- Postmodern Archaic: The Return of the Real in Digital Virtuality
This paper argues against a transcendental version of postmodern virtuality, with its desire to achieve escape velocity, by showing that a major feature of postmodern culture is in fact realism, a brand of realism that is concerned with the archaic, the natural, the pristine and unspoiled. The roots of realism are briefly charted in order to show the continuity and reformatting of realism within postmodern virtual culture in the form of reality TV, with Survivor and more reflexive films dealing with reality and virtuality as the primary exemplars. Realism’s premise of mimesis and authenticity has evidently survived in postmodern culture, and as ever functions as ideological camouflage, despite being rigorously questioned in more reflexive postmodernisms. This suggests not so much the enduring utility of materialist critiques, but that virtual culture cannot float free of the physical, let alone the generic, that the acculturation of the archaic is likely to increase in the future, and that realism is unlikely to disappear. —gg
Our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view.—Jean Baudrillard, Simulations 19
The standard spin given to digital virtuality in our era, and not just by advertising copywriters, is that of naïve optimism. Jaishree Odin, for instance, describes hypertext as effecting a radical shift “from the linear, univocal, closed, authoritative aesthetic involving passive encounters to that of the nonlinear, multivocal, open, non-hierarchical aesthetic involving active encounters,” adding that this latter aesthetic is more capable of “representing postcolonial cultural experience since it embodies our changed conception of language, space, and time” (599). While one can certainly endorse the call for more polyglot, less rigidly hierarchical modes of practice, we should be skeptical about the role of hypertext in advancing that project. Indeed, as I will argue here, if we look past the utopian hype we can discern a tendency toward the healthy survival, even flourishing, of realist tropes and mores within digital virtuality, a tendency with a number of disturbing connotations for “postcolonial cultural experience.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the digital virtuality industry today often emphasizes its naturalism and realism; it is an industry that currently sells itself less on its ability to abstract than on its increased high-focus representational resolution. In other words, digital virtuality’s initial promise to create the new, to reify the imagination, has often led rather toward more reification and objectifiction than expanded imagination. This is not only visible in some digital technology (for instance, “motion capture” in which actual human motion is the original data for “realistic” animation) and in the leagues of advertising copy in the vein of “never seen before,” “digital reality creation,” “zero defect,” “and everyone’s invited,” but also in the recently prominent quasi-surveillance of home videos and “reality TV”; docu-soapies; documentary films such as The Great Dance; films such as The Blair Witch Project, The Truman Show, The Sixth Sense, Series 7: The Contenders, and The King is Alive; atavistic rhythms in digital techno and trance music; some “new ageism,” as in Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival; and so on. I hope that it is clear therefore that I am using virtuality in the widest sense to include any kind of interactive digital cultural products, or any artifacts that utilize digital technology (from miniature cameras to computer games to films to internet web pages). Moreover, I am arguing that virtuality is not confined to technology, but involves a wider set of cultural practices that tend to rework the “real” in the service of commodification. I want to call these cultural practices the “postmodern archaic” because they use the enablements and blandishments of digital technology to test and ratify current notions of virtuality and reality by comparison with a version of the past. How are we to understand this plethora of digital products and practices, all raising in some way reality and realism and the relationship between them?
My sense is that this technology tends to raise issues of representation in the same general way that all technological innovations require cultural adaptation to their potentials. Indeed, it might even be asserted that...