Stuck in the Pandemic of the Hyperreal

David Braga

The hyperreal, generally, refers to any situation in which reality becomes indistinguishable from fiction or a simulation of reality. It is the moment in which our wildest imaginings are outpaced by the world around us. If Marx was correct in asserting that history happens twice - first as tragedy, then as farce - the hyperreal is what takes over when farce goes unnoticed by the populace. If tragedy was the 2016 election, then the 2020 failure of Bernie Sanders and the Left to (again) capture the Democratic nomination, leaving us with a Trump/Biden race during a global pandemic that could very well feature a push-up contest on the debate stage, is farce. Where we hit the warp drive here is not in the myriad of problems currently being experienced, but rather in the lack of response to those problems, which in our heart of hearts we all could imagine, but only in the most grim scenarios.

There are ways we could imagine this playing out. We can imagine a pandemic — we’ve done it thousands of times in movies and television; what we haven’t imagined is a pandemic where the response turns to rote boredom and acceptance. We can imagine mass death; what we can’t imagine is a death-tracker climbing upwards while neither political party or the populous at large does anything about it. We can envision economic crises, disastrous climate change, mass evictions and unemployment; what we can’t imagine is all of these things happening without any sort of response. Yet that is where we find ourselves. In that sense, the hyperreal hits us not as a failure to imagine something extraordinary, but rather, our failure to imagine the sort of anhedonic indifference that we’re now witnessing. We imagine death and the response, we can’t imagine death on this scale with no one caring. This is the realm of the hyperreal — the things we have only whispered as unthinkable are not only occurring, but they are occurring at such a speed that they have outpaced our own fictional accounts or ideas of what would be necessary to combat them. All of the events are occurring at once, all of them are detached, happening at a distance that is somehow both near and far. We see the statistics on television while our neighbor is sick down the street. We are watching our own apocalypse in prime time and waiting for the writer’s to swoop in and save us.

In Mark Fisher’s brief but seminal work, Capitalist Realism, he asks why it is easier to envision the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism. This is precisely the situation in which we now find ourselves: the world — not for everyone, but for huge numbers of people — is ending, either quite literally through COVID, or figuratively through a country with no social safety net or plan to help a work force that demands blood sacrifice to keep moving; meanwhile, capital ticks along. We’ve recently learned this was the worst economic quarter in the country’s history; we also know that major tech companies and their CEOs are continuing to pull in billion dollar profits. These two things should not make sense together. That they do is evidence of two separate systems. For most of us, we have the brutal capitalist realism of the everyday worker, forced to choose between paying their rent and potentially contracting a fatal illness (or the massive medical bills a recovery entails) by going in to work. For a select few, we have a system of safe catches, continuing profits, and a general detachment from the world as it occurs to the rest of us. This is not hyperreal for them; if they’ve noticed, they hardly seem to care. This goes for Amazon and Facebook’s leaders as well as the leaders of both political parties, major cultural leaders and celebrities, and everyone else who hasn’t really had to lose any skin in the current crises. It’s our hyperreality because it hasn’t hit them yet, and because this crisis lays bare how directly our lives are in their (often closed) hands. Could we have a moratorium on mortgages and rents? More stimulus money? Free healthcare and screenings so that people could find out if they were infected without worrying about the bill? New Deal style efforts to get food and PPE and relief to everyone who needs it? Of course we could. It’s a matter of imagination. In our fictional disasters, we have heroes or societies or bands of survivors that pull together to help one another. In reality, no one with the means cares enough because they’re not feeling hungry yet. The problem being that when the bill does come due for the ultra-rich, it will likely be too late for the rest of us. We’re beyond fiction now, into unknown territory, reality that is unrecognizable from reality as we knew it mere months ago. Things will get worse; the election may only determine the severity of how much worse they get. The COVID virus will eventually go away, or a vaccine will be found, but the virus of Capitalism — that leech that bloats itself on our sweat and blood while refusing to acknowledge our own existence — will remain. As such, the hyperreality we are now dealing with will continue, in some form or another, even if it feels like things have gone back to normal. The mask has fallen too far off to be put back in place without us knowing what lays behind it. If we are to escape, we need to think bigger, take our fate into our own hands, and be ready to push as much as we possibly can for the dignity we deserve, the rights we are owed, the lives that we are entitled to live. If the hyperreal is based on our imagination and its relationship to reality, then perhaps we need to begin pushing reality towards what we would imagine it should be. We must imagine a new world and then do the work of building it so that it is the reality we expect and know. Until then we will be stuck in this reality that feels so much like the darkest fiction, the nightmare we cannot verbalize upon waking, only knowing that it is there as a nameless, possible evil.

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