Purchase The Culture of Make Believe
Read more

Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Referents (p. 216)

From chapter "Seeing Things"

I’ve been thinking some more about porn, and I fear I may have been a bit harsh. I think the truth is that we’re all so lonely, so alienated, so scared, so disconnected from our own bodies and the bodies of others, that we can—have to, really—count these meager simulacrums of connection—connections with, if anything, flickering images of other human beings—as connections themselves. When you don’t know how to connect, when connection frightens you so much, I suppose that this simulation is better than nothing.

Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe this parody of connection feeds us just enough that we stay in stasis, too frightened to attempt to actually connect with another human being yet not quite miserable enough for us to attempt to relate differently (or, to be honest, to start to relate at all), not quite miserable enough for us to even begin to know that we are miserable, and lonely. How could I be lonely when each night I can choose from among thousands and tens of thousands and millions of women of all races, ages, and body types who are waiting, if the text at porn sites is accurate, to “suck down” my “goo”? And what about the women who seduce me from the television screen? Don’t I want to double my pleasure, double my fun? What more could I want? Well, flesh would be nice, that of someone else other than my own, of someone who cares about me, and for whom I care. And how about love?

That said, I’ve got no problem with attempting to be intimate with a referent, insofar as that’s not a contradiction. In some ways that’s what art’s about. That’s what I’m doing right now as I write this book, and it’s what you’re doing as you read it. Last year I read Anna Karenina. The book moved me deeply. Leo Tolstoy is, of course, dead. Yet the referent left behind by him still changed my life. There are those who argue, I think most often rightly, that all symbolic representation by definition contributes to alienation. If I’m reading a book, no matter how skillfully written it may be, I’m still “experiencing” only secondarily, and this “experience” is mediated by the author’s choice of words and by the limitations of textual representation. Reading also presumes a false intimacy between the author and myself, an intimacy that might not be false were Leo and I sitting in front of his fireplace as he unfolds for me the story of Anna and her love, or better, the story of his own love.

I generally take a somewhat softer stand regarding “referents,” and while I see the dangers of symbolic representation, I also see its beauty and utility. If stories can teach us to be “minorities,” as Gerbner put it, if stories can acculturate us into perceiving that the owners of slaves hold title by divine right, or by dint of scientifically supported evolutionary superiority, or by any reason at all save naked (and well-dressed) force (which is one of the secrets of which we, like Ham, must never speak), can not stories also acculturate us in an other direction? If so, what would those stories look like? What would stories look like that did not lead us toward the objectification of all others, but instead toward the acknowledgment of their subjectivity, and the realization of relationships with them?

I’m not suggesting by all of this that we simply do away with objectification. That’s not existentially possible, because we’re always surrounded by so many individuals, so many heartbeats, that to attempt to perceive every moment with any approximation of its real complexity would invite paralysis. For example—and please bear with me through this explication—today I got my hair cut. The person who cut my hair—Karen (not my environmentalist friend)—likes to talk as she works. Today I learned that her teenaged daughter used to play second-chair violin at her school orchestra, but now plays first. She’s also good at tennis, but quit after much soul searching. Two other women work at the shop. One of them is out of town; what was she doing the precise instant Karen began to run warm water through my hair? Was she making love, using the toilet, eating, sleeping, acting out of anger, sorrow, joy? All of these at the same time? The third woman was handing out candy bars to the man in her chair (who works at the prison) and his adolescent daughter, who, for some reason, accompanied him to the salon. The woman was not eating candy, because she perceives herself (inaccurately) as over weight.

“You don’t like chocolate?” the man asked.

“I love it.”

“Then why aren’t you eating?”

“Look behind me.”

Almost every day the guard goes to work at the prison. He comes home. I do not know if he is happy at home. He may be. He may not be. The prisoners stay behind. At Pelican Bay there are maybe 1,500 prisoners in the SHU, or Security Housing Units. It is solitary confinement. Many will be in the SHU for the rest of their lives.

I leave the shop and get into my car, made fifteen years ago by people I will probably never know, even superficially. I see a man in a motorized wheelchair, on the back of which is a bumper sticker: I’d rather be flying. People drive by, in cars built by groups of individual humans. I pull out, and go home. On the way I see an elderly couple walking their dachshunds. One dog pulls hard on the woman’s arm, while the other, evidently tired, has been picked up. The man is carrying the dachshund for its walk. I used to do the same with an elderly dog I had years ago.

Attempting to maintain complete awareness of the fact that each person has a history, each one has preferences, each one has hobbies, causes me existentially to seize up, like an engine run too far in the red. I can feel my internal pistons begin to tap, then knock, and I know I’ve got to slow down. I can’t always be aware of the fact that my postal carrier was once a child, nor that the bank teller might have bunions. All of this is one reason I live in a small town: To navigate within cities demands intense objectification in defense of one’s sanity. I don’t even want to consider what everyone’s experiencing and thinking during a traffic jam on a hot Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles.

And we haven’t yet begun to talk about the subjectivity of nonhumans. Try getting through twenty-four hours considering that every fly, every spider, every moth that flutters at night into your headlamps is an individual with preferences as strong as your own. I’m not talking specifically about not killing or harming them: I’m just saying that it’s not possible—at least for me—to never objectify.

That said, I have also experienced moments of grace, when the world has opened up, or perhaps I have, and I have been able to perceive, take in, participate in, the beauty of the particular.