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The cake is a lie*

Personal fact: I’ve gambled for money exactly 3 times in my life. The first was at a pool hall, where I was drinking under age and hustling some friends at 9-ball long ago. A Guy on the verge of becoming a proper junkie was on the con and smelled my teenage ego a mile away. He came up and challenged me to a shell game, the original where you have to guess which of three little cups is hiding the pea. I denied him and challenged him to a game of 9 ball. Cleverly, he challenged a couple of my friends for no money, and they both won. So when he came back to me, I of course put 10 currency units on the table and played, and, of course, I lost. Stupidly, I lost again at double or nothing. I should’ve been paying more attention when my friends played, because they could have said that the pea was up his ass, and it would have been. As soon as that cup covered the pea, it disappeared so that it could reappear wherever it needed to be for them to find it. They weren’t the mark. And when it came my turn, it wasn’t that I couldn’t find the pea, it’s that there was no longer a pea to find.

Le poids du pois.

Le poids du pois.


A few days ago, I tweeted a link to a story that seemed to confirm the idea that the simulated reality of the hypermediatized, post-modern mass society was, as expected, suffusing another culture that at least claims to be very different. The story was based on a picture of a semi-trailer sized TV screen on a square in Beijing, and there was a stark, almost hyperbolic contrast between the grey, smoggy, dystopian foreground of people on the street in Beijing and the image on the screen, which was a sunset behind the clouds on a red sky, just like you used to see as the background for Jack Handey words of wisdom. The narrative was that the air in Beijing had gotten so bad that the government was trying to palliate the people with this image of the sunset.


My comment:


I hope this doesn't corrupt the image of low-tech old-timerism implied in the footnote.

I hope this doesn’t corrupt the image of low-tech old-timerism implied in the footnote.


Then Nachlasse, that clever son a…, debunked. He sent me a link to a story that debunks the image. It turns out that the sunset picture was just a ploy in a marketing campaign for domestic tourism. Joke’s on me? Well, yeah, sure, but only by virtue of the fact the the joke is on all of us. You see, it’s worse than I made it out to be.


In the tweet I referenced the movie ‘The Matrix’, as I often do. Ask yourself: when Neo gets ejected out of his cocoon/battery terminal and is born (or ‘thrown’ as the Heideggerians would say) into the world, how does he know he’s really out of the Matrix? Sure, he has the scars and plugs leftover from being hooked up in the Matrix, but when Cypher is eating a steak and making a deal with Agent Smith in the Matrix, he doesn’t have the scars and plugs. How can Neo know he’s out when he’s out? What could he experience in the ‘real’ world that he couldn’t experience in the Matrix?


If you get VD in the Matrix, it'll itch in real life.

If you get VD in the Matrix, it’ll itch in real life.

In metaphysics, this is what is known as the ‘brain in a vat’ problem, i.e. how could you know that you’re not just a collection of neurons being stimulated just right to produce the sensations you have artificially. And would you know you’ve ever achieved vat-independent perception?

In our omni-mediatized world, where everything is a representation, and the value of any representation depends on other representations, the problem is called ‘hyperreality’. You’ve seen representations of China’s pollution, and the representation is so real that it supervenes on a mundane advertising depiction of a sunset. Your, which is to say ‘my’, apprehension of a sunset depends on the representations of pollution. And the debunking is another representation of how these two representations relate to each other. I mean, the same ubiquitous media that instilled the prejudices about the pollution and the impression of the sun is now representing those previous representations as mere images. It’s a picture of a picture of a picture, a system of Chinese whispers (or ‘telephone’, as my politically correct guardians called it decades ago).


It's called 'The Human Condition'. Isn't it though?

It’s called ‘The Human Condition’. Isn’t it though?

Now, since all these representations only depend on each other for meaning and intelligibility, what is the code, the means of interpretation, that will get you to the truth? How do you know the debunking isn’t bunk?

Getting back to the sunset, yeah, I suppose I got suckered. I clearly didn’t realize that I was being conned by a sign that had been detached from any signified. But the mistake wasn’t in falsely identifying a simulated reality, a glitch that makes the Matrix visible. On the contrary, the incident clearly shows that a thoroughly mediatized reality is indistinguishable from a mass hallucination. My mistake was in thinking that the Matrix had an outside, that it had a boundary beyond which it’s form and activity would be visible, that the pea was somehow bound to the table.




*Operator informs me that ‘the cake is a lie’ is a has-been meme, one that has served its role on the Internet and is now worn-out and ready for retirement. But here’s the thing: he mentioned having seen it on early versions of Portal. I had no idea it was from Portal. I thought it was from some edition of Zelda or other. The phrase has a function totally disconnected from any context or history. Its meaning is just a function of its detached journey through the lexica of Internet communication, and it can be used and read without either party knowing what it means. So it’s actually a case in point, QED.

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7 Responses

  1. My mistake was in thinking that the Matrix had an outside, that it had a boundary beyond which it’s form and activity would be visible, that the pea was somehow bound to the table.

    Do your narrative a favor and avoid hallucinogens; recursively escaping limited planes of reality – only to recognize all the trappings of the last confinement – is the shortcut to ultimate disappointment.

    Even at their best, brains only come in vats.

  2. We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?

    Ahem… I’d say the most potent factor in this ridiculous Chinese story is that your need to know the local “truth” was dwarfed by your need to feed some narrative (“China is bent on reshaping reality rather than confront its problems”, I suppose). Same thing for the reader here – I had no reason to doubt what I read.

    The multiplication of proxies could be to blame. But before that, there is the fact that China is far away, with people I only ever heard about through western representations and exactly one westernized teacher, We are in the same situation that a contemporary reader of Marco Polo – forced to rely on very fallible intermediaries, even moreso because we share with them the incestuous proximity of a similar worldview to begin with.

    Until I am there, China is still the land of unicorns/”soulless superpower”, America the land of Eldorado/Hollywood, etc…

    Is it that bad to not experience directly much of the world? To not experience China first hand? Well, I’d tell you I need to be “informed” and “worldly” for some reason, but that’s what TV, my teachers, etc… taught me…

    PS, and relevant: A good rule of thumb concerning Internet memes is that, by the time YOU, particular individual, hear about it, the joke has already been run into the ground. Can’t escape your limitations and pretend to be “in” (something you and I definitely aren’t), even in cyberspace.

  3. I’m not sure you know what you’re trying to figure out. A genuine inquisition – what do you mean by truth? It seems like your juxtaposition to the matrix is a need to represent the “real” situation – if representations are for you the way in which you codify images of thought, then you seem to be asking how do you find the one true discourse that sustains knowledge/power when everything is layered upon representations.

    Do you see what you’re doing? In conflating representations with truth as the singular discourse of the epoch, you totally obscure the problem at hand. If you’re seeking discourses, there’s no need to consider representations because it is all it is, all you need to do is find the source that characterizes knowledge/power. If you want to engage in representations and you’re trying to figure out the ‘real’ world – then one way to do this is via the psychoanalytic method of subjectivity which you are most familiar with. Truth as intent reveals the underlying mode of subjectivity, which is always contrasted to a “neutral” other as subject, and reality is that subjectivity itself which everyone can then proceed to take as God.

    I’m trying to figure out alternate modes of thought, I don’t have any answer, but I’m working on it.

  4. achtungbitteFebruary 10, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    the thing is, the cake wasnt a lie.

  5. @Nachlasse: I’m not so much looking for a means to ground discourse so as to filter the real truth from the representational hogwash. I doubt that’s possible, as do you. My suspicion is that there’s some middle ground between the representational hogwash of mass media/discourse and some just barely mediated subjective experience. I’m looking for the threshold and its conditions of possibility. What are the characteristics of shared, non-bullshit representations and at what point do they go off the rails and become matrixized?

    I’m looking forward to your alternative thought of mode. And FWIW, I prefer ‘inquistion’. :)

    @vorsichtdanke: Now you’re just being Kr-why-P71c

Got insight?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] the possibility of finding a real under all the junk, and while Neo’s looking for just that, it’s never clear that he can ever actually access it. On the level of the action movie, everything is coherent […]