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The Internet and Theories of Fantasy
[Summary. This paper analyzes the work of Bertolt Brecht in relation to fantasy and reality. Theatre and the Internet today, reach several parallels this paper attempts to uncover; and also to answer the question is it ever really there at all? In conclusion this paper will make not that the internet is really just a space of play.]
Brecht used epic theatre to bring forth an idea or meaning for the audience to consider while entertaining the audience. Epic theatre involves the use of alienation techniques to distance the viewer from the story but still concentrate on the overall meaning. The person who just views the story would likely take it as fantasy and not reach the true depth of the play. Brecht shocks the viewer by making the events and actions in the play "strange and abstract" this contrasts with dramatic plays where the audience sympathises and relates to the characters of the play.
Brecht believed that "To think, or write, or produce a play also means to transform society, to transform the state, to subject ideologies to close scrutiny." Having established this doctrine for himself, Brecht instigated the use of epic theatre in an attempt to break from the Aristotelian definition. Although he did not approve of the Aristotelian version, he redefined the nature of catharsis to suit his needs. (Brecht 71-90)
Quick to criticism the role of the audience in traditional theatre, Brecht placed particular emphasis on the eventual let down created by fantasy.
"For many, the theatre is the abode where dreams are created. You, players, sellers of drugs, in your darkened houses people are changed into kings and perform heroic deeds of safety. In rapture over themselves, or seized with pity they sit in happy distraction, forgetting the toils of daily life. Runaways. .. Of course, should someone come in, his ears still full of the roar of the city, himself still sober, he would scarcely recognize there, up on stage, the world he has just left. And leaving your house, he would scarcely know the world-- now no longer king, but lowly man-- he'd scarcely find himself at home in real life." (Brecht 54)
Brecht's reference to actors as "sellers of drugs" is particularly apt imagery. The actors sell a package of fabricated grandeur to the audience, which experiences a rush of feeling leading to an emotional high. However, at the end of the performance, the audience has already experienced the highest emotional climax, the memory of which is strung along by the inevitable plot resolution.
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Brecht also wanted the audience to see the characters as part of a larger problem instead of focusing on the plight of the individual. His theory of verfremdung was conceived to prevent the audience from empathizing with the characters on stage so that his goal could be achieved. As Brecht said,
"Estrangement (verfremdung) means to historicize, that is, consider people and incidents as historically conditioned and transitory... The spectator will no longer see the characters on stage as unalterable, uninfluencable, helplessly delivered over to their fate. He will see that his man is such and such, because circumstances are such. And circumstances are such, because man is such. But he in turn is conceivable not only as he is now, but also as he might be-- that is, otherwise-- and the same holds true for circumstances. Hence, the spectator obtains a new attitude in the theatre... He will be received in the theatre as the great 'transformer,' who can intervene in the natural processes and the social processes, and who no longer accepts the world but masters it." (Brecht 88)
Aristotelian theatre emphasized the well-made play, suspension of disbelief, and progressive character development. To replace these facets of Aristotelian theatre, Brecht created epic theatre, in which the plot is episodic, there is little cause and effect between scenes, and character development is cumulative. Verfremdung emphasizes reason and objectivity and bypasses emotion. Brecht tried to achieve distancing in numerous ways. He made the action stark, harsh, and realistic, the action is linear without the climax and denouement, each scene is complete within itself, and theatricality is emphasized to prevent illusion.
Therefore, in Brecht's version of epic theatre, he not only aspired to provoke the audience into reforming society by rethinking common ideology, he wanted the audience to see the characters in the play as part of a larger, more important whole. He employed his theory of verfremdung to that affect. For Brecht, the distinction between life and theatre as well as between onlooker and performer is compressed and blurred so that the end of the play-- the conclusion-- is in the hands of each audience member. In Brecht's version of catharsis, at the end of the play the audience is left in a state of emotional elevation. In order to complete the emotional cleansing, the audience must take action against the social problem that was presented to them. (Kapor 59)
"Cyberspace" no longer strictly refers to the fictional "matrix" in William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer; it has now entered into common speech on and off the 'net as a shorthand for this conception of computer networks as a cybernetic space. This figuration of Internet as a kind of cybernetic terrain works to undermine the symbolic distance between the metaphoric and the real. It abandons "the real" for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehendible world.
The shift from the real to the hyperreal occurs when representation gives way to simulation. One could argue that we are standing at the brink of such a moment, marked primarily by the emerging presence of a virtual world. Just as the highways once transformed our country, the “Information Superhighway" offers an image of dramatic change in American lives through a change in virtual landscape. Although this expression originated in the White House as a catchy term for the proposed National Information Infrastructure (NII), the expression quickly entered into popular parlance as a pseudonym for the already- existing worldwide network of Internet. The overused expression does little to represent the actual network architecture which connects these machines, yet the metaphor of the highway persists as a media image, functioning as a conceptual model for the world created by this technology. One doesn't "go" somewhere when picking up the telephone. But when the computer couples with these same telephone lines, suddenly spatial and kinetic metaphors begin to proliferate. The "Information Superhighway" depends upon a more subtle metaphorical figuration--a virtual topography in which speed, motion, and direction become possible. Internet becomes a simulated territory we traverse via computer/modem roadster in which the computer screen replaces the windscreen. The scene/screen of simulation is a "depthless surface" which allows for no play of images between metaphor and the world it (re)presents. No longer a metaphor for change, the simulated highway of Internet becomes a form of virtual reality. (Kamper, Wulff 106-119)
In its "real" material presence, the Internet consists of a complex redundant network of host machines which communicate over phone lines. As opposed to the elaborate system of bridges, jumps, and links that occur across real space, the geographical figurations of host "sites" and user "addresses" creates a simpler virtual terrain for the user--one in which travel amounts to a tracing of connections from site to site. The metaphor of cyberspace presents Internet as a globe to its own world; virtual territory only exists once it has been traced onto a pre-existing code of connectivity. Jameson connects the development of the first navigational "globe" in 1490 to an emerging conceptual model of "the world" as totality, as well as the realization that "there can be no true maps," only "dialectical advance in the various historical moments of mapmaking" (52).
This metaphorical topography offered up by Internet presents the simulation of a vast, undiscovered country in which only our imaginations limit our abilities. From a Brecht perspective, the immanence of this realm--its very vastness and limitlessness--is nothing more than the simulation of these significations, simulacra that perform a strategy of deterrence, holding back the realization of the spaceless, limited world of the code. Distance disappears into immediacy, and presence becomes a state of simultaneity and transparency. The hypertelic moment of postmodern technology simulates presence "without even the faintest glimmer of a possible absence, in a state of radical disillusion; the state of pure presence." (Kamper, Wulff 106-119)
Currently, writing is the dominant means of communication on the 'net, and as such, it finds its place within a general history of writing as a material presence for communication (as opposed to the more "ephemeral" voice).
As communication becomes more immediate, absence/presence and writing/speech distinctions lose meaning; the game of emergence and disappearance begins to implode. The written word takes on a more immediate nature and begins to function as though it were speech. No longer a counterfeit or a reproduction, writing achieves its "transcendence" on Internet: as third-order simulation of speech. (Kamper 72)
For literally millions of "netters," cyberspace is a real place with real potentials--and it is precisely this blurring of the real and the unreal which marks Brecht's postmodern moment of the hyperreal. From this perspective, the compelling image of "Internet as world" pushes us beyond the world, beyond its containment, all the while pursuing the same Enlightenment goals which drove the world beyond its own ends and into hyperreality.
The challenge of Internet, one might argue, is in its potential to derail the very assumptions which have led to the postmodern moment. In other words, could be used to raise the stakes in that banal MOO question, "Where are you in real life?" Might cyberspace, rather than providing a simulated, hyperpotential world of hypertravel, provide for a "deterritorialization." (Kamper 61-71)
On the 'net, one will expect to find the banal at every turn. One would also hope to find objects of seduction and artifice, objects that turn us away from our intended goals. One might even find something resembling Lyotard's "passiblity." Lyotard refers to this resistance as an attempt to rewrite modernity, to displace determination and complexity by writing past the assumptions of its telos (Inhuman 28). He suggests a "working through" (Freud's durcharbeitung) in place of modernity's directed work; a free play in place of strategic play (Inhuman 54, 117). Lyotard and Bertolt Brecht, while worlds apart in many regards, merge on this point: the desirability of escaping the containment of a totalizing system driven toward (and beyond) its own assumptions. In Lyotard's words: "Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking" (Inhuman 73). The virtual utopian sees the immediate and immanent fulfillment of Enlightenment ideals in a world liberated from itself through virtuality. Perhaps, though, the very immanence of the model can challenge the assumptions which have led to its creation.
In this reversed image, then, Internet might offer a virtuality which resists our attempts to totalize it as a world, presenting instead loci for playing with the assumptions that we have taken for granted in modernity: community, information, liberation, self. In general, virtual communities pose more questions about how individuals construct connections than they answer concerning the ends of achieving an electronic democracy. Rather than working toward (re)producing a model community, cyberspace could just as easily keep us moving beyond our ends, toward new connections: new "chorographies" that would demand new discourses (Virilio, Aesthetics 110). Likewise, the virtual body sets us astray from our assumptions about what it means to have a "real" body. In the virtuality of Internet, our words are our bodies, an aporetic copula which forces a reexamination of "the body" as both physiological (noumenal) entity and phenomenological experience. In each instance, Internet provides the medium for disrupting models, rather than confirming them. Following this other heading, Internet might present a seduction rather than a subduction: a challenge to modernity's assumptions of self and body, of individual and community.
Internet, rather than presenting a simulation of totality, might provide a space of play. Rather than pursuing ends through this technology, one might instead turn oneself over to the drift and derive of "cyberspace."
1. "The Last Vehicle." Looking Back on the End of the World. Ed. Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wulf. New York: Semiotext(e), 1989. 106-119.
2. Brecht, Bertolt. 1964. Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang.
3. Fisher, Lawrence. "The Geographic Interface Puts the World on the Desktop." New York Times 5 Feb. 1995: F9.
4. Kapor, Mitch. "Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading?" Wired July-Aug. 1993: 53-59, 94.
5. Kroker, Arthur. The Possessed Individual. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
6. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Inhuman. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.