Real Time/Virtual: A Dialogue
By Harold Jaffe and Gary Lain
All Rights Reserved.
Gary Lain: There is a line of theoretical inquiry, beginning with Debord in the ‘60’s, further developed by Baudrillard, and then more recently in Virilio, addressing the degradation of the actual (or, for our purposes, the degradation of real time) in the service of the virtual.
Whether viewed in terms of Debord’s spectacle, Baudrillard’s simulacra, or Virilio’s dromology, the sense is that the fabric of everyday life has become overdetermined—fatally compromised in some way by the ascendance of the virtual.
Harold Jaffe: Rather than everyday life being “overdetermined,” I’d say monodetermined—the “mono” signifying technology. Not technology itself, of course, but its fetishization, relentlessly promoted by post-industrial capitalism. For EF Schumacher, for example, advanced technology did not mean fabricating what hadn’t yet been fabricated irrespective of its potential application. Rather technology advanced only as far as benefited our bedeviled earth and its inhabitants.
GL: We should offer here a theory of the virtual. After all, as the virtual has developed into an apparatus of the dominant culture, it has become more ideologically transparent. What was once pitched as a liberatory new technology, (one thinks here of the inflated claims made in the famous Apple “1984” commercials), now encourages new abuses of power: an almost whimsical surfeit of surveillance tech (spy cameras on every London corner, voice mails hacked, emails monitored); remote controlled drones overhead; the tech-enabled financialization of every human exchange.
And as these abuses become systematically more integrated into the culture, we become more inured to them. While it is true that handhelds and social networking have served to domesticate the virtual, they also afford new opportunities for social conditioning and control, “Twitter revolutions” to the contrary.
Today, one rarely hears the term virtual used in any cautionary sense as one did just a few years ago; in fact as the virtual has become established as culturally normative, the virtual has become seamless, invisible.
HJ: I think of Kafka’s parable, “Leopards in the Temple”:
“Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”
Now the temple, sacrificial pitchers, sacred ceremony, and remarkable beast have been transfigured. Into what? Well, log in and you’ll see. Ah, you’re already logged in…
I am reading here and there in Julia Kristeva, and she remarks with some passion that “Our period is at once a technical apotheosis and a time of great human distress.”
I would hope she meant that the “technical apotheosis” is not just contributing but greatly exacerbating “human distress.”
GL: Kristeva’s technical apotheosis reminds one of the hagiographic obituaries on the death of Steve Jobs. Jobs and Apple of course are no better than the rest, certainly not good corporate citizens. He didn’t even have the noblesse oblige of his hated rival, Gates.
The apotheosis might be the cultural extension of the technological sublime. In the mid-19th century, some of the tropes of Romantic painting were transposed to representations of technology. The Victorians were never timid about their agenda.
I do think that technology’s capacity to increase pleasure, knowledge and awareness should be exploited. I have sort of puzzled at the interface between human and machine. At the ways it can be eroticized.
One of the prevalent sources of anxiety, at least as manifested in popular culture, concerns not cyborgs, but androids, which can pass as human, and are thus potential objects of desire. This ontological confusion and dread runs through some of the best science fiction of our era.
HJ: “Androids” as objects as desire? Or “humanoids”? With humans in technologically advanced countries having become indentured to the electronic alter-self; with many of these same humans possessing surgically inserted inorganic, often electronic-dependent, parts, our culture needs to be fearful of humanoids.
Watch the humanoid walk without moving his arms. Listen to him talk without inflection or affect. Smell his cologne with or without pheromones.
And Mother Earth is perishing.
GL: Technology has problematized human identity fundamentally. One sees this in the ways that psychology, once so essential to the enterprise of the dominant culture, has been reduced to an arm of the pharmacological industry. A theory and practice regarding the understanding of the human psyche, once critical to the processes of acculturation in an advanced technological society, has become largely irrelevant at this historical juncture.
HJ: RD Laing’s “existential” psychoanalysis in the ’60’s had the courage to assert that many of those accounted mad are actually mounting a breakthrough rather than having a breakdown. They are the humans who are in effect walking point for the rest of us; they experience and, in their torment, testify not to a dysfunctional self but to a dysfunctional world.
Where it is remembered at all, Laing’s thinking is traduced. Everything is organic, “neuro,” don’t you know! Deviate from the crazily spinning globe and you are dysfunctional. Use Skype, be happy.
GL: This anxiety regarding individual identity plays out in the popular culture in interesting ways. The current fascination with zombies might signify a profound unease regarding the excesses of biotech, the undead condition often linked to genetic experimentation, etc. More fundamental, though, is the notion that there can be no succor beyond death. Instead, one is condemned by technology to exist, monstrously, forever.
Also now re-emerging is the doppelgänger. The popular TV show Fringe spins elaborate, paranoid plots regarding doubles both created artificially and existing naturally in parallel universes. Often one has no idea whether a main character is authentic or a copy. The same was also true of the popular space opera
Technology, thematically, is here a fundamental threat to human identity. But I would argue that the effect is curiously denatured. Is anyone truly anxious about this sort of thing anymore? Or is this a sort of simulated anxiety, masking a deeper sense of unease?
HJ: Official culture sublimates or, better, transmutes legitimate anxiety into simulacra which are normalized, or, better, sanitized. The catharsis, then, is bogus. but still contains the mediating energy to derail functional anxiety—at least to a certain extent.
Graduate writing students who watch TV and pop movies routinely write of zombies occupying a post-holocaust landscape, but when I talk with these students about climate change and the natural world in fact dying, most tend to look at me oddly. Writing about the landscape insulates them from inhabiting it.
Similarly, the extreme violence of wars is transmuted into X-Games, video games, and professional football, and if these “circuses” don’t have enough simulated force to insulate the viewer’s anxiety, the simulation is pushed several degrees further into “fantasy football” or state-of-the-art, high definition screens for hyper-violent vid games.
GL: A few years ago, when official America still was invested in the invasion of Iraq, much was made of the virtual training of U.S. infantry soldiers. The games then became commercially available, but of course they weren’t as “good” as the vid games already being played by sixth grade boys. Of the soldiers themselves, well, who knows—stricken with PTSD, they may be among us, homeless, or perhaps working as police officers.
HJ: The virulent long-time book critic of the NY Times, Michiko Kakutani, asked rhetorically: “When did we become a culture of 12-year-olds?” In the 17th century, when religious white immigrants “discovered” a country that was occupied by native Americans, a much more highly evolved species, whom the Puritans proceeded to genocide.
Alignment of godliness with wealth; slave-ownership; heroic capitalists; colonialist wars; murdering buffalo… The official US has always been a culture of 12-year-olds, except via electronic media, hyper-violent video games and compulsive speed without direction, the adolescent culture has been much more copiously displayed.
The US, officially, is what it’s been, just worse.
GL: This “compulsive speed without direction” interrupts reflection, critical thought, interiority. The cliché is that, under the virtual dispensation we have become a “visual culture.” We might discuss the implications for writers in a post-literate society, but more urgently I think, as Virilio indicated, the effects of the speed of digital transmission/interruption on consciousness are profound.
HJ: Digital instantaneity naturally privileges visuals that ape electronic transmission or are otherwise rapidly and easily absorbed. Hence, the revival of comic books and Batman movies. What Lionel Trilling once called “sincerity and authenticity” have given way almost entirely to image and soundbite. Of course there are intellectuals and academics who can still gaze at a Rembrandt without stealing a glance at their smartphone, but they are decidedly fewer in number as universities veer in the direction of corporate for-profit institutions.
GL: If we were to date the emergence of the virtual, most would agree it to be around 1980. Correspondingly, we have the emergence of new social and cultural paradigms: economic globalism rooted in crony capitalism, cartels, privatization and austerity; an astonishing increase in technologically-driven Western military adventurism; rampant institutional failures resulting from deficient, unaccountable leadership—the TED-networked “Twitteratti”; corporate propaganda disseminated via a compliant media deliberately confusing the relationship of carbon emissions to global change, despite clear scientific evidence. The causality here is tangled, but clearly one would be a fool to argue that life has in any meaningful sense improved during the past 30 years. We were a freer, more literate, just society sans email, portables, social networks, etc.
HJ: As with the movement from rural to industrialism at the end of the 20th century; as with the space program; and certainly with the electronic dispensation, engineering far exceeds ethical and emotional maturity. I remember one of the very early astronauts while on the moon inquiring about the score of an NFL game.
Technology itself could become a great boon were it primed to advance only as far as benefits earth and its inhabitants. Intermediate technology, was Schumacher’s term. But capital will not permit “intermediate” if it smells profit potential. Hence, technological “upgrades” are developed and launched with a dizzying rapidity, and ad campaigns convince us that expensive new software, let’s say, is not just convenient but essential. Without the new software, however unnecessary, one’s technology may even cease to function.
GL: While the situation is grim, approaching the question dialectically, there may be reasons for cautious optimism. For example, Occupy Wall Street was able to interject economic inequity into the national conversation, their reach greatly extended by their use of social media; Julian Assange and WikiLeaks increased awareness of the abuses of the security state; “Arab Spring” protestors deployed social media in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, eventually forcing governments from power.
One might argue that Twitter and Facebook have been useful in revealing the strength of public opinion outside of the official consensus. For example, the self-serving corporate media taboo against “politicizing the tragedy” of mass murdered children in Newtown, Connecticut may well have been undermined by social media, which immediately placed the massacre in the context of gun control and public health policy.
What I am getting at here may be related to your statement that activist writers need to find opportunities for agency in the situation as it exists on the ground, to “find a seam, plant a mine, slip away.”
HJ: True, there are “seams” in the electronic network through which rebellious voices can be smuggled. The corp-govt is working dutifully to obliterate these seams to render the virtual world as impermeable as the real-time fortress-structures where “first world” governments and/or global corporations meet and devise against “ordinary” people’s best interests.
Right now dissension resembles “samizdat” during the Stalin years, writers passing their impious texts from hand to hand to avoid officialdom.
However ephemeral virtual dissent may be it is not negligible. Will dissenters halt climate change or stop genocidal wars? Climate change at this stage is unavoidable; the same may apply to genocidal wars which have become ritualized rather than necessary, as such.
What then does dissent signify? It testifies.
GL: I’d like to segue here to the role of the imaginative/activist writer under the virtual dispensation.
The nature of the writer’s work has changed greatly due to these technologies: the use of word processers rather than typewriters, for example. Further, internet-based research as opposed to text-based library research has changed the practice of writing, making it easier to accrete surface detail, perhaps rendering a depth of experiential or research based knowledge obsolete. The claim here is that while it may be easier to now acquire facts, it is no easier to become aware of context, especially, I would argue, the social/historical context.
In your work do you find these questions to be fundamental, or ancillary?
HJ: For the writer the word processor is a prosthesis. Virtually all you need to know, at least in English, is at hand; so like the child using a calculator rather than learning arithmetic, the machine does the work. This means, among other things, that knowledge, rather than “earned” in the old-fashioned way, is at your fingertips, such that it is difficult to distinguish a cultivated writer from a Wiki addict. That fits with Virilio’s distinction between actual movement, “mobility,” and virtual movement with the electronic mouse, which he calls “motility.” In plain words: the word processing writer can present an image that has little to do with how s/he really is. Then again, what does “really” signify?
Re writing: inscribing directly on the word processor greatly ameliorates the tasks of editing and is a timesaver. It permits the writer to get into his work almost instantaneously.
Re imaginative writing, or art-making in general: technology is practically useful; theoretically, it is of course problematic.
GL: We sit at our desks, faces bathed by the light of our screens, trying to make sense of the world through discourse. Yet our thoughts, our words are structured by the virtual mediations that we employ/that deploy us. We are subjects complicit in our own domination. This is why a sensitive and intelligent young writer might never recognize literary discourse in its native, social context. One can now read the satires of Rabelais, Chaucer and Cervantes, the naturalism of Zola and Turgenev, the interventions of the Modernist avant-garde, and never recognize one’s own work as a social act within this long tradition.
Regarding narrative form, you have plundered the official discourse in ways specific to this discussion. For example, in your book Anti-Twitter you expropriate Twitter’s 140-character limit laterally; that is, without foregrounding the device per se, you turn it to your own ends, to the privileging of consciousness, the “ghost in the machine.”
Further, your development of the “docufiction” allows you to parallel the discourse of the popular media, that “neutral,” denatured prose of news broadcasts and ad copy, but always to the prerogatives of your own imagination.
HJ: In William Faulkner’s justly praised Nobel acceptance speech in 1949, he declared that the writer must “leave no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart… love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Were Faulkner delivering his speech today he would have to add information to his “verities.” Love, honor, pity, pride, and technologized information, which of course is primarily disinformation.
I’m joking, but not joking. Technology has in less than a generation restructured our consciousness. We first worlders have lost touch with those crucial fundamentals that Faulkner cites. What we have instead are readymades: rehearsed love, distended honor, misplaced pity, excessive pridefulness. Compassion? Deleted from the lexicon.
Instead of robins on a grassy lawn we have Muslim “insurgents” in their own country but on our screens assaulting white wannabe colonizers wearing stateof-the-art special ops outfits.
Some tradition-minded writers and artists still try to revitalize Faulkner’s verities, but others recognize that instead of earth we reside on electronic-generated word-vomit with its codes, numerals, acronyms, hashtags. Copyright laws have relaxed in good part because every public forum uses the same platitudes and soundbites.
We writers have, then, a virtual landscape of info-carrion from which to draw. Those are our readymades, and so I have addressed them, deconstructed them, teased out their coded anti-truths. And, formally, I have aped the compelled info-shorthand to
permit readers to spoon very small doses while tending to their smart phones.
The paradox is that the debauched culture is a fertile feeding ground for resourceful writers and artists. But then who will read our books? Who will view our visuals?
Harold Jaffe has published 20 books of fiction, “docufiction,” and non-fiction, most recently Revolutionary Brain: Essays and Quasi-Essays. Recent translations of his books include Romanian, French, and Turkish.
Gary Lain lives in southern California with his wife and sons. His fiction, reviews, interviews, and essays have been published in Fiction International, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Locus Novus, American Book Review, Straylight, and The Brooklyn Rail.
This story is included in Issue #46: Real Time/Virtual. Copyright © 2013 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication inFiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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