Hyperventilating over the Present: A review of the Introduction to Hypermodernity and the End of the World
I’ve obtained a copy of a strange book independently published by John Ebert, Brian Culkin (and with a preface by Michael Kamins) that stylistically aligns with many books I’ve run across lately, in that I find them more confusing and exasperating than edifying.
I suspect these projects are written by smart people who want to get through all of their information and to simultaneously allow into their discussion all of their associations, which are numerous. However, as a result they topic jump. Soon after the start of a coherent argument they ramble onto associations and new topics, and they often lose the through-line coherence in the process. Let’s call this tendency the Žižek-factor. The difference though is that Žižek positions his asides within a strong framework and these other attempts end up as random, willy-nilly divergences. I suspect too that authors who normally write blogs in which the dropping of an aphoristic line works just fine often have trouble organizing their quips into a sustained and focused argument required for a book. And, I mean this thinking of certain accelerationist blogs, (and yes I mean a certain one too).
In this review I will consider the Introduction to Hypermodernity and the End of the World (HEW), mainly because following the introduction, all but the last chapter are the authors interviewing each other. I generally have to be convinced that interviews are worth reading. The published late interview with Roberto Bolaño, of whom I’m a fan, is a good example of an interview that adds little to what is already known. So, I’m already wary of two authors interviewing each other — I may get to these at some point.
Compounding my initial opinion is that following the table of contents, the book opens with one page biographies of each author. This is where an editor could have stepped in and say to the attempted aggrandizement, basically, “No.” I mention too that there is a stylistic try at Nick Land-light in a preface, akin to when Amazon authors review a book and write it in the style of the book. Instead of dealing with the entire book, as short as it is, I want to focus on the Introduction that I believe should contain an overview of the book’s main idea(s)(?). I’ll attempt to pin this/these down but you’ll see just how difficult that project was for me.
HEW’s authors are fans of arguments by analogy leading to induction. To believe their claims we must first accept their premises, and it is mainly on this point that the Introduction goes sideways. Comparisons can be problematic as they lead to false analogies, and when conclusions are inductively formed from such false analogies these conclusions may be judged as faulty.
Complicating a goal of clarity is the lack of definition of main terms, so, for example, with the first provocative sentence, “Every world age comes into being out of a catastrophe,” I want clarification on the authors’ definition of ‘age.’ Apparently, depending what part of the text I look at, age is either: a geological epoch, a post war society, an artistic moment, that which exists between “evental shifts,” a set of societal practices and attitudes. The authors’ goal is to show that ages, in this case the ‘age of modernity’ and the ‘age of hypermodernity,’ arise due to catastrophic events, except evidently when some ages result from other ages. They say that the Proterozoic age (I’d say eon) came from the Archaean age although we’re looking at about a 700 million year timespan between the two eons and that’s one heck of a cause and effect. In a like manner, I also want consideration of ‘catastrophe’ in terms of what and how the authors choose. Catastrophes can engage realities, expose structures, and become myths. So suggesting that they cause eras is strong claim that probably requires much more of a foundation than is presented here.
Continuing, World War II was for the authors the “great event” that differentiated modernity from postmodernity, and 9/11 was the “Great Event” that initiated hypermodernity (the authors interchangeably supplant “catastrophe” with “great event,” and they use “great event,” “great Event,” and “Great Event” without reason for the apparently random capitalization).
But let’s not warp speed ahead, we have claims to examine. That an age requires a catastrophe is a strong claim. The concept of a war causing a shift in the mindset of a nation’s peoples is an idea that Paul Fussell put forth in his brilliant book The Great War and Modern Memory in relation to World War I. His thesis is that world views of the British were shifted from a world of a coherent, idyllic Romanticist world to a world in which horror was a part of life and the complete destruction of earth could suddenly be envisioned as a reality. Fussell’s limited restricted focus functions well as a thesis, yet as good as the book is, Fussell was not immune to criticism that his approach provided a simplistic account of complex ideas and interconnections. The same criticism is appropriate with HEW’s Introduction as a strange set of strong claims, mostly unfounded, that are presented via a problematic mainly European-centric and America-centric lens. Apologies in advance from going back and forth from the specific to the general, but this is the manner in which the Introduction works and I feel I must address the issues as they arrive.
The authors claim Ingres’ painting The Apotheosis of Homer (1827) and Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (1862) clearly denote different ages, however the Napoleonic Wars that they suggest as the catastrophic event for the change of age took place between1803–1815 and so arguably too early for this cause and effect, and while France was involved in a host of aggressions around the world throughout the mid-1800’s none would seem to rise to the level of the sort of catastrophe that the authors have in mind.
Ingres’ painting shows us, according to the authors, the descent from the Classical world to the unstated world, presumably modernity, that is evidently post Romantic and pre-World War II. The say that Ingres’ painting apothesizes the grand classical narratives (narrative presupposed) whereas the Dejeuner “defies attempts at trying to find a narrative in it.” Full stop, no further clarification. Firstly, I don’t normally attempt to try anything. I try or I do not try. Secondly, that the Dejeuner may not depict a historical story does not preclude the finding of a narrative. In nearly any theory of truth we can find a narrative in considering this painting. We can discuss the style, formal arrangement, the studio lighting, the people in the painting who were based on real people, the purpose of the staged situation, the desire and ability of the bourgeoisie of the time to engage in this way with nature, and so forth.
Next, it was Haussman’s demolishing and rebuilding of Paris (1853–1870) that evidently was the catastrophic event that caused French Impressionism but not Manet’s stylistic shift. Impressionism as a word was coined after Monet exhibited Impression, soleil levant (1872) by a reviewer in Le Charivari. But we must back up. Impressionism was not an age but an artistic movement and I’ve never seen Monet speak of his style having been influenced by Haussman, nor did this introduction provide any evidence of causation. At any rate the authors are off track, mixing ages (macro) with European art movements (micro).
It becomes obvious that causation between a catastrophe and an era fails because the catastrophic events do not fit timelines, causation begs the question, and major world catastrophes take place in an ongoing manner all of which could be said to cause an age under the authors’ model. As an analogy, old art history surveys are flawed in this regard, they apply simplistic timelines and categorizations to only a small segment of world history and ongoing change. Pinpointing a catastrophic event as causal in this manner denies contemporary historiographic understandings of incessant and interconnected change over time.
It may be that the authors are nodding to some Kuhnian idea of revolution and paradigm shift, but Kuhn admitted much change was scientific mop-up work. Feyerabend debunked the remaining vestiges of the myth progress as only the result of breakthroughs (read this as catastrophe). True enough, there are breakthroughs and events, some of them catastrophic, but events as facts can be a deception of historical study and the authors lose sight of fundamental rule: Correlation is not causation.
The introduction now moves ahead in time to modernity, which for the sake of argument we will accept it is an age. When does this age start? It goes “down to World War II,” explain the authors. To the best I can discern, the authors’ use of “down to” means that the period after Western Europe’s Classical period was modernity and the period following World War II was postmodernity. Supposedly it was this great event that irrevocably separated modernity from postmodernity.
This is indeed a bold move since Modernism, as an art movement becomes mixed up with modernity as Marx intended it as related to the emergence of capitalism and a bourgeoisie, both of which could render previous accomplishments to the past, although we won’t find any agreement that instantiations are either signifiers or causal within an ongoing scenario of continual change. As expected there is no one position on modernity.
Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek wrote, “In discussing ‘modernity’, we face the immediate problem of clarifying what it means. It can refer to a chronological period, typically filtered through European history with a variety of events having been posited as its origin: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. For others, modernity is defined by a distinct set of practices and institutions: widespread bureaucratisation, a basic framework of liberal democracy, the differentiation of social functions, the colonisation of the non-European world, and the expansion of capitalist and social relations.” (1) In Deleuze we find modernity as occurring after the Second World War. Such conceptions of modernity include modernity as “having a distinctive transcendental, trans-historical character,” (2). At any rate, modernity in this Introduction remains undefined and unsituated.
The authors’ claim that postmodernity starts at World War II contradicts the generally accepted idea that modernism and high, or late modernism extended to the mid to late 80’s. Technically speaking, postmodernism was used by John Watkins Chapman 1870 to describe work after Impressionism, that in 1926, Bernard Bell used postmodernity to describe the period after modernity, and that Arnold Toynbee used it in the way Fussell did, to indicate the mindset change following World War I. Seeds of postmodernism are found with Structuralism in 1950s France with deconstruction, semiotics, the idea of différance and the entire idea that master narratives and truths were destabilized. But It is far more typical to pin the term either to Charles Jencks with his works on Post-Modernism (his spelling), or to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (French version 1979, English version 1984). I’m now confusing these movements with postmodernity in the larger sense as a way to begin to conceptualize the author’s idea of postmodernity as an age that is mostly also undefined in this Introduction — apparently, according to the authors, one of postmodernity’s main indicators was the shopping mall.
In the same way hypermodernity is not defined against modernity, it is also not defined against postmodernity. Hypermodernity is claimed to result from the attacks in the United States on 9/11 and the authors cite Baudrillard’s “strike of events” as foundation for the aftermath and birth of the new era. My view is that Baudrillard took an unnecessarily hyperbolic approach by describing 9/11 as “the mother of all events” (Le Monde, November 2, 2001) in light of the myriad other catastrophes in the world around that time. Yet, Baudrillard’s themes soundly resonate in that the events of 9/11 signified globalization at war with itself, and the idea that history was killed by digitalization in which reality and the virtual were organized around simulations in a condition of hyperreality. But the latter of these ideas were extant pre-9/11. For example, Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil was published in English in 1990.
Finally, to pursue the idea of catastrophe as necessity for era change, 9/11 was a devastating event but so was the Second Congo War, the Syrian Civil War, the war in Darfur, the Iraq and Afghanistan attacks by the US, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake. What exactly makes 9/11 the only age-shifting catastrophe? This appaers to be simply a cherry picking from all events, a decision that seems simply skewed to an America-centric view. The decision presupposes some missing metric on the part of the authors that could be America’s conceptions of safety and freedom or media impact of an American event. Certainly the metric cannot be numbers of human deaths since they are higher in the catastrophes I listed.
The authors characterize hypermodernism as the virtual as opposed to real, think ordering stuff online versus buying it at the mall. Here they generally draw upon ideas of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, while avoiding those terms, and the result is a light following of decoding and non-territorial flows as articulated much better by Deleuze & Guattari who are conspicuously absent.
Hypermodernity also means the digital, as opposed to the analog. In both comparisons there appears to be a hierarchy of what’s better and what’s worse that sets up a dismissal of contrary empirical evidence while ignoring the fact that new methods of information conveyance retain modern systems and structures.
In the authors’ world of hypermodernity individuals are deworlded, “The Hypermodern individual has no connection with history, community, or any kind of idealized, utopian projects.” This nods to Baudrillard in which the event reinforces itself, without any major consequence beyond dramaturgy, performativity, a reinforcement of the individual, and a reduction of events to simulations.
But to be clear, Baudrillard’s ideas are not the ideas of the Introduction, which again is subverted by counterexamples. Of course there still are worlds and communities with their own histories and future ideals. The political sphere in the US is defined by two polarized communities, people identify with communities based on consumer products, e.g. Mac versus pc users, in other words people seem to have a natural desire to group as well as to categorize. Or, as the Pinky Show video says, “Gah. Studying human behavior provides much opportunity for hilarity. Human beings’ most pointless, counter-productive attribute is how… they just looove to form endless categories of classes. Right? They simply cannot resist separating themselves apart and then re-clumping into little posses.” (3)
The whole idea is of the individual “in a world unto himself” (I would have preferred the authors to edit out gendered language) reflects the ego associated in our contemporary ‘me’ culture. The hypermodern individual resultantly finds “there are no longer any world spaces for him to gather within as part of one or another social groupings.” Resultantly this granting primacy to the virtual has alienated and isolated the individual. Here again the conclusion must disregard evidence of human adaption to technology such as virtual social spaces where people routinely congregate. So I’d suggest it’s incorrect to suggest that hypermodernity has “melted down all coherent social formations.” It seems here that confusedly epistemology is being used to define ontology, to go with the analogy.
For all this critique, one interesting idea briefly rises from the slough, this is: in the worst case condition the self appears, to oneself, as unreal as one’s avatar stuck in a virtual, i.e. unreal world. Derealization is an idea worth pursuing, although it wasn’t pursued here.
Hypermodernity in this Introduction appears to embody the same stance as postmodernity in that it strives to be defined contra modernity and as such the digital trappings appear shiny and new; upon closer examination, the structure remains mostly an m+1 model in which m is modernity always willing and flexible enough to adapt to a new incarnation.
The medium may be the massacre for the authors but they fail to see that the entire set of methods of conveyance is superstructure rather than base. For hypermodernism to actually work as an idea, it must cohere either against modernity and postmodernity or as a thing in itself. But neither strategy coalesces.
We are in a condition that if no longer extremely relativist is at least pluralist and often skeptical of universal truths. Capitalism today is frequently conjoined with neoliberalism, and we have reached higher expositions of both a political economy and a technocracy. Nothing is particularly new nor differentiated from postmodernism, nor for the most part differentiated from late or high modernism. Arguably any of these are perspectives rather than ages as analytic concepts that the authors believe can be pinned to specific events. The new here, if there is one, is that capital continually desires novel means and ways of domination. This does not so much indicate hypermodernity but the ongoing intrinsic process of capitalism. In this respect the authors do begin to recognize the momentary nature, the almost ahistorical nature of the capitalist individual, again following Baudrillard. From this, the authors conclude that communism is dead and critical theory is dead, claims as sequiturs to be sure.
In another strange determination, the authors declare that there is no longer any art World or art center like New York City. Truth values are found in both sides of the issue. The art World, large W, following the ideas of Markus Gabriel in his book Why the World Doesn’t Exist speaks of a multiplicity that I characterize as ‘worlds’ small w, plural. Art is now anything and everything done by anyone and everyone. So by this definition is no art World. I’ll add that in fact, there never really was. I also disagree that there is there is no longer a dominant cosmopolitan art center such as New York. New York remains a if not the dominant art center.
A duality remains. Art exists everywhere. In worlds (small w, plural) and there is a dominant art World (large W, singular) comprised with structures and systems around the commodification of works of art. This fascinating tension is one of many ongoing discourses centered upon art. Yet even recognizing this pluralism the authors seem to hold onto some aesthetic truth, as though complete relativism in art somehow demeans art. They later say “Hypermodernity is the Death of Art” (no idea what the capitalization is intended to show). Why, because it is like the man in Ballard’s Concrete Island, they say without explanation. One can’t be sure, given such superficial and scant information but it appears the authors’ idea of hypermodernism presupposes or yearns for a return to a set of ill-defined modernist ideals as the solution to relativism, a fairly common strategy. It’s all a bit like a ‘we need to give up cars because the world was more humanist with horses and buggies.
In the last third of the introduction, the authors shift their focus to capitalism. Their general argument seems to take the playground merry-go-round called modernity and to give it a new push with a hand titled hypermodernity. Indications of a hypermodern capitalism include, with a nod to Badiou: all the elements of technocracy under the aegis of capitalist domination, in a sense capitalism’s return to its “primitive energy” freed from restraints. Here the authors are on more solid ground than their previous sections. Let’s borrow from Robert Michels and call this the iron law of capitalism. That which can be commodified will be commodified. And here’s where the political economy enters in again. Laws are made that support the excesses of commodification in the form of legal data extraction that amounts to wire tapping, laws that give corporations the rights of individuals and so forth. The authors quote Mark Fisher, “Capitalism as life; Life as capitalism” and they could have gone further in quoting Sheldon Wolin about inverted totalitarianism. After all, what does the hypermodernist future look like if it is based upon a hypercapitalist foundation? It certainly looks less like the future and more like the recent past.
Kyle Roberts says we’ve ended up at post-postmodernism, or the ultimate intensification of postmodernism that he calls “tribalism the the extreme with gloves off.” But wait! Call now and get many variations on a theme. “Indeed, various possibilities have been put forward after postmodernism: post-postmodernism, new materialism, posthumanism, critical realism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digitalism, trans-postmodernism, post-millennialism, Marxism after postmodernism and transnationality as the contemporary cultural logic of neoliberal global capitalism. There is no consensus, except an agreement that an innocent return to ‘objectivity’ is no longer a possibility.” (4) Anti-foundation stances aside, relativity aside, generally speaking we must go on and so we will go on.
Some will say that various structures will buck up against each other or sit apart on a continuum: multinationals versus the individual, the fragmentary versus a search for coherence, a welfare state versus neoliberal ideals. As Latour said, we will always be postmodern, or contrarily, Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, ‘there is no alternative’ to a market economy. The tension between the ongoing and the revolutionary rupture, and the identification of any exact start and shift, remains elusive in the way that a strobe light freezes ongoing actions. Jameson speaking of the wrongness of periodization follows up with modernities, of which he identifies, “some fourteen proposals: one can be sure that many more are lurking in the wings, and also that the ‘correct’ theory of modernity is not to be obtained by putting them altogether in some hierarchical synthesis.” Nor it would seem can one hold the privileged position that allows for any final determination.
If realism is seen as the antithesis to modernity, then hypermodernity seems conceptualized to sit in the realist side, and as such it is able to turn a critical eye to it’s superstructural indices such online shopping, and so forth, but the authors don’t imagine the way it might destabilize the ideological and structural base that hypermodernity gladly accepts.
Hypermodernity desires the return to the human as we recognize that “all human life…can be subject to the law of…capitalism” thus malls are apparently better than online shopping. Capitalist underpinnings are not so easily represented and this difference is not particularly significant. These are historic lamentations about department stores disintegrating to niche stores. And the same sort of lamentation exists over data collection, networking, and global flow, that raises the capitalist schizophrenia identified by Deleuze & Guattari. As a result, so the authors say, the global economy is “deworlded.” Local economies are weakened although simultaneously regulatory and legalistic frameworks of states become neutralized. As the state disappears local crime organizations rush in. All of this needs a great deal more foundation and fewer leaps of pseudo-logic. One can create nearly any narrative by a focus on select aspects. For this argument to fly, the authors would have to reconcile many facts for this argument to hold, including natural reterritorialization, international agreements, trade flow networks, free trade zones, and multinationals to name a few.
The issue with some forms of modernity was that some underlying truth was assumed in the form of a generalized perhaps even universal metric, whether the lens focused upon art or economics. We are, to state the obvious, more than a decade beyond Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and our view has changed. In hypermodernity, there is no longer anything to achieve, so say the authors. Revolutionary movements are gone, supposedly because the individual is too busy consuming or viewing themselves as a “nation state unto himself armed and equipped with his own electronic sign regime to do battle.” Obviously these claims require the suspension of facts. We are aware of ongoing protests in France, Belarus, Poland, Thailand, to name only four countries. So I find it essentializing and incorrect to state that “civilizations has now become the sum total of its population: a planet of individuals achieving instant gratification, amoral, valueless, unmotivated and without Vision.” The same issue exists with the claim that anyone can become famous, but for precisely 48 hours — some Warhol witticism I suppose — and that while everybody can be famous no one in particular is famous, but again there are too many counterexamples to allow the claim much import.
Here is the problem, not in the sense that relativism to the level of the individual has taken over, but that such relativism is denied under the rubric of fitting the representative model, in this case traditional views of a capitalist agenda that flow through both modernity, postmodernity, and hypermodernity. It should be noted that in none of these is the critique in and of itself the change, nor can it be relied upon to be the foundation for change. In this new hypermodern world, as the final kicker, the authors warn that “you,” (as I suppose this new hypermodern world the ‘we’ is now gone) must be careful because you are under constant surveillance. There’s nothing new in this warning and it’s a strange off-topic note to end on.
1. Williams, Alex, and Srnicek, Nick. (2016). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. p. 71. London, UK: Verso.)
2. De Gaetano, Roberto. (1996). Modernity. In Angeluci, D., Deleuze Studies p. 101 in Angeluci, D. 2014. Modernity. Deleuze Studies 8(3) p. 342. ).
3. Pinky Show. Re: Structure, Power, and Agency. January 24, 2010. Found online at http://www.pinkyshow.org/projectarchives/videos/re-structure-power-and-agency
4. Petersa, Michael, Tesarb, Marek and Jackson, Liz. (2018). After postmodernism in educational theory? A collective writing experiment and thought survey. Educational Philosophy and theory, 50(14),1299–1307. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2018.1457868 INTRODUCTION