Sunday, 2 October 2016

The demands of the servile, anxious self

I

There is a notion in art called the uncanny valley.

People perceive images of humans in art or in computer graphics to be more authentic as the fidelity of the reproduction improves. But at very high fidelity, this perception breaks down catastrophically, and what looks almost exactly like the image of a real person looks monstrously wrong.

Consider the characters in the films The Polar Express or Beowulf. They look, move and act like people. But...something is not right. Something betrays that what we are looking at, what is talking to us, is not a human but a Thing.

In Freudian terms, the flaw casting the reproduction into the uncanny valley is a "blot" or a "stain." We can't stop seeing whatever the Thing is missing. What’s worse, the negative stain – that missing thing – seems to be staring out of the image right at us. We can't help but stare back. We are locked onto its gaze.

Watch any videogame addict and the story of Narcissus and Echo playing out is disturbingly obvious. Online social networking and videogames are simulations of real life. And like those reproductions in The Polar Express, those simulations lack critical aspects of real life experience pushing them into the uncanny valley. The difference is while in the digital simulation, we too are thrown into the uncanny valley along with everything else. Because our online selves are part of the simulation.

An addiction to games and social networking operates on this stain. The normal gamer and the non-gamer react to the missing elements of the simulation by being bored or refusing to play, respectively. The normal social networker uses Facebook to mediate real experiences, to connect with people they connect with in real life. They are unconsciously aware something is very wrong about this simulated reality but are more than happy to depart actual reality for a while.

The addict is also unconsciously aware of the stain, but he wants to climb out of the valley to the other side where the simulation has everything he needs, the reality he imagines he wants. The Facebook addict and the gaming addict chase the rush associated with high fidelity. This feels like a real friend. Like a real adventure. Maybe I need more friends, more followers, more interaction or better graphics to wash away the stain. But like any realised fantasy, the end result of chasing the experience online is a psychological disaster.

What addicts some people to videogames is exactly what puts others – the ‘normals’ – off videogames. The non-addict’s subconscious sees the stain as a horrible Thing to be avoided. The addict sees the stain as a horrible Thing to be covered. Yet the stain can never be erased because no game can reproduce reality. For one thing, it exists out of time, but this isn't the only thing.

Videogames defer life. But they do not defer death.

II

See, in general, one has no idea how other people perceive them. Perception exists solely within the minds of others. What I’m talking about is this attempt to merge our actual self-image with our desired public image.

We try to do so by assuming our actual self-image will tend to our desired public image. This is not true. Actualising a self-image takes insight, reflection and discovery. Part of this discovery is holding out aspects of yourself to others for implied criticism or judgement, but this is usually personal and involves closer and deeper relationships than status updates on Facebook in a desperate plea for identity-affirmation.

This is a bottom-up power structure, in which individuals control themselves. The desire for superficial public approval is a problem because it represents a yet-to-be-formed self-image which the person isn't spending any time forming.

Who are you when you aren't trying to be what you want others to think of you as? If this is not known, then you don't yet know who you are. Again, this is to be expected of a 17-year-old, less so if the person is 34. But in every person, the process eventually takes its course.

This lack of self-actualisation is a psychological condition exploited by marketing. And marketing has been doing this for 50 years, not five, and its science is extremely proficient. So even if someone doesn't know who they are, they should know how companies spend a lot of money to make sure who they eventually become is someone who can easily be persuaded to buy the stuff they need you to purchase.

Picking and choosing music artists because they represent a particular image you hope will be imputed on you is completely different from telling people your favourite music. The former is about having others define for you who you are (or at least some aspect of who you are), while the latter is helping them understand who you know yourself to be.

How utterly exhausting it must be to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate one’s identity under the constraints of stereotyping and brand loyalty. "I'm this, so I buy that."

III

Pointless revolt is co-opted. But I'm not talking about rebellion. You don't choose to be a rebel because being a rebel defines you. It is more important to study and learn the things which supply insight about the world.

Whether those are taken as symbols by advertisers or marketers is irrelevant, because they aren't your identity. Your identity is how you choose to behave based on the model of the world constructed with pre-existing ideas and cultural artefacts as inputs. It isn't about buying a leather jacket because you want to be seen as a rebel. That's silly. It's about realising how to do what is right and sensible even if everyone else isn't acting the same way, even when it means they will ignore you.

This isn’t autonomous consumer behaviour, it’s a rational understanding of one’s choices, even if those choices are emotional. If you buy an iPhone because of its sleekness, understand this is why you like it. Understand what it is about you that desires something sleek. Not that sleek is wrong, but you have to understand why you appreciate this characteristic and not the opposite.

The reason is because of "status anxiety" or anxiety generally. Anxiety is what happens when a person leads the unexamined life. Desires surface without notice or predictability, representing a lack of control and triggering anxiety.

All advertising operates on anxiety and neuroses. They create or exacerbate anxiety, before offering a product or service as cure. It may be anxiety over status, belonging, need or love. Regardless, advertising functions to make people feel more anxious, not less.

Internet tracking is advertising focusing on amplifying specific anxieties. It is subtle and insidious, it’s difficult to resist even when one is aware. The purpose is to force the viewer to evaluate their present condition, find it lacking and try to improve through consumption. This never works, but that's okay, so long as you keep coming back. By aggravating anxiety, advertising reinforces inertia and stasis.

This isn't a Marxist critique. Anxiety is a psychological condition with real consequences which get worse the more advertising a person is uncritically subjected to. We live in a society where people buy things they don't need but inexplicably can't afford that which they do need. You can criticise them for being stupid or making terrible choices, but you will sound exactly as those who levied the same criticisms in the 1960s and who will levy them in the 2060s.

People are being trained, through advertising, to look to consumption for ways to cure anxiety about life. They are taught how to want, not what to want. When that happens, people are trapped. In such a universe, governments and corporations don't need to monitor a citizen’s every step. They'll already know the kinds of things being read, watched or done.

IV

Don’t like this? Neither do I. Whatever, it doesn't matter. Nothing will change. People get scared easily by change, and when they have nothing legitimate to fear, they invent boogeymen. Searching for problems and always find them no matter how small or trivial.

"Oh no, this book has the F-word in it. My blonde, blue-eyed daughter can't read that or she'll end up having Muslim babies." So the school picks a better topic for teaching and cleaner books. Never once stopping to ask whether the structuring of a child’s life expectations is best completed by a public, faceless institution or organised by the parents. Then again, the parents are a result of the same assumptions made by the last generation.

And schools will grab the opportunity. Many are introducing accelerated mathematics and science courses to “better prepare” the child. By all accounts, they’re a big hit with students, parents, and teachers. And they do what they set out to accomplish: substantially raise the maths and science education of students, often beyond the first- and second-year levels of universities.

When was the last time you heard about accelerated courses for arts and social studies which wasn't simply an art school or “media studies”? Where are the significant courses in public schools focusing on literature or creativity? Aside from churning out “artists,” literature examinations concentrate on reciting back to the teacher what they already think. Smart kids know how the game is played so sidestep the value of exploratory thinking even if the result is counterfactual.

It’s not all bad, everyone has a story of particular teachers with a special perspective impressing the value of literature. But today adults don’t even read books anymore. So how can kids be expected to?

I suspect the reason is more obvious. Ultimately maths and science make for good workers and producers, and children’s minds can be trained to keep opinions to themselves. Scientists are rarely agents for social change. In fact, the history of the internet since the rise of Google has been less about using the technology to affect social change than in replicating the community and control structures extant in the physical world.

Nobody with anything at stake in society wants adults or children reading books which might cause them to rethink their perspective on the world. I read 1984 and Clockwork Orange in high school and university, but the surrounding discussion was always cast in terms of the books being about problems in a communist society. The final perspective was pre-loaded into the discussion. So in that context, the books had a message.

I wonder if teachers leading discussions on those books today focused instead on how much closer New Zealand is to Big Brother, would that teacher be dismissed with the pejorative “liberal”?

V

Literature and art create thinkers. That people don't want certain books to be read means those people don't want certain thoughts to be thought.

Censorship isn't about what you can read, it's about limiting the scope of thoughts, limiting vision and limiting perspective. It's about controlling minds. And no narcissist wants to know how they think might be wrong. So the power feedback loop is complete.

So if someone tells you what they own, tell them it bores you. If someone tells you where they went to school, ask them what they learned, and then say "oh, that's what everyone learns." If they expound their ethnicity, pick the most embarrassing or horrifying example of that group, and casually compare them to that. If they tell you their idea, tell them you've heard it so many times you assumed everyone knew it already.

Whenever someone tells you something unsolicited which amounts to transmitting social codes, make it clear you understood the code but hold it in contempt. You are not a member of the status system. You are not the intended recipient of the social code, you are the spy who has intercepted it. You are an agent of history infiltrating the narcissistic system, sent here on a mission to destroy it.

But like any good spy, you have to turn some insiders. Demand they tell you something they’d be ashamed to tell others in their group. If they want to see your separate world of art, music and ideas that would frighten, challenge and mature them, they first have to say they can't live another minute in this mass-production, product-differentiated, designer world, where even people's most intimate thoughts are cribbed retail from cable-TV soft-core pornography.

You are an agent of a world of risk, magic, passion and heartbreak, but you can't show it to them until they hit rock bottom and are willing to leave it behind forever. If they want to join your world, they have to say the magic words:

"I want out."

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