Monday, July 23, 2007

That Sense of Unreality

In a post on the MEA listserv last week, Eric Goodman, whose music video/multimedia presentations under the name of The Spectacle have been the subject of two previous posts of mine (Thus Spoke the Spectacle, The Spectacle Speaks Again) noted that some people in New York City, when asked to give eyewitness accounts of the massive steam pipe explosion last week, said that "it was just like a movie"--specifically, he said that he heard three different people say that in the space of 15 minutes. His concern was this was another instance of blurring the line between reality and media.

Now, I'm as critical about the blurring of the boundaries as the next guy, having been influenced by Daniel Boorstin's The Image as an undergraduate and having based my doctoral dissertation in part on that book (the hero-celebrity dichotomy, specifically). But as Freud said about phallic symbols, when questioned about his smoking habit, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Which is to say that explanations that apply in some instances do not necessarily apply in all instances. And in this instance, I think there's something else at work.

Simply put, we go through our day-to-day lives, and most of our experience is routine, and therefore not noteworthy, not memorable. We can function on autopilot a lot of the time, but even when we're awake and aware, most of what occurs can be taken for granted, and in that sense seems meaningless, that is, devoid of special meaning.

But when something out of the ordinary occurs, it wakes us up, makes us pay acute attention, puts us on high alert. We are very actively engaged with our environment, instead of allowing it to fade in the background, we are scanning every detail, processing information, and therefore very much participating in the search for and construction of meaning. In this sense, the unexpected event, the surprising occurrence, the interesting times of Chinese curse, thrusts us into a different mental state, a new way of experiencing the world. Marshall McLuhan talked about breakthrough by way of breakdown, and this state also functions as what he termed an antienvironment or counterenvironment that lets us see our normal environment more clearly. Paul Watzlawick simiarly wrote about the benefits of confusion, which forces us to reframe our reality, to recall that reality is in some sense a social construction, and that alternate constructions or interpretations are possible and may be needed.

How do we express that sense of unreality that comes from the shocking turn of events, the adrenaline rush? Perhaps as a liminal state? Mircea Eliade's categories of the sacred and the profane seem to apply here as well. Everyday life, the routine, is rooted in what he calls profane space and time, and only on special occasions do we experience sacred space and time, perhaps through ritual, or myth, through religious ceremony or worship, through mystical experience, mind alterations, etc. Or maybe we just enter into it by accident some of the time, in response to unexpected events?

When we say that it felt as it we were in a dream, this dreamtime and dreamscape is essentially sacred space and time, but it is also a way that we describe a sense of an unreal reality. And it is not all that different from saying that it feels as it we were in a movie. Movies were compared to dreams early on in the history of film theory, both experienced in the dark, consisting of a sequence of images, etc. Is film a new form of sacred space and time?

But we relate to that sense of unreality not through film alone. In somewhat different fashion, we might say that it suddenly feels like we're in a soap opera, or a situation comedy. People more commonly in the past would say that they felt like they were in a play, or a novel. No doubt, even earlier on, people felt like they were in an epic poem or song, taking part in a myth or legend. Again, we return to the concept of sacred time and space.

All this is different from the experience of looking out at a scenic view and saying this looks like a painting, however, or commenting that someone is pretty as a picture. Those experiences are objective, looking out at something else from a distanced, non-participatory position. In contrast, that sense of unreality that I am talking about is felt subjectively, with the self at the center, fully immersed and surrounded by events. We are inside the environment of unreality.

Why do we seek out media as metaphors for that sense of unreality? All symbolic forms are abstractions, pulling out of reality only those parts of reality that are of interest, that are noteworthy and memorable, leaving out all that is not. For example, in narrative forms, such as a novel, nothing is insignificant, every detail has been deliberately included by the writer, and therefore has meaning. This is not true of everyday life, at least of our experience of it.

So, when every detail suddenly seems to have meaning in our experience of reality, we experience it as unreality, and look to mediated reality as the closest analogue to what we are experiencing.

In many ways, we hunger for meaning in our lives, and chafe against the banality of everyday existence. That's why some people seek out disaster, maybe even bring it on, because it makes life meaningful. On a smaller scale, it's why some nurses cause their patients to go into cardiac arrest, only so they can save them. A number of scholars have noted that we tend to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, in the way we think about our lives, and that we look to fulfill heroic roles. Joseph Campbell makes this point about the Hero With A 1,000 Faces, the monomyth, the heroic archetype.

Ernest Becker has a particularly powerful explanation. As the only only animals with awareness of our own mortality, our self-esteem is mortally wounded by our knowledge of the inevitability of death. The function of culture is to shore up our self-esteem by serving as a hero-system, providing us with models and roles with which we can be heroes in our own lives, and thereby live meaningfully.

But it's also in those moments of unreality that we catch a glimpse of some transcendent meaning, really a surplus of meaning. And while we may fervently desire to experience that sense of unreality, to maintain that mental state all of the time, the truth is that it would drive us mad. That's something the Chinese understood particularly well.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, I wonder what Sapho would think of it.

Rodger said...

A nice piece of work and as I said on the other site, you have done a great job of bringing this to our attention. Keep up the works