In a Thousand Pieces

A Reading of Extreme Self by Basar, Coupland and Obrist

Chiara Bardelli Nonino

It is said that, for fear of shattering into a thousand pieces, King Charles VI of France walked around wrapped from head to toe in blankets. The so-called ‘glass delusion’ had reached its peak: apparently, advances in glassmaking had not only triggered associations with black magic and alchemy, but given rise to a veritable syndrome. Reading such stories, we come to think that with the sudden, and at times chaotic, changes of the last decade, we are not doing so badly. Rather, it instils a kind of confidence to see how predictably the new has been greeted with wonder, mixed with varying degrees of anguish, to the point of sheer terror. Every invention or discovery that has followed before our eyes – insofar as it was always a visible one – has been accompanied by the accusation that it entails irreparable damage to that ‘something’ that makes us truly human, foreshadowing a future in which the species may definitively part ways with that ‘something’.

Today, as we scroll – without taking any special notice – through feeds of millions of photographs taken from high-altitude portholes, it is almost endearing to look at the oldest surviving aerial photograph, taken by James Wallace Black in 1860 from a hot-air balloon, and re-read its original caption: ‘Boston, as seen by eagle and wild goose’. It is the same astonishment aroused by the first landscapes broken up into beams of light from the window of a locomotive, the same fear that from the daguerreotypes emanated ‘the stench of spell and stench of burning’. And, if the urban legend of the first cinema audiences rushing out of the theatres – terrified by the projection of the train arriving in the station —has come down to us, there must be a reason for this.

The mixing of human and machine has always aroused suspicion. If we have learned to cope fairly well with the way technology has changed our conception of space and time, we are a little less blasé when it comes to considering how the way we perceive ourselves is changing.

In the introductory pages to the book New Dark Age, James Bridle notes how without a widespread process of gaining ‘literacy’ – enabling us to understand the workings of the complex web of technology of which we are now an indivisible part – we risk becoming strangers to ourselves: ‘What is needed is not new technologies, but new metaphors: a metalanguage for describing the world that complex systems have wrought. A new shorthand is required, one that simultaneously acknowledges and addresses the reality of a world in which people, politics, culture and technology are utterly enmeshed.’

This is what Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist try to do with The Extreme Self. Age of You, a sort of breviary of contemporaneity that attempts to show how the concept of individuality is shaped by the ‘extreme present’ in which we are living. The three authors’ previous book, The Age of Earthquakes. A Guide to the Extreme Present, attempted to show, through visual aphorisms, how technology has contributed to rewriting space-time. The Extreme Self, on the other hand, applies the structure of Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes to a significantly shorter timeframe, the five years between the death of David Bowie (for the authors, the first ‘extreme self’) and the initial emergence of COVID, and uses it to demolish the ideological scaffolding of its inventor.

Indeed, while Hobsbawm drew a scenario marked by binary oppositions and crystalline ideologies, whose extremes lay respectively in the fetishisation of the masses and of the individual, The Extreme Self describes a world in which this opposition no longer makes sense: the self expands, the crowd dematerialises. One of the pages reads, cuttingly: ‘The individual has never been so easily exhibited, yet individuality has never been so insubstantial’. The fusion of the real and the virtual, the book argues, has also affected our identity, which has mutated into a kind of rhizomatic entity, branching out across media and platforms, to the point of becoming something radically different from what we called individuality even just ten years ago. The self is crumbling and multiplying: a paradox that for Generation Z closely resembles everyday life.

In the ‘emotional capitalism’ of the extreme present, obsessive narcissism paradoxically coincides with the dissolution of the self: each and every aspect of our existence is extractable, monetisable and performable in a complex system of predominantly visual self-broadcasting. For digital natives, the idea of inhabiting an avatar is a foundation of identity, and not a problematic one: to paraphrase the screamer of Ready Player One, you go on the Internet for what you can do, but stay for what you can become – and Spielberg’s film came out a couple of years (an epoch, by today’s standards) before the Metaverse.

Whatever it is, this kind of permanent mutation doesn’t just cause panic – quite the contrary. For artists such as Andrew Thomas Huang, who has moved from physical puppets to their digital version, the most immediate reaction is a kind of euphoria: ‘In an era when the boundary between virtual and real identities has collapsed,’ he said in a recent interview, ‘we queers and people of colour often feel more comfortable in a hybrid space, where we can construct our identities according to coordinates that are not entirely human. It’s like a digital drag’.

But while for obvious reasons minorities, digital subcultures and techno-utopians welcome any expansion and indeed any erosion of identity, the theme circulates in the collective imagination with the continuity of an obsession. Television series and films such as Inventing Anna, The Dropout, Tinder Swindler, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, expressions of contemporary entertainment, recount the fear, and attraction, of identity as performance.

For as long as it has existed, popular culture has acted as a seismograph, picking up on subterranean anxieties and returning them in the form of images —today essentially meaning social media and TV series, but also catwalks. Reading the notes of Balenciaga’s latest show is like taking a plunge into collective identity trauma: the rejection of all cataloguing, the idea of identity as a battlefield, the apocalyptic references to the new nationalisms, the final exhortation ‘let us let everyone be anyone’ – Demna Gvasalia leaves nothing out. In recent years, the fashion-system has responded to dizzying change with radical metamorphoses not only of products, but also of the roles that design them. One highly telling example is that of the creative director, who now curates and aggregates a multitude of stimuli and inspirations and then channels them into a container, the brand, which is increasingly similar to a hive mind: expansions, annexations, collaborations.

Moreover, the role of the artist is also changing: much less emphasis on nineteenth-century-sque individuality, the focus all on a curious parallel with pre-Romantic ateliers, where the signature had a relative value, if it was not outright non-existent. Now, images, the lingua franca of contemporaneity, are made to land on the Web, becoming common property and taking on meaning in their reinterpretation by a varied public, from the professional to the generalist. Even Instagram’s individualist algorithm is giving way to TikTok’s participatory one, where individual expression can indeed go viral, but only by exploiting a collective wave, by ‘surfing’ on it. That is, if you can manage it. On the one hand, we all have an ‘Internet brain’, a mind forged by the same media and, perhaps for the first time in history, a common planetary sensibility. Yet, the sense of a shared reality is progressively crumbling: cast by algorithms into our personal rabbit holes, we develop tastes and obsessions that we cannot be sure we either created or wanted to radicalise.

A good visual equivalent of this process are the works of Tristan Hsu: a mix of photographic glitches, static electricity and orifices, human fragments that seem to try to escape from the surface of the work, like so many cocoons about to hatch. Hsu has been reflecting on this mixture of organic and synthetic forms since the 1980s, when, while working on Wall Street, he observed how our existence was becoming inextricably bound to a screen. When it is pointed out to him in interviews that he seems to have predicted the future, Hsu replies that he has only tried, from the outset, to narrate the present: yet today he increasingly perceives this present as an anticipated future.

We get the feeling that this is happening at a different speed than in the past – a speed that prevents the mind from transforming fast enough – and reacting. This is one of the conclusions also reached by the three authors of The Extreme Self, claiming that today only over-40s are still able to say what an individual is in the classic sense of the term. But that same individual is starting to think that such awareness is now ‘almost a disadvantage’.

We could respond with the words of Virginia Woolf, who writes in Mrs Dalloway: ‘the compensation of growing old … is simple: the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence , the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light’.

Perhaps, books like The Extreme Self invite us to do just that: to stop, to slowly observe what we are becoming. It may be a form of consolation, but maybe it will help us not to wrap ourselves up in blankets, for fear of being smashed to pieces.