Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”- Oscar Wilde

“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth- it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes

[I:1]Postmodern cinema is also rarely pure and never simple, frequently concerning itself with the relationship between humanity and technology in both the present and the future, and its impact on ‘reality’. These films attempt to address the “…profound unease and the crumbling vision of a good society” that is inherent to contemporary life (Gerbner et al 1). Several exceptional films have recently attempted to navigate through Baudrillard’s infamous “desert of the real” and to expose the truth, if there is such a thing, beneath the postmodern simulacrum. Before entering into a discussion of postmodern cinema, I will first expound on some of the major features of postmodern theory and their influence on the films in questioni.

In the analysis of how we have come to live in postmodernity’s spectacular society, we must first turn to the work of linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, who effectively invented the school of linguist thought known as ‘seminology’. In his model, a word is made up of two distinct parts- the signifier, or the sound/letter pattern (used to refer to something), and the signified (that which is being referred to). The signifier is utterly arbitrary, and so any number of sliding signifiers can apply to one concrete signified. Postmodernity applies this linguistic model to everything from food to films, in an attempt to show that the signifier (often called the ‘sign’) has gained precedence over the signified: in essence, it is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle.

[I:2] There is concern over the fact that words, signs and images no longer refer to anything other than other words, signs, and images in endless chains of signification- for Baudrillard we are “…conjuring away the real with the signs of the real…”; while for Jameson, we will soon be lying in an insensible heap under “…a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (Baudrillard Consumer 33; Jameson 23). The world has been emptied of everything that would allow it to be grounded in reality- even the grindingly oppressive industrial regime of the nineteenth century had the advantage of having the industrial emblem to give it a concrete existence. While we are still focused on technology, the mode of its oppressive nature has changed from that which workers toil under to that which they ogle over. The postmodern twentieth century has the gadget as its emblem, a flawed emblem indeed, as “…what could be more useful? What could be more useless?” (Baudrillard Consumer 112). The gadget may be useful to an extent, yet only a tiny reality check will show that fulfilment does not grow in proportion to a mobile phone’s shrinkage. It is meaningless activity that characterises this age of technology, and “…what is so uncanny [is] that everything is functioning and that the functioning drives us more and more to even further functioning” (Heidegger 53). In the new depthlessness of postmodernity, we must question what is an autonomous action, and what is merely functioning.

The overarching system of signification, the simulacrum, has reduced the real into something ultimately unapproachable- yet for precisely this reason the real resonates in every symbol (MacCannell 132). The media helps to confuse the real and the unreal in this world of signification by its very essence- television, film, the politically charged arena that is cyberspace, all ‘take us’ out of our grounded reality and the realm of our real, tangible experiences. They do not, however, transport us into social unreality when we engage in them- suggesting that “…there is no pure social reality outside the world of representation” (McRobbie 217). Our mediated experiences can even serve to make our conception of reality more shaky than it already is- many of the films under discussion here draw us into a ‘real’ world and then reveal it to be artifice, exposing a tendency in postmodern cinema to portray the integral flimsiness and instability of reality itself.

[I:3] Postmodern theory generally uses a mixture of Gramscian hegemony and Marcusian technology to explore how the New World Order media aids in the production of a mass culture that habituates individuals to conform to the dominant patterns of thought and behaviour, thus exposing media as a powerful instrument of social control and domination. The spectacular media is very self-aware, and knows that cultural commodities are subjected to a formula, and hence reduced to a reflection of their genre. Yet it also knows to balance this by ensuring they seem original, individual and authentic to hide their mass-produced nature. It is here that material subversive to the status quo come to interest us, for surely if the mass media grants us a Videodrome, or a Fight Club, it was never trying to hide anything from us to begin with. In fact, postmodern discussion of the media falls into a dichotomy neatly summed up by David Begg- between a “…vision of a world where information is so comprehensive and the power for interaction so sophisticated that every citizen can have an instant say in decisions in a sort of push-button democracy” and the well documented fear of Orwellian media domination (64).

If we are not experiencing the ‘real’ in any meaningful way due to the prevalence of signifiers, what are we experiencing? We have arrived at a new mode of experiencing reality- a ‘hyper-reality’ where the Sign is so adored that the Object’s absence is not even noticed. This hyper-reality provides the highlights without the intermittent tedium; it truly is even better than the real thing. Here, we are forced deeper into Debord’s spectacle and are faced with Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’: not alone are we governed by signifiers, we are lorded over by a multitude of copies for which no original has ever existed. Postmodern disposable income goes on sugar substitutes and tribute bands, soy burgers and false teeth, Elvis impersonators and GM foods- even products of human ingenuity designed to simulate nothing at all, such as contact lenses and stealth bombers. There is no central meaning anymore, an “…aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we now have” (Kelly 77).

[I:4] David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity looks at the time-space compression caused by the overwhelming speed-up in the move from Fordism to flexible accumulation and the creation of new technologies such as electronic banking, combined with the old postmodern chestnut of cyberspacial mediation. Here cinema is the ultimate vehicle for postmodern expression, as this “…spectacle projected within an enclosed space on a depthless screen” is a perfect exposure of our futile quest for depth in a two-dimensional world (308). The attempts to portray reality in postmodern cinema are touched upon by Harvey- Blade Runner is suggested as the perfect attempt to address time-space compression, emphasising as it does the general “…speed-up in the pace of life” causing the world to “…collapse inwards upon us” (240). Postmodernists from Jameson to Baudrillard concur: time does not exist in any meaningful, linear sense in hyper-reality, but rather is fragmented into a series of perpetual presents. Jameson expands on Guy DeBord’s notion of spectacular time: seeing postmodern society as one “…bereft of all historicity”, he envisages a catastrophic breakdown in the signifying chain, leaving us languishing in a Lacanian schizophrenia where we are “…unable to unify the past, present and the future” (27). Jameson is not alone in worrying about the dehumanisation this involves, and it is a recurring theme in postmodern cinema. For Baudrillard however, the collapse of time is welcome, as it might shake humanity out of its passivity and tendency to ‘put things off’: perhaps if we finally realised that “…each man is totally there at each instant. Society is also totally there at each instant” then we would no longer be content to live ‘history in suspense’ (Mirror 163-6).

[I:5] All this leads to the notorious declaration of right-wing theorist Francis Fukuyama that we have reached the end of history. Fukuyama believes that there will be no more historic changes, no more ideological conflicts for the postmodern: the world is on a universal march towards liberal democracy underpinned by a market economy. “The end of history”, the end of conflict- also the end of creativity and constructive growth. Quite simply, there is nowhere for us to go from here, not even the surrogate utopia of cyberspace. This is an area I will deal with in-depth at a later stage, for now I will merely say this- the escape from the material constraints of the world promised by cyberspace can never be delivered upon, as its very nature ensures ‘netters’ are “…pursuing the same Enlightenment goals that drove the world beyond its own ends and into hyper-reality” (Nunes 173). Condemned, as we are, to lurk around waiting for an end that, if it ever occurs, will be insidious rather than sudden, a demise in increments of signification which has already begun- “…the postmodern apocalypse comes not with a bang but a whimper” (Kumar 207).

Not surprising then, that most postmodern cinema takes an extremely dystopic view of our future. Progressing from its earlier unease with industrial technology and resultant cyborg subjectivity- epitomised in Cameron’s Terminator films- it is now more concerned with the representation of the fundamentals of human reality underlying the hyper-real technology that has created both cyberspace and the oxymoronic phenomenon of virtual reality. Cinematic utopias are infrequent, yet dystopias occur with almost alarming regularity. For David B. Clarke, we have “…already passed beyond the end…Utopian and dystopian futures may still preoccupy such cultural forms as film, but nobody believes in their reality anymore” (6). Why then, the preoccupation with future historical developments if we are not only at “the end of history”, but beyond it?

Postmodern cinema appears to be ignoring the end of history in order to create a deterrence-effect in relation to technological dystopic futures, from the designer babies of Gattaca to the enslaved power sources of The Matrix. The apocalypse is indeed slyly creeping up on us, and it is in the present that the changes must be made to prevent it. The concerned, but powerless, members of contemporary society have already become self-aware: “We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. We are all on the same compost heap” (Fight Club). This may not be the most positive starting point for an attempt to transform a dystopian future, but it is all postmodernity has given us.

[I:6] Throughout ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ I will marry analysis of society using postmodern theory with an in-depth discussion of several films. Firstly, Fight Club, dealing with its indictment of the postmodern hell we are trying to escape through consumerism and media addiction, and the fragmentation of consciousness caused by life as a corporate drone. Some connections will be made to the omnipotence and omnipresence of television through Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Weir’s The Truman Show. The Matrix (part one) will be focused on extensively, since it provides an amalgam of all postmodern theorising on the dangerous potential of technology, and contains the vital themes of truth, reality, and the presence of a simulacrum in postmodern existence. Also under discussion will be the forced nature of the matrix and the desire to break free of it- a human struggle to remain dominant in the face of overwhelming technical odds mirrored in cyborg dystopias such as Robocop, and the Terminator films. Further discussion of the postmodern hell we are trying to escape will be provided through Terry Gilliam’s apocalyptic Twelve Monkeys, with its dystopian future and in particular its grim portrayal of American life in 1996. Quite a savage indictment of a hegemonic mass media and its creation of consumerist ‘monkeys’, this film also segues nicely into the overall theme of reality due to its time-loop and the status of its narrator as a mental patient.

Throughout all of these films lies a questioning of the nature of reality, of consumer society, and the unreliability of the ‘reality’ the screen presents us with- after all “[t]he movie never changes, it doesn’t change, but every time you see it it seems different because you are different“. If the truth is indeed out there, we must search through the misty realm of postmodern signification, as the answer will find us if we actively search for it. Welcome to the desert of the real…

i There are so many facets to postmodern theory that one critic has even defined it as “Postmodernism: this word has no meaning. Use it as often as possible” (Featherstone 1). While the ever-quotable Baudrillard is often the most useful for expressing a concept (ie the simulacrum), he is not the only postmodern theorist who is dealing with these ideas. Several times in the course of discussing postmodern society, I will quote one theorist who may well be saying only what many other postmodern theorists have said beforehand.

© Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ https://eatsplantsreadsbooks.wordpress.com. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blogs author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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