T.S. Eliot might well have smirked at the events of the Naughty Oughties. By one yardstick, they came in with a bang and ended with a whimper, trussed up and devoured by the dirty deeds, done extravagantly, of the stuffed men, the hollow men.
Back in the green days of Communism's defeat (which we, in our typical hubris, called capitalism's victory) an American president spoke of creating a “bridge to the 21st century.” Of course, this was dismissed as mere rhetoric by less (publicly) priapic politicians. Through the hindsight of the intervening years, however, it's become clear that such a bridge was indeed necessary. The left and right banks of America, blue in mood and red in face, were left hanging by chads on a Bridge to Nowhere, suspended within a fiction called The End of History.
History, that's the rub – history, and its myths. From the very first days of the Bush Administration, I sensed that the conservative American consciousness, boiled down into its thick molasses, was simply in fear of the future. We were held back, as a nation, by a persistent fear (predominently by those who witnessed the chaos of the '60s) that history Xeroxes itself; that any struggle towards positive change, any at all, was a fool's errand, doomed to devolve back to Fascism or Communism, except this time with the extra added bonus of nuclear apocalypse. And those of us who came to oppose this nation's decisions perhaps understood ourselves as being held back, from advancing a grade in a school called Democracy and the Pursuit of Happiness. Held back, by a dubiously legitimate leader who clearly attended Bible School dutifully but spoke as if he himself hadn't passed the 3rd grade.
History, as Morpheus said, is not without a sense of irony. And it doesn't like to be declared deceased.
I know we want to leave this low, dishonest decade, but I say: not yet, not quite yet. There are still a few days in which we may legitimately consider what happened to us, before the tsunami of ever-present tensions crashes down upon us anew.
From my peculiar and partial vantage point, every great American crisis of the '00s – Y2K, the Dot-Com Collapse, The Great Indecision, 9/11, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, global warming, the Media Crisis, and the Financial Crisis – stemmed from our inability to integrate the hyperspeed advances in media technology with our aging infrastructures – physical, economic, managerial, governmental, and moral. This is the chasm that needed and still needs to be bridged – it is, I believe, the parsing of Clinton's metaphor.
And from this chasm (with ceaseless turmoil seething) I saw two great übercrises mingling, and seeding the events of the Double Zeroes: a Crisis of Information, and a Crisis of “Reality.” Information: too much of it, in terms too jargonized, too euphemized, and too fractured. “Reality”: a state of being controlled by the new technologies of media, without sufficient intellectual tools or time for us to interrogate adequately.
Yeah, whatevs, you say. Too subtle by half, you say. It's the “postmodern condition,” get over it. Or: hubris and incompetence, failing upward rather than failing better, same as it ever was. Or: The Matrix. Live in the sewers, Neo, and jump buildings in your brain (got a better idea?) Sorry, folks, but I need to plumb a little deeper than those keyword searches.
The first true terror I felt in this decade, the first moment I perceived a great unraveling, was not on September 11, 2001. The date was May 8, 2002, when MTV broadcast the episode of “The Real World: Chicago” that was filmed on 9/11.
I kept an extensive journal in those days, and here are some of my immediate responses to that moment:
Pornography: it doesn't have to involve ass-fucking, ladies and gentlemen.
“The Real World,” they call it – staged and manipulated by directorial and cinematographic choices, cut, distorted, warped by 15 minutes of fame – “The Real World” looks up, horrified, to find the real world.
Picture: a real-time television show manipulated to give the illusion of a “reality,” which comes face-to-face with its evil twin, its alter-ego, its own Bizarro-World: a real event, an event so terrifyingly real that it blisters out any attempts at simulacra, a real event which then itself becomes a mirror of its own unreality as it's been portrayed in dozens of blockbuster action movies.
I watched the towers fall on t.v., videotaped and relayed, rewound and replayed for my your our pornoedification. Then I watched the towers fall on (in) “The Real World: Chicago,” reflected in the eyes of the characters, who were watching it on t.v. I was watching the towers fall on a t.v. in “The Real World.” In “The Real World,” I was watching the towers fall on t.v. How many panes of glass are between me and it now? How bloody will my fists get when I try to punch through them all?
And what was more pornographic? I did and didn't want to see the rawness of emotion in the characters' faces. It was as if the producers had the same bifurcation of sensibilities: they started – then stopped. I began comparing: at this moment, when they are doing X, I was doing Y. I couldn't make any sense of it. They took characters out of the group ensemble around the t.v. – I assume at a later point, but edited as if it were commentary at the present moment – for individual “speak-to-the-camera” interludes – measured, solemn platitudes. Defense of the country, tragedy, yadda yadda yadda. Then a sober circle-discussion… unreal city. Unreal everything. As if the State Department and the CIA hiked straight over to MTV and said, “Listen, now, we can't broadcast anything that might be seen as 'inflammatory,' if you get my drift…'” Or was it MTV itself? Or the kids? Or was it unreal? And God, GOD, how could they have manipulated these kids' emotional responses? How could they live with themselves? How could they have had the cynical, the serpentine savvy, in the middle of that day and the days that followed, to think, “Okay, folks, we gotta make some tee-vee out of it, let's work.” To convert the unreal indigestible reality into digestible unreal “reality”… my god, my GOD! TV eats itself – I couldn't even trust the reactions of the kids sitting in front of the t.v., I couldn't even trust them to be honest, I was embarrassed to think of their reactions as “acted,” “melodramatic” …People drank, smoked, stoned themselves into frightened numbness – I did, you did, we all did… what did they do? Will we ever know? “The Real World,” “The Real World” like dada.
As I discovered much later, of course it was fake. The entirety of that episode was staged. On the morning of September 11, the whole cast of the show was at Wrigley Field for a photo shoot. I still think about the psychological damage done to those kids. When asked for advice to up-and-coming RealWorlders, cast member Kara Kahn shouted out, “Don't do it!” But she might be bitter, the entertainment press sniped, “She admits she can't fnd an agent.” Oh, good. So that's what it's about.
Not long after, I was road-tripping through Wisconsin. I stopped for a bite at Culver's ButterBurgers, a much-loved local fast-food chain. In every corner of the restaurant, upon every support column, there were televisions. And each one held a static image: not just one, but five pairs of burning Twin Towers, four corners and the center of the screen, with superimposed text: WE WILL NOT FORGET. For the record, that's four corners of the restaurant, perhaps another four support columns, making eight television sets, each with five sets of burning Twin Towers – that's 40 images, 80 smoking skyscrapers, in one random fast-food joint off a random Midwestern interstate.
My companion at Culver's, who'd been there in Manhattan, who'd watched the towers collapse from Washington Square Park, practically had a (totally justified) nervous breakdown in the time it took to order a milkshake. This was a multiplied terrorism: not just by the fact of the images alone, but also by the exploitation of terrorism to service commercial sales under the guise of patriotism, (probably) unwittingly coordinated by American businesses.
So I was unsurprised when, two months later, White House Chief of Staff Andew Card announced the Iraq War as a commercial enterprise: “”From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.” As a veteran of the marketing industry, having observed the entire media campaign, I can only say: well played, folks. (Do I need a license for that lemonade stand?) As a human being and an American citizen, I can only say: can we finally indict these bastards on any one of a number of charges, beginning with Conspiracy to Defraud the Government of the United States? (Remember: We the People.)
No, I, at least, will not forget. I will not forget that one word said to “The Graduate,” “plastics,” (petroleum-based, you know), which came to designate not just the card that we indebted ourselves upon but the surgery which we committed upon our minds and bodies. I will especially not forget a program called “The Pulse,” which was broadcast on FOX Thursday, April 3, 2003, three weeks after the war began. It contained a segment called “Extreme Makeover,” (perhaps the first incident) in which a woman submitted to plastic surgery, on the network's dime, to satisfy her husband.
“Honey, if you lost that weight on your legs, you could almost be pretty,” said her husband in an interview, as tears streamed down her face. No, I won't forget. I won't forget the look in her eyes, as the plastic surgeon drew lines upon her cheeks, describing how he was going to fix her “flaws” – the look of a cow's eyes, as it's herded to the abattoir. I won't forget how her individual face was replaced with the anonymous glaze of market-researched, pageant-approved “beauty.”
We don't need Calvino's talents to trace that trope. It's a straight linear narrative to “The Swan,” the FOX Network's 2004 confla(gra)tion of surgical self-improvement and beauty pageant. Jump-cut to a few years later, and Ralph Lauren models are posing with heads wider than their hips. And for evidence that history is at first tragedy, repeated as farce, gaze upon the Miss Plastic competition of 2009. In this international beauty pageant for surgically enhanced women, held this autumn in Hungary, front-runner Alexandra Horvath's silicone breasts proved too top-heavy, and she tumbled over on the catwalk, tearing a ligament and forcing her to a wheelchair.
She ought to have learned from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: there are limits to the amount you can sex up your body of evidence, before your artful seduction causes self-harm. In an irreducible sign of our delusion (or is it a reality?) that the superficial appearance is of paramount importance, the Healthcare Bill's provision for a 5% tax on elective cosmetic surgery drew protests.
In the early 21st century, Andy Warhol proved himself a sage. Others followed his augury, and proved to be excellent speculators. With entire industries devoted to the manufacture of the fleeting famous (make 'em cheap, so they break down after a year and you'll have to buy this season's model) selling your soul was not enough to make your name. (That came cut-rate. When did a soul ever bank a decent ROI?) It was no longer your name; it was theirs. Your body, and your image, and your history, were to be forfeit too. On September 18, 2002, Salon obtained a copy of the contract that “American Idol” finalists were to sign. It stipulated, in part, that
“… I hereby grant to Producer the unconditional right throughout the universe in perpetuity to use, simulate or portray (and to authorize others to do so) or to refrain from using, simulating or portraying, my name, likeness (whether photographic or otherwise), voice, singing voice, personality, personal identification or personal experiences, my life story, biographical data, incidents, situations and events which heretofore occurred or hereafter occur, including without limitation the right to use, or to authorize others to use any of the foregoing in or in connection with the Series …
“… I understand that, in and in connection with the Series, I may reveal and/or relate, and other parties … may reveal and/or relate information about me of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, that may be factual and/or fictional.”
Yes, you read that right. “Throughout the universe.” “In perpetuity. “To use.” “My life story.” Hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults have bivouaced outside for days, and and have waited on mile-long lines, for the incredible opportunity to sell the entirety of their lives to a corporation – before they're even alive for very long – speculating that the corporation will make their life worthwhile. It's a superb economic model: cashier a generation raised on shoddily-administered self-esteem programs, profit off its inflated self-worth, then turn yet another profit by finding a single diamond-in-the-rough who's worth far more than she bargained for.
Hey, it's a living.
(In this respect, digital-media thievery from the entertainment factories may be seen – in a time far more advanced than ours, perhaps – as a nonviolent civil-rights protest.)
America was attacked on 9/11, but it was a symbol of capitalism, trade and finance that was most visibly and horrifically targeted. With our first “MBA President” installed in office, it was natural that Business would fight its war, with its world-beating weapons: investment banking, media, and entertainment. CGI extravaganzas and demagogic opinionators dissolved the distinction between reality and “reality,” while Wall Street deployed its ARMs, blowing away Reason with such dexterity that it advanced to the Bonus Round.
Considering the hypermaterialism with which we pacified our unreal worlds, the housing boom and bust, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bernie Madoff and the rest, perhaps the exact phrase to describe our epoch would be: “The Decade of the Own Goal.”
It is said of the writer's art that lies are deployed in the service of deeper truths, because, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” I cannot lie: the fact of the fiction of “The Real World” on 9/11 tells us more about our age than we really want to know.
David Schneider is completing a book on American media, culture and politics in the early 21st century.