An early description of the way contemporary culture is now full of re-creations and themed environments was provided by Umberto Eco. In a brilliant essay, Eco saw that we create these realistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real — a description that is true of virtually all fiction and culture, which gives us things that are more exciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting than what we encounter in everyday life. In his description of Disney, Eco also saw that behind the facades lurks a sales pitch. Put these ideas together and you have a succinct characterization of the age, which is forever offering us something that seems better than real in order to sell us something. That makes Umberto Eco one of the forerunners of contemporary thinking on this subject.
Contrary to what one might think, simulation isn’t confined to human beings, nor is it necessarily something that is consciously created. Plants and animals use camouflage and other deceptive appearances in great profusion, which are essential tools in the struggle for survival. In many instances, these deceptive appearances consist only in an animal’s ability to walk with stealth or hide or remain completely still, to create the impression it isn’t there. As we discover in all those television nature documentaries, predators and prey are constantly slinking around in the underbrush, peering from behind obstructions and standing motionless, as they wait for the right moment to strike or flee from danger.
In 1964, the literary critic Northrop Frye published a short book, titled The Educated Imagination, in which he tried to summarize his ideas on the relevance of literature to life. In it, he asserted that we all find ourselves confronting a world of nature, which is oblivious to our values and desires. It is a world that is inhuman in shape, manifesting no larger intelligence or morality that we can discern.
Our response to this experience, Frye said, is to turn nature into a “human world” that looks more like home. Although he expresses it somewhat differently, it is obvious from the text that he believed we create this “human world” a number of ways. One way we do so is by reconstructing our physical environment, replacing it with something of our own design. We build roads, farms, cities, and so on. Another way we do so is by producing literature, which allows us to explore alternative models of human experience. Here, instead of re-creating physical reality in our own image, we invent fictional versions of reality that let us see a vision of the world as we can imagine it and as we want it to be.
There is a culture war brewing in America. It pits two groups of people with very different ideas about the future shape of this society. On one side, are cultural elites who are defending their own power and position. On the other is a smaller, less powerful, group of people who believe they have morality on their side, and who accuse the first group of undermining America’s values.
But this culture war isn’t the deadening conflict between the left and right that has been going on for the last two decades. The people who claim to have morality on their side aren’t the Robert Borks and Pat Robertsons. Nor do they want to return America to the kind of family-centered society we had in the 1950s.
Popular Culture as an Expression of Human Nature
Everyone — at least everyone with a reasonably normal mind and brain — has a true self that is partly buried beneath their everyday personality. This self is who each of us is and can become when our natural growth isn’t interfered with by personal and cultural neurosis. It is us at those times when we feel whole and are psychologically strong enough to hear and speak the truth; when we are naturally assertive rather than fearful and aggressive; when we are open to other people and compassionate rather than being manipulative and secretive; and when we are capable of embracing life and enjoying the moment, without regressing into a neurotic secondary personality that is distorted by a defensive battle between fake desires on one side, and self-reproaches, prohibitions, and taboos on the other. It is us when we have a natural, aesthetic, revulsion to evil, including a revulsion to all those behaviors that violate and diminish ourselves and others. And it is us when we express our inherent desire to create and build and care for things, instead of destroying.
Virtual Realities Then and Now:
The Caves of Lascaux
Hidden away in the caves of Lascaux in southwest France is a 17,000 year-old painting on a stone wall, which may be one of humanity’s earliest narrative compositions. Almost cartoonlike in appearance, it shows a man with the face (or mask) of a bird, engaged in an apparently fatal disagreement with a wounded bison. As the bison uses its head and horns as a weapon, the man falls stiffly back, apparently to his death. Nearby, in the same painting, are a number of other images, including a pattern of dots, a rhinoceros, and a stick with what appears to be a bird on top, all of which add to the sense that there is more to the story than we can discern, today.
When we examine the characteristics of contemporary societies that have been described in previous pages, we find that much of it comes down to a few essential ideas. These societies are part of a new civilization and a new period in history, which can be referred to as Faustian (with apologies to Spengler) because of its quest for power.
At its core, this new Faustian age and civilization believes in the self and the self’s right and ability to control the conditions of its own existence. It exalts reason, but it is practical or “instrumental” reason, which is seen as a tool that humanity can use to manipulate the world.
Modern philosophy and science are based on the idea that the world of appearances is an illusion that both reveals and conceals an underlying reality. In many instances, this idea has also been attached to mystical systems of thought, as in some Eastern philosophies that view reality as a play of fictions manifested by a universal mind. In the West, it has been the intellectual undergirding for rationalism and empiricism, which have given rise to modern science and social science.Continue reading
Over the past two decades, human ingenuity has made it possible to create all kinds of fakes and simulations that are so realistic it is getting hard to distinguish many of them from what they imitate. The process is already so far advanced that, today, a substantial part of our surroundings are made up of objects and images and people that appear to be something other than what they are. There are sugar substitutes and Elvis look alikes; Sy Sperling hairpieces and replicas of great art; soy burgers and false teeth; female impersonators and artificially colored food; lip-sync artists who pretend to be vocalists and television commercials that are disguised to look like talk shows.Continue reading
Art and Technology Masquerading as Life
If you look at the characteristics of fiction and the representational arts, you will find that they can be described in terms of a handful of elements. First, and most fundamentally, art and fiction, like everything else, is embodied in various kinds of physical and sensory objects. Its basic stuff is material; it is made up of actors, costumes, props and stage sets; of the rich palette of colors produced by paint on canvas; and the pattern of words on paper.