The phrase ‘desert of the real’ comes from the movie the Matrix. This comes from the point when Neo perceives the ‘real reality” behind the computer simulated reality in which he has been living. Morpheus says “Welcome to the desert of the real”.
Zizek Slovak drew on this scenario in his article, ‘Welcome to the desert of the real‘, which was specifically focused on the politcal and media manipulations of the events of Spetember 2001 in New York.
The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its 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 the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real” — to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions.
Reading George Monbiot’s article from early in December, “Materialism: a system that eats us fron the inside out“, I am reminded again of the phrase, “Welcome to the desert of the real”. Monbiot’s article draws on research that indicates buying loads of stuff tends to be both “socially destructive and self-destructive”: it lowers self-esteem and results in dissatisfaction and depression. Monbiot describes consumerism’s version of the desert of the real behind the propaganda that promises the good life through endless spending.
But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It’s captioned “shoppy shoppy” and “#goldrush”, but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
The images Monbiot links to are these:
Other research cited by Monbiot shows that people in a controlled experiment, who
were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities.
Another piece of research found a two-way impact between materialism and loneliness – each having a tendency to increase the other.
So behind the consumerist facade of the alleged reality that consumer capitalism creates the goodlife, there is a barren reality of consumerism self-destructively eating its consumers. And, at the same time, rampant consumerism is consuming the world’s resources, creating environmental destruction in ways that will ultimately destroy capitalism and its illusions.
According to a post on the Alliance Party website, citing Bryce Edwards, people are becoming burnt out or “bored with economic inequality and poverty issues“. Or perhaps too many are just unwilling to face up the the “desert of the real” and look critically at our current system; too unwilling to consider the system they (to a greater or lesser extent) accept, needs to change.