Don’t Worry Vivian, the World is Really Real

I agree with Vivian Sobchack that “within the dominant cultural and techno-logic of the electronic there are those out there who prefer the simulated body and a virtual world…” and that these people are, well, basically nuts. The nanotech immortality fantasies of Ray Kurzweil et al notwithstanding, I think this perspective is increasingly a minority one, and I can’t accept that there are many serious people out there who would argue for a completely disembodied, brain-in-a-vat/brain-in-the-machine cyberfuture. Indeed, I believe such thoughts basically emerge from an early wave of naive techno-utopianism and catastrophe theory, and have been propagated largely via non-technical and somewhat dim-witted (vaguely new age, often times stoner burnout) quarters. It all smacks of mediocre 50s sci-fi and its derivatives in Scientology and other tech/alien cult manifestations, and yet Sobchack talks about it as if this motive is at the dark heart of our culture.

All this is to say that the whole argument in “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence'” is a bit of a straw-man kind of thing. Yes, definitely — “an insubstantial electronic presence can ignore [all the] ills the flesh is heir to outside the image and the datascape,” and that would suck, but are we really moving deeper into the screen and disembodiment, full stop, end of story? Sobchack says yes, and I can understand how she got there.

At the time of her writing, the notion that we (or at least those of us who will be able to afford it) are all going to live our futures through our brainstems in an all-encompassing, “jacked-in” Virtual Reality was at its zenith, particularly in popular culture. The fear was that people would become so wrapped up in their disembodied virtual existences (foisted upon them by their robot overlords) that they would fail to notice that the were, phenomenologically speaking, sitting in a tub of goo far away from the site of their action. But while the Matrix films provided the culture with an outlet for various anxieties about technology, identity and control, they were, at bottom, kind of vacant, semi-obvious entertainments that recycled ideas and story figures that have been around since the 50s. Their cause was putatively a noble one, but the films themselves were little more than the pop finales to the initial gasps of fear and anxiety that accompanied the birth of “the electronic.”

I would argue that our future can’t be plotted on a phenomenological continuum that has “embodied” at one end and “disembodied” at the other. Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy tell us more about the fears and conceits of the early 1980s and late 1990s than they do about the future we are actually confronting in the here and now. And yes, I know — sure, there’s something to be harvested there about the “techno-logic” of late capitalism and of course, yes, it’s all valuable, all of it. But Sobchack spends a lot of intellectual capital worrying about the phenomenological effects of a theoretical reality that increasingly bears little resemblence to what’s actually happening on the ground. No one outside of the most moronic and outmoded subcultures of misguided paranoid technoenthusiasm uses the words “meat” or “wetware” to refer to their bodies. Indeed, highly embodied cultural manifestations like DIY, networked public play and mobility are arguably emerging as the dominant paradigms. While screens continue to proliferate, they are arguably becoming less central to our “lifeworld” (while computation nonetheless continues its ascent behind the scenes). The once easily-drawn line between the Virtual and the Real is now revealed to be a grand fallacy, a product of the very fears and ignorances that produced Sobchack’s essay in the first place.

Put away Neuromancer and pick up Pattern Recognition or Spook Country. Blade Runner and La Jetee are great — so is Denno Coil.