Re: [-empyre-] The Hyper-Modern Condition
Fantastic and enlightening essay re Lyotard - a great primer - thanks Eric.
I have a question. You say:
"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."
To me, the later part of this argument may actually support Klein's
position! Yes, given, symbols do mediate the real. (And this is where I
think we should pursue the social through exploring the novel
manifestations that can be made to emerge at the points where the
virtual and the real co-generate... but this is not my question...) So,
how could we simultaneously hold that "symbols [are] the only substance
that is left" and still hold that "physical action" continues to exist?
Is the physical action somehow totally effaced by the awful taint of
being symbolically mediated? It is social when a database plays a role
in physically distributing the food I eventually acquire, or other
aspects of material wealth and how it is distributed, or who with and
how I communicate, etc? Yet we hold that symbols remain the only social
I think that symbols enter holistically into the material and the social
(and have for a long time... a case I make here
topic...). Here, I'll hold that symbols don't efface the social or the
physical, it is just that we don't understand fully how they mediate
these yet. It is possible that as we understand how this works or more
interestingly might be made to work (the role of artists, imho), that
our postmodern state (the early phase where we are excessively thrown by
rapid change - remember it took modernism a long time to incorporate
around the material realities of the industrial revolution) might become
the N-state, whatever that is or might be. Just as "Modernism"
eventually crystallized epistemologically as culture incorporated the
social consequences of the motor, maybe we are on the verge of socially
incorporating high-speed computation and digital computation,
post-silicone, into something even more theoretically coherent than the
first wave of postmodern thought which grappled with the consequent
social changes... Just a thought.
I'm sure of one thing. This conversation may play out over many years,
certainly not by the end of March 2006;-)
Eric Kluitenberg wrote:
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
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
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,
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 -
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I hope this was / is of interest.
Brett Stalbaum, Lecturer, PSOE
Coordinator, Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts Major (ICAM)
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO
Department of Visual Arts
9500 GILMAN DR. # 0084
La Jolla CA 92093-0084
Info for students, spring quarter 2K6:
-Vis 141b (Advanced Computer Programming/Arts) office hour:
WED 3-4PM, VAF 206, Contact via WebCT
-ICAM and Media (computing emphasis) faculty advising:
WED 4-5PM, VAF 206, Contact via email firstname.lastname@example.org
-ICAM 110 (Computing in the Arts: Current Practice) office hour:
WED 5-6PM, Location TBA, Contact: via WebCT
Week 1 (Wed, April 5th) office hours for Vis 141b and ICAM/MediaC moved
to Thursday the 6th, 1-2PM and 2-3PM, Vaf 206. (ICAM 110 unchanged.)
Week 3 (Wed, April 19th) office hours for Vis 141b and ICAM/MediaC moved
to Thursday the 20th, 1-2PM and 2-3PM, Vaf 206. (ICAM 110 unchanged.)
Week 10 - No office hours this week.
Meetings available by appointment during finals week.
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