Mine Eyes Deceive Me

Today's cultural critics, heirs to Plato and the Puritans, don't attack poetry. They attack new media.

Forbes ASAP , October 01, 2000

We live, writes a critic, in the "Age of Falsification," filled with surfaces we cannot trust. Some are digital creations. Others, from ad slogans to plastic surgery, are not. But the problem is pervasive: Our civilization's artifacts are deceptive, fake, inauthentic, a pack of lies. Today, the whole world is a theater.

No wonder Shakespeare is experiencing a revival. His plays--and his times--were so obsessed with appearance and reality that one of my professors used to refer to the theme as "your basic A&R." Boys pretending to be girls pretending to be boys. In Shakespeare's world, characters cannot trust their senses.

Is the ghost in Hamlet true and truthful, or is it a demon, tempting young Hamlet into murderous sin? Is Juliet dead or merely sleeping? Does Lear really stand at the edge of a great cliff? Or has the Fool deceived him to save his life?

The theater itself is a lie. Its deaths are mere special effects. Its tales never happened. Even the histories are distorted for dramatic effect. The theater is unnatural, a place of imagination. But the theater tells the audience something true: that the world requires judgments. You cannot believe everything you see or hear. Othello is the tragedy of a man who trusts the wrong source and thus misunderstands what he sees.

Nature alone, to some, seems true. But is it? Nature, too, must be interpreted. Imagination, declared Shakespeare's contemporary, Sir Philip Sidney, is a triumph, a creative act in emulation of man's Creator. The poet "goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit." This was, in Sidney's day, a controversial stance.

It is in ours as well. All that is different is the technological context. Today's cultural critics, heirs to Plato and the Puritans, don't attack poetry. They attack new media. But the attack and its targets are not new. Some eras are acutely aware that the truth is hard to discern. Others are complacent.

We got so used to the old technologies that we forgot their capacity for deception. We believed photography was "real," as though World War II literally happened in black and white. We forgot that selection creates its own biases. Despite evidence ranging from Soviet propaganda to the evening news, we believed that pictures--especially moving ones--never lied.

You can hear nostalgia for those good old days on almost any C-SPAN media panel, in which journalists from broadcast news and monopoly daily newspapers lament new media for degrading ethics. Ethics, in this context, means maintaining a uniform stance toward the audience and the issues--making judgments so the readers or viewers don't have to.

Like Galileo, born the same year as Shakespeare, we have new tools, and we see things we didn't see before. "In our time," wrote Galileo, "it has pleased God to concede to human ingenuity an invention so wonderful as to have the power of increasing vision four, six, 10, 20, 30, and 40 times, and an infinite number of objects which were invisible, either because of distance or extreme minuteness, have become visible by means of the telescope."

Appearance now suggests a more complex reality. The Internet exposes a diversity of opinion, experience, and taste we'd been led to believe didn't exist. If you were unusual in 1950 or 1980--and everyone is unusual in one way or another--you were an isolated anomaly. Now you're a Web ring, a Yahoo category. But that still doesn't mean we can trust what you say.

Like Shakespeare's art and Galileo's telescope, the Internet reminds us that the world is not only complicated and diverse but also requires more discernment. We cannot believe everything we see, hear, or read because what we see, hear, and read is contradictory and potentially false. Even our senses can deceive us.

We live, says author Kurt Andersen, in an era of "magic realism." Dinosaurs march through movie landscapes, and dead actors are morphed into TV commercials. These deceptions don't bother us anymore. We know they are part of an act, and we enjoy it.

But we are nonetheless anxious, fearful of manipulation, and the worry shows up in our art. Politicians saw only the movie's violence, but The Matrix was an artistically powerful meditation on your basic A&R. That's why it was so popular.

The movie's relevance to the Columbine shootings wasn't in the gun battles and the long black coats. It was in what the movie said about the difficulty of figuring out the truth when reality is mediated and manipulated. Were the Columbine killers members of a "Trench Coat Mafia"? Are every school's weird kids killers in the making?

The mass media told one simple story, in which all the answers were yes. The Net, with its telescopelike ability to see the minute and distant, to discern what was once invisible, found contradictions. The stories on Slashdot and Salon were more complex and ultimately more trustworthy than the nightly news. The newspapers eventually followed, mostly too late to change the first impressions. Journalists, too, must make judgments about which leads to chase, whom to trust, what makes a story. Their senses, and their prejudices, can mislead them.

"Free your mind," preached The Matrix. A start, but just a slogan, and not much of a guide. Look through your telescope yourself, but what do you see? The challenge is in interpretation, in judgment. Are sunspots "an illusion of the telescope," or perhaps undiscovered planets hovering around a pristine and perfect star? Nature, unadorned by reason and imagination, may be "true," but it is also incomprehensible. Galileo was a master not only of observation but also of imagination and argumentation. The truths he uncovered were not easy to discern.

Appearance and reality do not come with labels. Confronted with new tools, new cultures, new ways of telling stories, we are shaken from the complacent assumption that truth is simple and obvious. We grow anxious. We ask questions. The pursuit can make us as crazy as Hamlet or as creative as Galileo. Either way, the search starts with a truth we forget at our own peril. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than we once dreamed--and we must inspect every one of them through the lens of our imagination.