Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alternate Worlds: How Borges' predictions about the changeable nature of reality are coming true in the digital age

 “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to….little by little, I am giving everything over to him” (“Borges and I”) wrote Jorge Luis Borges of his relationship with himself. Borges, more than any other author I have ever read, is acutely aware of the many realities which we create for ourselves. The first time I read “Borges and I,” I stared at the page for long minutes in astonishment: Borges had articulated a truth which I had struggled to recognize in words for many years. Humans are composite creatures, and reality is a composite entity. In a world of virtualization and digitization, Borges’ truth is a powerful one to consider: Reality is what we give credence to, not what others (or tradition) assume to be “real.” It is a truth that is supported by the evidence of the digital age.
"Death and the Compass"
The internet and associated media allow us to choose the realities we prefer, much like Borges’ character, Erik Lonnrot, chooses to see the world as a place of secrecy and intrigue in the short story “Death and the Compass.” A detective on a serial murderer case, Lonnrot is excited by mysterious notes left by the murderer at the scene of every crime. Lonnrot becomes obsessed with Hebrew mysticism, convinced that he can use it to “divine the secret morphology of the vicious series” (Borges, 1). Unbeknownst to him, the murderer has chosen to seem like a mystic precisely because he knows it will lure Lonnrot into a trap. Lonnrot chooses to believe in certain truths, and then those truths become his reality.
I, like Lonnrot, have experienced the lure of creating my own reality in the form of online avatars and profiles and games. I was a part of the middle-school Neopets© frenzy of feverish “Neopoint” collecting and pet-care; I have dabbled in online gaming and, with near shame, experienced the thrill of “level-upping.” These things seem innocuous, however, when compared with the ways in which absorbing myself in my online identity have, at times, jeopardized my “other” reality—that of home, family and friends. 
I will never forget the rainy high school night when my father and I almost broke into physical violence over my Facebook password, which I refused to give him. I remember staring in disbelief at the computer screen afterwards. “What was I thinking?” I asked myself. I wonder if Qiu Chengwei asked himself the same thing after stabbing his friend over an online gaming dispute in 2005 (“Chinese Gamer”). Despite what we tell ourselves about the lines we keep between reality and “virtuality,” as Borges says, we come to understand “with relief, with humiliation, with terror …that [we] also [are] an illusion” (“Circular Ruins”). Only our conviction of reality authenticates that reality.

Integrating Art
Noam Cohen of the New York Times has stated that Borges “uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web” with his conception of infinite stores of information and the ways in which those stores would alter the human experience (Cohen). A form of information—one that greatly enhances our conviction that the digital world can be a form of reality—is the graphic information that is ubiquitous online in the form of artwork, photographs, and the like. 
As I was researching Borges’ present-day effects on the internet community, I stumbled onto a personal blog that discussed Borges’ “Library of Babel” and its relevancy to the topic of RDF and RSS integration (Mazzochi). What struck me as most impressive about this blog was the picture it was posted with—a gorgeous painting of a crumbling, circular tower. A blog is inherently a personal form of communication, but it was really the picture—with fanciful blues and solemn browns—that pulled me headfirst and intimately into the pith of what the author was trying to say: Even limitless stores of information are a relic without an effective way of organizing them (like, say, a search engine on an internet browser). The blogger’s argument was more convincing to me—and I accepted it as valid, real—in part because of the use of art.
Art has a way of striking the emotions in a way that is more instantaneous than words. Language must be decoded a symbol, a word at a time; art has an immediate impact. Perhaps that is why advertising is primarily a visual science—it goes for the visceral reaction. If this is true, then the internet may be a more impactful medium for experiencing literature than the more traditional codex—it has the potential to “market” the literature because of its higher capacity for visual enhancement. 

"The Library of Babel" and "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
Imagine juxtaposing a short story of Borges’ with a visual artwork by Escher, much like the blogger I found juxtaposed his words with a work of art. It has been argued that Escher’s print, “Ascending and Descending,” is thematically comparable to Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” which discusses the implications of an infinite library of information that winds around and around on itself (Parker, 18). Putting the two works together could make experiencing both a more emotional, more comprehensive experience. The reader becomes aware of the arguments presented by both works and is convinced of the potential “reality” of each. Art convinces us to lend credence to reality; the internet is possibly the most effective medium for displaying art and text together. The internet displays another reality to us, and we accept it.
Or, for another example, go back to the online gaming world, where three-dimensional “graphical worlds are comprehensively mapped, giving a sense of spatial other-place through the screen…[which] gives users a sense of being in a world” (Calleja, 98). In Borges’ short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” when enough people in the world accept the reality of a make-believe world called Tlon, the idea of that world starts interfering with reality and changing it to be more like this imaginary other-world. The advanced visuals of cyberspace seem to have the same effect on gamers who believe fervently in the reality of their online games. William Gibson, a cyberpunk author, has called such activity a “consensual hallucination” (Calleja, 95). As Borges said it, “The world will be Tlon” (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). 
The internet has proved to be more than just another way to transfer information; it has become its own entity with its own power and personality. The digitization of everything from literature to job interviews to gaming is proof of the internet's power to change our outlook on what the world can be. As more of our culture decides to “give everything over” (like Borges) to the realities presented by the online world, we will see more of Borges’ inadvertent prophecy coming true: Reality will be only and exactly what we choose it to be.

Borges, Luis Jorges. A Personal Anthology. New York: Grove Press, 1967. Online.
Calleja, “Of Mirrors, Encyclopedias, and the Virtual.” Cy-Borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge                 Luis Borges. New Jersey: Rosemont Pulishing & Printing Corp., 2009. Print. 
“Chinese gamer sentenced to life.” BBC News. Web. June 8 2005.
Cohen, Noam. “Borges and the Foreseeable Future.” The New York Times. Web. 6 January 2008.
Mazzocchi, Stefano. “Semanticsheets.” Stefano’s Linotype. Web. Aug 12 2003
Parker, Allene M. "Drawing Borges: A Two-Part Invention on the Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges and M. C.               Escher." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 55.2 (2001): 11-23

No comments:

Post a Comment