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Postscript to worldbuilding
Loose thoughts on immersion and autofiction.
Whenever I wash the dishes, I try to think of nothing but the dishes. To think of anything else, according to the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, is to “not [be] alive during the time” — the five, ten, fifteen minutes that I spend every day at the sink, my mind running with the tap. Nhất Hạnh wrote this in 1974 during his exile from Vietnam. “We are incapable of actually living one minute of life,” he remarked in a letter to another monk. The correspondence became the basis for his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. The statements read like an accusation and a prophecy, written in the same year that the seeds of the computing revolution were sown. The first commercially successful microcomputer, the Altair 8800, was designed in 1974, and its popularity became crucial to the widespread ownership of personal computers.
Computers, of course, aren’t entirely to blame for this modern inadequacy. Our inability to “realize the miracle of life” as the present unfurls, unremarkable and mundane, extends back to the early 20th century. New technologies and art-forms, like cinema, have been routinely contemned as diversions. It’s an “ancient lament,” writes Walter Benjamin, “that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” Benjamin quotes the French writer George Duhamel, who excoriated movie-going as “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries.”
But so much of modern life seems to be structured around distractions, such that today, we seek out its opposite: pure immersion. We want more life, not necessarily real life. Fear of confronting our widespread inattentiveness, I suspect, has led to a popular intrigue towards “immersive experiences,” anything that blinds our senses and overwhelms any sense of self. It’s there in the word immerse, from the Latin immergere: to plunge in, dip into, sink, submerge. Immersion also refers to the disappearance of a celestial body, like the Sun, during an eclipse. The experience lasts only a few minutes but is disorienting enough to invoke dread that elides into astonishment. A paralyzing realization, as Annie Dillard recounts, that God has deserted the earth as the heavens run haywire. To be entertained, we must be immersed, such that we nearly lose sight of God, of reality: in the metaverse, the Van Gogh exhibit, IMAX movie theaters, amusement parks, video games. Our attention is so fractured that immersion, as a state of mind, seems miraculous. But is it a baptism or a drowning?
Last Thursday, I published the first part of an essay on worldbuilding, a literary concept originally championed by science fiction and fantasy novelists. Today, it is a marketing strategy roundly adopted by the culture industry — by media conglomerates to oil the wheels of major fan-favorite franchises; by celebrities to manifest an insular, self-contained reality; by brands to construct manufactured narratives for consumers to buy into. Such worlds are immersive. Their waters are warm and comforting. Wading in them, the viewer feels safe, succumbing to what is known. 100% satisfaction guaranteed.
We are up to our eyeballs with content. Worlds ensure a lifetime warranty of content: “The hero’s journey is distended into an infinite sine wave to be iterated upon and expanded. Fictional worlds are treated as renewable resources, consistently mined for their potential.”
Recently, at the Amant Foundation in Williamsburg, I encountered a comic book-inspired triptych from the artist Dena Yago with a similar critique of franchise worldbuilding:
“[Characters] will forever be subject to a next generation’s resurrecting me like a Lazarus in an ongoing form of temporal drag.”
“There is no criteria for obsolescence in culture.”
Fictional franchise worlds are inexhaustible. This seemingly endless expansion runs parallel to that of our own universe, which is expanding at an accelerating rate, propelled by dark energy towards some ungraspable infinity.
So much of culture feels yawningly stagnant, even regressive. The new feels eerily familiar, a sense of déjà vu permeating across the settings, characters, formats, or tropes. Prequels and sequels abound. Remakes and adaptations are plentiful. Perhaps it’s a result of films being “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption,” as Martin Scorsese has bemoaned, and books being pitched and sold on comparison titles. Music, too, is organized for consumption according to algorithmically designated “moods” and “vibes.” Everything seems to be a product of “a production model, one that prioritizes efficiency and profit over ingenuity.”
“The franchise is dead, the franchise is dead, never to be rebooted again. The canon simply could not hold.
When the past is viewed as a post-scarcity resource, some thing to be infinitely mined and recombined, what then is to become of our future?”
The impetus to construct new worlds is not limited to corporate franchises. (Subscribe to Dirt for the second part of my essay.) It’s pervasive in modern literature, celebrity culture, and across social media in the construction of autofictional narratives and personas, intentional or otherwise. Karl Ove Knausgård. Annie Ernaux. Nathan Fielder. Donald Trump. Drake. (The manufactured media blitz accompanying Her Loss, Drake and 21 Savage’s joint album, is not so much metafiction as it is autofiction.)
In late October, I was at director Tsai Ming-Liang’s MoMA retrospective when it dawned on me that Tsai was a master worldbuilder, his films featuring the same cast of actors, often playing the same characters, across decades. Tsai has cast the same actor, Lee Kang-Sheng, in all his films, and acknowledges him as a creative collaborator. Lee produced his own feature-length film, The Missing, as a companion piece to Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn in 2003. In The Missing, an elderly woman and a teenage boy are searching for their missing relatives, a toddler and an older man with Alzheimer’s, both unaware of the other’s predicament. When asked what linked this film to Goodbye Dragon Inn, Lee said he imagined that the missing pair was spending time in the Dragon Inn theater while their loved ones embarked on a frantic search. And I believed him. My weekend of watching Tsai’s indulgently slow filmography felt like an extended meditation, a full body immersion into his speculative vision of Taiwan.
Good art accomplishes this. The artist beckons you into their world, into this refined cut of reality: A lengthy scene in The Missing was filmed in public; the actress portraying the elderly woman was directed to run around, panic-stricken, asking strangers about her missing grandson. There was some light sound editing involved, Lee admitted, since the recording picked up snippets of conversation from people who realized the crisis was staged. I love watching Tsai’s and Lee’s films because they manage to illuminate the mundane into the meditative, dwelling on daily acts that most directors skip over to jump-cut to the action.
Social media, on the contrary, pulverizes the boring beauty of life. Every post and action is contrived into a performance, and everyone knows it, everyone is so well-versed in the presentation of the self in everyday life, in performance and hyperreality and authenticity that we are all quoting the same roundtable of philosophers and writers: Erving Goffman, Antonin Artaud, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin. We are committing to the bit until the final act, except the script is still being written on Instagram, Twitter, and now Substack.
After years of refusing to read Jorge Luis Borges out of some imagined rivalry between him and Julio Cortazár, I recently read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” his mind-bending metafictional 1940 short story. A secret society crafts an elaborate hoax to convince everyone of the existence of an imaginary world, going so far as to produce documents, artifacts, and lore to lend credence to the idea. It’s a classic example of worldbuilding, of manifesting reality from imagination within the confines of a fictional story. Oddly, the story led me to realize that the online formulation of certain social scenes is also a pretext to worldbuilding.
“Everything’s a column about yourself,” Spike’s Dean Kissick wrote in September. “Everyone’s just telling stories about one another, making movies, staging plays in friends’ houses in the city — plays about scenes that don’t really exist that aren’t really about those scenes that don’t exist anyway — writing blogs, publishing literary magazines and newspapers, hosting galas, hosting talk shows, having readings, running meme accounts, making video games, playing versions of themselves in others’ fictions and their own, and doing so in public.”
Who needs reality, then, if everything is a fiction?