Bright Lights Film Journal

Synthetic Pleasures: Techno-Revolution or Just Another Dystopia?

After seeing this film that features everything from body and mind modifications to cryogenics to the fresh hell of cyberspace, you may want to go eat some dirt.

At the 1996 San Francisco International Film Festival screening of Iara Lee’s Synthetic Pleasures, Lee and her husband, producer George Gund, fielded questions from an audience troubled by the film’s celebration of digital technologies, virtual reality, and cyberspace. The documentary, which presents a barrage of computer-generated art, film clips, and interviews with animators, writers, and scientists, left some viewers wondering aloud about the alienating consequences of the “digital revolution” in our time. Lee’s response was measured, and she expressed her hope that the film was balanced enough in its presentation to spark a constructive dialogue on the changes brought about by the new technologies she showcases.

Synthetic Pleasures is more than provocative enough to do that. Its frenetic swirl of energy, music, and articulate commentary adds up to a stunning argument for the decisive impact of technological change on the environment, on our bodies and minds, and on a basic sense of self-identity. The segment with French performance artist Orlan, whose “struggle against nature” leads her to alter her own body through plastic surgery and silicon implants, provides a visceral example of the film’s basic idea: the tension between nature and artifice, between an untamed environment and a human need for control, leads to a serious crisis in what we mean by the human, the natural, and the artificial.

This crisis is at the same time what is troubling about Lee’s film. With all that Synthetic Pleasures is able to suggest visually about the scope of this crisis in its depiction of virtual spaces like Japan’s Ocean Dome, to that degree Lee deprives us of any stable or “real” alternative that might counter our seemingly inexhaustible desire for things simulated. The virtue of the film is that it complicates this desire from both ends. It acknowledges the detachment from experience and from the consequences of our actions that follows upon a simulacrul abstraction from the environment, and it intelligently presents the abstraction that the “human” already is for those artists, body piercers, and transsexuals who rebel against the gendered organization of the body, of the “organism” that we are and that never has been “natural” apart from very specific cultural norms.

If there is a shortcoming to the film, it turns on its failure to draw a clear distinction between the two modes this desire takes. To want a virtual reality that suggests abstraction is not the same as refusing the abstraction of a reality that is essentially constructed, even if both modes are possible in the same desire. Indeed, since the difference that needs emphasizing here is not of kind but of modes, Lee cannot say that the desire for the virtual reality of a Las Vegas casino, for instance, differs fundamentally from the desire to change one’s gender, even though one implies acquiescence to a consumerist society and the other a refusal of social norms deemed intolerable. “Synthetic pleasure” is common in both instances, and this central premise of Synthetic Pleasures is compelling as long as one does not also equivocate the modal difference. There are times when the film seems to lose its focus on this point, and the result is a breakdown in its own synthetic logic. Instead of centering for the viewer a world that is intrinsically virtual, even at the level of human biology and the structure of matter, the film in effect fissures the real and the virtual all over again, falls back to a stable definition of nature from which virtual reality can only be seen and entered into as its secondary or derived imitation.

When this happens, the film no longer clearly foregrounds its own most interesting idea that nature is simulated. It can then either criticize or celebrate consumer societies hooked on virtual reality, but it cannot grasp the pleasure of that addiction. And it can either reject or sustain the diagnosis of alienated desire, but it cannot see the way desire in the world it constructs actively resists is own social repression. This is why the film occasionally suggests condescension toward its more marginal subjects – teenagers, clubgoers, transvestites, transsexuals – and also why it might seem to filmgoers an overly optimistic portrayal of “cyberculture.”

But in fact Synthetic Pleasures is not an optimistic portrayal. If it seems that way, it is because it wants to understand the virtual character of reality and the synthetic character of pleasure without prying them apart again. When it fails in this respect, it does so by falling back on a social, psychological, or material reality that is only real, and so constructs the virtual as a shadow or double of our experience that we can only passively consume. But the interesting wager of the film is that any reduction of this kind obscures the nature of desire, and indeed constitutes the very technological drive that alienates us from our environment and from ourselves. The balance Lee seeks in Synthetic Pleasures presumes this possibility of genuine insight into our technologically sophisticated society, and for this it should be seen and discussed in the spirit Lee hopes it will be