Reality has experienced a considerable number of variations over the last one hundred years. As people became increasingly uncomfortable amidst the sensory distortion in modern technological society, certain artists began to explore reconnecting themselves to the flowing blendable continual stimuli of nature in the only place where they knew such stimuli were still easily accessible: the world of dreams and the unconscious. European surrealists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte and Mexican surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo created visual worlds where viewers could reconnect to their own dreams and to their own organic coherent senses of self. In Latin America, the magic realism movement was based on reconnecting to the natural world through traditional magical motifs. In magic realism, people and animals slid into and out of magical spiritual worlds from which the conventional real world was never neatly separated anyway. Rather than more private dreams as in surrealism, magic realism concerned itself with the collective magical dream motifs of traditional societies that were still deeply tied to their natural roots and to their mystical traditions. Writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and artists like Francisco Toledo brought this magic realist world to life.
The key for both these movements was to allow people to become regrounded in created worlds filled with organic flowing blendable continual stimuli. These movements represented attempts to temporarily suppress not only the sensory distortion of modern technological living environments, but the subtle mirroring and modeling from all the complex machines that surrounded modern people – mirroring and modeling that made them feel like robots themselves.
Since the coming of the digital age, people have developed other solutions for dealing with the problems of living in modern technological society. They have developed ways to create new kinds of configurations of stimuli for their fields of experience. New kinds of reality.
Two of the new kinds of reality are related. Virtual reality is a temporary replacement of conventional reality. Virtual reality is created by projecting pure defined discrete digital stimuli into an experiential vacuum. It is an alternate reality that temporarily fills our field of experience. Some examples of this are medical simulation to practice a surgery, flight simulation, war simulation, and simulation of new homes for prospective buyers. Of course, there are always video games, particularly multi-player video games. All of these realities are ones in which a person temporarily immerses himself in an alternate world, a vacuum world devoid of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that give phenomena substance and that create richer more nuanced backdrops. But because of the lack of this kind of stimuli, a person experiences himself in a world that is free from the organic perishability that goes together with a sense of mortality.
Augmented reality is a variation on virtual reality in which a technologically-created alternate reality coexists side by side with conventional reality in order to enhance it. Google Glass gives information about phenomena as one looks at them. At the same time, Google Glass takes pictures, finds directions with GPS and gives a person access to his e-mails. With augmented reality, a person is never totally separated from the conventional world of primary experience. But the alternate reality aspect of one’s field of experience when using augmented reality helps to neutralize the unpredictable and therefore potentially more dangerous aspects of conventional reality. In this way, one doesn’t experience the perishability aspect of conventional reality while dwelling in it. One minimizes, but doesn’t eliminate the number of flowing blendable continual stimuli that one experiences while in augmented reality. Still in minimizing the organic perishability of primary experience in one’s conventional reality, one is also separating oneself from the sense of substance in one’s field of experience, and one is diminishing the possibility of rich vibrant nuanced experiences in his life.
From a different perspective, reality television is an attempt to bring some kind of surrogate organic grounding to our lives through modern digital technology. Instead of watching scripted shows, where people feel mediated from the reality of the dramatic situation by the script, in reality television, life – real life, primary experience life – seems to unfold before the viewers’ eyes. Of course, situations are frequently developed as the premises for the human encounters we see, and these situations magnify the possibility of messy human conflict, of heightened organic friction. Whether it is young adults living together in a strange city or people living together in a primitive environment, we get to see what appears to be authentic unscripted human life.
The essential point in this discussion has been that in the last one hundred years, people have been playing around with some different new kinds of reality, because they have basically found their conventional reality to be lacking in some way. As technology has increasingly taken over human living environments, there has been a loss of the organic grounding that is necessary as a template for making and receiving organic imprints, and, in particular, for a person properly bonding with other people. There has been a loss of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that are necessary for rich vibrant experiences, for feeling fully alive as animals. The fields of experience of human beings have increasingly become vacuum and tension-pocket living environments, environments that alternately understimulate and overstimulate, environments that create sensory distortion. In order to find organic environments that fill our fields of experience, we have had to recur to the one large space that hasn’t been directly filled with technology: our minds.
With surrealism and magic realism, painters built worlds with porous boundaries between modern technological conventional reality and more traditional organic reality, such that people could go back and forth between the two realities and try to replant the organic grounding and the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli back in the modern world. With the surrealists, the more traditional organic reality was the private world of dreams. With the magic realists, it was the collective world of Latin American magical motifs.
Surrealism and magic realism were developed at a point in history before the total takeover of our attention spans by screens – television and computer screens. There was still a sense of greater connection to the organic grounding that remained in human living environments, a greater awareness of the need for organic grounding to function properly as mammalian human beings. In today’s world, many people try to survive amidst sensory distortion by trying to balance configurations of defined discrete figure stimuli and endless infinite continuous vacuum stimuli; that is, creating a balance among the very sources of stimuli that create sensory distortion. These are the people who embrace virtual reality and augmented reality.
There is also the attempt to obtain grounding by identifying with characters in reality television shows. Reality television is an attempt to create heightened surrogate primary experience through the mediation of a television screen. It is much more mediated than the immediate sensory experience of a surrealist or magic realist painting. Surrealism and magic realism are explorations of grounded mental states: dreams and magic. Reality television is an attempt to infuse grounding in the lives of ordinary people who, like their viewers, suffer from the sensory distortion of modern technological society. But organic friction is artificially generated through heightened social conflict between the people on the screen, and through heightened conflict with the living environment, which is generated by putting the people on the screen among those extreme primitive natural environments that remain. Heightened organic friction between people and within primitive natural environments is an attempt to help viewers overcome their own numbness by watching other people attempt to really come alive on reality television. But television itself is numbing, so the life situations presented on reality television have to project exaggerated tension-filled conflict and stress in order to help viewers feel alive. This means that the life situations on reality television end up presenting negative tension-pocket static-filled friction rather than the more organic friction that the viewers really crave.
People today are very concerned about reality, because reality in their daily lives is so off balance as a result of the sensory distortion in modern technological living environments. Without a lot of readily available organic grounding, the solutions to the discomfort created by the sensory distortion found in living environments can create a reality as off balance as the reality that is readily available. If we want to return to a more natural reality, we have to find a way of actually regenerating organic grounding in our living environments. It is organic grounding that humans really are looking for today.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow