HyperNormalisation: critique of a critique


This week, VICE distributed promotional video by Adam Curtis his new film called HyperNormalisation. In this video, Curtis argues that it becomes increasingly clear that we are all living in a dream world, detached from reality. Social media, he argues, have developed algorithms that only present you with information that confirms the ideas you already had. This dystopic worldview does not appear so dissimilar from the vision in the 1999 movie The Matrix.

There is however a strong self-referentiality problem with his video. First, it makes use of similar persuasive techniques it uses to criticise. After all, Adam Curtis’ films are also a product, and VICE and the BBC are outlets to sell his product. Second, if the message of the video is correct, than only people who already agree we live in a dream world get to see this video. Therefore, the film might offer us a correct representation of the state of affairs in the world, but can not be able to really offer a solution.

The film also supposes an intentionality by the elites and representatives of global capital that might not be  correct. The assumption of the video states that there would be a possibility of liberation from this situation, as if we would be able to discard our chains and walk into the “real world”. As a metaphor, this duality between the “dream world” which is a bad state which only benefits some sort of semi-transcendent global elite and the “real world” which is liberated from slavery is tempting. After all it feeds our subconscious desire for freedom. But the value of freedom is precisely constitutive for the world order Adam Curtis attempts to criticise. After all, it is the promise for freedom that motivates us to act and to consume. The question is whether Adam Curtis succeeds in transcending the trap of the wheel of enslaved desire he criticises. What would his liberation look like?

Curtis describes politicians as “pantomime villains” whose job is to make us angry, so we engage more in social media. Social media is then seen as absorbing all opposition, to which Curtis adds the depressive conclusion that that is the reason why “nothing ever changes”. Two striking problems are noteworthy about this analysis. First, the idea that “nothing ever changes” is quoted here as a truism, although it seems highly questionable. Many advancements in terms of human rights, ecological protection and equality have been made. Maybe this progress has not been as much as we want, but if Curtis would discard those advancements as “fake” or “dreamlike” as well, the question is what would count as change anyway? Second, if social media would really be absorbing all opposition, this video could not be opposition to it, because it is being distributed by social media as well. If this would be the case, we wouldn’t be engaging in critical thinking by watching this video, because our engagement with this criticism would only be a productive resource for the social media as well.

Finally, Curtis compares our condition as “HyperNormal”, comparing our situation with people living in the totalitarian Soviet Union for rhetorical effect. Again, the question arises how a liberation from this should really look like? It could certainly not lie in a self-expressive “live life authentic” ethic – quit your job and travel the world – because this is precisely which is being sold to us by travel companies and thus part of the “consumption factory” he describes. What remains as a possible liberation would be the complete and full acknowledgement of the “real world”: life is miserable, violent and unequal and no solutions exist for this, except accepting this state (and of course deleting your Facebook account). Not only am I unsure whether this is really what Curtis would like us to communicate, also such a conclusion would be as ridiculous as assuming the opposite.

Adam Curtis’ film stands in a long tradition of leftist critique of the system, global capital and corporate power. What is valuable in his analysis is the recognition that our desire for freedom is working against ourselves. A solution for this problem does, however, not appear imaginable from this perspective. If we would discard the suspicion that there is some inherent intentional evil in the way global capital functions, his video might offer us a striking image of the human condition. The drama and sense that there is an injustice being deliberately inflicted upon us by social media is, however, misplaced. For now, I rest at questioning Curtis’ intention: does he want to show us a way of liberation from our shackles, or is he himself a “pantomime villain” in our clickbait imprisonment?

The Face of ISIS


On 29 June 2014, after a series of important conquests in the Syrian civil war, the organisation known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself to be the worldwide caliphate and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its caliph. On the same day, the Netherlands defeated Mexico two to one at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It was this second event that made headlines in Dutch media. It was only one month later, in the midst of the komkommertijd, that ISIS gradually came to be reported about, when no important soccer matches fought it for attention.

In a brilliant analysis, Scott Atran argued this week that we are underestimating the revolutionary force of ISIS and that we do not acknowledge its idealism enough. Atran even dares to quote a reference to Hitler by George Orwell – thereby affirming Godwin’s law – who said that the writer of Mein Kampf had understood the people don’t only want comfort and safety; they also want struggle and self-sacrifice. ISIS, Atran argues, is giving its followers precisely that: a dream, purpose, the opportunity to create a new world order. In the words of Atran:

The violence of the Islamic State, like the revolutionary violence of many who came before, might be best characterised by what Edmund Burke called ‘the sublime’: a willingness, indeed need and passion, for the ‘delightful terror’ of a sense of power, destiny, giving over to the infinite, ineffable and unknown.

Before, I used to argue that ISIS had not so much to do with religion or Islam, but was basically caused by economic factors, and recruited their troops from the social and economic outcasts of the West. Theologian and politician Ruard Ganzevoort taught me that it is just as much a fallacy to consider religion the root of all evil as it is to consider religion as positive force of love. In his words: “Religion is ambivalent, just as life itself”. The argument of Atran adds to my change in perception on the phenomenon ISIS, that we should indeed look at the ideology and the religious motives at least as much as to the economic factors.

Some commentators already noticed that the rise of ISIS shows much similarities with the French revolution and the Dutch revolt. The whole foundation of the Dutch nation could be credited to the violent rise of religious extremists in a corner of the Habsburg Empire. This observation reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. In this famous essay from 1921, Benjamin explores the justification for violence. States are defined by the fact that they have a monopoly of violence. When revolution occurs, the violence of the revolutionaries is justified by the fact that they strive for a more just society. When the revolutionaries succeed, they overthrow the current regime and install their own monopoly on violence.

According to Benjamin, all regimes have been founded on an act of original violence, which could also be considered as a divine legitimation of power. To maintain this power, when they are confronted with revolutionary movements, regimes have a notorious short memory with respect to their own foundational violence, which is very often not even that far in the past.

Atran very convincingly argues that the ideology behind ISIS does in fact legitimise its violence from the deeply rooted conviction that they are fighting for a better world order. The discursive strategies which are used by the adversaries of ISIS attempt to mask ISIS’ discourse for their legitimacy. Altran has very sharply noted that delegitimatising the Islamic State by calling them Daesh, won’t have much effect.

The question which nobody has been really able to answer yet about ISIS is: who are they? In almost every analysis, ISIS is treated as the ultimate Other, and any attempt to understand the movement usually describes them as violent lunatics. What are the possibilities from meeting the revolutionaries face-to-face? Would they kill me? Is there any possibility, as Levinas would phrase it, to meet the people in Raqqa while “inviting” them in my presence, without judgement, but simply as long lost cousins? Revolutions will always be repeated and successful revolutionaries will always rewrite history. But division of people is precisely what revolutionaries have always wanted – between religions, between social classes – and I think we should not accept the position we have been assigned, namely as adversaries. What if we would go over and ask: can we join you in your dream for a better world? The only way to defeat ISIS is through the exploration of the conditions to meet each other.


WeChat: the social fabric of China


Not a single phenomenon is as important in understanding Chinese contemporary society as instant messaging cum social medium app WeChat. Roughly comparable to Whatsapp, WeChat offers all important communication services you would expect from such an app, but it includes a whole array of additional functionalities. Steadily, WeChat is becoming to function as the collective mind of the Chinese and increasingly the surface of everyday life in change becomes incomprehensible without a notion of this extremely popular application.

The general Western prejudice holds that information in China is strictly controlled and that free press is limited. Without having the desire to contradict these analysis completely, my stay I China last summer enhanced my image of this topic. First of all, the fact that Facebook and Google are generally banned in China, doesn’t mean that the services they provide are deemed dangerous by the Chinese government. In fact, Baidu, Weibo and WeChat function similar and often even more advanced ways than their Western counterparts.

Therefore, I’d rather like to think of the divide between Western media and Chinese media as a “silk” curtain, between which cross-influence is not really restricted, but nobody really cares about sharing information over to the other side. Much more than an attempt to limit the flow of information among its own citizens, I believe the ban on Facebook and Google in China could better be interpreted as a measure of protectionism against U.S. corporations. Of course, censorship and regulation are in fact performed by the Chinese government. But if sensitive topics are not discussed (for example the three tabooed “T” subjects in China: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen), it might often be a result of ignorance about these topics by the Chinese, while simultaneously we in the West can not understand that people just would not care about these topics.

The rise of WeChat in particular is intimidating. The app records over 600 million monthly users, over two thirds of the 900 million monthly users WhatsApp has. Currently WeChat is branching out to Africa, to see if it can take over the local internet market. In South Africa we gradually see a battle emerge between WeChat and WhatsApp to gain control over the market. Especially because of the wide spectrum of social services WeChat provides, I believe WeChat could very well at some point become a serious global challenger to WhatsApp. Its messaging service is only one aspect of the app, which is also used as microblogging service, social network, photoblogging service, dating app and payment service.

More than Facebook or WhatsApp, WeChat is able to provide what so many people desire: connection. In China, few meetings between strangers pass without the exchange of WeChat contact data by means of scanning a personalised QR code. That shy stranger you just nodded at in the subway reveals himself to be a highly expressive avatar on WeChat, with an unstoppable wave of stickers and other tokens of social appreciation which are ubiquitous in the Wonderworld of WeChat. To understand China, this is where it is happening now.


Daoism and climate change

The final negotiations of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, most likely concerned whether the long expected “final draft” of the agreement would contain a commitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or stick with a phrase which would spin the commitments to “(far) below 2 degrees Celsius”. While the Western nations have the luxury to show off their moral superiority in forming a “high ambition coalition” (which also includes all nations so poor that they can only rely on moral superiority) which strives for the 1.5 degree ambition added to the final draft, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia have other interests to consider and decided to cool down (pun intended) the negotiations.

Meanwhile, I was taking part of a conference on the study of Chinese religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University. At this conference, James Miller, a scholar of Chinese studies from Canada, presented a plea to think about the environment from the perspective of Daoism. One of his assumptions is that the common ecological perspective which frames our environmental endeavours as a desire to “save the planet” is part of a fundamentally Christian worldview and above all ultimately absurd.

Part of this common perspective in which the “protection of the planet” is central, Miller argues, is the idea that time evolves in a progressive and irreversible way. Our existence is meaningful because of this progressive movement. The natural environment is considered as the background on which we can project meaning. Furthermore, meaning is not part of the natural world. Human beings are assigned as “guardian” of the environment.

As opposed to this worldview, Miller puts forward a Daoist worldview, which promotes the idea of self-cultivation in relation to the natural environment. Furthermore, the flourishing of some things also requires the destruction of other things; the energy I obtain to live comes at the expensive of the death of many others. Miller argues we should be aware of the “transformational” character of the natural environment, which is an essential part to the Daoist understanding of the universe. Religion could therefore be understood as the negotiation on the economy of cosmic power.

The environmental crisis is thus not an appeal to save the planet, as the Christian/humanist worldview understands it, but rather challenges us to respond in a creative way. Miller suggests we should think of religion as the “collective representation of death and violence”. The environmental question challenges us to quantify human violence and to see how we can consume in a creative way, thus avoiding the destructive patterns we have developed in the past.

When we only think of climate change and the environmental crisis as a materialist problem, we fail to see the underlying worldviews that, first of all, identify the crisis as a crisis and secondly how the solutions which are the result of these worldviews might in fact aggravate the situation. I agree with Miller that the Daoist worldview offers an adequate alternative model, which focuses on transformation and vitality, but also acknowledges death, violence and destruction as part of nature. It also enables us to look at climate change as a challenge, instead of a crisis.