Writing to the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who had noted the persistence of mass cultural references in his work, the science fiction pulp writer Philip K. Dick observed:
… there is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work. How can one create novels based on this reality which do not contain trash, because the alternative is to go into dreadful fantasies of what it ought to be like … This is a world of hamburger stands and Disneyland and freeways and gas stations … it’s like living in an endless TV commercial … Hence the elements of such books of mine as UBIK. If God manifested Himself to us [sic] here He would do so in the form of a spraycan advertised on TV. —letters of P.K. Dick
The truth is that the mass American Culture since the 1950’s (if not before) has always been a Trash Culture – a culture based on canned laughter, hyperreal ads, sitcom stupidity, drugs, rock-n-roll or country music, sports icons as heroes, etc. America is just a fake wrestling match with its own secular religion – the endless war between liberalism and conservatism pushed to the limits of madness. Of course the point of Dick’s writings was to start with this supposed hypernormalised reality and then allow it to break down into the fragmented illusory or delusionary simulacrum it is, and then allow his characters realize there was another world, a real world just outside the cage of our ideological prisons… in fact, in many of his stories the methodical deconstruction of the false world would be replaced by the actual and literalized simulacrum icons of that world forcing his characters from their sleepwalking madness and into the shock of the Real.
A part of it is that our hypernormalised reality as portrayed in mass media is scripted as a global horror show to the point that people have become de-sensitized by the overdetermination of destruction around our planet. Many are living in a Reality TV set in which their everyday lives are already scripted as uncanny secular horror. What people seek in fictionalized horror is empathy, a sense of belonging, of knowing that the horror in their lives is not just part of the nihilistic light of modernity, but is connected to the dark contours of our imaginations and affects. Without this connection people become oblivious, unconscious sleepwalkers through existence living in a world of deadened emotion and lack of imagination their lives bound to the puppetry of Trash Culture. Horror fiction, weird or fantastic tales break through the mass cultural simulacrum and re-connecting us to our affective regions and rational core, allowing us to once again see the world outside the closed loop of our mediatized reality box.
Most contemporary great horror, fantastic, or weird tales turn to mass culture for knowledge because by doing so they transform it from the ‘trivial’ to the uncanny, from something banal to something ambiguous and thus potentially revelatory. Each of these authors skews the world with a twisted slanted lens so that the hypernormal cues that enforce in us the repetitive sameness of control and power suddenly unravel around us and we are forced to confront the world as it is – a strange and uncanny realm in which things are not what they seem. The paranoia breaks us out of our habitual madness and conformity to the cultural madness of our era, allowing us to suddenly see the underlying patterns and control mechanisms that have locked us all into the global horror show.
I’ll admit that most of my thought has been bound to a specific program for a long time… the secularization of the Gnostic mythos, the grafting of its strange dualistic ontologies to a secular world where the structures of ideology replace the Iron Prison of the Gnostic systems. In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille would speak of this same secularization process:
The variants of this metaphysical scaffolding are of no more interest than are the different styles of architecture. People become excited trying to know if the prison came from the guard or if the guard came from the prison; even though this agitation has had a primordial historical importance, today it risks provoking a delayed astonishment, if only because of the disproportion between the consequences of the debate and its radical insignificance.1
Bataille like Dick understood that the everyday mass culture we live in was a simulacrum, a constructed world built out of specialized ideological constructs that were programmed and enforced by State, Corporate, and Media-Academic systems of governance and propaganda that sought to entrain our minds to the regulated consensual reality system of control like so many cattle. Bataille and Dick would both see that people could be de-programmed through an inversion and subversion of these cultural security systems:
In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles. (VE 37).
Bataille’s notion of matter as active evil and energetic creativity bound by creative action was in diametric opposition to the materialist conceptions of the sciences of his day, based as they were on Newtonian physicalist notions in which matter was dead inert stuff. So that for Bataille this notion of the autonomy of matter as a secularized version of the Gnostic world would subvert the orthodoxy with heterodoxic systems of sovereignty and freedom. As Land would say of Bataille:
Bataille’s insistent suggestion is that the nonutilitarian writer is not interested in serving mankind or furthering the accumulation of goods, however refined, delicate, or spiritual these may be. Instead, such writers—Emily Brontë, Baudelaire, Michelet, Blake, Sade, Proust, Kafka, and Genet are Bataille’s examples in this text—are concerned with communication, which means the violation of individuality, autonomy, and isolation, the infliction of a wound through which beings open out into the community of senseless waste. Literature is a transgression against transcendence, the dark and unholy rending of a sacrificial wound, allowing a communication more basic than the pseudo-communication of instrumental discourse. The heart of literature is the death of God, the violent absence of the good, and thus of everything that protects, consolidates, or guarantees the interests of the individual personality. The death of God is the ultimate transgression, the release of humanity from itself, back into the blind infernal extravagance of the sun.2
Breaking the vessels of our ideological and orthodox reality system is at the core of such a poetics of freedom and transgression. No longer bound to the utilitarian world of work and boredom, of war and the endless trash culture of a police state and drug infested underworld of degradation and waste, humans could once again enter into a community of communication, a depersonalized realm of collective autonomization, where the active creation of a world worth living in might be attained outside the blasted vastation of our modern horror show.
- Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Univ Of Minnesota Press; First edition edition (June 20, 1985)
- Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Routledge; 1 edition (November 1, 2002)