semester, in my film studies class, students are dutifully reading Jean
Baudrillard's classic Simulacra and Simulation, the ultimate postmodern
manifesto, whose proclamations about the disappearance of the real and
the emergence of the hyperreal have escaped from the safe ivory towers
and into pop culture. Baudrillard writes that "the world is hardly
compatible with the concept of the real which we impose upon it."
In The Matrix, the fake book where Neo hides information is called
Simulacra and Simulation, and Fight Club, a film rich with
Baudrillardian conceptions, has Edward Norton spout the line that "everything
is a copy of a copy of a copy," which is basically Baudrillard's
thesis boiled down to one sentence.
While postmodern academics (o.k, I'm one)
will dutifully line up to use the events of 9-11 as yet another example
of Baudrillard's theory that reality is basically an illusion we create
to keep ourselves sane (you can bet that within two years there will be
cultural studies readers designed for freshman composition courses that
"deconstruct" the attacks and attendant media coverage from
a Baudrillardian perspective), what are the chances that their efforts
to argue it away will fail, or will be met with hostile resistance, the
derision of those for whom reality is "real"? Is this an instance
where Reality trumps Theory, showing its fangs and claws to a professorial
elite lulled into believing resistance means simply being ironic? After
all, it's easy to proclaim that "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,"
(the title of one of Baudrillard's essays) from the comfort of an air-conditioned
office thousands of miles away from the bombs exploding. If irony was
postmodernism's defensive response to the ravaging realities of World
War II--the death camps, the atom bomb--and if reality and history itself
has receded in the years since the war, then what to make of its sudden
and violent emergence on the scene? Remember that the people who flew
the jets into the buildings trained on simulators. Who needs a
professor to connect the dots?
If irony is an accumulated, delayed response
to the horrors of the real--a way to deaden one's self through a process
of separation--then the entire post-war culture industry has been built
on this discourse. David Foster Wallace was among the first to write about
this in his 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,"
where he examined the barren emotional terrain of irony and cynicism:
"And to the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters'
unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of
social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce
its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for
the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving one's self open to others'
ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability."
And remember, this was before the era of "real T.V." and shows
like "The Weakest Link," "Survivor," and others that
specialize in a very structured, almost institutional form of betrayal.
The discourse of contemporary academic cultural
criticism in the United States is no different, and--as loath as it is
to admit it--emerges out of the same fractured, disconnected, ironic matrix
from which pop culture emerges. But the fact is the dissolution of the
Real reached its theoretical end point on 9-11, the date on which the
Real struck back. At the end of David Cronenberg's film eXistenZ,
two revolutionary Realists approach the designer of hyperreal virtuality
reality games and, before, pumping him full of bullets, ask him, "Don't
you think the world's greatest game artist ought to be punished for the
most effective deforming of reality?"
Today's simulated reality game designers--theoreticians
and professors in the liberal arts at colleges and universities across
the nation (myself included)--have never wanted to ask themselves that
But now they must.