On the 11th December 2003, somewhere in a bookish part of London, sitting against a backdrop of glass-fronted shelving units, Slavoj Žižek delivers a lecture on ‘The reality of the virtual.’ Just short of a decade later, the same lecture is uploaded to a YouTube account where it amasses over one-hundred-thousand views.
Žižek states: “If somebody asks you: do you really believe in Santa Claus, Christmas? You would say: No – I just pretend, because of the children, it’s not to disappoint them’ but then we know how the game goes on and on. If you ask the children, they say: No, we just play that we are naïve, not to disappoint our parents and to make sure that we get the presents, and so on and so on. But it’s not only with children; it’s even with our political life, I’m tempted to claim. Now, in our so-called – wrongly so-called, I claim – because we believe more than ever in our so-called cynical era, for example, I don’t think anyone believes in democracy, but nonetheless, we want to maintain appearances. That is to say; there is some purely virtual entity whom we do not want to disappoint. Who has to be kept innocent – ignorant, because of who we have to pretend; so, the paradox is that although nobody effectively believes – it is enough that everybody presupposes someone else to believe, and the belief is actual, it structures reality, it functions.”
I sometimes wonder if this presupposed belief in democracy requires an additional ‘suspension of disbelief’ at the failures of it. Democracy, in fact, all political life, functions as a subsidiary of modern living, which is effectively an ability to suspend our disbelief in the face of its absurdity. We go to work, fraternize with people we dislike, dress according to the fashion, go home – cry – shield our genuine selves from the sanctimony and judgement of others, etc. In short, we operate with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” After all – we operate with an illustrative faith in the ongoing functionality of our everyday lives.
This is what makes disaster films so spectacularly horrific to us, I suspect, particularly post 9/11. Whereby we are disturbed, not by the suffering endured by other human beings, but rather by the idea that life’s functionality would ultimately come to an end. A solar flare will cleanse the earth of all technological advances, plunging humanity into a new dark age of despair. But what is sad to the average viewer, I think, is to imagine all of the house cats not being fed by their owners before work.
It is not our intricate understanding of particular objects that arouses us, but rather their ability to function without demanding too much attention; especially in regards to their means of operation. Objects are designed to occupy less and less of our external space, while paradoxically occupying more of our inner lives. After all, we know when it is time to charge the iPad, the mobile phone, the gizmo, the gadget – everything else. Perhaps even knowledge itself is outsourced and delivered back to us as opinion polls, advertisements and formal consultation.
Beyond this, the intricate technological workings of these objects are absent. Nonetheless, their functionality is what sustains their presence in our homes. The smartphone, for example, is a truly revolutionary device, allowing portable functionality, allowing us to email our boss, watch pornography, or both. Even so, we have arrived at a period in time where our technology knows more about us, than we know about it. In a truly narcissistic manifestation, today, technology is perhaps the ideal romantic partner because it asks for nothing in return, other than to know who we are.
Imagine this: a couple sitting across from you, both on their mobile handsets, enjoying separate, virtual worlds in a Mexican restaurant that claims to sell Mexican food. Activities that undoubtedly require the willingness to suspend our critical faculties and believe in something surreal. And this could happen in Mexico while enjoying the orgasmic spectacle of information of cat videos beamed straight into their retinas.
This is what it means to observe surrealism in the 21st Century, to feel as if you must be dreaming.