Now, 16 years later, eXistenZ seems to predict everything The Matrix was too busy slow mo bullet dodging to notice. The dot.com bubble burst long ago; nothing happened on 2000, or 2012. The Matrix seems dated and naive. Making the 'real' extra grungy and depressing (lots of grotty grey dreadlocks, short guys. cream of gruel for every meal, leaky pipes, cold grates instead of floors, and constant robot threats, ala the Terminator series' future) so the grungy and depressing artificial reality (corporate skyscrapers, busted down telephone booths) is believable as artificiality, i.e. the fake real as more real than the 'real' (just as 'they' intended!) But recently, in the past two months or so, the symbolic is trumping the real to the point reality is at best a third class passenger to the symbolic and imaginary realms. Cases in point: the storm of bad press over the all-white 2014 Oscar noms; the storm of pro-and-anti-American Sniper sentiment, the sheer weirdness of North Korea-vs.-A Stoner Comedy case lingering in the mind as The Interview pops up on Netflix; the bloody events of Paris earlier and the "Je suis Charlie" response, we're experiencing a Zizek-ish collapse of the boundary between the real and imaginary that's goes much deeper than what the First World sees as a free speech issue, just as it had nothing to do with O.J. Simpson being guilty or innocent at all that caused so many black people to celebrate spontaneously and chill white folks to the bone in the process when the Juice was at last set loose... in 1995, the same year aol.com began messing with our minds... setting the gears in motion for the 1999 Prince party moptop dotcom collapse pinnacle of bidding wars on nothingness.
Today, 16 or so years later, we in America have very little real left, just there is very little symbolic or imaginary dimension left when you live in a war zone, especially when contending with radical Islam, who are--to begin with--so anti-graven image that any kind of representational (non-decorative) art is a signpost straight to Hell. To most westerners, 'thou shalt not kill or steal' are the only commandments worth fussing over. Adultery, lying to your parents, bowing down to graven images, these are negligible sins at best, their potential for evil dispelled most often with a simple apology, certainly you won't be stoned to death for them. But not everybody is as 'evolved' as we are, we who seem never more than a few votes away from reversing every last humanitarian stride we've made since the Dawn of our Democracy and bringing our country back into a kind oppressive fundamentalist Handmaid's Tale-style WASP dystopia.
|Al Jazeera America welcomes you to the Desert of the Real|
But of course that confusion is why the terrorists are there, inside the game working out, in the first place. Post-modernists could have saved the terrorists the worry from the get-go, however, noting with wry consternation that reality's been slipping away since the late 1920s. If they wanted to smash something, they should have started with 'R. Mutt's' urinal, they'd say, taking a pompously pronounced sip of his absinthe. Duchamp's original point was drowned out in the bidding war over it, and eventually Duchamp had to hide his art so well no one even saw it, and at last succeeded with "Trap (Trébuchet)" 1917. a coatrack that went unnoticed. And then Andy Warhol turned lazy silkscreens into the height of post-Duchampian balderdash, and now it's not ask what post-modernism can do for reality, it's what can reality do for post-modernism. Reality bows before the "Fountain" as if its the prodigal golden calf returned from the mountaintop with a dozen teraflops of commandments, each one composed of so many ones and zeros it writes its way right into your subconscious, and just a little tiny speck more of your once vibrant imagination is snuffed to make room.
|"Fountain" - Marcel Duchamp / eXistenZ gaming console|
"(as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle." - Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the RealIf there's any point to film theory at all (and there isn't), it should be that the Void/Real Thing, as Zizek extrapolates from Lacan, is approachable only via the fake spectacle, the Perseus Medusa shield, in the living room. To confront the thing in itself means total annihilation. The mistake of the 'realist' terrorists is to think that in killing the fake spectacle, they align themselves with the power of the Void, its tragic raw horror dimension becomes their ally. But we've been subsumed into the screen to the point our fake spectacle doesn't mirror the real at all, and the terrorists are seldom more than images to most of us. We only notice the eruption of the real when passing soldiers on the street, or getting our fingers dusted for... explosives (? - who knows, you don't dare ask either) at the airport. Otherwise the formula mirrors the below chart illustrating the future and past of immersive video game tech, only with terrorists struggling to deliver the void of the real onto more than just CNN, to blow our walls and electricity clear away and force us to watch the slaughter of our kin in first person, up close, to essentially provide a feedback loop that erupts from CNN and explodes our eyes and ear drums, paradoxically opening our senses to 'the Real.'
The terrorists endeavor to widen the sliver by destroying the imaginary just as we (or at any rate, I) narrow it still further by living totally within a comfortable cocoon of movies, letting our reality go all to seed from inattention and considering the terrorists as a direct threat to that cocoon, and with good reason. Perhaps it is because of their rejection of the imaginary realm that fundamentalists mistake satire / humor for genuine attack, and why I become so disinclined to hear unpleasant news. I'm worse than anyone as far as not caring to see the suffering. I turn the channel at the first wide-eyed orphan or emaciated dog on my TV. CNN understands. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, shows images like the ones above, of life in Syrian refugee camps, the carnage of bombings of Palestine. Watch Al Jazeera and CNN in alternating segments and maybe you can get a proper idea of our whole fucked world, but who wants that? That's too much real! We need smaller doses of horror, otherwise we're like Scarlett at the makeshift hospital, we just keep walking.
But the converse is true, not enough 'real' is just as corrosive, you come to crave it. If you ban harsh images you give them power, just ask any Brit who was denied Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) for 25 years due to Britain's ban on 'video nasties' - those nasties became that poor Brit's obsession, sight unseen. Nothing gives an image power like enforcing its absence. No actual 'nasty' measured up to the dread associated with not seeing it. Of all the nasties, Texas comes closest, but partly because it understands, on a deep level, the horror, the horror -- and alas, the extra 'real' smash to the head power it still holds today might have to do with the hell the cast and crew underwent to make it and that's a hard thing to intentionally duplicate. In a way, it rips the screen open to become a whole new thing, a once-in-a-million-tries 'true' horror. But it's the exception. Still, want and curiosity is a powerful thing; images have obscene amounts of power for those denied them, and like the Brit kid squinting to see some bootleg seventh generation dupe of Texas Chainsaw, the imagination never yet met a blank it couldn't fill in. By contrast to Mohammed, Jesus and the Buddha are omnipresent in figurative representations, providing both a comfort at odd moments and an excuse to keep us out of the real (as in we don't have to imagine anymore --every last bank is filled). Mohammed isn't supposed to be depicted for reasons not unlike what motivates the 'Realist' terrorists in Cronenberg's eXistenZ. I forget which of the Ten Commandments says not to bow down to graven images, been bowing to that shizz for so long. I doubt Moses would be on the terrorist's side if he were here, but to his rheumy eyes every animated billboard on Times Square might be for Golden Calf. You got to be quick and ruthless to maintain a holy order, cut the advertisements down at the knee. Because if you don't then even the Commandment tablets themselves will inevitably be worshipped as graven images, or at the very least bid on as collector's items. We had a big marble sculpt of the commandments removed from out in front of a Southern courthouse awhile ago, not that it's the same thing as violating free speech (the atheists didn't try to kill the sculptor) but it shows the same confusion that motivates jihads on cartoonists and hacks on stoner comics.
'Now' at the time of 1999, newly sober and full of angst--uneducated in the tenets of Baudrillard and Lacan--I loved The Matrix and thought Cronenberg's film was meandering and too much like a rehash of ideas he worked over already in Videodrome and Naked Lunch. There was the druggy saga of harvesting amphibious monsters for their organs (for making drugs in Naked Lunch, biomorphic gaming consoles in Existenz), guns made of organic material (Videodrome); a bewildered protagonist shuffling along after a savvy, sexy woman who knows her way around (Judy Davis in Lunch, Deborah Harry in Videodrome, Leigh in Existenz, etc.), a maze of spies and counterspies where, as the talking fly's ass says in Lunch, the best agent is one who is unaware he is an agent at all (hence our hero is caught in the middle and never knows the score); the scene in the garage with Dafoe installing the portal in Jude Law's spine a mirror to the Naked Lunch scene where the Moroccan man sticks the broken Martinelli in the forge and pulls it out as a giant Mugwump head. And on and on. And at least neither 'drome nor Lunch involved actual gross eating of weird monster things (the sight of which makes Leigh gag in the film - and leaves a bad feeling in sensitive viewers like myself).
But it's all come true since then. Hasn't it? eXistenZ, I mean? Once we get over the 'using living organic matter for data transmission' stigma and learn how to tap the inner recesses of the pineal gland and bypass the clumsy ear and eye, we'll be exactly there --using the dream energy to craft something our brain can't distinguish from the reality its used to. We've come a long way since The Matrix (1999) or Ralph Fiennes selling other people's bootleg sensory impressions in Strange Days (1995). Virtual reality isn't just for Michael Douglas breaking into a virtual safe in Disclosure (1994) or falling off a roof in The Game (1991), not no more it's not. Cuz this here's real. Unlike Matrix, though, you can't die in reality just because you die in the Matrix. It's just a damned game after all and maybe that's part of the problem... there's very little at stake. But is it really so little? Really? Reelleeeee?? The point that works is we can't really tell, we just keep waking up out of one reality into another - is that death, or just finishing a level on the game, and there are millions of levels?
Some have argued that showing bloodshed and trauma repeatedly and sensationally can dull emotional understanding. But never showing these images in the first place guarantees that such an understanding will never develop. “Try to imagine, if only for a moment, what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph,” author Susie Linfield asks in The Cruel Radiance, her book on photography and political violence. Photos like Jarecke’s (above) not only show that bombs drop on real people; they also make the public feel accountable. As David Carr wrote in The New York Times in 2003, war photography has “an ability not just to offend the viewer, but to implicate him or her as well.” (The Atlantic "The War Photo No One Would Publish")
For example: a real sunflower beheld by someone with their imaginary-symbolic blinders on is merely a sunflower - identified against one's inner rolodex of flower names as if to impress one's inner grade school horticulture teacher, and its full elaborate mystery screened out since it's neither a source of fear (it won't kill you or steal your wallet) or desire (unless some sexy new lover gave it to you). But for someone without those blinders, like a yogi, Buddha, master painter, tripper, child, or schizophrenic --that sunflower breathes and radiates light and is alive with the little yellow petals around the big stamen center like yellow flames. Just as the digital cell phone snap of the sunflower is a mirror image of the sunflower, the sunflower itself is a mirror that lets us look directly into the radiant crown chakra sun... these are all not 'mere hallucinations' over something a less tripped-out friend might dismiss as "dude, it's just a sunflower!" In fact it is that attitude --that the real is completely contained within its symbolic component--that is the hallucination, a symbolic breaker that's moved from a defense mechanism to a screen that keeps the joy of life out. For those people trapped in a morass of the purely symbolic-imaginary, the only time they feel that joy is when they buy an expensive trinket or paint the bedroom a new color. And even then, it's fleeting. And for those trapped on the outside of the purely symbolic-imaginary, the prisoners of the morass of that real, the symbolic-imaginary is taken as a real threat, hence the Parisian cartoonist massacre. The person for whom an NDE to be just a dying brain hallucination is perhaps also most likely to consider "it's like a painting" the highest compliment they can give an outdoor vista; or, if they behold some surreal carnage or high strangeness in the real, note that "it's like something out of a movie" i.e. the more 'real' things get, i.e. outside their language's dismissive pincers, the more things get "like a movie", i.e. imaginary); the average fundamentalist Islam terrorist perhaps considers the hallucination of the atheist consumer a physical threat, and the purity of the real then becomes its own hallucination and they, in effect, go to war 'in the real' over a purely symbolic representation (i.e. Mohammed). Which would be, in a sense, like arresting Spielberg for depicting war crimes because of Schindler's List. Or being so freaked out by some grotesque cannibal movie you arrest the director and demand to see the actors who were killed show up in court, to prove they're not dead.
So NOW for my less critical post-1999 eyes and ears, the idea that a newbie to the virtual reality game like Jude Law in eXistenZ would act all amateur hour is not surprising or even that upsetting. These are the types who have some serious resistance to the 'weird' - they hang out with us (the psychedelic surfers) latching onto some girl or guy they like, and fall prey to the first anxiety that comes along. We called them 'wallies' in the day (see: The Bleating of the Wallies) A voice in their head tells them they're drowning, so next thing you know they're clutching at your lapel, begging you to take them to the emergency room when a moment ago you were both fine and chilling out listening to Hendrix, man, and exploring the vast universe between your thumb and cigarette. And who among us in that same situation hasn't heard that same voice in our head? We just know to ignore it, along with all the other panic triggers being pressed. But if you're not prepared, you're like the surfer hypnotized by the size of an approaching groundswell.
As Ted (Jude Law) notes after spending a little time in the game:
"I'm feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I'm kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here. "It's silly to think that of course, even if it's true, no one forced him to play the game so he should stop being a little bitch, be more like Bill Burroughs, but when I was leaving my physical body and hovering around on the ceiling over my bed every night after work circa 2003, my first feeling was always 'what if I stop breathing while I'm not in my body?' which is kind of dumb, since we don't worry much about that when we go to sleep at night - and in dreams we're just as outside ourselves, and that shit goes on for hours and hours. These excursions only took a ten minutes or so of linear time, though they seem to go on for hours... in the game and in the InterZone.
In this sense, trying to differentiate truth and illusion is like separating an orange from its peel and asking "which one is the true orange?" You might say the 'inside' is the orange and the skin and seeds are just compost, but the outer peel or skin is just as much 'the orange' and will exist far longer than the rest of it, which you will eat and then it will cease to exist. But it's then that it finally becomes real, when it's ground up and cycled through your system before being expelled, then the real is occurring. Wait... wait I know where I'm going with this, it's that Cronenberg has always known this real horror, that biotech is the wave of the future as much as virtual reality. It's already beginning to happen that designers are learning to 'write' DNA. And new steps in virtual reality are always imminent. Imagine vast teraflops of data in what looks like a simple eye drop. "Right now we're at the pong stage" notes Reesonblast39 when discussing virtual reality, "but within ten years we'll be full circle." What the hell do you mean, Reasonblast? I axed. But he didn't exist anymore - just a glitch in the matrix of our lives. (See also Post-Sensory Pong). Similarly, David Cronenberg's allegory for the collapse of the symbolic is now revealed as savvy enough to undersand that only be denuding the lunch, as it were, can the imaginary transcend the symbolic and become 'more real than reality'. It's also the realization that our human nervous system has long been an elaborate immersive experience for higher beings. These demons and angels use our delicate nervous system as video-audio immersive booths with which to experience all sorts of Hellraiser-esque masochistic pleasures. Jesus wept, bra. But he wept our tears. We'll be marching through the traumatic real of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bone rooms and be impaled on spikes, all just so some far away punk kid robot can thrill with a Batailles-esque ecstasy via our sawed nerve endings.
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as close to Traumatic Real as horror can get.|
I'm not justifying any of it, you understand, everyone in both sides feels their strong emotions demand action, only those of us who've seen the limitations of our own judgement, who've learned to never trust our own feelings ("feelings aren't facts" as they say in AA) can step back and not send that e-mail. But I am just pointing out that if we think we're beyond confusing our umbrage over symbolic representation --either in printed word, speech, or image--with legitimate real life retaliation, then we're blind. Destroying a man's standing in the real world because of what he said in a private conversation to his mistress is just a nonviolent first world cousin to the Charlie massacre, i.e. killing people because of marks and remarks. Names hurt worse than sticks and stones, so the response is in proportion to the sense of hurt, rather than in proportion to the actual offense. In both cases, if we never heard the phone conversation, played obsessively on CNN, or if the terrorists never saw the offending Charlie cover, would they or we be any the worse for it? No. In these cases we can blame the messenger, to some degree, but it's a messenger we can't live without. We created it, a giant amorphous amoeba blob of all our hopes and fears jammed within. The 24-hour news cycle is a bunch of snappy piranha orbiting the latest popular kid on the playground and shunning aloud the unpopular, and instigating each's rise and fall.
|The minute / you let it under your skin....|
Ted: We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.It's a game everybody's already playing, just no one uses the same rules because in admitting it's a game at all, they lose half their pieces. So shhhh, pretend you didn't read this. It's too long anyway. My mom died yesterday... very sudden, and far away.... and words are just fingers pointing to illusions and skittering away... and this is a time for me when illusions don't work at all, and I'm forced, alas, to exit the Boar's Head, Falstaff's woolen eye coverlets trailing behind me like the last few strands of my latest and last cocoon.
Allegra: That sounds like my game, all right.
Ted: That sounds like a game that's not gonna be easy to market.
Allegra: But it's a game everybody's already playing.