A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Seventeen)
By Mark Wegierski
It could be argued that late modernity, as expressed through audiovisual, electronic and role-playing media, effectively "externalizes" and "commodifies" the imaginary, the imagination, and the imaginarium (a person's imaginative faculties and processes) as a construct outside of the person's own creative capacities. There is in most cases a profound difference between reading a book, and experiencing multi-media. The former usually involves an active exercise of one's imaginative faculties, whereas the latter is usually a passive reception of someone else's imagery, even when there is supposed "interactivity" provided.
It could be argued that a sense of imagination usually strongly co-exists with a sharp sense of reality. In a world where image and reality blend into a postmodern blur, real imagination and creativity are probably as difficult to achieve as a sharp sense of reality.
One may be reminded how much of the late modern world is based on so-called branding, selling the image of a product or celebrity, usually for driving forward or increasing commercial gain. Among the consumerist and consumptionist pushing of commercial brands, there is the mass-marketing of numerous entertainment "franchises" – some of which are based on a once relatively-original, initial conceptual impulse – while others are commercially-driven right from the start. In both cases, the multiplication of images and concrete objects related to the "franchise" is so overwhelming, that it becomes extremely pervasive across much of the culture. Truly serious religious and national impulses, which have developed slowly over centuries, tend to wane in the face of these highly ephemeral, but often fanatically followed "brands" and "franchises." There is a tendency for the disappearance of non-materialist outlooks (such as those tied to the duties and obligations of traditional religion or nation), in favor of a vast orgy of material consumption and a frenzy of imaginative overloading and short-circuiting that often amounts to intellectual narcissism.
VR offers the idea of solipsistic self-creation where the notion of human nature and natural limits has been utterly abolished. The computer-generated images often purveyed in current-day sci-fi movies (and television programs, especially the new crop of "cyber" programs for children), are often grotesquely unnatural, transgressive, and rather horrific, especially if considered in relation to those sights regularly to be seen in the human and natural worlds. They strongly project a Gnostic, pseudo-spiritual transcendence of the material world.
VR is obviously linked to the postmodern (or hypermodern) notions of radical autonomy, and of continual deconstruction, self-construction, and reconstruction, unhampered by God, nature, or history. The notion of the radically disembodied self (divorced from family, history, and religion) is inevitably amorphous. While elevating individualism above all else, the self in late modern society becomes a shallow, banal construct, filled with mass-media images and concepts and pseudo-collectivities, often of the lowest common denominator. So the cult of individualism of late modernity actually leads to an atrophy of true individuality and character, and the submersion of most people in a series of very low, herd- or mass-mentalities.
One may wonder what the ultimate point of life becomes, if it consists of a series of ever more jaded entertainments and diversions. However exciting The X-Files television program is, at some point, a sense of futility and meaninglessness about the whole enterprise probably sets in. It is possible that there may be some satisfaction in taking a beginning level character in an RPG to a highly proficient and successful figure, displaying the gamer's own artful acuity and cleverness in the process. But at some point, the player-character (if very successful) will become something like the equivalent of a deity in the "game-world" and character and game interaction will seem ridiculous and too abstract. Indeed, it could be argued that the open-ended nature of RPG's, while pleasing at first, is ultimately a drawback. On the other hand, darker RPG's in which the character's primary game goals are just staying sane or staying alive also seem unsatisfying. In either case, the real experiences gained over what sometimes may be thousands of hours of commitment, may be rather meager. Is there even a substantial degree of real friendship built up between persons in the same gaming group? Are there perhaps not some better endeavors in which one's time could be spent? It could be argued that, in the end, carrying out the real tasks of life, and trying to gain true knowledge about the world and our human state, is not only worthier, but more truly meaningful. Or, to put it in the current idiom (taken from the cutting-edge cyberpunk work, Smoking Mirror Blues, by Ernest Hogan): "Reality is the only game worth playing."
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.