Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You

Since records began, 215,673 people have sworn that the world is going to end. It only takes one of them to be right…” promotion for the 1995 film Twelve Monkeys cautioned. In this installment I shall explore Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic time-travel story in relation to the issues raised in previous sections (space constraints decreeing that the film in its complex entirety cannot be dealt with here). As a result, I shall focus on the inherent dangers of postmodern attitudes to consumerism and technology, and their impact on perceptions of reality as Gilliam lays them before us. It will become apparent that both the societal breakdown of Fight Club and the technological dependence of The Matrix are prevalent in contemporary American society- and lead directly to its future underground.

[3:1]Any discussion of Twelve Monkeys must be aware of the possibility that rather than a time-loop paradox the entire narrative may simply be a prolonged psychotic episode. This is a possibility that the director deliberately kept to the fore by keeping the details of the future vague enough to have them simply be the product of James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) deranged mind (McCabe 167). That Cole’s psychiatrist in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is our anchor in the world of the film as she shares the ‘present’ with us (McMahon 148) comes to believe in Cole may prove only that madness is contagious. However, it may suggest he is telling the truth, since the first reminder of this contagion comes from mental patient Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt), who imagines insanity “…oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them- wackos everywhere, plague of madness! We are once again in the realm of uncertainty fostered by the breakdown of the cinematic reality already dealt with in Videodrome (and which has been Gilliam’s stock in trade since his Monty Python days).

The ceaseless linking of the post-apocalyptic world with contemporary society is problematic as a result of this breakdown of cinematic reality. The visual themes used to link the various temporal plains of the film- most notably the chicken wire that seems to cover every surface- serve to complicate matters further. For instance, is Cole imagining imprisonment in a wire cage in 2035 because he is already in an asylum with wire-coated windows? We are asked to question the likelihood of a time-traveller experiencing virtually the same sequence of events across the divide of forty-five years (Cole is roughly scrubbed down prior to facing a panel of scientists in both 2035 and 1990). As we are never at ease in any of Twelve Monkeys‘s realities, perhaps we are the monkeys that are being experimented upon. This is heightened by the allusions to Vertigo, which foreground the possibility the whole story is merely an elaborate deception (Strick Monkeys 46)i. Continue reading “Welcome to the Desert of Real: No Future for You”

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’”