Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Loss of the Real

As part of the customary rounds that I have to make around whenever I come back to Covina, California, I was taken to one of my uncles' last night, where I walked into an enormous and newly remodeled home, and, in the corner, my youngest maternal cousin stands in front of the television set, obviously engaged in a video game based on virtual reality. (I know there must be a technical name for this.) The game allows to you play different sports virtually: golf, bowling, even boxing. It is indeed a bizarre scene to watch the little boy fight a phantom - from a medieval point of view, he would be wrestling with a demon, as Jacob wrestling with the angel. My instinctive question, namely, why not go play golf, bowl and box in real life? dissipated as soon as I thought it, for I knew that the world in which this question would be intelligible is shrinking as we speak. Soon, the question as to why people would prefer virtual reality to real reality will be as absurd as the question "why not wash clothes by hand?" We have to face it: the decadence of art in the modern west that had begun soon after the Renaissance was largely based on the invention of "window into the world," whose logical consequence is the society consisting merely of windows into worlds, without showing how to step out of the house. Watching my little cousin play virtual video games has confirmed nearly every fear of the avant-garde thinkers whom I study: it is a civilization that continues to degenerate until it no longer has any access to the real real.

A discussion initiated by Laura the other time had to do with women and fiction, and it is true that the female reader of fiction in the late 18th and 19th century was an essential component to a changing literary world. The demand for fiction was higher than ever; poetry soon was hit with a rapid decline. Nowadays, the joke in the publishing and writing goes: If you are at a party with poets and writers, you can immediate recognize the poets as those who are talking about words and writers as those who are talking about their book deals, because poets don't get book deals. Poetry, because it is not fictional, lost its importance in a society hungry for more stories: not mythologies about mishappenings of strange gods, not fairy tales filled with enigmatic creatures and puzzles that remain closed unless the magic word is spoken, but stories about bourgeois life (romance, marriage, divorce, investments, bankruptcies, etc.), with characters like our meager selves (no fairy mothers, no carpenters, no kings, no princes, no talking bread...) What is so disturbing is that even in the world of children, we have been witnessing an "embourgeoisement" since the 1950s. Roland Barthes was shocked that we made toy version of Citroen cars for kids - were they not supposed to live in a more enchanted world than gas stations? They have the rest of their lives as adult to pump gas at gas stations, why deprive them of childhood? I experienced the same shock last night: why on earth is my 10-year-old cousin playing virtual GOLF?

Fortunately, everything that I want to say has already been said with much more vitriol and force a century ago, by that courageous generation of artists and poets in Europe and then elsewhere who had the nobility of spirit to stand up and speak out against a mediocre and failing civilization, and moreover, to create feverishly more language and more forms than humanly possible, not so much to save Europe but so that whoever comes after cannot say that we were left with nothing. To have taken the responsibility for a civilization and a society to which they deeply objected is almost like assuming the debts left by a delinquent father: it takes courage, pride and the highest form of love, a love that goes against the grain of reality. That reality is tragic: we ARE left with nothing other than this bourgeois, capitalist life, we survive by feeding on virtual realities that range from mutual funds to video games to romance novels, and we believe in nothing (neither the "chef of the sky" as we Chinese call God and his kin, nor the "ancestral mother" as we Taiwanese call Virgin Mary and her kin), we will neither be condemned nor forgiven for our personal excesses (including the excessive frugality and austerity) and failings.

And yet, we cannot say with fairness that we are left with nothing. What makes this highly virtualized reality real nevertheless, somehow, is that not ALL individuals are uncaring, not ALL individuals are conformists. In the darkest of times in the 20th century, modernism and the avant-garde movements, Surrealism above all, had enough love going around them to share nothing other than a daring possibility, namely replenish an impoverished with dreams made out of its own material. It is a project that resembles a bridge I once saw in the mountainous village of Ronda, Spain, which links two sides of a canyon with the very stones carved out of those cliffs. In that way, nature and artifice are united: the engineers had taken stone from nature and given it back, as it were, in the form of a bridge. The avant-garde had shown us a way of taking materials out of reality and giving it back in human form, the goal being to replenish the world with more enchantments. This is the opposite of our virtual reality, which takes fuel out of reality, flattens it into an image and a few schematized action, and store them in the form of virtual data in a computer or television screen. The former adds to the world, the latter subtracts from it. The former creates, the latter consumes.

I know that this distinction is merely for me and my friends: the world shall go on as it is. But it does give me an extraordinary sense of decorum to be able to recognize these people (the way a Clarissa Dalloway recognizing the martyrdom of Septimus Warren Smith at the end of Woolf's masterpiece) as having truly done the thing, to have created, to have protested, to have fought heroically, and to have had this much love for the world despite all its failings.

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