Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
To find true perfection, get real
When the secretaries get into something, my father used to say, it’s time to get out (“secretaries” being code for the intellectually unwashed). Such talk would never do these days, tut. But my take on it is that when the politicians move in – to what we knew until five minutes ago as cyberspace, for example – that space is about to become seriously uncool. And perhaps it was always inevitable that avatars, or perfected fictional selves, would strike politicians as an irresistible medium for massage. But perhaps, before the vast convocations of YouTube, Second Life and other MMO (massively multiplayer online) games run screaming for the door, it’s worth taking a peek inside.
You can see the attraction. Second Life not only lets you unwind from a hard day at the office into a body and world where age and decay are unknown; not only lets you buy and sell islands; construct and destroy palaces; have and un-have affairs; it gives you a new vocabulary: MMOs, griefers (cyberspace bullies or vandals), concurrency (present player numbers, often in the tens or hundreds of thousands), prims (primitive building blocks), flexi rims and verbs such as “flexify”. The ABC has an island there. Harvard holds debates in a kind of Roman forum there. It’s a whole new world.
Then again, fictional worlds and selves, from the first Neanderthal daubings, have always been with us. Much literature and most film works this way. Indeed, culture’s main function is arguably to help us deny, or maybe transcend, mess and mortality. On the whole, though, those fictional selves have been created by the few for the many; by the talented for the unwashed and underwashed. Now that we are all free to mix ‘n’ match our own, like Build-a-Bear without the limits or cosmetic surgery without the pain, all is changed.
For it is not just your avatar that’s idealised, much as a Renaissance portraitist would idealise his noble subject. The entire virtual world is a perfected version of this, first one. That sounds enticing and for many people – 34,374 of them right now – it is. Challenging, too. To build a simple virtual mansion, or attach a simple pair of wings (and flexify them), requires significant 3-D graphic skills.
And that’s the point really. So much effort, time and money ($20 million spent in Second Life last month alone) and this “ideal” second world still looks like tackyville personified. Sure, the graphics will improve and sound is coming. But it’s like optical fibre TV. Faster trash is still trash.
The truth is, it’s hard to find public art to compare with a simple shadow pattern of branches on sandstone (check out the texture, the composition, the subtle movement). And it’s hard to invent a world that even begins to compare with this one. So there is a directional implication. Second Life may be idealised but the shift is down, not up.
This is implicit in the word “avatar”. Derived from the Sanskrit for descent and traditionally associated with Vishnu, an avatar is a downshifter from one world – the heavens, say – to another. Perhaps there’s a parallel. Perhaps being sentenced to time on Earth is as odious for a god as being stuck in Second Life would be for any semi-sentient mammal.
But there are differences. A god on earth (Jesus makes an obvious example) is limited only by the vast innuendo of biochemistry and physics but liable – the downside – to sorrow and suffering. A Second Life human, by contrast, may live free of pain and death but must tolerate a system whose creatures and topographies are the forlorn products of imagination democratised. While Earth time takes you towards reality, Second Life realises escape. That’s what makes it kitsch.
Kitsch isn’t just bad taste. In fact, it isn’t bad taste at all. The novelist Milan Kundera defines kitsch as denial, “the absolute denial of shit”. The Oxford theologian Giles Fraser notes such denial has become required, even of Christianity, the religion whose “word made flesh” is meant to rub our noses in reality. Kitsch, thus, is the “aesthetic of ethnic cleansing”. It’s the war we pretend we’re not having, the refugees we pretend we’re not detaining. And yet, increasingly, it’s what we, the democratised and indulged consumer, demand, of our pollies and our lives. As J. G. Ballard notes in Kingdom Come: “These days even reality has to look artificial.”
Which is why our “real” lives increasingly resemble Second Life out-takes. Life imitates art. We in George Bush-land have become addicted to the kitsch of denial. All very well, perhaps. But what happens when, Frankenstein’s monster-like, our created kitsch starts to take over? When your avatar does a better you than you can – as Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in Walk the Line is more Cash than Cash?
Denial is fine. Virtuality can stay as kitsch as a holiday in the Bahamas for all I care. The pollies will love it. But transcendence is better. And for that, you must be rooted in the merde of the real.