Not Taboo, but a Little Creepy

The indifference and the immediacy of virtual life on the Web is both liberating and undermining. The restraints and boundaries that characterized older dreams of totality seem to no longer apply. Everything seems possible and is accessible. The original and the forgery are equally appealing and hard to discern. As images and emotion enter virtual reportage, art and fact blend into a hybrid form that expresses the essence and uncertainty of postmodern life, as opposed to a canonical corpus into which we used to try and fit our experience. What we buy into (whether belief or brand name) is completely up for grabs, as is the option, “hey, I just don’t buy that.” The human psyche has been released further than ever from certainty, the unthinkable has become thinkable, along with the option not to think or feel at all—and we act, or don’t, accordingly.

We are living in a really open society now, constrained by very little. Fabricators and prevaricators, entrepreneurs and con men, creators and destroyers, the artistic and the artless, the grandiose, the broken, and the genuine articles—all abide side by side offering opportunity and promoting opportunism. A lot of what we used to keep hidden or private is now exposed to the light of day for all to see. It’s always high noon during summer on the Web—even if we log on in the dark. The Web doesn’t care what we do, how we do it, why we do it, or with whom. We however, attribute qualities to the virtual world and to others in cyberspace that aren’t really there. We project our minds and our feelings onto—some would say increasingly into—the virtual world, filling in the actual inconsistencies that abound there with what we imagine, rearranging fragments into wholes, restoring symmetry, fashioning a new dream of totality. In part this is the message of the medium—that it allows us to do this so transparently—and it’s also a massage.

Although we project all sorts of things onto it the Web is completely indifferent to the words and images posted, equally welcoming of wonderful new ideas and child pornography, great works of art and junk, significant inventions, terrorist hubs, racist manifestos, inspiring essays, useful information, manipulative lies, instructions for self-improvement and for making toxic chemical agents. It permits any and all transgressions. It almost seems to be playing a game with us as we play games with it, allowing us to render and control even the most intimate expression of self in relationship to another. YouPorn, for example, an amateur video site, is the most popular pornography site on the Web. But, interestingly, it’s not exactly transgressive either, because it isn’t really hidden or “dirty” anymore.

To transgress creatively you need to feel the press of limits. To move the boundary marker you need to know where it was. We are faced with a special quandary in contemporary life because the Web allows us to move across boundaries and transgress margins by erasing and blending them so easily. Without centers and boundaries, transgression becomes a very confusing affair. The popular pastime of Facebook stalking, for example—lurking obsessively on someone’s Facebook profile, usually someone never spoken to—is, like YouPorn, a transgression that doesn’t really transgress. It’s not taboo; it’s just a little creepy.

With the loss of traditional symbolic centers comes a seeming loss of direct access to meaning—at least to the sort of meaning we are used to. The good news is that the increasing transparency of our contemporary dreams of totality like the world of virtual cyberspace allows their imaginary origin to shine through, making it easier to dismantle our identification with particular dreams and to recognize that where we are when there’s nothing at the center is in the imagination’s endless series of calls, echoes, and responses. Even though complexity has been with us forever, we no longer have the option of waiting hopefully for the gods to speak with one voice again. Imagination has finally delivered its multiple messages and there is no going back, no filtering those out, no center beyond or behind that.

What is at stake though is staying ethical amid the flow and flux of images and identities. What’s new is that a sensibility of meaning doesn’t have to come from a worldview, a belief system, or any dream of totality—be it family, culture, religion, or even our dependence on the natural world. Once upon a time these sufficed and were containing. Part of what we’ve seen is that desperate attempts at resuscitation or relocation are futile, beside the point, even downright dangerous. We are in the process of outgrowing such identifications. Equally problematic though is reacting to this by identifying with nihilism or with “whatever” thinking. This is hard, because it can often seem as if the portal into the creative imagination is now just a revolving door—and even that is closing fast, thanks to the glut of images surrounding us.
If we identify with or get swept away by fragmentation and loss, or get caught in malignant transgressions and simulations, the more ripe we become for takeover by totalitarianism of whatever stripe—corporate capitalism disguised as democracy or globalization, or even the fantasy of a friendly green planet. And while it is strange indeed that we can go shopping in the “meaning mall,” where a plurality of meanings are on display, meanings that we can buy into—or not—including a choice about buying the whole meaning scenario, this situation—confusing, liberating, and deceptive as it may be—is also part of where we are when there’s no one thing at the center. As dreams of totality fall away, our imagination’s provision to dream them is revealed and can come fully into its own. In the same way, we can come to know that meaning is always just there, a part of us as we are a part of it.

From Chapter 6, Virtuality and Its Transgressions: the Masking and Unmasking of Imaginatio, pages 180-184 and From Chapter 7: the Rx pages192-193