Issue #17, October 1996

The Outer Limits of Reality . . . and Beyond

My friend, David, who knows far more about computers than I will ever grasp -- who, in fact, writes books about them -- told me, a few years ago, that he was hard at work on one about Virtual Reality. This was when the term and topic were first being bandied about, and I wasted few words in letting him know that I didn't think it would ever get off the ground. I still have my reservations, but at that time it was just a knee-jerk reaction, coming off the fact that I had VR pigeon-holed, in my mind, with Artificial Intelligence, a research field that dates back to the 1960s when I was doing my computer thing in the sordid world of data-processing departments.

Fear not, if you are thinking this is another article about the Internet and the Web, for it only touches on the computer world to the extent that these modern marvels are part of a late-century phenomenon of wider scope and more profound implications. The reason I bring up Virtual Reality as an opener is because it stakes out a visible position along a frontier that has been playing around, in recent years, with the very construction of reality (or maybe destruction, or destructurizing, would be the better verb). Most of what has been happening along this frontier has either been invisible, or else taken in with good humor and a healthy appetite for more -- believe it or not. It may only be by pointing out the connective aspect that we can get a glimpse of the larger syndrome at work.

I come at this, actually, from no firm position. If I consider it from the Virtual Reality perspective, I'm still a bit jaundiced -- but there are other avenues from which, as I'll show, I have a considerably different outlook. My purpose here, however, is simply to examine the developing trend as an element of these times.
I used to think that reality just IS . . . that a healthy and alert way of dealing with it meant something like the practiced self-discipline of seeing it like it IS and staying in touch with it. Life's greatest demand was not to change it, but to cope with it. Anything other would be a case of avoidance, or even of 'losing one's touch with reality.'

When I came to that notable juncture in my life when coping with it came to mean learning how to live in the cracks, and then discovered, soon thereafter, that some elements in reality had actually undergone a shift for me, I found myself at great pains to try and explain that shift in such a way that folks would know I was not talking about some delusional impression, but the actuality that reality could function differently for different people!

It still troubles me, that the phenomenon is very thinly believed (the populace considered at large), and certainly impossible to explain. I recall some correspondence I had with Lawrence Le Shan, who writes about such things in the usual hazy, metaphorical fashion of those who paint marvelous theoretical pictures of "alternative realities," and coming away from it with frustrating sureness that he simply could not step beyond his theoretical prose -- could not accept that those limits could be transcended.

Even today, trying to counsel those who would take such steps in the pursuit of less income-reliant lives, I find it virtually impossible to put across the notion that reality (within some indeterminate limits, to be sure) is a function of belief, and that belief is registered only by the active involvement of one's whole being, for some effective length of time. Or to put it in almost simplistic terms: If you live as though X is true, X will become true in the course of a few years.

I leave it to your own imagination, what X might be -- and I'm sure there are limits to what it might be, but those limits are somewhere beyond the economic viability of living without a regular income, which is the only thing I am really qualified to observe. The point is, however, that reality had to undergo some minor but significant shifts, for me, for that to become true; and hence, the nature of reality is to some extent creatively fluid.

I belabor the point only to note the grounds for a positive approach to the notion of destabilizing our consensus reality. On the other hand, the recent decade has witnessed a proliferation of concerted and sometimes successful attempts to reconstruct history. Among historians, this has always gone on, to some extent, for the purpose of refining our understanding of the past. But the occasions of recency have been more in the nature of wholegoing revisionism, in which a murky haze descends over the 'actuality' of what happened, based more on political expediency than any reverence for truth. It proceeds, however, to the point of wondering if there is any such thing as truth -- and hence, if there is any such thing (historically speaking) as reality.

Since our world is built, quite substantially in a social sense, on our awareness and understanding of all that has gone before, we are thus at risk of finding ourselves afloat in a sea of insubstantial social reality.
We come, then, to the world of representational reality, as mediated by all the popular arts of the day. These are like a collective lift-off pad, for it is through each day's media absorption, whether through press or video, film or book, that our daily concerns receive their nourishment and directive guidance. It is impossible to vote for a President, for just one illustration, without being quite aware of where our candidate stands in the polls. Is this merely informative, or is it predictive . . . or is it manipulative? Can anyone really say? And since media exists solely for the purpose of making money, can there be any valid reality beyond one which will facilitate and assure that inflow of capital?

Maybe the basic difficulty, here, goes right back to the common conception that reality just IS. Maybe we are 'sitting ducks,' as it were, available for the taking, because we maintain that inner conviction that we are capable, in the end, of seeing through all the smoke and glitz to what REALLY IS, and thus not adulterable by anyone else's design.

Well, my friends, I suspect it may be a deadly misjudgement, if so. We are complete captives of the advertising industry on that very account, and as for the existence of any bedrock reality, anywhere, I'm afraid that -- as Gertrude Stein once said of that poor, defenseless city, Oakland -- "there isn't any there, there."

The prompting for these musings was the introduction to a book that I recently dipped into, a freshly published item titled The Persistence of History (NY:Routledge,1996) edited by Vivian Sobchack. The intro is her opening essay, which dwells quite insightfully on that film of a couple years ago, Forrest Gump, and I'm going to reprint, here, a portion of that essay. I quite enjoyed the film, myself, and saw no deep implications in it . . . but here is Sobchack's fascinating take on it.

History happens

by Vivian Sobchack
(incomplete essay, from her book, The Persistence of History (NY: Routledge, 1996)

Writing in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Roger Angell reviews Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), the immensely popular film about a simpleton hero triumphing over the vicissitudes of American history which captured the hearts (if not the minds) of most Americans and the Academv of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film, he tells us, is a "moony" and "fantastic" dream in which ignorance and niceness win out over historical consciousness and meaning. Forrest Gump presents "the shambles and the horror of our recent American past made harmless and sweet because the protagonist doesn't understand a moment of any of it." Angell goes on to note, however, that at the same time, the film contains nary a trace of "what used to be called without irony the American dream: the faith that we all belonged somewhere in a rational and forgiving system" that provided not only one's just deserts, but also historical and ideological surety. In essence, although Angell does not grant the film credit for its contradictions, the sweet Forrest Gump also presents a not-so-sweet vision of history and one's "rational place" within it. The complexity of diverse individual trajectories and their nodal coalescence in the massive "historical events" we see foregrounded as the film's background are ironically, revealed as nothing less (while something more) than confusion: that is, notions of both rationality and system are undermined by the visible evidence that "History" is the concatenated and reified effect of incoherent motives and chance convergences.

Forrest Gump, then, manifests ambivalent attitudes about the meanings of "history" and the "historical event" currently held by many contemporary Americans; I would argue that the film is less simple- (or single-) minded than its Candide-like hero -- who, unlike Candide, in, and after, the long run (and there is such a "long run" dramatized in the film) learns nothing he did not know at the beginning. In the first instance, Forrest Gump tells us with great sincerity, not to worry: one can be in history, can make history, without paying attention and without understanding. Like the feather that begins and ends the film, the historical actor is blown by the winds of chance, must of existential necessity be somewhere at some time, engaged in some act that may or may not be considered remarkable or historically motivating in a present or future moment. Thus, reflection and reflexivity are a waste -- rather than an expansion -- of time: there is no point to comprehending the overwhelming complexity of motives and acts and material causes that make up history since, in the long run, history will comprehend and confer meaning on even the most simple-minded of us. In the second instance, however, Forrest Gump tells us with reflective and condensed bumper-sticker irony (and with something akin to the long view of the Annales school of history, that deals with "long-term equilibriums and disequilibriums" through the minute detailing of everyday life and its "conjunctures"), "Shit happens." The temporally inflated notion of something we might once have called the "historical event" is deflated and its specificity reduced to generalized matter -- not because events are now considered trivial, but because they are now considered indeterminate in their boundaries and their "eventual" historic importance.

On the one hand, then, Forrest Gump -- the character, not the film -- denies the hermeneutic necessity. (perhaps even the hermeneutic possibility) of understanding the significance of that "larger" temporal spread we live and narrativize socially (rather than individually) as "History" or "histories." Since history can't happen without us, the film seems to say through its putative hero, we've played our part simply by "being there." We don't have to know or care what it means. On the other hand, however, one could argue that Forrest Gump -- the film, not the character -- is historically conscious: ironic and playful, its thematics, mise-en-scene, and modes of representation make visible the breakdown of the segmentation that, in a previous age, secured for us the borders and value between "significant" and "trivial" events, between fact and fiction, between past and present, between experience and its representation. The paradox of the film's narrative is that it makes a sharp distinction between the personal and historical event / the historically trivial and significant action and simultaneously collapses this distinction, pointing to the conflation of personal and historical, trivial and significant. Furthermore, this narrative paradox is also figured as a representational paradox. Digitally inserting its fictional hero into documentary footage and into an interactive relation with "real" historical events and persons, Forrest Gump confuses the fictional with the historically "real" in an absolutely seamless representation -- and yet it does not, for a second, presume that its audience will be at all categorically confused. Indeed, it depends for its humor on the audience's conscious recognition of the distinct terms of this confusion.

In sum, Forrest Gump stands as both symptom of and gloss upon a contemporary -- and millennial -- moment in which history (with either upper- or lower-case h, in the singular or plural) and historical consciousness have been often described on the one hand as "at an end," and on the other hand have been the object of unprecedented public attention and contestation. One could, in fact, suggest that Forrest Gump is a one-joke movie, absolutely dependent for its humor and irony upon historically (self-) conscious viewers who have been immersed in questions about the boundaries, meanings, and place of history in their daily lives, as well as about their own possible place in history. While one can certainly argue its marking the dissolution and "end" of history (as well as the responsibility for it), Forrest Gump can be argued also as marking (and dependent upon) a new and pervasive self-consciousness about individual and social existence as an "historical subject."

In this regard, it is important to note that the year in which Forrest Gump appeared in theaters was also a year noted for heated debates about the "national history standards" for secondary education proposed by UCLA's Center for History in the Schools. It was a year that united ordinary citizens (most of whom had probably watched every episode of Ken Burns's nostalgic 1990 PBS epic The Civil War) and academic historians in a vigorous and successful campaign to defeat Disney's construction, in Virginia, of an historical theme park to be built near actual historic Civil War battlefields. It was a year in which charges of historical revisionism were leveled by veterans at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's planned (and somewhat apologetic) exhibition surrounding the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This was the same year, too, in which television gave us the incessantly touted "trial of the century" -- the O.J. Simpson proceedings -- in which traumatic and trivial "events" and "evidence" were intertwined and conflated not only in questions of what should count as mattering in the case, but also in their simultaneous representation as on the one hand "special" and "historic" and on the other hand as diurnal and temporally repetitive. And, this was the year in which The History Channel appeared on cable, its promotional material telling us, "If you couldn't be there the first time, here's your second chance," its trademark slogan promising "All of History. All in One Place."

Forrest Gump, the Disney controversy, the 0. J. trial coverage, The History Channel, all tell us something about our present moment and the relatively recent escalation in the public sphere of a qualitatively new self-consciousness about history. One might say we are in a moment marked by a peculiarly novel "readiness" for history among the general population. That is, people seem to carry themselves with a certain reflexive phenomenological comportment toward their "immediate" immersion in the present, self-consciously grasping their own objective posture with an eye to its imminent future possibilities for representation (and commodification) as the historical past.

. . . Indeed, one could argue that the "events" of the twentieth century are less inherently novel than the novel technologies of representation that have transformed "events" by bringing them to unprecedented visibility and magnitude, and that have narrated them in ways that have made the very mechanisms of narration explicitly visible. Over the course of the century and at an accelerating pace, first cinema, and then television, camcorders, and digital media have brought both the arbitrary and motivated segmentation of time to public awareness. The possible manipulation of events through representation and narration, their editorial potential as trivial or traumatic, their abstraction as "shots" or "bits," and their inherent underdetermination even as they are overdetermined through use are all, by now, common knowledge. Thus, the audience -- who also saw the Zapruder film in JFK, sat at home through the many uses of the Rodney King tape, and recognized the recreation of Holocaust footage in Schindler's List -- is always in on the joke of Forrest Gump. The once arcane lesson of White's Metahistory -- that historiography is about arranging and telling stories, not about delivering objective truth -- is, by now, also common knowledge. This explains, perhaps, the public's fascination and playfulness, as well as its cynicism and suspension of all belief, with the "status" of the historical event and the "event" of historical representation.

Furthermore, by virtue of their increasing representational immediacy, these new twentieth century technologies of representation and narration (most significantly, television) have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly toward simultaneity. Early in the century, we thought history was something that happened temporally "before" and was represented temporally, "after" us and our personal and immediate experience. For an event to "become" History, an "appropriate" period of time for reflection upon it seemed necessary. This seems no longer the case. Today, history seems to happen right now -- is transmitted, reflected upon, shown play-by-play, taken up as the stuff of multiple stories and significance, given all sorts of "coverage" in the temporal dimension of the present as we live it. Correlatively, there seems a sense in which we believe we can go right out and "be" in history: hence, the people who flocked to the sides of the freeway to watch -- and be in -- the "historic" parade led by 0. J.'s Ford Bronco, who knew that they -- as well as 0. J. -- might make the five-o'clock "news"; hence, too, the people who stood outside of Nicole Simpson's Brentwood condo and told reporters they were there because they wanted to be "part of history."

It is easy to think such actions and such desire pathetic or deluded -- or to reduce and explain them away in terms of Andy Warhol's comment that, in such a highly mediated and media-filled world, anyone can be a celebrity for fifteen minutes. It is harder to think of the more positive aspects of such actions and such desire, but these aspects can -- and perhaps must -- be conceived if we are to admit the value of that something we call history to the present moment, and if we are to see any viable future in the representation of the past. From a phenomenological perspective, the popular location of history as possible "at any moment" in the present and the self-consciousness of one's comportment as an historical actor redeem to us a vibrant connection of present to past and a sense of agency in the shaping of human events. Furthermore, the popular apprehension of the traumatic and grand "historical event" as a potentiality in the trivial temporality of the everyday (common and extensible enough to "include one in") can be seen as signaling not merely the "end" of History as a distinct temporal category, but also (and alternatively) an emergent and novel form of historical consciousness -- in sum, as a very real and consequential "readiness" for history.

What is both poignant and heartening about this novel form of historical consciousness is that it has no determinate "object." In great part, the effects of our new technologies of representation put us at a loss to fix that "thing" we used to think of as History or to create clearly delineated and categorical temporal and spatial frames around what we used to think of as the "historical event." Thus, White is apposite in ending the essay which begins this collection by quoting Gertrude Stein. In the age of television, camcorders, and seamless digital manipulation, when anyone can be caught and filmed and interviewed or digitized into a "historic" crowd scene, riot, or significant event, the "rare and peculiar cases" Stein mentions, "when the outside breaks through to be inside because the outside is so part of some inside that even a description of the outside cannot completely relieve the outside of the inside," are no longer very rare and peculiar.

However, and again as an effect of our new technologies of representation, this loss of a "fix" on History and of the stable temporal and spatial framing of events as "historical," the loss to historical consciousness of an historical object, can also be seen as a gain. That is, this loss of a firm grasp of its object forces into the foreground of our current existence the constitutive quality of consciousness as it engages the objective world. Now objectively indeterminate, History cannot be "taken up" by consciousness, but, rather, must be subjectively "made out." This is not to deny the world its spatial solidity nor the temporal event its reality -- that is, its material causes and consequences. (There is a difference between "making something up" and "making it out.") It is, rather, to recognize -- as I think most people do today -- that we are subjectively implicated in and responsible for the histories we tell ourselves or others tell us and that, while these are just representations, their significance has both value and consequence to our lives. Hence the contemporary and widespread contentiousness around categories, boundaries, exclusions, and inclusions, ordering and remembering History, history, herstory, histories.

At the present moment, the loss of a determinate historical object and the correspondent and conscious hunger for history has led to the most disheartening and hopeful of conditions. On the one hand, for the most cynical, History has become a commodity -- something to be "fixed" according to maximum consumer desire (that is, not only made secure, but also "neutered," "altered," and "doctored up"). Exemplary is Disney's recent movie Pocahontas, "which for the first time in the history of Disney animation is based on American history." In a recent Entertainment Weekly, we are not only told of what are now commonly expected consumer product tie-ins: "Nestle (candy bars), Mattel (Pocahontas, Barbie-style), Payless Shoesource (moccasins), and Burger King (kids' meals)." We are also told of Disney's emphases of certain aspects of the "story": Pocahontas "cooling the tempers of her Virginia tribe and the British settlers because of her love for Capt. John Smith (voice by Mel Gibson)." However, most cynical of all -- and most indicative of Disney's awareness of the public's heightened historical consciousness -- are Disney's attempts to forestall potential criticism. "Since any film dealing with history is a target for controversy in these PC times," we are told, "Disney has buffered itself against attack. It consulted with historians and Native American groups during the making of the film, and recruited Russell Means (The Last of the Mohicans) to provide one of the voices." Here, it is clear that the contemporary loss of a determinate and fixed historical object has been replaced with an overdetermined and reified commodity. Furthermore, that Russell Means is cited not for his actual historical contributions as a Native American activist but, rather, for his appearance as a character in the film adaptation of a historical novel seems the ultimate confirmation of Guy Debord's critique of the twentieth-century "society of the spectacle": that "everything that was lived directly has moved away into a representation."

On the other hand, there does seem reason to counter cynicism (which is usually unproductive and self-congratulatory) with hope. While it is certainly true that the hunger for a lost historical object has led to History as commodity, to both Pocahontas and The History Channel ("All of History. All in One Place."), it is also true that such hunger has led to a widespread recognition of history and its representation as process, to both JFK with its multiple constructions of a traumatic national event and C-SPAN with its coverage of momentous, trivial, and often geologically paced legislative negotiations. Popular audiences have become involved in and understand the stakes in historical representation, recognize "history in the making," and see themselves not only as spectators of history, but also as participants in and adjudicators of it. Current debates around the nature, shape, and narration of history are no longer only the province of academic historians and scholars of film and literature. "History happens" now in the public sphere where the search for a lost object has led not only to cheap substitutes but, in the process, also to the quickening of a new historical sense and perhaps a more active and reflective historical subject.

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