March 09, 2012

An email to Dmitry Orlov on Mediated Reality

Greetings, Dmitry:

I think I was first introduced to your writing, thinking and speaking by James Kunstler on his Clusterfuck site, which of course is always an entertaining, usually hilarious take on the increasingly ridiculous nature of American society's "attempts" to come to terms with its fallen economic state. Jim combines the novelist/journalist's flair for the colorful turn of phrase with (what seems to me) a well-grounded analysis of the immediate problems presented by Peak Oil.

Your analyses (it also seems to me) are based on a more rigorous appreciation of the problems we face, and this is consistent with your background, education and training, as I understand them. I have especially appreciated your development of an alternative description of what happens after Peak Oil (at the global scale) is hit - that it cannot really proceed as a smooth descent mirroring the phase before Peak Oil, but is more of a calamitous, "step function" process. I think we're beginning to see some of these effects now, as the worldwide price of oil remains stubbornly high despite the rather dramatic fall-off in gasoline usage in the world's biggest customer, the United States. We're straining at the limits, and the bellicose developments in Iran are obviously connected to all of this, as the BRIC countries, on one hand, and Europe and the United States, on the other, try to control the situation and secure their market share.

Your more "subjective" takes on American culture are also frequently hilarious and insightful. In the C-Realm interview I heard you discuss, for the second time to my hearing, the exploitation by Facebook and other internet businesses of the American penchant for time-wasting, but in your usual thorough-going way you relate this to an underlying "existential" problem, which is that the artificial (built) physical environment (especially in "metroplex" America) has gotten so intolerably ugly to look at that it is simply a relief to escape into the pretty, glowing images on a computer, smart phone, iPad or television and be done with the reality "out there." If one possesses any sort of functioning aesthetic sensibility, this is pretty hard to argue with. I actually think that this single fact of modern existence explains almost everything that troubles our nation's youth - the extreme acting out (the school shootings, the bullying), the teen suicides, the despair. (I have a daughter who has grown up during this Ugly Phase, and the kids are quite aware they are living in a hideous, monotonous environment.)

Jim Kunstler (in "The Geography of Nowhere") quotes Lewis Mumford to the effect that one way to understand the years of Mutual Assured Destruction between the Soviet Union and the United States, how the constant threat of nuclear annihilation could even have been thinkable and "tolerable," is that Americans, hunkered down in their suburban tract homes, narcotized night after night by meaningless television, were simply indifferent to their fate. That's pretty funny even if it probably overstates things a little. But such ideas do remind me of a writer that my brother and I became very interested in back in the 1970's-early '80's named Jerry Mander, who wrote "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" (with "elimination" italicized in the title). Mander had been one of the partners in the legendary San Francisco advertising firm Mander & Gossage, who originated the "minimalist" style of advertising featured in the Volkwagen ads several decades ago, a real "breakthrough" in how ads were done (in effect, advertising making fun of itself, which is now widely imitated). One of his main points (and arguments) reminds me of the point you were making on the C-Realm interview: television presents what Mander called a "mediated reality" which stands in for (and between) a human being and the natural realm which lies outside the front door, and to the extent that we continually escape from the increasingly ugly physical realm into such mediated reality, we allow the trashing of the world to progress unopposed. To wit, why do we even need the "real" world? The "smart phone walk" which we now see humans execute on streets all over America is the latest, most extreme expression of this tendency: people hunched over their iPhones and Androids as they cross streets, walk into traffic, bump into other pedestrians, their eyes fixed not on the actual world but on the glowing images and text emanating from the Web.

Like Lewis Mumford's Nuke Fatalists, I watch these developments get completely out of hand (Mander of course was ignored - when my brother and I saw him give a free lecture in a small class room at San Francisco State decades ago, he would not allow videotaping of the talk - so how was anyone to know he existed or what he was saying? Yet more irony.). And I realize that wholesale change in culture and society, if it can be managed without utter chaos and violence, is not altogether a bad thing. I believe this underlies the increasing interest, and even enthusiasm, in America for the things you write about. You may live on a boat in Boston Harbor, in other words, but for that very reason, along with the deep and penetrating analysis you offer, I think your time has come.

Keep up the good work, please.

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