Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…

“Today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology, in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein…” – Jean Baudrillard

The quandary facing any potential navigator through the desert of the real as it is presented in postmodern cinema deals with the hyper-realistic nature of any mediated communication. The questioning of reality, and the potential apocalypse, in the films dealt with here is duly problematic. Is it possible that Fight Club, The Matrix, and Twelve Monkeys may all fall victim to the Cassandra Complex by presenting the annihilation of the human race as entertainment? Are these films foreseeing the future yet not being believed when they foretell it, or can we take a more positive outlook towards their significance?

The prevalence of mediated communication such as the cinema has surely, as Baudrillard asserts, assisted the cunning of the simulacrum. It is a contributing factor in the replacement of reality in our society with a mediascape that is governed by the dynamic logic of hyper-reality (Kroker Possessed 65). The postmodern apocalypse will occur because the airless atmosphere inside the simulacrum has asphyxiated meaning, as “…[w]e breathe an ether of floating images that bear no relation to any reality whatsoever” (Massumi 1). As we have discussed, apocalypse is mere banality to a society that feels so close to it, and as a result we have ceased to fear dystopic future visions. What purpose, then, the probing of the simulacrums’ boundaries which we have been undertaking here? Quite simply, these films are crucial to shaking us out of our tendency to live ‘history in suspense’. They recognise that “[o]ur Apocalypse is not real, it is virtual. Neither does it belong to the future, its incident is in the here and now” (Baudrillard Hystericizing 10).

Postmodern society may indeed have reached the End of History; a claim which Fukuyama believes has sealed us into a permanent position of capitalist contentment. By locating the apocalypse within the sphere of our daily actions, the films dealt with here present a different story. We are a society disenfranchised by the realisation that “[w]e’re the middle children of history…we have no purpose, no place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives” (Fight Club). That even minor choices made by us could affect the outcome of the human race is as empowering as it is terrifying to a generation that feels it is changing nothing. By laying before us the nature of the simulacrum and the consequences of escape from it (The Matrix, The Truman Show); or the potential outcome of acting in certain ways (Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys), postmodern cinema is unveiling our choices. Where “…the dystopic projection of a hyperalienated future coincides with a utopic hope for spiritual survival, salvation and redemption” there is a crucial decision to be made (Best Robocop 28). We have not merely wandered through the desert of the real. We have been asked to provide (and make possible) an answer to postmodern cinema’s crucial question: what version of reality do you prefer? Continue reading “Concluding ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’: Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…”

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Never lose your education

Of course I did not know it at the time, but when I was born, the youngest of eight children, to a farming family in Meath, I hit the jackpot in a birth lottery taking place each and every day in an increasingly unequal world. So privileged was I, that I regularly experienced the state only the under-worked and over-privileged feel – boredom. From my earliest memories, long before my pathological obsession with tea drew equal with it, I have loved the power of the printed word. I am a self-confessed word junkie – I’m Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Aunt Josephine from Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Name your cliché of a character who is so engrossed in the universes spun by words, and I am it. Books are not only a portal to knowledge, but a chance to go places in your head – anywhere you want to be, and a good book can take you there. For most of my life I never even questioned that literacy was something special that my circumstances of birth could have denied me. Once I finished my M.A. I realised that, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a fact universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of an arts degree must be in want of a life. Since it has been said that “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” rather than going someplace in my head I went to China instead.

Working from official statistics, the People’s Republic of China had a literacy rate of 90.8% in the year 2002, with primary school education provided for six years in the state-run public education system. Official statistics often do not show the full reality of a situation however, and the current completion rate of primary education is a little over 78%. Almost 5million students a year fail to complete compulsory education on time. About 1 million children drop out of school each year because of poverty, particularly ethnic minorities and girls – and those girls who remain in education are often the victims of systemic gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas. The poverty of an area as well as the poverty of individual families is an obstacle, with many schools in China lacking the resources to provide more than two to three years of schooling. They are poorly equipped, often providing little more than desks and chairs, and their curricula are severely limited. Notebooks and writing materials, not to mention quality stimulating textbooks, are often prized possessions for the lucky few with access to them.

Continue reading “Never lose your education”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)

“Cyberspace abandons ‘the real’ for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehensible world” (Nunes 163). As we have already seen, postmodernity is characterised by the turn from the real towards the hyperreal caused by the proliferation of signs- an indication, perhaps, that cyberspace is a quintessentially postmodern medium. Certainly it is a site of crucial juxtapositions, an arena to showcase the clashing of the real and the hyperreal, humanity and machinery, freedom and enslavement. In the case of American society at least, cyberspace stands on the brink of dominating the shape of the society to follow the simulacrum we are currently contained in- although whether it will improve or disimprove the conditions within is arguable.

The following section will examine the nature of cyberspace both as it exists today, and as it is imagined in the future, through the lens of the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, with a view to establishing the importance of its role in the consumerist-apocalypse that so far seems inevitable. If the men who partook in Fight Club were literally busting themselves out of the simulacrum, are hackers the cerebral, paler versions of the same breed of rebel? The Matrix allows us to raise many pertinent questions- not least of which is the conundrum of whether cyberspace creates an utopian elsewhere for the disgruntled refugees of late capitalism, or merely provides a panicky escape-route as we abandon the body in a run for environmental cover. A cursory glance will also be given to several cyborg films for the dual purposes of establishing the evolution of technology based dystopias, and of exploring the hypothesis that we are all cyborgs in cyberspacei.

[2:1]Before we attempt to navigate through cyberspace, we must first take a general look at our attitude to technology, and explore if we have indeed enclosed ourselves in the external sensorium of technology alleged by technophobe Heidegger. Max Weber’s believed that modernity is characterised by enclosure in an iron cage of bureaucracy, that acts as a controlling force in our lives. This was developed the equally pessimistic Heidegger, so that it was an exteriorised technoscience that was enframing us. In Heidegger’s iron cage, it is technology that is stripping our reality of its intrinsic potentialities and turning our own world into something radically alien and hostile (Feenberg 11-13). We have cheerfully imprisoned ourselves in this iron cage, for the same reasons we fall prey to commodity fetishism. The alienation and reification at the heart of that basic consumer instinct are at work here also- we quickly fall into the thrall of any extension of ourselves in any material other than ourselves, be it the state, the church, the media, or technology. As a result we have become like Narcissus, gazing adoringly at our own reflection in technology, loving this extension of ourselves so much that we have become a closed system, “…the servo-mechanism of [our] own extended and repeated image” (McLuhan 51). It is for this reason that dystopic projections of a machine-dominated future do not alarm us as they once did- we feel closer both to the future and to the machine than we ever did before (Jameson Nostalgia 26). Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)”

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. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of the Real: The Future has Been Sold”

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. Continue reading “Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’”

How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?

Hard Times is a novel which from the moment of its publication aroused very different sentiments in the reading public. It succeeded in increasing the circulation of ‘Household Words’, doubling the number of copies bought during the time it was being published, and yet it was still condemned by contemporary critics has having a plot which is “…flat, stale, unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound”.1 It is almost impossible to say whether or not ‘Hard Times’ is a successful novel, deserving of the glowing praise heaped upon it which has snowballed since Dr. Leavis’ infamous analysis of the ‘masterpiece’, or if it is merely an embarrassment on Dickens’ creative résumé, known chiefly as being “the least read of all the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it”.2 As enjoyment is a matter of personal taste, in this essay I hope to prove that ‘Hard Times’ is at the very least, entirely unsuccessful as a helpful social tract.

The first striking feature of the novel, which F.R. Leavis was so quick to seize upon, is that it immediately sets itself up as a moral fable ‘for these times’ in its three book titles, Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering. Clearly Dickens meant to call to mind Galatians 6:7, and it the course of the novel it is to be made abundantly clear “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. In this vein, he see Gradgrinds’ utilitarian sensibilities crumpling around his ears and lying before him in the figure of his daughter Louisa; while the political economy of Bounderby, the self-made man, is critiqued by the revelation that the self-made man is actually the creation of a loving and self sacrificing mother. To be fair, all this is done with a starkness of purpose that perhaps deserves Leavis’s claim of a “concentrated significance…immediately clear and penetrating”.3 Dickens curbs his normal meandering exploration of practically everything in sight, and a good deal out of it, in this novel, in order, essentially to convey the futility of the system he wants to cast off. As a result of this, the minuscule opening chapter introduces the Messiah of Utilitarianism in a hail of “Facts!” as if to suggest that this is “the kind of parched and grudging stuff”4 that utilitarians would produce. In much the same way the novel as a whole is rigidly structured so as to allow him to produce a logically ordered attack on what he sees as an illogical system. Unfortunately the aforementioned parched and grudging stuff does its job too well – we feel the same distaste for the novel as we would do for one of Gradgrind’s beloved blue books. Continue reading “How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?”

Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’

Toni Morrison’s treatment of memory is a frequently disturbing revisiting of those aspects of history that have been covered over – for her, black history is not about Conrad’s unspeaking1 but rather a denial of the right to tell her ‘ghastly tale’. Intent as she is on remembering history, she explores old wounds that have since healed over – memories are as hard and livid as scars, and page after page of Morrison’s work aches at the inhumanities undergone by America’s blacks, with the intention of allowing these reopened to finally heal properly.

Memories in Toni Morrison are generally scarring, although they can be visible or invisible. In Beloved, Sethe will forever carry a tree on her back, “A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves” (Beloved: 16) in memorandum of the nightmare life that she had at Sweet Home, a tree of scars commemorating the beating that made her run away and caused her husbands breakdown. Sethe has obvious scars which Paul D. and Amy Denver can see, and name, and use to make Sethe recount the tale behind them – and yet Sethe herself is closed to their significance. For Sethe, “the picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”(Beloved: 6) – the skin around Sethe’s tree of scars is completely numb, an “absence of physical sensation…[signaling]… the emotional dissociation Sethe experiences”2. Not facing up to the memory in the chokecherry tree is the real reason she feels nothing when Paul D. kisses it better; Sethe knows that “Somethings go. Pass on. Somethings just stay” and knows also that “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved: 35), factors combining into her belief it is not worth the pain of acknowledging the significance of her tree. Perhaps Paul D. is in a worse position than Sethe: his scars are internal and he has to fight his own battles- he has never spoken of his time under the Schoolteacher in Sweet Home to anyone, and it is only in accidental defense of the actions of Sethe’s husband Halle, who was ‘broken’ by witnessing the assault on his wife, that Paul D. confesses how difficult stoicism can be, admitting “A man ain’t a goddamn ax. Chopping, hacking, busting every minute of the day. Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside”(Beloved: 69). Paul D. has none of the physical markings of trauma for someone like Sethe to kiss better- even his eyes do not have the usual wildness which Sethe believes follows on from having worn a bit; and so his fight with memory holds the potential for more pain than Sethe. It is not the repression of memory which haunts Sethe, she is plagued by memories3, but Paul D. has to conquer his repression and his tendency to keep his painful remembering “where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”(Beloved: 72).

Morrison’s Jazz has a different approach to the scarring of memory- the wound caused by the Violet/Joe/Dorcas love triangle is never allowed to close over by Joe and Violet, causing a different kind of pain for the couple. Instead of trying to forget the causes and consequences of Joe’s murderous and Violet’s mutilating responses to Dorcas, the Trace’s choose to set her picture in a prominent place in their home and ‘visit’ it at regular intervals on the night, using her, as Peterson points out, as a means to “reach back into the more distant past to re-collect the stories that will enable them to comprehend their present situation”4. By disallowing present healing and keeping the ‘Dorcas-wound’ open, Violet forces Joe to deal with the scarring his constant remaking of himself has caused, and to deal with all the debris carried by a man who has made himself new seven times, before reaching a pure resolution of the Dorcas wound also, through the figure of Felice and the reconciliation dance. The most complex and rewarding treatment of memory of all is in Paradise, where we are presented with a very different tree of scars- the family trees Patricia Best draw up point to a collective scarring more dangerous even than Beloved‘s. Where Beloved explored maternal love and Jazz sexual love, Paradise contemplates a devout community where divine love is a potent, if increasingly challenged concept, and where an explosive hatred runs down the genealogical tree of scars until it reaches explosion point. Continue reading “Memory in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, ‘Jazz’ and ‘Paradise’”