The Hyperreal World of Postmodernism

We have entered a most dangerous phase in the history of mankind. In the Modern age we faced genocide, two world wars, and impending nuclear war. Yet in the industrial age we never had the power of complete domination over the planet and all human life on it. Today we have the technology to absolutely control the planet, society, and the individual. We enter a ‘Postmodern’ age where the excess of Western civilization is destroying our environment and exploiting billions of people on the planet through the uneven development of capitalism. Although Postmodernism has created a highly developed critique of Modernity it lacks any viable alternative. Postmodernity is embedded in the Modern Western tradition, and it is impossible to see beyond its concepts and theories. We need a new way of thinking about the problems of Modernity so we can move beyond the trajectory of Modernism and Postmodernism.

What is Postmodernism?

There is a misconception that Postmodernism was a set of theories created by French Marxist philosophers in the 1950s and 60s that challenge the ideas of meaning and knowledge. This is wrong. Postmodernism is not a theory; it is a technology. The most powerful and all-encompassing technology ever developed. Postmodernism takes knowledge and ‘flattens’ it into abstract social constructions. It maps concepts to language to create meaning. The flattening process destroys objective and subjective phenomena reducing the world to social maps and models. As Derrida said, ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ Without having a physical reality for a concept to map to, we can create abstract ‘hyperreal’ realities. Reality becomes a choice between many maps of meaning.

Before Postmodernity Modernism was the most powerful technology ever created. Modernism takes objective data and maps it to a concept. The map or model may be mathematical, geometric, or a logical concept. The first map of the Enlightenment was Copernicus’s model of the solar system. Observed data of the movement of the planets was mapped onto a model of the solar system. Newton’s theory of gravity and his mathematics set up a Newtonian Universe of universal laws of physics. Geometry was used to describe space and movement. It wasn’t long until the scientific method developed where objective data was mapped to a scientific concept. Science became synonymous with physical reality. Technology was used to ‘flatten’ all knowledge into objective knowledge. Social knowledge, and subjective knowledge was ‘flattened’ into purely scientific knowledge.

‘Flattening’ means abstracting or reducing a phenomena or data, to only one form of knowledge. Marx flattened all society down into economics. Freud flattened human consciousness down into subconscious forces. Einstein flattened geometric space into mathematics. Picasso flattened the visual image down into abstract forms. The whole world under Modernism was flattened into rational universal scientific concepts. This led to incredible advances in science and technology.

Postmodernism takes the technology of Modernism and repurposed it for its own uses. Postmodernism is a reaction to, and a logical extension of Modernity. Instead of flattening the world down into objective ideas, (objective idealism), the world is reduced into social ideas, (social idealism). Postmodernism takes the same flattening or abstracting process, but instead of converting the material world into scientific concepts it abstracted them into social constructions. Everything in the phenomenal world is a social construction. We can only know it through the abstraction of language. There is no way to get at reality directly.

How does this technology work?

Kant broke down knowledge into three groups: objective, social, and subjective. Objective knowledge is based on physical data from the material world. It is a world of “its”. The test for objective knowledge is ‘is it true?’. This is the basis of scientific knowledge. Social knowledge is based on intersubjective data from human society. It is based on what “we” think and believe. The test for objective knowledge is ‘is it good?’. Is it good for society in general and people in particular? This is the basis for morality, ethics, and politics. The third type of knowledge is subjective data based on what “I” think, feel, and believe. The test for subjective knowledge is ‘is it beautiful?’, meaning do I feel emotionally connected to it. This is the world of art, music, and entertainment. These three worlds are known as the good, the true, and the beautiful. One world is not equivalent to another and cannot be reduced to another.

Modernism abstracted or ‘flattened’ social knowledge and subjective knowledge down into objective knowledge. The whole world became scientific. Subjective knowledge, what I think, feel, and desire, was flattened down into scientific maps of the brain, biology, and the subconscious. Beauty was destroyed flattened into truth. This can be seen in a Picasso painting or Brutalist architecture. Beauty has been substituted for truth, and truth is abstract. More troubling is the flattening of social knowledge down into objective knowledge. Social ideas like ethics, morality, and what is ‘good’ is flattened down into objective facts. This led to the Modern age of amorality. As Nietzsche said, ‘we are beyond good and evil’.

Postmodernism was a reaction to, and logical continuation of Modernity. It flattened all knowledge down into social knowledge. Modern objective knowledge was flattened into social constructions. Science was flattened into social consensus. ‘99% of scientists agree that climate change is real’ or ‘trust the science’. Race and gender once thought to be biological facts became fluid based on social constructions. The subjective knowledge of what I think, and feel was reduced to social constructions of subconscious forces created by society. ‘Cultural Marxism’ teaches ‘false consciousness’ in capitalist societies misleads the working class to act against their best interests. In Postmodernity the individual loses autonomy to the collective through cultural hegemony.

There is no objective reality in Postmodernity, only more or less authentic fabrications. For this reason, Postmodern knowledge always has an agenda. It is used to control society and individuals by framing their thoughts and actions. Postmodernity sets up a matrix, or automated system of social controls. The control of information is one structure of control. Economics is another. The division of society into groups based on work, class, and identity is another. The fabrication of desire is a powerful form of psychological control as the individual becomes lost in a maze socially constructed desire.

What is generating Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is not a theory cooked up by Marxist intellectuals in academia nor is it an art or architectural style. It is caused by social structures of our Modern civilization. Modernism was the technology of the industrial age where industry needed to objectively study the material world and propose scientific solutions to problems. Technology was based on science, the steam engine, steel production, and electricity. Postmodernism is the technology of a post-industrial age. As society becomes more complex and abstract, interactions between groups becomes more important than industrial manufacturing. Divisions of knowledge create divisions of labor. Government control of propaganda, corporations ‘selling’ products and services, institutions and social groups are the main driving forces of Postmodern technology. All require manipulation and framing social information to operate. Companies must advertise and ‘sell’ their brand and products. Brands like Apple, Nike, or Facebook must manufacture desire in the consumer. The role of the corporation is no longer to produce products, but rather to sell desire. Whole businesses have emerged to control consumer’s attention. Government in open societies work by consensus. The ability to frame knowledge becomes critical in controlling the population. Governments do this first by instituting laws, then protecting ‘public safety’. They expand their role to do what is ‘socially necessary’ taking over all functions of society. Postmodern agendas define what is socially necessary and laws are written to enforce them.

Postmodernism is a technology that manipulates knowledge to control the population in an age of state capitalism and post-industrialism. By framing knowledge, Postmodernity controls the desires of society. It creates a hyperreal world of maps and models with no reference back to reality. The very real danger is our civilization loses the ability to rationally solve real problems and instead devolve into an age of manufactured consent, desire, and imaginary catastrophes. We become a civilization lost in a ghost world unable to return to reality. When real disasters occur, we flatten solutions to social agendas instead of addressing the reality at hand. This creates a society unable to comprehend itself. Unless we learn to control this most powerful of technologies, we will be destroyed by it.

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Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

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Jaime Roberts

Jaime Roberts

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

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