When I speak I’m trying to communicate. Relationship is the joint attentional context of communication; language allows us to triangulate on a shared meaning of the communication; language points to the object of our joint attention and shared meaning. We’ve discussed how we (mis)understand what people say (and don’t say); this time the focus is on what gets said.
There is an unlimited number of possible things I could attend to in the world, and also a limitless number of possible grammatically-correct statements I could speak. By choosing to attend to something in particular and by choosing to say something in particular about it, am I thereby closing off all the other unchosen possibilities? Does a conversation work like a series of decision trees, where at each exchange another spoken phrase lops off all the other phrases that could have followed the preceding one? So that by the end of a conversation, when the joint attentional-linguistic trajectory has taken its final form, that particular conversation can be characterized as the realization of just one of an ininite number of possible conversational realities?
Or, alternatively… The world is real in an unlimited number of ways, depending on how it is attended to, by whom, with what intention, according to what framework of interpretation and meaning. Actualizing one of these virtually real worlds doesn’t eliminate all the other ways in which the world can be actualized — they’re still there, part of the real world. Likewise with language: it contains within itself an unlimited number of virtual manifestations. Pulling one sentence out of this virtual linguistic reality and making it actual doesn’t foreclose any of the other ways in which language can be actualized, by me or by anyone else.
This virtual reality-actual reality distinction is what I understand Deleuze to be talking about. So: I sit here at my computer and I look around the room. What do I see? I see that the rug I just vacuumed still has miscellaneous dirt on it, which is unfortunate because someone is coming within the hour to look at this rug with the intention of buying it. Now the rug has been sitting there for almost two years, and it achieved roughly its current state of cleanliness about an hour ago. Though the rug and its cleanliness are real features of the world, I’m not usually attentive to these features — to me the rug’s reality usually remains virtual rather than actual. In all likelihood the only people who are even remotely interested in this particular rug right now are me, my daughter (though her interest is minuscule), my wife (who has assigned me the task of cleaning the rug and showing it), and the potential buyer (who has seen a photo of the rug on the Photoshop catalog my wife put together and who even now is presumably on her way to Antibes to have a look at it). The convergence of time, place and circumstance charge the virtual reality of the rug and its cleanliness in a way that makes it more likely to come to my attention. And my recent cleaning act, my current intention of having a clean rug to show, and my future intention of exchanging this rug for some euros makes me more attuned to the virtual reality of the rug, pulling it into actual reality that includes me, the rug, the various intentions surrounding the rug, and all the other circumstances that are converging on the rug. In this actual reality the more-or-less clean rug is imbued with a kind of plenitude that makes it emerge from the inchoate flux of everything else that is real, that can be attended to, that can be spoken of.
In virtual reality a conversation isn’t a series of choices that eliminate all other possible pathways but the one that becomes real. Rather, a conversation is an evolving creation. By actualizing the first sentence from virtual linguistic space, I change the context in which the language is present. Everything is as it was before, with the addition of a single spoken sentence. My conversational partner takes this sentence into account as she contemplates the virtually infinite linguistic space. A different array of virtual sentences make themselves evident to her, sentences that might never have been considered until I spoke my first sentence. Actualizing the language this way isn’t so much a selection as a creation, because the virtual sentences don’t manifest themselves until the conversational context draws them out of the undifferentiated but dynamic linguistic flux. Even repeating the same sentence isn’t really a repetition, because now it’s being built onto a joint conversational creation that’s different from what it was the last time that particular sentence was spoken.
So, if that makes sense, next I’ll discuss the implications of Deleuze’s virtual-actual distinction when talking about the self.