The New Flesh: Our Avatars

December 6, 2012 · Print This Article

“Planet Earth [is] about to be recycled. Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us”

-Marshall Applewhite

 

Culturally defining moments are happening exclusively through mediated images dispersed through multiple sources, indefinitely available, detached in time from their sources. They are regurgitated in various forms upon release so that they become a hybrid of event and iteration. Whether it be the fall of the Berlin Wall, the police beating of Rodney King and subsequent LA riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Branch Davidians’ standoff in Waco, 9/11, or countless others, all of these events were dispersed to millions of people as televised media. They all have a second life on the internet, able to be endlessly revisited, and as such become mass cultural experiences shared by all through a camera lens and privately controlled news source. More recent events, like the shootings in a Colorado movie theater this summer, are instantly consumed via social media. They are tweeted and retweeted, collecting a slime trail of likes, comments and threads. Events get dissected into a series of images, each one garnering more popularity via clicks and tags; a popularity contest that is once democratic and circumstantial. Everything is voted on, but seems to resemble American Idol more than American politics. The constant digestion of feedback explodes the event like a tumor, no longer allowing it to be actual event, but something more threatening in our daily lives until it is eradicated by the next event.

 

“Camera memories” are the ones we form from only knowing an event from broadcast images. They supplement the “real” feeling that they are happening live, and their location is somewhere tangible, yet exotic compared to our homes. Recognizing their location as site for the event allows us to see ourselves in the same timeframe, which connects us to others, in many ways promoting social media feedback of the event. The real locations they transpire in allow them to resonate with us  much more than the sets of Hollywood films,  yet their presentation and constant reiterations lock in key images, camera angles and even storytelling and point of view. As they age over the course of days and weeks, many of these events get swept up as quasi-fictional dramas and tragedies, erasing themselves from their actual potential impact on us.  It is as if Hollywood has moved into our daily lives, presenting its dramatic fiction as our nightly news.

Marshall Applewhite

Both David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite were able to convince their followers separately that they were the Second Coming of Christ as told in the Book of Revelations. Applewhite (the leader of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult that infamously committed mass suicide believing their souls would be able to ride a space ship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997) used the name “Do” (pronounced: dough) to differentiate his human body from that of Jesus Christ, but with the same divine mind. Though his insistence that God was more alien than human, fundamentally it remained similar to Christian teachings such as otherworldly transcendence via the Rapture. While the rest of the country watched in horror and disbelief during these separate culminating events (as they both had been building slowly and mostly quietly for years before hand), these two men were God in human flesh to their followers, all the way until their deaths. Whereas Jim Jones frantically held his followers at gun point forcing them to poison their children and themselves, Applewhite’s followers carried out their suicides for days after his own in a calculated manner. Some of Koresh’s flock ran back into the burning compound to be saved from the physical world and its evils.

David Koresh

The video tapes these men made appeared to the media as a weapon against society. They were appealing to the world as alternative media. The problem, of course, is that they were being filtered through mainstream media. In all instances, they looked crazed, deranged, and psychotic.  The tapes of Osama Bin Laden have the same effect: the idea that there is a threat out there to the way we think, act, live, believe. That our world is different from how we perceive it through our established news sources and entirety of media. All three men strategically shot videos with a nondescript background, both essentially (perhaps tellingly) against a wall. Applewhite once used a cheap video mirroring effect to promote the otherworldliness of his message and being, but otherwise was shown in softly lit close ups. Koresh was taped in front of a blank wall of sheetrock, Bin Laden in a generic cave space, so foreign from anything western that it may as well have been outer space. He become like the evil Max Headroom,(1) a digitized human against a non distinct background, permeating every channel sporadically for a few moments each day thanks to 24 hour news coverage. Without a sense of place, it is hard to determine the truth of the broadcasts existence. In the years between the release of his 9/11 tape to the time of his execution, there was skepticism as to if he was already dead, or if he was somewhere else entirely. During that time, Bin Laden could have appeared as an avatar alive only through the recorded image. Without a true location, he was immensely powerful in a GPS controlled planet. Much like Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Bin Laden and Applewhite still exist in these tapes, and are still able to recruit new followers.

Max Headroom

The power of putting a face to the attacks of 9/11 were instrumental in mobilizing a country towards war. Hollywood cinema has adopted this effect, particularly in super hero genre films, where a larger than life threat is represented in the form of the post human mutant. There is a clear distinction between good and evil, and these forces are otherworldly, beyond human and costumed, all distinct between those who live in society and those opposed to it. Most notable of the recent comic book movie adaptations is “The Dark Night Returns,” where the terrorist Bane has fully committed himself to the destruction of society, and is immune to capitalism, which is our society’s most powerful weapon. It is hard to create a character more opposed to our ideas of freedom and democracy. Yet the film was bracketed by two events in American culture: it was promoted during the dwindling Occupy movement and then was immediately overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado, which provided the country with a real domestic terrorist. Here the threat perceived from the film is from life (loss of power through the sterilization of capital), but the horror comes to life as real terror. The actual events swallowed the film and re iterates Hollywood’s action movie premise: there always will be a menace that needs to be eradicated. Will it come from real life or our digitized other?

 

At the end of James Cameron’s Avatar, Sam Worthington’s character delivers his final monologue to his video journal, where he suggests the end of his earthly body to exist as something else: death in order to have a new life. That shot, which is a close-up of his head to his upper chest facing the camera, as well as the text and implied meaning, even his somewhat sick excitement, is eerily similar to the video farewells of the Heaven’s Gate cult members found near their lifeless bodies after their mass suicides. Heaven’s Gate, although still in existence, is largely considered to be beyond rational thought. Besides its handful of still living followers, few people believe that they were able to attain their goal of transcending their human bodies for a new kind of conscious existence. We either mourn them or dismiss them. Avatar, while obviously fictional, proposes a very similar idea only thirteen years later as a possibility within the story. Worthington, established as the hero of the film, is successful in leaving his body for another, thus it is shown as a heroic act instead of an insane one. The most financially successful film of all time,(2) Avatar proposes an impossible and irrational thought as part of cultural desire. Its obvious analogy to the internet and digital technology and culture allows us to speak what should be laughable, lamentable in its obvious failure, but it was just seen as the end of the movie.

James Woods as Max Renn in David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”

Is this then a possibility or just a fantasy? Is it desirable either way? The McLuhenian dystopia of Videodrome proposed an evolutionary shift in the human race (or annihilation), to combine humans with broadcast TV signals, and be linked to each other through the signals of Videodrome, becoming “The New Flesh,” and enslaved by TV broadcast signals that caused hallucinations and physical transformation.  As surveillance becomes more commonplace, social media champions GPS technology, helping it become a seemingly friendly giant looming over us. Google maps become further defined, there is less and less of our lives that is notrecorded thanks to this friendly corporate entity. We can connect with anyone at almost anytime thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and other social media outlets, or on a mobile device, or video chat with Skype. All of which can be intercepted or recorded by anyone with the tools and capability. We can be googled, and our photos that we’ve posted on Facebook are available for the world. They can be taken and placed somewhere else, maybe even someone else’s profile page. We are living at a time where most Westernized people have avatars. Though rudimentary now, this was only science fiction a few years ago. What type of significance this will have on how we live and perceive reality can only be speculated right now. Someone else can be us, or they can be someone new, and we also can be this new person as a digital phoenix rising from the ashes of physicality.

 

1 Max Headroom was a computer simulated avatar played by actor Matt Frewer wearing prosthetic make up  in the mid 1980s. Though short lived, he had two simultaneous TV shows and did commercials for Coca-Cola.

2 Avatar’s world wide gross is $2,782,275,172 to print date, which does not include secondary release revenue. (boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/)

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