Hypersubjectivity in the Time of COVID-19
“After all, language, so-called “natural language,” is a technology — a tool for shaping perception, limiting and defining worldviews by its structures, its registers and tropes, every bit as much as the metaphor it licenses. Those who control language, which is to say representation, control our consciousness, even as we recognize that they control our actions.” — Roy Ascott
“In any society, the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a number of procedures whose role is to advert its powers and its changes, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality.” — Michel Foucault
“Any attempt to conceive persons completely as a kind of thing in the world persisting through time will come up against this obstacle. The self that appears to be the subject seems to disappear under external analysis.” — Thomas Nagel
This article is second in a series of articles on hyperreal psychotechnologies.
What follows is an analysis of how meaning is not created for the wider population today.
- The first article surveys the paradigm used in these articles.
- The third article outlines what a successful creation of meaning requires.
Social distancing further accelerates social fragmentation.
The social body is interconnected through the simulation of reality via technology: soundbites, articles, blogs, videos, chats, and so on — hyperreality. Our participation in hyperreality means that we have to navigate the meshwork of often contradictory expectations, leading us to become hypersubjective. Hypersubjectivity means that our navigation through language and media is highly contingent as meaning is often ambiguous. Hypersubjectivity is different than what came before, as our past sense of collectivization relied on an institutional basis. With social distancing, this reliance is further eroded.
In the introduction of this article, we define hypersubjectivity. In the first section, we explore hyperreality as the general interface for how we grok the world and our place in it. In the second section, we explore how we lost our shared basis for collectivization and what social distancing does to that basis. In the last section, we speculate on how our institutions are undermined by hypersubjectivity, hyperreality, and that loss of a shared basis.
Hypersubjectivity is the condition of subjectivity produced outside the boundaries of modernistic narratives. From Hypersubjectivity: Language, anxiety, and indexical dissonance in globalization, Kira Hall describes hypersubjectivity as emerging from “the dismantling of boundaries” as people adjust from an ethnically and culturally singular context into a mixed global context.
The ambiguity of what counts as linguistic capital in the global economy makes it impossible for speakers to defend themselves on the grounds of linguistic proficiency.
Today, we have extraordinary freedom. We travel all over the world; have social mobility; and live in a mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and careers. In a given situation, the number of different expectations, narratives, and identities we can embody is confusing if not impossible to completely fulfill. As the responsibility is on each of us to choose how to navigate this mix, the result is often a mix of highly contingent speech acts.
Hypersubjectivity emerges […] as speakers become reflexively aware that the form-meaning relations they rely on to make sense of their lives are viewed as personal liability.
Without an end to the navigation and reformation of self, a characteristic of the hypersubjective speaker is anxiety.
[Speakers] turn to authenticity as a better explanation of their language behavior, often confirming the very ideology that positions them […].
Adopting authenticity is a strategy for anchoring against uncertainty. Past forms of collectivization relied on a shared basis, whereas hypersubjective authenticity relies on a personal basis. Adopting a personal basis is highly fragmenting.
For example, by 2016 many Americans were on social media, especially on FaceBook. Social media flattened many relationships. Suddenly Americans had to navigate many social obligations including family, employment, friendships from college, high school, and church in the same space online. The ensuing intrusion of many different if not mutually exclusive obligations via the juxtaposition of social context in a limited medium (through a computer screen) contributed to creating a schism in American society.
After Donald Trump was elected, our collective sensemaking could not agree on how to understand what the election meant because, as a social body, we had turned hypersubjective. Despite being faced with a singular fact, that Donald Trump was President, our lack of agreement hinged on how hypersubjectively, we had adopted different and often contradictory bases from which to judge that event.
Before we dive deeper into hypersubjective strategies, it is important to examine how our sense of the real became ambiguous.
1 The Spectacle of Hyperreality
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard provides an exploration of the consequences of an information-saturated world presented by information technology. He calls this condition hyperreality. Hyperreality emerges when humans achieve enough informational and material mastery to reproduce the appearance of reality. Baudrillard writes that hyperreality is
the characteristic hysteria of our times: that of the production and reproduction of the real. […] What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to over-produce, is to restore the real that escapes it. That is why today this “material” production is that of the hyperreal itself. It retains all the features, the whole discourse of traditional production but it is no longer anything but its scaled-down refraction. […] Power itself has for a long time produced nothing but the signs of its resemblance. And at the same time, another figure of power comes into play: that of a collective demand for signs of power — a holy union that is reconstructed around its disappearance. The whole world adheres to it more or less in terror of the collapse of the political. And in the end, the game of power becomes nothing but the critical obsession with its survival, which increases as it disappears.
Hyperreality doesn’t mean unreality. As humans process experience symbolically, hyperreality is merely at a level of removed from “unproduced” experience. While humans can gain sophistication at navigating the production of symbols inherent with hyperreality, we often mistake the appearance of certain symbols with reality.
The appearance of symbols standing in for lived experience creates anxiety, especially in areas of trust and political authority. Within hyperreality, echo chambers emerge. Combined with the strategy of adopting authenticity as a linguistic position, cyberbalkanization via hypersubjectivity appears inevitable.
If we accept that speakers must self-navigate the sea of expectation that surrounds them, then we cannot accept authenticity as anything more than a strategy among other strategies. Often speakers drill down on authenticity, mistaking their sense of certainty as the only reliable beacon for deciding what is meaningful.
Yet we shouldn’t mistake our sense of certainty as being independent of biology. Robert Burton writes in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, that
Certainty is not biologically possible. We must learn (and teach our children) to tolerate the unpleasantness of uncertainty. Science has given us the language and tools of probabilities. We have methods for analyzing and ranking opinion according to their likelihood of correctness. That is enough. We do not need and cannot afford the catastrophes born out of a belief in certainty. As David Gross, PhD., and the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics, said, “The most important product of knowledge is ignorance.”
This production of certainty creates a dissonance in our sense of reality as certainty betrays an irrational (emotional) adherence to some presentations as being more real than others. Certainty does form an integral part of our salience landscape. If our salience landscape is a map of our intense emotional and cognitive investments then certainty only follow well-worn paths.
In this sense, the hyperreal helps us replace the real as we become creatures of our own media production.
How we become creatures of our own media production is the subject of the next subsection.
1.1 The Spectacle of the Medium
In McLuhan’s paradigm, the reproduction of reality relies on a media that creates signs, reproducible nuggets, that signify aspects of a reproduced reality. That hyperreal signification then spreads as far as people have access to it. In the video above, McLuhan states:
The world-pool of information, constantly pouring on your closely knit family, is influencing them more than you think. The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. Ours is a brand new world of all-at-once-ness. Time in a sense has ceased. And space has vanished. Like primitives, we now live in a Global Village of our own making a simultaneous happening.
Easier reproduction of information enables larger groups of people to be bound to the same content in similar ways. Additionally, changes in how media is conveyed alter the manner by which reality is constructed.
In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, McLuhan posits that with new technological innovations, the form of media changes. With those changes, our salience landscape also changes as the forms of media attain meaningfulness on their own.
Print culture intensified the effects of the older technology of writing. Before writing, mankind lived in acoustic space, the space of the spoken word, which is boundless, directionless, horizonless, and charged with emotion. Writing transformed space into something bounded, linear, ordered, structured, and rational. The written page, with its edges, margins, and sharply defined letters in row after row, inevitably brought in a new way of thinking about space.
Each form of technology includes the last. What came before carries forward in a modified form. The internet includes TV, print, and radio. Likewise, a world with mobile technology provides an omnipresent media that ties us ever tighter to it. With the rise of social media, we became addicted to our mobile devices (whereas we were addicted to TV before). The mobile device becomes the portal through which we access the world, altering our salience landscape as to what is or is not important.
While McLuhan focused on media forms, hyperreality also includes other forms of salience landscape alteration. Before McLuhan and Baudrillard, Guy Debord wrote, in Society of the Spectacle, how
The society based on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle — the visual reflection of the ruling economic order — goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
The spectacle is Debord’s way of explaining what amounts to the hyperreal society producing itself as simulacra. If McLuhan includes past forms of media within new media, Debord includes all past forms in the current — including the influence of money.
This entanglement between the content of our hyperreality and the manner by which we engage in hyperreality is how hyperreality is a psychotechnology. Psychotechnology is that which molds the human psyche by altering our salience landscape so that we begin to pay attention to certain features in our environment over others. For instance, money (along with advertisement and hyperconsumerism) is a psychotechnology because of its promise of abundance, status, and luxury.
Utilizing the hyperreal technologies, the dollar, largely through the foundational work of Edward Bernays in the early 20th century, has colonized new frontiers in advertising. Social media, mobile app, and phone developers extend this reasoning to embed methods similar to the gambling industry. The success of a media system reinforced by profit has contributed to the degradation of mental health as humans create a mobile environment that then proceeds to manipulate human behavior.
In this sense, as humans create technologies to assist us, eventually so those tools reflect back to us aspects of reality that become salient.
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us” — Marshall McLuh an
We can expand this quote, noting that while we create hyperreality, so hyperreality re-shapes us. R. C. Roberts in The Abyss of Self: A Review of BoJack Horseman calls this a “culture without distance” as our proximity to culture forces us to confront our own production. The act of sharing a video, or making a comment can come back to us, as the internet can ruthlessly cancel whoever it deems fit.
The lack of distance is a feature of our world as hypersubjects, making us vulnerable to manipulation since we do not have a critical distance from which to see how we are influenced.
In the video above, Noam Chomsky explains how consent is manufactured in American Democracy as a combination of media, politics, and corporate interests.
This radical reorganization of our sense of self and the world via reproduced reality is not unusual, as it has happened throughout human history.
Essentially, human adaptation accelerated and outstripped our biology when we started to reason symbolically. Pyschotechnology (like language, culture) developed in order to supplement our new adaptations. Currently, our technology has outstripped our psychotechnology’s ability to help us with sensemaking. The problem we have today is not a lack of psychotechnology but that we have too much psychotechnology, leading to incoherence. Additionally, the psychotechnology we do have is a shell of what it was, unable to deal with the sophisticated technology that continually undermines its basis.
Hyperreality stripes meaning away, leaving only an appearance (what Debord calls the spectacle), an existence without essence, that continually defies our sense of significance because our sense of significance, in hyperreality, is produced by appearance.
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is ostensibly the focal point of all vision and all consciousness: But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.
It is in this sense, that old psychotechnology is failing even as people still practice it to try and gain control over their internal reward architecture. But the newer psychotechnologies, like those that contribute to hyperreality, are too new for people to have developed sufficiently sophisticated ways of navigating them. Hyperreality and accelerationism shift relationships in such a way that we have difficulty fully managing our stressed reward architecture. New psychotechnologies influence us in ways that we are, as of yet, unaware so that we exist in a culture without distance.
Enter into this situation COVID-19.
2 Social Distancing as Social Distortion
Arguably, COVID-19 as a social phenomenon is the product of hyperreality. Recall that hyperreality doesn’t mean un-real; a disease is actually killing people. Rather, hyperreality refers to the fact that our environment mainly consists of reproduced signification.
As of this writing, April 2020, the world has seen a shutdown as humans globally quarantine, with China only beginning to cease some quarantine protocols.
When we began to self-quarantine, many of us only heard about the disease, saw images, and read articles online. Most of us did not (yet) know anyone who had caught the disease. Thus the production of signification presented us with the reality that made COVID-19 present (in our attentions as a hyperreality) before it was actually present (with around us people getting sick).
The reproduction of the presence of COVID-19 modified our salience landscape. Washing hands, social distancing, the wearing of masks are among the novel relationships acquiring salience. These relationships, caught in the zeitgeist, are then parroted with all the other novel salient forms as memes.
While people may spread memes to promote or question the intended content, the reproduction of the forms, i.e., hyperreality, recalls McLuhan’s insight that the media forms spread meaning in the Global Village by reinforcing the relationship of phenomena.
In this way, the response to COVID-19 may have a lasting impact on how we relate and navigate the world at large. For instance, the stay-at-home order has forced many to further incorporate video technology, mobile fitness, and home delivery to supplement personal and business activity. Additionally, many local stores, already strained by alternate distribution channels may become insolvent. As social distancing alters the availability of relationships, we may find ourselves even further atomized as we may continue to rely more on new relationships made salient in a world of social distancing.
For instance, social distancing has two abstract effects that categorically impose themselves on a population of individuals. We will start to lose the relationships that are inaccessible (or de-emphasized) due to social distancing (such as sports events, that are mass driven) while other relationships are emphasized (such as online concerts where we experience the host as an isolated individual seen through a screen).
Interestingly, not all online relationships flourish, as streaming music is down. People are driving less, going to gyms less. The key to survivability in social distancing isn’t whether something is online or not, but whether the context for that relationship is available. In terms of streaming music, for many, the loss of those contexts (gym, driving) means the loss of those behaviors (such as streaming music).
Recalling the meme above, it is the reinforcement of certain relationships that is available in hyperreality. What people think that relationship may mean is a completely different matter (for the next section).
When social distancing ends, whether the new relationships gained continue will depend on how strongly our salience landscape has been altered by our time in social distancing. Some people may stop using home delivery services, whereas others may continue. Families may begin to meet more often on zoom because of its convenience.
What emerges from COVID-19 is not the disruption of life as individuals, for people are still housed, they have entertainment, water is running, electricity is flowing, people still engage in social media and so on. Additionally, while relatively few people have perished, the number is relatively minor, compared to the total population.
What emerges is the salience of certain ways of sensemaking over others. Some Americans have proven resistant to giving up the lifestyles that they feel entitled to. Some of the divide between those who stay at home and those who don’t appear along political lines. While the question of self-quarantine is discussed in terms of liberty, this is an oxymoron as those who self-quarantine are still choosing to express their liberty. Instead, the idea of liberty is used to justify the enjoyment by those who continue about their desired activities, such as spring break, playing golf with the guys, or going to the beach. Those who refuse to follow the hyperreal pressures of COVID-19 instead still see American entitlement — of individual liberty and consumerist pleasure — as being salient to living.
The point here is that social distancing, like hyperreality, alters the relationships available to people. Some relationships, like those that require being outside or meeting for large BBQs, are denied under social distancing.
Rational discussions about social distancing may surround the legality of government orders vs citizen rights, but in terms of hyperreality, we have multiple forms of production occurring, both of which claim to be the official meaning. Not surprisingly, the meaning of self-quarantine reveals itself along similar lines to the Blue Church of media and the Red Religion of metaphysical idealization.
This divide illustrates how the social body has fragmented to the point where Americans no longer agree on what their institution of Government means.
Although COVID-19 (as a social response) is a product of hyperreality, COIVD-19 alone cannot explain how institutions like Government can no longer coordinate behavior. Instead, COVID-19 is another event furthering hypersubjectivity.
To dive further into how social distancing distorts our social order, it is useful to take a brief detour into what I am calling institutional psychotechnology. Institutional psychotechnologies, like our ideas of citizenship and bureaucratic government, were introduced in the early part of the Axial Age. The successes of agriculture required the development of psychotechnology to enable people to live in groups larger than what was maintainable through personal relationships (see Dunbar’s number). Institutional psychotechnology has been so successful that it is difficult to find examples where it does not apply as, like fish in water, we are up to our eyeballs in institutional psychotechology.
So why is institutional psychotechnology no longer provides the coordination we had previously?
To understand what institutional psychotechnology can do to one’s salience landscape, we first look at an example of its absence. From there, we can look at what has replaced institutional psychotechnology as a basis for sensemaking.
2.1 Subjectivity beyond Asylums
Psychoanalysis and psychiatry’s purpose is to mold one’s salience landscape to fit the subjective form given by institutional psychotechnology.
Post-structural psychoanalyst Felix Guattari has written extensively about his participation at the experimental La Borde clinic. The experiment required dissolving the institution of the asylum (as a form of control akin to prisons). La Borde was non-hierarchial as the staff rotated positions and did not wear uniforms that codified set relationships. Instead, the staff (doctors, nurses, janitorial, and so on) intermingled with the patients so as to allow psychotic patients to develop their own way of relating to the world. In Chaosophy, Guattari writes
this change of relation with the world that, for the psychotic corresponds to a readjustment of the components of personality. The world and the “other” no longer speak to him with the same voice or with the troubling insistence that replaces a reassuring neutrality. But let’s not be mistaken: this alterity, or world, with which psychosis has a dialogue is not exclusively of an imaginary, delirious or fantasy order. It also manifests itself in a quotidian, social, and materiality reality. […]
Collective life, conceived according to rigid schemas, according to a ritualization of the quotidian, a regular and terminal hierarchization of responsibility — in short, “serialized” collective life — can become a desperate plight for patients as well as medical staff. It is surprising to realize that with the same micro-sociological “notes” one can compose a completely different institutional score. At La Borde, one can count about forty different activities for a population consisting of just a hundred patients and seventy staff members. There is an almost baroque treatment at the institution, always in search of new themes and variations in order to confer its seal of singularity — i.e., of finitude and authenticity — to the slightest gestures, the shortest encounters that take place in such a context.
One can only dream of what life could become in urban areas, in schools, hospitals, prisons, etc., if instead of conceiving them in a mode of empty repetition, one tried to redirect their purpose in a sense of permanent, internal recreation.
The removal of hierarchy and the rotation of roles between all members; staff and patients alike, produced a change for all as members were allowed to co-learn novel ways of relating to the world. Out of this encounter, Guattari concluded that psychosis has its own way of relating to the world, one essentially incompatible with the rigid relationships enforced by standard institutional psychotechnology.
Without the overarching context of the institution, what happened at La Borde is similar to hypersubjectivity in that individuals must navigate a fluid social and linguistic context.
But what is different between La Borde and hypersubjectivity is that there was no hierarchy in La Borde that doled punishment and reward according to external standards. The absence of a hierarchy at La Borde allowed collectivization to form around shared concerns rather than an abstract regulation that forms relationships according to its own standards regardless of the situation “on the ground”. Guattari writes in Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm:
Consider, for example, the institutional sub-ensemble that constitutes the kitchen at La Borde Clinic. It combines highly heterogeneous social, subjective and functional dimensions. This Territory can close in on itself, become the site of stereotyped attitudes and behavior, where everyone mechanically carries out their little refrain. But it can also come to life, trigger an existential agglomeration, a drive machine — and not simply of an oral kind, which will have an influence on the people who participate in its activities or just passing through. The kitchen then becomes a little opera scene: in it people talk, dance and play with all kinds of instruments, with water and fire, dough and dustbin, relations of prestige and submission. As a place for the preparation of food, it is the centre of exchange of material and indicative Fluxes and prestations of every kind. But this metabolism of Flux will have only transferetial significance on the condition that the whole apparatus functions effectively as a structure which welcomes the preverbal components of the psychotic patients. This resource of ambience, of contextual subjectivity, is itself indexed to the degree of openness (coefficient of transversality) of this institutional sub-ensemble to the rest of the institution. […] The proper functioning of the kitchen from this point of view is inseparable from its articulation with the other partial nuclei of subjectivation in the institution (the menu committee, the daily activities information sheet, the pastry workshop, greenhouse, garden, the bar, sports activities, the meeting between the cooks and a doctor with respect to the patients they are working with…) The psychotic who approaches an institutional sub-ensemble, like the kitchen, therefore traverses a well-worked zone of education which can sometimes be closed in on itself and subjected to roles and functions, or find itself in direct contact with Universes of alterity which help the psychotic out of his existential entrapment.
Without outside interference such as that an institution, pragmatic collectivization of individuals with a shared background of concern will develop its own meaning even if it includes psychotic members who cannot operate in standard institutions. This is contrasted with a pre-given “sub-ensemble” where one either fits or does not. The nature of pre-given “sub-ensembles” is what I am referring to as institutional psychotechnology, which is ephemeral while being no-where and everywhere at once. In Anti-Oedopius, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari recognize that the
unities in question [of institutions, states and other organized bodies] are never found in persons, but rather in series which determine the connections, distinctions, and conjunctions of organs. That is why fantasies are group fantasies. It is the collective investment of the organs that plugs desire into the socius and assembles social production and desiring-production into a whole on the earth.
Often we think of fantasies as belonging to individuals when in fact, the vast majority of fantasy is shared. At La Borde, the pragmatic collectivization that formed only could do so in the absence of the group fantasy of being an institution. In order for all the individuals to participate in a pre-arranged organized social body, like a State, religion, or corporation, the members must all believe in the same ethereal fantasy and enforce it upon one another so the institution emerges. At La Borde, absent institutional psychotechnology, patients labeled psychotic could self-navigate the world with their fellow humans in ways that were functional and meaningful.
In general, institutional psychotechnology organizes its members in social production, unifying them in desire and goal by enabling a shared salience landscape. To psychotics, the rest of us in our blind devotion to our abstract standards must appear to partake in a massive dream, operating according to a hidden drummer that is nowhere to be found. People who are unable to have their salience landscape shaped by institutional psychotechnologies cannot participate with the rest of us in these institutional fantasies.
While institutional psychotechnologies today still are present in that people refer to them, in the ambiguity of hyperreality and hypersubjectivity, it is often unclear how to embody being a member of said institution.
Unlike La Borde, today, institutional psychotechnologies have not been eliminated. However, like La Borde, today, institutional psychotechnologies no longer form the basis for determining behavior and meaning. Authenticity seeking strategies endemic to hypersubjectivity has led speakers to adopt different bases, the subject of the next subsection.
Because hypersubjectivity is disrupted by institutional (and non-institutional) psychotechnology, it is difficult to find any “classical” foundation with which to untangle this mess of sensemaking.
In this section, we look for the bases for shared sensemaking. To do this, we can turn to schizoanalysis.
Post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari collaborated in two masterful volumes, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, outlining a tactical approach to sensemaking given the entanglement of psychotechnology, capitalism, and hyperreality. In their work, they contrast psychoanalysis with schizoanalysis. In their first work, Anti-Oedipus, they lay the foundation for rejecting institutional psychotechnology, in particular, psychoanalysis. In their second work, A Thousand Plateaus, they posit the nature of sensemaking in hyperreality as the emergence of multiple “plateaus” of signification. In both works, they point to capitalism’s ability to generate crisscrossed territories throughout the social body. The de/re-territorialization of signifiers is done by assemblages of abstract machines that disrupt each other without regard to formulating overall coherency. In contrast to psychoanalysis’s molding of single subjectivities in the classical ideal of the enlightenment, Deleuze and Guattari present schizoanalysis, as a description of the hyperreal lack of coherency. They write
The schizoanalytic argument is simple: desire is a machine, a synthesis of machines, a machinic arrangement — desiring machines. The order of desire is the order of production; all production is at once desiring-production and social production.
They disregard the Western philosophical ideal of metaphysics, wherein knowledge is preserved across a caesura separating experienced life so that that knowledge can remain universally applicable. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari posit a form of pragmatism as local interactions of machinic assemblages formulate chaotic new meanings. To this end, they approach the connective tissue of signification as speech acts:
The theory of the performative sphere, and the broader sphere of the illocutionary, has had three important and immediate consequences: (1) It has made it impossible to conceive of language as code, since a code is the condition of possibility for all explanation. It has also made it impossible to conceive of speech as the communication of information: to order, question, promise, or affirm is not to inform someone about a command, doubt, engagement, or assertion but to effectuate these specific, immanent, and necessarily implicit acts. (2) It has made it impossible to define semantics, syntactic, or even phoenematics as scientific zones of language independent of pragmatics. Pragmatics ceases to be a “trash heap,” pragmatic determinations cease to be subject to the alternative: fall outside language, or answer to explicit conditions that syntacticize and semanticize pragmatic determinations. Instead, pragmatics becomes the presupposition behind all other dimensions and insinuates itself into everything. (3) It makes it impossible to maintain the distinction between language and speech because speech can no longer be defined simply as the extrinsic and individual use of a primary signification, or the variable application of preexisting syntax. Quite the opposite, the meaning and syntax of language can no longer be defined independently of the speech acts they presuppose.
For Deleuze and Guattari, standard structuralist containers like subjectivity no longer contextualize meaning. Rather, meaning is synthesized on the spot through the interaction of local enunciations. The hypersubjective modality emerges when we have a variety of approaches available — as our shared social space is virtually filled with endless combinations and permutations available to us linguistically. Essentially, Deleuze and Guattari anticipate that navigating hyperreal simulation requires the flexibility of hypersubjectivity — whereby speakers must continually remake their identity tactically as novel simulacra foreclose on the possibility of stability.
With this approach in mind, schizoanalysis in hyperreality is potentially endless as there are limitless and possibly contradictory bases hypersubjective speakers can adopt. (This adaptation is further explored in the next article in this series.)
For the rest of this article, I jump to the conclusion of that exploration: the possible bases that speakers can assume to justify their sense of authenticity. With these bases in mind, we can then end this article by exploring how hypersubjectivity leads to further fragmentation in the social body, as a way to understand our current situation.
Each of these bases functions as a realism, not because participants believe other aspects of a given situation are unreal, but because the adaptation of a particular approach creates consistency in selectively anchoring hypersubjective navigation. Each realism is a way of describing an adapter’s salient landscape. I’ve borrowed “realism”, after the literary movement of the same name, as both approaches mean to present an experience that reflects what is real.
Between any two realisms, there will be some overlap in the content. People may adopt multiple forms, but from these examples, you can get an idea of how hypersubjectivity can ground speech acts as meaningful.
- Narrative Realism: Some examples include nationalism (where people identify with a culture’s identity, including its history), personal histories, and identity politics. Essentially narrative realism uses narrative in order to determine salience. Staunch nationalists are an example of someone who may take this view.
- Emotional Realism: Some examples include new age spirituality, political correctness, and most forms of politics — essentially when any emotional impulse is looked at as being a sign of authenticity. Spiritual gurus, intuitives, political pundits, President Donald Trump, and Karen are an example of people who could take this view.
- Algorithmic/Computational Realism: Some examples include transhumanism, where humans are meant to use technology to extend lives and become non-biological, or where algorithms are meant to be the foundation for consciousness, or where computational singularity plays a role akin to a metaphysics of being. The book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari adopts this view by assuming the primacy of algorithms in as providing the ground for conscious experience. Futurist Ray Kurzweil also takes a compatible view.
- Biological Realism: Some examples include forms of racial nationalism (where each race gets a nation), or where genetics is thought to be the root of human behavior and identity. People who have strong opinions about genetic engineering might include those who take this view.
- Informational Realism: Hyperreality may be included in this, where non-produced experience is not seen as intrinsically more or less privileged than hyperreality. Many physicists and physics-inspired people take this view. This view is often compatible with Algorithmic Realism however their emphasis is different.
- Economic Realism: Libertarianism, communism, capitalism, and socialism may be examples of economic realism if the speaker expresses that the form of political/economic distribution is essential to meaning. There are innumerable examples of people who take this view, from pundits on MSNBC and Fox News to Bernie Sanders and Rush Limbaugh.
In some sense, these realisms are cartoonish caricatures, meant more for illustration of how salient landscapes can be configured. These configurations are fundamental to how a speaker will construct meaning from events. See the example below.
In the video above, a house-elf given his freedom by Harry Potter appears as an inappropriate mascot for a political party, like the Libertarians. However, in a hypersubjective world, personal meaning under authenticity is legitimatizing. Despite the apparent goofiness of the proposal, note how we understand the force of the message from the way it is framed by the speaker’s delivery.
It is important to note that justifications given for a particular realism are generally only given to support adapting that realism. The purpose of such an adaptation is to grant the hypersubjective speaker an anchor for navigating the hyperreal sea of the simulacra. (This includes conspiracy theories, which we will cover in the next article.) Ultimately such justifications are often circular as people express support for how they see the world in terms that require a particular salience landscape to value seeing the world in those terms. Said more directly, people often try to justify their values as if their point of view was self-evident when in reality, we often have to assume their values as being true before their views become self-evident.
Our adaptation of realisms is further encouraged by technology. While at first glance, hyperreality merely expresses reality on a layer of abstraction from lived experience — the fact is — what we select to express in hyperreality often supports our own salience landscape. As our salience landscape selects what is meaningful, our expression of meaning will inevitably reveal parts of our salience landscape.
The consequence of continual hyperreal presentation is that eventually, hyperreality redesignates what lived experience is.
This flexibility of hyperreality to confuse context is why institutional psychotechnology no longer provides the basis for shared sensemaking. As hypersubjective speakers acquire different connective pathways to make sense, so institutional psychotechnology will be understood in those unique ways, often excluding other ways of making sense.
3 A World without Ground
Rather than the metaphor of shared ground, we get a shared network where not every connection is valid to everyone else.
With self-quarantining, some institutional psychotechnology loses intensity as in-person access is de-emphasized. Without other people to reinforce specific behaviors, the aspects of salience selected by institutional psychotechnology will also lose focus, replaced by those presented in hyperreality.
The internet and social media do allow some personal relationships to be maintained, but communication through those channels is made abstract when compared with in-person meetings. Nonetheless, these long term relationships will not be lost because self-quarantining is not a permanent arrangement.
On the other hand, authenticity strategies will intensify as individuals seeking grounding will double-down on individualistic schemas.
Post-social distancing, institutional psychotechnologies will resume, but with intensified realisms. People with the same strategies of realism will have better chances to find alignment. For example, people adopting emotional realism to supplement institutional psychotechnologies, like religion, will find communication easier with people having the same form of realism than with people adopting narrative realism within religion. Current political divisions will be maintained across media channels, because politically, people select for different realisms, but with the added caveat that people with more similar realisms will better able to communicate.
Establishing a shared background of concern is the most direct way to communicate with others as institutional psychotechnologies lose further influence. Institutional psychotechnologies will stay, at least as shells, since they operate as relational frameworks that allow individuals to express their hypersubjectivity.
Overall, a lack of shared ground between the population at large will deepen fragmentation as different groundings do not address each other’s raison d’être.
One of the reasons for this fragmentation is that a choice of realism can suggest a bogey man. For instance, if one chooses a narrative realism of nationalism to understand an event, the bogey man could be foreign nations or immigrants. If one chooses computational realism, then the bogey man could be corporations manipulating the feeds through big data. We see this difference of meaning accelerated online as people present their meanings at each other, often without truly engaging in a conversation.
By adopting a realism, speakers always have the option of avoiding some responsibility for their behavior, as they can claim “this is my truth, I am allowed to have it” all the while generating meaning that better serves the speaker than one that enables the speaker to co-create meaning with others.
Hall, whose article I opened with above, agrees:
[Speakers] turn[ing] to authenticity as a better explanation for their language behavior, often confirm the very ideology that positions them as linguistically inflexible.
Authenticity practiced in this way is a short-sighted way of navigating the charged social spaces in hyperreality because it is essentially inflexible. Ultimately hypersubjective speakers eschew responsibility for their choices through a sleight of hand as they
defend their language practices as indexical of an authenticity they cannot shake.
This defensive use of authenticity is simply that — a way to sidestep their liability for their speech acts, with the consequence of potentially losing the ability to create shared meaning with others and intensifying the prevailing confusion.
The result of such defensive stances is political incoherence as without a shared reality we cannot have a true collective. This incoherence has already emerged post-2016 as America fragmented into political camps.
Now, in 2020, political incoherence is deepening as the adaptation of different realisms enables individuals to adopt strategies of sensemaking contingent on only their own authenticity as hypersubjective speakers. A consequence of this further fragmentation means that people will not agree on what is important about the shared physical reality as people adopting a realism will mistake their basis for the material reality we all inhabit.
Political incoherence means that as a whole we will not be able to agree on how to tackle larger problems like economic disparity, healthcare, and climate change (among others)—problems that require massive coordination.
Loss of the meaning for a shared physical reality means that as a whole we cannot even agree on the nature of problems, as with COVID-19. As of April 2020, we cannot even agree on what the salient aspects of our situation is, even while we agree there is a problem. Some think the issue primarily economic, whereas others think it political (domestic), while others think it a foreign political issue, and still others think it a matter of biology.
Generally speaking, each side may all have a point, as there are many ways to see the same situation. If each of us could work on the problem as we see it, multivalence could be a strength. However, if a solution requires the group to coordinate, then multivalence is actually a barrier, as some people may see other’s solutions as hoaxes and undermine them (as with people who refuse to practice social distancing).
Without agreement about the nature of the problem, even if we agree that there is a problem, little can actually be done. Additionally, if we never actually try any solution then we can never even begin to discover what the actual problem might be.
In some sense, the biggest enablers of discord are incompetent and corrupt leaders. The very people in charge of our institutions have little incentive to allow the population to figure out what is going on. Our leaders do not have to actively sow discord; they can passively let us fight amongst ourselves without giving real leadership when real leadership will focus the group coherently.
Without real leadership, improvements in our lives will be accidental. Without coherency, we will never be able to discover how to actually improve our lives as our ideas are never truly tested.
Like Brexit, COVID-19 demonstrates our lack of political leadership very clearly.
The solution for defragmentation is simple but difficult to implement: for coordination improvement, we need to have a shared background of concern so that we can establish what is meaningfully meaningful, instead of something that appears meaningful but may not be actionable.
How to find a shared ground that is also actionable is the subject of the next article, Knowledge in the Era of Fake News.
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