By Kendalle Fiasco
“Yeah, we’re just going across the bridge, please,” Brett says as I shut the heavy door behind me. I am inundated by the stink of leather. The driver turns on his meter. “So if you could just take Roebling, that would be fine.”
Our faceless chauffeur swings his heavy foot on the accelerator; the telescreen snaps to life. “Hey you! Yeah, you! The one in the back of the cab!” beckon Regis and Kelly, our impersonally familiar friends, flirting, waving, winking, and engaging us. “Be sure and buckle up!” We’re sucked in, just like that. They don’t interact with each other so much as they interact with our presence, maintaining uncanny eye contact, nodding with each spoken syllable, hoping to be the first one picked to be on our team. Kelly’s entire presence is parasitical, tacitly expressing an empathetic knowledge, a mix between an innocent young girl and the foolish but kindly mother who believes she knows best. Their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act ends with a punch line, and zap! New setting, new speaker, new informal friendliness. Image chases image, shadow chases shadow. Interviews. Archeological digs. Meteorology. Shopping, dining, hot deals, New York City. They care about us. They’re involved in our lifestyles. They want us to save money, to eat well, to bundle up for the coldest weekend of the season. What perfect creatures, with their tiny, unblemished faces, their maternal caring, their approachable demeanors! They’re alluring, they’re seductive, and they want to talk to me.
We hit a bump, and I come to attention. “God damn it, Brett! We’re still in Brooklyn!” Sure enough, the meter’s still running, and the anonymous neophyte Brooklynite behind the bulletproof glass meanders speedily and pointlessly through the icy streets. We’re cradled in the belly of his two-ton steel beast.
Stunned that we seem to have missed the entrance to the bridge for the third consecutive time, Brett shouts, “Turn off the meter right now, or we’re getting into another cab.” But his words trail off in a sudden lack of aggression as the words “Restaurant Week” flash before our eyes, advertising happy customers. A woman smiles coyly at her date. Succulent sauce is drizzled delicately on a slab of animal carcass.
Lucky for us, meat repulses me; I hit the patch of telescreen that reads “Off.” But before we can gasp with relief, the blackout, the millisecond of silence is immediately replaced again by those familiar, smiling faces, the chocolate mousse, the youth, the romance, the decadence. The siren’s song is so warm, so captivating, so beguiling. Beautiful dreams I don’t even have to conjure up myself. I force myself to look up and hit the “Off” button again. Again, the screen zaps automatically back to life, immortal, tenacious, mesmerizing. I’m feeling warm and narcoleptic. Brett hits the selected spot with an icy precision: finally, the screen goes black—well, mostly black, except for the ads for Taxi TV. Finally. Silence.
It strikes me, suddenly, that silence has become a rare and perhaps mythical creature. I have noticed, as George Steiner points out in “The Uncommon Reader”, that even my thought patterns have been reduced to ceaseless noise, to my detriment. Steiner is feeling disturbed; he’s noticed that contemporary education has lost its emphasis on memory, that the youth prove resistant to emote, that the classics have become a specialized study wherein a formal education is necessary to understand just one line of the literary genius of Milton, Dante, Chaucer, Voltaire. And silence assumes the rarity and unattainability of a luxury item, shut out in its commodification. What with the introduction of on-demand music and computers whose memory we can rely on instead of our own brains, Steiner declares that we have become vulgar, inattentive, and in some senses illiterate. Our ability to remember has atrophied, the pathway to our own thoughts and concentration severed by screeching sirens, singing TVs, radio jingles, canned laughter, and extrapolated onomatopoeias of all varieties. Songs and catch phrases blasted ceaselessly at all hours carve the riverbed our conscious and subconscious thoughts flow through, narrowed, restricted, helpless. Our impulses, our opinions, and our identities are adjusted against our wills by all modes of technology. Noise is brainwashing us. We have also ceased, as a culture in general, to read—and thus, to respond, to encounter, to think. “To read well,” Steiner states, “is to be read by that which we read. It is to be answerable to it” (221).
Once, man confronted book as though approaching a semiophore—a lexicon of symbols that demands active reading and dedicated response. Now, footnotes consume the page; the staples and paradigms of our culture have become arbitrary and inane. Man once used books as an investment, monetarily and personally, that a private collector could encounter it in a summoning of other-worldly wisdom. In reading, Steiner states, “his own existence ebbs. His reading is a link in the chain of performative continuity which underwrites—a term worth returning to—the survivance of the read text” (219). Man meditated, historically, on the written word. Steiner implies that man was then in touch with his own idea of truth, with his own postulations on the genius of others, with the transcendental nature of literature—maps to a higher consciousness we can only decode and glimpse at through words, or through the ineffable experience of high art. But with the endless buzz, hum, and roar of Industrialism and Modernism; the development of record players, stereos, recorded music, and telephones of Modernism and post-Modernism; and finally the invention and advocation, the ritual, habitual, and hysterical addiction to television, cellular phones, and the internet; silence has been eaten up by spectacular technology, which enforces a perennial distraction from man’s confrontation with real life, with the transcendental, with the ineffable, and even with his self. “It will require future historians of consciousness,” Steiner bitterly declares, “to gauge the abridgements in our attention span . . . brought on by the simple fact that we may be interrupted by the ring of the telephone, by the ancillary fact that most of us will . . . answer the telephone, whatever else we may be doing” (228-229). What we need is silence; and Steiner postulates that “[this] order of silence is, at this point in western society, tending to become a luxury”, deepening the gap between academic possibilities of those who can afford silence, and those who cannot (228). It will belong, he predicts, “increasingly, to the specialized few. The price of silence and solitude will rise” (229).
Manhattan displays its luminescent jewelry in the awkward, buzzing pseudo-silence of the cab among cars on the road. I want to say something, but my thoughts have escaped me. I think vaguely about the couple from the telescreen, wordlessly, inanely. Brett coughs, and like a dream, the situation is gone, the characters insignificant and forgotten. We inhale the hum of the engine, awake, alert, hearts pounding as if startled from a peaceful sleep. He squeezes my hand again. Already, this time, I’m too lost in thought to squeeze back. How did we get here? What happened?
It seems that the bonus of having been raised without television hardly inoculates me from the grip of the telescreen. I call it the “telescreen” because, like in Orwell’s 1984, one can’t turn it off, hide from it, or ignore it. It’s a mutated strain of the deadly TV. Its uninvited, parasitical screeching, its obnoxious, attention-mongering lack-of-personalities offend me to the core of my being. I hate them because they’re cheap, cartoony exaggerations and understatements of humanity. I hate them because they try to tell me what to do. And I especially hate them because I can’t tune them out anymore. They are eating my life force, sucking my youth away in someone else’s mass-communicative wet dream. They are the meta-fascistic mascots that invite you “in” to a voyeuristic world of screen-attachment and screen-detachment, the manifest daydreams that act out the ambitions and impulses we are too cowardly to act upon ourselves. They are maleficent mirages that sing songs of friendship and wean us on narcotic alienation. They censor your thoughts by blocking your access to them. It seems there is a fine line between meditation and brainwashing.
In fact, meditation and brainwashing feel so similar because one attains a sudden existence beyond identity, a dropping of the ego. The most integral difference, of course, is that meditation involves one’s encounter with one’s wordless thoughts and existence and requires silence, whereas the other forces a dropping and mediation of identity by imposing other values on a subject through psychologically aggressive means. In psychology, brainwashing falls under the category of “social influence.” Social influence describes the multitude of incidents every minute of every day that might alter one’s morals, attitudes, or behaviors. It provides the context in which we define and refine our identities through opposition or assumption. There are three defined approaches to brainwashing: compliance, persuasion, and education. Compliance concerns itself with changing not the subject’s attitude or beliefs, but his behavior, via what is termed “the ‘Just Do It’ approach.” Does that slogan sound familiar? The second approach, persuasion, aims to change the subject’s attitude with the same message that smiling girl on her dinner date, that Regis and Kelly were slowly clearing my thoughts, my sense of self, to tell me: do it as a favor to yourself. A third approach, “education” or “propaganda,” aims to convince the subject to “do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Successful brainwashing requires these named social influences as well as “the complete isolation and dependency of the subject,” according to the health article “How Brainwashing Works” by Julia Layton (1). In addition, “the agent . . . must have complete control over the target . . . so that sleep patterns, eating, using the bathroom and the fulfillment of other basic human needs depend on the will of the agent” (1).
In the brainwashing process, “the agent systematically breaks down the target’s identity to the point where it doesn’t work anymore” (1). The fragile state inherently concealed by an identity, exacerbated by the conniving cultural implications of television—especially a television you can’t turn off in a situation you can’t escape, such as the telescreen in the taxi—seems to make one exceedingly susceptible to such social influences and behavioral modifications. To deprive one of the opportunity of thoughtlessness without social influence guarantees such ego-tweaking. And according to Lacanian psychology, to replace one identity-induced psychosis with another in a society of ceaseless, fear-based ad campaigns cannot prove too difficult.
To understand fully what I mean by using the terms “identity” or “ego” and “psychosis” interchangeably, we must first establish an understanding of Lacan’s interpretation and expansion of Freudian psychology, since Freud invented the term “ego” and the practice of psychoanalyzing individuals and their relation to mass society. Lacan’s theories, postulated during the horrific rise of post-Industrialism and Modernism and based somewhat on personal encounters with the disturbed, id-obsessed Surrealists, offer a striking and uncanny insight into our inner selves. Because of his awareness of the changes Modernism has imparted on his life and world-view, contemporary readers can ascertain a sudden awareness of Modernism’s impacts, which have exacerbated our dialectical processes of self-identification in its use of world-time and global communication. Understanding the cultural implications of mass-communication is integral to understanding how the technological advances brought on by Modernism changed man’s relation to himself, and to the world beyond him.
In a lecture delivered in 1949, Jacques Lacan pinpoints the stage in cognitive human development when an infant first recognizes himself in the mirror. He expands on James Baldwin’s theory that an infant may first accomplish this recognition at six months, and adds that for the first time he apperceives himself and his relation to his image and environment. This act is a considerable stage in the act of intelligence: the child not only recognizes his image in the mirror, but, for the first time, develops an identity and a sense of self. Lacan refers to this stage as “the mirror-stage.” The mirror-stage entails the personal foundation of what he calls the “imago,” or what the infant perceives as his idealized identity’s destiny, based on his earliest, most formative experiences. The infant establishes his relationship with his self and that relationship with his environment, hoping to build his identity toward his imago. As the child grows older and begins to experience his identity’s contrast with those of other identities and opposing forces, his identity changes. That is to say, a “deflection of the specular I in the social I” mediates his identity, and he learns to censor his desire for the id (“The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” 4). In this process, the child loses what Lacan calls the “fragmented body”, or the self before one dons the “armor of an alienating identity” in a neurotic search for safety and a sense of belonging (4). The child substitutes his fragmented body for an ever-flux ideal. The civilized West calls this process of breaking and modifying identities “maturation.”
In light of the mirror-stage, I cannot suppress the question: what happens when we present the child not with a mirror, but with a TV screen? The fragmented body is further alienated and tainted by ceaseless distractions beyond the control of the individual. Furthermore, if brainwashing implements social influence to successfully break down the subject’s identity, I propose that silence qualifies as a basic human need: if silence is smothered by the constant social influences of post-modern technology, one can never enjoy thoughtlessness through meditation. One can only partake in thoughtlessness through mediation. (A lack of thoughtlessness altogether alienates the body from the mind.) I do believe that television influences one’s sense of morality by providing identity paradigms and having them speak for what they supposedly believe in, be it pro-politician propaganda, an emphasis on traditional marriage, an alienating dynamic between political correctness and bigotry, or an utter lack of ethical response to sweatshop-made clothing and exploited third-world countries. All of this social influence dances ceaselessly in every corner of Western society, and subsequently every crevice of the Western mind.
I maintain that the common unattainability of silence and the cultural psychosis of mediated identities is no coincidence. I believe an easily manipulated and governable people results from a culture that literally can’t afford to think. As the flat-screen universe evolves over time, silence becomes less attainable, less needed, less sought-for—the silence in which man must involve himself, in an encounter with dense and lofty text (or even his own thoughts) to confront, define, and conquer his demons. Yet we refuse, as a culture, to take that medicine for fear of its bitter taste. In view of Western pop culture, Thomas de Zengotita illustrates our increasing inability to cope with silence, to cede the spectator’s position as center of the universe, to recognize the spontaneous placement of non-commercial matter and the realistic cause-and-effect status of life.
In his essay, “Attack of the Superzeroes,” de Zengotita traces the impacts of technology not on silence, but on the general conception of the self. The basic role of consumer technology, he argues, constitutes recording intense historical events with minor trauma, sparing the rod to spoil the child on subjects including the assassination of Kennedy and World War II. But, according to de Zengotita, the omnipresence of television, not merely in our immediate surroundings, but documenting every event from multiple angles, gives the viewer a You Are There mentality (as was non-coincidentally the title of an early popular TV show), thereby including him or her in every historic or spectacular event in the world, instantaneously. Everyone, resultantly, feels present for the funeral of Princess Diana, the attack on the World Trade Center, and is even given a “God’s-eye view” from the comfort of his or her living room (138). The tendency of the media to so subliminally flatter the viewer gives her a sense of centrality, a hub of mutual attention. And even de Zengotita agrees that the “alchemy that fuses reality and representation gets carried into our psyches by the irresistible flattery that goes with being constantly addressed in such fabulous ways” as we mediate our identities to assume the media’s identities (139).
As a result, the spectator has developed an etiquette of emotionalism based on the contemporary practice of “being in the moment” demonstrated by pop culture and endorsed by therapy and Method Acting. As spectators, however, “being in the moment” entails not quite genuinity, but TV-ready exhibitionism of emotions, dramatically proclaiming the blaring lie: “I AM HERE.”
De Zengotita states that “the hidden blandishments of representation implanted a sense of entitlement, an envy, a desire for public significance commensurate with our unconscious sense of centrality. Celebrities held a monopoly on the most scarce and precious resource in a mediated society: attention” (140). These practices, which we have been raised and weaned on, “[precipitate] a fusion of the real and represented, a culture of performance that ultimately constitutes a quality of being, a type of person—the mediated person” (138). We push toward an ever-changing imago, and, relating more to the screen than to the mirror, our perceived relationship to our environments, which only exists in cyberspace, warps our egos. We believe ourselves to be the star of the show, the center of the human universe, the identity-shield that mediates our external environments and our uncanny interior selves. We develop, in this way, a deep cultural psychosis. One identifies with the pre-established identities of the screen instead of the mirror, with bodies other than one’s own. Perhaps we ought to replace the televisions and telescreens with the mirror again—any figurative kind of mirror.
It is my personal opinion that Mayor Bloomberg had those repugnant imitations of windows, of life, installed in taxis to distract you from conniving, conveniently “lost” drivers. The frustration I feel when affronted by these monstrosities is like that of a junkie in withdrawal—I am anxious in their presence if I’m unable to see them, to experience them, to breathe it all in, even though it is a practice to which I am not accustomed. My sudden lack of self-control is frightening. I become paranoid: the government is feeding me visceral drugs. It’s mainlining them into my eyes. But when the screen is off, then there is no screen; no fantasy world, no toxic snooping. I can evade it with ease—as long as it remains out of my reach, my eyesight, my earshot.
The only other technological development which has affected me thus is MySpace. Something about the filtered development and exposure of identity enticed me far too thoroughly as a teenager—only flattering photos, witty retorts, esteemed opinions, transcendental charisma secretly devised and meditated on for hours before gracing the screen with my puerile qualities, my utopian self, my censored, manipulated e-dentity. It became easy, too easy to become . . . to become . . . to become one of those flawless, sexy, winking, flirting, cavorting, screeching sirens of the telescreen and its kin. My e-dentity wasn’t a spectator—it was the aggressively spectated. It put me in power of timelessness. Reduced to two dimensions, I am the Wizard of Oz. Every profile on the network is that of the Wizard of Oz.
But, like television, MySpace does more than induce and secure psychosis. It encourages—thrives on—toxic, obsessive voyeurism in what de Zengotita calls “a Panopticon of representation” (140). One can torture one’s self with the filtered images of competition, speculate about a friend’s contacts, read too deeply into a cryptic message on one’s lover’s profile. With foundationless narcissism comes extreme insecurity. With extreme insecurity comes paranoia, jealousy, web-stalking. One begins to thrive on life-consuming drama. One begins to wilt, forgotten, behind some remote and desolate screen.
One forgets one’s self; one forgets to think. One’s capacity for logic, meditation, self-knowledge atrophies. One loses one’s life to the dream on the screen. Every single one.
Are we not often enough bombarded with excuses not to think? Silence itself ebbs to the outskirts of civilization. Our roots, our culture, our connections to ourselves and our universe grow ambiguous and are forgotten. We no longer participate in physical, human society. We flatten ourselves to predictable, definitive drones. In so doing, culture becomes a post-Modern, post-Industrial wasteland. And we become pawns for higher powers, unexposed to the rays of the celebrity narcissism and silver-screen psychosis that we, the masses, have only even tasted.
Crushing, I know. But there is a solution, my friends, and though comparatively masochistic and disciplinarian, it is utterly attainable. I came to these conclusions one night in an identity-mongering fit of horrific reckoning, and I thought it destroyed me. Yet here I am, and existence is not inane. Rather, it doesn’t have to be. But do you exist if you live your life in other people’s fantasies?
I suggest you cut some cords, pull some plugs, and take the mirror image not for what it lacks in an aspiring conformity to standardized beauty, but for what it offers you. I suggest you detach yourself from your expectations and your movie-script monologue when you practice “being in the moment.” I propose you leave your defined, confined, and comfortable living space, immerse yourself with nature, retain contact with your unthinking side—your body, your instincts, those capricious waves of wordless understanding before that meta-fascistic “little voice in your head” dictates them in words stigmatized with historical abuse. Western artists focus, lately, on invasive art, that the viewer, the subject, may be placed in a state of abjection, at the border of sense, intrigue, and disgust where meaning collapses, that the spectator may re-establish her connection with her self. Discomfort is good for the psyche. Convenience causes brain atrophy.
I dare you, tender reader, to cede your life of comfort and convenience to an hour of wordless self-association. Forsake your mediated identity for your meditative self. The Hindus call one form of meditation yoga—“with god.” In choosing to push yourself beyond words, expectations, and self-knowledge, you attain a one-ness with yourself, within and beyond your will. Mental yoga for us Westerners consists in dropping all associations, confronting the ohm of fear and white noise of desire that provide the bass-line for your life song. To hear this song, to confront the beast, to find the love that drives us and the fear that holds us back, we must immerse ourselves in dreadful, alien silence. You must forget what you think you know of yourself to know yourself. It will not be comfortable. It will not be fun. But you will know yourself.