Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold

Postmodern society, characterised by the proliferation of signs and the collapse of time, has turned us into consumerist lemmings with cerebral malaise, shuffling towards our inevitable demise. Utopias all ring hollow, and apocalypse has become banal. Somewhat unsurprisingly, there has been a steady increase in the number of films dealing with the evolution of subjectivity in the media panopticon we have willingly enclosed ourselves in. From within the ubiquitous and omnipresent media-saturated consciousness of the postmodern subject, an increasingly technologically mediated form of subjectivity is being brought forth- the creation of mechanised responses to mechanised stimuli symbolised succinctly in the transformation of policeman Alex Murphy into the cyborg Robocop whose “…blank stares from the video screen parallel our dull gaze into it” (Best 20). Postmodern cinema has recognised this to such an extent that we have seen humanity literally merging with machine in a myriad of cyborg-related scenarios, and more complexly in the wholesale submersion of individuality to television (Videodrome), cyberspace (The Matrix), and computer games (eXistenZ). What does this concern over the mechanisation of humanity reveal about the postmodern subject?

[1:1]There can be little doubt that the mode of consumption in postmodern society is a perfect illustration of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, whereby commodities come to appear as if they have a value and existence independent of the people and the social relationships which produce them. The commodity is a “mysterious thing”, a “social hieroglyphic” which conceals the exploitative relationship which characterises capitalism and causes commodities to be fetishised (Marx 71-4). This fetishism is symptomatic of a broader social process of reification, where the structures and relations of society seem independent, immutable, and even natural. The belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the existing social order is manifested in the fatalism and passivity of the proletarian consciousness- the revolution will not happen because we are all at home hoping it will be televised.

More and more aspects of society are becoming commodities- nearly every dimension of popular culture has undergone a process of commodification. Increased commodification leads to increased visualisation- images and symbols become the universal language of commodity production across national boundaries, satellites replicate images endlessly and beam them virtually everywhere. Life has become aestheticised, the boundary between life and art has been effaced.By meshing this concept with our earlier discussion of signification, we arrive in a place where the postmodern mass production of commodities is combined with the obliteration of the original use-values of goods by the dominance of exchange-value inherent to capitalism. This leads to the commodity becoming a sign in the Saussurian sense, with its “…meaning arbitrarily determined by its position in a self-referential system of signifiers” (Featherstone 85). As a result of this, what people buy has very little to do with their intrinsic need for the use value it will yield, and a lot to do with what ‘meanings’ they will collect or portray when consuming. It is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle, and even a cursory glance at spectacular consumption lends credence to Baudrillard’s hypothesis that it is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs.

[1:2]Spectacular consumption is illustrated succinctly in Fight Club, where an anonymous corporate drone (Edward Norton) living in “a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals” appropriates all the signs of luxury he can. The identity of this drone/narrator is so ill defined that, while he sardonically refers to himself as ‘Jack’, we never learn his real name- but we do have intimate details of his consumption practices. Truly a denizen of the society of the spectacle, Jack falls utterly for the importance of “…capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image” (DeBord #34). He has become “a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct“, a walking literalisation of DeBord’s assertion that “…a counterfeit life calls for a pseudo-justification” (#48).

Although disorientated and alienated due to his cookie-cutter job and monochrome personality, Jack has learned the lessons of conspicuous consumption well. He is very adept at appropriating the correct signs for his pseudo-personality, obsessively pursuing such consumerist conundrums as “[w]hat kind of dining set defines me as a person?” Director David Fincher provides none too subtle visual clues of what we should make of this mentality- Jack is catalogue shopping whilst sitting on the toilet- yet much of what he has to say paraphrases the entire concept of commodity fetishism. As the narrator’s room is slowly transformed into a catalogue, with Norton sidestepping price tags and descriptive clichés, we cease to see mere furniture and instead see the attempted projection of personality.

Courtesy of a voice-over which is “…strikingly separated from the rest of the sound and strangely muffled, as if there were a mike inside Jack’s head” (Taubin 18), we see reification in action as Jack unveils products such as environmentally-friendly lampshades and dishes containing deliberate imperfections to prove they were lovingly hand-crafted by “the honest, simple, hardworking indigenous people of …wherever“. Jack displays all the criteria of reification, namely “…abstraction, interchangeability, quantifiability, and indifference towards concrete individuality”, and is a perfect commodity fetishist in his blindness towards the oppressive impact of capitalism both on his life and on the lives of the indigenous people of ‘wherever’ (Kellner Boundaries 14). Jack’s indifference to the exploitative relationship that Marx’s nations of bourgeoisie have with the nations of the proletariat is doubly ill advised in his case. Most postmodern consumers are guilty of side-stepping of the underbelly of culture, deliberately avoiding encountering the life-situations of the producers of our comfort goods. Unique to Jack however, is the explosion of the consequences of dominance over developing countries into his own life. Lurking beneath the new economic colonisation is a culture of “…blood, torture, death and horror”- exactly the elements that Jack’s denial of the system through Fight Club brings into his own life (Jameson Postmodernism 9).

Jack is better able to relate to things than people, and his home is a constructed private object world of the sort lauded by Jameson as the defining feature of reified postmodern society “…where privatised ‘Utopian’ spaces allow one to banish…an appreciation of the material conditions which stand behind social life” (Cooper 96). As we search for more secure moorings and longer-lasting values in the ‘throwaway society’ of postmodernism, which so emphasises the virtues of disposability and instantaneity, reality mutates around us. Our attempts to ground ourselves within our object world lead to our possessions (be they objects, photographs, clothing) become invested with our contemplative memory and resulting symbolism (Harvey 240-85). In turn, they become a “…generator of a sense of self that lives outside the sensory overloading of consumerist culture and fashion “(Harvey 286). The utopian space, or private museum, of Jack’s home is invested with his personality to such as extent that it is not implausible for him to be truthful when he states “That condo was my life”.

As a logical offshoot of this, Jack’s ‘personality’, such as it was, is also obliterated when his condo explodes, leaving him totally free to embrace his inner anarchist. Prior to the explosion, Jack’s most recent prized possession is a ‘clever’ looking coffee table designed to represent Yin and Yang, a commodity far less functional than it is a sign-form “…in a circulating machinery of immaterial desires” (Kroker Possessed 65). Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Marx used the example of a table to illustrate commodity fetishism, pivoting around the fact that although the form of wood is altered by making it into a table, a table is still, fundamentally, just wood. Yet…

… as soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was (71).

This established, it is time to approach Jack’s new purchase. The Yin and Yang coffee table obviously reflects the balance which Jack is missing from his life, and is trying to appropriate for himself. Its deeper significance is reflected in our introduction to it: it “looked clever”, and he “had to have it”.

Soon after our introduction to the table, it becomes apparent that appearing intelligent is extremely important to Jack. His first meeting with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) leads almost immediately to Tyler labelling Jack as “clever”. Since Tyler is Jack, it follows that Jack would like intelligence to be his most obvious trait- if only to hide the “…kind of sick desperation in [his] laugh”. That the table, which had been hidden under a plethora of signifiers previously, becomes so obvious after the explosion suggests that his ‘cleverness’ is the one aspect of his personality he will salvage from the wreckage of his former life. The importance of this post-explosion scene, and the consequent full-time presence of Tyler in Jack’s life, is not apparent on a first viewing: “It’s called a changeover. The movie goes on, and nobody in the audience has any idea.” A hint of the turmoil ahead is provided though: if the table was Jack’s balance, he is certainly off-kilter now.

[1:3]It was increasingly obvious up to this point that Jack was becoming aware of his enclosure in a simulacrum. Suffering from acute insomnia, Jack bemoans the resulting impression that “nothing is real. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy“. It is unsurprising that Fincher splices the first of several “subliminal Tyler’s” into this scene, nor that Norton is photocopying at the time. This corporate world of drab and inhuman colours awash with sickly green and yellow tones, where Jack’s very actions are feeding the proliferation of copies which characterise postmodernism, is the perfect catalyst for the return of the colourful repressed id in the form of Tyler/Brad Pitt. Tyler is all that his “corporate secretion” alter ego is not, but would wish to be (Beller 3): he is an idealised doppelganger, the Dorian Gray to which Jack is only the portrait. Most significantly, he is aware of the oppressive nature of the simulacrum, knowing that “[w]e are by-products of a lifestyle obsession“. He is willing to admit, in a way that Jack is not, that the accumulation of signs of concern do not transform one into an empowered and informed member of society. In fact, he readily confesses to adopting a more common, vastly shallower stance: “Murder, crime, poverty…these things do not concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with five hundred channels, some guy’s name on my underwear…

The importance of television to societal control is reiterated when Jack’ s transformation from a wage slave into an anti-capitalist activist is marked by a televisual detox. Norton’s insomniac is shown in a state of mindless collapse in front of the screen, his societal interaction limited to channel-hopping: his move to Tyler’s crumbling wreck of a home places him out of the reach of not only television, but all creature comforts. It takes him a month to stop pining for television, but at the end of that month he is already well on the way to making vigilante strikes against the capitalist system that had him addicted to the video-narcotic for so long. This evolution is proof positive that television merely seduces the viewer into an “…even deeper tie to the spectacle” while there is no substitute for “…becoming involved in genuinely interactive citizenship and democracy” (Best and Kellner 49).

[1:4]The very news has fallen into the trap of info-tainment designed to “…ensnare the benighted couch potatoes of consumer capitalism” (Best and Kellner 44). George Ritzer’s vital analysis of the McDonaldisation of society is illustrated through Jack’s sardonic reaction to a news-McNugget of an impotent panda, and his consequent irrational rage against it as he wishes he could annihilate “all the pandas who wouldn’t screw to save their species“. What is interesting here is that the bewailment of the prevalence of ‘joke’ news items interrupting the ‘real’ news is counter-acted by the earlier confession that the ‘real’ news of murder, crime, and poverty do not concern him. Truly captured in “…the iron cage of a McDonaldised world” (Munch 139), Jack suffers from an implosion of meaning characterised by an inability to “…separate reality form its statistical, simulative projection in the media” and has not yet honed a filtration process allowing him to separate the mediated wheat from the chaff (Baudrillard Implosion 113).

That Jack has no response to the objective reflection on the misery of the human condition (as the news presents it to him) suggests his intrinsic discomfort with the mutation of reality into hyper-reality as a result of passing through the televisual filter. Postmodern reality is a “…mad accumulation of reality which is bifurcating between the real as we know it, and the teleschizoid assemblages which we have yet to fully formulate” (Beckmann 6). The ceaseless procession of ‘real victims’, ‘real dead people’, ‘real survivors’, ‘real bereaved’ across the screens we associate with entertainment proves that “…misery and violence affects us far less when they are readily signified and openly made visible” (Baudrillard Photography 11). Although he may not realise it, Jack desire to pummel the aforementioned panda stems from the impotence of his own rage against a medium that elevates such things to the status of news. It is perhaps because of this that the key element of Project Mayhem became invisibility through omnipresence. No matter how visible their actions become, the members will remain invisible: how can the media dilute through representation the actions of an enemy who cannot be distanciated from your life. This is not an objective enemy: here the mortal foe can claim to “…cook your meals…haul your trash…connect your calls…drive your ambulances…guard you while you sleep.” Watching the news only becomes unproblematic for the disenfranchised males of Project Mayhem when they are making it, when they relinquish their place as a spectator for a place in the spectacle itself.

[1:5]For an even more blatant depiction of televisual dangers we must turn to a seminal work by David Cronenbergi. Providing us with the ultimate depiction of addiction to the video-narcotic, Videodrome’s chief protagonist Max Renn (played by a suitably sleazy James Woods) is dragged into the world of a television programme revealed to be a government projectii. The imperfection of mere reality in comparison to the escapism of the videodrome is verbalised by its creator Brian O’Blivion, who states:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena…The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality and reality is less than television.

O’Blivion repeatedly blurs the boundaries between real and mediated experience, consistently appearing on television already on television (Bukatman Spectacle 80). He benevolently provides televisual handouts to the cities’ down and outs through his Cathode Ray Mission: charity from the disciples of the new media god. It is not without irony that we see O’Blivion claimed as the videodrome’s first victim in a Frankensteinian revision mirrored by Max Renn’s increasing submission both to Nikki Brand and the videodrome (81). The Videodrome signal is revealed to be one developed by Spectacular Optical- a multinational corporation specialising in defence contracts- with the express intent of producing a tumour in the viewer which creates hallucinations. These hallucinations are recorded and fed back to the viewers who are enthralled at the production of their own brains- and so the cycle continues. Videodrome is the ultimate video-narcotic, a perfect fulfilment of the wish “…to increase social control and establish a new means of dominance over the population” (81).

[1:6]The queasiness we feel watching Videodrome is partly due to Cronenberg’s characteristic unsparingly visceral visuals, and partly because of a subliminal horror brought to the fore equally well in The Matrix, where we see the bodies of the dead liquidated and fed to the unsuspecting living. The distaste caused by the increasing suspicion that we too are being dominated by an unseen force is magnified at the prospect of domination by regurgitated waste, where the “[n]ew electronic technologies, with their clean bits of binarized information, claim to violate the flesh” (Shaviro 129). We are also told that the public activity of Spectacular Optical is the creation of designer eyewear- on every level they specialise in selling ‘spectacles’ (140). That they also supply the Third world provides the perfect accompaniment to Jack’s “wherever”: Western colonisation of developing countries is not only economic, it extends to cultural commodities.

As we are drawn into the spectacle of the transformation of Max Renn into a living video machine, Cronenberg problematises our relationship with the cinematic spectacle by confusing the supposed reality of the narrative with Renn’s hallucinations. There is a disturbing symbiosis between the viewer of the film and Renn’s viewing of Videodrome: both are “…trapped in a web of representations which infect and transform reality”, we are feeding off Renn’s hallucinations as much as he is (Bukatman Spectacle 86). Our unease is magnified by the linking of the image and the virus. As the virus multiplies endlessly within its host organism, it holds the power to take it over, and destroy it. In Videodrome, the image/virus is “…posited as invasive and irresistible: a parasite with only self-replication as its function” (Bukatman 78). The image/virus has invaded the postmodern subject: radically alien yet wholly incorporated into our beings it has yet to be seen if it will proliferate until it destroys us. Max is an inverted cyborg: rather than superhumanity, he is weakened and made mentally and emotionally vulnerable through his meshing with technology.

[1:7]As the media becomes ever more pervasive, and interactive television makes us all a little more like Max Renn, an astounding number of people are willingly making themselves media-monkeys through Webcam and docu-soapsiii. The obsession with garnering the obligatory fifteen minutes of fame makes us feel the plight of Truman Burbank, the one true-man in a televisual simulacrum, all the more (Best and Kellner 44). The Truman Show shares with The Matrix a concern over the evolving power of information technologies alongside the proverbial tropes of human reality, free will, and choice (Nunn 6). Unbeknownst to Truman, he is the star of a 24hr show which chronicles his every movement under the ‘benign’ guidance of the show’s enigmatic creator Christof. Here we have the ultimate paranoid fantasy, which points to the prevalence of the simulacrum everywhere, not merely in Truman’s constructed universe. The success in duping the Truman for so long lies in humanity’s societal passivity- “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented“.

Within Truman’s video-panopticon, he is afforded absolute freedom, once he does not attempt to exceed its boundaries. In the enclosed dome that is ‘Seahaven, Florida’, the sky is quite literally the limit for Truman- he crashes into the simulated horizon as he makes his escape. Cautioned by Christof that “There’s no more truth out there than in the world that I created for you…“, Truman still chooses the ‘real’ world outside his simulacrum- but at what price? Although his decision is lovingly presented as a triumph of the human spirit, Truman is merely entering a more dangerous version of the simulacrum he has lived in all his life. Seahaven provided gormless Truman with a protected middle-class existence, while the real world will do nothing of the sort. Truman effectively sacrifices a place in the advertisement- the show is sponsored by product-placement whereby everything seen is on sale- to a place as a consumer, and given the shows huge audience he will remain the object of the curious gaze from that day forth.

[1:8]The institutionalised gaze of the camera has made Truman a celebrity; a familiar face so comforting that many viewers would leave him on all night to help them sleep. Is this so different from the bizarre comfort we take in knowing the minutiae of our favourite (or most despised) celebrity’s love life? Fight Club’s sardonically detached Jack would probably have loved the Truman show, his fractured subjectivity especially significant in terms of the postmodern prevalence of commodity fetishism and its human equivalent- the cult of celebrity. Armed with the knowledge that Jack and Tyler are the same person, ‘their’ confession of a fondness for celebrity magazines takes on new significance. Both the film and the book take as their centrepiece a diatribe against the emasculating evils of consumer capital, culminating in the scathing reproach that “[w]e’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll all be millionaires and movie-gods and rock stars- but we won’t“. This falls rather flat when delivered by a movie god, who not only is surrounded by all the colour that Fincher’s drab universe can provide, but is lovingly shot in ways remarkably similar to the underwear advertisements his character scoffs at. As a result, we need to analyse this paradox in terms the political message Fincher is seeking to project.While it is unquestionably both viscerally savage and morally fuzzy, Fight Club does not espouse Tyler’s political views, despite the press outrage surrounding its releaseiv. As Amy Taubin correctly deduces, the problem is that the charisma and allure possessed by Tyler become associated with his nihilism and latent fascism: he is “…an object of desire and identification” (Taubin So Good 17). Tyler is seeking a way to break free of culture, alienation, boredom and despair, seeking a reassertion of masculinity in the face of a societal shift from production to consumption. He is seeking to prove that consumer society is one giant lie: “You are not your job. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not the car you drive. You are not your khakis.” Early incarnations of Tyler continually show him in pink-tinted glasses: his is a rosy future featuring the elimination of all the societal trapping that are not essential to “survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word” (Coleman).

Tyler is difficult to define: he is both repressed id and doppelganger, both Nietzschean Ubermench and Jungian Shadow figure. He advocates liberation through the rejection and destruction of those institutions which are enslaving us: just as Nietzsche did, he rejects morality as being merely the herd instinct of mediocre individuals. Yet more importantly, as a Shadow figure he is a mental archetype representing all the qualities that Jack is forced to repress. As Fight Club is such a broad success, it would appear that Jack is not the only corporate drone housing a Shadow figure who needs to vent: after all, “a guy you met at Fight Club wasn’t the same guy you met on the streets” (Coleman). For Edward Norton, the point is that we must reject unattractive politics even when presented attractively, and remember that the appeal of Tyler as “…the reassertion of the purer self” involves letting everything, not just what “does not truly matter” slide out of reach (Fuller).

The mutation of Tyler’s anti-consumerism into something deeply unpleasant is shown in the dwindling of his garish wardrobe into a gigantic matted-black fur coat; the exchange of his rose-coloured glasses for pitch-black ones- the violence of his vision has changed even Tyler (Coleman). Any positive power behind his “[y]ou are not your job…” tirades is undermined by his alternative vision consisting only of the endless reiteration that “[y]ou are not a beautiful and unique snowflake“. It appears that once you have abandoned your concern with the Ikea catalogue, you may as well become a nameless cog in Tyler’s underground machine since “we are all on the same compost heap anyway. Rather than suggesting we embrace Tyler and all his views, we are shown just how little it takes for his politics to dehumanise people just as much as the system he sought to overthrow.

It is here, in the confusion of Tyler with his politics, that having Brad Pitt denounce the possibility of being a movie-god begins to make sense. The cult of celebrity works in much the same way as commodity fetishism, and transforms celebrities into mirrors “…reflecting back the dreams and desires of those who worship them” (Solomon 48)v. Celebrities are not only the “…opposite of an individual”, they are the enemy of individuality, since they renounce all autonomy in order to become a model to be identified with (DeBord #61). Tyler looks, thinks, and acts the way Jack wishes he could: and Jack certainly identifies with him. If we combine this with Fincher’s own avowal that if he could be anyone else he would be Brad Pitt (Taubin 18), and a well-placed marquee in the background announcing Pitt’s epic Seven Years in Tibet, it is hard not to see Pitt less as Tyler but more himself-as-wish-fulfilment for recently reformed media-junkie Jack. Indeed, Pitt appears to reprise his role in Twelve Monkeys here, with remarkably similar anti-capitalist speeches and an army of ‘Space Monkeys’ in place of his previous twelve. The most crucial aspect of this is Jack’s eventual rejection of Tyler- if he no longer has his spectacular projection through commodities, or through celebrity identification, what exactly is he going to fall back on?

[1:9] Surprisingly similar to The Truman Show when boiled down to its basic elements, Fight Club is also about the escape of the simulacrum. With a schizophrenic narrator so frantically ill at ease that he is capable of creating an alter ego as powerful as Tyler, it is little wonder that he should try every possible avenue of escape. From the attempts to rise above, out, and over his life (celebrities, millionaires), to the attempts to bottom out (“Slide!“), Fight Club obsessively strives for a concrete reality outside of a world that feels so very fake (Redd 20). Jack is rescued from condo-hell by a call he receives from Tyler in the payphone outside the wreckage of his apartment. This scene is shot in ways that are strongly reminiscent of The Matrix and the answered calls that transport the crew of the Nebuchadnezzer from the dream world to the real world (Coleman). However, that this phone states clearly it accepts no incoming calls illustrates Jack is only imagining his escape route, and perhaps only imagining a reality outside of the one presented to him. If we cannot escape unpleasant reality through consumption or media-addiction, will the politically charged arena of cyberspace set us free?

i Videodrome, as with all of Cronenberg’s films, is a highly complex work which space constraints will not allow me to do justice to here. My discussion is only a cursory overview of the aspect of the film most relevant to my overall theme of the confusion of postmodern hyper-reality with reality. For the Holy Grail of articles on Cronenberg, see Bukatman The Science Fiction of the Spectacle.

iiThis is also the basic plot of John Carpenter’s They Live, a crucial beginning to the questioning of the nature of the simulacrum, and indeed its connection to consumerism. The nameless chief protagonist is unable to escape media-projected images of spectacular wealth even when he is in a homeless shelter. The discovery of a special pair of sunglasses allows him to pierce the simulacrum: now he sees that there are also hidden media messages intent on brainwashing people into serving the interests of a ruling elite. A car advertisement becomes the command ‘Do Not Question Authority’, while money bears the inscription ‘This is Your God’. The truth the glasses reveal behind the smokescreen of illusion rings equally true in our society: “They live, the rest of us just struggle and dream” (Wright 2).

iii See Big Brother, Castaway, Survivor…sadly, there are too many to even list. The frantic seizing of everything real (which is promptly mediated into a spectacle), is uncannily like the first wave of a Videodrome frenzy. Incredibly bored and boring people watching incredibly bored and boring (but media hungry) people sit and stare at walls has been a ratings phenomenon. Welcome to the desert of the real…

iv While I have chosen to see a complex (and empowering) message in Fight Club, several critics denounce it as brainless, vicious drivel. For a counterpoint to everything I have to say about this film, see Giroux Private.

v See also DeBord’s demolition of celebrity obsession as a crucial prop of spectacular society (#59-62).

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