(originally published on Dec 11, 2007)
Now that all the groups have disappeared, and every tribe has dispersed, we know ourselves as isolated but similar to each other, and we have lost the desire to unite.
—The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq
Reality is the only word in the English language that should always come in quotes.
Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?
—“Cowboy,” The Short Timers, Gustav Hasford
Oh the things you’ll see! Oh the Places You'll Go!
We arrived at that place, finally. That imagined place where dreams were made real. Dreams of incomprehensible wonder revealing new, miraculous dimensions of imagination. The dreams held us in perpetual, childlike awe. But there we also found nightmares, nightmares we ourselves had released with the dreams. Nightmares at once unimaginable and familiar.
Once released the dreams and nightmares grew beyond our control. They merged and blended, endlessly recombining to create grotesque hybrids, spawning deformed children; all the while growing in number and mass. The sacred and the profane bled into one another until they became one. The sum of every dream became a communal dreamworld, the product of every mind and the product of no single mind.
Art was separated from artist. Meaning was being made meaningless. The people no longer controlled their imagination; it controlled them. The collective consciousness eroded and crowded out the individual. Privacy and solitude were becoming relics of the past. The people were becoming one unindividuated mass, like the inescapable dreamworld they beheld. Yet they were isolated from one another and alienated from the whole.
Every desire, every impulse, every fear and conceit, all vanity, was released to collect in an unintelligible mass overhead, lowering down upon them as it grew. All eyes turned upward, first in wonder and then in despair. Some warned that the dreamworld was displacing the real. But it was no use; there was no returning, and the authorless dreams and nightmares grew and combined as one, crowding out the sky, like a great, gathering storm.
Reality has competition. The virtual and the representational are gaining prominence in the individual and collective psyche, cutting into reality's market share. "Virtual" reality has even gained practical value. Everything that doesn't require direct human contact is gradually, inevitably, migrating away from it; economic utility alone ensures this. Engagement with one's fellows is increasingly unnecessary, and increasingly superfluous. It is now possible for one to survive within and even contribute to society without physically engaging it. For each one of us the necessity of human contact is diminishing. Human interaction is being rendered unnecessary
This fundamental shift is transpiring in a historical blink of the eye--within the span of a single lifetime. The experience of our youth is already antiquated; the world our children will pass on, unimaginable. We are on a path that seems predetermined to end with—or merely pass through—the manipulation of perception at the synaptic level, where experience lives. It is all but certain that we will eventually master the interface between perception and reality. We are not cutting out reality but cutting it off, stranding it. We are not "playing God", but displacing him. Reality is being made malleable, becoming a mere "social construct." But "reality" and "nature" are not the same thing. This we forget. Even as reality is coming apart at the seams, nature remains, utterly unchanged and unfazed, as indifferent as ever.
In the future it may come to pass that the individual will have less need for sociality. Evolutionary pressures for it may already be easing. Technology and human vanity combine to ensure that procreation itself will inevitably become a commercialized, streamlined, efficient process, with conception and gestation taking place in vitro and managed by professionals customizing their product for a clientele ordered by wealth; a hierarchy of reproduction intensifying human inequality and its attendant social stratification. Today's already disingenuous prohibition against eugenics doesn't stand a chance; it will eventually become a curiosity, if it is to be remembered at all. As for sex, romance and love; their connection to procreation is all but severed; they are now primarily recreational. Family as we know it will pass into history, but the struggle for genetic predominance will continue. It may become a rout as some enjoy unlimited access, and others are shut out entirely.
There is no guarantee that in the future the individual will not select, and be selected for, solitariness. As it is, a growing percentage of the populace is disengaged from and irrelevant to the politics and governance of society. As the average person's personal liberty grows in the absence of any authority over it, such as by church or community, indeed, as personal liberty becomes the highest virtue, his political autonomy and influence lessens, and he is increasingly irrelevant to a polity he finds confusing, opaque, and unresponsive.
The common man concedes influence in exchange for being left alone; he can count not being pressed into the service of defending the nation or contributing to its welfare or governance beyond paying taxes. He enjoys unprecedented personal liberty and unprecedented social irrelevance. He is left to his amusements; lurid, hyper-lucid and hyper-stimulating ("more real than real")—sensually and morally deadening. Over the horizon somewhere another class, increasingly alien, works the levers of society and gathers privilege unto itself.
Culture today still retains its partly shamanistic roots—imposing the necessary illusion of order on a natural world fundamentally incomprehensible due to its sheer size and totality; that the human heart can be cordoned off from nature is an ancient dream we still pursue. This fundamental religious belief is what made civilization possible. Absolute truth had to be declared and established before it could be determined (and before we could set out on the path to where we now enjoy the conceit of declaring it nonexisent). Society had to drop anchor somewhere, anywhere, to establish an immutable reference point, to free itself from its primordial drift. But still it is an illusion, and as such it could not last. The illusion has been exposed; we are cut adrift once more.
For the ancients it was the indecipherable chaos of the capricious elements upon which a semblance of order had to be overlaid; a mythology of cause and effect had to be created, and eventually the gods were born. Scientific revelation, in laying bare the patterns underlying the confusion and demystifying the sacred mysteries of sky and stars, incidentally exposed and killed the gods. But nature's indifference and caprice still haunt us. New mythologies are hastily erected in the form of sociological conceits: ideology, philosophy, social theory and criticism. But they are ad hoc, cobbled together; they fall as rapidly as we put them up. Mystery is no longer the overriding feature of the physical world. Now it is the confusion of a species whose awareness has outstripped its evolutionary pace—that has outrun nature but cannot overcome it. We are still uncovering patterns, still killing gods.
Nature means, literally, everything. Out of necessity we create false layers of remove between ourselves and nature; arbitrary, imaginary divides. But, as with all human artifice, their erosion begins before they are even finished, before they come into being. Nature works upon us even through the very barriers we erect. The clock is always ticking. Human convention is no less a product of nature than anything else, and in nature there is no such thing as permanence. Nature has time we don't. Literally, all the time in the world. Nature is time. Flux is its only permanent feature.
Meanwhile, we have grown bored with merely manipulating our physical environment. The pace of change has made a mockery of permanence, so we mock and deride the social conventions attempting to preserve a semblance of it, otherwise known as community, habitually. This exposes a lack of confidence. Of faith. Paranoia is imprinted in our genetic code; we sense there's something else out there. We attempt to give shape and form to this vague fear.
What should be the ultimate practical concern, the physical environment, takes on a religious, millenarian air; mainstream environmentalism prophesies catastrophic wrath to be visited upon us for our sins if we do not admonish ourselves and atone. Alarmed at our very real and apparently boundless hubris, we fashion myths of a vengeful nature wreaking havoc on us and reclaiming the land.
Global warming and AIDS have both become political and social movements predicated on a mythology of hubris and social injustice bringing about catastrophe. But beneath this lurks nothing so much as a profound lack of confidence, not entirely misplaced perhaps, in the ultimate wisdom of human society. Beyond hardcore political activism, the unacknowledged subtext of AIDS as a social phenomenon is the hope, now revealed as hopeless, that the disease would, finally, chasten humanity to temper its headlong descent into sexual immorality and chaos. Remember when "AIDS changed everything"?
Likewise global warming is being invested with the hope that it will spur a revolution in the production of energy, just in time to head off the next global conflict and make a Third World as rich in resources as it is in hostility irrelevant.
In the end, catastrophe mythology is not, as it appears at first glance, misanthropic conceit, but collective vainglory. We give ourselves too much credit. Nature will indeed reclaim the dominion it never really relinquished, but it will have nothing to do with us. We are not even bit players in nature's tragicomedy, but mere scenery. It is we that we need to keep our eyes on.
Violence permeates the culture, but the reality of daily life for the vast majority is excruciatingly dull in comparison to the alternate reality of cinema and video games. For sensational appeal, it simply cannot compete. The innate aggression and paranoia of the average man is increasingly aroused in inverse proportion to its decreasing necessity.
We have not conquered but insulated ourselves from the physical world, and have begun the logical next step, crafting an alternate reality—a reality manipulable at the individual level. Meanwhile nature still inhabits this false idyll, untold patterns unfolding still. We delude ourselves that nature has been marginalized, finally made small and comprehensible, but we can no more escape her than we can escape ourselves.
In a culture with no center, taken over entirely by commerce, prominence of place is awarded entirely by mass appeal. The vulgar shares space with the formerly sacrosanct. The common cannot be ennobled by its elevation, but its opposite cannot avoid being trivialized by being made common.
Decency cannot survive an order determined by sensationalism. Real life horrors compete for attention with their fictional counterparts. The collective imagination conflates and confuses them. In the end, it all must combine; beauty and ugliness, truth and fiction. In the historical memory they will be indistinguishable. In our minds they nearly are already.
So, what then? I propose no action, no change of course, no return, because these are impossible. There is no going back. It is only for us to gaze in wonder and hold on tight.