- “The World Will Be Tlön”: Mapping the Fantastic onto the Virtual
This essay revisits one of the key texts of the fantastic, Jorge Luis Borges’ classic 1940 short fiction, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges’ short parable of an entirely simulated, fictitious world has become one of the key texts of postmodernism, a touchstone in our understanding of the blurry lines of demarcation between reality and its copies. But it also has much to teach us about our current preoccupation with the creation of virtual worlds in the digital age. To this end, the paper will discuss the capacity of the digital to create virtual worlds that, like the fabulatory world of Tlön, are excessive, “too real.” In our contemporary virtual culture, the troubling question at the heart of Borges’ fiction is still as urgent—do we need reality any more? The essay also examines the uncanny cultural fallout of the virtual in terms of the publication of a literary hoax by Australian journalist Guy Rundle. Rundle’s piece, ostensibly a homage to the power of Borges’ writing to convince us of the reality of the unreal, concerned a purported but little known journey Borges took to Melbourne in 1938. In pursuing Borges’ imaginary footsteps, a peculiar and unsettling reality starts to emerge.
The world may be fantastic. The world will be Tlön.
The cartographers of antiquity have left a profound and fearsome legacy. Only now can we speak of its dread morphology. Spurning the severe abstractions of scale, they achieved exact correspondence: the map occupies the territory, an exact copy in every detail. Here, after centuries of vanity, is exactitude in science, pitiless, coincident, and seamless. I have stood on the threshold of the cave, having escaped the bondage of shadows. I have climbed to the top of the mountain and sought out the tattered ruins of that map. I have discoursed with the scattered dynasty of solitary men who have changed the face of the world. I have come to offer my report on knowledge. I have come to tell you that the world will be Tlön.
The figure of the map covering the territory has become an indexical figure in discussions of postmodernism. It has come to stand for a problematic diminution of the real in the wake of a proliferating image culture, obsessed with refining the technologies of reproduction, making the copy even better than the real thing. As Hillel Schwartz, author of the remarkable Culture of the Copy, notes, with untimely emphasis, “the copy will transcend the original” (212).
Preoccupied with the relationship between reality and its copies, postmodernism deflects the idea of an absolute reality in favor of high-fidelity facsimiles. The passage from postmodernism to virtuality involves a shift from copying to simulating the world, from the reproductive practices of photography and film, to post-reproductive or simulation technologies such as telepresence, advanced digital imaging, virtual reality and other immersive environments. This journey from reproduction to simulation involves the disappearance of difference, the breakdown of binary metaphysics and all that we understand by the term representation. The movement from analogue to digital media is a significant event in the diminution of reality’s a priori status. It comes on the heels of a long artistic tradition of exploration into the relationship between reality and its representability.
Fantastic literature is one such mode that has actively explored this nexus of reality and representation, traditionally doing so through the distorting glass of allegory—whether it be in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, with his mythical Middle Earth, the dark and insular labyrinth of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, or the miraculous world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. In such writing, the creation of imaginary “other” worlds is astonishing, seductive in its realism, in the persuasive weight of presence it delivers. For the time of reading, Mordor’s fire and cobwebs are oppressively real, as is the stench and menace of Swelter’s kitchen, or the jungle’s embrace of a Spanish galleon, festooned with orchids. While fantasy is seen as a discrete form of writing, like science fiction or the gothic novel, it is still...