by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

Some people think it's important to be sincere. Me, I think sincerity is overrated. After all, even Ronald Reagan was sincere. Especially Ronald Reagan: that's why he never lost an election. It's high time we got rid of all this California New Age crap. Sincerity is a postmodern malady, an all-too-human invention. Other mammals may show genuine affection, or they may perpetrate elaborate and artful deceptions; but in neither case do they evince the warm outpourings of a frank and naive heart. Only Walt Disney, Frank Capra, or Steven Spielberg can give us that. Why are we suckered into it, time and time again? The whole gruesome story must be told. A strange mutation arose in our hominid ancestors, probably less than two hundred thousand years ago. Call it the Reagan gene: the ability to deceive others by first of all deluding yourself. Pull the wool over your own eyes, as they say in the Church of the SubGenius. It's really a ruse of body language. If you believe your own lies, you don't give off the telltale subliminal signs of deception, and so you can manipulate other people all the more successfully. Only an animal that lies to itself is able to be sincere. That's why "Bob," patron saint of the Church of the SubGenius, is the world's greatest salesman. Dale Carnegie understood this trick; so did Reagan, and so does Ross Perot. Back in prehistoric times, the knack for opportunistic self-deception gave its possessors so enormous a selective advantage that it quickly spread throughout the hominid gene pool. Now, in our postmodern, posthistoric culture, it has become ubiquitous, a sort of "second nature." Sincerity is as American as apple pie, or violence, or optimism, or Amway. Have a nice day. We're all so warm and so concerned. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Do you remember Jim and Tammy Bakker? This is what they were all about. Sincerity is an affect raised to the second degree, a product of what Gerald Edelman calls "higher-order consciousness." It's something that's always already "in quotation marks." It's just a performance, but that doesn't make it any less heartfelt or real--quite the contrary. Drag queens greatly prize the category of "realness": they triumph when they can simulate to perfection that female gender whose organs of exquisite pleasure they so unfortunately lack. They are the truest women, for they are feminine even to excess. Method actors, too, regularly achieve heights of "authenticity" impossible in actual, everyday life. Both method actors and drag queens make themselves "as large as life and twice as natural" (Lewis Carroll), exhibiting a "cold, immutable perfection" that is otherwise realized only in butterfly mimicry (Severo Sarduy, citing Roger Caillois). And the same goes for Jim and Tammy, with their feel-good messages and their saccharine devotion to Jesus. Weren't the two of them always already in drag? No one could possibly be more earnest and more sincere. Think of the garish overload of Tammy's pancake makeup and Jim's welcoming smiles; think of the utopian nostalgia of Heritage USA, that hyperreal replication of small-town America where everything's just too good to be true. It makes me shiver with vertigo, even now. There's passion and excess for you. Too much is never enough. And too bad PTL ended up so poorly, with endless recriminations over (what else?) sex and money.

It's easy enough to sneer, of course. But I want to suggest that "it would be wrong" (as Richard Nixon once said in similar circumstances) to charge the Bakkers with hypocrisy. For they weren't exactly lying to us; at least, not any more than they were to themselves. It's just that they tempered their born-again Christianity with the classic American virtues of self-help and self-congratulation. Don't worry, be happy. As Harold Bloom suggests, it all goes back to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Self-manipulation through positive reinforcement is simply the new, improved, all-American version of what European metaphysicians call "the law of pure disguise" (Caillois), or the vertiginous ecstasy of simulation (Baudrillard). The all-American faith is that if you believe something hard enough, it must turn out to be true. "In the end," Nixon writes, "what matters is that you have always lived life to the hilt. I have been on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys, but I have never lost sight of my destination." So follow that dream, as Jim and Tammy did with their vision of smiling suburban contentment. Even the most vapid conformity can become a thrilling adventure. And maybe Jim and Tammy overdid it; but then again, don't we all? We always push things too far and too hard, when it comes to manipulating ourselves and others. Far from losing sight of our destinations, we tend always to exceed our goals. Our very evolutionary success ironically leads us, as Sarduy puts it, into the "lethal squandering of ourselves."

When those uptight Europeans complain about American vulgarity, what they're really objecting to is this jubilantly smug and fatal excess that insinuates itself into all of our endeavors. In point of fact, they "squander" themselves as much and as lethally as we do; but they always dignify their stupidities with the factitious resonances of high tragedy. Here, things are different. We prefer to repeat history a second time, as farce. Instead of hearkening patiently to the voice of Being, strolling alongside Heidegger on a tranquil pathway in the Black Forest, we'd much rather take a raucous rollercoaster ride past the Bavarian castle in Disneyland. The smiley face is our answer to the anguish of being-towards-death. There's far greater delirium in everyday tackiness than there is in apocalyptic sublimity. As Ed Anger, columnist for the Weekly World News, prophetically wrote way back in the early 80s, "what scares the Kremlin bosses isn't America's nuclear arsenal; what scares them is that we'll open a K-Mart in Moscow, and the Russian people will like it." Ed Anger understood what the strategic planners didn't; for this is indeed how we 'won' the Cold War. Star Wars and the CIA had almost nothing to do with it. But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite McDonald's in Moscow, and despite the opening of EuroDisney, European misunderstandings of America have only increased. Even Jean Baudrillard, that famous connoisseur of hyperreality, doesn't really get it. Baudrillard writes, for instance, that "Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real' America, which is Disneyland... Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation." Reading such lines, I want to say to Baudrillard what Tonto said to the Lone Ranger: what do you mean "us," white man? Only an old-fashioned, echt European would think there's a mystery here. Actually, nothing has been concealed. The secret that Baudrillard prides himself on unraveling is already known to every American. We've never believed that "the rest is real"; just visit any shopping mall. This absolute continuity and resemblance--between Disneyland and everything else--is something we take utterly for granted. Disneyland doesn't serve the purposes of deterrence and dissuasion, as Baudrillard quaintly imagines. Like all theme parks, its function is rather one of encouragement and exhortation, or even provocation. It teaches us how to behave, in this new postmodern, robot-ridden service economy. Whistle while you work. Don't worry about health care; just put on a happy face. Like Reagan or PTL or LSD, Disneyland performs a hyperbolic heightening of ordinary experience. Think of the android Presidents, or of those talking birds in the Tikki room. It's all so bland and so pretty, and at the same time so oversaturated with sound, color, and motion, that the effect is violently psychedelic. "The Day the World Turned DayGlo," as the song by X-Ray Spex put it. Now even everyday banality can have the shattering intensity of a full-blown psychosis. Disneyland incites us to live life to the hilt; its rides take us through the highest mountains and the deepest valleys.

Everybody knows that in postmodern society money and consumer objects take on strange, independent lives of their own. In Philip K. Dick's Ubik, for instance, your shower, your refrigerator, and your front door all talk back to you when you're down and out; they threaten to sue you if you don't pay them what you owe for services rendered. But if you're a success, in the time-honored American way, then your own face starts to replace those of the Presidents on all the coins and bills. A similar conundrum arises at one point in DOOM PATROL: how much can a dollar bill buy, we're asked, and how much a painting of a dollar bill that's signed by Andy Warhol? Complain all you want; only don't say that you've been fooled by politicians, money, and machines. You may not like what they do, but you've known about it all along. As Scott Bukatman recounts, "in 1956 the opening ceremonies of Disneyland were telecast live; among the hosts was Ronald Reagan, who would one day be represented by a simulacrum therein." It's no accident that both Dick (We Can Build You) and J. G. Ballard (Hello America) share Disney's obsession with robot Presidential replicas. Audioanimatrons, even more than the real-life Presidents they simulate, are the apex of sincerity. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, without a hint of menacing ambiguity. Like P. B. Shelley's skylark, they neither look before and after, nor pine for what is not. They live the ecstasy of an eternal now, entirely consumed in the intensity of pure speech acts, performative utterances repeated endlessly, forever the same, and discharged without regret or remainder. Such is the Zen bliss of Zippy the Pinhead, watching his laundry tumble in the washing machine. It's the state of grace aspired to by William Gibson's cyberpunk heroes, the moment when thought and action are one. And it's the goal and promise of postmodern therapy, the parole pleine glimmering in the interminable distances of Lacanian psychoanalysis. But no one has achieved more in this direction than Disney's audioanimatrons. They've gone further than you and I, further even than the "real" Reagan. They've reached such purity in the art of sincere self-presence, that they aren't bothered by any residual consciousness at all. We used to wonder whether machines could pass the Turing test, and fool an outside observer into thinking they were human. But the real question is rather whether we humans can pass the productivity test, and prove ourselves to be as loyal and effective service industry workers as are androids. As Disney himself puts it, simulacrally addressing us from the Great Beyond of cryogenic sleep, audioanimatrons don't take coffee breaks, and they don't ever ask for raises or go on strike. Forget the old frontier, then. Disneyland--or America--is now so intensely real that it attains the condition that Burroughs ascribed only to the sinister city of Yass-Waddah: a place where everything is true, and nothing is permitted.

Yes, the magic of objects is everywhere in the Magic Kingdom. Call it "fetishism" if you must, but remember that it all takes place in plain view, without deception or repression. The prevalent theories are sadly out of date. Marx explains fetishism as a result of the alienation of the product from its producer, while Freud regards it as a symbolic replacement for an irrecoverable object lost in a primordial trauma. Both see the aliveness of objects as an illusion, as the projection of a vitality that really resides in the subject. Both say that the fetish is a substitute, a symptom of "lack," a veiled displacement of truer and more basic processes. Such theories have great explanatory and interpretive power; but it's for that very reason that they utterly miss the mark. They work quite effectively to dissolve and to 'explain away' the appearances; which means, ironically, that Disney's logic of hyperbolic appearance is the very thing that they are unable to grasp. If all you can say about a drag queen is that she's "really" a man, or that her ostentation conceals a defect, then you've missed the whole point of her performance. Burroughs offers a much better account of postmodern culture, when he says that we actually do live in an animate universe, where everything is alive and filled with (usually hostile) intentions. Don't flatter or comfort yourself by imagining that qualities like intelligence are exclusively human traits, and that we just project them phantasmatically onto objects. That old humanist litany isn't much use anymore, now that all distinctions between nature and technology have collapsed. Qualities like intelligence and aggressivity and sincerity pop up all the time in distributed networks, as any Internet user knows. The wires swarm with daemons, and pretty soon they will also be populated by nanomachines. Commodities and "information" aren't just abstract systems of equivalence and exchange, as Marx, Freud, and Baudrillard optimistically suppose. They are now fully incarnated entities in their own rights, wholly present body and soul. Money talks, and whatever it says must always be taken literally. The "fetish" is always realer and more alive than anything it's alleged to have replaced.

Indeed, American culture is so abundantly fetishistic that it forces us to utterly redefine the concept. We saturate the world with our cheerfully animated products. The splendors of Disneyland, the excesses of Jim and Tammy, the platitudinous certitudes of Reagan--none of these can be said to supplement a lack, or to conceal and compensate for some hidden want. Haven't you heard, penis envy is out of date. American culture is entirely premised on "powers of the false," as Deleuze terms it in discussing the quintessentially American con men and forgers who populate the films of Orson Welles. Drag rules. This means, not that we are denying our origins or fleeing from the truth, but that "truth" and "origin" are no longer valid categories of judgment. The old Eurocentric modernists used to whine that "we had the experience, but missed the meaning" (T. S. Eliot). But for us, now, today, this isn't a problem; rather it's a cause for celebration. Meaning only gets in the way of enjoyment. Facts, as Ronald Reagan once said, are stupid things. America is the one country to which the European concept of kitsch never really applies. The difference between the "original" Parthenon in Athens and the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee is that the Parthenon in Nashville no longer supports the idea of there being any such thing as an intelligible difference between the two Parthenons. This is what Welles and Disney both so brilliantly understood. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, simulation is not a mere process of substitution, but a vital, generative principle: the way that the Real is effectively produced. We manufacture selves--or we hire cheap Third World labor to do it for us--just as we manufacture automobiles and transistors. And in a rigorously Spinozistic sense, we must say that everything thus produced is exactly as authentic and as perfect as it is capable of being. It's real, it's actual, everything is satisfactual. So live life to the hilt; be all that you can be. Or, as Brian Massumi rewrites the slogan, be all you cannot be. Why worry about histories of loss and replacement, why look before and after and pine for what is not, when today is the first day of the rest of your life?

Mass-mediated politicians and Disneyfied audioanimatrons inhabit a strange postmodern space, a "distancing at the heart of the thing" that "is not a simple change of place," but rather a self-distancing in which the object itself is transformed into its own image or simulacrum (Blanchot). Such is the inconceivable, infinite distance of cyberspace: the distance that remains when all distance has been abolished, or the delay that manifests itself when all communication is instantaneous. This is the space-time of self-deceiving sincerity; but it's also the "ground" for a certain cool, ironic detachment, the famous postmodern "waning of affect" that J. G. Ballard (who coined the phrase) gets a perverse kick from, but that moralists and culture critics so routinely deplore. It shouldn't be called irony, exactly. The Weekly World News wasn't being ironic when it revealed, in September 1992, that Senator Sam Nunn was a space alien. It was merely taking everything literally, accepting events entirely at face value. The news about Nunn might have seemed surprising at first, but isn't it all too obvious now? It's really just a matter of technology finally catching up with our evolutionary potential. The genes for a Nunn or a Reagan had already emerged fifty to a hundred thousand years ago. But there could be no Nunn without space travel, just as there could be no Reagan without television. As McLuhan suggests, every mutation of technology opens up new virtual spaces to explore. The current electronic exteriorization of our nervous systems, together with its accompanying movement of Blanchotian inner distanciation, radically transforms the very nature of our bodies and what they can do. That's why netsex, or teledildonics, is so big today--together with tattooing, body piercing, and scarification. The surface of the body meets the surface of the screen. Virtual fucks and visible incisions alike testify to a vast remapping of corporeal space. Both sorts of ritual mark our participation in the ecstatic tribalism of McLuhan's "global village."

The supposed "lack of affect" and ironic blankness of postmodern culture "is in fact a surfeit," as Brian Massumi rightly insists. Our tendency to frame all we do and say "in quotation marks," to live our experiences vicariously and over long distances, shouldn't be disparaged as a defensive retreat or as a numbing lapse in responsiveness. To the contrary: it's in this very manner that we are best able to engage the brave new world of electronics and audioanimatronics. What you call kitsch is my way of living life to the hilt, of heightening experience to a fever pitch, of draining each moment to the lees. What you call affectless irony is for me a fabulous adventure, a rush of sexual excitement: a frenzied yet precise exploration of the unimagined depths of cyberspace, and of the expanded dimensions of my skin. So long live the new flesh. Let it howl in an orgasmic scream. When Disney rises at last from his years of cryogenic slumber, he'll discover a world in which hilarious perversions and psychedelic outrages run amok. Darius James thus envisions the scene in his brilliant novel Negrophobia: "A gigantic cherry-shaped nose, looking as if it were dipped in a crock of chocolate fondue, cleaves to the sides of Sleeping Beauty Castle. A green paste leaks from its nostrils.... The Disney Magic Mall is overrun with Zombies, who shamble through the ice-cream-and-candy splendor of Fantasyland and ride the Monorail over the technological wonders of Tomorrowland.... Disney's face blackens and melts. Underneath is a network of circuitry wire and tiny blinking lights... Walt's eyes flash and his head blows up. His body flares into flames... Goofy's head grins on top of a tall wooden stake. Blood drips from his eyes... The Abraham Lincoln Robot stumbles about in confusion." The master of audioanimatronics is himself a crazed robot; Uncle Walt has at last become one with his creations. This raging scatological chaos is something that only Disney's genius could have set into motion. The marketing of images, even of Disneyland's inanely racist ones, has an uncontrollable logic of its own. Our American multicultures and countercultures are themselves hyperbolic fractal expansions of Disney's delirious embrace of sincerity and cleanliness and niceness and grotesque sentimentalism and white middle American hyperconformity.

So let us say that we are ironic only through an excess of sincerity, and deviant precisely by virtue of our knee-jerk conformity, our desperate anxiety to please. The pure products of America go crazy. This ability to deceive ourselves and to be sincere-- far more than language or sexuality--is the defining characteristic of what it means to be American, or to be human. Self-deception is not an effect of language or of the unconscious, but precisely the reverse: sincerity is the ongoing practice, the "technology of the subject" as Foucault might put it, that alone makes such constructions as language and sexuality possible. The psychical agencies--id, ego, superego--that populated Freud's quaint old middle-European cartography of the mind appear to us today as creaky, worn-out audioanimatrons, badly in need of replacement by newer and more high-tech models. It's simply a question of engineering--or of "imagineering," as the Disney corporation likes to put it. The point is not to resist by clinging to older visions and values--a mistake made alike by the survivalist Right and the communitarian Left. Let us rather push further and further, into ever new landscapes of simulation and delusion. Our only chance lies in this: to remake ourselves over and over again, frenetically chasing fashion, keeping up with state-of-the-art technology, and always being sure to purchase (or steal) the latest upgrades. Isn't that the American way? Even the most arcane fads can be marketed for success, but nothing stays hip for very long. The regulative principle of postmodern irony is that we can survive only by squandering ourselves, which is to say by becoming yet more cynical than our controllers. "Life is a rollercoaster," Nixon writes, "exhilarating on the way up and breathtaking on the way down." Next stop, Space Mountain. Like it or not, we're all aboard for the ride.

Return to DOOM PATROLS Table of Contents

Go to my homepage

Read my new book in progress, Stranded in the Jungle.

email me: