Monstrous Moderns Without an Alibi


Scientists announced on January 26th, the first successful human-animal hybrid. It is yet another confirmation that modern monstrousness has been unleashed. We are well into the epoch of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. To be modern increasingly means to live within the blurred lines of the acceptable and unacceptable. Revealed in the new sapiens-pig species is that monstrous realization that there are no longer any illegitimate children. Nietzsche was a bad homicide detective when he announced God is dead in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra! But he was at least aware of the immensity of the “crime” that none could escape prosecution with pleas of innocence. Religious zealousness led Nietzsche to misidentify the divine as the victim in the autopsy when it was really the classical Olympian order, which previously forbid any monstrous or illegitimate progeny. The Olympian gods held at bay those contrived power struggles that are the reckoning of modern artificialness, or what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “man-made monstrous.” In Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger he writes

As we approach the bi-millennium, we begin to look upon the Modern Age as a period in which monstrous things are achieved by human perpetrators—entrepreneurs, technicians, artists, and consumers. This monstrous is neither sent by the old gods nor represented by classical monsters; the Modern Age is the era of the man-made monstrous. To be modern, one must be touched by the awareness that, beside the inevitable fact of being a witness, one has been drawn into a sort of complicity with the newer form of the monstrous. If one asks a modern person, ‘Where were you at the time of the crime?’ the answer is: ‘I was at the scene of the crime’—that is to say, within that totality of the monstrous which, as a complex of modern criminal circumstances, encompasses its accomplices and accessories. Modernity means dispensing with the possibility of having an alibi (2016, 237).

In the postcolonial sense, modernity means to relinquish oneself of any alibis. No longer can we claim to be the heirs of noble inheritance, but must face the realization that everything has been “remixed,” or undergone non-demeaning bastardizations. Modern monstrosities are not governed by the logics of production, but those of distribution rooted in hypercognition. We have no choice but to hypercognize—this function is arguably one of the greatest demands of our age. Therefore, the problem of hypercognitive civilization cannot go unaddressed. Hypercognition, which includes pre-cognitive and cognitive functions but outruns both, is the capacity to treat a personal or situational experience in the subjunctive mode of future possibility—as if “X” were the case. It is the human power to “take in as” in anticipation of possible future acts and outcomes. Knowledge in the subjunctive has escalated to hyperbolic levels that generate a post-paranoia culture of confusion and mistrust. Public trust, which is a prerequisite for genuine communication and the possibility for mutual interpretative respect, has broken down and been undermined. To the extent that corporate and government institutions are unwilling to take accountability of their own wrong-doing and seek to hide behind non-disclosure agreements or appearances of regret through performance apology press conferences, they cannot to be considered “owners” in the traditional sense—they will distribute responsibility to the lower rungs and may be more accurately described as self-interested blockages in the dynamics of circulation, standing to discredit anyone other than him or herself. Governments and businesses collude to be the last ones left with an alibi. For monstrous moderns, conflicts can all too easily become games of hypercognitive combat that reward those who can out-maneuver in subjunctive strategies. But the psychophysical toll can be heavy and those hypercognitive cravings to be out ahead of the other will scorch your attention and energies.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock took the American public by storm. Selling over 6 million copies, the work is a dystopian novel concerned with the threat of “information overload.” It imagines how an overwhelming volume of data and trivialness of newsworthy events produces “social paralysis.” Hypercognitive hysteria is the central thrust of the book. The speed with which the world moves and communicates today has only accelerated exponentially since the book’s foreshadowing. Ours is an age where thinking out loud is contagious and mandatory. Virtual monasteries have replaced the medieval estates. Religious rituals like prayer and private confessionals have been brought to bear on a wider community of fellow-feelers. The ever increasing noise of humans thinking out loud on social media platforms has replaced the clatter of the cities, which have grown quiet by comparison. Consistent saturation in hyperimagery has triggered a kind of never-being-with-oneself that leaves us all as technical non-dwellers. Cognitive resignation becomes a desirable escape from the stimulation and demands of hypercognition. Either one becomes a fellow traveler willing to indulge in the marathon of speedway thinking, or one feels exhausted. It is far too easy to grow fatigued as a passenger on such a multifarious sojourn. The enactment of cinematic-daydream-like states can allow us to find enough stimulation to hop off the moving train.


This pig embryo was injected with human cells early in its development and grew to be four weeks old. Photograph courtesy Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte–National Geographic, 2017

Prussian philosopher of culture Johann G. Herder rightly argued that cultures are fluid; they drift or slide, so to speak. Perhaps no period in known human history has lived up to Herder’s description more than our own. Production centers may still exist as the hot-centers of culture such as Silicon Valley or CERN research labs, but producers or owners no longer exist in the traditional sense. We have become sharers and users, who roam a globalized and transnational “commons” of cultural inbreeding and virtual herding. Data and informational processes no longer rely on a predominant carrier, as is the case with books or LP’s. A model of production rooted in ontologies of products or things is outdated. Through virtual integration we traffic in the five-fold of commodity, money, text, image, and celebrity. None of these is held on to like property with “no trespassing” signs, but are traded and passed along without any particular destination! To think of these “things” in terms of objects misses the vast ways our cultural engagements are predicated on (mis-) information and big data flowing in unique and uncanny spreads. It is through such distribution that we are now more integrated as a people of virtual users and sharers. Anyone can be a broadcaster today, and evade the traditional boundaries between the inside-outside divide. We are moved to navigate the cyber-seas and cast our nets far and wide to nab all of the bits and feed we can. Knowledge can no longer be kept in specialists’ strait jackets but unfolds and develops interdependently, creating infectious and viral paths. Open platforms and hyperlinks continue to revolutionize learning and liberate schooling beyond physical classrooms.

Barriers in the archaic protective sense rely on an overly naïve confidence that efforts to keep the outside out will be successful. As we grow more interdependent this will be an impossible task. Ask any music artist, author, government or company about this difficulty. It is no great shock that personal accounts are hacked daily, from all US federal government employees, news networks, presidential campaigns, and so on. How many times has your debit/credit card been “compromised” and you had to wait on the bank to send you a new one simply because you just went for a shop? The tradition of modern subjectivity running from Descartes to the present, with its obsession to secure objective certainty, is now seen to provide an unrealistic account of the individual person’s complexity and malleability under the conditions of cybernetic irony. With the viral distribution of production centers we are bearing witness to the enhancement of latent producing powers within distributive processes. Patterns of behavior become not only ways that institutions are arranged or formed, but are used as effective indicators and guides to the probabilities of future action and behavior.

Given our increasing reliance on distribution centers, no culture or group is ever self-contained or shutoff from multifarious external influences in the age of the monstrous. Realizing no locks or safes are full proof is one of the ways in which modernity cannot plead innocent. Ours is an epoch of disillusionment. Unwelcome values and rituals that are deemed potentially parasitic will forever infiltrate all nations, even Facebook or North Korean ones. Under such conditions you will not be able to pick and choose what you “own” like the greedy side of us wants to pretend. Rather, we will share and use rituals without regards to quasi-entitlements. As we grow more reliant on the fusion of anthropotechnics in a world of accelerating hyper-complex processes, it becomes more difficult to deny that we will have to act as distributive selves rather than as self-sufficient producers.

With the moderns, there is a will to widen the boundaries of the normal, and to absorb a large part of what was formerly monstrous into contemporary normality.-Peter Sloterdijk, Die schrechlichen Kinder der Neuzeit (Modernity’s Enfants Terribles)