ESSAYS Mousse 47
Fiction in Reality. What Comes after Welfare?
by Ingo Niermann
With the exponential growth of the culture of consumption and its connected industries, youthful transgressions previously fueled by romantic literature have been transformed into desire for extreme self-assertion modeled on “first-person-shooter” video games and action movies. This is the spirit that seems to nurture the young jihadists of ISIS who have played on this imagery, demolishing the last taboo: that of violence. Ingo Niermann wonders about how it might be possible to reverse this trend, through the introduction of a positive kind of transgression…
Magic aims to make ideas an immediate reality. Enlightened doubts about magic’s feasibility encourage art that can act freely, without being concerned that what it portrays will also become real. To the extent that this happens, in the end, the responsibility in enlightened societies lies not with the person who thought of it, but the person who implemented it. Not only can the intellectual author not be held accountable; he or she cannot forbid this kind of realization, unlike the case of a patent. A person who reproduces artworks as such has to ask the creator for permission—but the person who makes them real does not. Thus it is precisely the strict division between fiction and reality that contributes to fiction’s continuous, unregulated crossing-over into real life.
The coexistence of an enlightened and a magical understanding of the world can lead to concatenations that are as absurd as they are devastating. Last year, the United States went to war because Islamists inspired by action movies, in the Syrian desert—introduced by a London rapper—beheaded an American journalist. Soon after, the United States considered themselves seriously attacked by another country on their own soil for the second time since Pearl Harbor, as revenge for the fact that an American action comedy shows the presumed enemy dictator’s head being blown off. And again, a short time later, a French satirical newspaper was assaulted for its caricatures of Islam, its attackers acting like players in a first-person shooter video game.
As in an action movie or??FPS game, it seems all too clear who is in the right: here is the prudent West, which knows how to distinguish between fiction and reality; over there are the spoiled young North Korean dictator and the infantile Islamists, who do not accept this distinction at all. On this end we have the good West, setting everything into motion as soon as a single innocent person is slain, while on that end we have a bunch of religious fanatics who have wandered straight from fantasy thrillers to the Middle Ages, and a Stalinist throwback, a dictatorship that looks increasingly like Austin Powers, that cannot bear to see its leader ridiculed abroad. But the West also frequently confuses fiction and reality. To make this clear, one does not even have to guess how it would feel if an Egyptian film studio run by the Muslim Brotherhood were to produce a blockbuster showing Israel’s President Netanyahu as a whoremongering idiot blasting away with an army tank—a man two journalists (backed by Egyptian intelligence) were ordered to kill, and who is blown up in the end. One need only recall how last year Scarlett Johansson successfully sued French author Grégoire Delacourt because he published a novel about a woman whose physical resemblance to Johansson was so close that she was constantly being mistaken for her.
It isn’t just pride and vanity that cause even enlightened societies to take fiction at face value. Ever since the Enlightenment asserted that art is autonomous—breaking ground in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment from 1790—there has also been a demand that this autonomy serve the autonomy of individuals, freeing them from lust and convention. And again, this is most effective when one emulates art in real life.
The Enlightenment cannot actually endorse a mechanism like this, and yet its progress would be completely unthinkable without it. It is most striking in the new phenomenon of the youth movement: because the Enlightenment declared existing traditions and myths to be non-binding, any young generation is free to create its own—most easily with the help of new artworks still largely untouched by reception history. From the beginning—meaning since the Romantic period—the hallmark of youth movements has been that their followers not only identify with literary and (later) film heroes, but also imitate them. It started with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), where the protagonist’s clothing sparked a fashion trend and several fans went so far as to copy his lovelorn suicide.
Appropriation like this is generally unintended by the producers of these artifacts, i.e. the writers, directors, actors and singers. The artifacts simply feed the fanaticism of their followers.
In recent decades this mechanism has lost momentum in the Western world. In the wake of growing commodification, advertising also aggressively works with the promise that qualities attributed to the artifact automatically transfer to the buyer. At the same time, it continually copies and profanes the motives of youth movements in a very concrete way.
In the end, the diminished Romantic suggestion also hits capitalism right in the bottom line. It isn’t just the critical moment for social change that is lacking. Technological progress suffers as well, since, after all, every great technical venture of the 20th century—the flight to the moon, the Internet, the atom bomb—was initially derived from science fiction and then became a collective vision borne by the State.
In order to evolve, society needs transgressions that either diffuse reality as fiction or intensify fiction as reality. Childhood learning is based on nothing else. Anyone who always knows exactly how to separate fiction from reality is doomed to mental ossification. Thanks to Postmodernism, Western society is more conscious of this than ever before, only it doesn’t seem to help. A number of developing formats such as reality TV, scripted reality, docu-fiction and mockumentary have the encroaching of fiction into reality as a precondition, but they also tame it.
These days, a truly Romantic transgression is taking aim at the one taboo that is intrinsic to the welfare state: violence. Whoever practices violence can still perceive himself as being in control—of those upon whom he inflicts the violence, but also and especially of his own cowardice and shame. Those who prefer to think of themselves as lone wolves will opt for the rampage, while those searching for connection to the group become hooligans or Islamists.
Even as Al-Qaeda was attracting young men from around the world, it was still difficult to think of it as a youth movement. Attacks like 9/11 were clearly inspired by American films, yet in his barren hideout the ailing, gaunt millionaire’s son Osama bin Laden looked like a cave hermit who barely knew what a video camera is. His entire self-presentation was designed to claim the greatest possible contrast to the Western world. This is different in the case of the Islamic State. The name recalls the Nation of Islam, the African-American freedom movement. The urge to wear a big, bushy beard and banish cropped trousers—any one of today’s hipsters could identify with that. And when you see IS fighters shooting Syrian soldiers from the hip with machine guns or severing their heads on command, they do it as skillfully as demonstration experts at a Brooklyn butcher shop.
It’s no wonder the evil Islamists are really only Westerners themselves. No matter where they grew up, be it with Islamic parents or converted, they were shaped by the same shocking, violent productions staged in first-person shooter video games and action movies. Execution videos released by the Islamic State copy this aesthetic in both their presentation and special effects; similar to reality TV, it is done to maximize the moment of shock and at the same time to defuse it as unreal.
Likewise, when a chubby Kim Jong-un sits casually in a chair moved away from a desk—cigarette in his left hand, right hand on his knee, watching the launch of a North Korean long-range missile—it is not a foreign evil we are seeing, but a porky little couch potato weakened by excessive film and television consumption.
Only unlike Homer Simpson, it isn’t a run-down nuclear power plant he is controlling, but an entire country, nuclear weapons production and all.
Where other dictators dabbled in poetry, the Kim Dynasty reveres the cinema. Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il was a great cineaste, like his father before him. He wrote the book The Cinema and Directing and ordered the kidnapping of legendary South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Chang Son Hui, so that he could produce films with them. The entire country—insofar as it is accessible to foreigners—resembles a massive film set.
The Sony hack would have been the first, frighteningly successful outdoor shot.
But what option is there for those who want to be good but want to avoid been taken for idiots or horrible bores? How can they commit equally drastic offences that are unequivocally good? Only love can do that. The same overwhelming love that Romantics exalted in the beginning and that has never been fulfilled. Even if our society understands itself to be hedonistic, psychotropic drugs dim the libido of a large part of the population. Commodities and lighting conditions are referred to as romantic. People who do not find enough love are told to blame their upbringing—why not give them love, instead?
Today’s welfare states give many people sufficient time and leisure not only to open up to love like the hippies did, but even to systematically drill into it. A love that applies not only to an individual, family, horde or nation, but also to every still-so-hateful creature. This means, in effect, that people on the street not only give out “free hugs” but also “free petting” and gaze at one another in awe. It means that you extend more than just sympathy to your neighbors, and that your desire for love—including sensual love—is always magically fulfilled, everywhere. Any advertising claim would pale in comparison to this; even the most brutal violence would not seem radical enough. But first we need literature, films and games showing a new, all-encompassing, overpowering love that we would absolutely want to follow.
Ingo Niermann (born 1969 in Bielefeld, Germany) lives as a writer in Berlin. After his debut novel Der Effekt, published in 2001, his recent books have included The Future of Art: A Manual (Sternberg Press, 2011) and The Curious World of Drugs and Their Friends (Turnaround, 2008). Since 2008 Niermann has been the editor of the Sternberg Press series Solution, whose last issue explores the biopolitical and psychosexual topic of love.
As a result of a period spent in Beijing, in 2008 Niermann published the chronicle China ruft Dich (China is calling you). He collected a diverse range of stories from German and other non-Chinese expatriates who live in a rapidly changing China, telling us about the enormous economic growth of the past and the possible future of the country. In 2010, Niermann wrote and co-produced the documentary The Future of Art, featuring interviews with some protagonists of the international contemporary art scene.
Originally published on Mousse 47 (February–March 2015)