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The Real Self in a Virtual World: Popular Culture as an Expression of Human Nature

by Ken Sanes

Everyone -- at least everyone with a reasonably normal mind and brain -- has a true self that is partly buried beneath their everyday personality. This self is who each of us is and can become when our natural growth isn't interfered with by personal and cultural neurosis. It is us at those times when we feel whole and are psychologically strong enough to hear and speak the truth; when we are naturally assertive rather than fearful and aggressive; when we are open to other people and compassionate rather than being manipulative and secretive; and when we are capable of embracing life and enjoying the moment, without regressing into a neurotic secondary personality that is distorted by a defensive battle between fake desires on one side, and self-reproaches, prohibitions, and taboos on the other. It is us when we have a natural, aesthetic, revulsion to evil, including a revulsion to all those behaviors that violate and diminish ourselves and others. And it is us when we express our inherent desire to create and build and care for things, instead of destroying.

Contrary to what most of us have been led to believe, this self isn't merely something to strive for, an ideal that expresses what one might become. It is already part of us and is as natural to us as the cat's yawn is to the cat. In everyday life, we manifest it all the time, but it is mixed in with neurosis, so it is expressed mostly in a partial form, as a part of the secondary and false personality we often show to ourselves and the world.

This web site examines the way popular culture, including news, politics, movies and television, video games and the Internet, is forever revealing and concealing this true self. Like an individual mind, popular culture both expresses our desire to become this self and it disguises that desire, warding it off and urging us to lose ourselves in false satisfactions and illusions that are collective neurotic symptoms and defenses. Popular culture expresses our desire to become ourselves in its magnificent works of moral fiction, which evoke our yearning to live a full and honest life, see other people treated fairly, and share in a good society. And it conceals that desire by urging us to see life as a game of trivial pursuits and regressive pleasures. It gives us opportunities to expand our horizons even as it narrows our field of vision by drawing us into a realm of simplified entertainments.

It is these dual tendencies that this web site tries to understand by interpreting the products of contemporary culture. As part of this, it looks at the sensory creations and images of popular culture; the stories that popular culture tells; and the psychoanalytic, social and mythic domains of meaning that are embedded in the stories.

But this site views our desire to become our true selves as, itself, only one part of a larger story that can be described, without exaggeration, as the master plot of human existence. This plot or central narrative is about how we are all trapped, not only in our own psychodynamics, but in a realm of fallen society in which collective neurosis and the misuse of power keep us from becoming ourselves. And it is about how we are trapped in a realm of fallen nature that imposes limits and scarcity on us -- a realm that isn't only "objective" but that is also shaped by our own actions into something that interferes with human development, even as it supplies the riches on which our material life is based. The master plot of our existence, then, is one in which we are stuck in a fallen version of society, personality and nature, in exile from the better, unfallen, life we know should exist. The stories of popular culture, which are embedded in everything from theme parks to political speeches, are expressions of this master plot. They draw their power from their depiction of it and from their ability to put us in touch with our desire to give it a new ending, one in which we transcend our limitations and create a new order based on our true identity. In essence, they are about our existential predicament -- we have fallen and we can't get up.

The story-based simulations of popular culture (and all culture) are based on two kinds of illusion. First, they trick our senses and minds with their realism so we will suspend disbelief and react as if the events they depict are really happening. This is the realm of believable scripts and dialogue, lifelike computer images, ultra-realistic stage sets, and all the other tricks of storytelling that make movies, novels, and video games, et al, seem to come to life. Second, the stories and fabricated worlds of popular culture offer us forbidden ideas that are disguised as something socially acceptable, so we can safely enjoy these ideas and the experiences they evoke in us, while denying to ourselves that we are doing so. These two forms of illusion or disguise are what makes it possible for the fictions of popular culture to draw us into invented landscapes that embody the landscape of the conscious and unconscious mind.

As some of the essays on the site try to illustrate, movies and television often use these two kinds of illusion to tell stories that have a number of, often unacknowledged, levels of meaning. These stories are about society and power, and about our own psychodynamics and personal development, and, at times, about mythic beings. Although they usually focus on adults who discover their true selves, they often offer disguised depictions of children growing up in spite of regressive urges and obstacles put in their way by controlling parents, and about societies maturing to a new level, at the same time. In other words, they depict the maturation and freeing up of the individual and society with the same images and story lines, offering us rich accounts of how we might seek to undo our fallen state.

This is particularly evident in the science fiction works referred to above, in which the heroes free themselves and society from the illusions of false utopias and the manipulations of those in power. As the site discusses in the section on post-apocalyptic fiction, these works simultaneously tell stories about minds being freed from neurosis; children growing to adulthood despite controlling parents; babies being born; adults finding their true selves; and societies evolving into more ethical social orders, as well as stories about myth and religion taken from the classical world, from the Old and New Testament, and from the myths and religions of other peoples.

Ultimately, these works offer us models for how we might act ourselves, in ways that would simultaneously advance our own development and that of society. Since the models they offer are communicated mostly from the unconscious of storytellers to that of audiences, it is up to criticism to reveal the liberating truths contained in these works.

But the two kinds of illusion described above aren't used only to create pleasant fictions. They are also used by those who would have us mistake fiction for fact. The politicians playing fake characters as part of scripted pseudo-events; the TV journalists reinventing a more exciting version of events with staging, clever editing and storytelling; and the advertisers giving their products a luster that is as phony as the television news media's version of events -- all of them create fictions that are disguised as something authentic or as a trustworthy account of something authentic. And all of their illusions seek to evoke taboo ideas and feelings, in disguised form, in audiences, about indulging aggressive and sexual desires, overthrowing internalized parents, regressing into infantile dependence, shamelessly indulging in narcissistic display and, at the other extreme, becoming whole and assertive selves.

Thus the creators of avowed fictions and fake facts all do the same thing -- they invent various kinds of unreality that play to the hidden realities of the human mind. Somewhat like the governing classes described by Marx, they create illusions intended to shape our perceptions of our own self-interest. But the illusions they create are simulations that play to the illusions of the mind. In effect, they create ideologies that masquerade as kinds of people, objects, places, situations and events -- ideologies embedded in characters, props, settings, and plots, that play to our fantasies, and our fears and desires.

All of their creations, from movies and television and theme parks to advertising, television news and political pseudo-events, embody forms of ideology, embedded in those characters and plots, whether or not we are supposed to mistake the characters and plots for something authentic. All draw us into invented "worlds" that make things look good or bad, and try to move us emotionally and psychologically toward their point of view. And all are forms of action that seek to exert power over us, and help or hurt various people and causes by playing on our psychodynamics and emotions.

The journey this site would lead you on, outside this realm of cultural invention, isn't a physical journey and it isn't about rejecting our lives or the comforts and pleasures offered by this symbolic and material culture. It also isn't about attaining some heightened state of consciousness with mystical overtones. Rather, it is about making the individual mind and the group "mind" of popular culture more transparent to our view and understanding, so we understand more about how others are trying to manipulate us and how we manipulate ourselves, thereby contributing to our ability to grow into a heightened maturity and freedom in which we are less susceptible to the lie, and to fear and hate.

I don't have any way of demonstrating this but it is about using truth as a tool to enhance life in its battle with death. It is about siding with love against hate, this being, I suspect, the same thing. That may be bad Freudian poetry but it feels intuitively right.

For those individuals who are readers of philosophy, literary theory and psychology, there is a way to sum up these and other ideas on the site. It results in a somewhat odd description but it also provides a good deal of information. The description goes like this: this site explores how the Maslowian self, held down and permeated by Freudian psychodynamics, is moving through history in a somewhat Hegelian fashion, expressing itself in the Frye-like fiction and nonfiction of contemporary simulation culture, which is a Berger-like constructed reality created in part by governing classes of the kind described by Marx, and which has, hidden in it, modified Marcuse-like yearnings for utopia. The goal of the site is to make all of this transparent by engaging in an archeology of the self that interprets the metaphors and narratives of popular culture, a la Ricoeur. In so doing, (and at the risk or adding five or six too many names) it seeks to be part of a critical social science of the kind described by Habermas, which is based on the idea that truth -- significant truth -- along with our engagement in events, can bring about a substantial change for the better in the state of the self and society.

If you don't know who most of those people are, it will have very little effect on your reading of this site. That description is only partly true anyway, and you don't need any familiarity with what it refers to, in order to appreciate what is here. What you do need is a willingness to take a symbolic journey into yourself and to think about your journey through life. These are the themes of fiction and they are the themes of our existence.


There is more on simulation at: The Age of Simulation
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1996-2012 Ken Sanes