The Reality of the Virtual – Job Interviews and Žižek’s Reversal

| June 16, 2010

The Emperor's New Clothes

Everyone knows. It’s a bit like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. Except that, rather than reading the tale as being about the truthful innocence of a child uncovering the foolish pride and vanity of courtly society, we might imagine that the child is a spoilsport, naively ignorant of the game of make-believe.

Just like we might play house or doctor as children, we also learn to play education. The students of a well liked teacher that is being observed will happily volunteer of their own accord to play the good student to the good teacher. This is not putting it past the observer, however. Quite the contrary, they may find it disconcerting if it seems too genuine. What is being tested for, at the most basic level, is agreement, and that can only be given if one knows the deal. As Deleuze and Guattari put it:

“The baroness has not the slightest intention of convincing me of her sincerity; she is simply indicating that she prefers to see me pretend to agree.” We see this in police or government announcements, which often have little plausibility or truthfulness, but say very clearly what should be observed and retained. The indifference to any kind of credibility exhibited by these announcements often verges on provocation. This is proof that the issue lies elsewhere. Let people say…: that is all language demands (A Thousand Plateaus, 76).

Everyone knows how to behave in school. Down to the most problematic student. We each have our roles. This is not to say that we cannot believe in education. Or enjoy it. Only that the belief and enjoyment are virtual! But more on that in a moment…

As Slavoj Žižek suggests, belief is not so simple. We believe, not that the emperor has clothes, but that others believe that the emperor has clothes. But likewise, the others merely believe that we believe. Žižek’s classic example is Santa Claus. Every adult knows that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and they pretend, of course, for the benefit of their children. But children, in turn, pretend for the benefit of the gift bestowing adult.

Isn’t this logic what is at work in the code phrase, “The Job Interview”?

“Are you going to talk that way on your job interview?” Remember to pretend, the teacher is indicating. That is: we all know that education is a virtual space, so I can’t hold you to speaking properly here, but out there the virtual is real, so you better learn to pretend. Agreed? Does this mean the teacher does not really believe and is merely preparing the student for the believer/interviewer? Not at all. Rather the teacher believes through the hypothetical interviewer. (While freeing them to acknowledge their own sophisticated and generous stance: I don’t mind how you talk, but…) And, indeed, it does not even require the virtual interviewer to believe, but simple pretend to believe in turn. This is enough for real consequences to come about: to not get the imaginary job.

This brings us back to the virtual. In a video “lecture,” The Reality of the Virtual, Žižek argues that “virtual reality”—the simulation of reality—is a rather tedious affair. But what is much more “real,” as it were, is the function that the virtual plays. That is, our virtual beliefs have real effects. If, as I have argued previously, educational space is conceived as the quintessential virtual space, it is not, for all of that, without real consequences.

The mistake would be to believe, as with the Hans Christian Andersen tale, that one can access the real by simply telling the truth. Which isn’t to say that we don’t dream of it…

(If you have Netflix, you can stream the video with better resolution.)

Let me know what you think…