Douglas Rushkoff on Khaleesi Lady Gaga and why Sopranos’ end works but Lost’s doesn’t
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Since the mid-’90s, Douglas Rushkoff has been writing books of media theory, works of fiction, and graphic novels in an attempt to explain the ways the development of the digital world affects what we might have once referred to as the real world. (His 1996 book, Media Virus!, helped popularize the term “viral media.”) His recent work with DC Comics’ Vertigo line—including the short-lived series Testament and the original graphic novel Adolescent Demo Division—has explored similar themes using the form of mainstream comics. In his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff offers what may be his most sweeping critique of the current culture: the theory that we live in a “presentist” culture that, thanks to the immediacy of digital technology, keeps us obsessed with what’s happening now, at any given moment. In the first section of the book, Rushkoff posits that one of the forces responsible for this is what he calls “narrative collapse,” or the idea that our most popular films, television shows, and more encourage us to live in an eternal present. The A.V. Club caught up with Rushkoff during a busy SXSW appearance to learn how Lost and Game Of Thrones perfectly capture our desire to see unending narratives, why the hipster archetype has endured for so many years, and how Lady Gaga is the Khaleesi.
The A.V. Club: In your book, you describe the way we live now, especially the way technology has changed us, and that seems very much in the zeitgeist. The A.V. Club recently interviewed Aziz Ansari, and he bemoaned the state of our hyper-connected, technology-driven current lives. How did we end up here?
Douglas Rushkoff: It’s funny. The way I used to talk about it was the contraction of public space. I don’t want to sound like some old person pining for how things used to be, because I’m not. There were problems. But walking down the street, for example, used to be a public activity; you’d see the other people. If you weren’t in New York, you’d say, “Hi, how are you?” And if you were in New York, you’d at least regard them, you’d smirk at them or condemn their clothing silently. Then there was a broadcast phase for media where people would walk around with boomboxes, and the way you would influence your environment was by taking it over—talking loud, taking up physical social space. It was a strategy for reclaiming the city: Play a boombox on the subway. Then once Walkman World happened, it started to go the other way. Walkman was the precursor to the cell phone, in terms of your strategy for getting through the urban landscape and the modern experience. Insulate yourself from it with your own soundscape. But now we’ve got this choice—we have the alternative. “Do I want to be on the subway looking at these people, or do I want to be in my phone looking at my people?”
AVC: What’s a working definition of “presentism” as it relates to pop culture?
DR: As popular culture becomes more presentist, we move away from entertainment as the vicarious experience of a narrative—as watching someone else’s story—and much more toward enacting one’s own story. Moving away from myths and toward fantasy role-playing games, away from movies and toward videogames. And where you do stay in the older forms, the forms are going to have to recognize the arbitrary shape of their narrative and start fucking with that a little bit. So you end up with movies more like Memento and Inception, and even [Charlie] Kaufman movies like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Stories where the traditional narrative becomes a character, rather than a given.
AVC: How does that relate to the really popular TV shows that are ongoing narratives?
DR: The shows we’re watching now—these super-popular shows, whether it’s Lost or Game Of Thrones or whatever, are kind of hybrids. These are the bridges between the media we’re leaving and the media we’re going into. On the one hand, Lost is a bit like the computer game Myst, where you’re basically thrown into this thing, and solving a mystery that is locationally bound. So we’re going to wander around on this island and figure out less what happened and where we’re going than just, “What the fuck is going on here?” Memento is sort of the same way. So while Lost, structurally, was a weekly soap opera, it was presentist in its narrative quest. That’s why the ending didn’t quite work. The ending for The Sopranos did work, because they maintained the presentist quality by just going, [claps hands] “It’s over.” Existential boom—there’s no end. Whereas Lost, they were obligated to—who the fuck were those two guys? What were they? Were they aliens? I still don’t know what they were.
The other thing is, the soap opera, which has been around for a long time, is actually kind of anti-narrative on a certain level. They’re never-ending stories. They were continuous. My mom watched As The World Turns for, like, 15 years. So she was not groping toward a conclusion. She was living in a steady state of fiction. It was a steady-state fictional world. I look at soap operas much more like fantasy role-playing games than like movies.
AVC: The ratings for soaps have fallen consistently for years, though.
DR: Right, but they’ve come back as—and I don’t mean this in a condemning way, because I watch these things, I love them—but they come back as Game Of Thrones. It’s a soap opera. I’m sorry! It starts with a map. This is so fantasy role-playing, “Here’s a map of this giant world!” It’s following a series of novels that are not yet finished, basically on faith that this guy’s going to—does he know how to wrap it up? I don’t know if the endings matter. I don’t really care how Game Of Thrones ends, I just want to watch it keep going. I mean, everyone wants the girl to win, right? Don’t we? Mother of dragons! Fuck the Starks, self-righteous stick-necks!
AVC: You’ve said that, in a role-playing game, the point is to play, not to win. When we think of narrative as a thing we want to keep going, how does that affect our lives?
DR: A society that’s addicted to narratives with beginnings, middles, and endings will eventually yearn to end. We just want it to end. “Let there be winners and losers, damned and saved, and I want to be on the saved side.” So whether you’re a psychedelic person following Terence McKenna through the chaos attractor at the end of time into your DMT reality, or someone following Jerry Falwell over to Jesus, at least it ends. The more atemporal and presentist approach would be, “The object of the game is to keep the game going, so the object of life is sustainability.” So now the kinds of challenges and the way we contextualize challenges become less these big wars where you have to fight and win, and more these kind of steady-state problems we’ve got to learn to deal with in an ongoing way. And that’s much less dramatic, as we know it. When I was a kid, it was the race to the moon. And they went. We stuck a flag on the moon. We won. “Fuck you, Russia! Our moon!” We don’t deal with global warming in the same way. Global warming, you don’t win it. It’s this weird steady-state issue that’s going to be with us for a few thousand years. Or infant mortality, or hunger. If you can adopt the more presentist, infinite-game style approach to problems, then it’s a much more mature way of looking at it. This is chronic. This is ongoing. Life goes on. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
AVC: You seem really excited about this stuff. Reading the book is sometimes a downer, though, like this world we’ve built is kind of terrible. Which is it?
DR: Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, a vast majority of the time, we surrender our true autonomy to this illusion of agency. I’m as guilty as anybody, and I write about it in the book. I’m not condemning anybody. So as far as the bad goes, I wanted the book to serve as a wake-up call, in that sense. I feel like the smartest people in my field are busy reinforcing the old models with new technology. Whether it’s Ray Kurzweil basically promoting a Christian apocalyptic narrative through singularity and digital technology, or most Internet business theorists who are really looking at preserving the necks of giant, Fortune 500 companies, rather than promoting the digital, peer-to-peer economy that actually wants to happen.
Hollywood’s so afraid of not being hip or whatever it is, they can’t just do whatever it is they do and be loved for it—make Lord Of The Rings, make Game Of Thrones, make big things we can’t do, but then leave the indie world the fuck alone. We can make on our iPhones and with iMovie the equivalent of what you guys did for a million dollars 10 years ago. I feel like Hollywood would rather end the emerging, bottom-up creative culture than let it happen.
AVC: You also talk in Present Shock about how the DVR changes the experience of watching television. How does that work in a world where companies like Netflix are busy creating shows that have no official airtime?
DR: It’s interesting. With the DVR, I was mostly writing about it as a good thing in giving us the choice of when and how to watch things. But there’s what we lose in the bargain, which is the collective spectacle. “Did you see Jay Leno last night?” I like the idea of watching Game Of Thrones on a Sunday night so I’m there with it, and I can tweet with the other people watching it, and talk about it the next day. With House Of Cards, I’m denied that. So my television viewing becomes even more isolating than it was before. Which, in some ways, is perfectly consonant with the themes of that show—ruthless, anti-human characters who are deeply and desperately alone in every way. Would Community work in that atemporal format? I don’t know.
AVC: There’s a part in the book about “grups”—the term New York magazine coined for people in their 40s who still live and dress like they’re in their 20s—and “hipsters,” how these concepts are part of the presentist culture as well.
DR: “Hipster” is a mash-up. If you look around you, each of these people is an amalgamation of at least three decades of pop. There are obviously different shades of “hipster,” but there’s something oddly comforting about having a few temporal anchors. “I own a Zippo, I drink Pabst, I have a ’90s watch,” because especially if you have either some real experience or cultural memory of what that was, we have risen above the matrix of matter into the matrix of fantasy.
Remember in Inception, how you have this one object to know if you’re in the dream or if you’ve gotten out? I feel like that’s what it does for us on a deeper level. It also makes you unpinnable. The minute they can say, “Oh, you’re grunge, you’re so 2007, you’re this,” you’re boxed in. You’re that thing. Whereas if you can pastiche yourself in that Pulp Fiction-y way, you keep your options open. It lasts longer, because there’s a deeper drive. It’s not a style, but it’s an approach to styles. In a world where that’s happening, how do you introduce any new element without it being identified as of resonance with an earlier one? Like, Lady Gaga—is any of that new, or is that some Jetsons mixed with some situationism? I’m not saying she’s bad. I mean, “Born That Way”!—though I don’t even think she was, I think she was born just like a regular little baby—but it’s great. It’s like a one-notch-more-self-conscious Madonna. It goes back to Marilyn, or Joan of Arc, or Helen of Troy. Or Game Of Thrones! The Khaleesi.
AVC: It all comes back to Game Of Thrones.
DR: It’s not a fringe HBO show, is it? It’s crazy—that, and The Walking Dead. That was like an indie comic. That was Image. See? Fuck Marvel and DC and these guys. I have an email exchange—the guy from Image is open to a pitch from me as soon as I’m ready to do one, but I’ve got [Present Shock] and I’m writing a graphic novel now for Dark Horse. I had pitched it to Karen Berger [at Vertigo], and she already kind of knew the writing on the wall, and was like, “Don’t, don’t do it here.” So I’m doing this graphic novel with Dean Haspiel, and it’s basically, “What if Aleister Crowley had been enlisted in the occult war against Adolf Hitler?” Which he was. And then I kind of go, “How might that have played out?” Then it leads to the American advertising industry. So the idea is that Crowley kind of won, but this is what we got. We got another form of fascism, or another sigil.
AVC: Is that a serialized book or a graphic novel?
DR: Graphic novel, because the budget and all of that. And I’m giving my part of the advance to Dean, because it takes the artist longer to do stuff. They could only afford to do a 64-page graphic novel. So this story is going to be fucking efficient. Everything’s money these days. It’s a labor of love.
AVC: Do you want to work with Image?
DR: Dark Horse [is] nice, so we’ll see how it goes. If I have a hit with Dark Horse, maybe they can actually pay me a real advance to do it. But I don’t think that’s their model. I would be really interested in doing a Kickstarter at Image, which they’re fine with. Get Kickstarter to pay the artist, then go to Image and do it as a self-published thing. I’m interested, but I don’t know the politics of it yet. They could be evil, too. I haven’t really done anything yet by the bottom-up model I’ve been writing about for 20 years. So why not try that?
AVC: Do you see yourself doing more with comics in the future? Do you have ambitions to try television or some other medium?
DR: My best friends from high school and college are Aaron Sorkin—I used to direct him in plays. He was in my Pippin and my Godspell and my Grease. He was the Leading [Player] in Pippin, the Ben Vereen character. He wanted to be the “Corner Of The Sky” kid [Pippin], but it wasn’t right for him. In [You’re A Good Man,] Charlie Brown, he was Schroeder. And now he’s that. Ryan Murphy was part of my first journalism experience; he and I were the main writers of this magazine called Exposure in L.A. Now he’s Ryan Murphy. Howard Gordon was my friend at Princeton, next dorm room over. He’s 24 and Homeland.
On the one hand, that’s what I always wanted to do. I was a theater kid. On the other hand, they work really hard. They have a work life that’s highly competitive. You go to these writers’ rooms, and it’s like a job. I talk to Howard about it, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I want to be you!” He’s got this house in the Pacific Palisades, and the cars, and this and that and the other. And he goes—and I think he’s underselling himself —“Doug, I’m a journeyman. I’m a really good journeyman. I know how to craft the stuff. You get to live on your own time, come up with weird ideas, and I can read them and base episodes on them.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re going to Hollywood parties and the Oscars. Who knows who you’re sleeping with!” But I’m pretty sure if I did it, I’d be disillusioned by what it actually is. It’s probably not as much fun. Which person in the whole production cycle of Game Of Thrones would you actually want to be? I guess the novelist.
AVC: Although the pressure must be overwhelming.
DR: What about being the bastard Stark son? Having swordfights with the gorgeous redhead? I’m certain on a romance level, that’s Hollywood. That’s the illusion of it. I went to Cal Arts and AFI, and I worked on Bonfire Of The Vanities. I got this grant from the Academy to be Brian De Palma’s apprentice director. And it was such a harrowing, disillusioning, awful experience. I went “Oh my God, if this is movie-making—just sitting around in the rain waiting for them to put up lights, with extras and construction crews—it’s so big and so horrible, yuck.” It was probably not the most ideal film. I might have had more fun with Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas or something.