Friday, November 27, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors: Thoughts on John Foxx's "Thought Experiment", Part 1

Well, well well. It's Black Friday in the U.S., and, in keeping with tradition, I never go shopping. I have little patience for crowds, and I am not going to fight people over the purchase of stuff. My intention today was to stay home and catch up on my household and academic obligations.

Then, via the Metamatica site (thanks, Mark), I was pointed to a new posting by John Foxx at the Quiet Man blog. John's been quite active at blogging this week, rather unusual. After reading his post, my plans for the day were pretty much done, or at least severely postponed, as I cranked out about 10 pages of rapid-fire thoughts on the topics he addresses. One of the many reasons I just love Mr. Foxx is that he makes me think. I am going to share those thoughts with you in two, possibly three, subsequent blog posts. This is the first one.

First, John's post. It's entitled Thought Experiment: Unrecognised Effects of the Media, and has about 9 parts to it. I recommend reading the post rather than me trying to re-summarize it here--there's a lot to it.

The first thing John discusses is the trust we have in media. There are many things we accept as being real solely on the basis of seeing images in the media--images that can be faked. It's an interesting point, and a rather frightening one in the face of the fact that media is becoming less and less of a reliable source of facts. There may have been a time when the news might have reported actual news--facts were checked before airing, investigate reporting was done to look at all sides of an issue. This still goes on in some places, but it's buried under 24-hour news shows, talk shows promoting themselves as news when in fact they are purely entertainment and not journalism, and a host of scripted "reality" shows. The line between "real" and "fake" is so blurry these days, I'm not even sure there is a line.

Getting back to John's points--he refers to an appearance he had on BBC's Top of the Pops in 1980. The appearance was only 3 minutes long, but when he thought about how many people were reached by that medium, it would have amounted to about 20 years of live performing without TV. What such appearances on TV, in film, and in photographs do is create a multiplicity of images frozen in time that don't go away, even after the person they represent is long gone--John refers to them as "media ghosts". When the artist, musician, or actor looks back at the image, which no doubt has been glossed over and perfected, it starts to make them insecure, and they may compete with it. There is a fear, a "humiliating" experience of going out in public and worrying that you are a disappointment, that you don't measure up to the ghost image someone has of you. Of course, that image never was "you". But if someone forgets that, they may struggle against time with plastic surgery, makeup, and other such things to make themselves look more like that image. At best, they become a caricature.

John actually hits on one of the reasons I like to meet "celebrities", or people I admire that feature in the media--I don't want to see the faked image, I want to see the real person. If John is talking about himself when he compares the "ghost image" to what he sees in the mirror, he needn't worry--he is astonishingly more beautiful in person than in any photograph or film I've ever seen of him. In fact, with few exceptions, I dislike most professional photos of John. They look like images of actors trying to portray John, not John himself.

But the discourse got me thinking about distortions. In reflecting on the idea of a "media ghost" versus the real live person, it occurs to me that there are 3 levels of distortion and potential deception here, just within individuals:

1. The media image versus the real person: This is what John discusses, so there's no need for me to repeat it. The person singing a song or acting onstage is portraying a certain role or character. Never is the person you see on the TV, Internet, or magazine the "real" person.

2. The persona of the real person: Since John wrote this, and I've met him, I'll use him as an example here. When I was in Hudson a couple of weeks ago, I'd spoken to some American fans who were nervous about meeting him. Part of John's media persona, at least in the past, is something that was pretty accurately described by a friend as that of "icy electronica god". There was a certain look and style to John's photos and videos that suggested that he was cool and unapproachable. American fans, who had not seen him in many many years, still had that image of him in their minds. They were very pleasantly surprised to find that John is just the opposite--very amiable and pleasant, and interested in talking to his fans.

Now, I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time talking with John over the last year. I may "know" him a little better than some of his other fans because of this--or not. All I know is the persona John shows to me when we're chatting during an event, or having a drink after the event. Even if John were not John Foxx--even if he were just someone I met who had no kind of celebrity at all--there would still be a mask that is presented, an "enhancement" during which we show off our best qualities, or look at others and try to show them what we think they would consider our best qualities. Since I tend to be hyper-observant of people generally, I can say I've seen at least 3 different sides of Foxx--angry/stressed but trying not to show it, over-energized and with a touch of bravado, and friendly/relaxed in an almost paternal way. The one common trait that threads through all of them is a polite and gentlemanly composure. Even if he's ready to pop with stress, he'll give a terse smile and say, "Please excuse me", and walk away--he'll never tell you to fuck off. Are any of those the real "John Foxx" or "Dennis Leigh"? Probably some parts, but I could not say which ones, in all honesty. You can say that he's learned his social graces, but they don't necessarily reveal the true person underneath.

3. The unconscious person: To a certain degree, we all deceive ourselves about who we are. This gets really difficult, because just as you can't see your own physical image except via a mirror or perhaps a photograph, you don't know how you really are in interactions except via the responses of others. It's like sonar--you can't see it, you only know its size and shape via the sound waves bounced off the "object" that come back to you. Our own images of ourselves tend to be much more critical than those of others--the old "You're your own worst enemy" bit. But when we solicit feedback from others, that feedback is always tainted by that person's projections and worldviews, and their relationship to us.

Which brings me to something on a much broader scale--truth and objectivity. I teach a liberal arts religion course that deals with the academic study of religion. One of my students told me that it's of no benefit to study religion this way because religion is "subjective"--there is no "objective" truth that one can obtain. My response to that is that real "objectivity" is a myth-- there is no way anyone can escape their frame of reference. No matter how detached and objective you try to be, your own point of view and experiences will always get in the way.

Moving out farther to a universal scale--the January 17, 2009 issue of New Scientist has an article by Marcus Chown about the idea of a holographic universe. (I'd post the link, but it's by subscription only). He starts with a discussion of the GEO600 experiment in Germany, which involves a detector that is looking for gravitational waves. The detector has not found any gravitational waves, but has been plagued by a strange noise that researchers couldn't explain. Then researcher Craig Hogan came up with an explanation--in fact, he said he'd predicted the noise. Its presence showed a limitation in space-time--

"where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into “grains”, just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan. If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: 'If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.'"
(Chown, pg. 24).

This is only the beginning of the article, but the idea is starting to become test-able. If this is true, then everything we experience as physical reality is just a hologram projected off a 2D surface somewhere way out in the universe. No one is entirely sure how this works, but it fits in with a lot of contemporary theory, particularly with the paradoxes of black holes.

What's staggering about this to me (other than that the Hindus are obviously right about the whole "maya" thing) is that it truly makes everything "unreal". What is there to really "know" about ourselves and others? What does "truth" become? What about "reality"? A lot of this ties in with ideas about the "multiverse"--the idea that every possible universe exists and is occurring at the same time. While that is still very theoretical, one thing is known from physics--the frame of reference for understanding the universe is not on Earth or somewhere out in space--it is within each person's frame of reference. In some complicated way, we create the universe.

Media may create ghosts, but are they any more true or false than our daily experiences and perceptions? Perhaps technology just adds another layer of complexity to something that is essentially a "ghost image" already--the whole Universe?

Tomorrow, I'll talk about John's thoughts on love, sex, and eroticism.


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