Phenomenological realism

As Kevin is utilizing Virtual Iraq in Immersion, the text makes it evident that his VRET experience is not only visual but multisensory.

Kevin modulating his virtual perspective through a head-mounted display

We can observe that Kevin’s head-mounted display is spatially modulated, meaning that his virtual self is mirroring his physical movements. In addition, he is cradling a prop M4 rifle in his hand, which both provides a sense of haptic verisimilitude and contains a gamepad that facilitates virtual navigation.[25] [open notes in new window] Through these controls, he can participate in different kinds of movement, including walking through streets, entering buildings, climbing onto rooftops, or riding in a Humvee.[26] Throughout the experience, he can also feel sensations that replicate tactile impacts like explosions and bumpy roads through the platform he is standing on and hear noises such as bullets, mortar shells, wind, traffic, or helicopter blades through his headphones.[27] The technology is additionally equipped with a scent palette that can emit representative smells like gasoline, Middle Eastern spices, burning rubber, and even body odor to enhance the sense of immersion.[28]

This array of sensorial features is intended to catalyze the recollection of traumas by surpassing the optical. As Laura U. Marks notes,

“It is not accidental that certain experiences are most likely to be ‘recorded’ only in the nonaudiovisual registers of touch, smell, and taste. The fabric of everyday experience that tends to elude verbal and visual records is encoded in these senses.”[29]

Therefore, by mimetically reproducing the bodily sensations of Second Iraq War veterans, the technology is drawing on a phenomenological realism to help the participants access otherwise inaccessible knowledge.   

Crouching as an embodiment of PTSD’s phenomenological impacts

The realism of the simulation simultaneously engenders more realistic phenomenological reactions from the participants. Throughout his session, Kevin is connected to machines that monitor and evaluate his physiological responses, such as his heart rate, breathing levels, body temperature, and even his palm sweat.[30] At the most intense moment in his retelling, when he attests that he is “freaking out,” he crouches down and covers his head. With his voice quivering, he also states that he is the verge of vomiting. Together, this collection of reactions appears to fit the characterization of PTSD, which is a condition that is “precipitated by a terrifying event or situation” and “characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts, as well as by emotional detachment, numbness, jumpiness, anger, and avoidance.”[31]  

By showing this range of bodily indicators, Farocki’s film realistically conveys the intense distress that the recollection of traumas can induce. In addition, Kevin’s sensorial responses become an epistemological resource for viewers and may affect their perceptions of these phenomena on a similarly sensory level. Vivian Sobchack describes the power of cinema to

“transpos[e] what would otherwise be the direct, individual, and intrasubjective privacy of direct experience as it is embodied into the visible, public, and intersubjective sociality of a language of direct embodied experience.”[32]

In other words, viewers can feel sensations and make sense by watching characters feel sensations and make sense within their cinematic reality. Along a similar line of thought, Roger Hallas has proposed the concept of ‘corporeal implication,’ which implicates viewers’ bodies “in the act of bearing witness . . . through a simultaneously visceral and imaginative encounter.”[33] In these ways, the title of the film refers not only to soldiers immersed in warfare and veterans immersed in VRET, but to the viewers who may become affectively, phenomenologically, and physically immersed in the painful realities of this depiction.

The corporeal implication of Kevin’s portrayal is vital to evoking the serious, long-term consequences that combat soldiers routinely endure, especially in light of the pervasive marginality of veteran health in the mass media and the public imaginary. For instance, a 2012 Department of Veteran Affairs report stated that nearly 30% of the 830,000-plus Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought treatment at VA hospitals and clinics were diagnosed with PTSD,[34] a figure that does not even account for the traumatized veterans who did not seek help through that channel. A Department of Defense study registered the impacts of war even more starkly when it found that U.S. veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day in 2012.[35] More recently, the Veteran Affairs scandal in May 2014 revealed that some of the department’s medical centers were falsifying data to conceal the months-long delays veterans could face to receive treatment and underscored the institutional devaluation of the physical and mental health of U.S. military personnel.[36]

Simulated realism

In a preceding sequence of Immersion, Skip Rizzo is describing the Virtual Iraq interface’s array of customizable features for the camera. As he provides an onscreen presentation, he notes that

“over time, we expanded the environment . . . [and] made it so you could adjust the time of day, the weather conditions, sandstorms, night vision, building interiors.”

He proceeds to exhibit the newly added ability to change locations mid-session. This commitment to adaptability shows the developers’ quest to produce a convincing verisimilitude while also enabling the therapists to instantly alter settings in ways that exceed reality. The evident logic behind this credible level of detail is to help participants more effectively process their repressed traumas. However, an underlying economic motive may be to promote the array of technically impressive features as a figurative and literal selling point of the technology.

Skip Rizzo outlining the customizable features of Virtual Iraq

As Kevin’s demonstration shows, the simulated realism of walking through an Iraqi town allows veterans to confront painfully traumatic events at a safer, more removed distance. They can hear bullets and experience the force of exploding bombs without the risk of being physically injured. Over the course of multiple sessions, they can also gradually work up to more intense scenarios in a controlled environment with the supervision of a therapist. Outlining her experience of using VRET to treat veterans, psychologist Karen Perlman says,

“It’s a very collaborative relationship. I know which stimuli I’m going to add as the therapy progresses. … I say, 'I think you’re ready for the I.E.D. blast or for more airplanes.'”[37]

Consequently, the simulated real is continually mediated and improvised, interactively entwined in a dynamic relationship with the veteran’s phenomenological reactions and the therapist’s contemporaneous decisions.

Another soldier trying out Virtual Iraq in Immersion

Yet, throughout his Serious Games series, Farocki makes it clear that Virtual Iraq only simulates an incomplete, biased, and ideologically driven version of reality. Most notably, he draws attention to the extremely marginal roles of Iraqis in the technology and their use as props for U.S. objectives. This major lacuna becomes visualized in the opening and closing moments of Immersion, which features the same sequence of virtual reality footage. In both iterations, the simulation of virtual Iraqis walking around a neighborhood is displayed on the left-hand side of the screen with no physical counterpart on the right. Without a subject guiding the scene, viewers are given no sense of who is controlling this world. Then a bomb suddenly explodes and the local civilians flee in horror, screaming but not otherwise speaking.

The virtual explosion upending virtual Iraqi lives

As Kodwo Eshun states,

“Every pixel celebrates its industrial might. … So of course you would have Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for soldiers, rather than for Iraqi civilians. The soldiers who carry out the ‘shock and awe’ are the people who are repaired, in order that they can go out and do more shocking and more awesome damage.”[38]

While the treatment of U.S. veterans’ traumas is the focal point for the technology, Iraqis’ traumas pointedly do not factor into the design. In the program, Iraqis only appear virtually as potential victims or enemies and the subjectivity that activates the technological interface is always an U.S. soldier.

The Iraqi as extra in a Virtual Iraq village

The Iraqi as rooftop attacker

The Iraqi as violent insurgent

The Iraqi as captive and killed enemy

The marginalization of simulated Iraqis relates to misconceptions of what ‘real’ PTSD looks like. Angela M. Carter has critiqued the

“pervasiveness of the white, hetero-masculine soldier as the dominant image of PTSD in our national imaginary”[39]

This characterization is one that aptly describes Kevin in Immersion. Carter further writes:

“[F]or someone to overcome the shattering affects of trauma and regain a stable, coherent understanding of themselves … they must have had some conception of stability to begin with. For those of us whose entire lives have been lived in traumatizing environments, there can be no post-trauma because there was never a pre-trauma.”[40]

Therefore, while studies demonstrate that those most prone to experiencing traumatic events in both times of war and peace are minority groups, the poor, and the disenfranchised,[41] the system designers may unconsciously consider Iraqis unfixable and incoherent with no singular traumatic event to identify. Therefore, the PTSD of Iraqi civilians and soldiers is not ‘real’ enough to be meaningfully simulated.

Immersion registers another telling critique through its relation to A Sun With No Shadow, the next and final installment of Serious Games. In the latter film, Farocki juxtaposes the use of Virtual Iraq as a therapeutic device for veterans and the use of Virtual Battlespace 2 to train soldiers for combat. By comparing the training and therapy interfaces, he reveals a key difference between the media. Namely, the virtual sun in VBS2 casts shadows that accurately reflect the position of the Middle Eastern sun, while the sun in Virtual Iraq casts no shadows. To emphasize the discrepancy in the military’s economic priorities, Farocki positions the two visuals side-by-side in a split-screen. An intertitle then states,

“The system for remembering is a little cheaper than the one for training.”[42]

Showing the difference between the training (left) and treatment (right) systems
in A Sun With No Shadow

An intertitle calls attention to the difference in the systems.

This inconsistency in verisimilitude bestows the virtual reality footage in Immersion a retroactive surreality, suggesting that its technical shortcomings reflect an institutional negligence. Highlighting that lack of attention to realistic details also invites viewers to ask what other oversights veterans must contend with.

Furthermore, the juxtaposition of VBS2 and Virtual Iraq highlights how irrevocably entwined the real and the simulated have become throughout all stages of contemporary warfare. In his discussion of the Persian Gulf War, Paul Patton diagnosed this shift toward dehumanized warfare that new military technologies have only exacerbated. Patton's introduction to Jean Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Take Place states::

“Technological simulacra neither displace nor deter the violent reality of war, they have become an integral part of its operational procedures. Virtual environments are now incorporated into operational warplanes, filtering the real scene and presenting aircrew with a more readable world. The development of flight simulators provided an early example of the computer technology which allowed the boundaries between simulation and reality to become blurred: the images and information which furnish the material for exercises and war games become indistinguishable from what would be encountered in a real conflict”[43]

In his own theorization, Baudrillard argued that the conditions of late capitalism had produced the age of the hyperreal, in which the real and the representation had become indistinguishable.[43] He identified commercial media like film and television as key instruments of the hyperreal, because they degraded the boundaries between the real and the representative.[44] Regarding the Gulf War, Baudrillard built on these ideas to assert that the conflict was a “[p]romotional, speculative, virtual” simulation of war rather than one that fit the legal and political criteria of a real war fought for its own ends.[45] Though some critics criticized his deliberately provocative and contrarian stance,[46] he, along with Paul Virilio, influentially elucidated the televisual spectacularization of warfare that heavily shaped public opinion during both Iraq Wars. His recognition that the “profound indeterminacy of this war stems from the fact of its being both terminated in advance and interminable”[47] also arguably presaged the even more nebulous and ever-shifting boundaries that have characterized the ongoing War on Terror.

Farocki’s lifetime of work suggests that he aligned with but stopped short of fully embracing Baudrillard’s critiques. Like Baudrillard, Farocki demonstrated an acute concern for the blurring of the real and representative, and maintained a comparable skepticism toward the ideological machinations and formal manipulations of mass media throughout his career. Tellingly, his cynicism toward the rhetoric and technological flashiness of Virtual Iraq reflected a sustained wariness of war and surveillance technologies. Yet, as Thomas Elsaesser has observed, one important distinction is that Baudrillard upheld a visible reality and a simulated version of that reality, while Farocki was more attuned to the limits of visibility, scale, and intelligibility that render the conditions of reality difficult to index and represent.[48] Farocki’s decision to become an artist and documentarian also reaffirmed his belief in the potential—and indeed, the dire need—for a resurgence of critical media theory and praxis that endeavors, against these considerable odds, to stage meaningful interventions in public and political life. Thus, he upheld the conviction that some modes of media can still offer ways to puncture the condition of hyperreality. They can still creatively reveal the otherwise invisible and unintelligible and revitalize meaningful engagements with reality.