Flying into LaGuardia, the City shimmering outside the airplane window — labyrinth of light beneath squid-ink sky. Bridges spanning black waters, buildings silhouetted against dark vistas, boulevards radiating in concentric directions. Circuit board of the digital economy.
“City of hurried and sparkling waters!” sang Walt Whitman, “city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city!”
But it’s not my city. Not anymore. Never really was…
From airport to hotel – the driver knows the way – we slip easily through narrow lighted canyons, beneath the liquid sky up there somewhere. I’m deposited at the door of my hotel, where I spot a $5 bill lying folded in the gutter. Pick it up, hand it to the doorman – he protests — “But it’s on your property.” Soon I’m settled in room 1201, which is not large, but feels vaguely luxurious, until the next morning, anyhow, when the jackhammers start up across the way.
After breakfast I’m walking to meet a friend, when looking over my shoulder, I spot four slender towers reaching high above Manhattan. Two are constructed of sapphire sheets, and two of gray stone with windows shining blue, and one is as narrow as a knife – and I think to myself, what a splendid statement! But then I wonder – a statement of what?
I pass a window display with mannequins draped in the latest style – bold hibiscus patterns evocative of “the island life” – and then a cocktail dress with bands of silver sequins and white fur – and I wonder, who wears these kinds of clothes? And then I remember that once upon a time I did live in New York City (for 29 years actually) and during that time dealt with people who were quite aggressively stylish. But of their outfits I remember nothing.
For me, of course, most bewildering are the shoe ads. A big poster shows a runner in motion, with a close-up of her shoes. The model is called “blissfeel.” The design offers “softer landings” and “every-run comfort” thanks to a supportive upper, “tuned foam,” and a fit designed specifically for women.
My immediate reaction is disdain. That bliss would be associated with product, rather than experience.
Later on, curious how the manufacturer sought to position this product in a crowded marketplace, I scanned through some reviews. One author, writing for an exclusive travel magazine, claimed that upon lacing up these shoes “after a year of struggling with foot pain, my problems have suddenly melted away.” She found that the blissfeel shoe fit “like a glove from the start” and provided a “surprisingly energetic and organic motion that kept me running longer than I had intended to.” Her feet became an “afterthought,” until she switched into a different pair of shoes, at which point the foot pain came back.
Evidently the reviewer had not read the memoirs of acclaimed author Haruki Murakami, who is also an avid runner with over 30 marathons to his credit. He pointed out that “It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive.”
So, we have an irreconcilable difference. On the one hand, bliss is a function of technology that prevents pain. On the other hand, bliss is a function of enduring pain and overcoming it.
The blissfeel shoe poster made me think of “hyper-reality” – the term coined by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to describe the condition of postmodern, technologically-advanced societies in which people lose the ability to distinguish between reality and simulation (the idea was popularized in the hit movie franchise, The Matrix). I picture a young woman — she’s intrigued by the idea that running could be blissful. Spends the money ($148). Jogs around a little bit and gets out of breath. Mostly wears the shoes walking in the office. Is this bliss? The original human activity – the reality, if you will – was moving over rough terrain, barefoot. It was an intense mind-body experience and often painful. Real bliss occurred when the runner reached her destination.
Hyper-reality in the Past
Baudrillard introduced the term in the 1980s, but the idea has been around much longer. Another French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, warned in the 1950s of the growing power of propaganda, which he saw as creating a collective passion, suppressing the critical faculty of individuals – indeed, he saw people as becoming addicted to it, as to a drug. Reality is reconstructed in their minds. The individual lives in a “sham universe.” Reality disappears into a “world of hallucinations.”
19th century Catskills nature-writer John Burroughs described the world of reality as overlayed by “an artificial world of great depth and potency.” He criticized the artists of his time for not being content to report things as they truly are; instead, they attempted to bedeck the world and bejewel it and “deck it out in the colors of the fancy.”
And surely the hyper-real was present in primitive societies, too. Consider the myths and fables and superstitious practices. Consider the beautiful portraits painted by George Catlin of Native American chiefs bedecked in face paint and jewelry and other forms of ornamentation.
During the 1870s, a Comanche warrior and shaman named Isa-tai convinced the people that he possessed “puha” or spiritual power that gave him miraculous healing powers. He claimed he could raise the dead. He said his magic rendered the white man’s bullets ineffective. It was believed that he could control the elements and send hail, lightning, and thunder against his enemies.
In partnership with a young war chief, Isa-tai brought together a band of Comanche warriors from many different tribes and riled them up with whiskey, a ceremonial sun dance, and promises of vengeance on the white hunters who were rapidly depleting the herds of bison upon which the Comanche depended.
They gathered before dawn. Isa-tai sat upon his horse, stark naked except for a cap of sage stems, his body painted completely yellow, as was his horse — the color of invulnerability. Most of the other braves and horses were painted yellow, too, along with other special colors. They believed Isa-tai had true puha. They believed they would be immune to the white man’s bullets.
But as it turned out, the white man’s .50 caliber hunting rifles could fell a man a mile away.
The hyper-real has been with us since the dawn of humanity. It is the cloud of possibilities that we can imagine. Possibilities of bliss. Possibilities of freedom from that which troubles us, whether foot pain or the encroachment of a rival culture. The hyper-real is daydream. Fantasy. Wishful thinking. Marketing. Gaslighting. Bullshit. Or alternatively, art and wildness and the start of something new.
Baudrillard’s real point is that the power of technology has grown monstrously. The illusions we weave today are ever more complex and overpowering. Governments and corporate entities control vast resources, including access to creative advertisers, savvy PR firms, mountains of survey data – and now throw in big data and machine learning and a feedback loop from social media which allows them to fine-tune their messaging in real time. Have we reached the point where the illusions are so powerful, the common person is overwhelmed? The digital world, in particular, is a house of mirrors. Unless you take the time (and have the skills) to do your own research, you arguably have no ability to discern which ideas you read about are real. If any.
The Desert of the Real
Baudrillard offered up an alternative to hyper-reality — the “desert of the real” (another concept popularized in The Matrix).
I don’t know specifically what he meant by this, in part because I find his writing to be so jargon-filled and opaque as to be incomprehensible. But I can share my own impressions.
First of all, I believe the desert of the real is much like how early emmigrants found Death Valley — “the Creator’s dumping place where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little.”
Picture salt plains stretching across a valley, the residue of ancient lake long since evaporated. To either side, mountain walls of blasted rock, with vast alluvial fans spilling out. The ground is covered in sand, rock fragments, crusty blackened biotic soil, boulders spotted with red-black swirls of desert varnish. The vegetation is sparse but hardy – creosote, sagebrush, and desert holly, which survives in highly saline environments by excreting salt through its pores, and you will find sometimes a thin white crust on its silver-gray leaves.
Walking barefoot upon this terrain you’d feel prickles underfoot. Running would be painful.
Last summer, I walked 211 miles through high mountain desert. I wanted to experience the land as our distant ancestors did. I did not wear blissfeel shoes. I did not wear any shoes at all. Where the trails were composed of silky soft sand, the experience was blissful. In other places it was not. I climbed a mountain pass on a trail of broken granite which scratched my feet. Descended the far side and my feet were on fire but still I had miles to go. I developed cracks on the sides of my heels and on the ball of my feet and a scratch on the instep, which made it difficult to keep going, especially when the path lay baking under the noonday sun. The journey took a great deal of patience, but afterwards, when the ordeal was over, the world became, for a day or two, perfectly still. As if time had slowed and then stopped for just a moment. The quiet was as deep as anything I can remember.
I feel time slowing in other places, too. For example, the local university running track, where ten miles takes 40 laps to complete, and each lap takes a thousand steps. Ten minutes on the stairmaster (especially when I’m being careful about my aging knees) lasts much longer than ten minutes scrolling through Twitter. Three minutes in the plank position – two minutes in the tree position in a sauna at 170 degrees F — 30 seconds swimming underwater on a single breath. During a 48-hour fast, when my energy drops to a more conservative level, and I have a whole day of work to look forward to and no dinner. These are all examples of how the desert has spread into other areas of my life.
Indeed, I seek out the desert wherever I can find it. In the mountains and forests of upstate New York. In the grasslands, too, where I see ragwort blooming in early May, painting the fields in bands of orange — and a few weeks later the fields are sprinkled with yellow dots of birds-foot trefoil, bubblegum splash of ragged robbin, purple vetch flowers sparkling from within the tangles, bedstraw frothing white down low while sweet white clover towers overhead — and once I found Carolina Roses hiding beneath matts of dead grass. You see, the desert is also a garden.
Is the Hyper-real for Real?
The hyper-real does not last. Eventually some kind of measurement is taken. For example, the impact of naked skin upon the rocks. The impact of a bullet. Then the hyper-reality collapses from a cloud of possibilities into a single state.
That reviewer who gushed about the blissfeel shoe — she’s happy, because she’s received a check for writing the review, but the shoes lie forgotten, in a corner of her closet. The foot pain has returned. In this regard, blissfeel wasn’t really different from other brands of shoe.
I imagine a young woman trying on blissfeel in a store. She dismisses the name as typical marketing nonsense (compare with the equally-meaningless “Gel-quantum” or “Fresh foam” or “Cloudmonster”). Even so, she likes the fit and buys a pair. Trains in them diligently. Racks up the miles. Runs a 5k race so hard she’s gasping. Runs a marathon. Runs a 100-mile race. By the time she reaches the finish line, her feet are blistered, muscles aching, she’s so nauseous she can no longer eat or drink, she can barely take another step. But there’s the satisfaction of covering the distance and the self-confidence that comes from completing a difficult task. Call it runner’s high.
Now I picture the corporate team responsible for the marketing campaign. They review the latest sales. Check the commentary on social media. Talk with managers in the stores. Maybe sales are in line with budget, and the team cautiously celebrates. Or maybe sales fall short, and investors are disappointed. Bonuses are not earned. A handful of people lose their jobs.
You can live in the hyper-real for a period of time. Eventually you will come face-to-face with reality.
But why wait?
Why not reduce the cloud of possibilities to a single expectation. For the corporate team, this would be their projections. How accurate, only time will tell, but the team has studied all the relevant variables and factored them into the budget.
For the runner who bought the shoes, she can’t foretell how 100 miles will feel, but she’s made a commitment. To training as a path of personal growth. There’s no question about the decision.
As for the author of the gushing review, the experience never mattered, it was about getting paid.
Baudrillard saw a world where people fled from a reality that was too painful for them to bear. Where people sought to lose themselves in collective fantasy.
There’s a scene in The Matrix, where Cypher savors a steak. He knows the beef is simulated (it has no physical existence) — but it tastes so juicy and delicious! “I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing!” With that he agrees to re-enter the Matrix and betray his friends.
I don’t know what Baudrillard would advise us, if he were still alive today. He might suggest we focus on the moment. Practice enduring discomfort. Pursue the path of virtue by making the best decision possible at each juncture. What else is there to say?
I think about the desert often. Salt plains glaring in white light, seen from a vantage point a mile above. A labyrinth of mustard and ochre. The scene at night — flashes overhead, threatening yet beckoning. The wind shrieking out of the south. Dust funnels spinning up above the dunes. The acrid spicy scent of sage and creosote, in the hot dry air.
Come take a seat with me on this rock. Let’s rest our soles.
Let’s listen to the wind.
Welcome to the desert of my real.
Whitman line from his poem “Manhatta.” Emphasis on “my” was added.
Story of Isa-tai from Gwynne, S. C.. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.
Comment on Death Vallely from Manly, William Lewis. Death Valley in ’49