The Journey This Site Would Take You On

by Ken Sanes

One of the goals of this web site is to help readers break the symbiotic tie to our (their) culture and to help free people up from intellectual, emotional and political dependence on, and fear of, those in power. Stories and story-based simulations, as well as other forms of representation, can help mystify and trap us or they can help free us.

From The Real Self in a Virtual World

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.

This excerpt is from the essay on the movie Logan's Run, about a man and woman who escape from an enclosed city controlled by a computer-dictator and discover the larger world of nature and independence outside. They then return to the city to tell its inhabitants that there is a larger world outside the city and a better way of life beyond their current state of dependence on the computer. The movie is a metaphor for how we might escape from our own immersion in our own society, breaking free from a state of dependence on those in power, who are constantly trying to enclose us in illusions.

Readers who haven't read the essay this is excerpted from will get the gist of the message, if not all the references.

From Logan's Run 

When Logan stands before his people, now a prophet, screaming the truth to them, that is the authors of the movie speaking to us and, when I quote it, that is me speaking to you. In effect, that is the movie offering us Logan as a symbol for the savior we are all waiting for, the one who will rescue us by having the courage to tell the truth.

But we can't get too lost in that symbolism or we end up reenacting martyr and hero fantasies from childhood. It isn't about the authors of the movie or me or you being a savior and leading anyone out of the wilderness. It is about all of us finding and offering each other truth and having the courage to speak up so the system -- of mind and family, media, politics, business and culture -- can evolve into something less corrupt, something that embodies our true selves. It is about all of us developing the ability to lift ourselves out of our immersion in our own story, and society as a whole doing so, as well, to see it as a single pattern, from a sympathetic but critical distance, much in the way that Northrop Frye says we can do with fiction and much as good psychotherapists do for their clients.

The movie, in fact, does just this for the audience. Early on, we are immersed in the city. It seems to us exotic, menacing, alluring, and overpowering. But, toward the end, as the characters walk along a beach in the vast world, heading back to the city, with the intent of freeing it, we see the city as a single structure and it looks small in the distance. And as Logan and the old man talk about all those people shut up in there, being killed at 30, we see the city as something pathetic, a kind of shut-in in need of rescue.

In offering us all these possible messages, the movie addresses us as a society that has neither traditional forms of authority nor rational forms of authority in place that can carry out such a project. This idea is all too obvious in the vision it offers of its new humanity as a race of children who will have to grow up on their own. Despite a weak father, in the old man, who introduced the characters to life, they find themselves in a world without fathers, not unlike the one we live in, today.

Whether there is a genuine paradise waiting for Logan and this re-emerged humanity, one suited to a community of free adults who are strong enough to use the powers of the computer wisely and without danger, that is something the movie leaves unsaid. It is a question today's audience, some two decades after the movie was made, is now confronting.

This excerpt calls on the news media to be our Logan and reveal the truth about how power is really exercised in society, instead of remaining in a state of subordination to those in power.

From The News Media's Effort To Hide from Significant Truth in Image and Action

In this century, we have witnessed the emergence of two great ethical philosophies, which converge on the same essential idea. The first was Gandhi's ethic of nonviolence, which calls on each of us to break the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and revenge -- of action and reaction -- by recognizing the common humanity we share with those we consider our enemies. Gandhi put this philosophy into practice by developing a technique of militant nonviolence that was intended to force the British to see the humanity of those they oppressed, and the inhumanity of their own actions. He recognized that what he was doing was an effort to get at truth, and that the truth he was trying to get at -- and get others to see -- wasn't an abstract or disinterested or scientific truth. Instead, it was an essential truth about the moral grounding of human identity, which has the power to free those who recognize it.

The second advance was Freud's discovery that we are enslaved by illusion -- that we misperceive the events of adult life in terms of the fears and desires of childhood; and that we torture ourselves for nonexistent crimes and see enemies and dangers where they don't exist. For Freud, it was the ability to see this truth that had the power to free us from illusion. Some of those who came after Freud brought his ideas closer to Gandhi's by saying that we have to break the cycle of conscious and unconscious deception, and of symbolic (and physical) violence, that is inflicted on each generation by the one before, which results in the distortions of neurosis.

Despite their differences, both of these philosophies are based on the same idea – that those who fight for liberating truth cannot become enmeshed in the cycle of untruth and violence that they are trying to break. The nonviolent activist refuses to meet violence with violence but instead seeks to make those who are violent recognize that he and they share the same humanity. The psychoanalyst and psychotherapist refuses to be drawn into the client’s transference and play the various roles of seduction and persecution that are a defense from knowing the truth of the client’s past. Similarly, the family therapist refuses to be drawn into family games, with all their secret alliances. Instead, the good analyst and therapist seeks to ally him or herself with that part of the client and the family that is seeking health and truth, and that wants to see the deceptions of the mind for what they are.

These forms of philosophy and practice contain an essential insight for contemporary journalism. They tell us that what journalists should be doing is standing outside the cycle of symbolic and physical violence, corruption and manipulated information that makes up the power relations of society, so they can show audiences the truth of the system and how it works. But, instead, they, themselves, are immersed in this system of untruth. Like other players in this system, they engage in symbolic violence against reputations; they manipulate information to achieve various ends; they make covert alliances, and offer the public forms of untruth that masquerade as truth. And they do so even as they depict themselves as honest brokers who stand outside the system and expose it flaws to public scrutiny.

This essential act of corruption on the part of the news media is all the more disturbing when we begin to see the nature of the system that journalists have allowed themselves to become a part of. Today, large-scale decision-making in America (and other nations) is, to a considerable extent, under the control of a kind of virtual "oligarchy", made up of corporations, political groups, and media. All manipulate government to achieve their own ends and all use television and other forms of mass media to shape public opinion.

One potential antidote to this subversion of democracy is an independent news media with the courage and integrity to expose the system to the light of day, so that the force of public opinion, shame, and law can bring about a correction. But it turns out that most of the news organizations with the power to do this are themselves both owned and controlled by other players in the system, and are also, themselves, players, seeking to manipulate information for their own ends. Television news is owned by the same massive corporations that exert control over much of the rest of economy and culture. The journalists who control it, divine what their bosses want or, in some instances, they follow orders directly, and are thus careful to shape the news so as to not challenge their corporate owners. Meanwhile, television journalists manipulate information in ways designed to attract audiences, to push their own political agendas and to aggrandize themselves so they will appear as heroes and celebrities before the public. Thus, the news media, which should be exposing the corruptions of the system, is itself enmeshed in the system.

Instead of fully revealing the reality of a society in which everything is a tool of marketing, and everything is for sale, television news is now itself for sale, and engaged in endless efforts to shape its stories to conform to the demands of marketing. Instead of fully revealing the way reputations are ruined to get political enemies and attain power, television news itself ruins reputations and gets enemies. And instead of revealing the way virtually everything we are told is simplified, exaggerated, hyped and staged, television news simplifies, exaggerates, hypes and stages.

Of course, the news media does reveal a certain amount about all this -- about others. But when it tries to tell significant truths about the system, it increasingly comes up against the same wall -- that it is, itself, now at the center of all these trends. The media today is the story. But it is a story that those who control the media will not allow to be told.

Instead, the news media pretends that "news’ is primarily about what politicians do because covering politicians is safer than telling explosive truths about itself and the corporations for which it works. Even the journalists who still have a sense that journalism is a calling and not merely a business, spin out the same stale stories rather than challenge colleagues and those in executive offices in a way that might endanger their own power and position.

What we need, than, is a news media that is willing to step outside the system and tell the truth to a public that is hungry for it. The truth and the story is that America today is partly a democracy and, as noted, partly a kind of "oligarchy", in which governing classes with both conflicting and similar goals, compete and cooperate, and share power with each other, manipulating media to attain their ends. The story is about corporations, political organizations, bureaucrats, news and entertainment media, lobbyists and advertising and marketing specialists of various kinds, and how all work the system for their own and each other’s benefit, and fight each other for control by shaping words and images.

The right to control or influence the news media is one of the prizes that all of these players fight over and the news media is, itself, one of the major players in the game.

This brief excerpt looks at some of the paradoxes that arise when the news media uses representations -- news stories -- to expose the false representations of those in power. Another version of this idea is suggested in the excerpt from the essay on Logan's Run in the section on simulation confusion.

From Sadism, Insensitivity and Grandiosity in Image and Action

The unreality of news stories is further enhanced when one considers that journalists must use news stories to convey the masks that politicians put on for the public, which means they are reduced to conveying their own images of the manipulated images created by politicians, and must find ways to ensure that their second-hand images tell truths about the realities the politicians want to hide.

We thus have a number of challenges that lie before journalism: To reveal the reality of events, without sadism or insensitivity; to convey the passion of events without becoming too involved. and to convey more reality, in general. The great dilemma is to find a way to convey reality when the means that is used - the news story - is itself, a form of artifice - a narrative and a performance.

The final two essays look at the way fiction can help free us to lead a more authentic life.  The first is about situation comedies. The second is a condensed description of the theory of fiction contained in the three sections of this site that are parts of the book The Landscape of Fiction. It describes how stories can help free us, just as a number of previous excerpts describe how news can help free us. What is said here is true of many stories, including movies, television and other story-based forms of simulation.

From  Situation Comedies and the Liberating Power of Sadism

But, in addition to everything described above, sitcoms and comedy in general also offer something else, and this is where things start to get interesting. They use the liberating power of sadism to help free us from our world of illusion.

In the "real" world, every one of us weaves a spell of falsehood around ourselves and others. We are constantly spinning out justifications, defenses, pretensions and outright lies, in the way we think about ourselves and present ourselves to other people. To hear any of us tell it, our motives are pure and our cause is just; our abilities are impressive; our opponents are venal characters; and whatever went wrong, it's not our fault.

But comedy will have nothing to do with this way of depicting the world. Instead, it takes human imperfection and it calls it by its name, allowing the audience to take sadistic pleasure in what it exposes. It pushes away all the defenses and self-justifications, and exaggerates what is wrong with us, in order to show us ourselves as we are. We are obsessed with sex and with denying that we are obsessed with sex, and sitcoms show it. We gorge on entire pies in the face of life's difficulties and sitcoms show it. We hate our bosses in private and suck up to them in person, and sitcoms exploit the possibilities for all they are worth.

Not only does the sitcom refuse to be taken in by all the pretension and defense that covers up the way we really are, but it turns this into one of its favorite targets. It shows us society as a world of staging and masks and the rhetorical manipulation of words and ideas, in which everyone is engaged in the idealization and defense of themselves, while subtly and not so subtly preying on those around them.

In all this, the sitcom is a way of being awake to the world. It says no to the lies and yes to the power of calling things by their right name.

In showing us things as they are, sitcoms liberate us to see critical truths about ourselves and others, and about institutions and society. By confirming our negative perceptions, they free us up to avow what we may perceive but not symbolize to ourselves in words, or what we may symbolize to ourselves but not say out loud, or what we may say out loud but not say publicly. They give us permission to know what we know and say what we know.

In effect, the sitcom, like comedy in general, helps free us up through the liberating power of sadistic mockery. It offers sadism that isn't merely a defense against self-injury and an act of revenge, but that is also in the service of our search for personal freedom and significant truth.


Popular Fiction and the Quest for Freedom

Movies and TV programs begin (more or less) when people use their thoughts and fantasies to craft stories that are intended to bring a fictional world to life. But many of those thoughts and fantasies appear in these stories only in disguised form, since the creators are not themselves conscious of what they are expressing. Then, as audiences, we perceive what they put into the work, also mostly outside of awareness. Finally, through criticism -- discussion, writing, etc. -- we become aware of what we were responding to in the work and how it fits in with our own personalities and minds.

The meanings that the creators put into these stories include representations of any or all of the following: mind, family, birth, society and culture, politics, myth and religion, and they also contain ideas on the course and purpose of life. But all of these domains of meaning are usually used to tell the same kind of story in which characters are depicted as growing into something or as breaking free from some kind of bondage. What the characters achieve through these experiences is maturity, authenticity, the ability to experience the richness and importance of life, fairness, or some other desired goal.

An example is the movie Logan’s Run, which is about a future humanity trapped by a computer in an enclosed city. Inside, the inhabitants experience a life of endless sensual delights. They believe they are in a paradise, but they are really a prison in which they are infantilized and their lives are controlled. In the end, humanity escapes and creates a new civilization based on work and responsibility. As I discuss in a long essay on Logan’s Run, the movie simultaneously offers disguised depictions of a mind being freed from neurosis; of a baby being born; of children growing to adulthood and leaving home; of rebels overthrowing a dictatorship; of humanity escaping from an underworld back to the surface of the earth; of Pagan Rome becoming Christian; of Adam and Eve leaving the garden; and of contemporary society going through a transformation toward a more authentic culture. The movie tells many different stories at the same time, but all of them are about the growth of the individual and society to a new level of existence.

Eventually, after we've analyzed a great many stories like this, we can create a map of the domains of meaning that are part of popular culture. We will discover that all the stories of popular culture -- in movies, TV, news, political speeches, advertisements, and so on -- are based on the same set of ideas. All include the same themes that center around our desire to evolve into whole selves and good societies, in the face of fears and desires, and obstacles that block our path. At that point, we will have achieved a kind of psychoanalysis of culture, as a disguised and undisguised expression of what is on our minds. Culture and our selves will then become more transparent.

What we discover after we have done this kind of analysis is that works of popular fiction and nonfiction allow us to vicariously experience the kind of selves and societies we know should exist. Most notably, they offer us happy endings that are the sigh of the oppressed creature, giving us a moment -- but only a moment -- to experience the life and society we desire. But the experience is only temporary and only via the invented world of the story.

Nevertheless, through the magic of empathy and identification, these same stories do at least temporarily transform us, giving us a vision of other ways of being and making us more open and receptive to their ideas. As we begin to recognize that this is what they are doing, we begin to face a task. If what is on our minds is a desire to lead a fuller and more authentic life and to do so in a good society, than clearly this is an essential element of what our lives are about. Works of fiction aren't only efforts to experience this vicariously; they are also "symbolic" models and guides for how we might approach our own lives. They are a "game plan" for life and social action, which we create in disguised form, and perceive largely outside of awareness.

Our task then is to take what we experience vicariously and in fantasy, through fiction, and find ways to make it actual. We then go from being audiences who experience the story, to being critics who understand the story, to being people who act on what we know. The stories of fiction and nonfiction thus contain within them the potential to be catalysts for human freedom. In the end, they tell us that we face a choice: we can endlessly pretend to change the world and ourselves in our stories, or we can genuinely change the world and ourselves. If we choose the latter path, we will then have new stories to tell and to learn from, and, although it may sound a little maudlin, our lives will then become more like the happy endings of popular culture.

-- End --

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