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Woah

January 19, 2011

[Post inspired by this great blog, which I also stole links from.]

Probably not what Tlön actually looks like. Oh wait, what's "actually" mean?

Borges writes of the undecidable, the interzone between fiction and non-fiction, documentary writing, and fabulation. It is an unclassifiable space of paradox and contradiction, the sensation, vague yet familiar, that what seems unlikely may be a forgotten reality–a confused sensation akin to the afterglow of a vivid dream, before it vanishes in wakefulness.

–Darren Tofts

First of all, if you’ve never read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” you should click and read immediately. If have read it, read it again, it’s still spectacular. It’s also recommended that you read this tour de force essay discussing and building on the story. (if it’s paywalled you can also try this.)

The quotation above is as good a description of the weirdness and uniqueness of this strange work (and many others by Borges) as I’ve found. The essay it comes from (linked above) does an amazing job of amplifying the effect and demonstrating by example just how intoxicating the idea of Tlön could be if it was real. At the same time, it makes a good case that Tlön is just as real in our real world as it is in the ‘fake’ real world of the story…

There are other works that could be considered as being counterparts to the encyclopedia of Tlön, and while these works are fascinating in themselves, they lack the terror and exhilaration that Borges generates by “going deeper” to imagine a world where fantasy literally becomes real. I’d go on and on about this but really I can’t do anything like as good a job as Darren Tofts.

What I’d like to discuss is the idea of giving in to what we know is ‘not real’ and in the process making it real. In “E Unibus Pluram” David Foster Wallace deftly explains the contradictions of TV and advertising’s relationship to reality. “Act natural”: actors need a lot of training before they can portray ‘normal’ people on TV properly. TV gives people the ‘reality’ they want.

It's Reality TV, that means it's about things that really happened, but they only happened cos we made a TV show about them so...Schrödinger's Snookie?

Not that realities about actors and phosphenes and furniture are unknown to us. We simply choose to ignore them…How can we be made so willingly to acquiesce for hours daily to the illusion that the people on the TV don’t know they’re being looked at?…we love these people…

–DFW

He goes on to lament the boring clever critics who go on about how commercial TV is, how it’s all so manufactured, fake, stupid, uncultured, dumb, etc. etc. (and remember this is in the early 1990’s — yes it’s hard to believe but 20 years ago people did realize how ‘stupid’ TV is) Of course we can always be above this: we have “this condition where [we] simultaneously hate, fear, and need television…watching TV with weary irony instead of the rapt credulity most of us grew up with.” But watching ‘bad’ movies and joking with a bunch of similarly knowing friends is so much fun ain’t it? Same goes with reality TV – yep, the people in Jersey Shore do dumb shit and the show is ‘stupid’. But surprise, it’s fun to watch…

It’s tempting to get carried away again instead of just forcing you to read DFW’s epic essay, which soon gets into diagnosing just how relentlessly TV criticizes itself in infinitely more subtle ways than your curmudgeonly newspaper columnist or area man. But that’s beside the point for now. I’m interested in the bit about “we choose to ignore them”.

This certitude, that we are immersed in realistic unrealities, is the metaphysic that allows us to tune into fantasy, live there for a time, and then re-inhabit the real without believing that the fantasy continues beyond the book or the film. It is fantasy’s exit strategy. Without this strategy, this metaphysical way out, we run the risk of psychosis, certainly as Sigmund Freud had imagined it, as a sustained and problematic over-identification with a fictional character or world.

–Darren Tofts

For many of “us” (by which I mean basically the kind of people who’d read a David Foster Wallace about TV) it’s easy to think we are above it all with our ironic mockery and knowing, and that this provides us our ‘metaphysical way out’. Maybe I don’t want to live in the world of sitcoms, but reading Borges I am suckered in: the idea of a world where all of our philosophizing and layer upon layer of irony and deconstruction has crumbled and we are left with…what exactly? A world where things appear and disappear according to accident or desire, where concepts don’t matter, where there’s not even a concept of day-to-day continuity. Politics, wars, money? All seem to be pointless in Tlön. It’s not just living in a fictional world, it’s living in a world where there’s no division between fiction and reality.

As we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real.

–Bill Mitchell

Katy Perry = The Matrix's Woman in Red.

Who doesn’t love Katy Perry (aside from her sharp knees)? But what exactly is it that we love if we love a celebrity? Certainly not the real person, since we’ll likely never even see them in ‘real life’ let alone know them personally. It’s not even their ‘real’ appearance that is attractive. Think about all those ‘Embarrassing Candid Photos’ in the supermarket magazine stand. The message is essentially ‘haha, they don’t even look hot in “real life”‘. We don’t want real! We want the airbrushed, colour-corrected, pushup bra-ed version. I guess all this is pretty obvious. But even though we are well aware of it we’re still “willingly acquiescing for hours daily to the illusion”. “Real women don’t look like that”: true, and that’s how people like it. Acknowledging reality is very different from changing it.

The real-world consequences of acquiescing to the ‘Teenage Dream’ are minimal. In politics the stakes are higher. Do politicians really believe what they say? It’s generally considered much better to really believe than to say things ‘just for the votes’. If you don’t believe, you’re just pandering. But how do we find out what politicians ‘really think’? Some Sunday magazine article like “Meet the Real John Key” perhaps? But of course these articles are even less real than their careful media-trained replies to an aggressive morning radio interview. “The Real John Key” is a fake intended to supplement the political narratives propounded by the John Key that appears on TV.

All the wheeling around what politicians ‘really believe’ and their ‘hidden agendas’ distracts from boring debates about reality: What are your policies? Why are they necessary? What evidence do you have that they will work? But it seems that politicians much prefer to fight in the fake reality ‘behind’ their actual political actions, where everything is about personalities, tribe-like identification, accusations of hypocrisy etc. rather than policy details. And once again: it seems that’s how the audience likes it too. Acquiesce to your Official Media Narrative of choice and politics becomes an entertaining competition!

The Chicago Tribune failing to alter reality.

Presumably, this type of fantasy can only go on for so long. At some point reality catches up on invented representations. We’re living in a new communist utopia as long as we believe it…or until the famines start. Maybe that’s what’s so appealing about Tlön: fantasy becomes reality, not just a convincing cover for reality. We willingly abandon our ‘metaphysical way out’. What’s really crushing about the story is the postscript (spoilers for lazy people obviously!):

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even a that it is false.

A fictitious past? After taking us to the giddy edge, just as we’re acquiescing to Tlön itself, this parable-like warning is like a slap in the face. But I’m afraid that everything I’ve written is just vulgar babbling compared to Borges’s masterwork.

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

–from Kafka’s “On Parables”.

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