What the Hyperreal World Demands from Us Is Our Participation in its Mode of Production

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Otto Paans:

"What the hyperreal, postmodern world demands from us .. is our participation in its mode of production. We are seduced to look at this, watch that, read on and on, and also to view the commercials in-between. Without a steady stream of deflected or divided attention to what is being offered, the postmodern strategy of fragmentation is thereby defused. Fragmentation works only then when it succeeds in disintegrating the concentration to such a degree that autonomous thought is stunted and hampered. But take the hyperreal away, and the entire edifice crumbles. The contemporary response to such a stance would be that one “misses out on” all the benefits and niceties of the world. This thought is so ingrained in a consumer culture that it is hard to see it for what it is: namely, it is the ideological correlative of the politics of fragmentation. The fear for missing out is an irrational aberration for which no proof is provided, and that is regarded as true by stipulation. If I read this particular paper, I cannot read five other ones. Saying that I therefore “miss out on” something is both banal and a tautology. The real question is whether this is problematic at all. The feeling of “missing out on” things is fed and nourished once one gives in to it. By believing it to be true, the accompanying fear increases, leading one to breathless running after the “new,” “trending,” or “innovative.” By questioning the validity and indeed usefulness of the hyperreal, its structure appears as what it is: a mere screen onto which our deepest insecurities are projected and mirrored back at us. To exercise one’s autonomy, one must not criticize postmodernity from within, but radically subtract oneself from it. In using this term, I appropriate and extend Alain Badiou’s similarly named concept for a purpose for which it was most likely not intended. Subtraction is “the affirmative part of a negation.”49 The idea is simply that subtraction is a conscious repositioning that creates a new opening, a way to reconceive the current order of things, whether this concerns a system of cultural production or a political situation. The opening is a chance to define a new form of coherence, thereby undermining the realpolitikal statement that “this is just how things are.” The development of new possibilities over against an existing situation creates “a new subjective body.”50 This body can be a political body or group of like-minded individuals, but more importantly, such a body can be a literal body—that is, an essentially embodied human being. This is not a retreat into an external, pseudo-critical bubble, or a relapse into fatalist quietism, but the unrepentant imposition of a rift between oneself and one’s cultural environment. The difference between retreat and subtraction can be illustrated by thinking of retreating as removing a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. Even without the missing piece, the puzzle is still a puzzle. Subtraction, however, leaves a scar. It is a forceful tearing-oneself-apart from the system of cultural production in which we are situated. Here os Badiou’s description: Ultimately, I am saying something very simple. I am saying first that to open a new situation, a new possibility, we have to have something like a new creativity of time and a new creativity of the situation, something that is really an opening. I name this opening “event.” What is an event? An event is simply that which interrupts the law, the rules, the structure of the situation, and creates a new possibility.51 The “event” is a disruption of the structural logic of an existing cultural, artistic, or political state of affairs. The Copernican Revolution, the Reformation, Marx’s notion of “revolution,” the Darwin/Wallace theory of evolution, or the discovery of the laws of genetic inheritance, can count as major disruptions that upset an entire cultural and/or political order. This undermining paved the way for rethinking the coordinates that structure everyday reality. Not coincidentally, entire political universes revolve around denying that such subtractions took place. For instance, the laws of genetic inheritance disprove outdated theories of race, and the neo-fascist political universe is dedicated to undermining the effect of the prior event, as their worldview hinges on the truth of such theories. The new possibilities that stem from subtraction need the new “subjective body” in the most literal sense of the word. One must recalibrate oneself with regard to the postmodern system of cultural production if one is to subtract successfully. This requires a new mindset, and a new cognitive and affective, yet fully embodied orientation towards postmodernity.

To subtract oneself so radically is a necessity. If one chooses for one of the options outlined above, one is still trapped in a hyperreal without exit. To fashion an exit, one must not seek to step outside the system, since one is then trapped in a fictional outside that is still inside. Instead, one must seek a position that does not define itself opposite to the postmodern system of cultural production at all, but that creates the opening that topples the entire system. Such a radical form of subtraction takes postmodern culture up on its core premise: namely, that all expressions are narratives that can be molded and manipulated at will. But what if one took up a position that does not fit the postmodern cultural production? What if one took up a position that was so unrepentantly subjectivist that it lies beyond the grasp of postmodern cultural production or, in other words, what if one simply refused to stay inside the dotted lines? Fully to believe in the autonomy of one’s vantage point on the world must nowadays appear as a nightmare. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion in the postmodern system of cultural production, but what if one’s opinion does not fit the scheme of acceptable expressions? What if it does not result into new source materials to be used in the politics of fragmentation? Such a subtraction is possible because it drives the core premise of postmodern culture (namely: every viewpoint is inherently subjective, that is, not universally valid) to its existential endpoint. As argued before, if every viewpoint is inherently subjective, and each position therefore a kind of first-person narrative devoid of universal meaning, this must apply to the postmodern assumption as well.

The best counterpunch, then, is to turn the entire picture around: the initial opposition between “universal” and “narrative” is itself a narrative, and no better way to expose the nihilist fatalism of this cultural attitude than to show how the subjective can generate the universal. The entire postmodern strategy rests on denying that an individual viewpoint can generate something that is universally valid. The result of this attitude is that each viewpoint becomes a malleable fragment in an economy of acceptable and marketable expressions. The proliferation of individual, yet acceptable viewpoints obfuscate a vantage point that becomes less visible over time: namely, that as an individual, one can generate universal insights. To deny this is to fully accept and internalize the postmodern assumption and its associated nihilism. To hold that one’s position “is just another narrative” is to submit oneself already to the postmodern mode of cultural production, and thereby succumbing to its oppressive and invasive logic of production. To treat one’s own convictions as mere narratives devoid of universality is to internalize the postmodern mode of cultural production, severing oneself from the exercise of one’s autonomy.

If anything, a renewed and radicalized subjectivism is not the ultimate weapon of postmodernity, but against it. It is an attitudinal disposition that refuses to regard itself as a mere cog in the machine, and that actualizes the power of its own autonomy and validity through the liberating power of its subjective determinations. It does away with the bland relativism that reality is the sum total of viewpoints, thereby overcoming the postmodern, projected fear that one reasons “just from one’s own privileged perspective”, and that therefore one has to distance oneself from one’s innermost convictions. I use the term “subjectivism” as a deliberate provocation. The philosophy of high modernity abhorred subjectivism because it was seen as a nonsensical aberration that would have no place in the project of modernity. In postmodern culture, the only type of subjectivism on offer is the watered-down and marketable variety. In both cases, the exercise of individual autonomy is deeply mistrusted and undermined. Nevertheless, what appears from the viewpoint of high modern and postmodern culture as a cultural dead end appears from the viewpoint of radical subjectivism as the way forward—and more importantly, as the road to liberation and the free exercise of autonomy."