Aliens in the Home World
As a cultural meme, photos of the so-called "lost" tribe of the Amazon circulated more rapidly in the mediasphere than electrons buzzing through duel processors. But now that the images have been revealed to be a "hoax," we should kick back in our collective armchairs and probe what happened. To be clear, the pictures weren't a hoax per say, because the people depicted in them are real and do live off our grid, but the implication that they were unkown or off civilization's radar was false. Survival International, one of the organizations who published the photos, said:
"This is a classic example of journalists getting the wrong end of the stick. The only people who ever claimed that the Indians photographed were ‘lost’ or ‘undiscovered’ were…. the press, despite the fact that Survival has been campaigning for the protection of the many isolated Indian tribes on the Peru-Brazil border for more than twenty years.... Indeed, you might have thought that the fact that the Indians are living in a government reserve set aside for isolated Indian groups would tend to indicate that they weren’t exactly ‘unknown’."
I found the images intriguing as a media phenomena. With our point of view coming from the surveilling eye of extraterrestrial flight, I can't help but feel like these are stills from a Star Trek scouting mission in which we -- the humanoid aliens -- are observing a distant world uncontaminated by our civilization. For many viewers, I'm guessing the reverse reaction was true: that the indigenous people covered in body paint and pointing bow and arrow at our high tech aircraft are the strange, exotic creatures of a "lost" world. But as a reflection of our own zeitgeist, the intrigue of a potentially "lost" tribe says a lot more about "us" (the scientifically "advanced" world) than "them" (the forgotten, primitive ur-past of yore). In our effort to name and identify the event at a distance -- i.e. to "other" the Others -- the media buzz surrounding these photos is yet another indication that we have become aliens in our home world.
The images struck a chord because of the nature of media (interesting pun), which survives by cannibalizing novelty. Any photo that presents "newness" metabolizes into information and will froth to the head of the noosphere only to be gobbled and digested rapidly like a yeasty beer. In particular, what drives media's center of gravity is the striving for authenticity in order to fertilize its newness reproduction cycle. This is not without some irony. Upon looking up "authentic" in Merriam-Webster, I found several curious and contradictory definitions. One is "made or done the same way as an original," and the other is "not false or imitation." A photo can embody both senses of the word, because on the one hand it is an imitation of something -- reality -- and on the other hand, it is a reality unto itself. The tricky thing about photos is that we assume that they are facts, yet what we do with them, how we choose what we see and the impact of the photo is far from the reality it purports to represent. Add to that digital manipulation, context and framing -- i.e. the "naming" of the image -- and you have one big fat dose of truthiness.
This is the subtext of the image controversy, because there is an underlying distrust of media and civilization itself as ultimately inauthentic. Most of us feel like the characters in The Matrix. The only way that machines can keep us interested is to offer us scraps of reality through these kinds of controversial images so that we can verify the existence of truth and the so-called real. Nonetheless, I happen to not believe in the simulacra argument, because most of our lives are actually not electronically mediated, though we assume that they are. The distrust of simulation is older than modern technology and particular to the European mindset, going back to Plato. He was the one who said the bed was a mere imitation of a more perfect bed made by God. His is not a bed made by machines, but by human hands with tools. The interesting thing is that human language actually evolved from our hands and the use of tools, not the other way around: technology is human communication.
Plato's fear and distrust of appearances has repeated itself incessantly as a tulpa trapped inside a hall of mirrors that is now modern media. Advertising simultaneously assures us of the world's stability while the news makes us fearful of its structural integrity. Despite this tension, the capitalist system of commodities and consumption has become nature, our habitat. It is so normal that anything that can differentiate itself from the ambient background of consumerism and the techno-fetishistic mind will become novel.
Nonetheless, in this semiotic war for attention, capitalism still struggles mightily to be relevant and real. The underlying argument of typical advertising pitches is that their product is "the real thing" (to paraphrase one of the more memorable slogans of the century). Marketers use every magician's trick to offer us some kind of allusion to authenticity, be it the bodily sensations of fear, hunger, humor and sexuality, or to wink at us by acknowledging that we all know this is a con game. It's a treadmill that marketers fear to jump off of.
Which brings us back to the photos. Like passengers in a spaceship Hummer driven by the corporate dream world, many of us have become accustomed to feeling like aliens on our own planet. I consider this kind of "alienation" the true source of our pill-popping, "social anxiety disorder" ways. I differ with some postmodernists who contend we are too alienated to be alienated, that alienation requires a sense of self, and that when we are decentered simulations of our own beings, there is nothing to bounce off of. I disagree. I believe we yearn for nature and connection because they are tangible and exist no matter how minute the splinter in our minds and souls. Without this longing, advertising could never proceed because it traffics in the language of loss.
These images demonstrate, however, that the prevailing "lost" trope in the media zeitgeist is reversing: in our grasping for the real, more than ever we feel the urge to really be "lost": off the radar, away from the cell phone, pager and Internet like Into the Wild's Chris McCandless or the actor reciting Jack Kerouac in a recent BMW ad. In our post-National Geographic world where all has been disovered, cataloged, photographed and integrated into the electronic sphere of our realm, there is little left for us to remember or know about how we used to be. But like the X File's Agent Mulder, we feel the truth is out there, hovering outside us like pixel dust blowing in the cosmic winds.
Contact with "authentic" humans in the natural world gives us hope and wonder, yet the very act of taking the photos violates that innocence. Some even argue that trolling the forests for "authentically lost" humans violates their right to be uncontacted. Consider Star Trek's Prime Directive:
"No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations." (Quoted from Wikipedia)
Because these photos indeed touched upon the "lost" meme, they also drew awareness to Survival International and to the plight of indigenous people in the Amazonian reserve (an interesting word in itself) and elsewhere. The fact that ultimately we are talking about the fate of real people with integrity and just as much of a right to exist on their own terms as we do, makes the this whole discussion more urgent. The civilization end game is upon us, and our budget of cultural diversity is dwindling rapidly, suffering the same fate as the biological diversity that supports us.
Organizations like Survival International do necessary and important work, but they also depend on the media to educated the public about their mission and projects. Like many NGOs, Survival International's site has plenty of sensationalistic images and videos, which raises the question of whether or not other people's suffering can be contained and communicated effectively through images. Is this unethical? Not necessarily, as long as we are clear about the game we are playing and the nature of how it works. But it certainly remains ironic that it's through media that we have to communicate civilization's inauthenticity via the language of propaganda and exploitation.
Image by blakewest, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet