Fake Utopias

by Ken Sanes

The culture of images and simulation offers us our own fantasies back again in the guise of something authentic. One of the most important fantasies it offers is of a perfect world in which we transcend the limits of society, the self and physical reality. It offers us an opportunity to experience this both in its avowed fictions and in fictions that masquerade as something authentic. In Disney and Las Vegas; in the happy endings of movies and television, in the instant utopias of advertising, in the false promises of politicians, we are invited to pretend that life can be made perfect. Much of this can be viewed as a substitute satisfaction -- we really do yearn for better selves and a better world but that is something we can only create through time and work. But it can be had temporarily and in fantasy in the instant and phony utopias of popular culture.

These excerpts provide some all-too-brief examples of these invented utopias. Other excerpts on this subject can be found in the section on "Society as a Simulation Machine".

From Cities of Simulation: Disney World:

When you put all this together, it becomes obvious that Disney offers visitors the fictionalized realization of humanity's deepest dream: transcendence. In Disney World, we transcend the mundane. In place of the world we normally find ourselves in, in which most opportunities are closed to us and most human motives are concealed, we go on a journey through symbolic worlds that are objective and material, but seemingly as weightless, carefree and fantastic as the imagination.

In all this, Disney undoes the dry "scientism" of the world view of contemporary societies. It was the German sociologist Max Weber who said that in the modern age we are witnessing the disenchantment of the world with the rise of science and the declining influence of religion. The creations of simulation culture, such as Disney, seem to be re-enchanting it for us with the new promise that art and technology can re-create our surroundings in the form of an updated version of contemporary romance stories, with mythologies of space flight, aliens, time travel and lost worlds.

But Disney doesn't only offer objectified fantasies. Through the power of simulation, it also shows us the way technology will give us power over, and freedom from, the world. Disney takes the various possibilities of technology -- that one day we will go into outer space or travel freely across the globe or evolve a perfect society -- and it creates the simulation of these things so we can enjoy in fictional form, now, the powers we hope to enjoy, later, in reality.

These qualities make Disney the ultimate showcase for the way technology will lead to transcendence of the mundane world. In place of the promise of modernism, which told us that we could realistically hope that technology would usher in an age of affluence, power over nature, and rationality, it reveals a "postmodern" promise that has emerged out of modernism, in which we are told that technology will allow us to escape the conditions of society and the physical world.

We can thus see in Disney, two trends that define the age: the desire to escape the constraints of life through the new magic wand of technology and the desire to pretend that we have done so in invented worlds of simulation. One might say that if the great myth or "meta-story" of America is the story of progress, then Disney is a place that masquerades as the happy ending, in which progress culminates in a utopia of transcendence that undoes the fallen state of nature, society and ourselves.

These characteristics place Disney World in a long line of utopias invented by Western civilization. But unlike most others, which were rendered in fiction or put into practice in small communities, in Disney, a perfect world is seemingly brought to life with simulation and offered as a vacation paradise.

One of the ironies in all this is that Disney falsifies our desire for a better world, even as it expresses it. On the one hand, it expresses our desire for an idealized existence that is innocent of evil and imperfection. But it does so by inviting us to regress to a state of happiness before the fall from childhood, with simplified visions of life that filter out the difficult truths of the self and society.

The contradictions inherent in Disney World are deepened by the fact that it is only able to show us its vision of utopia by turning us into passive consumers who are taken for rides. In Disney World, we can thus see a danger that is at the essence of our relationship to technology. In the way it does everything for us and encourages us to both think of ourselves as children and lose ourselves in images and fantasy, Disney reveals the way technology can promote narcissistic personality traits in those who use it.

Disney is a cautionary tale that shows us, not only the wonders of the future, but the danger that progress might cause humanity to regress, allowing it to lose itself in an environment of automation, simulation and reassuring intellectual illusions. In Disney, we see the ultimate attempt to rely on technology, in which even experiences are manufactured for us by machines.

From Advertising and the Invention of Postmodernity

Many television commercials thus give us another variation on Umberto Eco's absolute fakes; they are false promises that make everything seem better than it is. Like theme parks, they make mundane realities look like transcendent utopias. One might say that if Disney is a permanent world's fair that creates fictions intended to reveal the way technology will one day free us from the constraints of life, then television advertising is a virtual world's fair that creates fictions about how the products of technology can free us now.

Like Disney, all of these 20-second spots end up inventing a postmodern world for us. It isn't that we live in anything that deserves to be called postmodern; it is just that the fictionalizers of American culture keep pretending we do, and inviting us to pretend along. A truly postmodern society (although I doubt it would call itself that) would be one that is able to use technology to significantly transcend the limits imposed by the physical world. We aren't a postmodern society. We merely play one on television

Cities of Simulation: Las Vegas:

In Luxor, we can see many of the qualities that define Disney World but with a different twist. Like Disney, Luxor creates visual spectacles that are intended to evoke large emotions -- surprise, amazement, wonder -- rather than deep or nuanced feelings. It is the architectural equivalent of a hyperbole, inviting visitors into a world full of exclamation points.

And like Disney, it tries to overwhelm visitors with real and virtual forms of space, perspective and motion. Visitors experience the space of the atrium, which is so large it contains its own buildings. Going into the attractions, visitors find themselves in virtual spaces simulated with images as they appear to plummet into the earth and fly through the earth's interior.

Luxor employs all these effects in an attempt to evoke the sense of mystery that has always been attached to ancient Egypt, of transcending the mundane world and knowing what cannot be told. It plays to the same desire to escape the limits of life and make contact with a numinous realm that motivates people to meditate on crystals and chart the travels of nonexistent UFO's. But Luxor merely simulates magic and mysticism; in the end, the only mysteries it has to offer are special effects provided by technology.

From Popular Fiction and the Quest for Freedom:

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.

From Contemporary Storytelling:
Tales of Life Way After the Fall

Most works of fiction, from movies to stories told around the dying embers of a campfire, work their magic on us by employing a single set of elements. They start by showing us characters who are in a state of exile from what they desire and who seek a kind of paradise in which their desires will be fulfilled. In some instances, this state of exile is quite literal and the characters are trapped in alien landscapes, dungeons, desert islands, and assorted other uninviting locales. In others, they are imprisoned in evil societies -- in exile from the decent society they know can exist -- or from the object of their love. But, whatever the more obvious form of exile they suffer from, they are often in a state of internal exile, as well, in which they are separated from their own courage or compassion or other desired traits, until they find the qualities in themselves that will allow them to change their circumstances.

In many stories, the work of fiction takes these two states of exile -- internal and external -- and it ends them by transporting the main characters to the paradise of a happy ending. Both we and the characters go from a state of anger, fear, suffering, and unfulfilled desire, to a sense of confidence, satisfaction, safety and power; and from an unjust situation to a just one, at the same time. In other words, the happy ending does something we wish life could be counted on to do: it transforms anxiety into hope and gives us a corrective emotional experience that temporarily undoes the trauma of life.

From Simulation: Art and Technology
Masquerading as Life

When you put these two trends together, it becomes obvious that contemporary society is trying to create a perfect world: to portray one, promise us one and put us inside one. This material and symbolic culture represents a daring attempt to escape the limits and imperfections of life; to undo the fall, if you will, and bring about a paradise centered around our selves. As it advances, it is surrounding us with a slave technology that works for us, thinks for us, provides what we desire in the form of authentic objects and realistic facsimiles, even daydreams for us with lifelike illusions.

This culture is obviously an expression of deep yearnings and a fulfillment of deep fantasies inside us. Each of us has, as part of our mental make-up, what might be termed a simulation complex and a reality complex, expressing our desire to control fictional worlds and the actual world, to create a realm of constant satisfaction and humane values, organized around ourselves. We have expressed these desires in all the invented worlds of fiction -- stories, dramas, games -- and we have expressed them in all the practical efforts to refashion our surroundings into a home. Perhaps we also express it in the way we project our philosophies onto the world, turning the world, in our imaginations, into a realm of mythic creatures or seeing it as embodying our morality. These desires are expressions of our narcissism, as well as our practical recognition that the world as it is doesn't live up to what it can and should be.

Our conscious and unconscious thoughts about controlling real and virtual worlds are only a part of what is inside us that is relevant to these changes. Our minds also include an acute awareness of the various possibilities for good and bad as they relate to ourselves, society and nature. They include an awareness that we are fallen selves, trapped in our own psychodynamics and narcissism; that we live in fallen societies, permeated by the misuse of power and by deception, which is a product of our fallen nature as it is caught up in the world of scarcity and necessity we find in nature. And our minds include the awareness that we live amid a fallen world of nature that limits us at every turn, and that we have turned into a product of our own fallen selves. Of course, we are also aware of the good we have achieved -- our fallen selves and societies have still managed to build civilization; we live lives with considerable fulfillment; we bring up new generations; and have turned nature into a source of material riches, for many.

In addition to being aware of our fallen state, and of our accomplishments, we are also aware of what we and the world could be. We know intrinsically that we have the ability to create an unfallen world: to re-create ourselves so we move beyond our primitive psychodynamics, and are strong enough to speak and hear the truth, so we are compassionate and able to enjoy the riches of the world, and so that we have an aesthetic, inherent, revulsion to evil and degradation. We know that we can re-create society and nature in the image of our humane values, now more than ever, as technology expands our power.

All of this is very much on our minds. It is what we express in fiction and nonfiction, both of which tell endless tales of our fallen state and our desire to undo the fall. In our traditional fictions and the new fictions based on complex simulations; and in our actions on the world around us, we express our desire to re-create ourselves, society and nature as we know and believe they should be.

Unfortunately, as many writers have made a good living reminding us, efforts to create a heaven on earth often end up being turned into something very different, by devils that are a part of our own personalities. And that is exactly what we are seeing, today -- the potential that simulation and technology have to free us is being used by those who see it as a way to succeed in the various markets of the economy, politics and culture. In particular, we are now being offered the greatest of all products and sales pitches -- the illusion of an unfallen self, an unfallen society and unfallen nature. In advertising, malls, theme parks, political speeches, and endless products, we are being invited to live a life of fantasy, full of instant paradises, painless solutions, happy endings, and heroic quests.

These creations take the story lines of traditional myth and fiction and use them to create simplified, exaggerated images, based on spectacle, that often emotionally dumb down what they portray. They tend to filter their subjects through the lens of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, so that everything from rain forests to election campaigns gets turned into a kind of movie adventure. Ultimately, they offer us not only fake realities that take us beyond the mundane, but false opportunities for freedom in which we are encouraged to escape the truths of the self and society.

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