Design Better Cages / by Bryce Hidysmith

   Voyage dans la lune, dir. George     Méliès, 1902

Voyage dans la lune, dir. George Méliès, 1902

<Soundtrack. Encountered this one while listening to Coverville back in the late 00s.> 

I keep seeing movie theaters that have been converted into gyms. I noticed this first in SF in the detriment of Cow Hollow, but it’s popped up all over rate place, in small towns in Oregon, and now in a godforsaken sector of Western LA of all places. I ended up tearing up over this one, which is a little embarrassing, but also kind of reasonable. It was the last straw in an otherwise complicated and uncomfortable day, and the desecration of a purely reasonable post-art deco structure was a bit more than I could take. I just wanted to know why I felt like desecration. 

The ambient assumption around the film industry these days is that there’s just as much good stuff, if not more, than past eras. It’s just being released on the internet, and the death of the cinema is not the same as the death of cinematic media—for crying out loud our video games are slowly becoming movies with pauses to press X to ensure you're still awake. While the internet has not been a massive increase in democratization of content creation, it has seen an increase in efficiency of content dispersal, which should count for something. So if the conversion of movie theaters is about anything, it’s not about the movies themselves. 

But, at least from my perspective that’s actually a complete misappropriation of what you should learn from the movie theaters closing. It’s not a death of media, it’s a death of a kind of media experience. We were never going to give up audiovisual media, but we were willing to give up the collective consumption of high-engagement audiovisual media, and instead move most of our audiovisual consumption to television and surrogates of television, such as Youtube and Netflix. There was something really quite fascinating about films as something that demanded the vast majority of your attention, leaving you to be lost in ahigh engagement, high fidelity experience of another continuity, frequently while holding the hands of someone you found attractive or among a group of friends who would then build continuity around the experience.  My father and his friends went to see Terry Gilliam’s Brazil a truly staggering amount of times as a collective unit, leading to the existence of the film as a touchstone among all of them, whereas in my case it’s rather hard to get more than a small segment of my friend-group to go see the same film while it’s still in theaters, unless it’s a relatively content-free monolith such as the recent Star Wars movies. There isn't enough localized narrative consumption to develop shared mythology. 

While, of course, the consumption of movies in this way was often a youth culture phenomenon, the existence of collective dreamscapes appears to be diminishing as time goes on. There is something of a strange balkanization of our experiences of media, typically into a wide variety of television shows which are able to then create fandoms of varying levels of fidelity, where the sum of fan content is able to massively outpace the size of the non-fan content. The recent memetic accumulation around AMC and HBO shows has been a good example of this, with regards to Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, which are frequently consumed in isolation from other individuals in a binging process. While these worlds are certainly worth exploring and are extremely intriguing in their content and context, again, there is something lost in the disconnection of consumption, and it’s also worth noting that shows like Mad Men were never able to accumulate the sum of views in something like Big Bang Theory, even though the latter is likely as close to a content-free simulacra as you can get on television. 

Cinemas demand your attention collectively with others, and then, in the light after going to see the movie at dinner or on the ride home, demand your analysis as you have something proper to talk about, engaging people together. Film creates collective vocabularies the same way that books or religions do, only while both enforcing attention and not demanding too much time. I’m not sure we do this anymore. From what I can tell, we did this with sermons in church, and with media, which both are basically enough noise and signal to derive your own. *1

So what does it mean if we’re swapping out collective dreamscapes for disconnected, artificial spaces for the maintenance of our bodies? Firstly, it seems worth noting that the need for a gym as a primary source of exercise is a bit disturbing. While there is something of note in the idea of training grounds from prehistory to Sparta to the present, the notion that one’s lifestyle does not provide adequate stimulation of our physical form is a bit freaky. The athletes of Sparta trained for recreation, and for excellence, not for survival. In the ancient world, one walked or rode horses to get around, and the majority if not totality of jobs from the lowliest laborer to the highest priests contained elements physical motion. Yet in modern America it is increasingly necessary to go to specialized facilities to move enough to maintain a baseline of health as the mechanisms by which we gain capital are highly abstracted. 

It seems as though almost nobody besides fitness addicts wants to engage in physical activity in such spaces for the sake of physical activity itself—god knows I don’t, it's boring as all hell. Real physical fitness seems to be more about adaptability, toughness, and homeostatic responsiveness than a perfect sixpack, and is thus more easily attained by interfacing with a difficult to traverse environment, obtaining food under a paleo hunter/gatherer paradigm, or a something isomorphic to it. Thus, it seems fairly reasonable to consider the notion that the only reason that people actually end up engaging with gyms is to attempt to gain an advantage in sexual selection, as that is probably the only thing that’s impossible to totally abstract until we’ve hit some kind of a legitimate transhumanist stage—though it doesn’t stop masses of humans from engaging in a great deal of anorexia and plastic surgery to try and cheat at the system of actually presenting a reasonably well adapted body to the world. At this moment, fitness is a status symbol of privilege at this stage, rather than actually being a meaningful advantage at the navigation and control of the world. Outside of the rank-and-file military, firefighting, and a limited set of construction and agricultural tasks, fitness isn’t even really a major economic advantage, while beauty is an advantage in everything that involves interfacing with other humans which is, of course, almost the whole economy. Professional athletics doesn’t count, as that’s just entertainment, and their bodies are heavily aestheticized. 

At least from my perspective, this is a wildly disturbing circumstance that’s part of a larger set of trends in society that are so big that they’re almost impossible to talk about. While this trend away from the average person being able to physically navigate the system isn’t exactly anything new—the way that jogging was a shocking fad in the twentieth century is enough of a sign that we’d begun the process of abstracting our way of life from our bodies in a generally atrophic manner at least four generations ago if not more. But, this is a rather well-defined semi-symbolic symptom of a trend away from the creation of positive-sum, collaborative memetic gameplay, to zero-sum, competitive genetic gameplay. 

At least to me, witnessing this trend is utterly terrifying. I feel like I was raised in this bubble where these weren’t the rules, and that there was an expectation that the collaborative memetic gameplay model was going to continue for a while—perhaps indefinitely. I am from San Francisco, which, in an only slightly metaphorical way, is where Western Civilization and Western Frontier Expansion collapsed into each other. During the colonial period, it was always possible to go and steal land from someone else to obtain an advantage in the game of mercantile trade war. San Francisco was intriguing because it was where the land ran out. For a while it was the classic gold rush location, where the land and its gold was held in standing-reserve, ready to be plundered to gain an advantage in the market by willing argonauts, who was then played by the tradesmen of the town, who arbitraged the jeans and picks. When that ran out, San Francisco itself became the product in a way that makes productization look kind of silly. The period from the end of the 19th century to the immediate post-war is an conflict between expansionism and civilizational design, leading to a scenario where people just showed up to this strange town by the sea, and asked themselves what they were going to do with it, what it should look like, how one might experience it. This of course changed with telecommunication development, leading to the current waning tech-boom scenario in San Francisco, and increasing trade with Asia, where to a degree San Francisco is being consumed in a mercantilist sense as a wealth-store by China. 

On the other hand, LA has always been a purveyor of dreamscapes. It was the artificial frontier after the frontier was conquered. There’s something really intriguing to the fact that the majority of movies that Los Angeles produced for a great amount of time were Westerns. Once the West was won, the Euro-American population had to invent a new one to continue to justify economic growth. After Muybridge invented the motion camera and the talkie came into vogue, the film industry was a viable alternate reality to the increasingly bleak experience of the average citizen. Nothing is more telling than Jimmy Stewart becoming an actor because there were no jobs as architects during the depression. Attention directed at the possible was far more economically valuable than at the probable. Boosting spirits during a dark time was necessary for there even to be a probable worth living in. 

Los Angeles became an awful version of this though. While it was able to produce interesting text in the form of film, it was almost always producing an increasingly horrifying subtext, in the form of the film industry. Sometimes you get an interesting combination of the two in the form of something like Sunset Boulevard, but mostly it’s just reasonable stories and unreasonable metadata about there being this magical place where there are film stars and palm trees and they are better of than you. So in a way, it’s not wonder that we’ve reverted to localized zero sum competition in this case—the beauty of cinema happened almost by mistake, emerging as a side effect of the creation of new worlds to sell people on. 

At this point, I'm just thinking about this Alejandro Jodorowksy quote that's come to mind, as he always comes to mind when I think about the core of cinema and its inherent magical thinking: 

“Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” 

The zero-sum competitive structure engrained into human biology is effectively a cage. Strangely, it seems like the best way to convince everyone that it's a cage is by building smaller, prettier cages inside of it that can adequately illustrate concepts inside of the larger cage. The last major alternate reality design industry, the cinema, has generally failed at this process, but the next one, which seems to be something more like high-fidelity experiential design, might actually succeed. Visiting Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return recently was at least a step in the right direction, and it actually lived up to Nietzsche's moral adage—I'd repeat the experience of exploring Emerson's study over and over again until the end of time. 

Endnotes: 

*1  Honestly, this exegetic tradition is the primary reason why I’m so attracted to Christianity and Judaism—one must consider the inconsistencies in the gospels a feature, not a bug, and assume that the forensic investigation of the emergent truth of the system is what is required by God, regardless of the literality of the words themselves. I’m not quite versed enough in Islam to understand if the Koran works this way as well, though my cursory understanding points to the Koran working as an internally consistent structure, with gaps that are filled in by Hadith of varying source and validity.