Friday, December 23, 2011

Reality as Subversion

Douglas Rushkoff
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I wrote this piece six years ago for Arthur magazine, anticipating or at least wishing for the Occupy movement. LSD magazine just republished it in their latest issue with some beautiful graphics, here.

Here's the original text version:

Arthur, June 2005

I had a weird vision the other day.

Having brought our newborn back from the hospital just days before, my wife and I weren’t getting much sleep. I lied on the bed next to the baby and slipped into one of those theta wave trances you can reach on the way to a magick spell, visionquest, or psychedelic trip.

I was in a natural chamber of some kind, maybe a cave or clearing in a woods. It was a starting place from which any number of journeys could be taken. At each opening, another creature or entity beckoned me to follow it. And, had it been any other time in my life, I probably would have picked the one that seemed the most promising and followed it down the twists and turns of its path – and been either delighted or terrified by what happened. (The idea of being an experienced traveler or magician is getting better at predicting, guiding, or simply tolerating the variety of what’s on offer, and learning to bring back things or ideas of value.)

This time, however, for no particular reason other than really being okay with floating in that little entrance foyer, decided to stay put. The beckoning entities gave up and scurried or drifted down their reality tunnels, and I lied there, motionless.

Only then, after I decided to do nothing, did I notice the Elders. Three or four of them - shamans, prophets, zen masters, or some combination – sitting on a bench to my side, looking down at me. “Welcome,” they said, nodding. And I immediately got it. By doing nothing, I was doing everything. The path of no path. Just be.

And though I’ve spent a career, maybe even a whole lifetime creating realities for myself and others as a way of retreating from the oppressive consensus culture of the American Marketplace, I’m wondering if we might best abandon that tactic. Maybe, it’s time to stand still and let them do the conjuring.

Hear me out.

What I teach in my classes is that the evolution of media sees control of the story move away from the teller, and towards the reader or listener. The invention of text allowed people other than priests and royals to read and write, showing human beings that they were contributing to the human story. Thanks to the alphabet, we got the Judeo-Christian tradition, laws, and all those notions of progress.

The printing press put texts in the hands of many, leading to the democratization of interpretation, the development of “perspective,” and eventually the Enlightenment. If all perspectives matter, then all people matter equally.

Although TV set things back a bit, deconstruction and post-modernism came to the rescue, giving us all the ability to take apart what we see, and dissemble the many messages being piped into our living rooms and brains. Master deconstructionists, from William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin to Genesis P-Orridge and Negativeland, cut-up the news and paste it back together in news ways, in Burroughs words, to find out “what it really says.”

Of course, they were only foretelling the advent of the Internet, which turned the whole mediascape – the primary landscape of alternative media creation – over to us. Now, at least in theory, we are as capable of creating and disseminating a message as anyone else. Your basic middle class American teen (admittedly, among the planet’s better equipped individuals) can build a set of images, texts, or videos that extend his visions to the greater world. Rupert Murdoch’s ideas matter no more than those of the kid posting on Slashdot.

And so we fight for our rights or even just our freedom to do what we want to in the media space. To keep our Bittorrents flowing and our alternative media blogs rolling. We know the power of image creation, and want to retain our ability to make the images that stimulate, hypnotize, and program our world.

That’s why the powers that be are so committed to retaking their control over the image factory. Whether it’s American Idol recasting its stacked deck talent show as some sort of SMS-enabled democracy, or Project Echelon monitoring all our keystrokes so that truly subversive material can be cut off at the source, we’re witnessing first hand the dismemberment of our new body politic. Just as the forces of business turned the original Internet into a strip mall, they are now bribing the most popular bloggers with ad-based revenues and creating watered down simulations of online autonomy.

Meanwhile, they distract us with scary stories about how the latest and greatest technologies will be used against us. Neuromarketing, for example, the latest new tool in the advertising arsenal, is supposedly capable of using MRI technology to measure, definitively, our response to packages and advertisements. They shove some poor soul into an MRI machine (that could be used for a diagnosing a sick person) and then show him some Coke or Pepsi labels and then see what parts of the brain light up. Then fascinated but misguided journalists write bestselling books about that moment of decision that supposedly takes place independent of any conscious or rational process. Worse, these subconscious triggers can be tripped intentionally by any marketer or political linguist with the access and money.

That’s magick, people. And fake magick, at that, except for the fact that we believe this shit. It just isn’t true. It’s the kind of tripe that marketers and advertisers use to peddle their wares to the companies trying to compete with real culture, real thought, and real human progress. Of course the books claiming that our most important decisions happen in a “blink” are going to sell well, because they are part of the culture of selling.

It’s no wonder we get fooled by such stuff. For in our effort to exert some measure of control over our reality, we have migrated to the semiotic landscape – fighting with image and symbol, rhetoric and reason. In the spirit of Hegel, we match their faulty thesis with our daring antithesis, but forget that neither one necessarily brings us any closer to the truth. Just because you’ve got two opposing arguments doesn’t mean they resolve into some reality-based synthesis. (Two politicians can argue about whether the tax code should have 39 or 40 lines while a peasant starves on the Capitol steps.)

The realities that marketers offer us, just like the ones we offer back in return, are speciously detached from reality on the ground. Sure, they provide solutions to our problems, but from where do those problems originate?

As a new parent, I’ve been painfully aware of how little real community there is around us. This is a market success. Our parents are too far, our friends are too shy, the mothering old ladies are nowhere to be found. So who teaches my wife to breast feed? The “lactation consultant.” Yes – there is such a thing! And who watches the baby when we have to take a shower or get to work? Not a family member or friend down the hall, but a professional babysitter, daycare center or nanny. The diminishment of community is what fuels these new markets.

The greatest magic act of all – the unrecognized king of all sigils – was the creation of the dollar itself. We support the reality of this symbol whether we’re going after dollars or complaining about the lack of opportunity to accumulate them. By taking the very real values of wealth and prosperity and assigning them to the symbol of money, we dissociated our labor from the real. Sure, if we had some authority over that symbol system we might be in business. But we don’t; it’s the most protected and inaccessible set of mythology around. No cut and paste permitted, William.

I’m thinking we should let them win. Surrender the unreal realities to the bad guys. If they want broadcast television, mainstream newspapers, or even the web, let ‘em have it. They’ve conjured up an alternative universe that has very little true connection to what’s really going on here. And the market-based, competitive, reality-as-propaganda dream has swallowed them up. They are the victims of their own illusions. We don’t have to be.

We can take charge of the real reality they left behind. I mean the world we’re actually living in. The yards and streets and fingers and tongues. Let’s build bike lanes and barbecues, after school programs and AIDS care networks, places to play music and playgrounds for kids. They’re so busy monitoring the airwaves for signs of treason against the market or state that they’ve lost track of what’s happening between real people. Turn off your cell phone and speak to that guy sitting next to you on the bus. That’s about the most subversive thing you could do.

Instead, like well-meaning Pied Pipers, we play our tunes hoping the children might follow us instead of the other guy taking them off the cliff. But when we enter into that competition, we’re no better than the tune we can muster at that moment. If ours is more hypnotic or captivating than theirs, we win for the time being, and keep the kids believing our version of things until the next round.

And in entering that pissing contest, we deny ourselves the home field advantage. We live here, after all. If we can learn to sit still for a moment rather than following any of those phantoms, we can take over real reality, instead. It’s right here for the taking.

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