Notes from the Far Field
By Austin R. Pick & Andrew Hook
An ad that pretends to be art is — at absolute best — like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what's sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill's real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
—David Foster Wallace
"I'm alive," she said, "but I don't know what it means."
We live in a complex world, a pastiche of blurring grays, conflicting value systems and a continual inundation of information, much of it potentially coercive. Our socio-political structure is incredibly entangled, far-reaching and often surreptitious, and our actions reverberate through the world in ways we cannot know or cannot avoid, often to the detriment of ourselves and others. This dense matrix is entirely unprecedented—never before have humans been required to navigate such a complex existential terrain, and it is a very exciting time to be alive because it presents many incredible possibilities. But this is not to say that our task is easy, for we must necessarily locate ourselves, our self-sense or identity, in this ocean of spectacle and post-modern ambiguity. Our choices for action define us, but it often seems that the more we know the more difficult it becomes to make decisions at all.
Like other commodities, "identity" in our culture is easy to buy into. Wherever you look there is a lifestyle formula pre-packaged and ready for your consumption. More subtly, because consumer culture has shifted from selling products to selling image, most of our information channels —from the advertising-saturated media to the endless repetition of hollywood conventions— have become a homogenous conduit for a certain narrow view of reality and identity. Consumer culture not only defines what it means to be cool but also what it means to be real—even though most of what is presented is hopelessly fake. Our concepts of beauty, success, value, sexuality, the nature of relationships romantic and otherwise, etc., are all sculpted to reinforce the self-importance and conforming malaise that drives purchase. Finding an identity for oneself in our consumer culture can be easy: choose label, apply music, products and styles, insert catch phrase ideology—but unfortunately none of the options seem to make anyone very happy. We wander the aisles, anxious and unsatisfied.
Even down to the details of tired conversational cliché and daily radiobabble — 'wake up to the breakfast show,' 'drive home with drive time,' 'tonite on the tube you can watch this and this and this and...' — it's clear that although we don't live in a totalitarian state (no direct need for violence), an information imperialism is being engineered, commodifying language itself and subtly but pervasively coaxing, cajoling and humouring us into a uniform mindset of ironic commiseration, leading most of us to under-appreciate the value and vitality and significance of our own lives, each day, each moment, so as to render us functional automatons, not a free thought between us, just the vapid exchange of movie-quips and advertising slogans.
I become so frustrated, and weary, watching our beautifully chaotic world being squeezed into a rigid matrix of consumer preferences and choice, a standardised way of living that's "safe and convenient," preferences and choice, preferences and choice—weary of witnessing every information source being hijacked by commercial interests that spew out yet more jargon, hype, suppressed and tacit coercion which effectively convinces people, by obscuring all options, that this way of living is the beginning and the end. No challenges. Affluence as opiate. A modicum of dissent permitted maybe –good ole' Mike Moore– giving the impression of free speech.
Never before have so many television and radio stations, newspapers, movie studios and publishing houses been owned by so few companies, and never before have those companies had so much access to and influence over government policy and process. Coupled with this, advertising and marketing has never been more psychologically sophisticated and cleverly interwoven within the supposedly democratic exchange of ideas.
Yet as we've said, the globalized telecommunications network now overflows with a continuous and bewildering inundation of information, despite the big media conglomerates' best efforts to exert control. In fact it appears that the media giants –as well as the fundamentalist churches and extremist political movements– succeed precisely because modern individuals don't know where else to turn when looking for a defining self-identity made coherent by an understandable version of reality.
Terence McKenna: "Technology, or the historical momentum of things, is creating such a bewildering social milieu that the monkey mind cannot find a simple story, a simple creation myth or redemption myth, to lay over the crazy contradictory patchwork of profane techno-consumerist, post-McLuhanist, electronic, pre-apocalyptic existence. And so into that dimension of anxiety, created by this inability to parse reality, rushes a bewildering variety of squirrelly notions."
Everywhere we turn there seems to be some corporation, organization, movement or campaign prepared to implant us with their worldview and package us in their own image. Reality is for sale. How are we to live and find the means to express ourselves with any authenticity when the very idea of identity has itself become commodified? We seek something deeper, I believe, a way of being where identity is grounded not in ideologies and applied labels about who we are, but in an intuitive grace where we feel, live and breathe the relativity of our truths with certainty and lightness, where we know who we are with our whole bodies, carried within a wider movement of acknowledged interconnectedness with all living beings, with the very planet that gives us life...
Even here, however, the language of our ideals has already been appropriated and rigidly labeled. Because when we begin to speak in this way, we risk sliding a slippery slope and entering what the analogues of our culture derisively categorize as the New Age, that dubious dimension where all alternative views tend to be too quickly relegated, a realm of airy-fairy fluff, with its talk of cosmic energy and reconnecting with Gaia and finding your Inner Child and all that. This is not to say that these insights are invalid, but simply to acknowledge that a good deal of the language with which we express these ideas has already been ironically usurped or otherwise bought out by the mainstream.
Charles Baxter: "In a relentlessly commercial culture, the communication of our private meanings has been vaguely corrupted around the edges by the toxic idioms of merchandising. Wanting to convey an inward sensation of the sacred, we find ourselves skidding toward the usages of sales and marketing. With the idiom already compromised, the experience of revelation itself begins to grow ever more unsteady."
The nuance of the image, the culture, the lifestyle is repeated, diluted and mass-produced as imitation sentiment to the point that whatever may have been borne spontaneous and beautiful from the organic zest of our curious postmodern times quickly loses all of its original impact, its vitality, its rawness, its specialty and its individuality, leaving only the standardised, sterile antiseptic of the "life commodity." And as far as I can see, so much is becoming lost, engulfed, quicker than we can build with our tiny hands. Still, we sense that there are cracks for us to pry open. I feel there is such an impossibly great opportunity and responsibility for us as we have this time, this little money, this education, this access to information, this health (for now at least)...
We can begin with this: "I am not a target market."
Because despite all the effort with which consumer culture tries to pimp identity, we feel vaguely lost, adrift. As marketing and hype becomes more bold and absurdly exaggerated in the attempt to sustain our attention, it also becomes more transparent, ridiculous, and laughable. We're not buying it, and we've got better ideas about how to LIVE besides.
We've essentially been programmed to think of wage labor, working, getting a job and career as neutral or a-historical experiences — to think of them as "normal" and "the way things are," when in actuality they are very recent historical curiosities, even abnormalities, essentially a consensual form of servitude. There are possibilities for different strategies to make our way in the world, possibilities for more healthy, satisfying and sustainable lives than that offered by the 9 to 5. We refuse to settle on one fixed set of views, one fixed formula for understanding. We trust the authenticity of our experience. We meander, sometimes imperceptibly, but always striving to listen to our "innermost heart," trailing ever upwards, diaphanous, like wispy tails of cloud passing thru metallic sky...
And while I maintain that these what you might call acrobatics of mind are an important locus for the healing and transformation our world so desperately needs, this, as you've pointed out, does not necessarily reconcile the dilemma of the everyday, because... beyond abstract concepts and esoteric pleasures, we find a cold reality which, despite how we may wish to alter our perception in dealing with it, remains ineluctably real, sad, relentless. And this is where the dilemma rears it's ugly head: personal contentment conflicting with humanitarian conscience yearning for creative fulfillment colliding with middle class guilt-complexes and abstract desires and fears... No matter how rose-colored our psychedelic eyeballs are, the world is still dirty and stupid.
Fine. So What? For this is the thing: Our psychedelic eyeballs are not rose-colored, if anything they have been, to some extent at least, cleared of many such tarnishing sentiments, media manipulations, consumer compulsions, vacuous hallmark aphorisms and wal-mart smileys. This is a cursory, perhaps peculiarly 'western' form of the "heightened awareness" buddhists speak so much about. And this relative clarity of consciousness allows us to take the long view. It also allows us to recognize the dirt and stupid without dwelling on it or letting it get us down (for that is almost certainly, if only incidentally, the chokehold of a coercive culture). Action is not disenchantment or cynicism, but an action of thinking may begin there. As we develop in an action of sustained critical awareness, the flatland of parking lots and television no longer sets us adrift, but instead buoys us up, full of life and edging a little more towards freedom.
When everything is already broken, as our more morose moods may incline us to believe, then the possibilities for transformation and regeneration await only our willingness to envision and to act. Because when we stop buying into the consensual realities being sold on every screen, we take the first steps toward becoming the authors of our own realities, toward creating a world that honors the highest aspirations of a more fully inclusive and compassionate human community...
Brother my soul sings and maybe its doldrums and maybe its no-soul but there is an onrush of some sacred blessing dressed in the capricious undulations of language coded in binary bits and flossed through the circuit boards of a network too grand and absurd to be controlled by anyone. The ultimate informational anarchy of cyberspace spiders from our resilient fingertips and unites us beyond the isolation wash of advert-appeasement and the convergence of implanted consumer desire, because we be free already, just a matter now of better articulation in action, and refinement of our life's design...
So carry on my brother, open, aware, buoyant, at peace.
(Spring 2004, revised 2008)
By far the most important role for those concerned with the explosion of corporate power is to act not only as voices of opposition but also as beacons—beacons of other ways to organize a society, ways that exist outside of the raging battles between "good" and "evil."
Don't do nothing because you can't do everything. Do something. Anything.
Notes from the Far Field was compiled from a series of email exchanges that unfolded over the winter of 2003 and 2004. Andrew and I met while traveling in Australia and New Zealand, connected almost immediately, and maintained an engaging years-long dialogue across several continents. This text was edited for clarity and first published in The Lantern, James Madison University's alternative newspaper, in 2004.