The year 1991 is remembered for the disintegration of the Soviet Union; the end of the cold war; the Gulf War; and the triumph of the liberal economy.
What was ignored in these historical upheavals are the inauguration of a new era of the virtual world under the influence of developments in information and communication technology. However, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard foresaw the implications of the communication revolution on our notions of self, society, knowledge and reality.
In early 1991, he wrote a series of three essays – before, during and after the Gulf War. The essays were titled ‘The Gulf War will not take place’, ‘The Gulf War is not really taking place’ and ‘The Gulf War did not take place’.
Baudrillard’s critics accused him of inhumanity by claiming that the war never took place. However, this is a literal reading of his assertion. Baudrillard meant to say that the Gulf War wasn’t a war because the build-up for war, the waging of a war, and post-war scenarios were more of a simulation or constructed truth in the shape of hyperreal images on our TV screens.
Unlike the Vietnam War that brought the suffering of people on television screens, the Gulf War was, according to Baudrillard, “a shameful and pointless hoax, a programmed and melodramatic version of what was the drama of war”. In the First Gulf War, hyperreality replaced the real reality and formed the reality for the inhabitants of the virtual civilisation.
Nearly 27 years after Baudrillard’s essays were published, our perceptions have almost been colonised by the virtual world. Today, ours is a world dominated by virtual reality in which social media has become an important medium to interact with the “network milieu”. It is a rite of passage from a solid reality into virtual one. Social media is different from the traditional media because it facilitates social interaction through the digital media without the authorities associated with the traditional media.
In the process of co-opting an individual in the virtual domain, the virtual world strips the individual of external authorities. As a result, the solid authorities and power dispensations melt into air under the heat of cybernetics.
Social media is among the factors that liquifies solid existence, institutional arrangements and the social setups of modernity. Today, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and LinkedIn are widely used in the social mediascape. They provide effective tools for an individual’s interface with the outside world. These mediums have repercussions on social interaction, and the norms and structures at the collective level. They also change an individual’s structure of experience.
Social media is where individuals inhabit a highly rarefied domain of hyperreality. As a result, solid spaces in closed societies remain closed, but the virtual space opens up new avenues to celebrate individuality. It creates a yawning chasm between solid existence and virtual reality. While constructing a virtual self on social media, we have an inclination to suppress those aspects of our personality that are unpleasant because people don’t admire the dark aspects of our self. Although we remain content with our personality on social media for a brief period of time, our darker side remains rooted in our solid existence.
Our unpleasant self is left to wallow in the solid world while the pleasant one revels in the virtual world. As a corollary, the solid self incurs such a strong pathological burden that our personality becomes cumbersome. This neglected self has become a new source to feed our unconscious. As a result, we are creating a digitalised collective unconsciousness. It is in this chasm between the virtual and solid self that neuroses, psychosis and schizophrenia emerge.
Under the influence of social media, the processes and means of control and management are also changing. Zygmunt Bauman calls it a shift from heavy to liquid or light modernity, “which has resulted in a profound transformation of public space and, more generally, in the fashion in which the modern society works and perpetuates itself”. Heavy modernity is characterised by control through the means of bureaucracy and panopticon. However, liquid modernity renders these control mechanisms irrelevant. It, therefore, provides a free space for the nomadic and solitary self.
Ulrich Beck captures Bauman’s depiction of solitary individuals with solitary individual fears in his essay ‘On the Mortality of Industrial Society’. “What emerges from the fading social norms,” writes Ulrich, “is naked, frightened, aggressive ego in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self”.
At the collective level, it manifests itself in the shape of a social psychosis. Its symptoms appear in the form of an impaired relationship with reality. Instead of tackling reality, individuals indulge in hallucinations about the objective and subjective world. In addition, people develop individual delusions that only they can comprehend.
The question that now arises is: What will be the shape of self and society in the future? Contrary to liquid modernity, the production of the self in heavy modernity was geared toward embedding an individual in the social space. Unlike citizens of the modern state, who relied on collective platforms to solve problems under the social contract, the individual on social media is left with his/her own resources to cope with virtual angst in isolation.
This results in the personalisation of public space and individuals acquiring a persona that is bereft of their inner self. It is a situation wherein the representation gobbles up the self or the innerworld. Bauman sees it as the transformation of the citizen into a person. In other words, it is the end of the soul that keeps the body politic alive. With it, the politics and ideologies vying to address questions related to citizen, society and state also die by losing the very soul that enables the ‘public body’ to take on a social and political role in solid spaces.
This analysis presents a menacing picture wherein virtual zombies will become important. However, the actors in the virtual world aren’t possessed by some evil or alien spirit. They will be more like “humans trapped in pods” in the movie The Matrix produced by the Wachowski Brothers in 1999. The movie brilliantly mixes the genre of fiction with philosophical questions, and generates a new genre: virtual philosophy.
It seems probable that with the onset of virtual life, the orientation of people and the very definition of ‘human’ will transform. In an essay titled ‘Notes from Underground: Nihilism and The Matrix’, Thomas S. Hibbs views the imprudent celebration of individual freedom and the homogenisation of all mankind and liberal modernity as the potential soul of nihilism, “where the great questions and animating quests that inspired humanity in previous ages would cease to register in the human soul”. Now, the soul is in danger of getting devoured by virtual reality, which is as intangible as the soul but far more ubiquitous.
Viewed from an epistemological perspective, reality in the virtual civilisation will be in excess of the available framework of explanation. Explaining the excess of reality after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard stated that “it is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath the excess”.
In the post 9/11 period, we see more analysis by analysts and little knowledge and understanding. Morpheus, a character in The Matrix, quotes Baudrillard when he says “Welcome to the desert of the real”. This phrase refers to a cultural space where hyperreality doesn’t refer to the real solid world but to the virtual world.
Baudrillard’s prognosis in 1991 encapsulates the world that we inhabit today. It is a world where the self is broken and “everyday familiarity collapses”. Our reality today looks like a desert as we don’t irrigate it with our understanding and knowledge. Instead, we are engrossed in a hyperreality that is manufactured for us to create a GH virtual self, make our virtual life beautiful and turn our solid life into a wasteland.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.