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.
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.
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?
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).
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.