When a helicopter crashed in Central London early this year – January 16th, to be precise – I tuned into eye-witness accounts. The main witness, nearby at the time, was more taken with his own experience of the event than the event itself. The crash was ‘surreal’. He couldn’t believe it was happening.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard passers-by refer to some terrible accident as ‘like in a disaster movie’. This amounts the the ‘aestheticization’ of experience in many, perhaps most people’s minds these days. It means we see actual life through the multiple frameworks of the invented stories we read and watch, but mostly watch, and it’s by that realm of film and fantasy that we measure life. It’s a posthumanist tendency, in my view; a kind of postmodernism for all and sundry that is taken for granted and passes for normal. It’s something that has happened to consciousness without people being aware of it. It makes testimony to real events seem exaggeratedly and even absurdly introspective — there you stand, a man is dying before your eyes, a London street is on fire, and you’re most interested in comparing your experience to some film you’ve seen.
In philosophical terms, if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, this is a disaster of early twentieth-century philosophy’s filtering down to impact so heavily on everyday life a hundred years later. it seems to me to demand a revaluation of Phenomenology, that is, of thw whole treatment of knowledge in the first instance as how life strikes us. The phenomenologists back then couldn’t predict the rise of the media, of course. They were just beginning to account for their presence in modern life. On the other hand they must have known how wary Plato was of all media getting in the way of truth.
There’s always a moral component involved in knowledge, and that moral component has a great deal to do with the striving to know reality (or ‘reality’, if you feel it can’t be grasped and the whole ambition is pretentious and futile). I don’t think the effort is futile at all. Grasping ‘reality’ used to be the primary aim of realistic humanist art, not necessarily in all reality’s gory detail, but in terms of the meaning and value of all things in being and what it means when they come to an end. You can probably hear in the way I’ve phrased that that I feel it has a religious component, or at least that it overlaps with a certain duty of knowledge that certain religious outlooks include. One medium always in our way is language, of course. Derrida writes wonderfully about this. Don’t blame him for postmodern escapism, although if you’re a down-to-earth type or an educationalist (see below) you may well want to blame him for rendering the problem insurmountable.
Back to January 16th. This real example of the failure of consciousness to face up to reality, entirely because film and fantasy culture has taken such a strong hold on that consciousness, makes me think teachers in school should at least bring up for discussion the subject of keeping one’s consciousness of reality in good order. Reality is not only how you frame it, although it was sophisticated once to think so.