Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “Reality Problem”

I was glad to see New York Review Books release a collection of essays by Daniel Mendelsohn entitled Waiting for the Barbarians. As readers of this site know, I have followed Mendelsohn’s New York Review articles eagerly and enthusiastically. While many of them capture some immediate spirit of the moment, such as his review of Avatar, Mendelsohn always seems to extrapolate his accounts beyond that immediacy to more general hypotheses, if not truths.

The review of this collection by Edward Mendelson (note the spelling difference) calls particular attention to what Mendelsohn calls the “reality problem.” Since this has been a favorite topic of my own, I feel it worth quoting how Mendelsohn formulates it:
… how the extraordinary blurring between reality and artifice that has been made possible by new technologies makes itself felt not only in our entertainments…but in the way we think about, and conduct, our lives.
Expressed this way, the reality problem may be viewed as a corollary of Max Weber’s “loss of meaning” problem, since the very meaning of “reality” is at stake. Since Weber posed this problem as a hazard of too much emphasis on market-based thinking, I think this connection is particularly appropriate. Whether it involves the convincing levels of artifice available through, for example, CGI or the extent to which Facebook embeds us in an “artificial” version of the social world, rather than the “real” one, the intense marketing of new technologies seems to have confronted us with the unintended consequence of Mendelsohn’s reality problem.

Of course, once “reality” loses its meaning, so does everything else, whether it involves how we choose those who govern us or how we shall be able to eat a decade from now.

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