Desert of the real
THE 1999 dystopian film The Matrix was a groundbreaker in more ways than one.
In the world of film it is remembered for its technical brilliance; for many, it was in its own way as much of a cult film as, some argue, was Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 in earlier times — unkind as the comparison may seem to readers of literature.
Admirers of The Matrix remember one phrase in particular. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” Morpheus tells Neo, explaining that the ‘real’ world that humanity believes itself to be living in is actually just a computer simulation: a programme fed into people’s inert but alive bodies by machines. The actual world is dominated by death, a place without colour and life.
Hence, many watchers assumed, ‘the desert of the real’.But amongst more academically inclined audiences, the use and context of the phrase raised other flags. The term refers to the concepts explored and articulated by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, particularly to the text Simulacra and Simulation. This is read by students of social science for its discussion of images, signs and their relation to modern society. (Although Baudrillard was not impressed by The Matrix and said that it distorted his work.)
Baudrillard conceived of the idea that in modern society, ‘real’ reality has been replaced by sets of symbols and signs, as a result of which the human experience refers more to the experience of simulations rather than reality itself. His ‘simulacra’ is comprised of the signs of culture and media that create a perceived reality, which can be the same as not at all like ‘real’ reality.
In Baudrillard’s view, societies in the modern world have come to rely so much on the simulacra that they have, in many cases, lost contact with the real world upon which the simulacra are based.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Consider the aggregated effect on people of the fact that they live their lives under constant bombardment of media messages carrying heavy doses of meanings both expressed and suggested. The sheer volume of information coming from all directions make it more possible to confuse ‘real’ reality with the simulacra, or altered realities, created by the media industry.
This blurring of boundaries, and the many instances of purposeful or unintended indoctrination, go largely unnoticed by the media producer or consumer, working on a subconscious level by changing attitudes and expectations.
Media anthropologists say that entertainment and advertising have greater effect in this regard, for the consumer has his guard down, although of course the news media also have a similar effect.
As an example of the last, consider a headline I saw recently that referred to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s relations with the ‘outside world’. The use of this term suggests walls and barriers, a reminder of the Iron Curtain, where Russia is closed in on itself or imprisoned, while the rest of the world is outside — free, by implication.
‘Outside world’ carries implications of detention (which suggests being out of control) or of barriers (which evokes powerlessness). These images are impregnated with the western view of the erstwhile Soviet Union: Russia is a ‘them’, not an ‘us’.
Reading that headline, few people would consciously register such associations. Yet the linkages all lie deeply embedded in our minds, subtly directing our thoughts and shaping our impressions.
Hyper reality and real life have different narratives and assumptions. When the boundaries become blurred, according to Baudrillard, we end up viewing real life through the prism of media-constructed simulacra. And this is becoming more convincing, more vibrant, more ‘real’, by the day.
Consider, for example, the success of Industrial Light and Magic and other wizards like them. Then visualise a battlefield. Most people, who do not have any personal experience of war zones, can nevertheless think up a picture of what it would look like, based in large proportions on all the war we’ve consumed on film and television over the years.
Similarly, the concept of a ‘man on a mission’ has been cemented in our minds by the action genre: destiny selects some people to play a certain role, and destiny ensures that despite the odds, they will prevail.
Similar edifices exist in our minds regarding the simulacra about the man standing up to fight for the oppressed: from Maula Jutt to Mr India to Superman, we have been taught that he will eventually succeed. This is but natural, for human optimism is bolstered by hyper reality which is constructed to feed it.
I wonder, therefore, how far George W. Bush’s belief in himself as a saviour of the free world and a bringer of democracy was fed by such simulacra and hyper realities. There’s no way of quantifying this, but certainly he stated proudly on many occasions that he grew up on a steady diet of westerns.
One could argue that Pervez Musharraf, and others, too, lived in a Pakistan Army-inspired hyper reality, fed by nationalistic idealism, where it is their job, and theirs alone, to drive back the threats to the country, regardless of the quarter from which they come.
These hyper realities, these insidious simulacrums, remain with us. One of enduring Pakistan’s simulacrums is that there are countries such as the US and India that wish to dismember or damage this country. So even though Pakistan’s civilians and soldiers are falling to extremism, there is still little real consensus on who the enemy is.
The simulacra of nationalist ideology combined with that of religion tells Muslims cannot be an enemy, that Pakistanis cannot be the enemy and that neither can be evil-doers. Faced with an enemy that is most certainly both Muslim and Pakistani, many of us are left in the limbo of disbelief.
To pull Pakistan out of the pit in, we need to face the desert of Pakistan’s real: the military battle is short-term, but the ideological war is for the long term.
The writer is a member of staff.