The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

From Whatever Was Left of Their Authentic Selves

Andrew Foster Altschul
Deus Ex Machina
(Counterpoint Press, 2011)

A secluded island; a reality TV show. Seven long weeks and 10 contestants determined to do whatever it takes to prevail. Each blink of an eye, the subtlest gesture is recorded on countless cameras; in post-production, the footage is instantaneously cross-referenced to a dizzying array of digitally catalogued parameters and edited or enhanced according to a storyline-in-progress. Week by week, the Deserted pick their way through Ancient Ruins; the Mangrove Swamp; the Unnavigable Canyon; the Cobra Pit; the Volcanic Labyrinth. Stripped of civilization, they are called upon to recreate it by forging unscripted alliances, by cooperating with one another. Ultimately, however, their mission is to betray and to conquer each other. In the end, only one winner will make it to Paradise.

After 12 seasons of spectacular success, the producer of the show finds himself in deep crisis. Competing networks used to scramble to imitate the brilliance of his creation, but now “everyone can sense a reckoning coming, a new paradigm taking shape: postreality, though no one can yet say what that means.” Reality TV, it seems, has seeped into the collective consciousness like an insidious toxin, blurring the boundaries between identity and role-playing, authenticity and artificiality to a point beyond recognition:

If they already know what’s expected of them, why pay consultants to build the perfect cast? You could scoop ten people off the street, and soon they’d be forming cabals, plotting revenge, making threats, performing fellatio, sobbing on cue, and generally exhibiting the range of trite, selfish behavior audiences can’t get enough of. You didn’t have to create the Deserted: just give people a chance to express the Deserted they already wanted to be. What need for storyboards or imagination?

Meanwhile, under intense pressure from above to spike the show’s ratings and keep advertisers and investors on board, the crew conjures up ever more sensational plot twists to keep the audience watching, twittering, texting, and blogging. But the end is near, and the producer senses that mutiny is inevitable. Reluctant to renounce his original principle of free will, “a concept of such beautiful simplicity no one quite knew how to discuss it,” he nonetheless resigns himself to the truth: the Deserted will do and say and betray anything to stay in the game.

It was their greatest fear, something equivalent to death: to be banished, written out, told that their lives, or whatever crazy version of their lives they’d chosen to tell, no longer fit in the storyline. For a few weeks, or a month, someone had wanted to tell a story about them. But then someone lost interest.

Andrew Foster Altschul, books editor at The Rumpus, political commentator, director of San José State University’s Center for Literary Arts, and author of the novel Lady Lazarus, a brilliant, biting study on celebrity culture, is an expert when it comes to navigating the slippery slope of mass culture. In a whirl of smart, sparkly dialogue, dark humor, and dirty talk, Deus Ex Machina suddenly homes in on a visual detail with hallucinatory intensity, only to veer off into an eloquent attack on the wasteful lifestyle we embrace and the wars we wage to finance it. Even Sarah Palin, High Priestess of Bad Grammar, makes a cameo appearance as Altschul argues his case for reality TV as the quintessential perversion of our entertainment-addicted society. But can the Deserted tell the difference between reality and Reality? Altschul’s answer is as clear as the devastating cultural diagnosis it delivers:

With each passing season he grows less convinced of the Deserteds’ reality, of their basic humanity. They’re cardboard cutouts, the personas they develop ever more elaborate and yet more predictable. Miley calls it ‘televolution,’ the way their personalities hew ever closer to those of previous seasons and other shows, their triumphs, failures, love affairs, betrayals, converging like images in an elevator mirror.

The Latin phrase deus ex machina (god out of the machine) is used in theater to describe a last-minute rescue that brings the play to a surprising, if unlikely, conclusion. In Greek tragedy, actors playing gods were literally lowered onto the stage by cranes, or appeared suddenly from trap doors to resolve problems in plot; it was a device that was often criticized for its artificiality. It was thought that a narrative should unfold from its own inherent logic and from the relationships between the characters themselves: the “necessary and probable” that Aristotle spoke of as opposed to the contrived intervention of a deity.

As ratings plummet and the producer’s own policy of non-intervention is severely tested by a series of unexpected catastrophes, Deus Ex Machina probes the idea of divine intervention in a striking parallel to the Iliad. Echoes of Homer’s epic—in which human endeavor is portrayed as something propelled into motion and influenced by the gods rather than predicated on deliberation and self-reflection—can be perceived as computer-generated constellations of stars and messages in bottles washing up on the island’s shores serve as oracles to guide the Deserted in their struggle to understand what is required of them to survive:

People didn’t want to see themselves, they wanted to see someone else, someone bigger than them, someone in charge. That was the comfort: that in all the chaos someone was in control. And all the millions of people watching could sense it—even if they couldn’t articulate their need, they felt it—and in that sensing they saw that the sudden misfortunes, the unpredictable calamities and minor inconveniences and galling reversals were not random. The squalor of their lives, the letdowns and uncontrolled furies, the frustrated dreams, the friends and lovers who betrayed them or who simply disappeared […], the thousand daily ways in which life disappointed all efforts to make it worth living—they saw that all of it, however unbearable, happened according to someone’s plan.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the camera, the producer, alienated and alone, takes on the persona of a god grown wistful in the face of human torment. But he has come to despise the Deserted—because of all the things they talk about, worry about, agonize about—never do they talk about the one thing that matters most: Love.

Altschul opens Deus Ex Machina with a quote from Plato’s Republic, specifically from his allegory of the cave, which examines the mechanisms by which human ignorance perpetuates its illusions. Prisoners are chained from birth to prevent them from seeing anything but a cave’s rear wall. As figures pass behind their backs, they cast shadows onto the wall, which become the only reality the prisoners will ever know. Plato’s cave offers an allegory for the producer’s spiritual dilemma in an experiment that has spiraled dangerously out of control; when he discovers a cave on the island—a real, uncharted cave invisible to the spycams’ unblinking eyes and untainted by high-tech sound and aroma enhancing equipment—he becomes obsessed with it, convinced that it holds the secret to save the Deserted from their predictability and lack of humanity and to redeem his own lost soul.

It’s simple. So simple that the discovery is accompanied by embarrassment—how could he not have understood until now? […] They’d go in without expectations, without promise of reward, and once they’d passed beyond the entrance’s lingering light a voice would ask, “What is love?” and until they answered honestly, until they said something unpracticed, unironic, without bravado or hidden agenda, something that exposed them as the lonely, confused, terrified people that deep down they had to be, they would not be allowed to leave. […] He would not accept cant or cliché, would not settle for advertising slogans. No, they would stay in that cave—alone, unaided, with no time limit on this last, crucial ordeal—until they said something original, something that came from whatever was left of their authentic selves.

Ultimately, Deus Ex Machina is a beautifully written treatment on the anguish and uncertainty of being. In this sense, reality TV and all the attention-craving exploits of celebrity culture can be reduced to a common denominator: our dire need for affirmation that we exist. Just as we are Plato’s strange prisoners lost in a world of shadows, we are also the Deserted: living our lives as though they mattered in some greater scheme of things—and terrified by the prospect that there might not be a larger consciousness, benign or malevolent, to bear witness. In revealing to us the dehumanizing power of the very media we’ve grown so addicted to, Altschul whisks us through a dystopian world of fast-paced staff meetings and surreal mise-en-scènes—and in the end pleads the case that love is the only force that can help us regain our humanity and restore us to ourselves. And in view of all the ignorance and meaninglessness we wrap around ourselves for comfort, this is not a plea to be taken lightly.


Andrea Scrima

ANDREA SCRIMA was born in New York and lives in Berlin. Her first book, A Lesser Day, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2010.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues