The phrase "the desert of the real" conveys that ‘the real’ is the destroyed world, gloomy, fantastical, inexplicable through language, especially when viewed from the ordered world. In Indonesia, we are actually in that ‘desert’: with incessant floods, landslides and earthquakes.
WE are missing window shopping. The experience of shops and malls is becoming rarer. The months-long pandemic is making us used to taking a distance from things as spectacle.
But why should we miss it? Taking a distance does not mean letting go. We still live surrounded by what Guy Debord half a century ago called “the society of spectacle”: a collective life of what he called degradation from ‘being’ to ‘having’ and ‘having’ to ‘appearing’.
With ‘appearing’, we turn things into signs. The shirt we wear is not only to protect the body, but is also a sign of achievement, beauty, and prestige. We want to be seen. We want to be judged. We line up to be classified into groups of Dolce & Gabbana blouse wearers or Senen market consumers, wearers of Country Road bomber jackets or Klewer market shirts.
Unlike the pre-Covid era, these days appearance—called ‘virtual’—is narrowed to what is seen and heard. We follow (one cannot really say ‘watch’) theater, music performances, fashion shows and football matches without going to a physical place where we can greet those appearing. There is reduction of the body and the senses. There is no touching, no smelling—and we must feel that this is enough. The hope is that people will discover perfume by merely reading the brand name and seeing the packaging, or by having faith in advertisements on YouTube.
But actually, there is no essential difference. From the beginning, capitalism and the modern world separated us from the world of things—separated in order to view and control them. Or to be controlled by them.
In The Great Gatsby—the famous but boring novel about life of the rich on Long Island in the 1920s—there is a memorable scene about shirts. Daisy, Jay Gatsby’s former lover, visits his mansion now he is a millionaire. Gatsby still wants to impress her. He displays an array of shirts of various brands, colors and material that he gets sent to him from London.
Daisy nuzzles the pile of shirts. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts.”
It appears that the distance between Daisy and the pile of shirts is a total experience, emotional and physical. Her body is like a computer interface that conveys communication between two different systems—between consciousness and the material world outside. At that moment there is no tele-vision or tele-phone, meaning ‘distant’. The expression in this scene in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is almost entirely sensual. To Gatsby, the shirts are a statement that can be felt and sniffed about possession and pride in possession. To Daisy, the man’s clothing is at once a physical extension of her former lover and material wealth that was once out of reach.
There, in Gatsby’s world, the association between things as concrete objects and as signs is still tight. But modernity made the connection change. The tele-phone often became a replacement for the mouth and tele-vision for the eye. Events moved further away from complete senses. Things also took a distance: to be only seen, heard, and spoken of.
In extreme imagination about modern utopia, that distance is radical. Slavoj Zizek used the film The Matrix as hyperbole depicting the separation of people with real nature.
In The Matrix, the material reality that humans experience is entirely virtual, generated and manipulated by a super-powerful computer. When the hero, acted by Keanu Reeves, sees non-virtual reality beyond his living space, he sees it as a desolate, war-torn, yet spectacular geography. Someone greets him, ironically: “Welcome to the desert of the real!”
The phrase “the desert of the real” conveys that ‘the real’ is the destroyed world, gloomy, fantastical, inexplicable through language, especially when viewed from the ordered world. In Indonesia, we are actually in that ‘desert’: with incessant floods, landslides and earthquakes.
In our world—not the Matrix world—life is ambiguous. In conditions often uncomfortable and full of danger, we can still be suddenly aware, even wary, that the energy that makes machines move and lights turn on comes from the belly of the earth that is being aggressively mined, and not from clean petrol pumps. We can still recall that the rice we eat comes from rice fields and the sweat of farmers—whose situation can be unjust—and not from processes driven by brains that are ‘impartial’.
So if we are now longing for shop windows, we should remember that they are merely showcases of signs. We go because we live in the cycle of spectacle that can hide destruction and injustice. We are bored with being at home, but maybe we need to take a break. Life does not have to be endless mutual gazing.