Jorie Graham in The Spectator
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.
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.