Our Virtually Real Existence, Part 2
"Where the many are, there is security; what the many want must be worth striving for, and necessary, and therefore good. In the clamor of the many there lies the power to snatch wish-fulfillment by force; sweetest of all, however, is that gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care, into happy-go-luckiness and irresponsibility. All the thinking and looking after are done from the top; to all questions there is an answer; and for all needs the necessary provision is made. The infantile dream state of the mass man is so unrealistic that he never thinks to ask who is paying for this paradise. The balancing of accounts is left to a higher political or social authority, which welcomes the task, for its power is thereby increased; and the more power it has, the weaker and more helpless the individual becomes."
– Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self
I. Mass culture demands that one talk in the prescribed fashion
"The totality of mass culture culminates in the demand that no one can be any different from itself...Today anyone who is incapable of talking in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual. Looking good, make-up, the desperately strained smile of eternal youth which only cracks momentarily in the angry twitching of the wrinkles of the brow, all this bounty is dispensed by the personnel manager under the threat of the stick. People give their approval to mass culture because they know or suspect that this is where they are taught the mores they will surely need as their passport in a monopolized life. This passport is only valid if paid for in blood, with the surrender of life as a whole and the impassioned obedience to a hated compulsion."
-- Theodor Adorno, "The Schema of Mass Culture"
II. The price that must be paid for living in an "infantile dream state"
"Where the many are, there is security; what the many want must be worth striving for, and necessary, and therefore good. In the clamor of the many there lies the power to snatch wish-fulfillment by force; sweetest of all, however, is that gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care, into happy-go-luckiness and irresponsibility. All the thinking and looking after are done from the top; to all questions there is an answer; and for all needs the necessary provision is made. The infantile dream state of the mass man is so unrealistic that he never thinks to ask who is paying for this paradise. The balancing of accounts is left to a higher political or social authority, which welcomes the task, for its power is thereby increased; and the more power it has, the weaker and more helpless the individual becomes.
"Wherever social conditions of this type develop on a large scale the road to tyranny lies open and this freedom of the individual turns into spiritual and physical slavery...The suffocating power of the masses is paraded before our eyes in one form or another every day in the newspapers, and the insignificance of the individual is rubbed into him so thoroughly that he loses all hope of making himself heard. The outworn ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite help him not at all, as he can direct this appeal only to his executioners, the spokesmen of the masses."
– Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self
III. Has the computerization of life been oversold?
“It’s an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness. While the Internet beckons brightly, selectively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this non-place lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where – in the holy names of Education and Progress – important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued…
"[F]ew aspects of daily life require computers, digital networks, or massive connectivity. They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, and gossiping. You don't need a keyboard to bake bread, play touch football, piece a quilt, build a stone wall, recite a poem, or say a prayer."
– Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil
IV. Too much, not too little, meaning in our life
"In the Promethean perspective of unlimited growth, there is not merely the desire to make everything function, to liberate everything, but also the desire to make everything signify.
"Everything is to be brought under the aegis of meaning (and reality). In some cases we know that knowledge will forever escape us. But in the immense majority of cases we do not even know what has disappeared and has always already eluded us. Now, science makes a systematic effort to eradicate this secret area, this ‘constellation of mystery’ and to eliminate this demarcation line between the violable and the inviolable.
"All that is concealed must be revealed; everything must be reducible to analysis. Hence the whole effort (particularly since the death of God, who restrained this attempt to break open the natural world) leads to an extension of the field of meaning (of knowledge, analysis, objectivity and reality). Now, everything inclines us to think that this accumulation, this over-production, this proliferation of meaning constitutes (a little like the accumulation of greenhouse gases) a virtual threat for the species (and for the planet), since it is gradually destroying, through experimentation, that domain of the inviolable that serves us, as it were, as an ozone layer and protects us from the worst -- from the lethal irradiation and obliteration of our symbolic space.
"Shouldn't we, then, work precisely in the opposite direction, to extend the domain of the inviolable? To restrain the production of meaning the way they are trying to restrain the production of greenhouse gases, to reinforce that constellation of the mystery and that intangible barrier that serves as a screen against the welter of information, interaction and universal exchange."
– Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal
V. What reproduced works of art lack
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”
– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
VI. A world of allatonceness
"Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. 'Time' has ceased, 'space' has vanished...We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction. We must now know in advance the consequences of any policy or action, since the results are experienced without delay. Because of electric speed, we can no longer wait and see."
– Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
VII. The ubiquitous photograph
In the past, social engagement preceded the photographing or memorializing of an event. Something had to be done first before it occurred to anybody to freeze a moment in time. Today no such pretext exists: what we have is photography for photography's sake. Digital stills pour out everywhere -- stills mostly of isolated selves broadcasting the fact of their existence into the cyber void.
Perhaps behind so much photography there lurks an acute anxiety, a feeling that something is missing or has been irretrievably lost, namely being, reality. And the photograph is something hung on to as “proof” that this isn’t so; an object, even a dull one, a passing moment, even a trifling one, is captured as evidence that there is still something rather than nothing, a world rather than a non-world, or anti-world.
VIII. Does virtual reality diminish people’s sense of the physical?
“One could argue that the virtualization of mankind externalizes and eliminates the body in a new way…McLuhan’s observation that, on the telephone, you are a nobody, that is, quite literally, you have no body, seems to indicate that the virtual condition would diminish people’s sense of the physical. It is only true in that, being virtual, it puts an emphasis on the cognitive environment, a discarnate approach to communication.”
– Derrick de Kerckhove and Cristina Miranda Almeida, eds., The Point of Being
IX. Domination and Control
In a tele-visual age, a virtual world, the primary means of controlling populations is well understood: power makes a parody and masquerade of everything, desacralizes every last vestige of life, throws everything and everybody into simulation. So the “content” of cultural life becomes some variation of “Olympic gold medalist becomes transvestite” or “innocent Disney girl morphs into whore,” etc. All of life, a TV program; the voice of society, that of ironic unseriousness and carefree mockery.
The code isn’t supposed to be broken or talked about. The handful who figure things out can be singled out, surveilled, monitored, harassed, turned into an "other," and never be heard from again. Today what we have is the perfect blend of the Huxleyan and the Orwellian models, of artifice, self-forgetful bliss and positivity on the one hand and centralized power and voyeuristic control on the other.
X. “Who cares?”
The cultural motif that flourishes at any time can also be diminished or dispersed. Seriousness can be challenged or brought low by irony; the sacred or holy can be opposed by irreverence, etc. But what opposes indifference? When an entire culture proclaims “I don’t care,” where does that leave the teacher, the artist, the philosopher?
Modern indifference: non-being getting the upper hand on being, daring it to clear the hurdles of violent flux and speed, of the meaning-destroying power of screens; daring it to appear and to make itself known against a backdrop of absence (of a public, of a collective attention span, of a common literate discourse).
If only the world were as indifferent to smart phones and to Facebook as it is to meaning. But things are as they are because the world prefers it that way, and perhaps some headway can be made by asking why that is so, what it is about electric circuitry and gadgetry that has nearly everyone under its spell.
(Tim Ruggiero, March 19, 2015)
1. Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London, 1991), p.92.
2. Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958), pp.59-60.
3. Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), pp. 4, 10.
4. Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal (London: Seagull Books, 2010), pp.70-72.
5. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), pp. 220.
6. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantom Books, 1967), p. 63.
7. Derrick de Kerckhove and Cristina Miranda Almeida, eds., The Point of Being (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014). See footnote 40.