantage point of another. Later the narrator will write:

now it appeared that she was to live more and more in a virtual tomb, where there was the apparatus of a ghastly labor producing what would never see the light. To-day she had stood at the door of the tomb and seen Will Ladislaw receding into the distant world of warm activity and fellowship—turning his face towards her as he went. (385)

Here the virtual world is—or at least so she fears—Dorothea’s reality. Unlike the prospect tradition or the tradition of dream visions, the trope of virtuality establishes distance between two equally elaborated worlds without a strong sense either of mastery or of privilege. It is not clear which of the two worlds is more “real.” What is clear is that it takes an effort on the order of an electric shock to move between the two worlds, and that the distance bridged by this shock is characterized in terms of an enhanced, exaggerated, or staged sense of visual depth of field.

Technology appears as a figure in each of these scenes—sparking, shocking, or visually enhancing the passage between alternative worlds. But it is not only the figure of technology that constitutes the particular effect of the virtual. Equally important is the frisson of obsolescence, the sense of a world receding before us even as technology advances toward it.

The Victorians were obsessed with the effects of enhanced visual depth of field. And from Galtonian photography to developments in theatrical lighting to the stereoscope and diorama, Victorian technologies of visual representation were accompanied by discourses that made it clear that enhanced depth of field was no mere illusion but a literal increase in data—the saturation of a representational field by information.[21] It would probably be too cavalier to suggest that the development of x-ray technology took this fetishization of three-dimensional space to an extreme and exploded it (destroying the aura even while creating a nostalgia for it). But it is clear that there was only a brief historical period in which enhanced visual depth of field was regarded at once as a technical and as an epistemological development of unrivalled significance. Toward the latter part of the century—and of course with the development of first telegraphic and then cinematographic technologies—“real time” mediation began to overtake “three dimensional” mediation as the sign of the real, which is to say as the benchmark for the virtual. Nonetheless, the brief efflorescence of depth-of-field technologies created a vocabulary and a template for the ways in which a world might be entered. And it is that model, rather than the more traditional model of illusionistic representation (dream-like, uncanny, with distinctive abbreviations and condensations of scale), that provided the distinctive way of thinking about hypothetical space now characteristic of virtual reality technologies.

published November 2019

Jules Law, Professor of English at Northwestern University, is a specialist in literary theory and Victorian literature. His various essays on Derrida, Joyce, Wittgenstein, and other theoretical topics have appeared in PMLACritical InquirySIGNSNew Literary History, ELH, Novel, and other journals. He is the author of The Rhetoric of Empiricism (Cornell 1993) and The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel (Cornell 2010).


Law, Jules. “Victorian Virtual Reality.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, translated by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 217–52.

Blascovich, Jim, and Jeremy Bailenson. Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives. William Morrow, 2012.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT P, 2000.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. The Freudian Subject. Translated by Catherine Porter, Stanford UP, 1988.

Byerly, Alison. Are We There Yet?: Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. U Michigan P, 2013.

Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford UP, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Spivak, The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, edited by Gregory Maertz, Broadview, 2004.

———. The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. Edited by Helen Small.  Oxford UP, 2009.

Flint, Kate. The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Cambridge UP, 2000.

Fried, Michael. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. U of California P, 1980.

Gombrich, E. H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton UP, 1969.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Benjamin’s Aura.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, pp. 336–76.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. U of Chicago P, 1999.

Hodge, James J. Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art. U of Minnesota P, 2019.

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Knopf, 2010.

Law, Jules. The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel. Cornell UP, 2010.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke UP, 2002.

Menke, Richard. Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems. Stanford UP, 2008.

Miller, Andrew. “’A Case of Metaphysics’: Counterfactuals, Realism, Great Expectations.” ELH, vol. 79, no. 3, 2012, pp. 773-96.

Mitchell, W. J. T. What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Morse, Margaret. Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Indiana UP, 1998.

Novak, Daniel. Realism, Photography and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Cambridge UP, 2008.

Plotz, John. Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens. Princeton UP, 2018.

Rosenthal, Jesse. “The Untrusted Medium: Open Networks, Secret Writing, and Little Dorrit.” Victorian Studies vol. 59, no. 2, 2017, pp. 283-313.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtuality and Literary Theory.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 5, no. 1, 1994, pp. 110–37.

———. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth and George Collin, Stanford UP, 1998.

Ward, Megan. Seeming Human: Victorian Realist Character and Artificial Intelligence. Ohio State UP, 2018.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802, edited by Fiona Stafford, Oxford UP, 2013.


[1] Despite its echo of David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s term “remediation,” “immediation” corresponds more closely to “immediacy” in their tripartite system (the other two terms being “hypermediacy” and “remediation”) (21-45).

[2] On the fantasies of abridged time and space at the heart of Victorian narrative, see Alison Byerly.

[3] On the relationship between digital media and the long history of media forms, see Bolter and Grusin (21-50), Ryan (discussed below) and James J. Hodge. See also John Plotz’s discussion of the virtual aesthetics of “semi-detachment,” which he traces to the middle of the nineteenth century, Richard Menke’s discussion of the telegraph, Byerly’s discussion of nineteenth-century travel media/technologies, Jay Clayton’s discussion of nineteenth-century “circuitry,” and recent work by Megan Ward and Jesse Rosenthal.

[4] “Few of us have actually donned an HMD (head-mounted display) and DGs (data-gloves), and entered a computer-generated, three-dimensional landscape,” wrote Ryan in 1994, and if proportions are not rapidly changing, the statement is still largely true (110). More to the point, such devices still provide only an approximation of virtuality’s immersive ideal, which I discuss below. Though E. H. Gombrich famously asserted that “we cannot, strictly speaking, watch ourselves have an illusion” (6), that is precisely what current virtual technologies do: provide us with an odd and awkward form of illusion that we know to be at odds with where we “really” are.

[5] In a rough way, Ryan’s categories extend the opposition of “absorption” to “theatricality,” as theorized by Michael Fried (107-132).

[6] Kate Flint emphasizes the tension between visual surfaces and phenomenological depths as it appears in Victorian aesthetic criticism and perceptual theory. See in particular the Victorians and the Visual Imagination chapter “Surface and Depth” (236-257).

[7] From W. J. T. Mitchell’s perspective, this is a fantasy that we would more legitimately regard as the constitutive dynamic of images per se and not simply of VR technology (5-8).

[8] I refer here to the distinction as Derrida outlines it in the opening pages of Of Grammatology.

[9] On the Derridean notion of technics see Of Grammatology (6-10, 27-34, 81-87), but also Bernard Stiegler (82-133). Following Heidegger, Derrida uses the term “technics” to convey a concept of human instrumentality broader than “technology”—something more akin to “technique.” Famously, in Of Grammatology, Derrida argues that writing is the first human technics. But then goes on to explain that he regards every practice of human signification—even remembering, or thinking to oneself—as a form of writing.

[10] Benjamin discusses manual reproduction in only a cursory fashion, and it would be fair to say that manual reproduction shares the metonymic, even synedochic, status of “originals.” This is particularly the case in manuscript culture.

[11] In the Aristotelean tradition, telos is the end or purpose of a thing. It is the goal toward which the thing strives, and this purposiveness is regarded as part of the thing’s essential character.

[12] Hansen too is alert to the transitional, mobile status of the auratic function in Benjamin. However, her way of expressing it is to see Benjamin as killing off the aura—which is to say, arguing for technology’s elimination of the phenomenon—and then smuggling it back into his account of modern mass culture: “Even as Benjamin marked the phenomenon of the aura as historically belated and irreversibly moribund, he imported fragments of the concept—secularized and modernized—into his efforts to reimagine experience under the conditions of technologically mediated culture” (375).

[13] Of Grammatology is still the best account (60-71).

[14] On the aesthetics of semi-detachment, see Plotz (1-19).

[15] Among the former we would include films such as Videodrome, Altered States, Total Recall, Strange Days, and The Matrix; among the latter we might include Nightmare on Elm Street and Mulholland Drive.

[16] On the organization of the Victorian novel around hypothetical consequence, see Andrew Miller, “A Case of Metaphysics”.

[17] On detached versus immersive apprehension of the aesthetic object, see Ryan (“Immersion vs. Interactivity”) and Bolter and Grusin (3-50).

[18] See my fuller reading of “The Lifted Veil” in The Social Life of Fluids (86-93).

[19] Lydgate’s action in leaping onto the stage actually maps beautifully onto Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s characterization of the relationship between conscious and unconscious identity. For Borch-Jacobsen the two entities are mutually exclusive positions to inhabit; contrary to conventional notions of the mind as internal theater, the conscious self cannot view the unconscious self as would a spectator. When inhabiting the unconscious self, the conscious self is left behind (40-48). Borch-Jacobsen’s construction of the dynamic comports nicely with the ideal of virtual experience, but not with the fitful, partial nature of the latter’s practical instantiations, which to the contrary always involves a residue of self-conscious self-spectatorship. Thus, when asking ourselves to what extent virtual experience is like dream experience, we need to ask first whether we are referring to each of these as they exist in theory or as they exist in practical instantiations.

[20] The “crowning unreality” of Venice from Little Dorrit’s point of view is recounted in Book 2, chapter 3 of the novel.

[21] On Galtonian photography in particular, see Daniel Novak’s Realism, Photography and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.