I’m a fairly regular reader of Carnal Nation in that I’m aware of new and exciting articles that are posted there, and today I noticed an article that I have things to say about.
The article posits that there are two narratives about fantasy. I’m going to number them so we can parse them a little better:
- Fantasies are bad because we will replicate them. For example, if I play first person shooters, I will be be more likely to kill people.
- Fantasies exist to interpret the world with, and the powers that be are afraid of them because they allow us to get a firmer grasp on the very nature of our being. Through fantasies, we can “figure ourselves out.”
So there’s a dichotomy here. I’ve been trained to love a good shitty dichotomy, so I have a fondness for looking at this one, especially since I think that I have a lot riding on the idea. I’ve been working on some things lately about excess and the ideas behind it; in fact, I’m reading Sativa’s Acid Temple Ball right now.
The main problem that exists in the two definitions is that they can be the same thing. Obviously the author, Newitz, has a lot invested in fantasy being a positive thing. She writes for Carnal Nation, after all, which is a very sex-positive website that has a lot of S&M and whatnot content. There’s no reason that when a person “strives” through a “splintered” existence that they can’t come out the other end a mass murderer.
The only divide here is that there is some kind of degree of severity. However, I’m not sure where that is, and I don’t think that Newitz would have a good handle on that either. The  above is not all incorrect; Catherine MacKinnon has a lot of hard evidence that some people watch pornography or exploitation films and begin assimilating that information and action into their daily lifestyle. Obviously those people are in the slightest of minority margins, but still, it is happening to some degree. The  is just as incorrect, as per the example above.
The conclusion of the article is baffling to me.
That’s why the scariest fantasy of all is that some fantasies are unacceptable. Because that’s a fantasy about controlling human choice, preventing our minds from roaming freely before choosing the right action. And people always indulge in their most violent and thoughtless acts when there is no way for them to imagine another possibility. The worst human acts always originate with a lack of stories.
Alright, I get it. It’s scary when there are Thought Police. But I feel like this, and writing like this, is ignoring the nature of fantasy itself. Fantasy doesn’t come preprogrammed into the human like HP bloatware. It’s something that develops and shifts. People don’t get backed in the corner and commit violent actions. The reality is quite the opposite. People have to use their imaginations to get really horrible.
I just finished Borislav Pekic’s How To Quiet a Vampire. You can look it up if you like, but there’s one scene that I think speaks to this essay in total. The narrator, Rutkowski, explains in detail how body burning at Treblinka worked. The process was putting the bodies that burned best on the bottom of a pyramid of bodies so that the bodies that were least likely to burn could catch on the fat from the bodies below. That’s graphic, I realize, but it’s also creative.
And think of all the revolutionary coups, the religious crusades, the self-abuse in the form of cosmetic surgery. All of these things are fueled by wild exchanges of imagination. Anyone who says that the desire to construct a new world in form of some utopian image is not an act of creativity is full of shit. By that, I mean that it’s not a lack of stories that create bad things in the world. Instead, it’s stories that aren’t interpreted. A nationalist myth, accepted at face value, allowed for a genocide to happen.
So fantasy is fantasy, and there are good and bad parts. I agree with the article that fantasies have effects, but I just don’t buy that those effects are always good. For everyone who has an expansion of self there is someone jerking off in their living room to schoolgirls being raped by demons with spiral penises. That kind of thing is simply way too common for it not to be something that people enjoy. And while I want to be academic and postmodern with the rest of everyone, I just don’t believe that everyone is watching with a sterile eye.
Ultimately it comes down to how it’s being enjoyed. At the end of the day, are most people critically thinking about the narratives they’re seeing in their everyday life? If so, then Newitz is right. But I work with students, talk to students, and generally see students all the time. These college students aren’t reading their porn/reality tv/Twilight movies through a critical, self-interpretive lens. They don’t pay attention to the story, or how the story unfolds, nor do they spend thirty seconds to interpret if the story has a problematic meaning or not.
And taking anything at face value just makes me worried.