[-empyre-] The Hyper-Modern Condition

Dear empyre list members,

It was my strict intention to enter the debate on the lingering legacy of modernism much earlier in the month. However, a flue has rendered me rather unable to work on anything intellectually demanding for the last two to three weeks, and even now I am struggling with the last cold symptoms. Apparently, a lot of people here locally (Amsterdam) have been taken down by this flue and have similar experience with intensity and length of this viral contamination....

I have followed some of the discussion on the list, though not all, and it seems there is a highly lively debate. However, I did not find the particular perspective introduced here that I originally suggested to Christina as a possible contribution to the discussion. So, what I want to do right now is to provide you with some basic notes on the topic I suggested. These notes follow below, plus further references. Although not much time is left for the current discussion, and my own time is severely under pressure after having lost a good two weeks of productive time, I welcome comments, criticism or remarks.


The Hyper-Modern Condition

Cursory notes on the persisting legacy of modernism

Walter Benjamin seems to have said that there has never been an era that has not felt itself 'excessively modern'.

Almost thirty years after Jean-François Lyotard published his 'rapport sur le savoir', "La condition postmoderne", the experience of modernity seems far from over. Lyotard himself observed that there is something that links the technosciences, the avantgardes and advanced capitalism together that defines this unique experience of the modern, and that 'thing' is a shared affinity with infinity ("affinité avec l'infinité").

The technosciences exhibit the infinite ability of knowing (acquiring knowledge), the avantgardes exhibit the infinity of 'plastic invention' (the infinity of possible modes of representation), and advanced capitalism exhibits the infinite ability to realise. Thus, in Lyotard's formula the modern program can be summed up as "seeing all, knowing all, realising all". The horizon of modernity is that of all that is possible, and Lyotard reminds us, horizons recede into infinity as we move forward....

Now the problem of infinity vis-à-vis representation is, of course, that infinity itself is qua hypothesis unrepresentable, and can only be established, 'shown to exist', negatively, via an inverted sign, a sign that is a non-sign, a sign that points beyond itself through its negative (non-representational) form to hint at something unrepresentable. In this case it is easy to see that something without an end (something infinite) can never have a specific form - in the Kantian formula; can never be synthesised into unique form in space and time.

This specific understanding of the 'modern condition' of Lyotard, quite inescapably drives him into the direction of the aesthetics of the sublime, which he adopts from Kant's Kritik der Urteillskraft, but modifies substantially to integrate the avant-garde's use of negative signs to show that the unrepresentable exists. At some point (in his essay "la philosophie et la peinture à l'ere de leur expérimentation" of 1979 - the same year as his Postmodern Condition) he even states that it is the highest aim of (avantgarde) art today to show that the unrepresentable exists, and even that it is the only task worthy of a practice with a century of heroic 'experimentation'.

So, to make a mild understatement, it is clear that this is not a side-issue in his work. In fact the figure of the unrepresentable is at work in the Postmodern Condition as well. Here Lyotard states the incommensurability of language games, because a shared scale of measurement (of judgements) is absent these language games are untranslatable into one another. Conflicting judgements, especially epistemological and moral judgements, can therefore only be 'resolved' by applying 'terror' to one or more of these conflicting language games if they are to reach a common ground of consensus. Consensus then is terror and therefore fundamentally suspect.

In "Le Differend" Lyotard develops this point in great detail and shows that even in the most gruesome case, the holocaust denial, conflicting judgements between incommensurable language games can never be resolved without the application of terror. It is this point more than anything else that locked Lyotard in a bitter dispute with Habermas in the 80s, which became widely known as the modernism / post-modernism debate. Today we see the lingering of these positions in the different stances that are taken on the debates of multiculturalism versus integration, and the continental European debate on a "Leitkultur". Here the ambiguities of moral judgements between universalisms versus inextinguishable difference collide head to head in some of the most virulent and controversial socio- political debates and the policies that are based on the positions taken within those debates on immigration, integration, and segregation, in Europe but also elsewhere.

Now, going back to Lyotard's aesthetic theory (as I tried to show in some broad brush strokes intimately linked with his "post-modern" political theory), what puzzles me is that he coined the term "post- modern" for a particular condition he observed in the technosciences, society and culture. What this term suggests is something 'beyond' modernism'. While, especially in his aesthetic theory, and the use of the motives of the sublime, the unrepresentable, the negative sign, the negative dialectics of the image, he is using 'classically' modern concepts to discuss tendencies in contemporary arts and culture.

Furthermore, knowing that it was Lyotard's primary profession to be an aesthetician, rather than a philosopher of science or a political philosopher, and also knowing that he did indeed write some magnificent texts on contemporary artists of his time and made many invaluable contributions to art-theoretical discourse also in main- stream visual arts magazines, the use of these modern (modernist) concepts is in no way out of naiveté, or a lack of understanding of the contemporary context of art-theoretical and aesthetic discourse.

Thus the figure of the unrepresentable and the aesthetic reflection on that what is qua hypothesis impossible to give shape or form should be considered at the heart of Lyotard's philosophy and through his phenomenal influence on the modernity / post-modernity debate should also be considered one of the core themes of this debate per se.

That make sit all the more problematic that while the suggestion of a move beyond modernism / modernity / the modern experience is made, a curiously modern set of concepts and analytic strategies is employed to make this point. In fact the kind of program that Lyotard postulates for 'la peinture' in the age of its experimentation is not post-modern, but hyper-modern.

To stretch language a bit further here and use some Baudrillardian terms in a tongue-in-cheeks way, you could say that this discourse is not hyper-real at all, but instead 'really hyper-modern'.....

Why is this a problem?

OK - so if this argument I made would hold on closer and critical scrutiny I could maintain that I have shown that Lyotard's thought is no no way beyond the modern, but is instead hyper-modern. This would leave most of the debate on what is customarily understood as post- modern in philosophy / political science / cultural theory in tact. It also does not affect the furious debate on universalism versus inextinguishable difference, and it seems but a technical point - of interest for Lyotard adepts like myself, but rather less interesting for the rest of humanity....

But here is only where the trouble starts. Lyotard presents a magnificent framework that allows us to link up avant-garde art production, the techno-sciences and advanced capitalism in one analytic framework - that of a shared affinity with infinity. And the unrepresentable links up the debate in epistemology on the unknowable in an all too perfect way with the negative dialectics of the avant- garde and the incommensurability of language games. The second point Lyotard summed up in an interview in a theme issue of the German art magazine Kunstforum International as "The incommensurable is the unrepresentable" and thus his political and aesthetic theories are firmly interlocked in an ultimately condensed and clear formula - brilliant!

The problem arises from Lyotard's strict rejection of technological mediation. In 1985 he produced, together with Thierry Chaput a rather infamous exhibition at the centre Pompidou called Les Immatériaux, which tried to investigate the meaning of the fact of the 'new materials'. Rather than being strictly didactic exhibition it presented scenario's and situations that attempted to heighten the sensitivity of the audience for the things that were changing because of the fact of the new materials - materials that in a contradictory way were no longer materials for a project - thus the term 'immaterials'. Here Lyotard connects his exploration of the technosciences, the avantgardes and advanced capitalism with the development of new materials en mediation techniques. The show seems ultimately positioned to question the difficulties and contradictions these new materials and mediation techniques bring about, but also their transformatory social potential, in a way their emancipatory potential.

Lyotard goes at great length to show that ever more complex technological arrangements place themselves in-between man and the reality that she/he tries to transform or work upon. We increasingly loose contact with the materials, and increasingly interact via 'immaterials' that have placed themselves between man and (social / physical / material) reality. The decisive step is the moment when digital data were introduced, data without an analogy to their origin. "It is as if a filter has been placed between us and the things, a screen of numbers", Lyotard writes in the text on the concept of the show in the catalogue.

Once digital data start to circulate in electronic networks they dissolve every connection with the reality they seek or are supposed to represent. Any source-information is translated into a universal code (without analogy to its origin) and is subject to the possibility of endless circulation and complete malleability. However, what is crucial to understand about digital data (digital notation) is that its notation scheme is essentially finite and completely articulated. In it, Lyotard states in a later interview about the show, "everything becomes a message - even the silence, which strictly speaking does not tell anything, but generates meaning".

Already in an earlier essay that examines the advance of photography and its influence on the artistic practice of painting Lyotard critiques the "complete determinacy" of the technological medium. This is brought to its logical conclusion in the digital notation scheme and its application to electronic technologies (that operate in real-time). This complete determinacy leaves no space for the indeterminate, which is stamped out as a possibility of representation, but also can no longer be negatively represented within this notation scheme as everything within that scheme is a message, he maintains, Digital mediation then precludes the possibility of showing the unrepresentable to exist.

Art that relies on digital mediation then falls essentially short of the highest task that Lyotard has ascribed to art today, and equally as carrier of social discourse and debate digital mediation precludes the possibility to demonstrate the incommensurability of language games because it is itself a finite language game, defined by immutable rules: A matrix of perfect articulation.

If you would follow Lyotard's position that language games are incommensurable and subject to terror if one is to imprint a shared final position in a conflict of judgement between such incommensurable language games, then the universalist discourse of classical modernism must be understood to be essentially flawed. Habermas' position of communicative transparency must then for instance be understood as nothing else than the imposition of a view of dominant culture on to a less powerful culture through the application of terror (physical and/or cultural force). Personally I would reluctantly follow the argument and adhere to that position of Lyotard.

The emancipatory potential of digital mediation should then, following the same arguments outlined above, be considered nihil. The finity and complete articulation of the digital scheme precludes the possibility of the incommensurable difference between language games to emerge within that system of digital mediation, because the system itself is already predicated on a specific, finite and fully articulated language game. The use of digital media thus would not allow for any kind of bridging of cultural differences and/or divides but simply erase cultural difference within the finite and fully articulated scheme of digital notation.

Out with the system of digital mediation and more broadly technological mediation, which has been rejected by Lyotard because of its complete determinacy, also goes the possibility of intervention into the domain of technological mediation. However, most of social interaction today is carried by technological mediation, from print media to electronic mass media to internet, e- mail, discussion fora, blogs, mailing lists (like empyre), mobile phones, sms, 3rd and 4th generation wireless media, wifi networks, open source and free software systems and much much more. All of these simply serve the establishment of a dominant cultural code that extinguishes the very possibility of difference to enter the social arena, to manifest itself or to be invertedly demonstrated by negative signs that point to the infinity of possible language games / modes of representation / the infinity of plastic invention.

Lyotard's discourse thus becomes hermetic and locks itself in a dead- end street. Indeed in some of his latest writings he is utterly dystopian and considers 'the system' to have become all-encompassing (as afar as the social process goes) and without an external point of critique since everything, the social in its entirety is fully captured and completely immersed in 'the system' (technoscientific rationality and the infinite ability of advanced capitalism to realise). And this position is obviously completely unproductive if one still has any hope for social, cultural and political progress of whatever kind....

Being excessively hyper-modern and how to go beyond the hyper-modern condition...

What is amazingly striking about Lyotard's critique is that it pinpoints some of the most painful fallacies of modernist discourse and the social and political systems they give rise to, yet that the very same arguments lead Lyotard in classically modern trap. The critique of modernity comes from within (this is a bit like Tourainne), but it leads to a hermetic position that cannot escape the system from which it was produced, and still suggest a necessary outcome of 'historical' development, not an end of history, nor an 'incomplete project', but rather a final endpoint of the modernist project, and all-encompassing system that no longer has any external reference point from which a fundamental or systemic critique could be successfully raised, since any critique is already subsumed in the system.

This leads to a dangerous fatalistic position: The only transformation of this all-encompassing system is its complete destruction by an incommensurable form of otherness. In more mundane terms, a clash of civilisations, the destruction of the west by what...?? The orient? The Islamic world? (whatever that may be...). By the 'global south'?

Digital / technological mediation in any case according to this formula would not be a possibility for starting some kind of dialogue, since it merely means the application of terror to any form of otherness not already subsumed in the cultural system that produced these technologies.

One way out might be to reject Lyotard's position on the incommensurability of language game and to re-approach the incomplete project of finding a communicative meta-level at which conflicting judgements between different language games can be resolved in terms of 'universal' human needs, concerns, and aspirations. But I must say that I just cannot see how such a universalist discourse would ever work, even if it is developed from a fundamental understanding of respect for the initial difference of these conflicting judgements and the cultural systems in which and across which they are made?

To take just a very simple example; how can a typically modernist aspiration as the quest for self-actualisation of the subject, ultimately be reconciled with a culture which is entirely predicated on family relations and where these family relations define the moral framework within which judgements about proper behaviour are made? We cannot erase that difference by going back to common biological and material determinants as this would inflict terror on all language games / cultural systems - culture after all 'is' our nature....

Another option would be a regression to closed cultural systems, a reactionary move away from the modernist affinity with infinity, a rejection of the desire to see all, know all, and to realise all, and instead opt for deliberate restriction to a historically grown and fortified cultural framework, in which difference is not so much denied as it is evaded or ignored. That would indeed be a completely regressive and reactionary move that might work for somebody like Roger Scruton, but certainly not for me.

Overlooking this battle-field I cannot help but feel totally immersed in modernity and quite unable to escape it, even if its limitations, its implicit terror and its internal contradictions are blatantly clear to me, and as such I can no longer claim "I'm a believer!". Instead I feel hyper-modern, and in this case, and different from Lyotard, in a sense closer to the notion of the hyper-real that Baudrillard has suggested.

This could be summarised as being fully aware that what is circulating in the networks are the empty signifiers of failed modern project, the symbols of empty modernism, yet acknowledging that (in a society saturated by technological mediation) symbols is all that is left to act through in the social arena, in the public domain. When Naomi Klein wrote "From symbols to substance" she was dead-wrong, symbols is the only substance that is left for our social reality, which has scaled up so far beyond the face to face that any physical action only becomes socially meaningful in as far as it is technologically / symbolically mediated.

The approach one could take then to still act socially and in public is concrete action in this symbolical and technological mediated domain, for which the history and legacy of modernism and the avantgardes offers us all the conceptual and practical tools to deploy such actions.


I tried to explore some of these issues in the text "Transfiguration of the Avant-Garde" and I think that this text is still not satisfactory, also it links up quite exclusively to interventions of The Yesmen in the second part of the text (though this material was developed way before they became a hype), and the analysis needs to be expanded along the lines roughly sketched above. You can find the text in various places on-line, a.o. here:


Some more info concerning my biography, projects, texts, can be found here:


I hope this was / is of interest.

best wishes,


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