Monthly Archives: September 2009

The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the Future

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This series of posts springs from three sources.  First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath.  Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town.  Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.

These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future.  They are stories of writers and writing.  They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions.  The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil.  The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited.  Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land.  Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.

These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others.  Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth.  Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is.  But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.

The truth and Brasília, 1:  Land of the future

In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.  Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.

Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life.  In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941.  By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”

No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.

Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless.  Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.

For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important.  He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration.  A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress.  To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.

Brazil-16-map

Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters.  In 1941, he published Brazil:  Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country.  On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher:  The World of Yesterday, an autobiography.  Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him.  In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife.  He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.

. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.

Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects.  After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.

Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited.  Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.

Notes and Credits

Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees.  It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees.  Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.

There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig.  My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia:  John Perreault’s Art Diary.  WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig.  Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,

Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.

Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven.  As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards.  The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services.  Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.

The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazil-16-map.jpg.  The photograph is in the public domain.

I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil.  The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime.  The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings:  Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.

The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history.  The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.

lery

Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare.  As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.

Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance.  Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.

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The truth and change, 3b: From Gilgamesh to Pharma

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future.  In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations.  The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.

The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human.  This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.

From Gilgamesh to Pharma

Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history.  He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named.  His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.

Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu.  In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality.  Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.

Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267  years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …

If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there?  Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human?  The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world.  It’s about who we are inside:

What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?

This question doesn’t deny the reality of change.  Societies are different.  Mores and belief systems change over time.  That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true.  Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people.  Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.

The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives.  They are moments of being.  They are fundamental.  They are emotional.  They are constitutional.  They are moments critical of passage:  birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger.  In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?

The answer is yes, maybe, sort of.  These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them.  A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state.  Want to feel better?  Find the sun.  Get some air.  Climb a hill.  Have a drink.  It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh.  This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate.  There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions.  Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.

What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved).  From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933.  For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.

What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”).  These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.

In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi.  The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.

This has been at least a century in the making:  from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand.  Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this:  belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.

The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.

The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.

The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).

Epilogue

I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it.  The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.

When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on.  Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us.  Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.

A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future:  we all get sick and must live with it.  We’ll all die.  Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms?  There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.

Notes and Credits

The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.”  At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.

The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry.  It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858.  The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author.  That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column.  Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.

In The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.”  Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society.  The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be.  She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.

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The view from 4-A, 9.11.09

911-IMG_2971

When I wrote the post on the view from our building this afternoon, I wasn’t sure if the clouds would obscure the view of the memorial lights tonight.  For a few minutes, however, the clouds parted just enough for me open the window and take this last photograph from the windows of apartment 4-A.

For all who perished, and for all who remain.

IMG_3036-alt2

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Another year, and we remember

IMG_1220

This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

911-sarah-alt

My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

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The truth and change, 3a: From Life on Mars to Linden

The House of Tomorrow, 200x

The House of Tomorrow, now

The third post in this series, The truth and change, is split in two, 3a and 3b.  They provide different outcomes for the multi-part essay on change and the future that I began a month ago.  It wasn’t how I planned the posts, nor are these the only two ways things can work out.  They are, instead, the unintended surprises at the end of a long chain of lateral thinking that has also suggested a set of follow-up postings down the line.  It’s always nice to pile up things to do.

From Life on Mars to Linden

Avatars are nothing new to the human species, from the caves of Lascaux to the virtual worlds of Second Life and other large web-based games.  These (brave?) new worlds carry out the same primeval urge that led people to create paintings of their daily lives 35,000 years ago.  What began in the caves has become a massive wall written on by millions of people, together, sharing a world that they have imagined out of the very world in which they live.

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

One of the interesting things about the virtual world is that it does create a “place” that didn’t exist before, uncovering new spaces in life that are hidden beneath the physical dimensions we take for granted.  In the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) such as Second Life, people leave their organic beings and create virtual selves, societies, and places in cyberspace.  These worlds are a social version of the extra-dimensional physics of string theory, “brane worlds,” and high energy model building that physicist Lisa Randall has written and spoken about.  In MMOs, we are building new worlds in very small spaces inside the world of everyday experience.

The key thing about these virtual dimensions is their connectivity to real life, which engenders much greater imaginative potential than the escape to the “silver screen” that left the sad girl in David Bowie’s song wondering if there was “Life on Mars.”  Ours is now a world of both cultural production and absolute reflexivity, in which the virtual world is like a magnifying mirror we hold to our organic lives.

In a fascinating example of this reflexivity, organic journalist Marcia Stepanek reports on Second Life journalist Draxtor Despres, who himself reports on the goings-on of the organic world for the people of Second Life.  Their dialogue is like an 8-track tape, or a Möbius Strip in which one side is organic, the other side virtual, both surfaces effortlessly sliding into each other when they are attached in just the right way.

Stepanek has also profiled the work of Douglas Gayeton, a multimedia artist who “creates immersive story experiences for virtual worlds and social networks.”  Gayeton’s documentary, “Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey,” was the first documentary produced entirely in Second Life.  For a while it was the highest rated video on YouTube.  It’s been picked up by HBO and begins to make clear how “real” the virtual world really is.

Already, the virtual economy is derived from, reflects, and ultimately contributes to the organic economy.  In July of 2009, Second Life creator Philip Linden spoke to BOSL (Best of Second Life) Blog about how Linden Labs is creating various supports for crossover services involving both businesses and educators, who will use the SL platform to provide services in real life.  Within SL, “Linden Dollars” are the basis of a vast economy of virtual goods that can be converted, ultimately, into organic dollars.

The virtual world embraces an entire crossover economy.  Hermione Watanabe is a “virtual wealth coach” whose blog provides advice and information on the SL economy and how to grow income there and in the organic world.  Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the virtual world’s “real” existence is that the Federal Government is thinking about how to tax virtual economic activity.

The crossover continues in the amateur machinima that is becoming an art form of its own, sprawling across YouTube, Vimeo, and other video networking sites.  Aenea Nori’s SL video for Kafka Dinzeo’s remix of Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” brilliantly takes us through the wormholes that connect virtual dimensions to the organic and back again.

LauraMW12345 created an organic-virtual mix in which “Second Life Meets Real Life,” in which the green screen existed in SL and the “real world” had to be inserted as fictional background for the avatars. The video is set over the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” which was one of the early, pioneering events in remix history, on the borders of different dimensions of musical creation and imagination.

This sliding between organic and virtual lives has inevitably encompassed the most ubiquitous and equalizing of human emotions:  sex (and its correlate emotions).  Love is in the virtual air, as people in Second Life and other MMOs mix, mingle, fall for each other, become married (virtually, but quite really), pledge love, cheat, cry, break up, and try again.  For a while, people started to create real-world-like porn magazines on-line (in Second Life, Slustler was a phenomenon in 2005-07), but these have been displaced by other virtual services and games that better fit the medium, such as Red Light Center (which creates a very real organic economy for itself as well) and SL meeting places and adult parties.

Eventually, however, we come back to the connection between the virtual and organic worlds.  They cannot function without each other.  “If This is Second Life Why Is My Heart Breaking In Real Life?” is a machinima video created by Kirk Lancaster and Sandra Holyoke that explores the crossover of desire and heartache.  The relationships we create in other dimensions reverberate in the organic world and behind them all lie one, beating, very organic heart.

The future, it seems, is not out there in the world, some place distant in either time or space.  It’s in our minds, already, right now, and available for our scrutiny.  This isn’t the future I imagined as a youth, or even when I began writing these postings.  In this future, much of the world is simply brought to life from our own minds with the help of technologies that enable millions of minds to communicate in tandem, synced together to build a world that is every bit as real as the organic world even as it vanishes before us to live in our minds.

This brings me back to the Shetland Islands of the late 1940s, where Erving Goffman gathered observations and data for his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  It was published in 1959 and became a classic of American sociology; it’s still widely read and has never been thought out-of-date.

Immersing himself in the world of the Shetland Islanders, Goffmann looked at their everyday interactions through the lens of drama – people were actors in their own plays, as well as each other’s audiences.  “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously said, and Goffmann set out to prove it.  People work hard to create settings and situations in which they can enact a specific, intentional script.  They have certain behaviors for their audience, as well as an array of backstage behaviors.

Goffman’s point of view was revolutionary at the time and cemented the foundation of a whole school of social thought.  We construct our own worlds in the same way that we construct plays and dramas.  The representational activity that started in places like Lascaux and ends up in MMOs is pretty much the same.  The attractiveness of gaming and MMOs is clear:  it’s what we already do in regular life, only in the MMO we get a greater degree of control over what we hide backstage.

This begs a question.  Is the change we experience with this technology really anything more than a change in the venue (now virtual, created) for the same old desires we’ve always had?  A vanity of vanities in which there’s nothing new under the sun except for the bottles that are filled with old wine?  Does the virtual world of love and sex and desire change any of the fundamental emotions or relationships that constitute what it means to be human?  When and where does the virtual world go beyond reflections and extrapolations of the organic?

When is the virtual world for-itself?

Notes and Credits

The opening photo is from the Flikr site of rikomatic.  The photo shows a house for sale in Second Life, where participants engage in an extensive economy that has several dimensions – purely virtual, combined virtual and organic, and mainly oriented toward organic profit.  In Second Life, people create their own houses by using virtual money (Linden dollars) to purchase land and materials in the virtual world.

Much thanks to Marcia Stepanek for introducing me to the world of machinima in her writing on Cause Global and Pop!Tech.

The photo of the Lascaux cave paintings is from Prof. Saxx and can be seen at the Wikimedia commons.

Aenea Nori’s machinima for the “Littlest Things (remix)” carries us through many layers of time and space.  I would have embedded the video in the blog for people to see, except that WordPress (the free version, anyway) isn’t communicating with Vimeo.  You should go to her site, however, and check out her video work. There is no recent activity on the Vimeo site or on her blog (the last activity is September 2008), but perhaps she’ll be back.

Lily Allen uses a lot of mixing, overdubbing, and sampling to build her songs, which are themselves an aural hypertext calling forth a multitude of associations and images.  “Littlest Things” recalls Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” morphing time across 35 years of cultural production. Listening to Allen’s work is stimulating – and now Aenea Nori and Kafka Dinzeo transport the music and associated images into another world altogether, sliding along a “brane” between the virtual and organic worlds.

Regina Lynn has written in Wired about the growth of the virtual sex world found in MMOs all over the web, some of which are lucrative businesses. WebMD posted a balanced article on the advantages of cybersex and “teledildonics,” which include a safe place to try out new ideas (both in terms of disease and in terms of emotional control), as well as the problems – it can become addictive and affect real-life relationships.  The article quotes Regina Lynn, who brings the issue down to earth:  “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.”  Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig writes about the cutting edge developments in the world of cyber sex – now, cyber-touch with lasers across world’s distances.

Taunt is a blog devoted to SL economics and SL sex life.  SL and other MMOs feature escort services and erotic parties to cater to every taste, including many that are all but impossible to enact in organic life.  “Second life guys can have it all, as long as they’re willing to pay,” according to Elle Kirshner, a Second Life designer and voiceover artist for Kirk Lancaster’s SL video, “Second Life Man.”

Overall, sex is actually the cutting edge of machinima and virtual reality.  Why?  Because it’s what we want so much in real life that our urges push the limits of technology so that we can pursue desire in every possible corner of existence, from dreams to waking life to virtual reality.

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