A Logic of Sense: Stupidity and the Dumbing Up of America (?)

Byron Hawk

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

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We can easily see how LSD inverts the relationships of ill humor, stupidity, and thought: it no sooner eliminates the supremacy of categories than it tears away the ground of its indifference and disintegrates the gloomy dumbshow of stupidity; and it presents the univocal and acategorical mass not only as variegated, mobile, asymmetrical, decentered, spiraliod, and reverberating, but causes it to rise, at each instant, as a swarming of phantasm-events. As it slides upon this surface at once regular and intensely vibratory, as it is freed from its catatonic chrysalis, thought invariably contemplates this indefinite equivalence transformed into an acute event and a sumptuous, appareled repetition.
(Foucault, "Theatrum Philosophicum")

While sitting in the theatre watching The Truman Show, I starting thinking about the connections between this summer's most touted film and it's not so touted summer rival Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both movies serve up rather scathing critiques of American culture. Fear presents a brooding reflection upon the demise of the political hopes of the 60s by chronicling the chaotic, nomadic drift of a writer who is confronted with having to make sense of his world. Depp's narration in particular sets the tone for the feeling of loss experienced when something a person once thought s/he controlled, or at least had the potential to influence, spirals into something beyond his/her will, even a collective will. What is left to do in this heightened state of cynical awareness but engage in excess? Before long, however, Depp (Hunter S. Thompson) sees that the path of excess has at rock bottom no meaning, no depth, no control and this leaves him with the same feeling as before. The acid trips have no plan; they march on erratically, unpredictably. Depp can not plan out his acid trips and then ensure that they will bring him to a final outcome, any more than he can plan out and control his own life, much less his own country. The Liberal fetish for liberation seems a futile game here. Depp has no idea why he is there in Vegas to cover an "event." To put it down in writing is to attempt to control something that is uncontrollable, and in the end it is a pointless game. So he is off to wander and wonder about his wandering. This nomadism is reflected back to him in the blitzkrieg of video images of war and commerce on the multiple TV screens scattered in his hotel room. Baudrillard would be proud. Perhaps he read Hunter S. Thompson before becoming fascinated by Vegas--the perfect "real world" simulation machine.

In The Truman Show, Carrey is also confronted with having to make sense of his world, a world that is ultimately a 50s cookie-cutter version of Vegas--nothing but a pure simulation machine. Just as Fear is about the lost hopes of the 60s, Truman is about the lost hopes of the 50s--that idealistic McCarthy image machine could only hold water for so long. Both idealisms were bound to crack. Carrey (Truman) is the 50s man who has to confront his belief in the world as the 60s begin to call it into question. But unlike Depp, who exhibits a more singular, active relationship to writing his world, Carrey has a less affective role. There is a loose script prepared for him, even though it has to be adjusted to accommodate Carrey's improvisations. With Depp, a metanarrative is no longer viable, even with adjustments. He has to start on a new script, indefinitely. Maybe there is a progression here, a movement from orality to literacy, which is in turn giving way to videocy--the chaotic, idiotic culture of simulation. But we should not get too caught up in progressions. It always was and continues to be simulations all the way down the line, and both movies are trying to confront the fact that simulation controls us. But the simulation is not necessarily one of myth or media. Rather, it is the built-in nature of simulation in life--the realization that nothing seems to be real. It is all a drug trip, a lame attempt to script a narrative that can never be closed--an incessant, and futile, will to order.

As soon as Carrey begins to realize his world may not be what it seems, what he has been told it is, he realizes the disruptive potential of chaos--he has hope for change, for liberation. But Depp seems to be able to accept the feeling chaos ultimately brings. Once the euphoria of being in control subsides, once a person comes down from his/her trip and falls into paranoia, s/he is inevitably left with cynicism. Even though Carrey's character leaves his prefab world with a certain amount of 60s optimism, he leaves the simulated world to join the "real" woman he loves--the movie reaffirms the inevitability of cynicism. In the final scene, we are left with the question "What else is there on to watch?" After an entire movie that critiques the controlling aspect of media and capitalism, the "final thought" is the ultimate in cynical reason. Two people watching The Truman Show simply want more of the same. We know the media structures our desire, and we ask for more. While sitting through Truman, one scene stood out as the scene with the biggest laugh. Maybe others got more laughs, but the scene where Truman drives through the fire and asks his wife if she wants to do it again struck me in a different way. I did not laugh. I saw the scene on the commercial. It simply was not funny because I knew the punch line. But the entire crowd laughed as they were pre-programmed to do. They were structured by media. And they were enjoying their symptom. Perhaps they will come back to see the movie again so they will be fully briefed on which scenes to enjoy. They really do not want to be liberated from ideology. They love it. This is the America both movies want to critique and the America both movies "exploit." They can exploit it because Truman's fear of leaving his safe world is our fear of leaving our controlled environment. We like the familiar.

Even though both Depp and Carrey embrace the strange, I ultimately side with Depp. Carrey's optimistic embracing of chaos is for the imagined goal of liberation. We are left with the feeling that he will reunite with his lost love; another "safe" world awaits him. Depp, on the other hand, affirms the unknown. His character is oddly asexual--despite his drug induced bout with autoeroticism. He does not need a family unit. He affirms his fear and loathing alone. He needs to ponder his cynicism a little longer. That is his symptom to enjoy--to affirm. It is not yet time to be safe. He is not yet comfortable with this chaotic environment. He drives off "into the sunset" alone and uncertain of his future. A sense of security does not sit right with the nomad. He is not ready to exchange one familiar life for another. That is really all we do in America--change the station.

Copyright © Enculturation 1998

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