The comprehensiveness of Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion is a testament to its own assertions and concerns. In its 333 pages, the book managed to convince me of its philosophical backdrop: knowledge may be anywhere, in anyone, at any time. The assertions, psychological and cultural allusions, and anecdotes form a huge—but somehow cohesive—network of meaning (kudos, Rose). At the center of Rose’s focus on the changing landscape of advertising and television are two things: storytelling and narrative, and Rose keeps the text interesting and diverse by invoking psychologists, classic writers, and even fictional avatars. He jumps right into the thick of it in his Prologue, discussing the human necessity of storytelling for two reasons: first, for its inherent reliance on a symbiotic human relationship between teller and hearer, creator and viewer; second, as we’ll learn later in the book, because humans crave meaning. In part because my Masters thesis deals with this very issue, I couldn’t help but unite the two reasons and wonder where, how, and by whom is meaning created?
In the 1950s Madison Avenue era, it was the prime job of big Don Draper-esque creatives to construct concepts with branded meaning embedded, waiting to be interpreted by viewers and consumers. The relationship between teller and listener was skewed. But as consumers have become “smarter”—and that word itself seems already a bit outdated—the dynamic between teller and listener has shifted. At the end of the day, advertising’s currency is language. Whether it is visual language through print, auditory through radio, or (what’s more likely these days), a combination of several types through online, television, and branded entertainment, some medium of expression makes this all possible.
Rose’s first few chapters plunge into the world of storytelling. He starts out old school, citing Robinson Crusoe, which was known as one of the first novels in the 1700s, as an example of the issues we confront today. Rose is fascinated by Crusoe’s Preface, long studied by lit majors as a sort of conundrum in the fact/fiction dichotomy. “If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Public, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so…the Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it…” The almost paranoid insistence on the factual nature of the book is due mostly to the changing genre of literature at the time—the world was moving from historical literature to fiction, and as with any major cultural movement, distrust ensued. The novel was an instant success; Rose highlights its pretensions towards fact as the reason for this. Later in the book, Rose connects genres of literature to gaming, considering to what extent it is a simulation of reality. When we create a world for consumers that isn’t their own, where they must suspend their disbelief, should we expect it to be met with the same wariness that fiction prompted in the 1700s? The thing about asserting fact is that it precludes the listener or the reader from creating any meaning of her own. The meaning lives on the pages, and it needs only the reader’s eyes to glance over it to make it come to life. In the 1970s, a controversial literary theorist stepped on the scene with these very ideas. Stanley Fish asserted, “Meaning is…something acquired in the context of an activity…the focus of attention is shifted from the spatial context of a page and its observable regularities to the temporal context of a mind and its experiences.” The statement is eerily forward-thinking, given that Fish said it 11 years before the Web launched—an experience that epitomizes exactly what he is talking about. But of course, Fish was talking about a fairly narrow kind of literary theory that took away from all of the pretentious literary critics’ views of the unchanging meaning in the text. Instead, the book was no longer a commodity, with sheets of paper that touch our fingers as we flit through. There is no black type; there is only the conceptual distance between reader and writer, teller and listener. So what do we do with this? Who gets involved in any kind of content, whether it be video, book, or painting? Rose’s thirteenth Chapter, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart” deals with this. He compares the simulated “universes” of Walt Disney and Philip K. Dick (sci-fi writer), where we come full circle on questions of reality and listener involvement. When it comes down to it, Disneyland really is trippy. Rose describes it as “some sort of three-dimensional pseudoreality”—as if it were from The Sims computer game. Rose then discusses Dick’s story, “The Electric Ant,” whereby a businessman wakes up one morning and is told that he’s not human at all and is actually an android. The whole story is a caricatured version of what consumers go through today, balancing reality with simulated universes, whether the universe is created in a game, novel, 10-minute short film, or Twitter account. Rose goes on to argue that the imperfect universes like the ones Dick crafts—where characters have to question which reality is actually real—are testaments to the chaos of our technological world today. Video games, movies, ad campaigns, etc. are all striving to push the boundaries of fiction—turning reality into fiction and fiction into reality—reverting back to the age-old tension between fiction and nonfiction, this time in a consumer-grounded way. The Twitter accounts of famous Mad Men characters are a testament to this. They take the complicated psychology that today’s consumer has to be able to process in order to believe in a fictitious Twitter handle. Rose makes the point that AMC could not shut down the Mad Men Twitter accounts; there’s no way to defeat autonomous authorship. Roger Sterling’s fictional memoir, Sterling’s Gold, was even published by Grove Atlantic. With an overwhelming amount of channels through which viewers can react to, and even extend, their choice of entertainment, fans are capable of being creators themselves. A world in which fictional entertainment becomes real and tangible on a 360 degree, 365 day-a-year basis erupts. As Rose rightly and astutely conveys, this new and fascinating chaos is a concept we need to embrace, and the power isn’t only given to the consumer. The limits of creativity will certainly disintegrate the more we embrace all of the channels through which we reach consumers.