Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”- Oscar Wilde

“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth- it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes

[I:1]Postmodern cinema is also rarely pure and never simple, frequently concerning itself with the relationship between humanity and technology in both the present and the future, and its impact on ‘reality’. These films attempt to address the “…profound unease and the crumbling vision of a good society” that is inherent to contemporary life (Gerbner et al 1). Several exceptional films have recently attempted to navigate through Baudrillard’s infamous “desert of the real” and to expose the truth, if there is such a thing, beneath the postmodern simulacrum. Before entering into a discussion of postmodern cinema, I will first expound on some of the major features of postmodern theory and their influence on the films in questioni.

In the analysis of how we have come to live in postmodernity’s spectacular society, we must first turn to the work of linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, who effectively invented the school of linguist thought known as ‘seminology’. In his model, a word is made up of two distinct parts- the signifier, or the sound/letter pattern (used to refer to something), and the signified (that which is being referred to). The signifier is utterly arbitrary, and so any number of sliding signifiers can apply to one concrete signified. Postmodernity applies this linguistic model to everything from food to films, in an attempt to show that the signifier (often called the ‘sign’) has gained precedence over the signified: in essence, it is the proliferation of signs that has placed us in the society of the spectacle.

[I:2] There is concern over the fact that words, signs and images no longer refer to anything other than other words, signs, and images in endless chains of signification- for Baudrillard we are “…conjuring away the real with the signs of the real…”; while for Jameson, we will soon be lying in an insensible heap under “…a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (Baudrillard Consumer 33; Jameson 23). The world has been emptied of everything that would allow it to be grounded in reality- even the grindingly oppressive industrial regime of the nineteenth century had the advantage of having the industrial emblem to give it a concrete existence. While we are still focused on technology, the mode of its oppressive nature has changed from that which workers toil under to that which they ogle over. The postmodern twentieth century has the gadget as its emblem, a flawed emblem indeed, as “…what could be more useful? What could be more useless?” (Baudrillard Consumer 112). The gadget may be useful to an extent, yet only a tiny reality check will show that fulfilment does not grow in proportion to a mobile phone’s shrinkage. It is meaningless activity that characterises this age of technology, and “…what is so uncanny [is] that everything is functioning and that the functioning drives us more and more to even further functioning” (Heidegger 53). In the new depthlessness of postmodernity, we must question what is an autonomous action, and what is merely functioning.

The overarching system of signification, the simulacrum, has reduced the real into something ultimately unapproachable- yet for precisely this reason the real resonates in every symbol (MacCannell 132). The media helps to confuse the real and the unreal in this world of signification by its very essence- television, film, the politically charged arena that is cyberspace, all ‘take us’ out of our grounded reality and the realm of our real, tangible experiences. They do not, however, transport us into social unreality when we engage in them- suggesting that “…there is no pure social reality outside the world of representation” (McRobbie 217). Our mediated experiences can even serve to make our conception of reality more shaky than it already is- many of the films under discussion here draw us into a ‘real’ world and then reveal it to be artifice, exposing a tendency in postmodern cinema to portray the integral flimsiness and instability of reality itself. Continue reading “Drifting into the Arena of the Unwell – Introducing ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’”