Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Human Consciousness: The New Survivalist Adventure

Awake. Image Source: NBC via Wiki.

This week, a highly anticipated series begins on American television, entitled Awake (thanks to -J.). The premise is that a man survives a car accident, after which his reality splits in two. He wakes up in one, red-hued reality, and his wife has also survived the car accident but his son has not. He goes to sleep at night, and wakes up in another, green-hued reality, in which his wife died in the accident and his son survived. In each reality, he has a psychiatrist and he works as a police detective solving crimes. Eventually, the details between the two realities begin to overlap. Since this divided virtual dreamscape is the only way the hero can keep his family alive, he does not want his psyche to recover. You can see the trailer for the program, which debuts on NBC on March 1, below the jump.

Awake (full trailer © NBC 2012). Video Source: Youtube.

NBC's decision to have a protagonist who chooses not to distinguish, or can no longer distinguish, between reality and unreality works because the hero appears to be about as rock solid and sane as you can get. Awake nonetheless reflects a slippage, a tenuousness in popular culture, about all available realities. This uncertainty about any reality moves past the Postmodern questioning of objective reality. It bears a Post-Postmodern calling card, that overwhelming de-anchoring of Millennial consciousness.

Image Source: Twin Peaks via Damn Fine Coffee.

Earlier film-makers such as David Lynch have previously explored these issues with highly acclaimed journeys into the subconscious. In a drama like Twin Peaks (1990), however, Lynchian neo-surrealist fantasies and alternate dimension Underworlds retain the counterpoint of a reality that reassuringly still exists. Reality is the place where you can come out of the nightmare and have a piece of cherry pie and a great cup of coffee. Lynch famously refuses to interpret his work to the press, but when an interviewer told him that the nightmarish imagery in his films was seen by some to be evil or immoral, he became upset and agitated. By consistently associating his protagonist with a solid, prosaic scenario, Lynch implied that there was something moral and heroic about the character who could weather the transition from the netherworld to the daily reality, who could travel to the pit of hell and come out again, retaining his sanity and his ability to distinguish between the two worlds.

By contrast, in new Millennial dramas, a Transhumanist ethos obliterates any solid point of reference, be it subjective or objective. This is probably due to the impact of the Internet's virtual worlds on daily life. As a result, the heroes in Millennial dramas - who are often law enforcement officers - are, when compared to Lynch's FBI Agent Dale Cooper, almost unrecognizable.

In a recent interview, Fran Leibowitz has commented that the Internet is just an extension of television. She remarked that when television first appeared, critics believed it would never catch on, because people would be able to see physical reality (the living room, potted plant, wall and window behind the TV) around the screen and would therefore not become engrossed in the television's fantasy world. But she observed that critics did not realize that reality would go inside the TV, and the TV's world would become our reality. This was something Kurt Vonnegut also pondered. And with the rise of the Internet and advancing multimedia virtual entertainment, this is precisely what has happened.

Tension between consciousness and unconsciousness as a mirror of life and death is one of the oldest tropes there is. It is in everything from Sleeping Beauty to Nightmare on Elm Street. But in the past decade, there have been more films and television shows related to these themes than in any other decade in film history. The contrast with other decades is startling.  The following list is only a snippet of over one hundred similarly-themed Millennial feature films, and does not include dozens of Millennial short films with identical titles and themes: Waking the Dead (2000); Waking Life (2001); Dead Awake (2001); Awake (2003); Awake (2003); The Waking Dead (2004); Awake (2005); Awake (2005); Wide Awake (2006); Awake (2007); Sleeping and Waking (2009); Dead Awake (2010); Waking Madison (2010); Awake (2010); aWake (2010); Waking Up (2010); Waking (2012). The Awakening is also an extremely common Millennial title; strangely, the last time that title was widely used was at the dawn of the film industry, from 1910 to 1920. 

Other films, The Machinist (2004); Just Like Heaven (2005); The Jacket (2005); Shutter Island (2010) and Inception (2010), play on the same idea. All these films from the Millennial decade involve looped consciousness, dreams or nightmares, so that the characters awake into a state of not waking up. Most of these movies about overlapping consciousness and unconsciousness are related to other themes: madness; addiction and drug use; insomnia; anesthesia; and traumatic reactions to accidents, illness, plagues, injuries, death, grief, war, or apocalypses.

These stories are one fictional step away from wakened dead tropes, such as (the always popular) vampires and zombies.  AMC has a hit series right now, the zombie Apocalypse drama, The Walking Dead; it is presently the top show on cable television (link) in the United States. The show is based on the intense and violent Image comic book series, which debuted in 2003 and is still running.  The comic series is a narrative experiment in how far a hero can be pushed - beyond the limits, beyond all reference points of sanity and stability, in unspeakable conditions - and still be a hero.  The irony is that in a world full of zombies, the survivors are the walking dead. Multiversity just defined one of the top moments in the series to be the point at which the central protagonist suddenly realizes that the living, conscious characters are the eponymous 'walking dead' - not the zombies!  Even more ironically, the hero starts the entire story at a point of shocked consciousness: he awakens from a coma. This implies that the entire Walking Dead story could in fact be the nightmares of his comatose dream state and he never actually woke up at all.

Walking Dead #24 (Nov. 2005 © Image Comics).

In these dark unrealities, there is no diner where you can shake off the Underworld and come in to have a piece of cherry pie and a great cup of coffee.  Robert Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead comics, claimed that he was not writing for the horror genre.  He called his story a "survivalist adventure."  In Post-Postmodern Transhumanist dramas, the hero can no longer distinguish between reality and unreality, and any kind of consciousness of that fact has become the survivalist adventure.

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  1. It's too bad David Bowie hasn't released a new album since "Reality". I thought there was some kind of rule that if a cop wakes up in an alternate reality that the series has to be named after a Bowie song from the corresponding decade.

    It's a shame that most people who remember anything about "Twin Peaks" remember the dangers posed by The Red Lodge, which after is part of the premise of the show and the unsolved murder at the center of it, but not The White Lodge, which seems to emerge halfway through the series but subsequent viewings will reveal that it had been exerting its influence all along.

    Both lodges are extradimensional and inhabited by identities that aren't living things in any sense we would recognize. Travelers from The Red Lodge have discovered the human race and will inhabit humans in order to experience physical sensations, which are all alien to them. Everything from violent sex to creamed corn is intoxicating to them. Travelers from The White Lodge are harder to detect. They inhabit humans in order to experience a spiritual dimension that is unknown to them in their native state. Both sets of travelers probably have the same original nature, but the series never lasted long enough to extrapolate on the bits and clues scattered in the first two seasons. But I'm not surprised that Lynch would get frustrated trying to explain the distinction between the immoral and the amoral. He's more of a maker and shower than a talker. The conflict in "Twin Peaks" isn't really between good and evil, as its characters seems to believe, but between morality and amorality, between the something and the nothing. Their search for an enemy fails for so long because it precludes the possibility of the threat coming from within.

  2. Thanks for your comment pblfsda! You always make me think and rethink the posts. I remember the two lodges in Twin Peaks very well, especially a central speech by the villain in which he explains the distinction between the two. (I thought it was the white lodge and black lodge?) I looked into it at the time and read Lynch's interviews about it. I have seen interpretations of that theme in the series, from Masonic imagery to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It also recall that Lynch depicted the entrance to the lodges in the forest around Twin Peaks as thin spots between realities, which could be opened by particular human experiences. It took awhile to digest all the weird symbols in that series. When it first came out, I think people were just engrossed in its general weirdness.


  3. The literary genealogy from "Twin Peaks" to "Lost" isn't quite so obvious as the lineage from, say, "Kolchak, The Nightstalker" to "The X-Files", but there aren't too many shows that raise moral questions at that degree of abstraction. Usually prime time network television dealing in moral questions of any dimension feels more like an Afterschool Special with a bigger budget.

  4. Kolchak the Nightstalker, eh? Like I say, you make me rethink this stuff every time. As for Twin Peaks, what was so remarkable was how profoundly moral it was, although dressed up cryptically. That said, your distinction between moral and amoral was interesting - something vs. nothing - are you sure about that? I certainly see how there was something flat and irreducible in the evil characters, and an element of sympathy for, say, Leland and especially for Laura. Even Bob was a sort of dark force of nature, a creature of needs and compulsions, vile but not 100 per cent pure evil. I see the ambiguity, but I interpreted that more as a contemplation on the nature of evil. Maybe it's just the evil characters who mistakenly think it's evil, like Windom Earle (what a villain!).

    What was also remarkable was that Twin Peaks became widely popular. Maybe it was the mood at the time. Such esoteric material, and very abstract, yet a huge network hit. Curious, that Lynch decided to take on an essentially banal medium of soap opera. But look what he did with it.

  5. Now, when I watched the show in its original broadcast I assumed Earle was the villain until he actually appeared. By the end of the chess game I realized that we had came in at the middle of the story and that Earle was actually the hero. The end of the series was not that much of a surprise for me. The reason that Earle kept his distance for so long was that he was concerned that his former naive apprentice was hosting Bob. It was only by engaging him remotely that he was able to suss out Cooper's mental state. Also, in the event that Cooper had not yet been corrupted, there was the distinct likelihood that revealing to Cooper what he had learned about the Lodges before Cooper had a chance to see for himself what the nature of the problem was would only get Earle locked up again and make Cooper that much more resistant to believing the truth even he he confronted it. We are only now seeing studies proving what Lynch (and Snow?) knew instinctively but couldn't express verbally as well as they could cinematically. If someone is working on the assumption of false precepts and you put them in a situation that tests those precepts (especially religious or political beliefs), when things don't turn out as their preconceived notions would have indicated some subjects exhibit degrees of doubt and others doubt their senses and cling more tightly to their beliefs, rationalizing them. They typically claim that the results were rigged, that political or philosophical opponents constructed the entire scenario. No surprise, right? But if you point out to them the logical fallacies to their beliefs before that test, or provide them with documented, verifiable examples that show that those beliefs can be true for some circumstances but aren't truly universal, then the percentage of subjects who cling to their beliefs and the tenacity with which they do so both escalate dramatically. It's counterintuitive to some, but I saw it in the mentor/student relationship between Earle and Cooper, possibly because I was in professional education courses when the show was airing. One of the things you learn is that if you flatly state things to kids your message usually goes in one ear and out the other, but if you allow them to discover it (even if what's actually happening is that they are following your bread crumb trail) then they not only become consciously aware of it but retain it as well. Adults are a little thicker. If Cooper were to be exposed to the reality of what they were pursuing after hearing an explicit explanation of it from Earle, he more likely would have doubted the reality of the situation and assumed that he was experiencing Earle's undue influence. If Earle had warned him in advance instead of testing him it would have had the opposite to the desired effect.

  6. Yeah, very nice. I have to say that at the end the sheer weirdness of Twin Peaks started to get to me at the time. I was fairly young, and it usually took me a few viewings of Lynch's works - and progressing maturity and knowledge - to see all the layers. I did not really follow Windom Earle all that carefully, and I think if I got the DVD now of Twin Peaks and watched it all the way through I would be startled at how much was there that I didn't see at the time, such as his relationship with Cooper.

    I remember Windom Earle's speech on the White Lodge and the Black Lodge vividly, however. I have to say that the actors playing Laura and Leland especially (although they were all great) did an incredible job.


    How Ray Wise did that - made a man who had raped his own daughter into a character as horrific and terrifying as he was broken and (almost) sympathetic - was an unbelievable feat of acting. And that brings me to your comment on how Earle got Cooper to see things. I think the acting and heavy abstract metaphors hit the audience with stuff so complex that it took several years for Lynch's fans to even realize what they had seen. And Ray Wise's performance is an example of that. So incredibly tragic, right in the pit of horror. Incredible. In a way, Lynch and Frost and their actors did with the audience what you're saying Earle did with Cooper.

    This is how to impart profound emotional and traumatic truths via art, basically, go straight for the heart, and the viewer figures out what he or she has experienced later. There's an excellent quote about Krzystof Kieslowski in the DVD liner notes to the Dekalog:

    "Krzysztof Kieslowski and ... Krzysztof Piesiewicz ... have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart." (remark by Stanley Kubrick)

  7. Glad to be of assistance. I don't have anything like pblfsda's in depth commentary; when I first suggested this to you, I thought you would use it to explore the notion of people who beleived they were travelling to alternate universes, rather than survivalist fiction. Though perhaps they are the same thing.

    What I'm reminded most of, on a more prosaic, pop culture level, is the Matrix films, where in the Matrix parts of the movie were green-biased, and the real world parts were blue-biased. The only time in the entire saga when the full spectrum is used is that brief moment in Revolutions when Trinity pilots the hovercraft out of the cloud cover and into the sun's normal light. -J