In many ways, life is a series of surprises. Unexpected events occur, change is the underlying constant, and sometimes, what you believe is the direction the world you know is taking turns out to be true. For some combination of events, the hidden is visible and you see it before it becomes common knowledge. You are in a sense, an early adopter of what is to come.
Good critique should, in many ways, produce a mind (or a consciousness) of the future. Not the far off one where science fiction makes its money, but the nearer future; the one of the next weeks, months, and years. Perhaps it can stretch out to a decade or two, in some cases a little more, but inevitably, the further you go, the more predictions become vague or merely a question of pot-luck. Jean Baudrillard was a thinker who navigated this terrain, and sometimes successfully so. His greatest contribution to our current state of knowledge is his articulation and development of the idea of hyperreality, which I am returning to in this post. Partly inspired by Simone Weil who got a lot of mentions at a recent retreat I was on and partly by a recent tweet from Anne Applebaum on people retreating into political battles they have convinced themselves they can easily win.
“Imagination and fiction make up more than three-quarters of our real life.” Simone Weil
I am not an academic. I don’t spend my days paid to analyze a specialized field of study from which I can abstract out a potential hypothesis on where we are heading. I am a gatherer and hoarder of ideas, concepts, and shifts in knowledge as most of my contributions to the Imperfect Buddha project show, and I have a strongly developed allergy to ideological conformity. I am also a diner at the Great Feast and with such an immense array of dishes on offer there, one has to be picky. The hyperreal is one of my favorite appetizers and I have been trying to convince my fellow diners to give it a go for a while now as it has clearly become a key term ahead of its time that describes our current moment extremely well.
Sweeping overview ahoy! (This is a blog remember)
When I first came across the concept of hyperreality, it explained an intuition I had had. It gave it a name, a form and extra dimensions to explore. The concept revealed a world of discovery of human cunning and self-delusion that was finding its home and strength in online life; or second life as we might call it. As I applied the concept to developments to online spaces, I began to see how the internet took Baudrillard’s ideas and amplified them tenfold and that this spelt deep trouble for all of us.
The film The Matrix exploded onto the scene when it was released in 1999 and some of you will remember that its directors were inspired by Baudrillard’s work. Some of my old new age friends at the time were very enthusiastic indeed and thought it a great metaphor for waking up. The ending is an escapist one and an unhappy one though. The material reality Neo finds himself awakened too is horrific and he spends much of his time returning to the fantasy of the hyperreal world he awoke out of. The later films were a disappointment but the original remains an interesting take on Baudrillard’s ideas. The part that stood out for me was the role of choice. A key character named Cypher regrets waking up and chooses to return to the hyperreal world. He represents not just the dilemma of conscious choice but is symbolic of large swathes of the human population: better to be happy and dumb than awake and a companion to misery. Just ask today’s teens about that as they stifle yet another uncomfortable emotion by staring at a Tiktok meme.
This dilemma picks up on the themes of samsara, suffering and the role of happiness within Buddhism as well that of the Bodhisattva. Was Neo one of those some of my new age friends once asked? Perhaps. But hyperreality also seemed a useful conceptual tool for understanding why so many western Buddhists seemed to be acting out the dharma rather than using it to transform their lives radically. Ideas are often far more stimulating and attractive than the real thing and hyperreality shows how we often prefer to live in shared fantasies than work patiently through the steps that produce effective, long-term change in ourselves and in wider society, especially if those steps require us to look at suffering very, very deeply. Better to use practice and Buddhist community to foster good feelings, innocuous social spaces and a sense of moral smugness. Though things might be changing that has often been the choice of Buddhist Cyphers as engagement with Buddhism takes the form of Spiritual Materialism. Is this a moral judgement I am making? In part, but ultimately I see it as a matter-of-fact statement. What changes from the history of religion more broadly, that very few become monks and nuns, let alone Jesus or a Buddha, is that the ameliorating power of the superficial has been turned into a consumer drug by today’s technology. We are closer in this sense to the full on artificial reality in the Matrix than was ever possible. The allure of intense feelings, heightened emotions and a sense of purpose are features of living in the hyperreal. Hyperreality is thus a rejection of the present and a response to its failings.
The Buddhist world is a minor player in all this though. Wider society was heading towards a new age of the ridiculous that would undermine reality from the 90s onward. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi entered politics in that decade and yet again in the early 2000s with promises and lies a plenty designed to hand voters a happy fantasy they could all live in; promoted and sustained by his media empire: He also showed western leaders how easy it was to get away with lying through your teeth in his many political incarnations if you were just willing to conjure up a fantasy that was convincing enough to enough people and abandon any sense of moral or ethical duty to the world. Tony Blair took his advice and undermined British democracy by sustaining lies about the Iraq war, practically inventing a new narrative with no basis in reality and imaginary artifacts to go with it. Baudrillard commented on all this with a book. Blair was, unsurprisingly, best mates with old Silvio. Blair’s other mate, Rupert Murdoch, will be familiar to many of you as an architect in using his media empire to build and sustain collective fantasies and lies and had a role in selling Blair’s deception. They were though amateurs compared to today’s internet users.
The media, as Baudrillard noticed, had become a key driver in constructing and shaping collective fantasies in ways that were becoming more sophisticated and convincing as technology developed. In polarized, dangerous times, these fantasies could become full-scale retreats from the uncomfortable reality beyond the cosy ideological bubbles they represent; especially in the world of culture and politics. The internet has become the paradigmatic disrupter of much which held a sense of collective meaning together and has led to constantly coked up versions of hyperreality as tech has developed and social media has exploded onto the scene. It is easy as ABC to create and sell fictions online as today’s politicians once did.
In the English language world, the Right in its more perverse forms has long had a cynical struggle with reality; its religiosity, roots in Conservatism, and marriage to economic models which befit the rich has led it to manipulate public discourse, be light on truth, and undermine those who would question its claims. They have used the media to this end for decades as Noam Chomsky noted well. A history of TV preachers in the US is one of hyperreal fantasies par excellence. The pragmatism of Europe’s Right Wings has led them to be the avant-garde in using media to manufacture public opinion and stoke reactions amongst conservative bases.
What defines part of the disruptive reality of this century has been the decent of the Left into the terrain of reality denial too. Where once, left-wing intellectuals could be depended on to unmask and provide insight into the failings of politics, wider society and the reality denial and manipulation of the Right, that once sacred task has more or less been abandoned in an embrace of the hyperreal fantasies of the new Left. On the one hand, this can be seen as a reaction to a history of defeat and the triumph of Capitalism over Communism and other socially committed political and economic systems. On the other, it is a direct product of the internal inconsistencies and oikophobia that underlie much left-wing thought and its ideological roots in Humanism, Liberalism and Progressivism: Something which the philosopher John Gray has commented on to great length and with great lucidity.
What is it again? I’ve forgotten.
As a reminder, hyperreality relates not only to individual and group interactions with the media, including the internet today, but is rooted in an understanding that consciousness often loses the ability in such interactions to distinguish reality from the fictions conjured up by the medium at hand. The fiction can become more desirable than the reality it replaces. Today Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and so on, provide multiple simulations of reality as reified abstractions for folks to live in as an alternative to real life; sometimes temporarily, at other times as long term commitments to subject formation. A modelling and shaping of the self takes place within these simulations either way. What’s more, the speed and character of social media interactions become part of general subject formation so that the person lives out a large part of their emergence and presence in this world within intersecting immaterial fantasies. These simulations act as micro-ideological bubbles of course: Something we see more transparently in the playing out of the culture wars in the US, and to a lesser degree in the UK.
A second element concerns what lies underneath. A full on simulation has very little or no ‘reality’ at bottom. We can see this in conspiracy theories on both sides of the political spectrum, in the exaggerated claims made by the more extreme elements of each, and the dismissal of facts and events that counter such claims. We can also see it in the intensification and amplification of small scale reality into over-arching, conspiracy-like visions unmoored from the wider world. Minor academic fields suddenly find their obscure ideas becoming part of everyday discourse and laughable conspiracies explode into political activism that has the feel of a Monty Python sketch. Like the best conspiracies, an element of truth or interesting insight is amplified into a narrative of collective meaning making, though typically reeks with the smell of delusion and is driven by the very human desire for certainty and simplicity. What’s fascinating about our current moment is that the further you go Left or Right, the more you see conformity to building and maintaining hyperreal bubbles as an aggressive rejection of shared reality accompanied by the over-reach of ideological conviction.
Whereas the media in Baudrillard’s time was primarily one of the press, TV, radio and cinema, and thus the hyperreal operated at a larger scale and was typically binary in nature; Left and Right, Progressive and Conservative, Religious and Atheist, and so on. Social binaries today have collapsed into multiplicity and the spawning of micro-divisions as those dichotomous forms fragment. The attempt to capture the fragmentation under binary distinctions is not easy as terms mutate and pop up so quickly: The term woke being a well-known example. We all end up relying on Left and Right as umbrella terms with pejorative variations of each put to use by the more active elements online and elsewhere. We could argue that the internet has led to the fostering of bubbles of the hyperreal designed to suit all tastes that are both parasitic on our recent past and fragmentations of its present as those caught up in them reach for a future that will never arrive. We live in a space in-between, a perennial present where everything is now and everything seems somehow hollow. From this, it should appear as no surprise that McMindfulness would emerge as the new mass-consumption religious practice for the new masses. It mirrors the paradox of the present; we long for it and are terrified by it. We love it and hate it. We are bored and disinterested and pining for more.
Because the hyperreal is at root a rejection of reality for the easy pay offs of living in emotionally charged fantasies, the apparent contradictions existing on both sides of the culture war are nothing to worry about for its combatants. Though not everyone that has adopted or is sympathetic to the extremes of identity politics on the left with its never-ending fluidity of identity and constant expansion of fragmented models of self-hood, such ideals inevitably saturate the passive troops in the middle leading to an undercurrent of shared ideological formation and conformity. The contradiction, inevitably explained away by the more vocal troops, can be seen in how that fluidity crashes into the reification of identity for the special classes the Left celebrates today. Both of these ideals of identity and self-hood can be seen as an expression of the consumerist model of self and we might even argue are ultimately an expression of Neo-liberalism and its detachment from community obligations. At its most irrational, the new Left has created a new religious creed rooted in the Evangelical impulse it so despises built around the triadic rhetoric of anti-racism, the highly emotive world of transgenderism, and the sacrilisation of the other in the form of minorities. Essentially it is a cultural wave built on oikophobia with new transmissions of original sin, critique of which, whether from its enemies or its own members, only acts to strengthen the faith and prove its adherents to be on the side of history and on the side of the good.
The Right has its own schizophrenic moment. The US has had an increasingly reactionary Right since Ronald Reagan started in with the Evangelicals. Yet in the US today, it embraces Russia and its propaganda in an absurd switch from the Cold War years and peddles anti-America rhetoric whilst screaming America first. The irony is not lost on Russians. It also embraces an atheist clown with more business failings than successes whilst pushing and promoting the fictional stories of its evangelical fanatics. Its paranoia about gun control means it cares more about the evil other inside its borders (“…my fellow American”) than the murder of children and random others in weekly mass shootings that resemble video game morality.
Reality has left the room ladies and gentleman. Or perhaps not. Those that look on in a state of shock and awe at these new extremes stay somehow committed to a version of shared material and social reality that underlies these new fantasists. They are of course the real other the hyperreal wings of the Left and Right refuse to see. They ignore them for they are a reminder of what they are trying so hard to leave behind and escape from. The project of transcendence being carried out by the opposing extremes represent collective illusions which each side attempt to live in, conjure up through shared ritual outrage, and sacrifice parts of itself to. What do they sacrifice you may ask? Their own humanity first and foremost. Secondly, the humanity of others (usually without asking). In order to do so they all, in different ways, cut themselves off from the complex present and complex history of our rather complex species.
You may find this an odd claim.
Both sides make historical arguments to promote their collective visions after all. But the parameters and borders of the histories they promote are demarcated by the top ideologues on their teams. Those borders are policed and reinforced through ritualized discourse and short-lived orgies of outrage at the other side. The fragmented many pick up on the themes promoted by the ideologues that blindly, and often unwittingly, steer the ship. Highly selective takes on history thus become a foundational narrative for the hyperreal each inhabits. And of course, those histories do not match up but act to sustain the key tenets of the faithful on each side.
On one level all of this it fascinating. I guess, to keep in theme with real-world events, it is similar to watching a raging forest fire in awe and stunned amazement as it consumes ancient forests, villages, homes, and wildlife. It is difficult to not come away with an interpretation along the lines of the West is destroying itself, or this is the end of America and the reduction of Britain to an insignificant outcrop of Europe; something which no doubt strikes glee into the heart of those who hate half of their fellow citizens and country. The much desired end of the white man’s dominance, Capitalism, Christianity, or whatever end of times fantasy is forefront for the captured masses and micro-organisms it gathers under its flag of the hyperreal is the dark fantasy of many on the Left. The destruction of the world so it may be remade into God’s paradise on Earth is the same for the religious Right. Either that or a return to the Middle Ages and serfdom whilst they live in bunkers somewhere in New Zealand, while the plebs live on an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
For some, it will be clear that all of this can be read as an analysis of pathology.
The propositions laid out so far clearly rest on the notion of there being reality and non-reality. This is a minefield of philosophical and scientific terrain but for everyone else it seems less of an issue. I will avoid the philosophical pitfalls by suggesting that we can be closer or farther away from an engagement with the reality of existence. Reality firstly as the material reality for us humans on this planet, in this universe, within the confines of what we know and experience, up to whatever point in human history we are reading this. Then I would suggest there is a cross over between a reality that exists with or without us (primarily material), the social reality of the world we inhabit (language, culture, religion, relationships, etc), and the reality of our inner-life and its dependence on the previous two. This seems reasonably uncontroversial as a rough description of the terrain we find ourselves in. We can thus state that we are more or less conscious and awake to each of these three and the interactions between them. We can also consider the quality of awareness and attention paid to aspects of each of them in any given moment or period. We can take engagement with them as the context for the practicing life. The hyperreal is fascinating as a conceptual tool from this perspective because it functions to infiltrate and determine each of these layers of ‘reality’. Hyperreality is samsara on steroids.
Why mention all this?
Buddhism today has to contend with this if it is to live on as a practice for this world. Doing so superficially or dogmatically are easy options and perhaps you know of places where this is the approach taken. Meditation traditions and techniques are so many that young practitioners and older folks coming to Buddhism can pick and choose a practice and teachings that become part of the personally tailored, individualistic bent of our age. That might be good but it also might be a reflection of the prioritization of choice and personal satisfaction over disruption and a deeper engagement with suffering. Spiritual materialism can’t help but feed into the hyperreal machinations of our age and Mindfulness is too often presented as a tool for happiness and inner calm rather than a radical means to be present to life in all its brutality and beauty. Buddhism has an element of deconstruction to it both in its popularized meaning of taking things apart and in its Derridean sense of tracing origins in an archaeology of ideas. Yet the former can end up being a partisan analysis through selective deconstruction and thus another manifestation of Spiritual Materialism.
To be an effective means for addressing mental confusion, psychological delusion of the non medical sort, a practice needs explicitly to contend with the allure, the attraction and the escapism that hyperreality represents and contrast the forever tailored means to adopt and adapt any Buddhist practice or idea to feed the hyperreal fantasies and desires of a practitioner or group. This means returning each practice item to the world in its complexity and not leaving it hanging in an ideological fantasy proposed by a given guru figure or activist. Many of whom really are the natural evolution of the New Age gurus that were so prolific in the 1990s.
Non- practice clearly suits such a proposal. In the next post I will explore how. Meanwhile, if you found this text triggering, you should take that as a sign that you are one of the many captured subjects caught up in the Matrix of today’s culture wars. You might thus find something of worth in the next post.
Peace, love, hugs and kisses, fist pumps and bows to all those who need them. I am off to see the remains of the latest forest fire as it appears to have destroyed one of my favorite places for a morning walk.
Related piece: The Great Wonkiness