Real Consequence

When I began working on this column I intended to write about the Pinocchio trope: the theme in children’s stories of the object become real. The current example of this archetypal story forms the premise of the Fox Saturday morning cartoon Digimon, in which bits of forgotten computer data have fused to become a separate world inhabited by live creatures. It was interesting to me that rather than a toy rabbit or a wooden doll, computer data are now “thing-ly” enough to fill roles in this archetypal story. But mostly it fascinated me that from Pinocchio and The Nutcracker onward, we have dreamed that the work of human hands might finally transcend us, might become something as mysteriously alive as we are.

And then, on September 11, 2001, people around the world watched as their television screens played and replayed scenes of destruction, of objects smashed together and collapsed. We knew, although we could not always see, that this destruction also meant the deaths of thousands of living creatures: humans whose fragile bodies are still buried under tons of rubble.

It seemed something short of pointless to write about a cartoon.

A few numb, stumbling days passed, and I began to feel the tingling of limbs returning to life, albeit another kind of life. In this new life, lists of the dead and the missing figure prominently. Now I can’t hear or see an airplane fly overhead without flinching slightly — even here in Iowa City. In this new life political leaders speak about a crusade against evil without seeming to realize that the very same rhetoric motivated our attackers. And Congress authorizes the use of force, real force, to punish an unseen enemy, one whose “harborers” may indeed be ourselves. It is as if all of the forces which complacency, luxury and escapism have allowed me until now to ignore have been set in motion, swinging in a lurid cycle of escalation and terror. It seems the old Frankfort School axiom about the state’s monopoly on “legitimate” violence has become frighteningly real.

Real. My theme for this column takes on new dimensions. And, as NPR and other “leftist” media began to debate the September 11 images, I began to see just how important it was to consider how we as a culture define and experience “reality.” Some argue that the shocking video footage (most strikingly the images of the second plane hitting the south tower of the World Trade Center) is a necessary experience of the catastrophe — even a condition of it. The terrorists clearly staged a “made for TV” event. Others take the traditional position often occupied by Tipper Gore and her legion of label-slapping alarmists: that these images of “real” violence further distance an audience already desensitized by television, Hollywood, and video games.

In other words, it would appear that before asking the question “why do we fantasize about inanimate objects becoming real?” we must first decide what makes something real in the first place. It may even be that the ways in which we as a culture answer that question have deep relevance not only for our times, but for our future.

Because the fantasies we produce for and encourage in our children often speak volumes about how we imagine ourselves, I’ll return to Digimon to start to explain what I mean. For those of you who may have been unemployed or in college over the last two years or so, you can skip the next paragraph. You all doubtlessly spent many an aimless afternoon with Digimon reruns. For the rest of you, who either don’t have kids, or who have kids who like Pokemon instead, I’ll need a few lines to set up the premise of the show:

Digimon are animated digital monsters. They are little bits of data forgotten in some backwater on the information superhighway, and they inhabit a whole world, the Digital World. Six human children, the so-called “Digidestined”, discover a way into the Digital World while at camp one summer. And so begin a series of adventures all plotted along the usual primal conflict between good and evil.

What is interesting, however, is that the line the show draws between good and evil is based entirely upon whether or not one respects the “reality” of the Digital World. If you know about the Digital World but behave as if it were a video game without consequences, you are evil. One such character is a human boy who kills and enslaves throughout the Digital World until the Digidestined make him see that he is wrong. The evil here consists in refusing to see that Digimon are “real”, real creatures, and that destroying any one of them is in fact murder.

The question of distinguishing people from animals and things is theological as well as philosophical. All of the world’s religious systems must somehow resolve it. For early Christian theologians, concerned with afterlife, the main distinguishing factor determining the afterlife is the ability, in this life, to choose between good and evil. Thus the early Christians believed that baptized children go to heaven automatically when they die, and that animals experience no afterlife whatever. For unlike animals, children will grow into adults with the capacity to choose between good and evil. As children, however, they have not had much chance to sin, or to learn of temptation or sacrifice. If animals are inherently amoral, it is because instinct, not reason, governs their actions. (I like to remember this one every time that my cats leave me a beheaded mouse as a token of their esteem.)

“Things”, however, are another matter altogether. When talking of children or animals we are still in the realm of the given world. Children and animals are God’s creations or, more ecumenically, profound mysteries, gifts from no one. Skyscrapers and jets, on the other hand, are not mysterious in origin because they are the product of human hands.

No matter how many different kinds of “things” we humans may make — from wooden dolls to surgical instruments to information superhighways – each one of us wakes up every morning to a life we did not ask for, and whose end we cannot foresee.

Hannah Arendt claimed that the central characteristic of the human condition was the desire to escape. For her (a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust, writing in Chicago at the height of the Cold War) humankind would always struggle to transcend the life that God or chance gave us by replacing it with a world of our own making. And so the cities of pavement and steel creep over the forests and plains; so we join the birds in flight and even walk on the moon. In this way we relieve the anxiety of our unknown origins by surrounding ourselves with objects and structures whose origin is our own striving, and whose destruction is our own prerogative.

Arendt also said that we grow lonely in this glittering world we built. The objects we make separate us ever further from one another: we talk by telephone, we barter on Ebay, we take video of our children’s first steps rather than holding out our hands to catch them. And this, finally, is why perhaps we love Digimon and all of its progenitors: because we want to imagine that if we love our objects hard enough, they will love us back. They will keep us company.

All the more so because in our world the objects we create increasingly escape us, both physically and mentally. The networks of communication through which we might play an online computer game, for example, are certainly not tangible; nevertheless they exist, as a product of human ingenuity. It is no longer a matter of mechanics. Every time I get on an airplane – that great symbol of modernity — I am relying not only on the mechanical functioning of the plane itself but upon the complex interactions of air traffic controllers, engineers, computer scientists, and, most importantly, the equipment that makes their jobs possible. All of this is outside my own expertise and therefore out of my control.

Perhaps, then, the wooden doll made flesh is no longer a compelling metaphor to soothe this anxiety. I want to see computer data come to life, the intangible made tangible. I want to believe that all those humming circuits will take care of me.

But on September 11, such “things” we’ve come to trust seemed to have betrayed us. The jets used to attack the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and another target gone awry didn’t feel murderous intentions, of course. It was the people who hijacked them who wanted thousands to die — so much so that they forfeited their own lives. But the willingness to die for a cause is not new in human history. One has only to think of the Crusades, whose bloody image President Bush has revived in service of his rhetoric of revenge. What is new is the existence of enormous metal flying machines, objects that exponentially increase the destructive power of a single determined individual.

In a less technological era people might have feared earthquakes or droughts, broken carriage wheels or ploughshares. I like to think that Pinocchio was written for them. The shape of our fears has changed, though, and so therefore has the shape of our fantasies. Nowadays we escape into a world where cold, intangible data have become cute Digimon. The Digimon are inherently always good. Only evil corruption can make them angry or hateful. While the Digidestined children struggle with issues of teamwork, self-esteem, and guilt, their Digimon partners are always knowing teachers, ever tolerant and wise. I’ll admit I’ve been moved to tears more than once by Digimon‘s simple homilies: I wanted desperately to believe in them.

Digimon look like animals or insects or dinosaurs and like such creatures they “talk” and eat. But what makes them “real” is something more, something the show’s mythology does not explain. It might be something like soul, that “prime mover” of Plato’s cosmology. The obvious physical distinction, as between the wooden doll and the boy of flesh, does not apply here. Ken, the boy who didn’t distinguish an elaborate video game with what was “real” became the evil Digimon Emperor by virtue of his own ignorance. When he realizes that the Digimon are “real”, he is ultimately forgiven.

What has become important here, outside of Digimon, is that the line between object and thing is no longer a simple, physical matter. Those of us in the “real” world have become so good at playing creator, at making “things” appear much like “real” creatures, that we tend to confuse the two. This is a deeper anxiety, much closer to our own enigmatic souls: this is Arendt’s fear that we have indeed become accustomed to our loneliness.

I hardly need remind you of the consequence of our delusion. It is written in smashed concrete and twisted metal and broken flesh.