Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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What is hyper-modernism?, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Text of keynote lecture at the same-named conference held at  at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, March 20th, 2016.


Performance by Regan O’Brien:

“Bounding with UNknown Others”

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Lecture: What is hyper-modernism?

Alan N. Shapiro


In the age that we are living in of new media, new technologies, and the information society, we find ourselves to be in a very new situation in our social and individual existence. As opposed to the previous historical periods of modernity/modernism and post-modernity/post-modernism, I call this new historical situation: hyper-modernity or hyper-modernism. We can also speak of hyper-modernism in politics, technology, art, and science fiction. My continued use of the term ‘historical’ could as well easily be placed into question. But I believe that the concept of history, as an orientation to the past, still has partial validity. Just as the term science fiction, as an orientation to the future, still has partial validity.

We need a new reflection on our contemporary situation, a new perspective that includes an awareness that we are living in something like a ‘post-history’. I think that deconstuctionist and posthumanist critiques of historical narratives are partly correct. But the humanist historians who defend their professional practice against such deconstructions are also partly correct.

We can see that many things have changed – in effect, the changes have piled one on top of the other over the past several decades – and we need new concepts for dealing with the new circumstances. We also need philosophy. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote in their book What Is Philosophy?, philosophy is about the inventing of new concepts.

Weird stuff is happening. Nowadays, the very assumption that we know what ’reality’ is does not hold up. We are on shaky ground here and we need new ideas (in the context of practice, combining theory with highly advanced competencies in practical skills and areas). What is reality? What is the relationship between reality and mediality? Between reality and virtuality? Between reality and simulations? Reality and fictions? Reality and lies? Reality and the fake? Reality and software code? We need new terms, new words, for describing, understanding and experiencing these dimensions of things.

The assumption that we know what space and time are does not hold up well either. We are on shaky ground here too, and we need new ideas and new practices, new terms and new words for thinking about and living space and time. What is ‘here’ and what is ‘there’? Remote telepresence via digital technologies, avatar-based gaming via virtual technologies, and quantum entanglement teleportation in physics have undermined the supposed familiarity and self-evident meaning of physical distances, psychological-performative identities, and intuitive embodiment. What is the present, the past and the future? Weird things about spacetime that were perceived to occur under extreme physical circumstances by the quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and Einsteinian special and general relativity theories of physics are now happening in our immediate experiences in the social world and in everyday life.

The reflection on hyper-modernism has to be epistemologically recursive. The form of the discourse must be consistent with what hyper-modernism is. In other words, I must avoid having a contradiction between content and presentation in my discourse. I cannot speak about hyper-modernism via a simple linear narrative, a chronology, which would be modernist. I must also be embodied and performative in what I am saying.

There are three ways in which the model of history as we know it from the modernist paradigm and practice of historiography partly no longer applies and needs to be revised. All three of these aspects characterize hyper-modernism.

First, we no longer have to do with paradigms or epistemes where the stages are clearly separated one from another. The previous epochs continue. Thus we are in modernism, post-modernism, and hyper-modernism all at once.

Second, if we take Baudrillard seriously (and we should simultaneously, yes and no, take him seriously and not take him seriously), then historiography is a big problem. From within a culture of media hyper-reality, we no longer have access to the past. Much of what we know about the Holocaust, World War II, and the Vietnam War, for example, comes from Hollywood films about the Holocaust, World War II, and the Vietnam War that we have seen. We are partly cut off from knowing what really happened in past history by what Baudrillard calls “the Canetti point.” Here Baudrillard references an aphorism by Jewish German-language philosopher Elias Canetti from 1945, speaking about a certain point in history, when exactly this point was is unknowable, where history itself disappeared. It is an indeterminate point that can only be retroactively experienced. “It is felt as an awkward and mysterious estrangement between humanity and reality,” writes Samuel Strehle. Canetti writes: “A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality, everything happening since then was suppposedly not true; but we supposedly didn’t notice. Our task would now be to find that point, and as long as we didn’t have it, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction.”

Third, in hyper-modernism as opposed to post-modernism, we have to partly go against Baudrillard’s idea of the non-accessibility of history and re-consider humanist historiographies. This half-return to the availability of the past is related to a certain synthesis of the deconstructionist critique of humanism and the ethics and themes of humanism. Or a certain synthesis of the real and the virtual: the re-appearance in hyper-modernism of the grasping of an event which, to use an old-fashioned phrase, really happened, merged with the high-tech database archiving of that event, the multimedia transformation of the event through a certain technologization which we need to understand. This, in any case, is my reading of Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology.”

I think that we have to make a Pascalian or Kierkegaardian existential leap of faith in hyper-modernism. I do not regard the Christian theological beliefs of Paul Virilio, another thinker of hyper-modernism, as incidental – but rather, essential – to his system of thought analyzing speed and accidents.

We can paradoxically re-establish a certain entry to the past, one that was denied by the post-modernism with which Baudrillard was associated (although, of course, he refused the label of post-modernist). I think that hyper-modernism – which has a strong elective affinity to informatics, new media, and even so-called social media – requires massively extensive content databases to provide data input to its high-speed “permanently on” 24/7 entertainment and infotainment systems.

Hyper-reality theory, a classic aspect of post-modernism, is primarily associated with Baudrillard’s famous 1981 work Simulacres et Simulation. Baudrillard writes: “Aujourd’hui l’abstraction n’est pas celle de la carte, du double, du miroir ou du concept. La simulation n’est pas celle d’un territoire, d’un être référentiel, d’une substance. Elle est la génération par les modèles d’un réel sans origine ni réalité: hyperréel. Le territoire ne précède plus la carte, ni ne lui survit. C’est désormais la carte qui précède le territoire – précession des simulacres – c’est elle qui engendre le territoire.” … “Hyper-réel désormais à l’abri de l’imaginaire, et de toute distinction du réel et de l’imaginaire, ne laissant place qu’à la récurrence orbitale des modèles et à la génération simulée des différences.” There is a certain inter-textual relationship between these lines of Baudrillard and the title of the 2010 novel La Carte et le Territoire by the great contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

In his well-known essay “La précession des simulacres,” in the book Simulacres et Simulation, Baudrillard says that the model precedes the territory and the map precedes the real. In other words, the nearly universal assumption that the widespread creation of models of reality is going to leave as it is physical reality is naïve. Models are not only tools for assisting the real, they act upon the real, they transform the real, they become themselves a major part of the real.

Baudrillard’s concern was that the ‘late capitalist’ landscape of ‘virtual America’s’ consumerist-business culture has become a simulated hyper-pseudo-fake-reality where all experiences and social-technological procedures are pre-programmed according to a known-in-advance set of behavorial and commodified codes, models, semiotics and formulae. Hardly anything is spontaneous, creative, original, alive, existential or authentic anymore.

In several small volumes (L’agonie de la puissanceCarnaval et cannibale, and Telemorphose) written shortly before his death in 2007, Jean Baudrillard upgraded his concepts of simulacra and simulation into a cogent diagnosis of the self-parodistic phase of Western society and its radical Islamic enemies. This is a political-sociological theory powerfully and interestingly marked and influenced by the knowledge field of literary theory which studies the tropes of irony, parody and Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Baudrillard called this new hyper-modernist simulation theory: “Carnival and Cannibal.” Simulation or hyper-reality is no longer the artificial staging of so-called “reality” by the models and codes which precede it. Simulation is now a farce, an immense irony, a masquerade, a funhouse-mirror distortion of the values and ideals of modernism. For example, we are currently experiencing, in the 2016 American presidential election and Republican Party primary, the grotesque showmanship of Donald Trump and his followers, the full-scale replacement of politics by Reality TV, the tele-morphosis of substance into the degenerated fascination with the banal and fifteen minutes of famous insults that is the hallmark of media-celebrity culture and its populist dissemination to all cyber-consumer citizens.


Slavoj Zizek’s double-analysis in his 2015 book Islam and Modernity: Some Blasphemic Reflexions of the self-hatred of radical Islam and the self-undermining of freedom and tolerance in the West adds a Lacanian psychoanalytic complement to Baudrillard’s theses on simulation and virtuality in the carnivaleque-cannibalistic phase.

In her 2011 book Alone Together, MIT media theorist Sherry Turkle writes in a highly Baudrillardian mode about how the simulated communications networks of texting and smartphones have replaced contact with others and conversation with the empty signifiers and hyper-attention ‘channel surfing’ substitutes of that contact.

In his 2015 book Smart Cities in Cyberwar, Florian Rötzer describes how the conflicts and battlefields of the world will soon lead to cyberwar as our increasingly online, digitalized and networked existence becomes the target of attacks.

Modernism is the historical period of capitalism, industrialization, and rationalization. It is the “grand narratives” of history and liberation such as liberalism and Communism. Modernism is technology as a tool for the domination of nature and the construction of prosperity. Prometheus Unbound (a fragmentary play by the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus, and an 1820 lyrical drama by the poet Percy B. Shelley). The Unbound Prometheus (a work of historiography about the industrial revolution by David S. Landes). The paradigm of technology as tool is pre-Heideggerian. A major statement about the shift in technology paradigms from tool to environment was made by Stanley Kubrick in his epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Technologies of hyper-reality (Baudrillard) and speed (Virilio) in postmodernism are implemented through many separate analog machines such as television and the airplane. In hyper-modernism, all of these machines which alter space-time are replaced by the universal machine of the computer. Analog expressive media such as images or music all get transfigured by their representation in digital code and algorithms.

Historians often divide the historical epoch of modernity into the three phases of ‘early modernity’ (after the Middle Ages, from the mid-15th century to the French revolution of 1789; ‘classical modernity’ (from the French revolution to 1914 or the beginning of World War I); and ‘late modernity’, which perhaps ended around 1960 when television first played a major role in deciding an American Presidential election, or perhaps ended with the early deaths of iconic pop cultural figures such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley.

In his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard writes that the postmodern society is distinguished by the disappearance of the “grand narratives” or “meta-narratives” of modernism, such as Marxism or the belief in the Enlightenment project of linear progress or ‘teleological determinism’. There is also, in postmodernism, a turn towards linguistic and symbolic reproduction, and the prevalence of specialized professional ‘language games’ as a replacement of grand narratives.

In art and literature, there is the classic mimetic social realism of the nineteenth century – Dickens in England or Balzac and Zola in France. The classical realist paintings of Gustave Courbet depicted peasants, workers, seascapes and still lifes. Flaubert wrote realistic novels in an ironic mode where form and “a novel about nothing” superseded content, so he was a forerunner of postmodernism. What we call modernism in literature really corresponds to the postmodern worldview: absurdity in Kafka and Beckett, the stream of consciousness in Joyce, and the psychoanalytic memories of Proust. Impressionism, futurism, Dada, surrealism and many others are all considered to be modernist movements in art.

Marcel Duchamp, with his “ready-mades” or found ordinary objects transformed into artworks, is thought to be a precursor of postmodern art. Andy Warhol, in a sense, put an end to art by deconstructing the myth of the individual artist as subjective creative genius, and instead engineered self-ironic works of image and consumer culture that seemed to operate as self-running machines. This ‘authorless’ art based on the endless production of advertising memes is the culmination of postmodern and the beginning of a hyper-modern style. Whereas hyper-modernism in literature is represented by and can derive from the above-mentioned Michel Houellebecq in France, Don DeLillo in America, and perhaps William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.

Hyper-modernist art, then, is perhaps the industrial design of objects and environments faking to be art. A more genuine and affirmative hyper-modernist art might be possible if the development of a hyper-modernist aesthetic were practiced with more conscious awareness. There would have to be a more direct involvement in and reflection on informatics, as in the movement of Creative Coding – the reintroduction of visual creativity and even poetry into informatics –  in any case, the skill to engage with code, and to transform what code is beyond the strictly engineering paradigm, rather than to be a user of ready-made software applications, as most designers still are. Since the form of the software is decided by the software writers, and form is the essence of art, designers cannot attain to the level of art by only using software written by someone else.

Until now, the term hyper-modernism has not much been in common use. As a reference, I can cite media theorist John Armitage, who already wrote the following in 1999 in his ‘Editorial Introduction’ to a special issue of the journal Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities called “Machinic Modulations: New Cultural Theory and Technopolitics”: “A number of contemporary cultural theorists of technology are presently engaged not so much in advancing forms of theoretical inquiry that seek to survey the ruins of modernism or post-modernism, but in accelerating methods of exploration that endeavour to unearth the foundations of … ‘hypermodernism’.”

As I [Alan N. Shapiro] have already said, I associate hyper-modernism with new media and new technologies, and with those conditions of virtual and online life which have disrupted classical, modernist and even post-modernist assumptions about and experiences of space and time. Three-dimensional Euclidean space – a way of thinking about space that belongs to the Western metaphysical ‘construction of reality’ as it was originated by the Ancient Greek thinkers – corresponds to our ‘intuitive understanding’ of space. Media virtuality in hyper-modernism has the property of complex intricate paradoxical topology. It is the ‘non-Euclidean’ spacetime of multiple refracting waves in an enigmatic hyper-space beyond any classical geometry. To understand the complex non-Euclidean informational space, we need a new mathematics, a new unconventional metric space. In mathematics, a metric space is a set where a specific concept of distance between elements of the set is defined and implemented. My friend Alexis Clancy, who will speak later today, is working on such a creative hyper-modernist mathematics of a different metric space.

In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” published in 1985, Donna Haraway wrote that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” Science fiction as expressed in its canonical novels and films has already been realized in the present, in our way of life, in our society. Many of the futuristic technologies and totalitarian social arrangements that were envisioned in those works have come true. Any idea of classical science fiction being a straightforward linear model enabling predictions about the future are now off the table. I am a science fiction theorist, but for me science fiction is never about the future, predictions of the future, or the question of the “accuracy” of those predictions. Science fiction is about the present, the virtual reality of the present that dominant ways of thinking prevent us from seeing. We must see the present with both literary and scientific insight in order to paradoxically foresee something of the future. We are most certainly separated from the future by the chasm of chaos.

The paradox of science fiction is that, from within the culture of simulation, we do not yet have access to the future. The wild creativity that would be necessary to open this door of perception is still missing. I consider the fields of knowledge of history and of science fiction to exist in relation to each other. In history, we are cut off from knowing past events. In science fiction or futurist design, we are cut off from knowing the future, and can only have a paradoxical relationship towards it. In hyper-modernism, we live in an endless present. We look back towards the past through history. Thanks to the virtual database archiving technologies of hyper-modernism (see the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “All Our Yesterdays”), we have the positive opportunity to half-know the past. We look forward towards the future through science fiction. Due to multimedia technologization of experience, we can half-know the future through paradox.

Without this needed sensibility to paradox, science fiction will remain stuck in its present-day inability to predict: precisely because we are living it, we are living in science fiction. Without something like a quantum physics complementarity paradox, we cannot differentiate between the present and the future, and our so-called predictions for new media and new technologies will remain vaporware.

Reality and virtuality are both obsolete as philosophical concepts, yet we know that we now exist in something half-real and half-virtual. In this space, we invent new philosophical concepts or new terms. Hyper-modernism is both a catastrophe and an opportunity.

The affirmative future of informatics is in a project of Creative Coding that is also a form of writing: a recursive cybernetic epistemology (to use Gregory Bateson’s term) against the cybernetic control models which dominate our social and individual lives. The study of hyper-modernism must be trans-disciplinary and it must be embodied. It must take us back to some form of humanism. To creative capitalism and to democratic socialism. Thank you.

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