Thursday, May 15, 2008

What isn't real?


Ceci n'est pas un toad.

Today I entered the bathroom at work at the same time as another man I'd never met. He placed his briefcase on one of the sinks and we both went our ways. When I returned to wash my hands his briefcase was still blocking the sink – the one with the soap dispenser and the decent water pressure. So I went to the other sink. He quickly realized his faux pas and went to retrieve his briefcase, saying, "here, this sink has real water." He seemed to recognize how odd his word choice sounded, so he added with some apparent irony, "as opposed to fake water…virtual water."

I smiled politely but didn't say anything. I was thinking about this blog post I started writing months ago but never finished:

What is real?

My habit in constructing meanings of words, for good or ill, is generally to consider etymologies. So for me "real" is above all an adjective form of the Latin "res," which simply means "thing." So the real is the world of things. But that's too vague or too fundamental to get us very far.

The essence of reality is such an enduring enigma that it feels like a cliché even to raise the question. Perhaps a back door might be more interesting: What isn't real?

What often strikes me most in discussions of the real is the array of terms people seem to implicitly accept as antonyms for the real:

  • artificial. This should properly be an antonym for "natural." The artificial is the product of artifice, of art-making, or more fundamentally, of skill-doing. So anything made or done by means of skill is artificial.
  • synthetic. Closely related to 'artificial' in common parlance. Etymologically, however, synthesis means combining, putting things in the same place. The synthetic is that which emerges from combinations of (presumably) non-synthetic elements. If you ever encounter something non-synthetic, please let me know. But don't tell those geeks at the particle physics research lab; you'll ruin their day.
  • virtual. This comes to us by way of optics. A virtual image is one which, reflected or projected by a mirror or lens, appears somewhere other than the focus. It cannot be captured by placing a reflective surface at the point where it appears to be, because it's not really there. In digital media the word is used analogically to refer to something that exists only in a flow of digital bits and has no direct meatspace correlate.
  • imaginary. The imaginary has a status comparable to that of the digital-virtual, except that the flow of electrons is in our brains rather than in a digital network. However the etymology suggests that mental life consists of images – a notion which I join WJT Mitchell in questioning (see "What is an Image?", Iconology). Of course one can hardly discuss the imaginary without reference to Jacques Lacan's theory of registers: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. But note that the Real is nothing like the real and has more in common with what common parlance labels imaginary and symbolic.
  • representational. The problem with separating the real from the representational is, of course, that we only have access to the real by way of our intrinsically representational senses. And we only process these sense-data by way of previously structured symbolic systems, which are intrinsically social. So it is impossible to recognize something utterly new on its own terms.
  • mediated. Despite the claims of "immediacy" made by cheerleaders of the digital revolution, we are as mediated as ever. It's just a little quicker. Speed and scale are not to be underestimated – as Mark Poster notes, "quantity 'dialectically' transmutes into quality" ("Words Without Things", The Mode of Information). But they give no short circuit to unmediated experience. Today people write more than ever because the extreme reductionist information parsimony of text allows it to be produced and sent around the globe in seconds. But that parsimony is an extraordinary communicative trade-off (mediation), regardless of the innovation of emoticons. The more we love speed (one sense of 'immediacy'), the more mediated we render ourselves.
  • intentional. In the emotionalist ideology, the first, raw, unfiltered response one gives to any situation is the real one, and anything later, more considered, is secondary, mediated (see above). This notion seems to deprivilege what in Freudian terms would be called the superego – the repressive filter that keeps the id and the ego down below the surface in order to accommodate getting along with others. (A closely related word is "tendentious"). I've read interviews with David Lynch where he seemed to disclaim any planning or intentionality in his films – his astonishing intricacies of plot and symbolic entanglements, he would have us believe, emerge organically, as if he had opened a vein on his psyche.
  • ironic. The ironic is like the intentional in its purported secondarity. Irony is a distantiating stance, a standing apart from oneself (an ecstasy), seeing oneself as other and commenting on oneself. Philosophers and comedians, according to Paul de Man, bear the cursed gift of irony ("The Rhetoric of Temporality"). The trouble with distinguishing the ironic from the real is that it presupposes one can make any utterance without at the same time observing it and therefore redirecting it by the power of the gaze.
  • electronic. See virtual (sense 2).
  • academic. I've been told by classmates that I have "a real job." This is in apparent contradistinction to their jobs as teaching assistants, despite the fact that they're doing the real work of teaching introductory courses to undergraduates, which frees up senior faculty to focus their time and energy on the more stimulating and collegial work of advanced classes. The academic is that which is purportedly meaningful only within the halls of higher learning – an enclave thought to stand apart from "the real world." I mistrust that term since it simultaneously endorses the supposed unreality of academia and the supposed reality of … what -- commerce? capital? Both fundamentally symbolic systems. They disappear, or at least go into crisis, the moment people stop believing in them. And let's not forget that a university is a business. Since I work for a university, apparently my real job is not in the real world. I'm like Marianne Moore's real toad in an imaginary garden. The real/academic distinction recalls Jean Baudrillard's notion of Disneyland – the only real place on earth, which we project as a fantasy in order to distract us from the fantasies on which our "real" social systems depend. We call "the real world" real (and even boast of our efforts to introject "real-world experience" into our teaching) in order to convince ourselves that a) the world outside of academia provides an unmediated anchor in substance, however externalized, and b) we remain unsullied by this too, too solid flesh.
  • theoretical. Theory is made up of words and pictures, both of which entail physical phenomena. Theory is typically oriented toward producing real effects. Every day millions of cars pass safely over bridges that, in Peter Gabriel's words, "were once just a dream in somebody's head" ("Mercy Street", So). Some people even earn a comfortable living producing nothing but theory. Theory, in short, is a practice.


Other examples I could cite would likely be functionally derivative of these concepts. For example, in my family of origin, once my sisters were old enough to despise their bodies, our milk consumption was bifurcated into skim milk and "real milk". (Later these became, respectively "girl milk" and "boy milk", but that's a whole 'nother blog post.) This distinction referred to the supposed artificiality of skim milk, despite the fact that "real milk" is produced by cows that are artificially controlled, fed, medicated, selected for reproduction, inseminated, maintained in perpetual lactation, milked, killed, butchered, and cannibalized, and whose product is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified, sealed in plastic, distributed, advertised, exchanged, symbolized, and ultimately consumed and metabolized in a curious inter-species relationship of exploitive nurturance. The additional artifice of skimming off some of the fat and applying it to other products hardly seems worth a mention in that context.

An in-class exercise in my Production Workshop class asked us to define "fact." I was struck by how many of the definitions used the word "actual." The actual is the world of acts; it is the verb to the noun of the real. My question was: is a thought an act? If so, then what isn't actual?

From the list above I can't think of a single item that isn't real, that isn't imbricated in the world of things. Artifice and synthesis entail the acts of real persons on real things. (Can unreal entities be composed of real entities?) All the rest of these phenomena entail, at least, flows of electrons, photons, neurotransmitters, pulses of differential air pressure – the stuff our world is made on.

Got more antonyms? Please post a reply. It gets lonely in this virtual prison of the real.

41 comments:

priest said...

PS: I'm re-reading Deleuze & Guattari's Anti-Oedipus after a 10-year hiatus. In his preface, Michel Foucault writes: "It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that jpossesses revolutionary force" (xiii). What can he possibly mean? Surely Foucault is not a believer in reality, plain and simple?!

priest said...

PPS: My friend William wrote an interesting post on the Chinese distinction between real fake and fake fake. Presumably there's also a real real, but who would ever recognize it?

Unknown said...

Before now, you were the only person to comment on this post, which happened to be on my birthday. You're a dick. A real dick.

Anonymous said...

情色文字情色文字小站情色成人自拍小說情色成人網情色成人情色巨乳情色帖片情色帝國情色影情色影院情色往情色往情色後宮網情色性生活情色性愛a片a片 aa片免費看999貼片貼圖貼片貼圖貼片區貼圖貼圖貼圖網貼圖趨貼圖趨 黃色貼圖辣妹自拍貼圖辣妹性愛貼圖辣妹網貼圖區女人做愛女人辣妹自拍女人尿尿寫真女人影片女人怎麼自慰女人手淫女人愛性愛亂倫女人愛做愛女人想做愛的時間女人性慾強的特徵女人性慾女人性愛故事女人性愛小女人性愛貼圖區女人性愛貼片

Anonymous said...

偉大的致富萬能之鑰,正是幫你充分掌握自己心志所必須的自律自制..................................................

Anonymous said...

Since it is the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.............................................

Anonymous said...

乳交挑逗淫婦色情俱樂部成人色情成人影片視訊網愛聊天室免費色情網情色區火辣美女情色性愛成人影音聊天成人色情網站全裸美女圖片成人裸照sex辣妹裸體美女全裸圖成人區av女情色內容情色自拍貼圖成人色情網性愛論壇一對多性伴侶成人聊天室撫摸淫美成人論壇女人奶頭女生自慰影片台灣女優美女視訊一絲不掛一夜正妹成人影像巨乳大奶子情色性愛貼圖情色王國做愛視訊火辣情色台灣情色網情色聊天網性愛技巧淫娃情色成人巨乳辣妹性愛知識性經驗

Anonymous said...

how do u do?xvideo打飛機專用網洪爺免費洪爺色情片洪爺貼圖區洪爺成人線上洪爺影城洪爺色論壇洪爺貼圖洪爺成年人網洪爺免費色情洪爺色情貼援交妹辣妹野球拳情色文學情趣聊天室性感辣妹裸體遊戲做愛偷拍一夜情視訊洪爺色情貼洪爺免費色情洪爺成年人網洪爺貼圖洪爺色論壇洪爺影城洪爺成人線上洪爺貼圖區洪爺色情片洪爺免費洪爺色情貼洪爺免費色情洪爺成年人網洪爺貼圖洪爺色論壇洪爺影城洪爺成人線上洪爺貼圖區洪爺色情片洪爺免費洪爺免費洪爺色情片洪爺貼圖區洪爺影城洪爺色論壇洪爺貼圖洪爺成年人網洪爺免費色情洪爺色情貼洪爺成人線上

Anonymous said...

very popular to u! ........................................

Anonymous said...

KK777一夜激情聊天live show成人自拍貼圖自慰少婦自拍裸體圖片台灣色情成人網站情人視訊網情色留言板視訊美女免費視訊聊天室限制級極度震撼情色論壇色情特區自拍裸女貼圖潮吹性影片觀賞小穴情色片a圖片sex story性愛影片美女做愛成人色情網站性愛圖片成人情色貼圖全裸寫真集圖片走光圖女生陰毛自慰影片色情av1007成人色情聊天室女生自慰裸體照成人影音聊天台灣色情網站色情片打手槍情色天堂成人視訊聊天免費情色網站av網超性感辣妹激突成人論壇情色視訊聊天鹹濕成人網站av成人論壇免費美女視訊

Anonymous said...

非常感謝~3Q~....................................................

Anonymous said...

你的部落格很棒,我期待更新喔........................................

謝TrumanTignor said...

限制級波霸口交18禁貼圖寫真視訊援交露點爆乳潮吹裸體裸照裸女愛愛無碼尋夢視訊聊天a漫a片a圖一夜情一葉情人妻激情情色寫真美女自拍辣妹自拍正妹自拍美女走光辣妹走光正妹走光脫衣秀脫衣

Anonymous said...

錢,給你帶來歡愉的日子,但不給你帶來和平與幸福..................................................

Anonymous said...

生命的意義,是在於活的充實;而不是在於活得長久。 ..................................................

紫倫妍勳 said...

文章不求沽名釣譽,率性就是真的..................................................

Anonymous said...

恨一個人,比原諒一個人,更傷力氣。............................................................

renew said...

成人電影線上看 ut男視訊 聊天事ut 免費a觀看 絲襪同志交友 av女優性交影影片 性感褲襪美女寫真 免費影片網 色情自拍偷拍 愛的聊天室 女女愛愛 av情趣用品 18卡通漫畫 少女自拍網 熊貓影城 a片圖 情色卡漫 a色情影片 一夜情 383 完美情人視訊網站 玩美女人 免費影片 正妹辣妹 人妻遊戲 熟女 免費視訊 視訊聊天室 a圖片a 視訊聊天 85cc 微風成人交友區 嘟嘟 777 小魔女自拍貼圖 台灣援交妹 情人視訊 辣妹脫衣 av影片 洪爺影城 大奶熟女 sexy情色 a片 巨乳 性愛情慾貼圖 後宮電影院 jack 限制級 色情電話0204 激情性愛 明星走光

Anonymous said...

要持續更新下去喲!!祝你心情愉快.................................................................

Anonymous said...

Many a little makes a mickle...................................................................

Anonymous said...

人不能像動物一樣活著,而應該追求知識和美德.................................................................

Anonymous said...

生存乃是不斷地在內心與靈魂交戰;寫作是坐著審判自己。......................................................................

Anonymous said...

It takes all kinds to make a world.............................................................

Anonymous said...

It takes all kinds to make a world.............................................................

Anonymous said...

人生中最重要的是要自尊、自愛、自立、自強、自信。..................................................

Anonymous said...

晚上好,很喜歡你的blog哦...............................................................

Anonymous said...

這個時代,不缺乏感傷,但缺乏反思~~希望能多看到值得思考的文章!............................................................

Anonymous said...

very popular to u!..................................................................

Anonymous said...

吾錯吾錯...我平時都好鐘意用呢d~而家學多好多~thx+0+......................................................

Anonymous said...

休息才能再次出發-隨時保持好體力-加油...........................................................

Anonymous said...

世界上沒有本來就應該的事,因為老天爺也沒有劇本.......................................................

Anonymous said...

到處盡心,即為快事;舉步踏實,便是坦途。......................................................

Anonymous said...

take care yourself!! ^^............................................................

珍盈洪 said...

死亡是悲哀的,但活得不快樂更悲哀。. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Anonymous said...

Man proposes, God disposes..................................................................

Anonymous said...

Lets cross the bridge when we come to it............................................................

Anonymous said...

Pen and ink is wits plough...................................................................

于庭吳 said...

所有的資產,在不被諒解時,都成了負債..................................................................

Anonymous said...

好的部落格就要和好朋友分享--感謝分享............................................................

Anonymous said...

用心經營的blog~有一天你會紅!..................................................................

Anonymous said...

走召糸及言贊白勺口拉............................................................