The Fortean Continuity of eXistenZ within a Virtual Environment

The Body as Media Sign

How to Cite

Dodd, A. (2000). The Fortean Continuity of eXistenZ within a Virtual Environment: The Body as Media Sign. M/C Journal, 3(5).
Vol. 3 No. 5 (2000): Game
Published 2000-10-01

So then: That all phenomena in our intermediate state, or quasi-state, represent this one attempt to organise, stabilise, harmonise, individualise -- or to positivise, or to become real: That only to have seeming is to express failure or intermediateness to final failure and final success; That every attempt -- that is observable -- is defeated by Continuity, or by outside forces -- or by the excluded that are continuous with the included: That our whole "existence" is an attempt by the relative to be absolute, or by the local to be the universal. -- Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned (1919)

I inspire this essay with outlandish reference from the "Godfather of the paranormal" primarily because upon revision of his seminal, often "disjointed" tome The Book of the Damned, I am immediately struck by the deeply ironic reciprocity his renegade theory of Continuity shares with expansive sociocultural change effected by global communication technologies, specifically, a growing awareness of interconnections -- or links -- between all things. I am swiftly presented, upon making this observation, with Sony's latest TV ad which, rather than attempting to persuade me to buy a Sony product per se, seems considerably more interested in luring me to buy into the digital world the advertisement illustrates, blending it ambiguously into "reality", repetitively informing me that in such an environment, "we are all connected". Following suit, I make the link.

But from a strictly Fortean perspective, the link was already there, acknowledged or not, since Fort's ontology of Continuity precludes locality in much the same way as, say, the graphic art of M.C. Escher. Much of what Fort catalogued as "paranormal" phenomena can be seen as signs (in the semiotic sense) of the universe's non-localised nature. Although he did not frame his own perspective in these terms, Fort's writings subtly imply an explanation of "existence" as an assemblage of continuous signs seeking affirmation via exclusion (I am because I am not what I am not), an assemblage read, interpreted and ordered by the exclusive human mind. Mysterious coincidences, apparitions, vanishings, appearances, ESP, telekinesis -- these types of apparently instantaneous phenomena were seen as manifestations of phenomenological connections or mergings where none was believed or known to exist. The role of the Fortean, therefore, has traditionally been both to acknowledge that such phenomena do occur and to elucidate their significance, to explore connections between apparently unconnected phenomena, to make new, illuminating links in an infinitely interlinked universe.

Such a role is hardly incompatible, of course, with that of today's average Web surfer. In the virtual environment communication technologies seek to construct, nothing is really local because everything is continuous with, or linked to, everything else. Significantly, these links are of our own making, but were already there, and it is in this sense that the Web is the essence of Forteana electronically virtualised, accounting for cyberspace's prolific production of UFO and conspiracy lore, for example, both traditionally fields of high interest to Forteans. Jodie Dean notes that:

With the Internet, conspiracy information has been turned into entertainment ... this is because of the way that the networked society turns all of its citizens into conspiracy theorists: we are all told to search for information and make links. What is interesting about the expansion of conspiracy into mass media is the way that conspiracy thinking comes to define the Zeitgeist, to be synonymous with critical thinking in the networked society. (Pilkington 25)

Fortean Continuity has woven itself through much of Western popular culture since Fort's time, obviously underpinning The X-Files and its ilk but surfacing more subtly in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, for example, where it in fact formed the crux of that film's "confusing" closure: a narratively "unconnected" frog fall, a well-documented but poorly understood phenomenon to which Fort attached considerable significance. Seemingly "unconnected" events like this happen quite often, Fort discovered, and through his study of their social reception (which historically ranges from ignorance to mythic inspiration) reasoned that all phenomena and events are unexplained and unexpected -- are apparently unconnected -- until we are able to establish a context in which they might plausibly "make sense", or be possible, or real. When such a (culturally specific) context is established, often elaborately so in a culture intolerant of randomness, the phenomenon "explained" becomes awash in significance, enriching the entire environment in which it is deemed to occur, reminding us of Continuity and the creative power of explanation. Unless, of course, that explanation is primarily concerned with maintaining a dominant social power structure or paradigmatic worldview which, Fort observed, in the West tends to be interested in downplaying Continuity and promoting fragmentation, or "localisation of the universal". Further, by "excluding" the anomaly altogether (and that includes accepting its presence but maintaining its "otherness"), we only limit the scope of our own observation, leaving the most alluring links unexplored.

While all this sounds rather antiquated and mystical (it was Fort's way), I still can't help but think he might have been onto something: upon review Magnolia actually contains numerous clear Fortean references (Coleman 49). Granted a context, the frogs actually make sense. "The message" is that, even if the links seem at first so obscure as to be nonexistent, we are, in a virtual environment, encouraged to make them. In such an environment, the once staunch division between "subjective construction" and "objective observation" becomes largely redundant.

The Body as Media Sign

This redundancy describes a culture in which the medium has become the message. We are now encouraged to make links by transcending locality via the "technological simulation of consciousness", which McLuhan saw as symptomatic of the "electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us..." (4), an age in which media technology essentially elaborates the nonsynthetic interconnective model of biological nature, a model completely inhospitable to notions of "disconnection". When our bodies and their perceptual functions become continuous with the form and information relay of technology, "we" become undeniably continuous, disembodied via the body. Fort's ontology of Continuity (which lead him to conceive the term "teleportation", probably a significant influence on the cosmology of Lovecraft) has become increasingly intrinsic to much horror and science fiction, and especially central to the filmography of Canadian auteur and master of paranoid horror, David Cronenberg.

Notably prominent in his first investigation of postmodernity's mediated ontology, Videodrome (1982), the theme of Continuity permeates this often "disjointed" film, which suggests the power of mass media operates not through the message, but through an obscure function of the medium which ultimately renders the "message" redundant as the medium becomes the message. Videodrome, a snuff TV show that seduces Toronto cable station chief Max Renn (James Woods), is encoded with a subliminal signal, which induces a brain tumour that eventually transforms the viewer's reality into video hallucination (and/or vice versa). The nature of the message does not ultimately matter since this subliminal signal can function through any program, even a test pattern. Steven Shaviro notices the psychedelic, McLuhanesque joke: the boundary between "inner bodily excitation and outer objective representation" collapses as the "new regime of the image abolishes the distance required either for disinterested aesthetic contemplation or for stupefied absorption in spectacle" (141). In the addictive cybernetic feedback loop of Videodrome, the distance between the medium and the body eventually collapses -- the body becomes the medium itself, the "New Flesh", and consequently the message: a sign within the hyperreality of an information system in which there are only signs.

In such an all-encompassing system of interconnected signs, in which signification becomes incontrovertibly arbitrary, borders don't so much collapse as blend into one another, forming what Cronenberg presents as eXistenZ (1999), an unresolvable "quasi-state" of virtual embodiment. In many ways an elaboration of Videodrome, eXistenZ presents a "different present" style future in which technology, biology, the synthetic, the natural, and the real are completely virtualised with the advent of synthesised, organic virtual reality technology. Consisting of "metaflesh", the game pods/consoles are living tissue requiring a human body as a power source. Connecting directly with the central nervous system via a port at the base of the spine, they become a working part of the biological body, transforming the individual's reality into a narrative game called eXistenZ, so "real" it is ultimately indistinguishable from reality itself, hence its overwhelming appeal. The content of the game is an ambiguous combination of pre-programmed information and the player's own expectations, the objective of the game being to learn why one is playing the game. Progress within the game depends upon saying the right thing to the right person/character, or doing the right thing at the right time, to receive the right information to proceed in the right direction. When progress begins to lag, the player feels an overwhelming urge to do or say something they don't "want" to as their game character temporarily takes over to ensure continuation of the game. Initially felt as artificially induced bodily impulses, these urges eventually become acceptable and naturalised as the player "becomes" their game character, adopting the prescribed attitude and behaviour required for proficiency within the game, allowing them to "do the right thing" more easily, to both "make the links" and reconfigure themselves as links.

In this sense eXistenZ is a fitting parable for an increasingly interconnected media culture that equates media transgressions of the body/mind with eventual transcendence from the body/mind into a quasi-corporeal "virtual reality" of cybernetics in which the individual, like everything else that is deemed to exist, is defined as a sign of its own connection to everything else. Existence as game describes existence within a playful culture of desire in which the pursuit of happiness is equated with the pursuit of pleasurable symbols that speak for our selves, and for which a virtual reality becomes a most logical, desirable future, if not a present. Within such an environment we are all characters in the same game, a game called "existence". Our bodies are the game pods which make interaction within existence possible, the vehicular flesh that binds "us" to the gaming environment, their provision of "reality" becoming ever more indistinguishable from the contexts established by increasingly pervasive electronic media. Literality begins to fade schizophrenically in the wake of hypersignificance. As a sign of and within a media age, the body becomes both a medium for a self-reflexive message and a message for a self-reflexive medium. In other words, as eXistenZ suggests, the body is already so incorporated as both media (information system) and media image that there is nothing non-virtual about its reality, or reality in general, for that matter, hence the analogy of existence as interactive simulation, a game.

The Fortean Continuity of eXistenZ, I'd suggest, describes the increasingly anarchic power, ebb and flow of signs within a postmodern, virtual environment. Interestingly, Fort ultimately saw existence itself as reliant upon the processional denial of Continuity in the pursuit of the "real", or the Truth, or some kind of localisation of the universal, something that owes no debt to or shares no phenomenological relationship with anything other than itself, something that could only ever be ... self-referential. He argued that, despite our attempts to construct such phenomena, and to define our own lived experience (and our bodies) in these terms, no such phenomena exist in any objective sense because, ultimately, the observer is the observed. Everything is a part of itself, so every attempt to become "real" is doomed to fail, since "real" for Western culture involves some degree of conceptual disconnection, if only of the "real" from the "unreal". Fort didn't miss the irony of Intermediateness, the Truth that could never be, deeply appreciating The amazing paradox of it all:

That all things are trying to become the universal by excluding other things. That there is only this one process, and that it does animate all expressions, in all fields of phenomena, of that which we think of as one inter-continuous nexus. (Book of the Damned 9)

If then, upon the technological realisation of Continuity, there emerges in Western popular culture a deep obsession with the growing elusiveness of Truth (or "reality") accompanied by a certain degree of "paranoia" -- a veritable Fortean revival -- might this be attributable, at least in part, to the growing inefficacy of Truth and "reality" within the virtual environment of an inherently Fortean media form?

Author Biography

Adam Dodd