David O’Keeffe

The Loss of the Real

David is currently in his final year of English, Media and Cultural Studies in the Institute of Art Design and Technology, Dublin. He has a strong interest in the interplay between culture and politics. He was part of a four person team fundraising for Amnesty International by cycling from Helsinki to Athens writing articles on human rights issues in each country passed through. He has also participated in refugee provision services in Athens organized through collective action. David frequently participates in human rights, anti-austerity and environmental demonstrations and is a supporter of feminist and socialist movements.

 

Student
David O’Keeffe

University
Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology

Degree
English, Media and Cultural Studies

Work Placement
FedNet

Host Family
Mary Ahearn

Date Published
June 16, 2017

Before I left Ireland for the DC/ Montgomery County, Maryland life, I had been studying media and cultural studies intensely. I figured that the insights from that would be well tailoured (I’m resisting US English over here) for what to expect here, especially given the amount of US media we consume, be it politics, films or music. In cultural studies this is called cultural imperialism: the naturalisation of other more dominant countries values onto subordinate nations or societies.

So in a vague sense I felt like I was already quite familiar with America, and so far that has been my experience, although it’s obviously not without nuance. But the main thing I’ve decided to talk about in this blog post is the philosophical concept of Postmodernism (essentially The Matrix.) One idea in Postmodernism is “the loss of the real”, this happens when we have become so familiar with the influence of images of advertising, films and TV that we can’t separate reality and fiction as a lived experience. The second stage of this is when the image itself becomes our reality, and that’s how I’d summarise the first nine or so days of my experience in America.

This is my first time in this country (with the exception of a few days in New York about 17 years ago) but after my host family; Mary and Anna picked me up I was just gawking at the most mundane things that appeared to hold such significance to me. For instance the sight of a red fire hydrant appeared nostalgic and bizarre. The kitchen confirmed this with its enormous fridge and high tech cooker. Not that Ireland is the pastoral vision of the DeValeran age. But this country is so full of familiar referents that it feels like I’m on an enormous film set. Jean Baudrillard, one of the founders of Postmodern theory claimed “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest (of the world) is real”. I feel like I’ve entered a real life Disneyland here.

Adding to all these layers of complication, my pleasant curiosity about the state of reality has been amplified through my work placement with a media company. My media inspired knowledge of journalism as a cut-throat industry of alcoholics trying to meet deadlines has been offset through the generosity of my boss in gifting me his time and energy through attempting to get me involved in as many areas of his company as he -and I- can, while swapping the alcoholism for sushi in the Senate building.

It’s been great to see the practicality of media production and distribution, instead of the position of criticism that I had been occupying for the last few years. I’ve just finished my third day during an explosive time in US politics that has had me sitting in on the Committee hearing of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions yesterday. A potentially historic moment of recent times.

Today brought me onto the other side of things: behind the camera. Unfortunately this mornings events have brought reality to the fore in a brutal way, with a shooting in Alexandria, just down the Potomac River close to where I’m working. Later in the day I was instructed in how to use a camera, from the most basic functions like plugging it in and how to zoom and was handed over control for the press conference in the Senate building. As I focused in on my tiny screen, with the press conference itself in my peripherals and sound being streamed from the podium into headphones I was reminded of this conflict between reality and illusion; and more importantly the battle between political divides that is raging internally and externally. While walking down wide boulevards amongst stunning architecture, it’s hard to remember that this is a country at war, both domestically and in far away countries like the Syria and Yemen. I guess this is all the more fitting when a reality TV star is now the President of the United States, a bizarre twist that Baudrillard would probably have had great fun with.

The raw emotion and expressions of bi-partisan solidarity that were shown during the press conference were reminders of the severity of affairs we might gloss over when watching the news at home, be it in shootings in the USA, fires in London or starvation in Yemen, and being behind the camera for the former was a truly strange experience that I’ve yet to fully internalise.

Personally the strange dreamlike nature of this country is juxtaposed by the continuous development I’ve experienced in such a short space of time. Being exposed to so many different ideas from the other WIP participants and the variety of speakers has been surreal yet simultaneously challenging and engaging. But the opportunities here that I, and others on the WIP Program have been afforded by the hard work of the WIP staff, supporters, work placements and host families has been both incredible and overwhelming.

I guess one reflection to tie this off might be that the America itself is sold as a dream, a dream that people are supposed to enter into and become part of. While I don’t believe that the American Dream is a reality, I feel like right now that’s what I’m experiencing. It’s a confusing paradox where nothing seems to add up for me, and that luck is not an adequate description of my good fortune.