One significant thing about the postmodern era is that in it, humanity’s communal spirit – our relationship to culture and society – has undergone a distinct change of direction. Like the sudden turning of a tide, this relationship has shifted, from something organic, where traditions and ways of doing and believing have trickled down to us over millennia, to something which has grown outwards and upwards from deliberate intent. This outcome has generated a new ethical charge: that the individual should direct their will towards some personal gain.
Such an obligation is set against the ordinary flow of inter-human spirit: it disrupts and in fact exploits it. In its primordial fashion, this bending of the spirit belonged only to an elite few, and came to be called business. This is the realm of pioneer and capitalist, whose efforts, if they are to be successful, depend on instigating and then catching the earliest power of such turning tides – the stockbroker capitalizes best if their stocks are sold before anybody else’s, just before the tide turns downward. In our time now, when one considers the extreme localization and individualization of trade of all kinds (products, services, art and finance are all reducible to individual accounts, facilitated by apps) there is a definite sense that business is widely encouraged as the aim for all individuals: that business – the orchestration of one’s affairs in pursuit of profit – is the apex of attainment, and is prescribed as the focus of all effort, as the telos of all activity.
How this economical tidal shift relates to our culture might be drawn out by the comparisons between active and passive forms of engagement with media. The precursors to media, the traditional ways, have been a matter of reception and inheritance. Myth, song, story and other arts, and later, news and education, are some of the ways in which this organic process took place. As such television, newspaper and radio constitute its final cultural markers – they bleed into the postmodern era via propaganda. To stand as the recipient of these media implies a certain ecology of trust that is sharply eroding in our time now.
The great tidal turn caused these old media to succumb to market pressure. The new media bears an impositional directive: rather than passivity, it is centered around activity or volition. Its vanguard is social media, and it is no great claim now to observe that the spiritual sense of the collected people, while sometimes related to corporation or state, is now a dying thing: rather, the geist is with the individual, with any collectives thereof holographically shallow, superficial and performative. This is a western phenomenon; soon it will be a global one.
The sense of unity felt among people when they were related, at the height of modernity, to the mass dispensation of national spirit as recipients was a passive matter, perhaps reaching its zenith with the national newspaper and television channels, retaining most of this spiritual power even despite the fragmentation into multitudes of channels and publications available for ingestion. This fragmentation of channels was a capitalist eventuality in the name of ‘competition’; but the primary relation was still at this time between ‘one-of-the-people’ (as opposed to the ‘individual’) and the public or quasi-public institution, such as the BBC, and ultimately the corporation. Such a relation permits no self-determining presence for any such one-of-the-people, who must accept their position as a part of a wider whole: they are but one of a nation’s public receiving a broadcast. While it may seem to diminish them, it is in fact to the contrary: is in this time that such a person retains their political power, being a member of a transcendent cadre spiritually unified.
Of the many ways in which postmodernity then can be characterized, it can be powerfully understood in the following way: that it is the point where we can say the tide has turned, where the recognition and understanding of, and disdain for, the previously passive and receptive human spirit as unsuited to the demands of global capitalism (that is, unwilling to develop itself as a market) becomes, in either conscious or unconscious fashion, the prevailing ideology. This is the procedure of the age of individualism, where the one-of-the-many is set against the many itself in a reflexive manner, in the process reducing the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, and slowly or rapidly fragmenting the productive industries.
In the inherited time, this setting of the one, as a part of a many, against a big Other reflected the form of the religious arrangements. In the inherited world, God is the productive force from which all is given, and to which all is directed. In this sense there is a gravitational pull of the people towards Godliness. In the postmodern world, as the tide turns the gravitational is rather replaced by an emanance, or outward flowing of achievements and doings from the individual. The former asks, at its strongest: what might God change for us as a people? The other, at its strongest: what effect can I have on myself?
The wane of God as a confrontation for a people in general is also a fuel for such emanance, caused by spiritual diminishment as the result of material factors: a surge in scientific-philosophic knowledge and associated beliefs. Such knowledge quells the projection of infinitudes, be that space (lost in the knowledge provided by full global exploration of the earth) or time (lost in the belief in the finitude of life, and the ultimate death of the universe).
Yet such knowledge was and is pursued to the advancement of capital: the greatest capitalists of our time are still chasing geospatial exploration, this time in our solar system, while others praise the infinitude of cryptocurrency (some are famous for both). Other infinitudes are also being wrought: identity, life-extending medical science, virtual reality in the form of worlds like the Metaverse. Even eminent philosopher David Chalmers bows out to the supposed coming world of virtual reality (in The Guardian):
“There may be a sense of authenticity in interacting in our original biological form. But it’s hard to see why sheer physicality should make the difference between a meaningful life and a meaningless life,” he writes. “In the long term, virtual worlds may have most of what is good about the nonvirtual world. Given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.”David Chalmers, writing in The Guardian
But what are such virtual worlds except the emanant pursuit of self-development – outwardly directed forces from individuals of their thoughts, feelings, identities, business, hopes, dreams and fears? And what more do they constitute than the overflow reserve of capital’s markets? Emanance is, perversely, as the effect of individual production, the hope of capital for growth when the material resources are all but carved up and controlled, all land decided upon, all true territory wars completed, just as technological progress has itself been for centuries.
It is also a cause of a great and pervading anxiety (this word itself an etymological root of ‘business’), as each individual’s emanance is itself a product in a vast market. Any recognition that one’s emanance cannot (in all likelihood) out-compete all others is set in contrast to the ones who have succeeded into celebrity, who (because of, almost always, prior material benefits: wealth, beauty) are appearing to sit as their own gods, remaking their (virtual) world around them; the rest struggle to keep pace. Anxiety, as the experience of deep unresolved contradiction, sits at the other end of excitement, felt when the cost is outweighed by the potential gain. The horror film, the lottery ticket and the rollercoaster all offer this in varying degrees. But now we are encouraged and so dispensed to invest deeply in a persona located on a global app, spurred on by the hope that it that might generate recognition and yield acclaim and fame – and ultimately financial recompense. Almost instantly, a sense of certain loss is incurred on the psychological balance sheet. For every YouTube, Twitter, Instagram account that in the algorithmic (un)natural selection process achieves popularity, swathes die instantly, like terrible novels, or are doomed at least to a struggle. For every crypto investment that generates monumental wealth, millions of others only lose, having begun with lofty hopes and dreams of riches. These markets are but a functional analogy to the material ones; and while dependent on them, are much more rapidly reaching their maturity, taking place as all virtuality does, inside the fastest ‘computational’ system we know of: the brains inside of our heads.
This ferocious development of our mental and virtual capacities is evidenced by our average information intake, which has increased by huge orders of magnitude compared to our ancestors – to perhaps even ourselves twenty years ago. This invites us to ask: what is the limit to this overflow capacity? For the exponential growth of these virtual markets is tiring, and people seem increasingly aware of the trick of it all. There is growing consternation – among ever-younger audiences, who have already seen film video game remake after remake – that nothing is new. And even if is, it does not feel it, because now all things are expected. The creation of online ‘content’ has itself so rapidly exhausted its potential, diversified and fragmented in ten short years, that individuals can be found paying to promote a single meme of their own creation on another’s platform, itself concerning some niche aspect of life, that they might have a chance at acquiring enough followers for some hope at material gain. This is plankton economics: such microscopic markets are driven hard, less secure and under obscene pressure to provide growth up the chain to the whales that are their enabling industries. The limiting factor will be how much human minds can take. One has to conclude that at some point they will fail and the chain will collapse, though not before many attempts at extending its capacities and potential fields of consumption, as Neuralink and its biotechnical ilk will seek to extend its function, and virtual reality its preoccupation.
Virtual reality may indeed be the last bastion of unexplored jouissance that will no doubt come to feature as a major confrontation to our culture. But its ultimate dependence on materiality – computing power, fuel for it, and that holding place for hope, technological progression – means that it cannot outrun all limits. These capitalist ventures are quietly desperate ones, though in the process, immense wealth will be created on the back of phantom goods, and on undeliverable promises. Perhaps once these limits – the final spaces in the reserve – are finally met, there might begin a great re-organization: a restructuring and fragmentation that recalls (for good or ill) the sense of cultural and social, inheritance and the flow of tradition. This will no doubt meet head-on with the emanant culture; perhaps it is even happening now.
Written by Andrew11.