Now, 16 years after it came and went in theaters, eXistenZ seems the real sequel to The Matrix, or rather, the version of the virtual reality future that came true. The dot.com bubble burst long ago; nothing happened when the clocks ticked 1/1/00, or 12/21/12. The dew erased its data from the lily drive. Even the first The Matrix seems dated and naive. Its conception of the 'Real' as grungy and depressing (lots of grotty grey dreadlocks, cream of gruel ("everything the body needs" - good lord, who cares?), leaky pipes, cold grates, robot threats (ala the Terminator) so the sterile depressing artificial reality (corporate skyscrapers, busted down telephone booths) seems believable as artificiality, i.e. the fake real as more real than the 'real' seems the most naive of tricks. This is because, in the past two months or so, the symbolic and imaginary are trumping the real to the point reality is at best a third class passenger to the symbolic and imaginary realms.
For examples of the way popular art (imaginary) usurps reality via the news (symbolic) consider: 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's cyber-attack on Sony, over The Interview; the "Je suis Charlie" bloodbath. There is very little real left for us in the first world. At the same time, in the third, especially if it's undergoing a civil war, symbolic and imaginary dimensions are destroyed leaving only the horrible misery of the unmediated real. This is especially true when dealing with radical Islamists, who are--to begin with--so anti-graven image that any kind of representational (non-decorative) art is destroyed once it falls within their purview.
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 here in the USA, we who seem never more than a swing state away from The Handmaid's Tale, we know best? The bottom line is, if you believe in your religion, how zealously do you cling to its tenets? Are freedom of thought, education, and independence merely rationalizing masks worn by the seven deadly sins?
|Al Jazeera America welcomes you to the Desert of the Real|
And they're right. Man should never go so far out of consensual reality he snaps the cord and can't find their way back. It's dangerous work, the province of the artist and writer, done in service of the pack; creative thinkers as scouts and foragers, ambush-blockers, spies, counter-intelligence entrappers, stray rounder-uppers--this is the purpose of recreational drugs in a social sense. The user leaves the everyday realm to find something missing from that realm, something to bring back into it. If the drug taker just wants to escape and never return at all, they'll wind up floating helplessly through space like Syd Barrett, or Brian Jones, or Don Birnim, or Dr. X, the Man with X-Ray Eyes --ostracized by the social order, locked up in a psych ward and shot up with tranquilizers so you can't make Madeline Stowe believe you're from the future. So if Allegra's game is too real, if it tries the Matrix trick of transcending the real through the performance of realness--"more human than human is our motto," as Tyrell tolds his Roy--the entire world becomes a Brian Jones or Syd, lost in the windmills of their mind, maybe forever. "Is this still the game?" asks one bystander after all the presumed layers get peeled back. And of course, the worry is that no answer at this point can be ever be correct again.
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 1917, and letting it go altogether is no great loss. If the realists wanted to smash something they should have started with 'R. Mutt's' "Fountain." Taking a pompously pronounced sip of their absinthe, they'd note Duchamp's original point was drowned out in the bidding war over that urinal, and that eventually Duchamp had to hide his readymades so well no collector could find them, which he did with "Trap (Trébuchet)" 1917. an unobtrusive coatrack that went unnoticed through the entirety of his show. And then Andy Warhol turned lazy silkscreens (made by his assistants, signed by his double) into the height of overpriced post-Duchamp 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 Marcel's urinal and drinks deep from the milk of the prodigal golden calf returned from the mountaintop with a dozen teraflops of commandments, each one animated with a how-to instructional video and set list; each writing its way right into your subconscious, deleting your once vibrant imagination 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 RealThe Void/Real Thing, as Zizek extrapolates from Lacan above, is approachable only via the fake spectacle, the Perseus Medusa shield, i.e. TV. 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, that its tragic raw horror dimension becomes their ally. But it's a big mistake to identify with your inner demons, they still won't like you. On the other hand, identifying purely with the spectacle, as most of America does, isn't good either. The result is that we become so entwined with the screened spectacle that the spectacle doesn't mirror the Void/Real at all, but science fiction. We only notice the eruption of the actual real when we walk past armed soldiers in the train station or when getting our fingers dusted at the airport. Aside from that, unless we happen to be caught in their blast radius, terrorists are just images on CNN, delivering anti-image violence to America through images.
The formula mirrors the below chart illustrating the future and past of immersive video game tech, only with ISIS 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 news channel sound byte coherence and explodes our eyes and ear drums, paradoxically opening our senses to the real ' Real' before they're overloaded and extinguished.
As the terrorists endeavor to widen the last remaining sliver of real' in our lives by breaking the input-output loop, we strive to narrow it still further by living totally within a comfortable cocoon of cables, letting our reality go all to seed from inattention and only 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 about either of them. 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 commercial, no matter how riveting the show surrounding it. CNN understands that need to escape, to not look into the sad suffering eyes of the puppy dog anti-Medusa. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, shows images like the ones above, of life in Syrian refugee camps, the carnage of bombings of Palestine, all the violence and despair which CNN doesn't show (and vice versa). Watch Al Jazeera and CNN in alternating segments and maybe you can get a proper idea of our whole fucked world, the Middle East as a petri dish microcosm but who wants that? That's too much real! We need smaller doses of horror, otherwise we're like Scarlett at the makeshift hospital before the intermission in Gone with the Wind: we just keep walking, the sheer magnitude of the 'real' overwhelming our empathy response past the point of ambivalence.
Of all the nasties, though, Texas comes closest to capturing the pure horror of its absence. This is partly because it provides the extra 'real.' The "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. Even so, it can't measure up to the potentiality conjured by the image-starved imagination. It comes mighty close though. We see in that house sights beyond what we thought could exist in this country or any country - and all the attempts to recreate it by adding 'more' to its sequels and imitators have failed - more blood and grime only abstracts it, reveals the hand of someone trying too hard to be scary. The decor of the house in Hooper's original is far scarier for its comical attempts to be homey, artistic, genteel even.
Still, want and curiosity are powerful things; images have obscene amounts of power for those denied them, and as the Brit kid squinting to see some bootleg seventh generation dupe of Texas Chainsaw can tell you, the imagination never yet met a blank it couldn't fill in.
SUPERBESTFRIENDS:By contrast to the mostly unseen 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, but we've been bowing to that shizz for so long we can't stop without someone pulling the plug on the TV, or blowing up the station. I doubt Moses would be on the terrorist's side but, to his rheumy eyes, every animated billboard on Times Square might as well be for Golden Calf margarine. Moses knew you have to be quick and ruthless to maintain a holy order. Cut the advertisements down at the knee, sayeth the lord, Tivo and fast forward through all commercials. Because if you don't, even the Commandment tablets themselves will inevitably be worshipped as graven images, or at the very least bid on as collector's items, spiked with ads ("Citibank presents "Thou Shalt Not Kill") or removed from out in front of a Southern courthouse, not that it's the same thing as violating free speech (the atheists didn't try to kill the sculptor) but it shows us that the same confusion that motivates jihads on cartoonists and hacks on stoner comics also motivates alleged atheists.
|Feedin' the masses... with the masses|
'Now' back in 1999, newly sober and full of angst--uneducated in the tenets of Lacan--I loved The Matrix and thought eXistenZ was meandering and too much like a rehash of ideas Cronenberg worked over already in Videodrome and Naked Lunch. There's the same harvesting monsters for their organs or glandular secretions (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 the new paradigm (Judy Davis in Lunch, Deborah Harry in Videodrome, Jennifer O'Neill in Scanners), 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 eXistenZ scene in the garage with Dafoe installing the portal in Jude Law's spine is 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 - and leaves a bad feeling in the digestive tract of sensitive viewers like myself).
It's got to be coming! It's just too controversial to be public until it's ready. Either way, 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 your avatar is killed by a World of Warcraft marauder. 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? Reealleeeee??
We can't really tell. We just keep waking up out of one reality into another; is that death, or just finishing one more level on a video game with an infinite number of levels, all waiting for us to unlock them. Even if we never figure out how to access them they're all nonetheless on the same disc.
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")
STAGING DEATH AS SPECTACLE
(PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT)I haven't ever been shot or been in a war, or shot someone or been shot, but I was way into cap gun artillery and pre-paintball war games as a kid in the 70s-early 80s, which I now take to be a child's attempt to experience the moment of life and death even in effigy (the staging of the Real as spectacle). And I've had some profoundly spiritual Lovecraftian transdimensional horror/void plunges since I put guns away and picked up guitars and hookahs. And even after quitting booze I've had some roller coaster reptilian demon devouring soul cleanings that make my worst college acid experiences seem like mild disturbances in the force. And they have stripped my soul clean 'til all that was left was a glowing sunlit circle. And to dismiss these experiences as just manic episodes or a hallucinations is the same as presuming there's no subjective-imaginary component to the experience of death, to dismiss the most profound human experience (NDEs) as nothing more than 'mere hallucinations' of an oxygen-deprived malfunctioning brain. To me that's like saying getting shot in a war is nothing but a physical 3-D space-time event, a metallic sphere entering the organic body and disrupting some biological systems, rather than a terrifying crisis of mind-soul-body, your life flashing before you, things going dark, all in the middle of a confusing smoke-and-shrapnel firefight, i.e. a nightmare beyond the scope of the imagination. There's no atheist in a foxhole, or on a meditation cushion, or the 'Psych Ward' section of a Dead show - because in all three the distractions from the void/real are stripped away.
I don't mean to compare a meditation or a powerful psychedelic drug experience to being in combat but either experience can be pretty damned terrifying and traumatic, so to dismiss any of the three as 'mere hallucination' or 'mere reality' is to convey, clearly, you've never had that experience yourself. If you did then you'd know that what's going on is a deep drinking in of the pure intersubjective real. The horror of constant growth and decay that is our organic, physical world is suddenly grasped on a level that our unconscious barrier mechanism (or symbolic mediation) usually screens or filters out. Without these screens/filters we wind up either penniless spiritual wanderers, trapped in a cult, dead (from jumping off a building, setting ourselves on fire, etc.) or institutionally-committed. But by the same token, if those imaginary-symbolic filters aren't ever compromised or transcended, then we turn into pompous a-holes, didactic pragmatists without, as they say, a clue.
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 and then dismissed, its full elaborate mystery screened out since it's neither a source of fear (unless you're allergic) or desire (unless some sexy new lover gave it to you). But for someone without those blinders, like a yogi, Buddha, starving artist, 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 from an eclipsed sun. This radiant crown image is not a 'mere hallucination' though a less enlightened friend might dismiss your enthusiasm, saying "dude, it's just a sunflower, chill out." In fact it is that idea --that the real is completely contained within its symbolic component, that it is 'just' its label--that is the hallucination!
You might tell your dismissive friend that he's trapped in a morass of the purely symbolic-imaginary; that he's traded in his rose-tinted shades so he can fit in with the social order, but as a consequence he'll never be in 'the moment.' You can tell him that what you feel for this flower he can only feel when he buys a very expensive item or paints the bedroom a new color, or gets a new girlfriend, and even then, the feeling is fleeting. Yours is, too, alas. As the signifier chains trap down all sensory impressions sooner or later.
You can tell your dismissive friend that he probably also paradoxically dismisses NDEs (Near Death Experiences) as just dying brain hallucinations, when the reverse is true. This same friend might look at a beautiful mountain vista and say aloud, "it's like a painting." Or, if they witness some eruption of strangeness, perhaps a Native American ceremony in progress as they walk back from the trail, they 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" or if some natural vista strikes their eye it must quickly be labeled "like a painting" - its beauty therefore contained and defined, and therefore 'safe.'
And for those on the outside of the purely symbolic-imaginary--the Islamic fundamentalists or eXistenZ's realists--the symbolic-imaginary prison of labels is taken as a real threat, hence the Parisian cartoonist massacre. These people might seem crazy to us but at least they recognize the hypnotic power of the image and do everything in their power to fight its narcotic effect. And yet, if a fundamentalist Islam terrorist considers the hallucinations of the atheist consumer to be a physical threat, then the purity of his conception of the real becomes its own hallucination! He goes to war 'in the real' over a purely symbolic representation (i.e. a cartoon of Mohammed) and through this enters the symbolic (via CNN). For us this would be, in a sense, like arresting Spielberg for depicting war crimes in Schindler's List or demand actors killed in a cannibal movie prove they're not dead. Or stepping inside the screen of Sherlock Jr.. The Ring, or Purple Rose of Cairo, to blow up the cameraman so no one could follow you.
JUDE LAW = TOTAL WALLY
So NOW for my 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 "oh my god I'm tripping too hard" is not surprising or even that upsetting (it really annoyed me back in 1999). 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, but 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. They're the types who blab to the cops at the ER, disappear into a rehab or something for six months, and then suddenly show up as anti-drug sermonizers, or worse, narcs.
And who among us in that same situation hasn't heard that same voice in our head, the 'ohmigodi'mDYING' voice? We just know to ignore it, along with all the other panic triggers being pressed, to let them come and go along with the joy and rapture and spirits whispering in our ears. But if you're not prepared for the rush of contradictory signals--every new impression flooring the gas pedal and both fear and desire at once, to the point you want to make love to a candle flame or end table one second and then destroy them the next--then you're like the surfer hypnotized by the size of an approaching groundswell, who gets near-drowned when all he had to do was duck his head under the water for a few seconds.
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. He should stop being a little bitch, be more like Bill Burroughs and realize "the Zone takes care of its own."
There was a stretch of time in 2003 when every day after work I was leaving my physical body and hovering around on the ceiling over my bed, and what sometimes stopped me from merging fully into the next world was the dreaded feeling of suffocation: '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 as I was at the time, and that shit goes on for hours and hours. These excursions of mine only took a ten minutes or so of linear time, though they seemed to go on for hours. It's not like I couldn't snap out of it in a microsecond if my buzzer buzzed. I knew then that the body and mind are built for these excursions. Not all of us are meant to have them, the shamanic near-Brian Jones/Syd Barrett pack separations, but those of us who are, are. And we're meant to come back, and write about them nonstop. so viola! This blog is woven by machine spiders into exiStenCe.
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, the peel or the inside?" 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 is what we see when see an orange not being eaten; and as such it will exist far longer than the rest of it, which you will eat and then it will cease to exist in that form. But it's only when the skin is ruptured that it finally becomes real. When it's ground up and cycled through your system before being expelled, then the real is occurring. Cronenberg has always known that biotech is the wave of the future as much as virtual reality. It's already beginning to happen, designers are learning to 'write' DNA. And new steps in virtual reality are always imminent. Imagine vast teraflops of data in a simple eye drop. "Right now we're at the pong stage" notes Reasonblast39, "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 understand that only by denuding the lunch 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 plug into our delicate nervous system as video-audio immersive booths with which to experience all sorts of Hellraiser-esque masochistic pleasures. Jesus wept, but he wept our tears. We'll all soon be marching through the traumatic real of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bone rooms and wind up impaled on Leatherface's meathooks, all just so some fourth dimensional burnout can feel a Batailles-esque sadomasochistic ecstasy via our shredded nerve endings.
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as close to Traumatic Real as horror can get.|
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (remake) - the Re-Staging of the Re-Staging of the real becomes|
unreal through excessive realness i.e. the art direction is so 'real'--
thanks to the high contrast photography, elaborately stressed wood, and other
art direction-- it becomes commercial jeans ad banal
|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, it's just no one uses the same rules, and admitting that it's a game means they lose half their pieces. So shhhh, pretend you didn't read this. It's too long anyway, I been rambling. My mom died yesterday... very sudden, and far away.... and words are just fingers pointing to illusions and skittering away to the next schizoid dot connection... 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 Inn, Falstaff's woolen eye coverlets trailing behind me like the last few strands of my latest televisual cocoon. Adieu my mommy. You never fell for a single trick even if, heaven help us, you loved The Big Bang Theory.
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.