Piffard, NY. Towards the very end of Hyperreality: How Our Tools Came to Control Us, the author, Frank Mulder, tells us what his narrative has all been about: “(t)he book is about the good life, the real life, and the real life is not found in a theory but in life itself: on squares, in dilapidated buildings and under sycamore trees.” Mulder, a journalist who lives with his wife and four children in a downtrodden neighborhood in Utrecht, Netherlands, can testify from his own experience about life on squares and in dilapidated buildings but (though I am not a botanist) I didn’t know there were sycamores in the Netherlands! And, to be clear, he does not specifically say that there are sycamores there, as the larger statement is about generalities as much as it reflects parts of his own experience, but I found the reference arresting. The image of a sycamore tree jumped out at me as the axis mundi, or even the very Tree of Life standing tall and green in the midst of the fallen, “Wasteland”-ish hyperreality he describes in the body of the book.
And what is hyperreality? One might think, from reading this book, that it is a particularly French-themed hellscape as the description he gives us throughout the book is influenced by Baudrillard, predicted by Ellul, and nuanced by the insights of Girard. However, in its very Dutch matter-of-factness and brevity (and translated into English with the help of his friend Paul Kingsnorth), it is spot on. In short, Mulder is describing a world that would be recognizable (if loathed) by Porchers and described by him as a “technical system built to satisfy our desires and suppress our fears.” It’s an improved version of natural reality, he says, “promising wealth, security and belonging.” Here’s a good example of Mulder’s Dutch concision, insight, and wit:
According to most mainstream economists, we simply cannot forgo growth. Without growth our wealth cannot increase, so the logic goes. The best thing I could do would be to work hard in a position for which I have been educated, so the government can spend my tax money on social workers who will play football with street youth. My kids can best be raised by child minders, while a psychiatrist can help me to cope with the resulting stress. And in order to fight climate change, we should work more, not less, so that collective profit could be spent on environmental scientists who can fix the problem. If we were to do it this way, the world would become a much more efficient place. This is a process we have to embrace. After all, if we do not do it, the Chinese will, and we will fall behind, which is bad.
Examples of this tone and dry wit pop up throughout the book and he comes across as something of a mash-up of Wendell Berry and 1980s comedian Stephen Wright. But the punchlines conjure retches more often than laughs. He talks about an economy dedicated to growth absent a larger understanding of “wealth” that includes such needs as leisure and uncontaminated drinking water, and he cuts through the craziness of this myopic vision like a Dutch Bushcraft Knife through butter.
This is a serious inhibition to our understanding of wealth. If we build a factory in a nature reserve, which then contaminates the water, the government will have to clean it up, while prosecutors charge those responsible. Every one of these steps boost the GDP. The economy grows. But does anyone create wealth?
Taking the word “hyperreality” itself from a 1975 essay by Umberto Eco reflecting on a wax statue recreation of DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” as well as the existence of Disneyland, Mulder is at pains to inform us that the desire to create a reality ‘more real’ than reality itself in the name of the almighty dollar is not as new as, say, Facebook/Meta, but the new and dangerous aspect of this phenomenon manifesting in our time lies in the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the not real, a la The Matrix, “when what we conceive as reality is just a projection.” And this leads Mulder to question motives, forces, and “powers” in addition to money–bigger, more dominant than money. And in this lies the force of the book, both in tracing our descent into the Matrix as well as the path out. He invokes the Devil-invoking Faust to make his point:
The story shows that it matters what power we invoke to reach a certain goal. The means we choose to find happiness and fulfillment are not irrelevant: on the contrary, they can ultimately undermine the end that we tried to achieve. This is in line with my story until now, about a hyperreality promising everything but in the end undermining our freedom to find fulfillment. Restating the story in terms of ends and means will help us discern where we go wrong and how we can choose something else. It will make clear that the crisis around us is not the result of bad organization but of trusting the wrong powers.
And what template does he use to ‘map out,’ as it were, the workings of the powers we need to confront? As I read the three chapters in the book dedicated to the construction of the false world of hyperreality based around our respective desires for money, security and status, I became increasingly aware of a sort of total comprehensivity in brevity I’d not come across in such a critique since I read similar reflections by the Russian Valentin Tomberg in a chapter on “The Temptations in the Wilderness” in his book Christ and Sophia. Mulder (spoiler alert!) does not let us know he is taking his critical template from that famous scene in the Gospels until after his three-chapter tour de force is complete, and that ends up being quite illuminating as it not only allows the Church-weary to proceed with an open mind; it also kept, in my own case, a certain sanctimony in check, which would have clouded my ability to have the force of his critique communicated on it own terms.
It turns out, however, that any time we ontologically confuse ‘stones and bread’ – most emblematically in the confusion of money with something living – we are creating a hellish hyperreality. I would say this is especially true, though it’s not singled out by name in the book, in the practice of usury where infertile pieces of stone, or Shakespeare’s “barren metal,” are magically transmuted in law and in our mind into substances upon which we project an imagined existence in which we pretend they ‘breed like rabbits’ in a bank. Talk about projection of our desires! The bugbear of “scarcity” and the countering and sane philosophy of limits is taken for granted by Mulder and grounds his whole critique.
And anytime we seek to “see all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant,” which Mulder expounds as seeking security by fixation on control (based, of course, in fear), we are creating hyperreality, and horrible things happen. In reading Mulder’s illuminating unpacking of this temptation, my mind turned to that fateful scene in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1950) where Orson Wells (as “Harry Lime”) contemplates and countenances the profitable spread of deadly pharmaceuticals and the resultant murder of mass numbers of people from the worldview atop a ferris wheel that, in that “single instant,” allows him to see everybody as homogeneous “dots” and utter the line “Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” I’ve often wondered, too, if the religious worldview of inevitable progress, (“chronological snobbery”) where one looks at the past from something of a supposed rootless, fleshless distance, is also connected to this notion of “seeing all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant,” not to mention my hatred of Archimedes and his dangerous “points.”
Speaking of “dots,” most chilling, by far, are the pages that Mulder dedicates in this section to the Dutch civil servant Jacobus Lentz (1894-1963), once named Holland’s “Civil Servant of the Year,” who, using the Dutch inclination, as described by Mulder, to “know, to measure and to register, because then we feel safe and secure,” devised a national registration and passport system that was turned down at its initial introduction but used later by the Nazi occupiers to sort out Jews from non Jews for an extermination campaign that took the lives of a higher percentage of Jews than in Germany. After the war, after people woke up from the spell, Lentz did a few years in the clink, having been officially accused, says Mulder, of having a “wrong love of the population registers.” Wait! You mean to tell me that “love” was once invoked “wrongly” by elite and intelligent civil servants and then a lot of hellish damage ensued? Doestoevsky would be shocked. SHOCKED!
Glad that time has passed, though! Thanks to progress, we now know, definitively, that love can’t be confused in elite, high-minded discourse: It is that thing that “Trumps hate”; it is that thing that, perhaps a little tautologically, “is Love”; and it is the reason that, “for others,” and not for any fear for my own life, “I mask.” Pope Francis, whom I rather like, invokes “Love” as a reason we would “take the jab.” Like his fellow Jesuit, Michel de Certeau, he makes some observations from the street, and others, many others, from the Vatican or even from the vantage point of airplanes, but to my mind, and unlike de Certeau, he doesn’t seem aware of the different perspectives and, sadly (and scarily), he often sounds, when doing so, more like Harry Lime than Dorothy Day.
Ivan Illich saw and predicted that the very word “Life” could be corrupted by a managerial, technocratic elite into a substantive, DNA-ish something that could be used to usher in an apocalyptic bio-political hellscape in the pursuit of control. In a similar way, John Cowper Powys, at the end of his life, acted as a prophet of the corruption of the word “Love.” So mixed up it is with feelings of “hate” (Wasn’t “Love Trumps Hate” just another way of saying, “I hate Trump”?), and with the sex-instinct, he saw it as being actually opposed to the more needful and fleshy practices of kindness, justice, patience, consideration, respect, admiration, pity, etc. He saw and predicted how this new and sentimental “love,” from the vision of the world “in a single instant” would never “leave us alone,” and was actually a force for dividing people. Idea for a movement, or a yard sign: “In the name of all things human, let’s all agree to drop ‘Love’ from our lexicon.”
Illich (since I already brought his name up) also knew that an economy beholden to the idea of ‘scarcity’ and dedicated to ‘growth’ necessarily leads to an apartheid society: How we get there is just a matter of cleverness on the part of our elites (choosing the right emergency or emergencies) and the application of technology. Mulder sees this clearly as well:
There’s a trend toward the division between Red Zones and Green Zones, like the US created in Iraq. In the global Green Zone life will be safe and free. On the local scale there will also be Red and Green zones. Complete residential areas are built where private security keeps the outsiders out, like the shopping malls in Brazil where the people from the favelas are not allowed to enter, or the neighborhoods in Asia where inhabitants can only enter by showing their fingerprints. In the Red Zones there is only security for people who can afford it. This is a dangerous time bomb for everyone, that’s why control will be scaled up. In the Red Zones this will be enforced by planes and drones. In the green zones control will be noiseless. [emphasis mine]
I have to presume that, in the spirit of Dutch brevity, the editors took out some words of Mulder at the end of this passage to the effect of “God save us all” or something like that. Or maybe, simply, “Poo-Tee-Weet.”
And, finally, in the third of his chapters dedicated to diagnosis, Mulder takes us through an examination of the world as described through the lens of our desire (again, from the Temptation in the Wilderness scene from the Gospels) to “jump from the pinnacle into the abyss,” interpreted brilliantly by Mulder, using a lot of Girard and Ortega y Gasset, as our craving for “belonging through status” and by quoting C.S. Lewis, from a lecture called “The Inner Ring” on the centrality of this desire as one of the “great permanent mainstreams of human action”:
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local ‘Ring’ and the terror of being left outside… . Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.
This temptation captures both the somewhat hidden force of this “power” as well as something of the double-movement it which combines: what Thorstein Veblen diagnosed and described as the unfree, social-climbing, force of “conspicuous consumption” as well as the related, abyss-like, power of the falling into a “crowd.” It’s a spiritual malady that, in my experience in ministry, makes the love of money look almost like a diaper rash in comparison. And universities seem to be as much of a petri dish for this temptation’s metastization as popular culture. It’s an imprisonment that, when it takes place, is total. There’s a connection to sycamore trees here, too, that makes my own visceral and warm reaction to his mention of that species of tree come alive, and which also might point to the particular mention of sycamores by Mulder, in connection to community, regardless of whether they are found in the Netherlands or not. Sycamores, or so goes my theory, whether we are climbing up them (like the famous Zaccheus), or feasting under them, in community (the opposite of a crowd) like Mulder and his friends, seem to be central to scenes conducive to deliverance from the madness of crowds and other spiritual illnesses.
Despite our near total indoctrination into the ‘religious’ notion that “salvation” is something having to do with getting to Place A (called “heaven”), and avoiding Place B (called “hell”), by following a crowd-forming code (be it “traditional” or “woke”) of one kind or another, this notion just does not get much truck in the actual Gospel (Mulder’s hero, Jaques Ellul, is brilliant on this deconstruction in many of his works). In fact, in her wisdom, the Catholic Church, though it plays into this game in dozens of ways, never quite defines “salvation” or presents a crystal clear soteriology. In 20+ years working in campus ministry, however, I’ve realized the closest the Gospels come to naming what it means to be “saved” is in the story of the rescue of the famous (if small) Zaccheus who, the Gospel tells us, “couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowds.” Crowds destroy personhood. Elias Canetti, in his famous book Crowds and Power, compares their dense and soul-destroying existence to congealed matter, like stones. Read Luke, Chapter 19, centered around a famous sycamore, however, and see that salvation (“I’ve come to seek and save what is lost”) seems most clearly to take place in this life, and be compared to the miracle of being released from an overly-moralizing crowd! Note too, in the same chapter, that, when the Pharisees (which come in all political stripes) complain about Jesus’ ‘crowd-busting’ teaching and its liberating effect on the people, he replies, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out.”
After leaning heavily and wisely on the thought of Jacques Ellul for some further insights and connecting links between these three temptations, and using Ellul’s specifically powerful insights into the role of technology in all of this, Mulder wraps things up in a few beautiful chapters which point the way out of tyranny and into what he calls a “Dazzling Freedom.” In reflecting on the Gospel, he chooses the appellation “people of The Way” over “church,” and this highlights the liberating power of God to lead us out and away from hyperreality/The Matrix, which is also the Way of the journey home from the hyperreal pigsty where the corporate, prodigal “we,” which is all of us, can hopefully finally “come to ourselves” (Luke 15:17) and begin the journey home.
Mulder gets to the kernel of the liberating power of the Gospel by way of Gandhi’s sense of the Sermon on the Mount being centrally about a “restatement of the problem in terms of ends and means”; again, “people of the Way/(means)” not “people of the ends.” Think of all the misery caused by “planners” of all stripes who fancied they can predict the outcome of impossibly complex situations, despite the fact that their “chaos theory” buddies down the hall in the building on the modern multiversity campus know it’s all a fool’s errand as there are so many forces in haphazard collision–the so-called “butterfly effect’–that nobody can predict the outcome (but they’ll still ‘model’ it out for us, and they, too, like a fat paycheck). Wasn’t it the ‘domino effect’ theory of history that got us into things like Vietnam and, later, (but also disastrously) Afghanistan? “If Vietnam goes communist,” so they said, “so will the rest of Southeast Asia!” This is theorizing from the prideful “people-as-dots” view of the world, the view of seeing the ‘whole world in a single instant,’ and it needs to be rejected. Did Tolstoy, who also saw through the “domino effect” in history, write War and Peace totally in vain? And am I wrong to suggest a new holy day, December 10th, the day that commemorates the passing of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who saw through this mess in the Vietnam War and took his stand on the Way and on the means as opposed to the “ends” and the views of planners of all stripes? My literary hero and friend (recently passed) Stephen Vizinczey, an atheist, wrote a book called The Rules of Chaos which is an utterly brilliant series of meditations on this seminal and central issue of our time. “In a chaotic world,” he says, “moral decisions are the only rational ones.”
Frank Mulder is preaching the same Gospel. Pictures of Frank Mulder make him look like he could be a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, on a bicycle, planting sycamores instead of apple trees, helping people, one by one, break free from the threefold madness of money, planning, and crowds.