The Desert of the Real

Christopher Isherwood, an Englishman who became an American, once gave expression to the unreality of American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: “American motels are unreal! … They are deliberately designed to be unreal. … The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.”

The Wachowski brothers’ 1999 hit film The Matrix brought this logic to its extreme climax: The material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached. When the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins—what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New York on September 11? As we were introduced to the “desert of the real,” the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could only remind us of the most breathtaking scenes from innumerable Hollywood disaster movies. The unthinkable had been the object of fantasy. In a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.

It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw reality of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates that determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the World Trade Center, it is not that the Twin Towers stood for capitalism per se, but of virtual capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The towers symbolized, ultimately, the stark separation between the digitized First World and the Third World’s “desert of the real.”

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on October 29th, 2001. (full text).]