Cyber-Hedonism and Recreational Evil
by Ken Sanes
One of the essential characteristics of contemporary society is the way the media have helped let loose desires involving sex, transgression, and aggression, including desires that blend these together. They encourage us to have a hyper-sexualized view of life and to indulge lifelike fantasies that we are engaging in acts of violence and evil. And they offer us opportunities to act out desires for transgression, which often turn out to be false forms of freedom. Increasingly, they have removed the disguises that muted the expression of these desires and once shrouded them in euphemism.
In the mid-1970s, an underground movie titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show began to attract attention. The film's central character, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, was played by a new actor by the name of Tim Curry who appeared on screen in drag, referring to himself as "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania." Curry was only one of many of the movie's features that seemed to challenge conventional ideas. Even the audience failed to act like an audience, often dressing in the costumes of the characters and acting out scenes as they appeared on the screen.
The movie began conventionally enough, with Brad and Janet, a narrowly traditional, all-American, couple suffering a flat tire in the middle of nowhere on a stormy night. When they knock on the door of a nearby castle, hoping to use the telephone, they are taken prisoner by the occupant, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a sexually obsessed, cross-dressing extraterrestrial from the planet Transsexual, of the galaxy Transylvania.
Frank-N-Furter, it turns out, is something on the order of a human Id, acting out whatever sexual and aggressive urges bubble to the surface, which, among other things, leads him to brutally murder one of the male characters who is subsequently served for dinner. Early in the evening, he has Brad and Janet stripped to their underwear and sent to separate beds for the night. He then enters their rooms in disguise and launches each on a journey to decadence, introducing Janet to the pleasures of sex, and Brad to the pleasures of homosexuality.
The encounter profoundly changes the once-innocent Janet. As she becomes involved in another liaison in the castle, this time with a scantily clad artificial muscle boy named Rocky Horror, who was created by Frank-N-Furter in a laboratory as his personal sex toy, she describes her newly discovered yearning for the forbidden.
"Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me. I wanna be dirty," she sings to Rocky Horror. (The lyrics sound better sung than they do on the page.) "Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of the night."
After more goings on in the castle, the movie reaches its thematic climax as Frank-N-Furter uses his alien technology to transform a number of the characters, including Brad, Janet and Rocky Horror, into singing and dancing versions of himself, completing their transition to absolute decadence. As they stand on stage, costumed, like the mad Frank-N-Furter, in high-heels, fishnet stockings and corsets, each performs in a stage revue that reveals something about his or her personality. Then Frank-N-Furter sings the movie's theme song in a swimming pool scene reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley musical:
"Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.
Throughout the movie, Frank-N-Furter relies on simulations, both to act out his fantasies and engage in deception. After the fashion of Dr. Frankenstein, he creates a simulation of a person in the form of Rocky Horror, who is intended to be a living symbolic arena for the acting out of sexual desires. And he dresses up in drag; disguising himself to seduce the innocent and theatrically reenacting the roles from well-known movies.* Frank-N-Furter exists in a world where everything pretends it is something else, and in which the present is pasted together from the bits and pieces of movies past, so that life becomes an endless vaudeville revue. He is a second-order simulation, created out of the simulations of Hollywood, trapped in a schizophrenic's virtual reality, absorbed in a fantasy world in which he is a star.
Of course, all this had a lot more shock value when America first encountered it in 1975. At the time, the counterculture of antimaterialism, free love and recreational drugs was just turning into the new culture of simulated fantasy and cynical sexuality that we live in today. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an expression of the new culture and an announcement of its arrival, although, interestingly, it was also a critique of the culture's excesses.
In Frank-N-Furter, the new culture found a perfect symbol for itself, enunciating a message that is now its message: "Don't dream it. Be it." In other words, don't merely fantasize, but act out your fantasies and bring them to life. And don't merely play out your own fantasies but draw from the well of invented reality offered by Hollywood and make it seem like it is happening to you.
Today, (if the reader will forgive a little hyperbole) we live in Frank-N-Furter's castle, in a society that turns sex, violence and forbidden fantasies into theatrical spectacles. Our cultural creations include ghoulishly violent video games and serial killer trading cards; slasher films and nature videos of animals killing their prey; writhing bodies on MTV and a Jeffrey Dahmer comic book. Our daytime talk shows are filled with one strange sexual situation after another, from the transvestite who tricks heterosexual men into having sex with him, to the male college student who attended class in the nude. As Freud might put it, sex and aggression, the two drives that are most commonly subjected to repression, have been set loose in popular culture, where they have been turned into mass entertainments.
But, like Frank-N-Furter, popular culture isn't only interested in sex and violence for their own sake. It also uses them to portray acts of transgression. Here, it offers audiences opportunities to indulge what is perceived to be forbidden by violating traditional social mores and rules. One might say that the new culture has become a roller coaster for the mind that creates a sense of danger and excitement by taking audiences to the edge of social taboos for the thrill of it. Psychological repression, when it comes to sex and aggression, isn't merely being lifted; the act of going against repression has itself become a source of popular amusement.
The new culture finds expression in various media, whether it is in tabloid news shows or talk radio's verbal transgressions. But much of it once again relies on simulation and images, in the form of television, film, and video and computer games. These media are ideal for the acting out of seemingly dangerous fantasies, because they offer a faux universe of electronic images and theatrical situations, in which portrayals need not include any reference to morals, social mores or limits since everything is mere appearance. Everything is possible because none of it happens. In the graphic computer games full of sexual psychodramas and violence; in the commercial Internet sites that promise every possible fantasy and taboo activity will be depicted; in some of the more gruesome creations of the movies; and in a host of other places, we see the emerging culture of the techno-Id in which everything is possible as pretense and (seemingly) nothing is denied.
With creations such as these, audiences are being offered a new twist on the classic battle between good and evil, between the upright Dr. Jekyll and his transformation into the malevolent Mr. Hyde. The message is that we can now all become Mr. Hyde and vicariously experience unbridled evil in a world of electronic images and simulations. We can then return to reality without having compromised our moral identities.
The science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem foresaw the possibilities in his novel The Futurological Congress, which depicts a society of the future in which people take "psycho-chemical" drugs that make it possible for them to experience completely realistic fantasies or hallucinations of their own choosing. Armed with this new power, everyone chooses to act out whatever isn't possible in life. The result is a society of Jekyll and Hydes of the kind we are being encouraged to become, in which people are polite in their everyday encounters and fiends when they are in the realm of simulation, appropriating other people's likeness so they can pretend to commit heinous crimes against it in their lifelike fantasies. To provide this new form of entertainment, an industry has developed that custom designs the fantasies of evil and revenge.
As Symington, the character who runs this society, explains to the protagonist, Ijon Tichy:
"Our commodity is evil.... To each according to his wickedness, all the evil his heart desires....Just name the person, fill out our form, describe the grudges, grievances, bones of contention....Present your specifications and you'll receive our catalogue (of fantasies). Orders filled within 24 hours."
Soon after, Tichy observes: "Now I know what it mean when at a party the person I am talking to suddenly excuses himself, decorously retires to a corner to take a pinch of snuff, at the same time fixing his eyes on me -- so that my image, accurate in every detail, may be imprisoned in the private Hell of his unbridled imagination."*
"...I am surrounded by monsters."
Interestingly, in Lem's novel the lifelike fantasies, including fantasies of evil, are one of a number of distractions and substitute satisfactions used to occupy and sate humanity. While humanity believes it is taking psycho-chemical drugs to live out these fantasies, it is actually being fed other drugs that falsify its entire view of the world, creating a false paradise of luxury and technology when everything is in a state of collapse. In other words, in Lem's novel, the products of recreational evil are one of the circuses offered by a dictatorship to control the public.
Thus Lem offers us a political model in which simulations of evil are primarily one of the tools used by those in power as a form of social control and deception. In America, as we know, simulated fantasies that invite us to the dark side are primarily a product of the marketplace, offered us by media companies that see a profit in appealing to human weakness. Given that the companies that exercise enormous political control are increasingly the companies that invite us to enjoy the pleasures of recreational evil, the two models aren't so far apart.
With this in mind, we can "read" The Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of Lem's novel and see that the endlessly theatrical Frank-N-Furter is none other than the giant media companies that have lured us into their castle of virtual madness:
"Give yourself over to absolute pleasure," they tell us. "Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh. Erotic nightmares beyond any measure...."Don't dream it. Be it. Don't dream it. Be it...."
Such an interpretation, of course, is close to the conservative claims that the media are the corrupters of youth and culture. Frank-N-Furter here appears as a brilliantly Satanic figure who indulges in the essence of evil -- he shamelessly revels in his own corruption and corrupting influence.
But The Rocky Horror Picture Show also offers a way out, although it provides us with only the slightest information to understand what it is telling us. While Brad is undone by his exposure to the mad hedonism and shamelessness of Frank-N-Furter, Janet is freed by it. It is obvious that, as a result of her experience, she will neither be mad like Frank-N-Furter nor boringly traditional and narrow-minded, as she and Brad were when they arrived.
As is made clear at one point, Frank-N-Furter is her spirit guide. He provides her with the tools she needs to escape her prison and become a more open, more complete person. We can use the new media-based culture, in which anything goes, the same way, the movie hints to us, or we can be overwhelmed by it.
At the end, Frank-N-Furter as savior is assassinated for his sins; the castle-space-ship lifts off back to its home planet and Brad and Janet, having just made it out of the house on time, are thrown to the the ground in its wake. But then birth is never easy.
* Frank-N-Furter's adoring fans modeled themselves after him and reenacted the movie, even as he and the movie were reenacting the history of Hollywood.
** Stanlislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, trans. Michael Kandel (New York: Avon Books, 1974) pp. 96-102.
Perhaps the strangest transmutation has occurred to the archetypes of evil -- of sadism and sexual violence, degradation, the lust for power, craziness and regressive desires. These still play their traditional role as obstacles the heroes has to overcome and as something that scares and angers us, on the way to the happy ending. But, here, there have been a number of changes. Among them, we have a growing fascination with, and a growing ability to depict, forms of radical evil, in movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and in horror theme parks in which we become immersed in a world of nightmares, and enjoy the pleasure of surviving to tell the story.
In addition, images of evil have started to migrate from being a source of danger to something that is celebrated, and a source of identification. Thus, contemporary fiction, in explicit and not only disguised, ways, offers us the illusion we are escaping the limits, not of physical reality, but of morality, allowing us to transgress social taboos and indulge in extreme forms of sex and violence, creating human worlds modeled after the darkest elements of our humanity. A good example, (although it didn't succeed in the marketplace), was the interactive movie Mr. Payback, in which children were invited to press buttons to determine the revenge-tortures that would be meted out to characters. With this fascination with everything outside of traditional society -- the perverse, the mad, the bizarre -- we seem to be using fiction to symbolically transcend the limits of society and everyday life.
Two companies that tried unsuccessfully to exploit the fascination with torture and revenge are Interfilm Inc. and Sony New Technologies, which produced an interactive movie full of graphic portrayals of violence and acts of degradation. The movie was noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was the first commercial interactive film and it was also one of the most morally and aesthetically bankrupt movies ever widely distributed, offering the public a pornography of hate, of a kind that is becoming increasingly common.
The movie centers around giving audiences opportunities to vote for the kind of revenge that will be visited on its villains, by pressing buttons next to the seats. Here, in a press release, the company described the idea behind the movie: "Sit for a moment and think of all the injustices done to you during your life....Makes you mad to even think about it. Imagine if there was some way you could get back at them, someone you could hire to get revenge for you. Fun idea for a movie, right? Now imagine if, while watching that movie, you, the audience, could decide what villains to pursue, you could decide the methods of revenge and you, the audience, could decide the ultimate payback."
The movie fulfills this promise with a perverse enthusiasm. Among the choices offered to viewers is a sequence in which the hero and revenge-master, Mr. Payback, metes out poetic justice to someone who parks in a handicapped space by injecting him with a drug that will temporarily paralyze him. In another, he punishes a villain who subjects her victims to sexualized, sadistic tortures, by dumping a large quantity of raw sewage on her as she screams in horror. She is then left to stew in the liquids.
At the multiplex where I saw the movie, a publicist was standing in the lobby, encouraging people to come back around and see Mr. Payback, after they attended whatever other movie they were there to see. Her efforts were directed at children and young people.
The movie turned out to be unsuccessful, in part because voting with other members of an audience over what will happen next in a story, doesn't give one a sense that one has control over the action. But before it expired, it offered a vision of a possible future that only a novelist like Stanislaw Lem could invent: children pressing buttons to choose which tortures would be meted out to characters in a simulated world.
This fourth excerpt briefly looks at the way sex is used as a tool of manipulation.
(Logan's Run) draws us in because it plays out for us essential parts of the collective fantasy and mental map many of us share, about what is happening to society and ourselves. Its message about our culture and politics is that we are becoming a society of atomized individuals, who depend on those in power to define our world, structure our lifestyles, and make the decisions that affect our lives. Those in power draw us into constructed realities based on illusions, the movie says, and we then act out the fantasies they offer us. This is, in fact, a message that has been expressed with different emphases by both the left and right. The right sees vast bureaucracies with political agendas, which increasingly intervene in people's lives and break down more traditional bonds of family and community. Many on the left, like Marcuse, see capitalism and a controlled state turning everything into a commodity, selling people goods and a lifestyle; selling politicians and manufacturing consent in public opinion. Some culture critics on the right see the same thing, although they seem more reluctant to draw the conclusion that this is a very disturbing side to capitalism -- that it is, in fact, the form that capitalism takes in a society with advanced capabilities when it comes to technology and communications.
But many on the right are also willing to see what some on the left still remain blind to -- that we are most frequently encouraged to lead lifestyles saturated with sex for reasons that have nothing to do with personal fulfillment. Marcuse saw this, although in his view culture had been hypersexualized because the powers that be want to buy us off so we will support the system, which is also the idea behind the movie. It is closer to the truth to say that society has become hypersexualized because, as everyone knows by now, sex is a powerful tool of economic manipulation. The freeing up of human sexuality and a focus on self-fulfillment, which became a rallying cry for the 60s counterculture, was taken up by those with something to sell, converted into a vision of life as endless entertainment, to create a new generation of consumers for a new generation of capitalism. Here, the computer symbolizes America's corporations, who sacrifice us to the Moloch of a decadent consumer paradise to turn us into good customers.
Image-based culture constantly invites us to take pleasure in the idea of inflicting and observing suffering, whether on fictional characters or on genuine people who have been fictionalized by the news media. The very act of depicting people as villains is, itself, a form of violence, since it degrades people and also tells us it is okay to treat them as objects of hate. These excerpts briefly examine the way the news media does this.
One of the plagues of human history has been the belief that there are people and groups of people who don't share the same moral status and rights as everyone else. These individuals and groups are society's scapegoats. Traditionally, they have been subjected to symbolic violence, in which they have been depicted in words and images in degrading ways. Beyond that, they have often been subjected to physical violence, as well, depending on the society and the scapegoats in question.
The list of scapegoats who have been forced into these roles is legion. They are the innocent and the guilty; the mad and the sane. They are Jews, blacks, Christians, pagans, heretics of all sorts, the disabled and deformed; political critics and criminals, saints and scientists, et al.
Today, we see a new variation on this endless historical game of dehumanization and degradation. Now, we have a political system and media that gain much of their profit and power by turning public figures into scapegoats, arousing the emotions of anger, ridicule and disdain in audiences and voters. The most obvious members of this new group of scapegoats are the Dan Quayles, and Tammy Faye Bakkers, who have characteristics that, in the eyes of many, lend themselves to this kind of treatment. But beyond them, there is, in this system, now, incessant pressure to generate scapegoats -- to invent fools and villains for the public to mock and hate, so as to win political contests, make money and receive public acclaim. Republicans do it to Democrats; Democrats to Republicans; the television news media to anyone they can, although they obviously have their favorite targets.
Under the cover of a court-decision that says public figures have less protection than other people, when it comes to privacy, slander and libel, America's media system is now in the business of inventing scapegoats who have fewer rights than the rest of us. The right to not be smeared, worldwide; the right to not have one's suffering turned into a sadistic circus; the right to not be bombarded by insulting questions -- these and other rights we assume belong to ourselves, fall by the wayside. To gather the information and images they need to create their stories, the perpetrators of this system violate a second set of rights as well -- rights to not have one's privacy invaded; to not be followed, pressed in on, surrounded, and turned into prey.
With the emergence of a worldwide media culture, this is now a global phenomenon. And information that can be used to damage people and put them in the scapegoat category (or further into the scapegoat category) has now, incredibly, become a product and a form of wealth. With the proliferation of media and the Internet, which is turning millions of people into journalists of a sort, and into something much like a public figures, and with the growing use of surveillance technologies and computer files, this system now threatens to become a feature of everyday life..
We are developing a global media system in which Hate is becoming a commodity. What is new about this system isn't that it manipulates the emotions of its audience to achieve its ends. Rather, it is the scale and pervasiveness and sophistication with which it does so, based on high-tech tools of communications and image manipulation. As a result, we are all being drawn into a worldwide virtual gladiator game in which the stakes are all too real for the victims and for everyone who has to live and be brought up in an environment that encourages many of humanity's worst instincts.
* * * * * *
But the culture of reputation assault that is attached to the mainstream media is, itself, not the worst that is out there. It is being surpassed by an even more virulent strain of information savagery that has the potential to turn public life into a Hobbesian war of degrading images in which everyone is a journalist and public figure and everything is fair game. With the growing role of private investigators, listening devices, miniaturized cameras and the Internet -- and the ability to digitally store what is collected in computers -- all kinds of images and information that are private or discrediting are now starting to be opened to public view. Surveillance images of people in various stages of undress; information on past infractions and personal problems, images of people who just happen to be where live video cameras are recording -- much of the flotsam and jetsam of peoples lives is now starting to be made public, for entertainment, marketing, and revenge, and to achieve political goals. The emerging, sadistic, electronic super-ego of information-gathering and display will go well beyond Big Brother if something isnt done to protect peoples privacy, recording millions of misdemeanors and faux pas, and turning them into virtual billboards for public enjoyment, as we all become the raw material for a culture of images that is allowing Hate to expand its domain.
Given the evolving direction of events, it seems reasonable to suggest that public life in America is suffering from a kind of collective psychopathology. The system is stuck. It keeps reenacting a drama based on timeless themes of power, vulnerability, deception, sin, and disgrace, and it constantly allows the simple, the immediate and the spectacular to crowd out the complex and less evident. It would turn us all into participants in a culture based on humiliation in which discrediting information is seen as a weapon, to be used sadistically or with cold-blooded instrumentality, to achieve our ends.
It is ironic that journalists, who place so much emphasis on the ethical lapses of those they cover, are themselves so prone to sadism, insensitivity and feelings of grandiosity. The contradiction starts to make sense when one considers the conditions under which they work.
Journalists are spectators by profession. They stand off to the side, at a remove from the hope and suffering that makes up the events they cover. From their unique perch, they are expected to capture the essence of things in news stories, so the audience can view the world from the same perspective.
Inevitably, they end up exploiting those they cover. The world and all its suffering becomes the raw material for their creations. Every catastrophe and every victory for someone else provides an equal opportunity for them to succeed and win acclaim.
They are further estranged from the world by what they create, which is a kind of unreality. They process and filter real events, creating a distorted reflection that condenses the drama and pain of life into a form of entertainment or at least a product that is entertaining. This unreality then has a profound impact on real events. It changes reality and, in its distorted way, records the change.
The ability to affect events without being affected and, in particular, the ability to cause pain without being touched by it, creates conditions that can encourage sadism, insensitivity and grandiosity. Regarding the first possibility, the conditions of journalism bear a striking resemblance to the conditions of physical torture. Reporters and torturers both have the capacity to hurt people who have little or no ability to strike back. It is of no great concern to the torturer whether he engages his victim before or after lunch, or aims his ministrations at one part of the body or another. Death now or death later, blindness first or broken bones - none of it affects his condition.
But the victim is in a desperate fight for life. His world congeals around what the torturer will do next. Every move is a matter of world shattering consequence, as the victim suffers and simultaneously watches the sadist enjoy his own freedom from concern.
True sadists, who enjoy inflicting pain, experience torture as a game and the victim as a toy. The ability to gloat, to taunt, to revel in their own invulnerability and compare it to the victim's enslavement to what they will do next, are part of the essence of sadism.
In journalism, the torture is applied to the victim's reputation, his public image and credibility.
More ideas on how we depict people as villains to turn them into objects of hate can be found in the essay The Migration of News Images in Image and Action. Additional material on the way desires involving sex, transgression, and aggression, have been released by popular culture will be added in the future.