For a blessed six years, I resisted the cultural push to buy an iPhone. I playfully ribbed the first person I knew who owned one, making fun of her when she would stop mid-conversation to look up something to settle a question. Whenever I was out with friends (Read: at bars with friends), I would always dryly (ahem) comment whenever they littered our table with phones, as if they were ornamental electronic coasters. I would futilely protest whenever the obligatory group photo was taken–usually several of them–to chronicle the event, giving it an emotional legitimacy that it would not have had otherwise apparently. Then, I caved. After that, excluding a period of about a year in which I downgraded to a dumb phone in an attempt to undue undignified habits, I am now hardly without the damn thing. Not sure when it happened, but at some point the media Rubicon was crossed, and now my first impulse is to take a picture of an event rather than stay in the moment and savor it.
This media autobiography played again and again while reading John David Ebert and Brian Francis Culkin’s Hypermodernity and the End of the World. This will not be a satisfying book review, however, for to do that, I have to make extensive notes. These days, I have to speed read most books if I am to finish them within a coherent range of time. This will function more as a highlighting of a few passages that will, I hope, direct all interested to the book.
The book is arranged like a sprawling, caffeine-fueled back-and-forth, in which one takes something the other has said and uses it as a springboard for a related, sometimes closely, sometimes not-so-closely, topic. The effect can be dazzling at points, though anyone wanting substantial development will come away thirstier, which may very well be the authors’ intent.
The authors argue that 9/11 can be pinpointed as the “decisive shift” from postmodernity to hypermodernity (capitalized throughout by the authors, not me); they expand that claim by stating that “on the technological plane, the shift can be more precisely demarcated to the year 1995 when the National Science Foundation turned the Internet over to the public” (23). It is on the technological plane that we experience daily this shift: “Whereas the media of postmodernity had all been analogue–records, cassette tapes, photographs, magazines, celluloid–the media of Hypermodernity is exclusively digital” (authors’ emphasis 40).
Digital media, more so than previous types of media, requires a concentration on the ever-passing immediate. This hyper-focus necessarily alters–if not distorts–the way we view time: “The structure of Time in Hypermodernity is modular: it is composed of a succession of present moments, each of which is isolated and has no relationship to any preceding moment, or any future moment” (26). Reading this, my thoughts went to BLM protests that were then occurring. Not to offer yet another shallow analysis of the recent spate of unpleasantness, but it struck me how these protests could not have been facilitated by any other media than social media. All other forms of media would have taken time to produce, thus allowing both for tempers to cool and context (of some sort anyway) to be given. However, with social media, context is neither needed nor encouraged. Instead, one is presented with an autonomous, a-historical event that demands consumption, not reflection. Regarding police shootings: It then does not matter what reason an officer may have had or not have had in responding the way he/she did; all that matters is the Event itself.
Concerning the historical process of trends and cultural production being tied to geography and demographics, namely as seen in the megalopolis: “Under the conditions of Hypermodernity, there is no longer any Art World per se, no longer any New York or Paris that functions as a cosmopolitan world center for the artist to be a part of. Art now simply exists wherever there happens to be an artist [with an Internet connection]…” (28). Though this may have the deleterious result of fragmentation steeped in a-synchronicity, I cannot help but think this to be a cultural positive. Anyone who has read my blog over the years has probably gathered that the only political–and I begrudgingly use that word–movement that I can in good conscience align myself with is localism. The Internet may work to keep children in their hometowns by providing them with sources of income and cultural engagement, for heaven’s GPS knows that both industrial employment and universities are empty avenues that lead to dead ends.
Those familiar with either a socialist or a Southern Agrarian/distributionist critique of capitalism will not find it surprising that hypermodernity allows capitalism to fully express its latent energies: “On the economic plane, Hypermodernity is based upon the globaliziation of neoliberal capitalism becoming fused with the power and logic of computational technologies: Wall Street and Silicon Valley merge into a singular global power of abstraction, quantification, and subjugation” (29). As has been argued by the diverse critics of capitalism, anything–religion, family ties, regional and national loyalties,etc–that provides a barrier, moral or physical, to the flow of capital must be annihilated (or even better: transformed into an avenue for capital). By “neoliberal,” the authors mean “the application of capitalist logic to public spaces, to community, to friendship, to the field of healthcare…. [I]t’s the logic of capitalism applied to all the places where it used to be expressly forbidden” (72). (Given their definition, though, I find “neoliberal capitalism” to be self-confirming, comparable to saying “really capitalistic capitalism.” I think that “unmoderated capitalism” works better.) The Internet, once again, is the primary facilitator of this expansion. No longer is one bound to the brute circumstances of one’s upbringing and the limitations of one’s situation. If one does not like shopping only at the stores in one’s vicinity (and who does?), then one can shop online. If one grows weary of one’s friends (and who has not at some point?), one can find a community online to join. If one becomes dissatisfied with one’s religion (for those who are still raised to be religious), depending upon ritual demands, one may find all that is necessary to convert to another religion–or find online support for the wholesale abandonment of religion. In fact, such is the persuasive logic of this neoliberal vision, that any strictures or impediments, as can found in traditional religions and family formations, are seen as tools of oppression. Most of us, I would wager, do not want to revert to a pre-Internet world, especially now that we have tasted its forbidden ephemeral fruits; however, this is not to say that we cannot identify the very serious problems raised by such a diet.
One should be able to imagine the effects not only on smaller communities but also on “the power and integrity of the nation-state…[that] begins to decompose” (31). Somewhat connected to this is their rumination on the rise (and perhaps now we can say “fall”) of President Trump. Though, by their timeline, Donald Trump’s family fortune was secured before the advent of hypermodernity, his riding the horse of reality-star fame into the stable of the White House was made possible only because of the trail laid by hypermodernity; the authors call him “the first social media president” (authors’ emphasis 77). His 2016 win can largely be attributed to his canny use of the Internet–along with his legion of Pepe memesters. As pointed out by the authors, however, “the absurdity of Trump’s policy is that he wants neoliberalism absent the globalization” (authors’ emphasis 72). Arguably, the one issue (as opposed to personality traits) that Trump rode to victory was his promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The cognitive dissonance is great: Using a hypermodern platform, he promoted a very un-hypermodern message.
What are the implications? “[I]n Hypermodernity there is no longer anything to achieve. Uptopianism is dead. Revolutionary movements–despite the Arab Spring–are gone. Idealism is nonexistent under such conditions, since Hypermodernity locks the individual into a modular present that is disconnected from all preceding presents. There is only the Now. Anything that has occurred more than 48 hours ago simply ceases to exist” (32). This is interesting: If revolution requires an existing order against which to rebel and a vision of the future to be achieved and both an existing order and a vision of the future require a commitment to more than just the present, then is revolution no longer possible? Or has it no longer become necessary? Most of the young people I meet, the ones stereotypically most immersed in social media, do not seem any less future-oriented or more aimless than other extant generations, so I am not sure just what to make of this. Yes, we are more impatient, but blame can be leveled against technology as a whole, not just the Internet. As for idealism, I am inclined to think that given the Internet’s assistance in divorcing people from reality, bouts of idealism may become more rampant. One need only visit any religious/political/scientific forum to see this. I suspect that the authors may be using these terms to insinuate that the more conformed our minds become to hypermodernity, the more inclined we will be to ask not whether it is true, good, or beautiful, but whether it is new.