I know; it’s an oxymoron. But it’s no more oxymoronic than ‘virtual reality,’ and in our strange time may just be an accurate description of the world we now operate in. What I’m talking about is the feeling I’ve been having lately—perhaps stimulated most recently by the new Downton Abbey season which debuted last night—that most of what we now engage in somehow departs from what used to be called ‘reality.’ Like Downton Abbey’s new season, it all seems contrived. That word, ‘contrived,’ is usually applied to a work of literature or other art form that doesn’t have the authentic feel of reality or inevitability. The situations and the characters seem contrived to create a preconceived effect. In Downton Abbey’s case, this gradually dawned on me as I watched the writers deal with the death of a major character, Matthew Crawley, in a car accident—also a contrived way to dispatch a character—at the end of last season. The writers apparently also had to deal with the loss of the major villain in the series, O’Brien, Lady Cora’s personal maid. A new villain was needed, and so Thomas Barrow was recycled into his old role (he had been saved from doom and disgrace, as a homosexual, by the compassion of Mr. Bates and Anna, and seemed to have reformed.) In the new season, however, Barrow, now under-butler, goes back to his old ways of motiveless evil, destroying the new nanny for no apparent reason, and then seeking to repay Bates and Anna for their earlier kindness by informing on them as the despoilers of some prized item of clothing actually ruined by Lady Cora’s new maid (herself improbably recycled from her last season’s firing due to unprofessional flirting). Reflected on, it all seemed contrived. The writers seemed to be straining, and the sense we had earlier of inevitability, of something plausible and true to life as it might have been around the turn of the 20th century, seemed to be slipping away. The drama starts to seem more like what it is, a TV soap opera with the dramatic scaffolding showing through, rather than a glimpse of reality.
Strangely enough, this is how life in our time begins to feel as well. The partisan fighting in the U.S. political system, especially Congress, seems contrived. Everyone appears to be playing a role with no relation to the reality that millions of Americans are unemployed and the economy has never quite recovered—except, that is, for the wealthiest Americans who do not have to work but grow richer and richer off their investments in a booming stock market. In an earlier era, this obscene transfer of wealth from the poorest Americans to the already wealthy—to the very Wall Streeters and banksters who brought about the economic crash in the first place—would have been greeted with protests at best and riots in the streets at worst. Not now. It all seems to be happening at some remove from reality. We see the numbers on our nightly business reports, we see film of and interviews with the unemployed, we feel it in our own inability to get ahead (or even have the chance to keep up), and yet it all seems to be happening elsewhere, on another level of reality. In a parallel way, we see the harrowing numbers confirming the reality of global warming—to wit, that the global carbon level in our atmosphere has now passed 400 parts per million, a number that at one time was almost inconceivable (350 ppm was considered the livable limit). And yet, we see it, it is recorded somewhere in our consciousness as a terrible warning siren, and yet we and most of the world go on burning fossil fuels as usual, even exulting in our new sources. The collapse of arctic ice, the warming and acidification of the oceans, the increasingly severe weather systems like the recent typhoon in the Philippines or hurricane Sandy on the east coast, all seem to be bothersome little news snippets that occupy us and our screens for a few days, and then fade to blankness. Even the diversions that occupy us—the world series, the current professional football playoffs, the upcoming winter Olympics—occur mainly as televised events that occur in TV sports time. Nothing is ever final. We are always waiting to “really” see them in instant replay; and then see them again and again. Real time hardly seems to count; slow motion is how we now judge everything.
Only that reality doesn’t occur in slow motion. Our reality occurs in human time and it requires attention. It requires that we understand what is happening, and that we pay attention to how it is happening and how it is affecting us, how we are reacting to it. It requires that we actually be there. Be with those who are our co-responders and co-creators. Those with whom we are having a conversation or a conflict. And increasingly, those co-responders and co-conversationalists are no longer present. They come to us on our screens (I find that something about skyping makes me very uncomfortable; unnatural; forced or contrived). They appear as disembodied words in our emails. As magically uploaded photos and commentaries on our facebook pages. As cryptic verbiage (I am assuming this, since I don’t text or tweet, thank god) in our text messages and tweets. And less frequently, now, as talking heads and brief filmed sequences on our TV screens. In the latter case, and in films, more and more often the “reality” we are presented with is digitized, computerized representations of animals and humans for whom there are no dramatic or earthly limits. This, I assume, is why advertisers use these computerized versions—plus it must be cheaper than paying actual actors. But it must also be the case that we have become so acclimated to computerized reality that many people feel more comfortable with the smooth, antiseptic reality of digitization, even in animations that urge us to buy another useless product. When the product is itself a fantasy promising that our lives will suddenly be peopled by beautiful people also seduced by our possession of the new product, then perhaps it makes sense to present it in a fantasy drama portrayed digitally and jerkily and virtually. On a screen. Where most of our lives now seem to take place.
Indeed, I am at a screen right now. The letters forming this blog post appear as if by magic as I type them. It is a convenience I no longer think about and can no longer do without. And yet. I am completely divorced from any sensory input of paper or pencil or an actual text I used to have on my desk, or in my typewriter. There is no sensory product anymore. There is only this virtual text that is taking shape on my screen, and which I will, when finished (and easy editing is one of the great boons of computer composition), simply drag and click to upload to my blog page, and post on my facebook page, and paste to my email list, and then push a button to send out to the world where others like me will, perhaps, read it as computer text and perhaps respond in an email or a comment, and perhaps even say a word to someone else or more likely email this computerized message to someone else. And that will be the reality of this comment on the absence of reality, on the unreality of reality in our time.
I don’t know what to do about this. There may be nothing to be done. All I can do is comment on it, on the strangeness of it, on the weirdness of how “reality” or whatever this is, feels in our time. And wonder, again and again, what the effect of this ever-increasing estrangement from our actual lives, our natural lives, this apartness from what, at some deep level, I am convinced is necessary for human existence, will be. Because the truth is, we have never, most of us, ever quite figured out what we’re doing here, what our relationship in the most profound sense, to all else, consists of. And I can’t help feeling that these latest estrangements are removing us ever farther from that fundamental and necessary realization.