Monday, April 21, 2003

Reality! Television! Simulacrum!

Okay, so I finally handed in my honours thesis today, and boy are my arms tired.

Hmm... That didn't make a lot of sense. I hope my essay and play are more coherent than that...

Anyway, I just like to take this moment to thank the Internet for all her help on the project, which involved writing a play and an essay on the interaction between the Televised World and the Real World, and television as the primary site for the enactment, contestation and dissemination of our reality. (Whew! If I hadn't written it, I'd be making fun of myself right now.)

The play is called Bellesville. The essay is called, "Television, Media, and the Reality of Simulations : Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog."

Here, some of the more interesting excerpts:

-- For me, the intersection of the televised world and the real world became clear on September 11. While watching the endlessly looping footage of the Twin Towers' collapse on CNN, I was struck by a comment from one of the talking heads that, "It's like watching a movie of the end of the world." Hearing these words, I was torn in two directions. While the statement appalled me (This isn't a movie; these are real people dying!), it simultaneously resonated within me as truth (He's right; it is like watching a movie of the end of the world.). This commentator's (and my own) confusion between the real and the simulated is a modern example of the concept of the liminality of fact and fiction, which Jean Baudrillard has articulated.

--- The use of simulations or spectacle as a way of communicating does not have to be a bad thing. One of the modes of communication that I have noticed among my peers is in relation to the television show The Simpsons. I have been to many parties where people will have conversations completely based around Simpsons' quotations. This is an example of using spectacle as a social relation among people. Our discussions of The Simpsons produce a bonding effect, even among people who have not previously met.

I am hardly the only one who has noticed The Simpsons' importance among my generation. In "The Simpsons Generation," Chris Turner describes the importance of The Simpsons as a cultural signpost of today's youth: [Ed note: Surely one of the best articles I have read in the past year.]

"Western culture has in recent years become an irredeemably fragmented thing, counted in webpage hits and record sales, endlessly quantified and analyzed and synthesized and then co-opted and corrupted by advertisers, focus groups, test audiences, pollsters, pundits, and on down the line, all the while changing so quickly and in so many directions that it has never really been nailed down. (Maybe no cultural moment ever really is.) But watching The Simpsons, all those scattered slivered Is became wes, if only for thirty minutes each week (more often after the show went into syndication). We were being defined by the show. Shaped by it. Even united by it, or as close to that state as we came, anyway. If there was a single cultural signpost broadcasting the emergence of a generation/era/movement/whatever, a monolith to a widespread yearning for progress, truth, honesty, integrity, joy, a final goddamn period at the end of every vacuous corporate press release and cloying commercial script and prevaricating political soundbite -- it was The Simpsons."

--- Here is just one example of the Reality Effect that Joel Black relates in his book, The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative. A writer for Homicide: Life on the Street watched a television documentary, wherein a policeman related to a cab driver the real-life story of a man who was fatally injured in a subway accident. This writer was inspired and wrote an episode of Homicide based on that story. Interestingly enough, PBS then made a documentary about the making of the episode of Homicide. A TV documentary gave rise to a fictional episode of a TV series, which then gave rise to a another TV documentary.

--- The Reality Effect has been apparent in many of the biggest news events of the past decade. The 1997 movie Wag the Dog, for instance, eerily paralleled the events that were taking place in the White House at the time of its release. In the September 24 issue of The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane noticed the parallels between 9/11 and many movies of the past decade:

[Y]ou could argue that last Tuesday was an instant dismissal of the fantastic–that people gazed up into the sky and immediately told themselves that this was the real thing. Yet all the evidence suggests the contrary; it was the television commentators as well as those on the ground who resorted to a phrase book culled from cinema: "It was like a movie." "It was like 'Independence Day.' " "It was like 'Die Hard.' " "No, 'Die Hard 2.' " " 'Armageddon.' " And the exclamations from below, from the watchers of the skies caught on video, as they see the aircraft slice into the side of the tower: where have you heard those expressions most recently–the wows, the whoohs, the holy shits–if not in movie theatres, and even on your own blaspheming tongue? [Read the full article here]

Of course, for those of us who were not in New York on 9/11, the attacks weren't just like a movie, they were a movie. They were created by the plane hijackers for us to view at home and be frightened by. The planes were flown into the two towers specifically for the symbolism. The attacks were a political transaction in the age of spectacle.

--- The battle between naturalism and the self-consciously artificial has been extremely apparent in recent art and pop culture, but it is hardly new. It first waged itself in the theatre. Critic Kenneth Tynan summed the two camps up when wrote, "'You are in a drawing room,' says Stanislavsky to his audience, 'witnessing life.' 'You are in a theater,' says Brecht, 'witnessing actors.'"

On one end, we have the meta, the false that acknowledges its untruth : David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers' metafiction; The Simpsonsand metatelevision; Daniel MacIvor's metatheatre; Eminem's metarap; and the metamovie Adaptation by Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the false that purports to be true: the faked or edited reality of Reality TV shows; the real-image pop of Avril Lavigne; and the manipulated documentaries of Michael Moore.

Meta is important in our discussion of simulations, because the movement can be seen as a way of fighting off The Reality Effect. We currently live in a world where it is difficult to prosecute child pornographers, because courts have ruled that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between real child pornography and virtual child pornography. The veracity of video evidence of crime is increasingly being called into question by defence attorneys. Meta is a defense against the blurring of fact and fiction; the stridently false is perhaps the one thing that we can believe in completely today.

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Well, those are some of the more interesting parts of my essay, with appropriate linkage. The conclusion is a little soppy, as I admit to being a bit of a technophile and say that blogs will save the world.

Wait! Did I write an essay that was partly about blogs and then paste parts of it on my blog? As they say, "It's getting meta all the time..."

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