Reality, where are you?
PERSONAL COLUMN KENNETH ALLSOP
In one off-Off-Broadway theatre last summer you could, for half a dollar, goggle at random
groups of people herded in to set up a com- munal pad on the stage: a human herbaceous bed of Flower Children for butterfly onlookers. When theatre, cinema and television themselves cease to satisfy the appetite for having pro- fessional mummers enact your life, or by proxy project what it might be, this, I suppose, is the next logical phase: a stare-in, rent-a- life, a licensed peepshow of your own mirror counterpart, unedited, unscripted, unrehearsed. `Tell it like it is, man.' This is a happening ex- tended to terminus of quintessential reality.
Really, though? Where's reality at? Boorstin —in The Image—remarked that he didn't know what 'reality' really is but he did know an illusion when he saw it. `The visible world is no longer a reality,' wrote Yeats, 'and the unseen world is no longer a dream.' Some later poets, the Mamas and the Papas, sing in Creeque Alley: `California dreaming is be- coming a reality.' Indeed.
The mingling, and the difficulty of dis- tinguishing either, has become morbidly opaque. We- are in the time of 'dissolving forms.' Who, when prodigious industries are devoted to manufacturing illusions through advertising, public relations and the electronic and graphic arts, can be sure of recognising the pseudo-event, the invented quality, the syn- thetic additive? Experience is increasingly at multiple removes, filtered and doctored and embellished before we get the feedback. Even living itself is reinterpreted by psychiatry as having a 'life-role,' when, as any moral philo- sopher would point out, role apart personal identity alone is an evasive shadow. For, within the constantly changing body cell structure only the intangibilities of character and memory can comprise the 'self.' Hence the recent rush of applicants to handle the £70,000 Arizona fund allocated to search for the soul. One at least managed to build up an identikit descrip- tion of the soul: 2A most wonderful, delicate, small thing.'
This of course is the eye of the communi- cations storm. This is what they all claim to be after: the explanation of man, incision down to his roots and springs of action. But the delicate, small thing is never there when the strobe lights switch on and the social scientists have done their diagnosis of the prototype and the market researchers have drawn up their category charts. The 4d, along with the soul and in company with reality, has vaporised and gone.
Of course our environment is paraded with substitute images. A non-stop psychedelic freak-out is the modem secular world's version of sky-writing and religious visions. Unfortu- nately the immediacy of corporate knowing through television, telephone, telegraph and Print achieves the opposite of its aim. Instead of bringing about McLuhan's 'allatonceness' and involving all in the single shared experi- ence, it pushes between fact and recipient ever thicker air-glow layers of fantasy.
Is it 'reality' for millions of residents of the nation's Coronation Streets to sit in the electronic tribal circle watching Coronation Street? Is it 'reality' 20,000 feet over the
Atlantic to see in the Pan-Am theatre-in-the-air films of the countries you're heading for? Is it 'reality' to watch, through a camera held with pitiless stony glare no human eye could bear to sustain, a man weeping in Whicker's World close-up for his broken marriage? Is there 'reality' in Man Alive—by roller-coaster through society's disaster areas, a quick buzz over the detritus of child-molesters, lesbians and delinquents?
The endeavour of creative dissidents to break through to the actuality of a culture in turmoil is counter-revolutionary—but any more 'real'? The old sacerdotal idea of art as temple, with portals you entered and left after taking the wafer, is under accelerating demolition. Poetry can be 'found' in insurance policies and public urinals, sculpture chopped out of the urban skyscape of neon and billboards, art impro- vised by framing our own soup cans and Carnaby Street Union Jacks.
How nice it would be if technology were, in terms of transcendental McLuhanism, truly bringing into being a new audio-tactile demo- cracy, what the Medium is the Message man calls a 'collideoscope of interfaced situations.' The trouble is that although the coaxial cable has entwined around everyone—the Dear Octopus of the other-directed age—the result is a greater distancing between the individual and what he perceives, not the cosy empathy of the global village. Do we breathe in time to the panting of people under stress (now their pallor will be in colour) on the small screen? Do we feel the thump on our bones of the National Guards' rifle-butts in a race-riot live on Early Bird?
More important, does a digest of Max Planck's demonstration that energy can neither be created nor lost, but only transferred from system to system, make us understand that on earth we are borne on a tiny spaceship in a teeming cosmic traffic jam? Does our blurred awareness of cybernetics and computerisation, of mountains of anti-matter hurling about at galactic levels—do any of these underlying realities of today, the tips of continents of submerged knowledge that are reshaping life led on the surface, give us greater grasp of the meaning and substance of ourselves? Not a bit of it. The gap grows wider. Technology and science lengthen the remoteness. We are frightened off. It is too much to support. We
have erected our own early warning system of the approaching explosions of reality—down to the deep shelters, everyone.
Not long ago I was being rocketed in a glass-fronted elevator up the stem of the
Skyon at Niagara Falls to the restaurant re- volving on top like a plate on a juggler's stick. The view unfolded dazzlingly upon the great precipices of cascading water whose roar and spray rose with the lift, all artfully tinted by spotlights of fairy blues, pinks and greens, as if the raw, icy grey of the crashing weight had, to please the customers, to be prettified, shrunken to a Kodachrome postcard. As we zipped up, a woman exclaimed to her com- panion: 'My, wouldn't that make a wonderful movie!'
Reality has become, in its complexity on our planet and its immensity beyond, altogether. too
Niagara Falls: too overwhelming. We know too much and too little about it. Only when it is transistorised, transformed into celluloid, penned behind a screen—a simulation of reality seasoned with the right ration of human weakness and a shot of distilled drama—can it be allowed through to our consciousness. You have to see your own photograph of it before it gets a permit to exist.
Are the only choices voyeurist or escapist? .That New York people-tableau was visited so that the spectators could leave reassured that they existed. Those who stand outside this con- text, who are repelled by the kind of love- letters erected over a cold and dehumanised environment such as General Electric's recent
colour ad 'GENERAL ELECTRIC CARES' (Cares for what? Electricity? Profits? Cupcakes?) may
seek different amphetamine country, the Beatles' enchanted garden of tangerine trees, Cellophane flowers and marmalade skies. Any other route? Gombrich has pointed out in his Art and Illusion that 'Perception employs all its resources to weed out harmful illusions, bu,t it may sometimes fail to "disprove" a false hypothesis.' We can at least try to retrain our perception to that end, and the first fact it has to absorb is that of permanent impermanence and danger.
R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the nucleus of 'world men' if ever there was, once used Manhattan, 'that enormous complex of hard, permanent towers--crystalline asparagus,' as illustration of shifting bewildering change, for this massif of architecture is actually a 'pro- gressively rippling dynamic wave system'— three successive replacements of itself in half a century.
From architecture Fuller looks outward to the dynamic wave system within the society of man, to livingry' so far starved of the tech- nological richness bestowed upon weaponry, and has put forward the simple but overlooked equation that all that is weighable in respect to life is physical while all that is weightless is metaphysical. Where, then, is the `reality' that is pursued so hard and represented so distortedly?
It must be in our imagination which in sequence is processed by our -physical experi- ence. Fuller has said: 'I have learned to under- tike reform of the environment and not to try to reform man. If we design the environment properly, it will permit child and man to de- velop safely and to behave logically.' That is not the manner of 'reality' that we are geared to fabricate for ourselves, but it is a truth we shall sooner or later have to proceed from.