April 2, 2018
Here is an essay of mine which was published for MCAD’s (Minneapolis Institutre of Art) exhibit called Stream Capture. The exhibit focuses on the intersections between nature and technology through a variety of art pieces. The one I focus on is David Bowen’s 24 Leaves-
Dance of the Dead:
The Uncanny Valley of Techno-Movement
By Zeej Anderson
Our relation to death can be performed in a dance requiring no tap shoes, no tutus, not even music. A simple piece called 24 Leaves, created by David Bowen and presented in Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibition Stream Capture, brings to the stage dancers we see everyday but think little about. It consists of one motor, plenty of muscle wire, and 24 maple leaves (slightly rotted) each attached to a series of clamps. The system has one central switch which, when flipped, sends electrical current through the muscle wire causing each leaf to move on their contraction. If only there were music, beautiful violin to be played alongside their sways, but, instead the leaves contort and retract to the sound of a small motor eerily clicking. Each leaf moves on cue to the wires contraction making them appear to dance to their own tune, independently, as if they were alive.
However, these aren’t the leaves we watch out our windows which naturally dance on the branches of trees; these leaves have fallen, dried out, and lost their source of life. For them to dance before our eyes has implications: we are watching the dead dance.
I call it techno-movement, it is the category of technologically rendered animalistic, anthropomorphic, or even plant-like movement found in both 2 dimensions and 3. As more and more ethical debates emerge on new media’s abilities to render the organic through unnatural means, techno-movement has become an increasing fascination. We see it in the animated bodies of films such as The Polar Express (2004), for example, which had to be dulled down in realism to make audiences comfortable. We have the Robot Dog, which brings up articles on Google that use the words “terrifying”, “unnerving”, and “creepy”, due to its lively jaunt and recently learned ability to open doors. And we have outrage at our most recent Super Bowl LII at the idea of Prince being hologrammed, something Prince himself said was a rupturing of the present, a dis to his art.
24 Leaves sparks a complex array of history, technology, and culture all leading to a soon to be present. How far away are we, say, from legitimately asking how our replacement of nature will move if climate change wipes out all plant life? What will our daily tasks look like if arms and legs are replaced with robotic copies? In general, what new dances will we see when simple movements of the organic become memories?
There is this idea that those involved in the creation of techno-movement are playing god because of the technology’s ability to replace. The Prince hologram may have been one of the widest influences on the debate today– a moment where millions of people were responding to and contemplating the morals of a hologrammed dance. Justin Timberlake and the NFL decided, in the end, to scratch the hologram performance when fans reacted so negatively.
The reason why Prince fan’s were up in arms- hologramming is a religious sin. He’s quoted saying, “That [hologramming] is the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon,” -Prince.
I agree with my childhood hero, there is something disturbing about technology that gives the illusion of reanimation of the dead. Even 24 Leaves is creepy and that is a dance with no people.
What are the specific religious beliefs, specifically Judeo-Christian, that would inspire fear of techno-movement from Prince and fans alike?
In the first case we have the religious concept of the ‘soul’, defined as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” (Merriam-Webster). The soul concept is traced by Otto Rank who widens the theory to be called Doubling, Under this umbrella term the idea of a soul could be coupled with the idea of Atman, for example, the ‘eternal self’ described in Hinduism. Or ruh, in the Islamic conception. Whatever the term, Rank says doubling is “an insurance against destruction to the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death,’…probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body” (Freud).
Prince saw being hologrammed not just as a doubling of his body, but, of his soul as well. By reanimating his movement and voice through hologram technology his soul was being brought out of heaven and back to earth thus making the soul unable to be reborn as immortal. The hologram breaks the rule that the soul- “must be conceived by the Holy Spirit and be born again into God’s realm of spirit when physical life ends.” – John 14:12. In no situation should the soul be yanked from God’s realm or paradise.
This substitution of soul in paradise to soul trapped in technology results in an uncanny feeling. The Uncanny Valley Theory explains that there is a 85-95% zone of successful reproduction of organic objects which leaves us creeped, confused, and possibly even scared. Michael Steven, founder of Vsauce, says in his video What Makes Things Creepy, “Fear gives us life…it makes sense to be scared of poisonous insects and tigers. But what about fear when there is no clear and obvious danger? For instance, a teddy bear with a full set of human teeth.”
The very concept of soul is the opposite of clear and obvious, it can only be imagined during life or possibly experienced once the person has died.
In Arabic and Hebrew ‘uncanny’ actually means the same as ‘daemonic’ or ‘gruesome’. Feelings of uncanniness have everything to do with inaccurate replacement, and in the case of the soul, the ticket into paradise, inaccuracy means eternal damnation.
Omnipotence of Thoughts
The second topic related to religious ideology is the omnipotence of thought.
A theory Freud secularizes and unpacks, the omnipotence of thoughts is the belief that one’s own thoughts have power over physical reality. “The infantile element in this, which also holds sway in the minds of neurotics, is the over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparison with physical reality—a feature closely allied to the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts.” (Freud 15). The church, specifically the Judeo-Christian one, is not only a supporter of the omnipotence of thoughts but a producer of the dominant ideology that thoughts have a direct connection with the altering of our world. As a core practice of Christianity prayer best proves this statement. By repeating wishful thoughts brought up by the community the devoted hopes that they will manifest into their lives.
The belief that thoughts have power over one’s reality varies greatly. Some say it’s unprovable that thoughts have power while others argue thoughts lead to mass action. In this way the omnipotence is similar to the wide range of sensitivity the public has to uncanniness, which- “people vary so very greatly in their sensitivity to the quality of feeling.” (Freud 1). In the case of techno-movement there is an argument that could be made that negative reactions are molded by instincts, therefore, it’s not the intensity of the reaction that counts, just simply that there is a reaction. I accept this, but, we cannot ignore the rest of the spectrum including reasons why the base instinctual fear is inflated.
The source of inflation is in the imagination, the vehicle for fear. Without the imagination humans would not be able to hypothesize possible danger and thus find solutions to stay safe. When looking at threatening movement, not solely techno-movement, the brain instinctually plays out all routes that lead to danger in order to best predict how to keep itself safe. This is why there is in an enormous collection of dystopian future novels, films, and other cultural objects which warn us of hostile robots, cyborg limbs going rogue, or colonization through the use of technologically advanced weaponry all in response to techno-movement (directly or indirectly).
Biblical stories of the soul being trapped may as well belong in the category of dystopian fiction. Dante’s Inferno, for example, creatively maps hell as different stages of vice and pain, places where the soul spends eternity suffering for the choices made while alive.
The story puts weight on choice. And coming back to the church, in it’s privileging of thoughts, and then production of beliefs based on abstract thoughts, produces believers the consequences of choice.
It’s no wonder Prince fans felt personally responsible for the safety of his soul, the ideology indoctrinated in them comes from the inside-out, from thought and choice then to reality rather than the inverse. The paradox of this responsibility is, then, that they have no choice to defend or not.
Loss of Control
The last topic is loosely related to religious ideology, but hits upon an undertone of humanity’s need for religion in the first place.
Freud discusses in depth the differences and necessary connections between the uncanny experienced in real life versus fiction. Quite simply, “…an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions and significance of the thing it symbolizes, and so on.” (Freud 15) This examination explains why the more efficient the techno-movement matches the original dance the deeper it goes into the Uncanny Valley and the more fear is produced. The line between reality and the imagination is toyed with when witnessing techno-movement, and as explained in the last section, dystopian fiction, including biblical stories of hell, only further carve out the imaginative possibilities of consequence and loss of reward for being complicit with such science.
Similar to the teddy bear with teeth, Freud notes that “Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition.” (Freud 14) Being in the presence of a decision making process that we are excluded from strikes a nerve. so again, it does make sense to blame the one who provided the ability to make decisions in the first place.
Similar to witnessing an epileptic seizure witnessing techno-movement includes involuntary movements we, and the subject itself, cannot direct. Just like 24 Leaves, the muscle wire contracts at random amounts causing random movements at random times. This is why the muscle wire is key to 24 Leaves eery jaunt, the randomness of their contractions builds upon our lost sense of control. Techno-movement hits the same chord as AI in this regard except purely of the physical; it represents a loss of control.
Bowen’s Tele-Water (2002) and Tele-Wind (2011) are both pieces that also exemplify this loss of control. Tele-water presents a red grid which recreates recorded movement gathered from an adrift buoy. Tele-wind consists of 42 dried plant stalks which sway to the stream of live information from outside wind collected by a single stalk.
Both pieces have a liveness to their movement that gives the illusion of consciousness and therefore the rights to a soul and the ontological rules that follow. The movement is key to the illusion, the reason why it does not matter what is moving, just that it moves naturally and is here being presented in the same way by the unnatural. The red grid exemplifies this in the way it mimics the water that passed under and around the buoy. It shows that the uncanny itself is more than just the creeps, it is like confronting a ghost that doesn’t seem to know it’s not fully alive.
Keeping in mind the wisdom Mary Shelley gave 200 years ago in Frankenstein; dangerous offspring are as cruel as their creative parent.
In this essay I’ve analyzed the interactions between two of our offspring- religion and techno-movement. Due to doubling, the omnipotence of thought, and our need for control, it seems we will remain cautious as techno-movement is further developed.
Rendering movement is a critical variable on the road to perfecting artificial realities as it’s the factor that allows our creations to dance…or maybe get up off the couch and kill us. These type of fears may be inflated, though, and we should recognize that. Should we really fear robots like DURUS, for example, because it appears so alive it may have a soul? Or Bowen’s leaves which are, at the end of the day, harmless until we fantasize their agency.
In Buddhism there is no belief in the soul. Anatta, a doctrine closely knit with the idea of reincarnation, says an immortal soul only “proves the existence of endless felicity in an eternal heaven and unending torments in an eternal hell… Otherwise, what is it that is punished in hell or rewarded in heaven?” (Thera) Buddhists instead think of consciousness as a complex compound of fleeting mental states rather than a unified ball of energy. This perspective is one of many and is no way the ultimate truth, but, it does remind us that we are created at every moment just as technology is, and that-
“…derived from John Locke—of the newborn as a tabula rasa, whose character is determined by experience rather than innate qualities. It is because the creature is scorned, and deprived of a moral framework, that he becomes monstrous and seeks a gruesome revenge. “I was benevolent and good,” he pathetically tells Frankenstein; “misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” (Shelley).
¹ “Prince hated holograms before they were even invented” by Sydney Gore. The Fader. Link-http://www.thefader.com/2018/02/03/prince-hated-holograms
² Definition of ‘Soul’. Feb 22, 2018.
³ܑ “Atman”, Hindu concepts by Professor Gavin Flood. Aug 24, 2008.
⁴ Concept of Ruh
⁵ Freud in The Uncanny. First published in Imago, Bd. V., 1919; reprinted in Sammlung, Fünfte Folge. [Translated by Alix Strachey.]
⁶ Canmore, Margaret. The Prophecy Connection. Trafford, 2002. Page 180.
⁷ What Makes Things Creepy by Vsauce
⁸ Meet DURUS – Robot that ‘Walks like a Person’
⁹ “Buddhism in a Nutshell” by Narada Thera.
¹⁰ Mary Shelley’s monster at 200. Frankenstein: the monster that never dies by Fiona Sampson. Feb. 17, 2018. Link-https://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21737015-two-hundred-years-after-mary-shelley-first-imagined-him-her-creature-continues-be
May 24th, 2018
An excerpt from another book in progress, all about my tree trimming boss. It’s really difficult to synthesize all the stories revolving around him, and especially hard to write him as truthfully as he lives his everyday life. He is not a person who can be defined, really.
I first saw him in the theatre department sniffing a fern. Looking very intensely at one of its leaves, he poked it, pulled it, even broke a bit off for a taste. “Hmm.” He hummed.
I wondered… what was this man doing? Was he a professor? Was that fern real? He looked at me and we made brief eye contact. Hello. He hopped away from the leaf crossing my path. The way he walked was so strange…like his legs were so strong they weren’t accustomed to normal steps.
He didn’t look back, but, I watched him go. That first encounter was so brief, so bizarre, he had icy blue eyes.
Yes, I’ll tell it truthfully. As best as I can, of course. I started at a small liberal arts college as a physics major. A drunk one. I’d take breaks from the science building to go watch rehearsals in the black box because acting and writing was more fun. On my ventures to the theatre building I kept seeing him. Each day was a different hawaiian button up, and each day he was progressively tanner. Who was this man? He would be poking at ferns or reading the glass displays about school productions. He would be texting in the corner while swaying his head side to side. His laugh echoed down the halls, but, I never saw him talking to anyone. We would make brief eye contact and he’d hop along.
It was just a passing entertainment until I saw him in the gym. I remember that first day walking in, feeling scrawny in my blue tank, I heard the clank of weights and grunts of athletes and thought- hm, ya, normal day… then came a grunt that was not normal. It was like a hehe of a dying horse, like somebody was being torn apart by ropes, like a poor soul was being crushed by a rock too big over their shoulders, quivering and breaking. It was him. He had on that old grey t-shirt covered in sweat, squatting double plates on both sides about four inches down and four inches up. Hee, hee. His form was awful. I was worried his back was about to break because he was, after all, an old man.
But he did not break. In fact, he succeeded. He hehe’d again and again, and by his fifteenth squat the whole gym was watching him. He he.
“Who are you?” I had to ask.
But his headphones were in, he didn’t hear me and just hopped along, chin swaying side to side while his icy blue eyes looked up at the world.
That first semester of school I got the role of Stalker Man in the theatre department’s production of The Cradle Will Rock, a 50’s musical about the eventual proletariat uprising and big business toxicity. I was scheduled a costume fitting, and lo and behold who was there but…him.
I entered the room. Medium sized, full of costumes, sewing machines, two running dryers and this strange man with a toothpick hanging out the side of his mouth.
“What’s up kid.” He said, his finger drawing a circle on the table. The guy couldn’t stop fidgeting.
“Hello, name’s Jack. Just here for my costume fitting. Nice to meet you.” I extended my hand, he grabbed it with gusto.
“Name’s Steve. I’ve seen you around these parts, you one of Barry’s kids? You look like a Harry kid.”
“Not one of Barry’s kids.” I said, knowing that I soon would be. Barry Rivers was the theatre department chair. “But, I’m interested in theatre. Why are you here?”
“Waiting for Ronda. She’s got a problem- hey, so who are you in the play?” His Minnesotan accent brought me back to Folda where in my grandfather’s small farm house I heard o’s and eh’s.
“Stalker Man.” I said.
“What?” That set him back, a big goofy smile dripped out of his face. “Wait, what?!”
“Yea.” I was smiling too, he sparked me. “Yea I’m the Stalker Man. I think I come out and ask for a prostitute or something, got a little song I sing about offering 30 cents.”
“What! No way they do not have you do that!” Steve bounced around the room, letting his fingers drag along the tables, the costumes, the walls. “Jeez this school is getting dirtier with their musicals.”
“I wouldn’t know I’m a Freshman.”
“Ohhh fresh blood!”
“Oh you got a lot to learn round’ here, kid. Hey do you know anybody?” He leaned back, waving the toothpick around like he was poking flies out of the air.
“Do you know G-John? Tee-H? Captain Crunch?”
I pretended like those were real names. “Never heard of em’.”
He continued- “Yea I’ll introduce you to some people. You know, I tell this to Harry every year, bring back the Three Little Pigs. What happened to the Three Little Pigs? We want good, wholesome theatre that reminds us of magic and wonder. Harry though, I’ve seen his work over the years. And you know what, it’s powerful. It’s great. Gre-e-e-at. Some of the stuff he takes on gets the people going, and that’s fine and all but I miss those pigs. Ah! Ronda!”
Ronda entered the shop, her purple dress down to her ankles. “Steve! Oh Jack! You are an hour early.”
“Ronda I just met Jack. He…is going to be the Stalker Man, correct?”
“Yes, he will be.” She shuffled over to the table, lifting a black outfit with a couple needles in the chest. “This is your costume, you’re going to get no women in this.” She laughed like a broken whoopie cushion, it was endearing but also a little concerning.
“Well-” Steve continued, moving out of Ronda’s way as she passed, “Please make sure he looks extra spiffy. Jack, here’s one of my business cards.” Local Tree Tech. In center was a small green image of a truck with leaves flying out the back. “There is much to talk about, tell Harry I say hi. Ronda, I’m here to get your problem fixed.” She threw him the keys and he left.
I asked around and everybody seemed to know Steve. Students, faculty, even people walking their dogs across campus, they had all met Steve at some point. Many people hired him to cut their trees, however, there were also students who hung out with him. I heard stories of Steve and friends going to movies, art galleries, concerts…. it all struck me as simply weird. I hadn’t yet experienced a friendship so separated in age…but that couldn’t be just it, this guy had friendships with a lot of younger people….what was it?!
The musical was a mild success, the cast agreed the show itself was what set us back. I guess nobody wants to hear how big business is ruining the world. When Steve came to the show I, being the nervous performer I am, was peeking out from behind curtain beforehand. I saw him walking back and forth near the exit door. He eventually sat, but I’m pretty sure he left three or four times. He laughed at everything. Some big howls, but mostly a huh huh huh monotone laugh. Whatever sound he was making, however, it was audible.
After shows he’d congratulate me, saying he absolutely couldn’t believe how- in his words- naughty I was being. His excitement was genuine, more genuine than actual excited people I’ve met.
“Jack!” He’d say amidst the mass of people waiting to congratulate the actors. “You were great! Just great! Tell Harry-” He’d pull me aside. “But tell Harry all we want are those Three Little Pigs! Oh what happened to the good ol’ days!” He crooned.
Later in the year I was walking down campus wearing my army coat and pants with sweatpants underneath when I saw Steve. Some of his nose hairs were icicles, but, he stood without the slightest bit of tremble as students literally ran by to escape the arctic tundra. He saw me and smiled.
“Hey-” He sang the words I sang from the musical. “I only got 30 cents- how bout a dollar? No! 75-”
“Yes hi Steve.” I played it down while appreciating the act. “How are you not freezing?”
“Look at this skin buddy come on now. I’ve been out in this cold since I was a baby, no cold never bothered me.” It looked to be true, he didn’t shiver. “And you know, when it’s this cold my balls shrink so small I finally can walk normal. Check it out.” He did a circle, it did seem to correct his strut. “You know, we are only given one body, and yea, you got to take care of that body BUT you also have to challenge it. Make it know it’s gotta be tough to survive this world. Now, Ricky has got my truck, he’s coming here soon for a shovel run. Do you like shoveling?”
“Sure, I don’t mind a good shovel.”
“Would you like to come? You can make 40 dollars in about 2 hours.”
I had nothing to do, no money in any of my four pockets. “I’d love to.” I said.
“Sweet. Alright we have simple rules, 1. We never diminish another person’s dignity. 2. We talk to each other and not about each other. 3. Only one person can get upset at a time.”
We waited on the corner for Ricky to pick us up until the old red truck came around the corner humming. We hit around fifteen houses pushing snow off driveways, sidewalks, and steps, and let me tell ya’, the amount of snow Steve could push at one time was unbelievable. He made pathways four feet wide a shovel in each hand, often pushing it so hard it would curl over and look like a wave crashing. Steve was smart though, calculated in his efforts. He had, what he called, an exact plan for each house. Basically, the big stuff he’d take while the rest of us would split up and cover his tracks.
“We gotta push forward.” He would say over and over again.
The moment my shovel hit the pavement he was barking. “Jack! Push evenly! Hurry the pace! Don’t put your shovel down with the head up- you ever see cartoons? Stepping on shovels and getting whacked in the nuts REALLY HAPPENS. Cover the back! Do those stairs again!” And on I went, shoveling my ass off.
May 14th, 2018
A screenplay I wrote for Video Productions, may become a real film very soon! (Hey, it did….check out my video tab)
INT. CANDY COUNTER AT GRANDVIEW THEATRE – NIGHT.
In the background we hear the sound of a movie playing, dudded through the thick velvet walls.
Close up from lower right angle on MANAGER’s face. He itches his neck, his name tag shiny and gold. On both his sides are employees, both highschool girls who clearly wish they weren’t there. The popper begins to pop, nobody moves.
MANAGER- Will you get that?
The employee to the left rolls her eyes, walks over to handle the popper.
The Clock strikes 10 p.m.
EXT. PARKING LOT – NIGT
Two valet workers are closing up, taking off their vests and putting away keys. One of them, MASK, begins to leave the parking lot.
Valet worker- Alright 10 p.m., lock it up.
Insert labor montage, match on work tasks. 1. Stirring popcorn and directing cars. 2. Car door slamming candy counter slamming. 3. Hit popper switch then cat lights turn off. 4. Manager carries trash as employees watch, valley carries bags of late customer as boss watches. 5. Employees bored faces, boss bored face 6. Mask puts away keys, manager puts away keys
VALET WORKER- (Nods) Hey, by the way gotta turn in your tips
MASK- (Sighs deeply) Look, I-
VALET WORKER – Ah, ah, ah, new rules you agreed.
MASK hands over cash in his pocket, the valet worker hands back an envelope.
INT. GRANDVIEW LOBBY – NIGHT
MANAGER is carrying two trash bags as his employees text. In comes another manager, the boss, with checks.
BOSS- Hope your check fills that belly.
Employees grab checks and bags and dash out.
Boss- Goodbye! Millennials.
MANAGER – Hey, we gotta talk about hiring some new employees, I can’t get them to do-
BOSS- Ah, ah, ah, hiring is my job. Besides, you are the assistant manager, you get paid more to work more-”
Manager- ya but-
Boss- Ah, ah, ah
Boss exits and MANAGER opens check as Mask opens his. They rip them open at the same time to find the same number of hours worked and amount paid. We see both their faces, red eyed and disappointed.
EXT. – INT. LONG SHOT- MASK is walking down the street. He stops at the corner and puts his mask on and an earbud in one ear. Some nasty ass trap music. He then turns and we see he’s walking towards the Grandview. He cocks a gun and enters the movie theatre. He walks straight to the manager’s office and bursts the door open and begins screaming at MANAGER with gun pointed. He punches manager across the face, a big gush of blood sprays over the desk.
MASK- OPEN THE SAFE! Open the safe!
MANAGER doesn’t speak. MASK pulls MANAGER out of his chair and in front of the safe. MANAGER opens the safe and hands him the money, MASK nods, then he runs out the door.
There is close up on MANAGER, he’s breathing heavily and still bleeding from the lip. He picks up the phone and dials 911
MANAGER- Hello! I’ve just been robbed! Yes, my name is Booth, Booth McGowan, 22, I’m at the Grandview Cinema. Grand and Fairview, yea. A man came into the office, he had a gun. He told me to open the safe, so I did..fuck I’m going to get so fired for- yes? No, he had a mask on. Eye color? Blue, I think. Oh and, red hair. Yea he had red hair. Short guy but packed a powerful punch. I’ll wait outside.
EXT. Grandview – NIGHT
Drone Shot pulls out from under marquee of Grandview, theatre gets smaller and smaller, then drone turns towards the night sky. We see a woosh of stars, those stars then woosh into a shot of a house. MANAGER is walking up the stairs to the house.
INT. HOME – NIGHT
The door shuts and in walks MANAGER. He throws his bag down. He walks upstairs and sits on the couch. Outside the frame we hear the crack of a can, in the frame comes an arm with a beer. Enter MASK, he sits and hands MANAGER a brown bag. MANAGER opens the brown bag, inside is a lot of cash.
February 20th, 2018
I resisted posting an academic paper on this website as it’s more about art, however, I’m finding my Cultures of Neoliberalism class to be fascinating. I’ve taken minimal economics classes, and in general don’t engage with economic thought on a daily basis, however, this class has integrated politics, art, and culture around an take on history in economic terms that has widely expanded my view of the world.
To give a brief explanation of the paper, it is a short essay analyzing something Marx loosely talks about which is the reproduction of labour. I believe he discusses this concept more in the context of literal reproduction, however, I’m using it to talk about recreation as a productivity boost, a disconnection to reconnect. Media Detox camps are the commodification of reproduction of labour, something that is not uncommon as any recreational activity that is considered healthy could be considered a commodification of the reproduction of labour…as long as it costs money. And that is what is interesting about Media Detox, that people pay to escape the digital world, and that escape itself has a cost.
McCandless and Media Detox Camps: Millennials trying to Escape
Chris McCandless found the pressures of American capitalist society to get a job, form a family, and fall in line to be too great, unsolicited, and contradicting to true human nature, the one long-ago fantasized as a purely free experience. So, in 1992 he set off Into the Wild to escape the demanding world… only to be found dead 4 months later by a group of hikers.
Today, there are few spaces on earth that are void of the sound of beeping and squeaking technologies. For those who stick around, the noise may become a dull vibration, but, for Chris, the noise was unbearable. And since the 90’s, when McCandless picked up his backpack and decided to flip everyone off and walk away, communication technologies have exponentially increased in functionality with the release of the IPhone and social media further connecting the world, but also, further making the noise inescapable. The increasing demand that we saturate our lives with media’s noise reflects, as Malcolm Harris says in his book Kids These Days, “..the consequences of career success and failure [that] are growing heavier as time goes on. Work is intensifying across the board, abetted by communications technology that erases the distinction between work-time and the rest of life.” (Harris 68-69).
McCandless recognized early on it would not simply be 8 hours a day he’d offer to society but all his days and all his self. It is a contradiction in the neoliberal sense, that in order to attain true freedom McCandless believed leaving the market entirely was the answer. To eliminate this loophole capitalists, as they do, took this idea of escaping capitalism and made it a part of itself.
Media Detox camps are becoming more and more popular as a large sector of labour is further directed towards 24/7 use of the computer. Silicon Valley employees, in particular, have invested and utilized Media Detox camps to escape their intense work weeks centered around coding and online development. In order to counteract the side-effects of media overdose (including my favorite, the ghost vibration, or swatting at the thigh thinking one’s phone received a message) employees turn off their devices and escape into nature where a revitalized Countercultural fun-camp awaits them. Once there, they are provided with appropriated Eastern spiritualities in the form of hour long classes posted on a schedule in each bunk.
At Camp Grounded: A summer Camp for Adults, the place “Where grown-ups go to unplug, getaway and be kids again”, for example, people meditate, do yoga, and in general learn skills to deal with the inflated “goals of competitiveness, advancement, acquisitiveness, personal security, and comfort at the expense of others.” (Crary 41) that are prescribed by contemporary capitalist society. Through the use of nostalgia people are brought back to a time when the intensity of work didn’t exist, instead, there is encouragement to play and let loose.
At Digital Detox®, another camp, the catch phrase “disconnect to reconnect” on the homepage really sums it up. Alone the playful, relaxing practices are beneficial, however, beneficial towards what? With capitalism framing the event it turns out to be beneficial towards increasing efficiency at work, disconnecting to reconnect later at a higher quality.
A daunting comment from Kyra Reed, Social Branding and Strategy Consultant on Digital Detox®’s website said- “It was a rejuvenating time that has recharged my batteries and reminded me of the truly important things in life…connection and presence.” Quite the opposite goals McCandless had. And that phrase, recharge one’s batteries, seems to shoot right over the goal of connecting oneself back to their humanity.
Foucault’s idea of the economic ‘grid’ explains how- “The American neoliberals try to use the market economy and the typical analyses of the market economy to decipher non-market relationships and phenomena which are not strictly and specifically economic but what we call social phenomena.” (Foucault 240). In the case of recharging one’s batteries the human body, a social being, is looked at like a machine, otherwise known as fixed capital in economics. The body needs to download skills, recharge, it breaks down over time, defects and must be put through diagnosis, all like a machine.
The contradiction with the Detox camps is, then, that in their motto to connect the body back with organic nature they are, in the neoliberal sense, actually rebooting in order to replug at a higher rate of productivity. And, to not waste a single moment in exploitation of the body, there is an additional bill that comes at the end of the reboot.
Unlike food one can consume media without filling. The only limiting factor is sleep, and with increasing expectations of productivity matched with decreasing wages the labourer is being stretched in two ways resulting in higher anxiety and thus the risk of mental breakdowns. Nature has always been an anxiety reducer. With mental health in crisis in contemporary times (rise of school shootings, use of prescription drugs, lowering American lifespan), it makes sense companies will take advantage of this stable product (stable, however, an arguable word with the advancement of global climate issues). These same companies and the lifestyle they force upon workers are the exact sources of anxiety creating a cyclical system that continually puts money in the pockets of the owners of both camps and companies.
McCandless’s dream is similar to the American neoliberal one, to be free. However, McCandless understood freedom as an escape from societal work rather than the pursuit of it. Friedman eliminates such wishful thinking of the McCandless type in saying- “Freedom as a value in this sense has to do with the interrelations among people, it has no meaning whatsoever to a Robinson Crusoe on his island subject to ‘constraint’…” (Friedman 12). Friedman is making an extreme claim saying that philosophical understandings of freedom are related only to community. By eliminating the voice of Robinson Crusoe’s, likely those who’d understand humanity best due to their lack of universal knowledge, his neoliberal theory declares freedom but it actually means forced participation.
The millennial generation is, as Harris says, in a time of precarity- “Precarity means that jobs are less secure, based on at-will rather than fixed duration contracts; it means unreliable hours and the breakdown between the workday and the rest of an employee’s time….[precarity] digs the basement on labor costs deeper, pushing the limits on how much employers can juice out of employees.” (Harris 82). It’s no wonder there’d be demand for spiritual connection more than ever, nature being the majority provider. In the commodification of nature, however, even our connection to our spiritual selves are coded by economic terms and possibility of profit.
McCandless’s drive for escape represents the paradox of freedom neoliberal thought has created, the freedom to drown oneself in capitalist, mediated culture. Media Detox camps, while they seem like an escape, are only short term solutions and not really a solution at all in their attempt to refunnel workers back into productive lifestyles. Although the practices they are introduced to at the camps are in fact beneficial, it is the commodification of escape that eliminates any real sense of freedom.
January 17th, 2018
An excerpt from a book in progress….
She asked for popcorn and a diet coke every night shift I worked. “You want butter on that?” I’d ask.
“Of course.” She’d say. “Speeds up the process.”
There was something about that ring she had on. It made her voice get soft, trailing off as her cheeks relaxed and her shoulders dropped. She’d rub it with her pointer finger, her lower lip quivering. I held an empty bag of popcorn in my hand and I just stared at her. White hair, slim eyes…she came back with those eyes as if to say what are you looking at.
I turned to the popper. The old theater soaked up the coconut steam like an expired sponge… letting a little ooze back out. Nothing more intoxicating than the smell of coconut butter being steamed into the air. That was the signature smell, coconut oil and salty popcorn rested upon layers and layers of dust. That smell clung to my fabrics, the carpet, the walls, my pores, my car on the drive home, friends I’d hug, dogs I’d pet.
“Here you go Priscila, the fresh stuff.”
She took it and left.
“Well-” I said to my two employees, both 16 year old girls who could care less. Erin was blonde, a very forward person and Julia, shy with a neck tattoo. “Wasn’t too busy today.” I continued with my filler. “And I’m very satisfied with the scraping of that mold-”
“Rust.” said Erin.
“That rust yes…It looks so much better but more importantly it smells better.” Sometimes at the Rouman we got so bored scraping stuff was therapeutic. “Anything to lessen potato smell around here.” I continued, waving the popper scooper around.
“And I weirdly love scraping.” Julia said. “Also, Jack, I saw a potato run across the floor-”
“Ahh, yes. House Mouse has been enemies with House Rouman for a long time.”
They stared at me.
“Well, we’ve got to set out more traps.” I said. “I’ll go get a couple more from the office. Anyone want a cookie?” They just stared at the empty lobby. “No? Okay.”
There was a lot of staring in the Rouman.
I imagine it now, a mouse running through the old theatre unseen by the failing eyes of its senior citizens. Going through the walls, ancient popcorn nibbled by mice colonies and mice houses made of pokemon cards lost through the cracks. A whole civilization of mice, mice dads and moms and even mice dads and dads and mice mom and moms because this mice colony is one of love and acceptance. The mouse continues on its journey through the walls, coming out to the candy counter where Erin and Julia drool and stare at their phones as an old woman hobbles over to get a refill on popcorn. “Extra butter.” She says. The mouse goes through the lobby, sees me walking to my office and waves, then goes through the purple doors of the theatre, through the aisles and ankles, blue veined and glowing in the red light right up to the front row where no humans sit, and the mouse lays on its back with a couple hundred other mice, looking up at the beautiful projections of the movie screen, the bass vibrating their little mice backs and whiskers. The lights come up, and they all scatter.
I’ve traveled down the hallway between the candy counter and the office so many times my mind has a way of flying away. I walk up to the office door, it had a brown sign that said manager, the type of copper brown that had no shine. As soon as I opened it I could smell cigarette smoke wafting in from the vents. Priscila must have been speeding up the process some more….As I grabbed the traps I saw a snapchat from Danny, it wasn’t a picture, just some text.
Plan is still on?
Yes. I replied.
It was almost ten p.m., I had the bank bag ready and concessions counted, just had to stack the cash in the safe and write down the numbers. I sat there squinting from the brightness of the computer monitor- I mean small LED TV. Winston recently replaced the computer monitor with a small flat screen. At first I was like, Winston, this is the first good thing you’ve done since you’ve come here, but, like everything else Winston does it fucked me over. The headaches from that LED TV have been killing me. So I sat there, fingers rubbing my temples, feeling the vibrations of the speakers from the main floor, and I just did one of those silent cries, ya know? One of those silent cries.
I knew exactly what part of the movie was playing just based on the bass, right then Pennywise was biting Georgie’s arm clean off. The thought of it…There’s this weird thing the brain does when it listens to the heartbeat. Well, maybe just I do this, but, I breath with the rhythm of my heartbeat and so when it skips a beat I skip a breathe. I knew I was going to have a panic attack. Looking back, it must have been that weird pressure I felt on my elbows against the desk. I was rubbing my temples and had my elbows on the desk, that simple pressure, it wasn’t that it hurt or anything it was just odd, caused a twitch in my nerves running up my forearm.
10:20 p.m. came and Erin came in, I turned and threw her a big smile. “We’re done.” She said.
“I’ll come check it.”
This, that, lock up the bottle fridge, finger along the countertop… “Clean.” I said. “Good job, you guys can go. Thanks for doing good work today.”
Back to the office I went. I sat down to meditate, not noticing that 10:45 had passed….he was late.
“Yes?” My legs were buzzing from the lack of blood flow as I scattered to get up, all the anxiety returning to my gut. I opened the door and in came Danny.
“Give me the money!.” He said through his black mask.
My hands went up. “Dude! It’s just the visual you don’t have to scream.” I said in a yell whisper, nodding towards the camera in the corner of the office. He pointed at the safe with his free hand, just as planned, so I opened it. Part 2 of the scene, I acted like it was taking a while to put the cash in his backpack so he raised his arm as if her were to hit me allowing me to go faster. Part 3. With the cash in the bag I stood up. “I’ll see you at home.” I said. Then he punched me in the face and left.
The paper towels on the desk soaked my bloody lip as I took a moment to breath. I knew it was going to hurt, but, damn that hurt.
Alright. Part 4. I grabbed the office telephone to call the cops. Do you know what it’s like to have ear sweat? I felt it as I pushed the phone hard into my those freshly rubbed temples. I was stressed but, I knew all my acting classes were about to support a sensational performance. The tension was at full blast, my eyes were burning, my stomach was turning, my legs were buckling and then….relaxation. I took a breath, it caught a beat of my heart, in synch- “Hi! I’ve just been robbed! This is Jack Leal, I’m 22, yes, I’m at the Rouman Cinema, on Winston, yes. A man just entered the office with a gun. He told me to open the safe, so I did, and…oh god…he took it all! Then he punched me in the face. What did he look like? He had on a mask but I swear I saw red hair sticking out of it. He was short, must have been white, red haired, oh must have been Irish! I’m calling from the office phone in the Rouman theatre- Yes, I’ll stay right here.”
Danny was tall and latino.
I swung my lip around to get blood over the keyboard and computer, trying to make it look like it was a true sock to the face and not just a bop that made me see fuzz. I thought about all the rehearsals Danny and I’d gone through to handle talking to the cops. Our crafting of a story that could be given to anyone at any time- my boss, my parents, my friends, a judge, even the 16 year olds and their blank stares. I’d be a hero for surviving such a trauma, or better, nobody would care, Danny and I would split the cash and the world would move forward.
The old office, reeking of Priscilla’s cigarettes, was my rehearsal space. What had just happened was all just rehearsal. But, when the cops arrived and their red and blue lights refracted through the circular window in the office I knew it was real. Playtime was over. I’d not allow any slips of the tongue, not be too cool nor too upset. Like Alec Baldwin. I had to be like Alec Baldwin.
I walked outside into the cold and snow with my hands up, nose bleeding like a prisoner of war. Under the blue and red and purple lights of the marquee and cop cars the snow danced a magical spell of light and movement. Wish I could say the night sky was starry and cosmic, but, it was pretty grey and polluted. I felt that buzz of aliveness nonetheless!
Then I saw Danny under the heel of Priscila, a shotgun pointed at his head.
“Shit….shit…” Danny was panicked.
“Alright ma’am… just… please put the shotgun down.” The cop said, taking one step at a time with his hand on his gun.
Priscila’s eyes were on Danny….or were they. Her wrinkly hands wrapped around the shotgun, the veins so blue and delicate. And on that finger, wrapped around the barrel, was the ring. She was looking at that ring.
The steam came off the cops forehead in the icy air.
A glint of light shone off the ring.
My hands so tensely raised up my ribs began to hurt.
“Priscilla, wait!” I said. “Think about your husband!”
“I am.” She said.
January 13th, 2018
Who am I talking to.
There’s someone on the other side of a screen, Jesus….it could be anybody.
In that case, I shall talk as if the whole world is listening, although I’ll try to keep a cool head about it.
This is my first time blogging, however, I’d prefer to call it writing. Blogging makes me sound like a spry youth, and trust me, I feel like an old grumbly man inside. I’m here thinking the most abstract stuff-
I have many thoughts nobody would care about. I compare it to something I heard once in a documentary about pottery- that for every 1 pot there are 100 burned in the kiln. I can’t even imagine how many thoughts didn’t make it out my mouth or even my mind, shuffled away for their lack of value. A pile of thoughts, somewhere out in the unconscious. So, it’s a game of finding the right words, the right thoughts, the right paths, is it not? Finding what’s valuable in this world is everyone’s game.
I have these little conversations with myself to stay entertained. It’s a Saturday night and friends are out drinking and dancing, still have 6 days left of break before school starts, but, all I want to do is stay here and write in my book, finish this website, finish my presentation for my capstone, and call my grandparents. It’s not anti-social, I like to call it introverted and nerdy.