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In past years, when an artist or philosopher critiqued the reality of the world, it was always presumed that there was a reality to be criticized. However, post-modernity has presented those people with a horrifying new challenge -- a world that has literally been so overcome by its technology that the important issues of man's existence no longer consist of finding answers to questions like "Why are we born to suffer and die?" but merely trying to distinguish between the real and the unreal, which to post-modern man is not esoteric philosophical speculation, but a practical day to day issue. The post-modern trajectory is one that leaves humans fighting not to maintain political supremacy or to break the shackles of injustice, but simply to maintain their identities as real beings in the face of technology's blurring of the lines between man and mechanics, humanity and machinery, reality and image. This struggle seems to be a losing battle for mankind, as each day the inventions that were meant to bring us pleasure and increase our leisure time, instead dehumanize us by taking a piece of our selfhood for their own with every passing moment. The post-modern social theorist Jean Baudrillard posits that the world of today is a never-ending "virtual apocalypse" of reality yielding to the hyperreal--reality defined not as what, in fact is. but rather that which can be simulated, reproduced, or Xeroxed. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and never has this been more true than in the world of the post-modern, where the only viable strategy left is to take technology's weapons and turn them to our advantage, in one final attempt to preserve our humanity by somehow finding meaning in the hallucinatory, cybernetic, hyperreal spectacle that is the post-modern condition.
Of all the possible means of gaining the insight into our nature and the nature of the world that is necessary to survive technology's siege on reality, few media are as powerful as cinema (after all, film provides a uniquely accessible and intense vehicle for ideas), and few film-makers are as adept at dissecting the concept of post-modernity as the Canadian author David Cronenberg. In an age where every passing moment constitutes a further obscuring of the boundary between reality and image, this prophetic director clarifies, cuts through, and captures the very essence of post-modernity, through masterfully done pieces of cinematography that bring technology, obsession, and carnality together and pit them against each other in the horrific battlefield of the mind, each fighting for control of the human psyche.
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Although each one of Cronenberg's works is a masterpiece, this essay will deal with what could well be one of the most philosophically unnerving films in the history of cinema, namely his 1982 cult classic, Videodrome, a bizarre, but nonetheless dead-on commentary on the technologically realized nihilism that is the foundation of post-modernity. Videodrome explored post-modern man's inevitable and eventually essential symbiosis with technology through the story of Max Renn (James Woods, in an superbly sleazy performance), the president of an obscure Toronto based television station called 'Civic TV' its shows ranging from "soft-core pornography to hard-core violence". One day he discovers a new pirate TV show called "Videodrome", a show with no plot except for extensive scenes of torture, murder, and mutilation that is somehow so intriguing that one cannot help but stay glued to the television. Gradually, Renn becomes obsessed with "Videodrome"; it's effects on him manifesting themselves in the form of a series of psychosexual hallucinations that mark the beginning of his mental and physical breakdown. Eventually, he seeks the assistance of the media guru, Professor Brian O'Blivion (Peter Dvorsky), a televised metaphysician/philosopher, never seen except in television appearances, who informs Max through several video monologues that he is the doomed guinea pig of "Videodrome" -- not a mere television show, but O'Blivion's attempt to bring about the next stage of man's existence, where the final line between reality and image is rubbed out, and where humanity and technology become one. After Renn digs deeper, he discovers that O'Blivion himself was killed by the effects of "Videodrome" and that all his televised diatribes were merely a series of tapes O'Blivion made of himself while he was still alive, which were pre recorded to give himself videographic immortality. Renn refuses to meet with the same fate. He kills himself, for he knows his former identity no longer exists. He is now "the New Flesh", a term used to describe this final evolution of man -- a post apocalyptic hybrid of humanity and technology, to whom reality is nothing more than a television induced hallucination.
Despite the fact that the vision of post-modernity presented in this paradigmatic film is undoubtedly disconcerting, the universal truth of Videodrome's grotesque amalgamation of "Baudrillardian" insight and Cronenberg's "metaphor-made-flesh" story-line, cannot be rationally denied. From the moment we hear Professor O'Blivion's mantra of "Television is reality, and reality is less than television," it is clear that this is a film that is too applicable to every day life not to be taken seriously. No matter how one looks at it, our lives cannot be separated from videographic imagery. As we know no reality -- if that word can still be used -- outside our perceptions, computers, televisions, VCR's, and video games are truly "more real than 'real'". They are hyperreal. Actual interaction with other human beings and the physical world pales in comparison to the intense, visceral experiences we have in the simulacrum that is the televised image. This point was beautifully illustrated in Videodrome. Max Renn, as a TV producer, was well aware that television offered people experiences that were perfect, complete, purified, and electrified---experiences that were more real, in fact, than anything one could encounter in the actual physical world. As the character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) says in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) while watching the movies of mayhem, rape, and ultra-violence that were to teach him the difference between right and wrong, "It's funny how the colors of the real world don't seem really real until you 'viddy' them on a screen." This statement is not as crazy as it sounds, for it describes our lives -- not just the lives of fictitious film characters like Videodrome's Max Renn, or A Clockwise Orange's Alex. One has only to glance inside a nearby theater or better yet, an arcade to observe the extent of post-modern man's relationship to technology and the videographic image. There, on that great altar of passive entertainment, the "Cathode Ray Mission" of Videodrome (a bitingly sardonic vision of a post-modern soup kitchen, which O'Blivion created to provide derelicts with television rather than food) takes on a terrifying significance as one sees the youth of today mesmerized by their favorite arcade games, frantically pumping quarters into the machines to experience the euphoric ruse of "beating the worst monster fat the hardest level". Just as the show "Videodrome" elicited violent emotional reactions in Renn (i.e. killing his friends and partners in the production business, because 'his television made him do it'), so to do the progeny of the post-modern condition respond with fierce emotions to the machines they deal with, particularly the interactive ones, such as televisions, videos, and computer games. For individuals to whom the post-modern world is not the one they lived the majority of their of their lives in, such a concept is preposterous. "How in the hell can anyone get emotional with a machine?", they ask.
Videodrome certainly sheds light on the nature of post-modern man's existence in the world of the hyperreal, but the bleak assessment of our culture that it offers is, by no stretch of the imagination, easy to accept without many sleepless nights. When a director like Cronenberg makes a film that tells us that the world we have created has made reality obsolete, the most disillusioned of us recoils in shock at this blatant display of cynicism. However, with the aid of an open mind and a strong stomach, it becomes aundantly clear that what has just been witnessed in Videodrome is a prophecy, and hardly one that we have to wait to examine the truth of. After all, Max Renn's inability to differentiate between what he sees on the show "Videodrome" and physical reality of acting out of the psychopathology he subjects himself to, is a metaphor for the era of The Terminator (1984), not that of Dante. One does not have to undergo Renn's ordeal of having a videotape-eating orifice open in one's abdomen in order to see that the simulation of real experience has outrun the reality of it in every way, shape and form -- not only for the characters of Videodrome, but every last one of us. For example, watching a sitcom is muchmore entertaining than the banalities of real family life, which would involve working a twelve-hour day with a whiny child's complaining as reward, as opposed to vicariously living through a show one can turn off. It is far safer to watch Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) than experience firsthand the gut-wrenching agony of war. Going to a natural history museum to learn about dinosaurs is simply unnecessary -- Stephen Spielberg has filmed them in Jurassic Park (1993), and a genuine living tyrannosaur probably would be a sore disappointment after watching such a masterpiece of the hyperreal. In a non-cinema example, Jean Baudillard described in his treatise on post-modernity, entitled Fatal Strategies, that when he left his native France to see America, he went to Disney World. Baudrillard was awestruck at how much more clean, safe, and pleasant Disney World's immolation of travel in Europe seemed when compared to the real thing. One cannot help but agree. One does not have to deal with belligerence of European waiters, the food is a thousand times better,and it is a short walk between "France Land" and "Germany Land". However, our intimate relationship with simulation and imagery extends well beyond the realm of entertainment. Once again, Baudrillard provides the perfect test case. During the time of the Gulf War, he was asked by a French newspaper to cover the war. He agreed, but only on the condition that he could report on what he watched on CNN instead of going to the Middle East. The newspaper conceded (Who, in their right mind, could argue that CNN's video clips of war-time footage are not superior to the real thing?) and Baudrillard proceeded to watch CNN like the rest of us, who huddled together in perfect unity before our flickering televisions, experiencing the "ecstasy of communication" that was viewing the nightly "Scud Watch". He subsequently wrote a brilliant article, entitled "The Enemy Has Disappeared". It described the post-modern condition, in which even a thing like war is simulatable. He saw the Gulf War as more of a televised affirmation of our technological superiority than anything else. Perhaps that too was a simulacrum, for as the government of Israel informed us later, there were actually only two confirmed hits on "Scud" missiles, but CNN's syntheses of war certainly united the Western world in a way that no social engineering program ever could. This is precisely the point Cronenberg is trying to make in Videodrome. The technological commodities that we use daily have become a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. As Cronenberg tells us through Professor O'Blivion, "That which is perceived on the television screen emerges a s raw experience for those who watch it." We think nothing of the fact that everything that was once directly lived has become a mere representative image. Truth put to it, we prefer things that way. Real experience is so limited when put beside technology's synthesis of reality. Why not get emotional with a machine? Post-modernity leaves us with televised images for our peers. Why not ineract with them? What choice does humanity have when it has been rendered technological, simulatable, and reproducible to the point of infinity?
What choice, indeed? David Cronenberg is one of the few individuals who understands that technology has become so entangled with the very core of our being, that a symbiosis between humanity and cybernetics is necessary for post-modern man to survive. The post-modern condition is, as Max Renn's radio psychologist girlfriend, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) described it, a time of over-stimulation, where we crave stimulation for its own sake. Reality can no longer provide us with experiences that are intense enough to sustain our needs. The hyperreality possible only through concentrated mechanical re-creations and improvements of reality is our one alternative to the gray and lifeless routines that would otherwise be the definition of "living". What made a show as disgustingly brutal as "Videodrome" so attractive for Max Renn, was that at least "Videodrome's" scenes of people getting whipped, lacerated, and thrown against a wall of electrified clay made him feel real and alive. Living means having emotions and the most conveniently "real" emotion is often pain. "If nothing else is real, at least suffering is real," we think as we gawk at the blinding sheen of a boring world that will not let us feel anything. And like the characters of Videodrome, we cut ourselves, brand our skin with the flaming tips of cigarettes, watch the most graphic shows of sex, violence, or both -- whatever might produce a reaction. Just as the dying Replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) slams his hand down on the point of a nail to reassure himself that he is still alive in the movie Bladerunner (1981), so too do we seek reassurance of our existence, and the one means of obtaining the solace necessary to go on is through a simulated, technologically achieved world that we create to replace the insipid reality that hangs like a weight around our necks. Films such as Videodrome that refuse to shy away from the truth of technological determinism, are easily regarded by critics as visionary revelations about the future -- a prediction of the Apocalypse. If only those people knew better. What Cronenberg is trying so desperately to bring to our attention, is that because of the invention of hyperreality and the resulting elimination of any sort of "violent reckoning" as a part of the world's future, the "end" revolves around us in a state of irreversible continuity, as we make one technological modification after another to a dehumanizing simulated utopia of infinitely possible universes -- all accessible at the flick of a switch. Despite the seeming impossibility of duplicating the multi-sensual, multi-directional facets of genuine life, post-modernity certainly provides us with the tools to take films like James Cameron's Strange Days (1995), where videographic simulations the reference point for reality rather than the converse, and make them the template for realistic scientific goals, rather than childish science fiction. After all, virtual reality technology that can perfectly duplicate the sensory perceptions of "real" experience has been a project that NASA completed a while ago. As difficult as it may be t believe, the world that Videodrome's Brian O'Blivion spoke of, where people could use technology to create new lives and identities for themselves that "would cause the Cathode Ray Tube to resonate", is knocking on the door of the here and now -- the computer industry is trying to develop cheap, marketable VR devices at this very moment. In this age, where "the television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye", we find ourselves suddenly walking away from reality and the actual physical world, to find liberation in the limitlessness of technological marvels like televisions, video games, and now virtual reality simulators -- machines that offer the ever-present opportunity to mould and shape one's own private, simulated alternate world, complete with any number of entirely new lives on one's own design. The technology of post-modernity has become the "Santa Claus of the subconscious" that affords humans chance to re-create ourselves again and again, removing the yolk of reality through virtual experiences of what each of us deems the "ideal" existence. A virtual job that is tailored to one's dreams; mirtual relationships, designed around the intricacies of one's psychological make-up; virtual possessions that can be obtained through sheer will; virtual vacations to worlds beyond the realm of human imagination -- all these things that are so intense now as we artificially experience them through appliances like televisions, will be amplified a thousand fold by radically advanced innovations like virtual reality that could very well be available next year. The age of the hyperreal is the present. We are truly the realization of Videodrome's "New Flesh" -- bizarrely inhuman beings that are not obliged to bother with "trivial" issues, such as developing the wisdom that is needed to find meaning in the banalities and hardships of life. Why waste one's time? This is the cyber-heaven we always dreamed of. The post-modern condition leaves use well beyond the reach of the Apocalypse, in the utopia of digital immortality, that obliterates the grotesque feelings of distance we have from ourselves with mechanical wonders that sweep away all of life's difficulties in a scintillating wave of intense electrified perfection.
Or so it seems. In the rat race for technologically achieved over-stimulation, something has fallen through the cracks. Our hidden contempt for any appreciation of the ramifications of the post-modernity, the further we plummet into simulations that are, as Baudrillard said, "utterly shameful and hopeless". So it follows, that through Videodrome, Cronenberg places before us, the children of the post-modern condition, the progeny of the hyperreal , the very "Video Word made Flesh", a seemingly insurmountable challenge -- it make enough sense of our relationship with technology, as to somehow find meaning in the surreal spectacle that is the essence of post-modernity. As we stand in this steel an d microchip Eden that our forbears never dreamed could be accomplished, we are faced with the realization that this incandescent would-be utopia still presents us with the same age-old tasks of coming to terms with ourselves and genuinely imbuing our lives with value -- those same duties, repackaged in a cybernetic wrapper of simulation and image. As such, we must adapt to this strange existence and do our best to make machines our partners in discovering and rediscovering what it means to be human. The story of Max Renn, Professor O'Blivion, and all of post-modernity's creations teaches us that the struggle for meaning will be fought in the arena of the hyperreal known as the Videodrome -- a place where the means of finding value in the engimatic difficulties of the post-modern condition lie in comprehending that for every image of simulation like Cronenberg's Videodrome that can bring us wisdom and understanding, making us human once again.
The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture
(1983, nonfiction ... Pluto Press, London, UK)
The Ecstasy of Communication
(1988, nonfiction ... Pluto Press, London, UK)
(1990, nonfiction ... Pluto Press, London, UK)
(1983, nonfiction ... Semiotext, New York, New York)
Xerox and Infinity
(1988, nonfiction...Pluto Press, London, UK)
The Canadianness of David Cronenberg
(1994, nonfiction ... Mosaic Press, Winnipeg, Canada)
Technology's Body: Cronenberg, Genre, and the Canadian Ethos
(Date Unknown, nonfiction ... an essay written at the Cinema Studies Dept. of Innis College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. Also appearing in Postscript -- a publication of University of Texas Press)
"Say, 'I am real! The world is real!' and no one laughs,
but say you are a simulation and everyone bursts out laughing."
-- Jean Baudrillard
"How disembodied can you be and still be called 'real'?"
-- David Cronenberg
"Long live the New Flesh!"
-- Max Renn