The Dilemma of Hypermodernity, part one
Mark Wegierski espies an escape route for humanity
An earlier, academic version of this essay has appeared in “This World: Religion and Public Life” (Culture and Consumption) no. 31 (2000) (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers), pp. 29-45. This is the 15th anniversary of the appearance of the academic version of the essay – which had also appeared in various, different, non-academic iterations in the 1990s, including in Polish translation.
One of the most significant, yet often cursorily examined phenomena of modern society is the increasing pace of technological change. The amount of theoretical scientific knowledge (that is, in the “hard” sciences) is growing exponentially, as is the number of devices etc that are being produced, as a result of the growth and practical application of such scientific theory. Ultimately, these technological processes are fuelled by the market-economies of (primarily) North America, Western Europe, and now, the Pacific Rim countries. Yet amongst all this frenzied growth and creative entrepreneurship, to what ultimate end is all this unbridled expansion is taking us?
Social theorists such as George Parkin Grant, David Ehrenfeld, Christopher Lasch, and Jacques Ellul — inspired by figures like Simone Weil and Martin Heidegger — have described an emergent “vicious cycle”, where all the problems caused by modern technology can only be solved by the application of further technologies — which engender newer, greater problems, for which new technological solutions have to be found — and so on. It seems impossible to think that this process can go on forever — at some point, the crises engendered by technology (a total saturation of the environment with pollutants of various sorts, for example), will confront humanity. And the suggestion that recombinant DNA technology could be used to “adjust” humans to live in heavily polluted or radiated environments is simply nightmarish. Our world is one in which genes of mice are spliced with those of carrots, mice with genetically human blood coursing through their bodies. Biotechnology companies develop new, unique life forms, such as the aforementioned mice, over which they then exercise exclusive proprietary control. Recently, there was the story that scientists in Britain had developed transgenic pigs, whose organs are to be used in humans. There were also reports in the media that a research laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, had produced genetically altered flies with fly eye structures in 14 different places in their bodies, where they never naturally occur. These various tendencies evidently represent only the beginning of the infinite manipulation of human and physical nature through technology, against which — along with other thinkers — Aldous Huxley warned, in his finely crafted dystopia Brave New World.
Apart from the so-called purely physical effects, e.g., toxic waste dumps, poisoned air, skin cancer from ozone depletion, shrinking forests and green spaces, as well as dwindling or extinct natural species — which are bad enough in themselves and now obvious to almost everyone — there are also the enormous social effects and costs of total technologization, for example, massive overpopulation, especially in often overburdened urban areas — which are enfolding more quickly than the ultimate dangers of pollution and biological manipulation.
The trend through all of history has certainly been towards increasing urbanization and technologization in urban areas, but in premodern societies, there were definite natural checks on such growth. The contemporary problem of excessive urban growth affects all parts of the Earth — the Western world, the ex-Eastern bloc, East Asia, and the vast South of the planet. What, for example, can be done today to prevent BosNYWash (Boston – New York – Washington) from swallowing up the entire North-Eastern seaboard of the United States? What is to prevent Mexico City from having a population of 30 million in ten years or so? The traditional society — like all societies of the South of the planet — continues to be dislocated by overpopulation arising from cheap, band-aid infusions of Western technology — resulting in greater misery, disease, starvation, political corruption, and environmental degradation for virtually everyone afterwards. The faster the growth rates of the American and world-economies, the more enticing the images Western advertising firms offer the desperate poor in the South and ex-Eastern Bloc, and the greater the needs of the transnational corporations (TNC’s) for cheap labour pools, the faster such behemoth-cities will grow, in every part of the world. (Only East Asia shows some evidence of being able to cope with burgeoning urban populations — as typified by the authoritarian but very environment-conscious Singapore.) In terms of human social existence, the contemporary urban environment virtually always turns out to be one where, as in New York, the social bonds and ties of “small-town” family, community, and country are largely lost, to be replaced by the “razor’s-edge” excitement of the big city.
In their hey-day from around the 1880’s to the late 1960’s, America’s big cities — New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, etc., had evolved a unique, fairly liveable, many cornered community structure that somehow dealt, however imperfectly, with the problems of living in these urban agglomerations. This system was partially described in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Prominent in these structures were civic politicians and “ward-heelers”; the big factory-owners; leading small businessmen; the municipal police; the Catholic Church, which represented large numbers of non-Protestant white ethnics; the virile, heavy-industry, blue-collar labour unions; the editors and reporters of the big independent papers of the city; as well as traditionally-situated organized-crime groups and youth-gangs, both exceedingly mild in their social consequences by today’s standards. This kind of urban milieu can be seen in any number of movies (especially older movies) set in this period.
However, in the following decades, as the commodity, advertising, and “instant gratification” culture increased its grip on society, there came an explosion and expansion of various vicious groups, for example, greedy developers, ruthless advertisers, the parvenu rich, drug-pushers, etc., that refused to play within the rules of the big-city, resulting in the near-complete breakdown of the urban social consensus, and the turning of large sections of downtown American cities into hell-zones. Although the city vs. country distinction has existed throughout much of history, nowhere has it been thrown into such sharp relief as in America.
There are in fact two, distinct America’s: the big cities — dynamic, pulsating, heterogenous, and cosmopolitan; and the heartland — simple, quiet, and home-spun. There is, however, a serious imbalance of power, ideology, and resource-consumption between the urban centres and the rural periphery, which parallels, it could be argued, the relations between the Western world and the South of the planet, as described in node-periphery theory. The big cities siphon off the people and resources of the heartland to create an environment which, while certainly exciting, is brazen in its artificiality — gleaming corporate skyscrapers, condo-towers, and ugly housing complexes rising out of the detritus created by the death of old neighbourhoods and old town-centres — possibly the last places of civilized life in the modern city (from the Latin civis, suggesting the public-spirited “citizen”) — which had continued to exist in the context of the older big-city structure.
And then there are the suburbs, neither city nor country — the developers’ creation, “Ye Olde Victorian Homes” — thrown together at impossible densities, produced with all the care and craftsmanship of an assembly-line, and centred on those vital modern institutions — the shopping-mall and the public high school — though one sometimes wonders which of these performs the greater “educative” function. In the suburbs, one finds neither the “cutting-edge” excitement of the inner-city, nor any real sense of community and country values. Indeed, the suburbs continually devour the real countryside, forming a sterile “inter-zone” between the various urban conglomerations.
And what now increasingly emerges is the West Edmonton Mall scenario — which is today the world’s largest mall — human beings living in huge, totally manipulated environments, cut off from earth and sky and sea and wind. Life in such an environment would eventually come to resemble the existence portrayed in such movies as Logan’s Run or Outland — meaningless, monotonous work relieved only by perverse, polymorphous ecstasy. In fact, as the efficiency of control techniques increased, one could reward workers with less and less, until they literally became happily mindless drudges, as Jacques Ellul warns.
Through the instrumentalities of the technological media, and a co-opted heterogenous lumpenproletariat — which is always ready to be deployed against the legitimate claims of the heartland — an extraordinarily narrow, socially liberal, economically capitalist, hyper-urban elite dominates North American society. The social liberalism of this elite is nothing more than a justification for ever greater hypertrophic consumption for the entire population; as well as for bringing into existence innumerable pseudo-countercultural “tribes” based almost exclusively on expensive commodity fetishes (as described by Guillaume Faye in La Nouvelle Société de Consommation).
The webs of urban-and-technology-based domination, control, and influence by media reach deep into the heartland — creating through various technological means and simulacra, a whole “other” dimension, an electronic environment, which has never hitherto existed in humanity’s history. Along with the commodity-structure they support, the media constitute the major part of the interlocking grid of what French social theorist Jean Baudrillard terms North American “hyperreality”.
The media, far from being liberating, hyper-centralize power — for those who have access to them — hence the absurd income-figures of persons who, in earlier societies, might well have been petty street-hawkers or street-singers. The electronic and other media dominate the sociophysical environment to an extent never before achievable or imaginable. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “one thousand repetitions make one truth”. And one picture (i.e., riveting visual image) is worth a thousand words!
The media do not use “inefficient” coercive methods but rather all-pervasive normative control of virtually all societal vocabularies and imageries. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had asserted that “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak”, i.e., that the key to capturing people’s minds was to monopolize the various “languages” current in society. The apparatus of torture and repression drawn in the book was ultimately secondary. Aldous Huxley’s society — to which our own world seems somewhat closer than to Orwell’s vision — can therefore be seen as a “refined” version of Orwell’s police state.
Understanding the nature of semantic and symbolic control allows one to see North American society as both generally non-coercive and normatively totalitarian. The mass media and its complementary mass marketing, mass education, and state therapeutic systems construct the sociophysical environment in which we all live, and the societal norms most of us accept.
What does the promised land of hyperurban North America really amount to? At the upper-most levels of Manhattan, or in its cavernous underground play-pens, corporate controllers, cynical media figures, “successful businessmen” (i.e. drug pushers), highly placed government apparatchiks, and decadent pseudo dissidents, pseudo artists, and pseudo intellectuals commingle freely, indulging in their variegated pleasures — bought at the expense of exploiting and corrupting the heartland, and the decencies of the human heart. The scene is similar in L.A. and its environs, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Detroit…with minor local variations and colour.
All in all, this is reminiscent of the world portrayed in such ambiguous or culturally challenging films as Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (where the desperate prophet-figure, after a brave fight, concludes, “we’re all androids now”); Wall Street (“greed is good!!”); Tim Burton’s new Batman epics; Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; Verhoeven’s RoboCop; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (based on William Gibson’s short story); Judge Dredd; or the Max Headroom TV series — most of which depict the so-called “air-conditioned nightmare” of the “near-future”. (Max Headroom was set “twenty minutes into the future”.) This “gritty future” — distinct in some ways from the supersanitized Brave New World environment — is also explored in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick), and in the entire “cyberpunk” subgenre of science-fiction. There already exists — among other phenomena — a rock music movement often called by that name; as well as other such extremal movements (which amount to being entire styles-of-life), like thrash-metal and gangsta-rap, promoting hyperviolence and hyperdecadence.
These various contemporary artefacts (as well as the burgeoning genre of “the lonely, wounded hero”, best typified by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s operatic interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera, as well as the Beauty and the Beast TV series) suggest that meaningful resistance to the current system — whether in strong words or deeds — must initially come from embattled lonely men and women of heroic stature, championing and joining together with all others who are brutally marginalized by the current power-realities. Many of the truly intelligent and decent people in North America wander about half-dazed and half-broken, not even conscious of what is plaguing them and the society as a whole.
And, if generational rebellion truly is inevitable, let it flow in a natural and socially-meaningful direction: towards a rejection of the whole system of media-oligarchy with all its sterility and machine like conditioning processes.
Although rock-music is undeniably one of the primary means for the socialization of youth into contemporary society, it maintains in places strong Romantic and idealistic themes, however distorted they might be. To properly evoke these themes, through careful lyrical and melodic analysis, in a socially meaningful way, would be a quick point of entry into the very centre of current media-generated “youth-culture”. Another possibly hopeful music genre is the rising “New Country”.
Yet, ultimately, the only worthwhile attitude to contemporary North American culture, which “air-conditions hell and kills the soul” — for anyone claiming the barest shred of thought, reflection, or decency — must be cutting, biting, searing, consistent criticism. Surely, there can be no cause more heroic and idealistic than to fight against a corrupt and socially destructive oligarchy; to discover real meaning and worth in one’s own life; and to strive to recreate and then participate fully in a real social, communal, and spiritual life, “heart speaking to heart”. This deeply felt, determined, serious minded criticism might even be seen as the only genuine art or poetry — in the highest meaning of those terms — possible in our age. Arguably, everything else is mannerism, kitsch, commodity, or genre piece, meaningful only in so far as it echoes the serious critique of “the contemporary order of things”.
In the face of a completely manipulated environment, it appears that most of us are left with, as our final defence and ultimate touchstone, only our subterranean underground impulses, our primeval unconscious, which remains virtually inviolate — if we can even believe in something like it in this day and age. This disjunction between something that can be felt as our primeval eros, which is virtually the same as when we emerged from the caves, and our radically altered technological world, probably explains why there are so many people today who superficially accept contemporary norms, yet are genuinely unhappy. Ever deepening unhappiness in the midst of sybaritic luxury, or rather, more often than not, engendered by that purposeless luxury, will remain a part of the human condition in contemporary society until the real genetic manipulation, à la Brave New World, begins.
And there is much to criticize today. The “last men” now in charge (so well described by Nietzsche), who preside over this imploding kingdom, are a feckless oligarchy — they rail against vigilantism, but are unable to maintain safe streets; they claim they are opposed to violence, but supersaturate society with slasher-flicks, shock-horror movies, thrash-metal, and so forth, particularly aimed at the young.
These oligarchs are clearly incapable of giving genuine leadership and direction to the society they are parasitical upon. They cannot even use the justification of being a successful elite, of assuring unity and cohesion for their society — or even a minimum of safety for their citizens. They can evangelize the East to their way of thinking; exploit the South of the planet economically (and invade it militarily, too); dislocate and destroy traditional societies; and rape the environment with relish, at home and abroad, but they lack the creative political energy to form something lasting and worthwhile, which can be passed on to the common history of humanity. It must be understood that the big cities of North America today — completely divorced from the countryside — are really the centres or “capitals” of an emerging, transnational global culture which some term “PlanetTeen” — a borderless, planet wide, socioeconomic system, dominated by North American pop-culture, consumerism, and all pervasive technological saturation.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents