Simulation and the Self
by Ken Sanes
Ultimately, contemporary culture has to be judged by the degree to which it puts us in touch with, and advances the interests of, our true, morally-based, selves, which are based on our desire to become whole; lead a full life; live in a good society; and see other people treated fairly. Unfortunately, to become whole selves, today, we have to break away from the infantiliziing manipulations and mystifications of contemporary culture which would draw us into a false sense of life to manipulate us in our role as audiences, consumers, and voters.
Everyone -- at least everyone with a reasonably normal mind and brain -- has a true self that is partly buried beneath their everyday personality. This self is who each of us is and can become when our natural growth isn't interfered with by personal and cultural neurosis. It is us at those times when we feel whole and are psychologically strong enough to hear and speak the truth; when we are naturally assertive rather than fearful and aggressive; when we are open to other people and compassionate rather than being manipulative and secretive; and when we are capable of embracing life and enjoying the moment, without regressing into a neurotic secondary personality that is distorted by a defensive battle between fake desires on one side, and self-reproaches, prohibitions, and taboos on the other. It is us when we have a natural, aesthetic, revulsion to evil, including a revulsion to all those behaviors that violate and diminish ourselves and others. And it is us when we express our inherent desire to create and build and care for things, instead of destroying.
Contrary to what most of us have been led to believe, this self isn't merely something to strive for, an ideal that expresses what one might become. It is already part of us and is as natural to us as the cat's yawn is to the cat. In everyday life, we manifest it all the time, but it is mixed in with neurosis, so it is expressed mostly in a partial form, as a part of the secondary and false personality we often show to ourselves and the world.
This web site examines the way popular culture, including news, politics, movies and television, video games and the Internet, is forever revealing and concealing this true self. Like an individual mind, popular culture both expresses our desire to become this self and it disguises that desire, warding it off and urging us to lose ourselves in false satisfactions and illusions that are collective neurotic symptoms and defenses. Popular culture expresses our desire to become ourselves in its magnificent works of moral fiction, which evoke our yearning to live a full and honest life, see other people treated fairly, and share in a good society. And it conceals that desire by urging us to see life as a game of trivial pursuits and regressive pleasures. It gives us opportunities to expand our horizons even as it narrows our field of vision by drawing us into a realm of simplified entertainments.
It is these dual tendencies that this web site tries to understand by interpreting the products of contemporary culture. As part of this, it looks at the sensory creations and images of popular culture; the stories popular culture tells; and the psychoanalytic, social and mythic domains of meaning that are embedded in the stories.
But this site views our desire to become our true selves as, itself, only one part of a larger story that can be described, without exaggeration, as the master plot of human existence. This plot or central narrative is about how we are all trapped, not only in our own psychodynamics, but in a realm of fallen society in which collective neurosis and the misuse of power keep us from becoming ourselves. And it is about how we are trapped in a realm of fallen nature that imposes limits and scarcity on us -- a realm that isn't only "objective" but that is also shaped by our own actions into something that interferes with human development, even as it supplies the riches on which our material life is based. The master plot of our existence, than, is one in which we are stuck in a fallen version of society, personality and nature, in exile from the better, unfallen, life we know should exist. The stories of popular culture, which are embedded in everything from theme parks to political speeches, are expressions of this master plot. They draw their power from their depiction of it and from their ability to put us in touch with our desire to give it a new ending, one in which we transcend our limitations and create a new order based on our true identity. In essence, they are about our existential predicament -- we have fallen and we can't get up.
(The story of Logan's Run) is a variation on the most important myth of our time, which is about the relationship between unlimited technology and the limits of human character. Like Star Trek, its central message is that our wisdom will have to keep up with our power or else the technology we believe will liberate us will end up enslaving and destroying us instead. It shows us the way technology can take the central human dilemma, between true and false forms of freedom, and amplify it until the stakes become the world itself.
Put in terms of the issues described above, the message of Logan's Run is that the individual must grow out of his or her limitations and so must the human race. As we saw above, this process involves breaking free from the illusions of childhood, the family, society, and culture, which are imprinted on the mind and which the mind helps to manufacture, and breaking through to our true selves and an authentic existence. It means freeing ourselves from the grip of the manipulators who use technology to control society and shape its illusions, and who, the movie tells us, are all too capable of leading us to destruction. More specifically, it means we have to grow out of the infantilizing culture that is developing in the West, in which technology, world view, and the human desire for an easy life all work together, and are worked by those in power, to keep us in a prison disguised as home. This is a variation on the task that has faced everyone in every age, but one that, given the stakes, looms very large, today.
The intent of these essays is to offer an empirical and systematic theory, grounded in social science and literary criticism, that can allow us to make simulations as transparent as possible, so we can understand the ways they express human nature. Ultimately, this work is based on an ethical vision that judges this new culture by how it contributes to our quest for a richer life and a more rational society, and that also judges this culture by asking if it encourages us to use our new powers to seek after true or false forms of freedom. In terms of Frye's ideas, the book asks what may be the central question of our age: if we are going to replace nature with a truly human world, which aspects of our humanity will it be modeled after?
Popular culture increasingly tries to draw us into the belief that life is a game, a fiction. Some segments of academia do the same thing, carrying ideas about social construction and the illusions of representation to an extreme with the claim that all our beliefs are fictions or illusions. An example is the work of Sherry Turkle who suggests that world, society and mind may all be fictions, and life may be just an opportunity to play out story lines we create as we go along. In effect, Turkle represents one of many efforts to treat all of life as a story-based simulation and a symbolic arena for the acting out of fantasies. In place of the belief that we have (or are) one authentic, morally-based, self that expresses itself in disguised form in culture, she suggests that we have many selves, all of which are fictions. Her views thus represent the antithesis of those expressed here and embody many of the worst trends in contemporary culture.
A recent example of postmodernist philosophy can be found in the work of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Turkle studied the way people interact on so-called MUDs or role-playing games on the Internet, in which they play fictional characters in equally fictitious "worlds," created with words. In a typical MUD, text on the screen is used to describe environments, situations, characters and actions. Players at various computers, who are all logged into the same MUD, "act" in this virtual world by typing a description of what they are doing or by typing their side of the dialogue, which is then viewed by other players on their own screens and responded to.
In studying all this, Turkle concluded that these experiences can help people discover a postmodern way of knowing. Just as they recognize that the computer screen is merely a play of surface simulations to be explored, so they come to see reality the same way.
"If there is no underlying meaning, or a meaning we shall never know, postmodern theorists argue that the privileged way of knowing can only be through an exploration of surfaces," Turkle writes. "This makes social knowledge into something that we might navigate much as we explore the Macintosh screen and its multiple layers of files and applications."
For the most part, she says, computer users who have achieved this new way of knowing, "suspend disbelief and become absorbed in what is happening on the screen." They are happy "to take the program at interface value."
Since everything is surfaces to be explored, and no surface has any more legitimacy than any other, the "embodied" life we live on a day-to-day basis has no more reality than the role-playing games on the Internet. Instead, for the MUD player, reality becomes what is referred to as "RL" -- "Real Life" -- which is just another role-playing game.
"...MUD players can develop a way of thinking in which life is made up of many windows and RL is only one of them," Turkle writes.
For Turkle, MUD players also discover that the idea that they are a unified self is also another fiction. By engaging in endless role-playing games, they come to see that they can be many selves and that none of those characters is any less real than what they think is there true self -- all are there to be played out and explored.
Turkle makes clear that this new experience of the self isn't merely an alternative model of identity -- it is also the basis for an alternative lifestyle. So long as we were attached to the old model of identity, she says, "the unitary self maintains its oneness by repressing all that does not fit. Thus censored, the illegitimate parts of the self are not accessible."
But with the new, postmodern, self: "We do not feel compelled to rank or judge the elements of our multiplicity. We do not feel compelled to exclude what does not fit."
Once that is accomplished, the self is prepared to play out all its fantasies, living life as a play of fictions. In effect, Turkle is describing how someone becomes an enthusiastic participant in the symbolic arenas of contemporary culture. People can then devote themselves to indulging their fantasies without guilt or discomfort, since what they do via simulation has the same status as what they do in the rest of life. Nor is any of it a form of transgression, since the judging self that might label some fantasies off limits has been conveniently eliminated.
We can then live like "Stewart," who, Turkle tells us, is "logged on to one MUD or another for at least forty hours a week. It seems misleading to call what he does there playing. He spends his time constructing a life that is more expansive than the one he lives in physical reality."
"In sum, MUDs blur the boundaries between self and game, self and role, self and simulation," she writes. "One player says, 'You are what you pretend to be...you are what you play.' "
It isn't hard to see where Turkle's philosophy leads. It inevitably takes us to a state of political apathy in which we cease asking how we are being manipulated by simulations, and just enjoy them. In fact, Turkle's approving description of the way computer users, "suspend disbelief," and are content to take what happens on the screen "at interface value" is precisely the way the characters are described as living in totalitarian world of The Futurological Congress. They enjoy the manipulated facade, without questioning where it comes from, who created it, or for what purpose. This is the attitude the manipulators of deceptive simulations (advertisers, politicians, et al) want everyone to have: don't ask if all those wonderful images are painted on the gates of Hell; just enjoy the pretty pictures. Let everyone eat, drink and exchange sexually-charged messages on the Internet, because we will never understand what it all means, anyway.
The movie Groundhog Day tells the story of a man who wakes up every morning and discovers it is the same day. No matter what he does, even if he injures himself, he will wake up whole in the same day with the same events unfolding as they did the day before. But the character knows he is reliving time and he can change the way he acts which, in turn, will elicit new responses from those around him. So the character begins to experiment with different ways to be and live in this one day and, in the end, he finds himself.
This excerpt argues that the character's freedom to try out different ways of living in the day makes what he experiences much like what we experience when we interact with fictions or symbolic arenas in which we try out various possibilities without having to suffer the consequences. But the character uses this freedom not to endlessly play out story lines, a la Turkle, but to get in touch with his true and universal self which has a deepened appreciation of life. The movie thus gives us a model for how we should use fiction and symbolic arenas in our own lives to break through to a better way of living. It stands as a kind of refutation of Turkle's (sometimes implicit)t claims that the self and life are fictions and that no fiction is necessarily better than the others.
The idea that stories express and put us in touch with our desire to live a better and more authentic life and to become our true selves is explored in detail in the three sections of this web site that carry the subtitle "The Landscape of Fiction."
What is so powerful about Groundhog Day is the way it lets us experience what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. The movie shows us a character who is like the worst in ourselves. He is arrogant and sarcastic, absorbed in his own discomforts, without hope, and cut off from other people. Like us, he finds himself in an inexplicable situation, seemingly a plaything of fate. But, unlike us, he gets the luxury of being stuck in the same day until he gets it right. Whereas most of us go semi-automatically through most of our (very similar) days, he is forced to stop and treat each day like a world onto itself, and decide how to use it. In the end, he undergoes a breakthrough to a more authentic self in which intimacy, creativity and compassion come naturally - a self that was trapped inside him and that could only be freed by trapping him. Like many of the heroes of fiction, he can only escape his exile from himself by being exiled in a situation not of his choosing.
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The timeless middle of the movie (in which he constantly relieves the same day) has some of the characteristics of a virtual world in which Murray can experiment with alternative ways of living and being. In that, it is like forms of fiction, including imagination. Since he participates in this virtual world, perhaps it is most like participatory fictions -- MUDs, video games, virtual realities. The movie similarly seeks to be our timeless interlude in which we can try on different ways of living.
Sherry Turkle, of MIT, whose work is discussed in an essay in The Age of Simulation, sees MUDs or text-based, interactive fictional worlds on the Internet as such a virtual world, allowing one to try on different selves. But she believes that they (and other participatory forms of fiction) allow us to discover that we are many selves, all of which turn out to be fictions. In Turkle's view, life is a kind of game, a form of theater, and the fiction in stories isn't much different than the fiction of life.
I believe the correct conclusion is precisely the opposite: fiction, whether participatory or vicarious, allows us to identify with and play characters who find their true selves, thereby putting us in touch with the universal human nature in each of us. The ability to watch and play the role of fictional characters makes the fiction more interesting and expands our vision of possible ways of being. But, one way or another, it must lead us back to our true selves, the universal, moral being we all (or most of us) are, which is as real as the physical world is real.
In fact, the movie symbolizes just this since Murray's character treats his life as a game only when he is in despair. Once he has a sense of hope, he becomes more authentic and discovers himself.
This is the essence of what this web site is about. It is based on the idea that all the stories and representations of popular culture are a free space in which we can play with the various possibilities inside us. But, ultimately, we have to ask to what degree they lead us away from our selves and to what degree toward our selves. Do we want to live in a culture that is like the movie's timeless realm, encouraging us to become authentic, or that turns our culture and our lives into the most sophisticated game in history, so we can escape from the truths of life. Like Phil (Murray's character) and his day, we can make either out of popular culture.
This excerpt describes the forms of alienation that people suffer in a society full of deceptive and hyped-up simulations, including and especially a sense of alienation from themselves.
Commercials create invented "worlds" based on fantasy and desire. To achieve their effects, they engage in the new production process of high-tech capitalism, which is to turn everything into an image.
This process is very evident in what happens to the actors -- they are turned into simplified human images. Their role is to become characters in false utopias so they can act as living sales pitches for products.
Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and the workers in the movie Metropolis, they become cogs in the machine of technology. But now that machine is about ephemeralizing -- using the appearance of actual people, objects, places and situations to create images and stories that can be sold and/or used to sell other things that are, themselves, increasingly made up of images or simulations.
This new production process and form of sales has its own forms of alienation that characterize contemporary societies. As we see in the movie The Electric Horseman, human beings who are turned into images can feel alienated from themselves and what they do, since they become involved in a great deal of contrivance, manipulation, and deception. They become false selves that are carefully crafted to get us to buy the product, whether it is a consumer item, a candidate, or a way of life. Being an image-cog in a lie machine can be very alienating and more than a little degrading, whether you are a famous celebrity, suffering all the way to the bank, or a salesman living out of a suitcase. If your false role takes something essential to you and turns it into an image, it can be all the more disturbing, as in The Electric Horseman in which the radio champion gets turned into a cereal box cowboy. If it requires that you do something demeaning, like hang lights on your purple cowboy outfit, or play a chipmunk in Disney World, that too can obviously be a source of strain.
Of course, as the character in The Electric Horseman discovers, in the realm of images all human images are replaceable. Whatever qualities they have -- fame, courage, physical attractiveness -- can be got elsewhere. And it is only a matter of time before what they have to offer is replaced altogether by synthetic actors. Robots, computer-generated voices and visual images, lifelike manikins -- the image world is quickly coming to ersatz life.
I don't mean to make all that much of this -- I'd rather be an actor than a factory worker and I'd rather live in a society that has the luxury of devoting many of its resources to creating images, than one stuck trying to figure out how to get coal out of the ground. And many kinds of work are repetitive and alienating. Even being an actor in a Shakespearean drama involves repetition and can involve a feeling of being lost in one's character.
But most of today's human images aren't doing Shakespeare. They are doing sales-entertainment, of which commercials are an extreme version that casts light on the rest.
Audiences suffer forms of alienation, as well, as they feel increasingly trapped in a culture of con artistry in which they are surrounded by sensory images, stories, rhetoric and presentations that are intended to get them to buy something or buy into something. This culture fakes the appearance of places and people and situations, as the window dressing for fake promises and false claims. It offers sales pitches disguised to look like a new and better "postmodern" reality.
All cultures place people inside invented worlds, so that, in itself, isn't what is new about all this. The human world is, by nature, full of fictionalization and metaphor, and drenched with stories and metaphysical assumptions, much of it contrived by conscious and unconscious design to support the claims of those in power. But never before has a culture been scientifically invented in this way, using the tools of rationalization -- including marketing studies and computers -- to sell products and a way of life. These tools of rationality extract the essence of our own irrationality -- our fantasies, imbued with fears and desires -- and give them back to us in the form of their invented worlds.
Most viewers know it is all a manipulation, even if they don't always reflect on what they know. But many still respond by buying the product, voting for the candidate, and admiring the celebrity, as if they have been taken in by the message. It is as if the radio audience in 1938 had realized it was listening to a performance by Orson Welles, but decided to panic anyway because the play was so convincing and so much fun to believe.
If you put the ideas of Freud, Maslow and Marcuse together, they lead to the conclusion that the true self has existed throughout history, and it has been "waiting" to be released from the prison created by our primitive psychodynamics, distorted cultures and oppressive social conditions. This true self isn't an entity inside the mind, that is hidden by the mask of a false self. It is the full person we become when these numerous interferences are eliminated. It is willing to speak, hear and seek the truth about itself and society, without fleeing into the regressive symptoms offered by personal neurosis and popular culture. It is assertive, not aggressive; focussed on living fully rather than on shoring up constantly-collapsing psychological defenses; it is able to love and work, and take pleasure and responsibility. It affirms life and compassion over hate and revenge.
When people experience this state of higher functioning, to one degree or another, in their better moments or, in some instances, throughout much of their lives, we see in them an essential characteristic: they don't only feel good, about themselves and life, they also spontaneously do good. They have an inherent, aesthetic revulsion to anything that would do physical or symbolic violence to themselves or others.
To the extent we are our true selves, we have a deep revulsion to the culture of manipulation, and everything in us tells us not to become one of its practitioners. And we see the regressive radicalism offered by much of popular culture as a lure. All those forbidden fantasies are forms of regression that lead us away from our true selves.
Like language, the potential to become our selves is inherent in us, but it has to be evoked by culture, to come to even partial realization. It is always there, as a part of our makeup, mixed in with, and limited by, other elements of personality and culture.
Contrary to what some postmodernists claim, this self isn't a collection of roles or a story under constant revision, although, as we have seen, personality and culture do contain a significant degree of disguise. Instead, it is a single entity, with capacities when it comes to language, thinking, emotion, psychodynamics, morality and personal fulfillment that are individual instances of a universal human nature. Since we all partake of this human nature, we all share the same capacities for good and ill, health and neurosis, no matter what "roles" we play or how technology expands our powers.
With this in mind, we can now ask a set of questions that represent one of the essential issues of our age: which aspect of the self will be evoked by the cultures and societies of the 21st century, with their artificial environments, pervasive computers, technologies of power and virtual realities? Which desires will be served by our new abilities: our primitive urges or our aspirations for true fulfillment? Will these powers serve the goal of freedom or will our ability to overcome many of the limits of the world allow us to turn the world itself into a vast arena for acting out the limitations of personality?
Seen in this light, the issue of the age (and every age) is whether we will we use our powers to encourage the development of true or false selves, and seek after a true or false idea of a better world. These are the issues that are being acted out in all the spectacles of art and technology described in the book. In Disney; in advertisements; in the mind-numbing simulation-work of politicians, and in innumerable other creations of culture, we see a quest after misleading images of the perfect self, and of false paradise. Other works, such as apparently modest comedies like Groundhog Day and Uncle Buck, about people who overcome fear and anger and some of their false desires, to become something they already were, are efforts to get at the truth of the self.
We can build strong and healthy people without deep and profound knowledge of the truths of personality, society and culture, of course. But the insight of modernism and Western civilization, that truth liberates, is still essential. It tells us that we have the ability to see through the psychodynamics that partly govern everyone, and discover that many (not all) of the limits of life are, in fact, our own invention; they are defenses we create in response to deeply buried fears of real and imagined dangers from childhood, which are not-so-seamlessly woven into personality. And we have the capacity to discover in the environment of technology, art and simulation that makes up contemporary culture, the story of our selves and society, which we are constantly writing in disguised form. A great many of these creations -- individual movies, for example, or theme parks -- are like monads: if we could make them entirely transparent, we would discover that each one contains a large part of the entire story.
If the reader will forgive a final hyperbole, mostly stolen from Northrop Frye's discussion of James Joyce (with Hegel looming somewhere ominously in the background): only after humanity has seen through the illusions of the self and society can it wake up from the dream of history and recognize its own role as the dreamer. Then society and culture appear as objectified and alienated parts of ourselves. The new self that has the potential to be born from this exercise in clarity can consciously create a society and culture that expresses the fullness of life, rather than the yearning for, and flight from, itself.
We can begin this effort at self-knowledge by recognizing that we are ascending a ladder of invention and discovery that has always been there, waiting to be climbed. This ladder of progress is built in to the universe. It is an element of the world, of which we are only a part.
The ladder has two arms. One is made up of our growing power to use science and technology to control the physical world. The other is made up our ability to grow as people. We will need both if we want to make our great ascent.