Are We All Asleep?

Jay Michaelson

"Open your eyes," the voice of Penelope Cruz whispers in Vanilla Sky, one of the rash of films following The Matrix that shared its basic plot premise. It seemed for a while that American cinema was obsessed with the ‘brain in a jar' problem: the possibility that all of what we perceive is, in fact, an illusion -- perhaps an illusion manipulated by outside sources. I think the trend goes back to -- skip to the next paragraph now if you're worried about a dozen movie spoilers -- Fight Club, in which the power of cinema to deceive was mapped onto the protagonist's schizophrenic self-deception. In Fight Club, a single imaginary character was rendered as real to us as to the mentally ill leading man (cf. the much clumsier A Beautiful Mind), and we shared Edward Norton's disorientation as the world he took to be real was shown to be, at least in part, fantasy. Since then, the trope has blossomed into whole films in which the main character was either dead (The Sixth Sense, The Others, Mulholland Dr., Waking Life) or something close to it (The Matrix, eXistenZ, Vanilla Sky), imagining a world -- the world rendered to the audience -- in which what appeared to be real was not.

"Open your eyes."

There are a few thought-patterns that lead me to wonder whether I'm living in a Matrix of my own. Some of these are mystical ones, as when the synchronicities of Being seem to accrue so quickly that the only thing more implausible than the coincidence is the proposition that coincidence exists. These are hard to explain, and easy to doubt, because they rely on subjectivity.

But precisely because of their incommunicability, mystical matrices are easier to simply accept than those which ought to be shared with others. Like that child's puzzle that begins "What I see as ‘yellow' is actually completely different from what you see as ‘yellow'" – or like the brain in a jar problem – these sorts of subjectivity-dependent dilemmas melt away into insignificance. There's no solution, so you just get over it.

It's the objective problems that I can't quite resolve. I'll see or hear something which reminds me of this reality, wakes me up out of my own slumber, and for a while at least, it's hard to come "back." Here are two examples.

1. America's vast ignorance

I just got back from Michael Moore's often brilliant polemic, Bowling for Columbine. The film is basically an argument – a proposed answer to why America is so much more violent than other Western societies. Moore rejects the Right-wing claims about video violence and the like, but also rejects Left-wing claims about firearms, noting that Canada has far more guns per capita than the U.S., but far fewer murders. (Canadian kids consume as much violent culture as Americans, too.) Moore's core claim is that America's is a culture of fear. Our country was built on fear (of persecution of England, of our imported African slaves, of the wild Indian savages, then of immigrants, etc.) and that America's fear culture has lately been exploited by high capitalism. "If you keep a population in fear," one of Moore's sympathetic interviewees says, "you keep them consuming."

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November 2002

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