Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)
Author: Marc Oliver D. Pasco
It would be a glaring understatement if one were to claim that ours is an age defined and fueled by the spirit of the scientific enterprise. The primary directives inscribed within the dynamisms of historical progress of most if not all lifeworlds in our age are charged with the ever-renewable passion for conquering the unknown and domesticating its facets for the sake of securing humanity’s survival in virtually all scientifically foreseeable circumstance. Historically, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution have secured for man a future where he is able to gladly rejoice in the burden of his own ignorance of the great unknown by way of a counter-weight—a learned ignorance equipped with the proper tools to dispel the gnawing insecurity he experiences with respect to that which is not yet under his control. Wakened from his “dogmatic slumber” and spiritual malaise, modern man had since “lived dangerously,” daring to “put nature on the rack,” testing the limits of his patience against nature’s hardened shell. Through the resolute advance of science and technology, man has been able to split particles of a size beyond sight, mine the earth to energize various forms of industry and even step on worlds that were once but dots at the end of a looking glass.
In fact, it may even be argued that we are but approaching the natal stages of our powers. Year after year, we encounter the world and our image in ever changing and novel ways. Through the mediation of the technlogical and the virtual, we are multiplying our identities, re-opening and re-problematizing classical scientific conundrums for possible utility, exploring once alien territories while simultaneously inventing more platforms to stage all of these undertakings in more accessible and “user-friendly” modes.
Today, the internet, specifically through social networking, continually revolutionizes ways of life and connects them with one another, facilitating a smooth, digital economy of signs where information passes from one platform to another with ease. In these digital exchanges, information is exposed unfiltered, uncensored and to a certain extent, unwittingly unrecognized due to its sheer density. Everything is now seen, heard, absorbed, processed, edited and translated in real-time, nullifying the once sacred character of knowledge as it relates to the temporal and historical nature of the unknown; relegating it to the status of commodity—current, banal and unexciting. Within the parameters of such a context, contemporary man, it may be argued, exposes himself to the challenges posed by the opaque appearance of nature (risking life, limb and neurons) by exploring his capacities in view of establishing a symmetrical, if not a dominating relationship with reality. Armed with uncompromising grit and dedication (and a number of geniuses along the way), the last 400 years of human civilization has experienced change and progress in terms of accumulating objective and calculated knowledge about the world and himself that is unparalleled in human history. It may even be said that we are starting to run out of things to discover and matter itself is beginning to not matter anymore. In the realm of physics, for instance, physicists are looking to be on their way to answering the age-old philosophical question, “What was there before the beginning?”
It is this peculiarly human passion for exposure that this paper aims to elucidate on. It may be argued that the contemporary milieu is one that is primordially defined by the scientific and technological drive to see more of everything in everything and more of man in everything, a revived and reconfigured form of idolatry focused not just on uncovering the factual and measurable condition for the possibility of reality to subvert its once supernatural ground, but on a more primal urge—the enthusiasm for replicating the real and its appearances in a quest not just to see more of everything but to obliterate all mirrors until reality itself implodes in its utter visibility.
For this purpose, we shall look into the works of two thinkers that are often associated with a philosophical critique of technology and its relation to man and society in general. The first part of the paper shall discuss Martin Heidegger’s explication of the historical ground of man’s apparent obsession with objectivity, measurability and calculability. In his work entitled, “The Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger seeks to explain how the scientific/subject-centered tenor of modern philosophy paves the path for the historical oblivion of Being. This shall serve as the point of departure for exploring what is to mind, the more pressing matter of shedding light on man’s recent obsession with technological/virtual exposure and visibility. After alienating himself from the truth of Being, where does man stand with respect to the real? In other words, after the subjectivistic turn in the history of man’s forgetfulness of Being where Being has been displaced by the objectivity of the object, what kind of world and what manner of beings do we now encounter? It is at this point where the French thinker Jean Baudrillard’s insights on contemporary media society and his elucidation of the meaning of hyperreality may prove useful. It will be argued that after the epochal transmutation of Being into objects prevalent in the modern scientific age reckoned by way of method and calculation, objects, in their perpetual visibility and replicability through virtual reality has imploded into fractal components of self-repeating and self-grounding images that terminate in the obscenity of the real. The exponential decay and the concurrent metastatic transmutation of the objective, the real and the rational into simulacra is arguably one of the most thought-provoking facts of contemporary history and it is precisely this matter that this work shall try to elucidate on. The main question therefore is this: “How should reason, traditionally interpreted within the bounds of modernity as the ground of objective reality, the so-called subiectum, be understood in today’s age as it presses forward into the epoch of virtual reality?” In other words, where does man stand in relation to Being in the age of hyperreality?
II. Descartes and the Modern “Science Project”
The age of science, or at least how we understand the scientific enterprise as the calculative reckoning of reality through human technology and reason, is often associated with the advent of modernity. From a philosophical standpoint, modernity properly began with the Cartesian discovery of the foundation of knowledge in the Cogito—the famous Cogito, ergo sum! With Descartes’ so-called Archimedean point, human knowledge forged for itself a bedrock of certitude, a logical and rational system of clear and distinct ideas that are beyond doubt, grasped by reason itself even without the mediation of sense experience. Descartes’ “I think,” is a priori knowledge par excellence. The mathematical reckoning of reality is a function of certitude. Descartes, being the mathematician that he was, sought the foundation of knowledge from the standpoint of self-alienation, a movement of auto-exile, as it were, which afforded him the luxury of bracketing the most immediate source of knowledge—common sense. With the momentary dissolution of common sense, Descartes, a la Don Quixote, dreamed the impossible dream and actually thought that perhaps everything was in fact a dream! And when the world was eventually swallowed up by doubt and everything was but a dream, he sought refuge in the arms of a benevolent and all-perfect God who made his nightmare and the evil genie inside it vanish. The proof for God’s existence, which is also grounded in the self-evidence of a clear and distinct idea of consciousness, in the end, grounds the entire Cartesian enterprise.
Given this fact, the Cartesian project is truly seminal and truly laudable for the sheer audacity and rigor of the method that was employed in establishing the foundation of knowledge. Apart from the fact that it was able to show that consciousness is the perennial subiectum, or that which lies under every experience, or that which grounds the condition for the possibility of truthful estimation, it was also able to, perhaps by accident, proffer us with a picture of reality that was neat, clean, rational and logical—a world of extended bodies and thinking things—in other words, a geometrical, and hence a mathematical representation of what is revealed to us in experience. The pre-eminence of the cogito, seen as the fundamentum absolutum inconcussum veritatis (or self-supported unshakeable foundation of truth in the sense of certainty) projects in advance the rational limits of truth (Heidegger, 1977: 148).
By rational limits, we mean the essential characteristics of phenomena that are mathematically and scientifically admissible to reason. Within the confines of a rationalistic reckoning of reality, man, armed with his rationally grounded framework for standardizing and universalizing the meaning of reality, measures the conditions for the possibility of appearances and is, in the end, the measure of reality itself. With the indubitable point of departure for knowledge, the Cartesian project, paves the way for modern science and technology.
III. Heidegger and the Objectivity of Technology
Martin Heidegger explains that Ta mathemata “means for the Greeks that which man knows in advance in his observation of whatever is and in his intercourse with things: the corporeality of bodies, the vegetable character of plants, the animality of animals, the humanness of man, and most notably, numbers” (Ibid.). Numbers are not found in nature, but are a priori stipulations projected by consciousness which levels reality to fit in a particular ground plan that accommodates and assimilates, in strict adherence to a commitment to exactitude. Hence, if mathematics is applied to the study of nature, for instance through physics, Heidegger states that “Here all events, if they are to enter at all into representation as events of nature, must be defined beforehand as spatiotemporal magnitudes of motion. Such defining is accomplished through measuring, with the help of number and calculation” (Ibid.: 119). Various specific fields of research mathematically projects in advance what it wants to see in nature but the facts it wants to see are not arbitrarily invented but are developed out of a specific plan of approach which supplies theory and the data contained therein with an objective and logical order that, while submitting itself to the dynamism of reality, has, in advance, plotted the patterns of possible dynamisms it can encounter in future investigations. As Stephen Toulmin expounds:
The scientist is very different in his position. He begins with the conviction that things are not just happening (not even just-happening-regularly) but rather that some fixed set of laws or patterns or mechanisms accounts for Nature’s following the course it does, and that his understanding of these should guide his expectations. Furthermore, he has the beginnings of an idea what these laws and mechanisms are, so he does not (and should not) approach Nature devoid of all prejudices and prior beliefs. Rather, he is looking for evidence which will show him how to trim and shape his ideas further, so that they will more adequately fit the Nature with which he wrestles (Toulmin, 2003: 108).
In other words, seen in the light of the Cartesian enterprise, scientific methodology may essentially and ultimately be interpreted as a furthering of self-certainty, a series of projects geared towards self-assurance where man encounters in nature that which he already, somehow, knows in advance, namely, the imperturbable and unshakeable certainty and confidence in his own unique ability to encounter his measures and ultimately “himself” in everything.
The pressing matter for thought becomes the quest for a ground (archē) upon which correctness and certitude with regard to the relation between man and beings may be constructed. This objective of gaining “correct” knowledge aimed to secure for man his place within the realm of beings by enabling him to be certain about the consonance between what he “thinks” something is with what that something “really” is. Truth, epistemologically understood as something to be known can be comprehended, and grasped by man, at least in principle. Truth then, traditionally, i.e., metaphysically and epistemologically understood, became defined as “veritas est adequatio rei et intellectus,” roughly interpreted as the correspondence between knowledge and its matter. In short, truth is correctness (Richtigkeit)—the conformity between a statement and that which the statement is being made about (Heidegger in Krell, 1993: 118). A proposition can only be deemed as “true” if it “correctly” adheres with what it sees, as determined by the parameters set by the matter of which the proposition speaks. This point is highly pertinent in Heidegger’s attempt to describe the modern understanding of truth. For as we will see, with the decisive discovery of an Archimedean point in Descartes’ cogito, this interpretation of truth as correspondence, which is still somehow grounded in truth as unconcealment, takes a remarkable transformation.
The modern (Cartesian) conception of truth has, for its presupposition, the already established ground upon which all knowledge becomes possible—the human subject, metaphysically understood as the ego cogito, the self that knows itself to be itself. The possibility of correctness, and therefore of truth is anchored by the interpretation of man as subiectum. Before Descartes, as in Aristotle for instance, every being was considered as substance (ousia). However, with Descartes’ discovery of consciousness as the indubitable ground for any possibility of knowledge, the ego cogito “becomes the authoritative subiectum, i.e., that which already lies before,” that which provides and sets the limits or parameters (peras) for the unconcealment of beings. This conception of man as subiectum or subject has tremendous repercussions on the modern conception of truth and of beings. The “correctness” of the viewing of beings is no longer grounded upon beings themselves, but will now be determined from the perspective of the subject.
Such is the fundamental basis of objectivity. Objectivity is the progeny of certainty. The scientific method is a function of this correlation. The scientific method is a specific framework, a questionnaire, as it were, that certitude has devised for itself in order to come up with an objective reckoning of reality. The method also presupposes self-alienation, a certain detachment of subjectivity from its object so as to prevent contamination. The irony of course, is that, given what has been said above, contamination is ground zero. Subjectivity contaminates the object by precisely positing its object-ness after fortifying itself as that which grounds knowledge. The subject, after severing ties with the objective world of reality, tries to artificially re-connect with it by imposing a certain character of alienness to it, a trait it possesses in the first place anyway from the start. The novelty of this newly-found alienness is that it enables the subject to approach truth with an aim to familiarize itself with it without “touching” it, without contaminating it with impositions that are invalid and inadmissible within the purview of the very method and framework it has chosen to reckon reality with. In addition, Stephen Toulmin explains that “if a phenomenon is an unexpected event, this indicates, not that the scientist neglected or simply failed to predict it, but rather that he had certain prior expectations, which made the event unexpected” (Toulmin, 2003: 109). Anomalies and discrepancies with regard to data gathered from the scientific study of a phenomenon geared towards its rational assimilation through conceptualization and mathematization is interpreted as principally the result of shortsightedness or methodological inadequacy on the part of the subject. A scientist that is surprised by nature’s unanticipated revelations is at the end of the day, mildly exasperated at himself, realizing that he came to the site “underprepared.” The subjective framework’s ironic obsession with objectivity places an inordinate amount of pressure on the scientist due to the modern scientific demand for verifiable and repeatable results that somewhat eclipses the fundamental mystery that pervades reality as a whole.
Experimentation and mathematical deduction in the world of science may be seen as a work of recovery. Modern science seeks to recover something from reality—something that was perhaps lost in translation, something it was alienated from by its own choosing. In its hope to verify the very validity of the method or frame with which it approaches reality, science measures the degree of its alienation from its object. Alienation is not something that is to be overcome, but is something that has to be meticulously and vigorously maintained so as to always leave room for certainty to flex its muscles, so to speak. In seeking to understand the earth-ness of the planet earth for instance, the scientist must approach it as an alien from outer space, via satellite imagery and mathematical derivatives, in order that he could validate a framework and an objectivity that he has, ironically, formulated in advance from earth, from mathematical calculations projected in advance and subsequently validate from outer space. The astronaut therefore sees the world from an alien perspective, but also from a familiar one. The tension between the alien dimension of objectivity and the familiarity of subjective certainty is the locus of scientific knowledge. Objectivity, modern science’s crowning achievement is essentially a function of a prior certainty, the certitude of the subject with regard to the objectivity of his own subjectivity. As Heidegger remarks: ” The objectifying of whatever is, is accomplished in a setting-before, a representing, that aims at bringing each particular being before it in such a way that man who calculates can be sure, and that means be certain, of that being. We first arrive at science as research when and only when truth has been transformed into the certainty of representation. What is it is to be is for the first time defined as the objectiveness of representing, and truth is first defined as the certainty of representing, in the metaphysics of Descartes” (Heidegger, 1977: 127).
It is in the modern epoch that man was able to consummately represent reality in such a way that the very familiarity that we have with it is put in question, not due to a whimsical bout of insecure skepticism, but due to the gargantuan density of the Cartesian insight. As Heidegger says, “What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth” (Ibid.: 129-30). Reality, Being itself, as it presences itself in experience is estimated, calculated, reckoned and understood in terms of its calculability and measurability relative to the subjective ascriptions of human scientific knowledge. As the physicist Max Planck once remarked, “that which is real is that which can be measured.” The really real is that which fits within a framework of understanding that sets up in advance whatever is deemed relevant and necessary in the interest of objectivity and certitude. The calculability of reality renders it predisposed towards mathematical and scientific estimation by man; a calculability that is grounded on the framework proffered by the modern epoch itself upon everything that comes to presence before man.
“Modern representation (vor-stellen) means to bring what is present at hand before oneself as something standing over against, to relate it to oneself, to the one representing it, and to force it back into this relationship to oneself as the normative realm” (Ibid.: 131). Imagined and realized in quantitative form, reality, understood originally as an unfolding that abides by its own rhythm and measure is reduced to number; and mystery, reconfigured as novelty subsequently annihilates the essential character of the truth of reality itself, understood and experienced by, for instance the Ancient Greeks, as phusis and aleitheia—upsurgence and unconcealment.
From then on, man was thought as the self-certain and self-conscious subject for which everything (beings) are encountered as objects (Gegenstand), that which stands over and against the subject; and an “object is said to be only if it can be represented by the human subject” (Heidegger in Krell, 1993: 138). From the primordial understanding of truth as unconcealment, to the interpretation of truth as “correctness of view,” we now come across a definition of truth that is purely hinged upon the self-certain ego. This Cartesian conception of truth as certitude is contemporaneous with the fateful transformation of Being origin-ally understood as phusis and alētheia into an object (Gegenstand) for consciousness. That which is a being and therefore that which is considered to be “real” and “true” is that which is “re-presented” (vorgestellt) by the self-grounding and self-certain cogito toitself, by itself and according to itself. As Heidegger says, “Only what presents itself to our cognition, only what we en-counter such that it is posed and posited in its reasons, counts as something with secure standing, that means, as an object. Only what stands in this manner is something of which we can, with certainty, say “it is” (Heidegger, 1996: 23).
We therefore see that since Descartes, modern thought in both science and philosophy has consistently worked with a specific conception of what it means for something to be. The scientific enterprise plots in advance, the coordinates upon which the real will be permitted to presence. This is not a fault, an error or a malign ploy. It belongs to the history of every epoch that it reckons reality in very specific ways. The self-concealing essence of Being as phusis and alētheia remainsforgotten by metaphysics that grounds the age of modern science. Presencing, which is essentially the Being of beings, remains inaccessible to the methodology of calculative reason simply because it cannot, by its very nature as well as by virtue of Being itself primordially understood as self-concealing revealing, think presencing as such. Modern science, heralded by the Cartesian insight, may therefore be interpreted, in the end, as a function of the withdrawal from view of that which can never be plotted and framed in advance by human reason and calculation, something which escapes and implodes the solid walls of objectivity and certainty—no less than Being itself, the very presencing of that which is present which withdraws and naturally hides itself from an epoch where man only encounters himself.
IV. Contemporary Media Society and Hyperreality
The scientific revolution, being universal in scale, forged and guaranteed a standard against which the true, the good and the beautiful shall be measured. Modernity’s obsession with objectivity and knowledge gave us a world in which objects are mass produced and ways of life are homogenized in accordance with the process of production. The process of production of both material products and information is determined by techniques available to capital and distribution is limited by class. After the historic fall of communism and fascism and the subsequent advent of global capitalist liberal ideology in the twentieth century, the world has engaged in a radical quest of transgressing the limits imposed by universal reason by way of excessive production and reproduction of knowledge and ways of life—the margins gain legitimacy, the voiceless gain an audience and once disenfranchised cultures are packaged as exotic and exclusive.
Whereas before, the exclusivity and mystique of objective knowledge and its techniques unilaterally shaped the face of culture in a global scale, affording reality its opaque and one-dimensional character, the contemporary era shatters this monolithic idol, recovers its shards not to piece them back together, but in order to make every fragment an idol unto itself under the guise of so-called specialized knowledge. The explosive multiplication of branches of knowledge (from computational neuroscience to animal psychiatry) concurrently multiplies language games and diversifies cultures from within. Knowledge, once commodified and codified within the realm of economic and cultural exchange proliferates itself in as many forms as possible in order to progressively legitimize itself against all other language games. In other words, in today’s world, the objectivity of knowledge is no longer just the function of human projection grounded on the quest for security, but gains a life of its own, so to speak. The utter density of perspectives available to man in re-imagining the world and himself in the technological/capitalist era becomes the essential meaning objectivity. The objectivity of the real, once technologically magnified and multiplied to reveal the fractal, becomes hyperrealized; it becomes more real than what it was.
The anthropocentrism that pervades the epistemological/scientific//technological epoch of modernity has interfaced man with a reality garbed in accordance with the framework of the peculiarly modern need for objective certainty. The scientific method has been able to open countless possibilities of representing reality ranging from the perspective of grand narratives down to the point of view of the fractal, the microbial. The colonization of the universe by human calculative thought has exposed every nook and cranny of reality that was once veiled in mystery. Positing himself as the a priori indubitable, man conquers reality by way of objectification, conceptualization and manipulation.
With the relatively recent advent of highly advanced technology, man has progressively “multiplied” the world and the knowledge thereof through intensive magnification and dissection. The goal is to breed a healthy insecurity with the knowledge one has amassed so as to avoid complacency—the psychological decadence which results from not trying to know a lot more about a lot more. Such complacency, it appears, is combatted not only by the perpetual verification of knowledge but also, and perhaps more pertinently, of virtualizing multiplicity; i.e., inventing novel ways of discovering, transmitting and stockpiling facts. In the contemporary (postmodern) world, the mysterious and the opaque is replaced and subverted by the obscene and the transparent. If one watches the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel for instance, one would not just be amazed at the incontrovertible objectivity of the reality being represented but would also be astounded by the techniques by which information is gathered, filtered and presented by new media (e.g. watching dolphins in their natural state from the point of view of a dolphin). Advanced technological society has given knowledge style. It makes objectivity fashionable. It de-mystifies the objectivity and unity of knowledge by continually coming up with new ways of telling the same stories from as many perspectives as possible to as many people as possible in as many platforms as possible. The exclusive domain of objective knowledge, once democratized and dissected in order to become digestible tidbits of trivia for the masses, transforms itself into a new kind of reality; a reality that is now arguably uprooted from the monolith of objectivity and is now a function of total magnificability and reproducibility, neither true nor false, neither objective nor objective, simply there, obscenely exposed and available to all. As Hal Foster explains, “Obscenity begins precisely when there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication” (Foster, 1998: 130).
Jean Baudrillard claims that, “Things have found a way to elude the dialectic of meaning thorough infinite proliferation” (Baudrillard, 2001: 188). Objectivity, that which serves as the mold for the thing-hood of things, as configured and understood by the system of modern science and technology was still essentially grounded on a fixed point—the ego cogito. Baudrillard believes that after the systemic colonization of knowledge by various media (television, the internet, virtual reality platforms), objectivity that was once grounded on certainty displaces subjectivity from its epistemological pedestal and puts the very nature of objectivity in question. The contemporary era of technology short-circuits the epistemological and metaphysical function of the scientific method and reproduces knowledge (and reality itself) in a scale that overwhelms man’s subjective capacity to see himself as ground, and even puts the notion of the necessity of a ground in question. The dissolution of the spectacle, as Foster notes above, implies the absolute transparency of reality, not in the sense of a transparency borne from epistemological certitude, but a transparency that is a function of obscenity. The line between subjective and objective poles of knowledge, so meticulously drawn by scientific knowledge is expunged by the “whole pornography of information and communication, that is to say, of circuits and networks, a pornography of all functions and objects in their readability, their fluidity, their availability, their regulation, in their forced signification, in their performativity, in their branching, in their polyvalence, in their free expression” (Foster, 1998: 130-31).
The presupposed mystery and subtlety of reality that once anchored the whole program of the modern scientific enterprise has arguably been sublimated and transformed by the pornographic magnification, reproduction and simulation of advanced systems of technology and communication. As Baudrillard adds, “Visible things do not terminate in obscurity and in silence; they vanish into what is more visible than the visible: obscenity” (Baudrillard, 2001: 191). The disappearance of reality connotes the radical exposure of objects under the light of technological media.
Social media, for instance, obliterates the meaning of “friendship” and “event” by its functional and programmatic unification of the real and the virtual. Social media is obscene not only because filtration of information is difficult, but because it has been transformed into a chore. The peculiar mix of stimulation and boredom connected to having to “tag” or “un-tag”, “approve” or “disapprove” people in posts and photos, for instance results in a situation where people become connected without meaning to be so (as in the performance of chores that due to the ambivalent nature of its necessity and/or tediousness gets done even without a clear or resolute intent). In the realm of knowledge, information about personal and social events collapse together and implode into pure transparency and availability. The object of knowledge no longer needs to be “put on the rack” to give up its secrets, it voluntarily unveils itself in a perpetual play of signification that transmits stimuli too rapidly and regularly for consciousness to properly/methodically comprehend objectively. In today’s media-driven society, the object seduces the subject and not the other way around. Put simply, I no longer need to try to know in order to know. I know, whether I want to or not. As Foster expounds, “Jean Baudrillard reflects upon our contemporary dissolution of public space and time. In a world of simulation, he writes, causality is lost: the object no longer serves as a mirror of the subject, and there is no longer a “scene,” private or public—only “ob-scene” information. In effect, the self becomes a “schizo”, a “pure screen… for all the networks of influence” (Foster, 1998: xiv).
In other words, in its interminable quest for objective knowledge, contemporary reason seems to have fallen prey to the dazzling allure of the object. The seduction of the object, in its utter transparency has driven reason and the imagination to a state of schizophrenia. The contemporary era of media saturates consciousness with images and information that, by its sheer density and speed, disorients the subject and creates a vertiginous vortex of pure, unadulterated exposure to information that terminates in a strange state of ennui. Foster adds, “It is no longer the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible-than-the-visible. It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication” (Ibid.: 131).
In this context, the modern scientific paradigm seems to have been turned on its head. The object-ness of reality, its objectivity, which used to be grounded on the prefigurative and regulative capacity of reason, has liberated itself and has forged a new identity for itself. Reality transcends the limits of reason, not because of reason’s finitude or because it is simply “mysterious,” as the ancients thought. Reality transgresses meaning because it has become too real, too meaningful, too exposed, too much. As Baudrillard explains, “In this vertigo of serial signs—shadowless, impossible to sublimate, immanent in their repetition—who can say where the reality of what they simulate resides? Apparently, these signs repress nothing…even the primary process is abolished. The cool universe of digitality absorbs the worlds of metaphor and of metonymy, and the principle of simulation thus triumphs over both the reality principle and the pleasure principle” (Baudrillard, 2001: 150). In an age where reality has become too easy to reproduce, replay and recall, and the appearance and value of objects have become essentially indistinguishable from each other due to their sheer volume and availability, meaning implodes into noise.
This indeed might sound like a hasty generalization or a baseless and cynical pronouncement. However, if we lend Baudrillard a more critical hearing and juxtapose his points with the everyday workings of the contemporary lifeworld, we might be able to see his most fundamental point: the illusion of control afforded to us by the metaphysical and epistemic revolution of modernity has unveiled itself to us precisely as what it actually is—an illusion. But the exposure of the illusion as illusion does not emanate from a sudden epiphany of subjective arrogance as most science fiction stories would show us, but stems from and is sustained by the momentum of the systems of (re)production and communication that spawned from the fractal nature of reality as revealed to us by technology. As Christopher Horrocks expounds, “As we move towards the millennium, a fourth order of simulacrum appears. This one has the character of the fractal, and is of a viral, exponential or ‘metastatic’ order. This order describes the tendency of systems or models that have supplanted reality to extend endlessly in dimensions intrinsic to their logic, yet with unpredictable and often chaotic outcomes” (Horrocks, 2000: 6). Now, more than ever, man is all-too exposed to the real. Cable television, 24/7 news broadcasts, popular science magazines, free downloadable media content, social networking, virtual reality gaming and Youtube, in particular has transformed reality into something more real than real. Advanced media technology atomizes reality into images and events that are removed from their specific contexts in order to reveal the most minute details of its constitution or if not, contextualizes them in such a way that everything about an object or an event becomes equally exposed rendering every aspect of it equally relevant until the entire thing becomes irrelevant. It seems that the more we are able to handle reality and digitally enhance or replicate it, the more reality becomes more real, more exciting, more true. As Baudrillard opines, “It isn’t that there are more events, but the event in itself is multiplied by its dissemination, by news and information. I’d say that it’s because everything has become history that it’s no longer possible to believe in history. Mentalities, daily life, sexuality—everything has been historicalized. It is then by excess rather than by refraction that we have gradually lost the concept and meaning of history” (Baudrillard, 2001: 276-77). The seduction of the object seen within the context of the pornorgraphic nature of history and reality that we experience today happens as a perpetual escalation and repetition of exposure. It is not enough for us to see what is there, we want to see it a thousand times over, in slow-motion, in sepia, in a surround-sound theatre, in 3D, in a small screen we carry around in our pockets. Our obsession with reality, which has seemingly culminated in the age of modern science, does not terminate in knowledge. Today, knowledge is no longer enough. Today, knowledge pales in comparison to experience. This is the essential meaning of hyperreality. Baudrillard explicates:
Every characteristic thus elevated to the superlative power, caught in an intensifying spiral—more true than the true, more beautiful than the beautiful, more real than the real (hyper)—is assured a vertiginous effect that is independent of all content or specific quality, and which presently has tendency of being our only passion. The passion of intensification, of escalation, of mounting power, of ecstasy, of whatever quality so long as, having ceased to be relative to its opposite (the true to the false, the beautiful to the ugly, the real to the imaginary), it becomes superlative, positively sublime as if it had absorbed the energy of its opposite (Ibid.: 189-90).
We exist in a world of excess. The production and reproduction of objects, information and ways of life happens in hyper-speed due largely to the availability of virtual platforms of transportation, communication and exchange. The production and reproduction of images, the supposed mirrors of the real has taken on a life of its own, pushing mankind to a state of schizophrenic hyper-awareness. The fulcrum of reality which was once embedded in the indubitable foundation of subjective certainty disintegrates and gives way to the insurmountable momentum of hyperreality.
Today, the subjective and objective poles of epistemological knowledge implode into a pure screen of the obscene, the fractal, the logic of the code. The illusion projected on to the image rendering it a simulation of the real to the mind of the subject has transcended the limits of its intended definition. With the enigmatic coagulation of the real and the virtual in technological media society, copies no longer signify anything beyond themselves. Reality and simulacra become indistinguishable. The virtual’s revelation of the fractal translates Being itself into a code, a replicable series of signifiers that have lost their respective signifieds, rendering subjective belief and knowledge moot and to a certain extent, pretentious. As Baudrillard says, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” (Ibid.: 170). Simulacra represents the obscene, it reveals the genetic reproducibility of the real, which implodes the traditional conceptualization of what it means to be. Through the translation of the metaphysical into the fractal, the holographic derivation of codes and models of reality through technological media dislodges the ground of objectivity from the realm of subjectivity and transfers all its power into the territory of pure simulacra. It’s not that there is nothing real. It’s that there too much and too many of it. As Horrocks explains, “The result of this absorption of illusion by technological reality is that credibility—a property of objects and images—has taken the place of belief—a property of ourselves as subjects. We judge events by their proximity to their code or model, rather than by some humanistic or metaphysical principle” (Horrocks, 2000: 35-6). The question concerning the meaning of being, pursued and seemingly resolved by modernity gave man the object. In the contemporary age of media technology, the question concerning the meaning of being, placed within the context of hyperreality, is imploded by the sheer iterability and density of the equiprimordiality of possible responses to the question, relegating the fundamentality of the question into perhaps a more thought-worthy sort of oblivion.
The age of mirrors, we might say, reached its historical tipping point in the age of modernity. The progress of scientific knowledge derives from the auto-assimilative movement of consciousness that has finally become aware of itself as the ground for objectivity. The Cartesian self-certain cogito, by way of the logic of metaphysical transitivity, reproduces itself in its own ideas, projected as the very foundation of existence itself. The mathematization of reality sets up the parameters of knowledge in advance of unconcealment. The realm of truth, primordially interpreted by the ancients as aletheia, is engineered in accordance with the subjective directives of measurability and calculability. Heidegger reckons that this epochal transmutation of the truth of Being from unconcealment into objectivity is an oblivion of Being itself; but it is a forgetfulness that is destined by the very movement of Being in history. In other words, the eclipse of the realm of unconcealment by the object of modern science is heralded and is made possible by the essence of truth itself—the realm of unconcealment must retreat from the horizon of what is in order for appearing to happen. This is what principally constitutes the age of objects. The object absorbs the idolatrous gaze of the subiectum and functions as the primordial mirror of the self. The self-certain ego of modernity propagates itself by perpetually guaranteeing its personal ontological and epistemological certainty in its objects. And since there is no other logical way about it, in this regard, man’s relationship to Being is reduced to measurability and calculability, and truth becomes an attribute of representations.
In the age of contemporary technological media however, objects begin to vanish into pure visibility. The mirror, as it were, is rendered opaque by its obscene exposure to itself as mirror as it gravitates towards the hyperbolic momentum of hyperreality. The exponential multiplication of mirrors cancels out the polarizing effect of subjective alienation, which used to serve as the ground for objectivity, and delivers the subject into a state of schizophrenic hyper-awareness. Once the fractal, genetic code of reality became installed into the logic of the social by media, the reproducibility of the real terminates in its excess. As opposed to its modern version, the contemporary object’s absorption of the light of reason depletes the subjective foundations of certitude and reveals itself as pure simulacrum. The incessant exposure of all aspects of the real in our age overrides the principles of measurability and calculability and proceeds to hypertrophically reveal all our measures and calculations to ourselves as the logical offshoot of the very reproducibility of objects, images, ideas and events. The digital code of the real, in other words, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates its being through the momentum of technological media. In this respect, the objectivity of the subjective perspective is nullified and the obscene exposure of the real metastasizes into an operational function of hyperreality. As Douglas Kellner explains, “The narcoticized and mesmerized media-saturated consciousness is in such a state of fascination with image and spectacle that the concept of meaning itself (which depends on stable boundaries, fixed structures, shared consensus) dissolves” (Kellner, 1994: 9). The real is no longer the rational, as it were. Being itself, reduced to the logic of the fractal and the digital implodes the boundaries of metaphysical and epistemological certitude and transforms reality from being a function of consciousness into that which transcends consciousness by way of obscenity. The hyper-aware schizophrenic, as Baudrillard’s depiction of contemporary man suggests, is not seen as the locus of meaning, but a mere conduit for the functional operation of digital hyperreality. As Foster expounds, “No more hysteria, no more projective paranoia, properly speaking, but this state of terror proper to the schizophrenic: too great a proximity of everything, the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him anymore” (Foster, 1998: 132).
We now exist in a world where life is certainly stranger than fiction. The clear line which used to divide the real from the false, the beautiful from the ugly and good from evil has been blurred, if not totally expunged by the obscene—the more real than the real, the more beautiful than the beautiful. As we are constantly becoming more and more exposed to every aspect of Being in the hope of recovering from the alienation bequeathed to us by the epistemological resolve of modernity, the more Being is eclipsed by the hyperreal. Media, in all its forms, delivers awareness and information. The question, however, is whether we still carry autonomy with respect to what we can or cannot know or to what we want or do not want to see.
The Heideggerian narrative of oblivion placed man in the threshold of a hopeful disposition of openness and thought. Baudrillard’s story, however, seems not as promising. The condition for the possibility of genuine thought with regard to one’s standing in relation to Being, in my estimation, requires at the very least some degree of self-awareness borne from the perspective of historical and hermeneutic distanciation. Heidegger, speaking from the point of view of someone witnessing the birth of the nuclear age, named this disposition, releasement. In the age of hyperreality, however, historical and hermeneutic distanciation seems to be next to impossible. As the simulacrum of the real perpetuates itself in the instantaneously reproducible obscene, everything becomes too real and too immediate for us to rationally gather ourselves and process. As Baudrillard famously opines, “The day that there is a real war you will not even be able to tell the difference” (Baudrillard, 2001: 170). This, I think, is the contemporary challenge for genuine thought. In an age where we can no longer properly distinguish the real from the false, how must we think? In an age where history is recycled and events disappear into internet links, how must we narrate our stories? In an age where nothing is no longer secret, how must we seek? These questions, I think, are very difficult to answer. It is at this point, I think where Heidegger’s famous line from his 1966 Der Spiegel interview rings most true. Perhaps only a God can save us now.
About the Author
Marc Oliver D. Pasco is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. He wrote his Master’s thesis on Martin Heidegger’s idea on “wiederholung” or creative repetition. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the possible relation between Martin Heidegger’s ideas on mortality and Jean Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality. He has published several articles on various thinkers like Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Kant, Habermas, Heidegger and Plato.
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