Friday, June 22, 2012

Jorie Graham in The Spectator

Is this real (Or is it Memorex)?

Jorie Graham: I believe we live in a world with way too little reality, or means of accessing reality — if by ‘reality’ we mean a place where your accountability for actions is not virtual. I am not the only one to think much of the tragic violence being perpetrated by soldiers, for example, is caused by the violence perpetrated on them by making them feel the ‘game’ is virtual — even the people their tanks fire upon are converted to resemble outlines in video games on their monitors. Put people in front of virtual people and they will come to feel, themselves, both immune and virtual. 487,000 US soldiers are suicidal and have acute Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Now obviously war’s hell has done this to generations — just thinking of World War I is enough. But something extra has been added here — and that is the video-game thinness of the reality of the other. One has to wonder how much not even feeling your so-called enemy to be “real” makes you even more broken and divorced from your soul. At any rate, I believe in, and deeply trust the apprenticeship to the non-virtual aspect of experience (the part not ‘just in your head’) as a form of life-teaching. And I believe in attending to it, as an actual practice. It is hard, as we say in the US, to ‘show up’ for life. It is far easier, and most of our technology encourages it, to go around experience, rather than through it. Thus the necessity of being physically present with one’s senses in lived experience in order to even have emotions. The virtual experience might feel like an actual one — it imitates it, but it invites one to bypass the body and go straight to the ‘information-gathering’ part of one’s person. Information is a very limited part of the real.


I’m having difficulty following this. I mean, I can see what she’s saying: “Virtual Reality” can desensitize people to violence. But when she says things about living in a world “with way too little reality,” I look around at what seems to me to be reality. And when she adds the clause, “or means for accessing reality” I’m completely lost. I access reality constantly, I’m thinking. So I’m guessing she’s talking about political candidates, but even there, there are consequences for their actions that are not “virtual.” Does she mean that we all play too many video games? I doubt it. I think she’s making a bigger point about the simulacra of modern life in general. Or maybe not. Maybe she just means political rhetoric. Political rhetoric can get pretty imaginary, but with potential devastating real world costs.

The flip side of the “VR = desensitization to violence” is that there have been some recent studies done where therapists can use computer animation and environmental stimulation (smell, etc) to take a person with PTSD back to the moment of trauma, where the stimulus can be recategorized, helping the person deal with regular stimuli (crowds, loud noises, airplanes overhead, etc).

Is it hard to show up for life? I have a hard time with that thought. It makes me wonder what the alternative is. How does one not show up for life? Watching TV or something? Still, that’s a way someone’s choosing to live. Is TV an example of “going around experience, rather than through it”? Probably. I don’t really like TV much either. But even then, TV allows me to know something about things I wouldn’t otherwise know in just that way. For example, yesterday, I watched the low-key, and rather charming documentary Pelata, about a couple of former soccer players travelling the world to play in pick-up games. Was my experience of that a going around experience? Well, it was the experience of watching someone else have some experiences I’m unable to have. I find that a broadening of my experience. I was sitting there with an ice pack on my leg from a rather large bruise I got from playing soccer on Wednesday. My daughter, then, came and sat down and watched it with me. We both talked about how much it made us want to go out and play soccer again. The next game is this Saturday.

You'll feel like you're virtually there! (Rendering Not Actual)

Jorie Graham says, “Thus the necessity of being physically present with one’s senses in lived experience in order to even have emotions. The virtual experience might feel like an actual one — it imitates it, but it invites one to bypass the body and go straight to the ‘information-gathering’ part of one’s person. Information is a very limited part of the real.”

I agree that TV and/or computer simulations, etc, are poor strategies to achieving an emotionally rich life (outside of the therapeutic uses I nodded to above). But does anyone think they are? I mean, I think people go to the VR stuff for a myriad of reasons, mostly to escape the rest of the day they had, or perhaps to mark time, or to have something going on while making dinner. Jorie Graham’s critique of culture here does have a point, but it’s, to paraphrase her, a very limited one. For instance, one could make a similar argument against people who study literature. That literature isn’t real experience. And then we’re in a big can of worms, talking about high and low. Of the making of distinctions there can be no end. So Sesame Street tells kids to go outside and play (which was my introduction to irony as a child, for which I’m thankful).

This critique only works if VR is the only thing one does (or if the only place one is getting information about society is from TV). And we hopefully do so much more. Our jobs. Our families. Our various groups (even, yes facebook groups). These are all real things. Or they are unreal things. I could be just as unreal in a face to face meeting with someone as I could be real in a facebook message to someone. There are many ways to connect or to disconnect. It’s a version of the thing I hear so many people say about high school and college, that one’s life as a student is preparing one for “real life.” No. All of one’s life is real life, it’s all part of the mix of who and what one is.

I like what she has to say much more when she’s talking about poetry directly:

“The human ‘mind’ dreams, free-associates, day-dreams, thinks on multiple tracks at once — doing one thing while thinking another and remembering another and noticing something in the same instant which might be totally unrelated — and so on. We live very little of our life in a rational, logical, or discursive state of mind. Why should our poems be simplified to that one limited aspect of the way our inwardness unfolds? Obviously some very great poems have come out of those more overt, coherently narrative, states. But to call all the rest of our existence ‘too difficult’ is pretty insane. Poetry’s job is, among other things, to make resistance to emotional oversimplification possible.”

Jorie Graham has a new book coming out. It’s titled Place. I’m going to read it.


At 6/23/2012 6:11 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"But when she says things about living in a world 'with way too little reality,' I look around at what seems to me to be reality. And when she adds the clause, 'or means for accessing reality' I’m completely lost."

She reminds me of Stevens here, of arousing the senses and playing them like a harmonium. I think she just means that technology increasingly sucks the vitamin C of knowledge out of the tomato of reality and administers it. The info is divorced from sensory stimuli and so from emotion. We end up with dissociation of sensibility big time. We don't eat the tomato--or if we do, it's a supermarket tomato injected with some kind of formaldehyde that makes it taste like a wiffle ball. And as technology pervades every aspect of life, opportunities to actually sink your teeth into a tomato from your own garden and feel the juice run down your chin grow scarcer. I think she's right.

In grad school, when I felt myself being sucked inexorably into computers like Chaplin into a vast factory machine, I thought it was better when information was harder to obtain. When you couldn't just google it, when you had to put on a jacket and walk to the library. You could feel the autumn wind, kick the leaves on the sidewalk, touch bark, feel the library books in your hands, smell old paper as you turned pages. I remember saying, "I like to touch something other than a keyboard once in a while."

At 6/23/2012 12:27 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

I wish she'd done some homework and actually talked to one of the soldiers who pilots armed drones from halfway around the world. I've read (with some surprise and relief) that these virtual warriors often get genuine PTSD, and need genuine therapy, after pulling the trigger on digitally represented enemies.

On the other hand, I get some sense of what Graham might mean by the accountability of one's actions being virtual. This isn't just about technology, but about living in a modern, stable, rich civilization, where so much is taken care of for us. There are so many laws and systems in place, presumeably to protect us from ourselves, that experience can seem muted, at least compared with simpler times when a decision led directly to being skewered / not skewered by a charging mastodon.

I think this is a reason why privileged 1st world people (like me) often turn to deliberately uncivilized pursuits, like mountain climbing, for recreation. It's an opportunity to feel, briefly, a less padded, more crisply defined version of reality. Something that may also be accessible through the imagination with the help of poetry or other arts.

At 6/23/2012 5:53 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Don’t You See?

Doesn’t anyone see around us
this unnatural lethargy, a nation almost
hypnotized into digital complacency,
the loss of all community?
You look out for you. I’ll look out for me.
It’s as though we all agreed at once
to look away.

Don’t you sense a certain general slow
decrease in energy, some kind of
supernatural invisibility?
And so the greedy and ambitious men,
disengaged from this reality,
after twenty-thousand years still
rule the Earth. Still make a mess.

But if no conflict then no consequence,
no task to overcome, reason to proceed,
no victory or success.
Does no one see this debilitating need,
this desire to run away and hide?
Being handed what you want is not a challenge,
or finding it or stealing or having lied.

So how should we obtain, then,
rise up to take this challenge?
How do those without greed or blind ambition
learn to care for what the greedy need?
How do those without need for dominance
learn to fight and inflict violence?

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns: New and Corrected Poems
Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 6/24/2012 4:44 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Right, underbelly, there are too many laws. I think of some lines by Michael McClure: "Why are we not wolves as much as men and women? We feel the howls and loves in ourselves." We've lost our lupine unruliness. We should canoe into some anarchic hinterland, like the guys in Deliverance. I used to canoe a lot, but lately the closest I come to Deliverance is listening to Steve Earle and watching Junk Gypsies with my mom.

At 6/24/2012 1:04 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Right, David, but I'm not exactly saying there are too many laws (even if there are). When I find myself at a bar with libertarians, I take the opposite view, in favor of more regulations for banks, petrochemical industries etc... I think that in the final balance, civilization is a good idea, at least considering the ridiculous number of us trying to coexist on a small planet.

I'm just acknowledging the old idea that with so much order and protection we lose something, too. And as a remedy we turn to activities that can seem utterly irrational to people who watch from outside the luxury of our position. Those who live in fear of wolves are perplexed by those who pay money to hang out with them.

At 6/24/2012 2:23 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Particular regulations often sound like a good idea, but one must'nt forget that all regulations abet government's natural tendency to expand its power over individuals and curtail their freedom--especially when they're passed in the name of philanthropy, with a clean conscience.

I want to be bitten by Joan of Arc so that I'll turn into a saint every time a full moon appears.

At 6/24/2012 4:34 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

To your point, it's possible to have too many of the wrong regulations and too few of the right ones. There's there's no magically correct number of laws.

However I don't think it's true that all laws can be seen an encroachment of government powers on individual freedoms. Many laws exist specifically to protect individuals from the government. And others exist to protect individuals or minorities from majority groups or corporations. It's this last type that I think we especially need more of.

At 6/24/2012 5:30 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Laws that protect the freedom of individuals to live as they see fit are necessary, of course. The purpose of government is to protect our rights to life, liberty, etc. As for laws that "protect individuals or minorities from majority groups or corporations"--well, they may be prompted by laudable sentiments, but I lack faith in the power of legislation to alleviate social ills. I'm more sanguine about the possibility of rectifying injustice by other means.

At 6/24/2012 8:19 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Legislation may not be able to do it all by itself, but it can help. Civil Rights? Suffrage? The 1st ammendment?

At 6/25/2012 5:23 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"Civil Rights? Suffrage? The 1st ammendment?" Wonderful things, and consequences of the classical liberal, Locke/Kant/Mill outlook I've been espousing here. The idea that gov't is a regrettable necessity, that gov't should have only as much power as we give it for the protection of our rights. I only mean that we should be on the qui vive for govt's attempts to exceed its specific, limited purpose and abridge our freedoms. For example, there shd be no censorship of the internet, in my opinion. I may have werewolf fantasies, but I'm not an anarchist.

At 6/25/2012 6:30 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This comment stream is more political than usual.

To return to the contents of the post, I dislike the idea that the way some people spend their time is more "real" than others. I'm pretty resistant to anything that creates a hierarchy, but also know how they're impossible to avoid. At a base level, we privilege certain experiences by what we deem worthy of our time.

I guess the underlying issue with experience is awareness. Does a soldier who manipulates the digital world to kill people in the actual world make the connection between the two? As underbelly said, yes.

I fail to see how poetry isn't a kind of virtual world in of itself. There are no fancy buttons or high-definition screens, but it's still this temporal, fleeting thing, I think.

At 6/25/2012 9:51 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"I dislike the idea that the way some people spend their time is more "real" than others."

Fuzz, I get your resistance to the kind of subjective / judgmental heirarchies this can suggest.

Maybe another way to put the question ... do some of the realities you spend time in feel more "real" than others? Define real any way you like.

I definitely feel more connected to reality some times than others. Part of it has to do with how engaged I am in the moment. In that way being immersed in writing something can feel similar to climbing a rock. Both feel different from spacing out in front of the internet.

I've never felt more real than when my alter ego posted the poem "Don't You See?" earlier in the thread. Booyah!

At 6/25/2012 10:23 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I believe Graham uses "reality" and "experience" interchangably. On her view, if it's "just in your head," it's just virtual experience, not really real. She considers non-virtual--outside-the-head--experience the real reality.

But have you noticed that memories of things you've actually experienced are virtually indistinguishable from things you've imagined, i.e., virtually experienced? For example, memories of a trip to Paris meld with footage from French films or photos in a travel guide. Or how, when you recount an experience, the way you embroider the story to entertain friends replaces what actually happened in your memory? Will the unreal fantasy please sit down...

At 6/25/2012 11:13 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

"Maybe another way to put the question ... do some of the realities you spend time in feel more "real" than others? Define real any way you like."

I certainly feel more. . .in touch (?) when I participate in certain activities, but I can't say that because I do X others will have access to a same or similar experience. Even then, experiences which feel more "real" to me than others do so inconsistently. One trek up a mountain sticks out more than others, writing certain poems felt more lucid during the composition, etc.

All of this ignores the point that all of these things exist whether you or I or anyone considers them "real" or not. Video games, mountains, poetry, memory--it's all a part of our experience.

I suppose the reason I do anything is experience something, be it real or imagined.

At 6/25/2012 5:41 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



Through tall grass two stones fly
from opposite directions, simultaneously.
Kill the same rabbit!
Two men, surprised, look up through the grass
from opposite directions, instantaneously.
Then at the rabbit.
Circling, both approach slowly, slings dangling,
curious, suspicious, eyeing each other,
then look at the rabbit both sought.

Both hungry under Neolithic skies,
each has need of what the other’s got.
Both move, drop slings for spears and throw!
One man dies. One eats, one not
for two have claimed one rabbit.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns: New and Corrected Poems
Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 6/26/2012 4:19 AM, Blogger David Grove said...


In an abandoned warehouse with no lights just shadows and soon no rabbits. The purpose of the event was to pass the torch. From one generation of heavy metal to the next. And their lied... in his black leather hunting outfit with shotgun guitar with spikes coming out of it, Ozzie Fudd the Rabbit Slayer!

In the dead of night
A shimmewin' wight
Gweem of a bwade
And dah devew was paid
When dah axe comes down
A chiwin' sound
Steel hits da head
Anothaw wabbit's dead
I'm a wabbit swayer
A guitaw pwayaw
With a nasty habbit

Kill dah wabbit! (hah hah hah)

I'm a mean mistweetah
A wabbit feastah
And I pwedict
A bwoody Eastaw
A scuwowing shadow
And dah shadow was dis wabbit
And dah night air echoes
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Kill dah wabbit!
Ohhhh... and dayah won't be any mow wabbits awound
No mow Wodgah Wabbit
No mow Petah Wabbit
And no mow Pwayboy Bunny Wabbits!
Ah ha ha ha ha
Be vewy vewy cawafo

At 6/26/2012 12:59 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

That made me tear up a little.

But let's not forget our classical roots ...

E: Oh, Bwoonhiwda, you so wuvwee.

B: Yes, I know it, I can't help it.

E: Oh, Bwoonhiwda, be my wuv...

E: Wetoon, my wuv... a fiwe buwning inside me...

B: Return my luv, I want you always bee-side me.

E: Wuv wike ows must be...

B: Made for you and for me...

E & B : Return, won't you return my love... for my love is yours.

E (spoken, outraged): I'll KILL the wabbit!!

E (spoken): Nof winds bwow, souf winds bwow. Typhoons, Huwicanes... Ewfquakes!! SMOG!!!!!!

At 6/26/2012 6:26 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Thanks, guys!

Every poet needs a little positive support.

At 6/27/2012 11:59 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Jorie Graham is more real than you are, and don't you forget it...

At 6/27/2012 12:24 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I am pretty sure that all real things are equally real, though we can play with terms like "authentic" if we wish.

At 6/27/2012 6:58 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I question your authenticity, John. What say the robots about this?

At 6/27/2012 7:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Authenticity is a Virtual Phenomenon"


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