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The Rest of All Possible Worlds: Making Space in the Age of Virtual Reality


First formalized in Italy in the fifteenth century, linear perspective gave rise to the very idea of the “fidelity” of an image: that a two-dimensional representation could be said to correspond perfectly with an anteceding world scene—or, what’s more, that new, never-before-seen images could be endowed with such detail as to convince a viewer of their actuality. The inventions of the photograph in the 1820s, cinema in the 1880s, and the desktop graphical user interface (GUI) in the 1960s all represent a migration of the image to the forefront of our lives. Indeed, with the commercialization of “virtual reality” headsets in the 2010s, this movement has continued to the forefront of our faces themselves. According to a recent Nielsen report, the amount of time the modern subject now spends consuming visual media has expanded to over eleven hours per day. While spending well in excess of half our waking hours in front of screens, we might consider the serious ontological question: “Where are we when we are looking at images?”

The obvious answer is, of course, “at our desk,” or “in a gallery,” or “at work.” But the nearly six centuries that have unfolded following the codification of perspective in 1435 have seen the gradual emergence of the notion of “virtual space.” When our attention becomes fixated on a screen, for example, we are sometimes perceived as being “absorbed by,” “lost into,” or “taken with” the images depicted; we become “drawn in” by an image or “caught up in” a digital game. Our metaphor for attentiveness to media—especially media that generate an illusion of “depth” or “immersion”—is often explicitly spatial. When we spend more and more time “in” virtual spaces, as the trope so often goes, do we conversely spend less and less time in what we have hitherto called “the real world”? How have spatial dialectics changed to accommodate the increasing number and intricacy of virtual spaces with which, or in which, we engage each day?

This document explores some of the logics of our being “immersed” in virtual spaces. It begins by tracing the idea of a technologically-mediated “virtual space” back to one possible point of origin in Federico de Montefeltro’s studioli, two rooms constructed using systematized perspectival techniques to give the appearance of panoramic depth. Taking these ambitious art objects as a starting point, I demonstrate that the renaissance witnessed the beginning of a “stereoscopic regime” that gave the viewing subject the tools by which to interpret future perspectival images, prefiguring the flourishing of virtual spaces in the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries.

Following this exploration of the studioli as primordial virtual spaces, chapter 2 seeks to first quantify, and then qualify, virtual spaces according to possible metrics of size and value: how does one “measure” or “map” virtual space? Encounters with Baudrillard and Benjamin in this chapter help illustrate how virtual spaces exaggerate the actual, overlaying it with the virtual, before establishing those virtual spaces as the new consensual real. Contrary to Baudrillard’s claim in Simulacra and Simulation, however, obviation of the actual does not mean obviation of the real: indeed, the real, which has by the twentieth century been resolutely subordinated to the human sensorium, simply expands to include virtual spaces as they proliferate.

Chapter 3 then looks at two case studies of the photographic image being used to generate novel virtual spaces. Part one discusses artist Taryn Simone’s 2008 photographic documentation of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, concluding that her images of families and lineages affected by the genocide reanimate the individuals and stories they depict, producing a whole spectrum of virtual realities in which the family members themselves are both restored and lost with each viewing. In this context, we understand the image, like the losses it endeavors to describe, to perforate the actual with an ever-expanding number of virtual realities, each poignant and substantive in its own right.

Part two of this chapter takes an alternate tack on the genre of the photographic portrait by examining a widely distributed ad campaign shot by Annie Leibovitz in the early 2010s, asking whether the commercial image has similar world-generating properties to the artistic or memorial image. To what extent are both photographic series “immersive” and “generative” independent of their original motives? Both studies similarly illustrate how photographs codify, masquerade as, and re-present history, producing exaggerated virtual spaces which their viewers are then compelled to inhabit. Chapter 3 ends by claiming that the very idea of postmodernity (Jamesonian), which entails “depthlessness,” mistrust of metanarrative, and recourse to irony, only goes so far in describing the commercial photographic portrait, which indeed contains elements of depth and sincerity endemic to emergent virtual spaces. Virtual space can therefore be described, rather, as a product of modernity—or, indeed, of “the early modern,” as chapter 1 has previously endeavored to show.

Finally, chapter 4 arrives at digital environments of the computing era, suggesting that there is no longer any “outside of the image.” In an effort to understand what this means for the embodied human subject, part one begins by describing how the history of computing has long conflated the human with the technological, especially across lines of race and gender. The chapter then advances to suggest how this conflation situates our implicit point of view to “within” the digital interfaces with which we engage, represented most conspicuously by the figure of the cyborg. It is therefore no surprise that one of the defining commercial imperatives of the 2010s for digital media has been the movement of the screen onto the human face. In 2019, dozens of companies are competing to market virtual-, augmented-, and mixed-reality apparatuses as both enterprise and consumer-oriented “solutions” for the failures of the human body. These failures include the body’s lack of data awareness, network connectivity, and, most importantly for this document, lack of natural visual apparatus capable of integrating the diverse and expanding array of virtual spaces that parade just beyond our field of view.

The document concludes that the slow progression of the stereoscopic regime, which begins with the perspectival image and extends to the head-mounted display, has not yet, contrary to the opinions of twentieth-century media theorists, obviated the actual, but rather granted us privileged access to the many “other” possible worlds first described by Leibniz.

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