For a number of people of my generation, there’s been an explosion of freedom without any sort of similar capacity to handle the opportunities that spread themselves before us.(1)
Benjamin Kunkel, 2005

Now it’s more about how to be immersed without drowning, or to be embedded without falling asleep and happily surrendering control of your feelings to a pervasive military- entertainment complex.(2)
Hito Steyerl, 2010

Jör Heiser
Super-Hybridity: a brief genealogy of a method, and a state of being

The Internet and mobile phones, bullet trains and budget flights; the increased mobility of communication, money, commodities, people themselves; by way of all that, the accelerated availability of information; capitalism and globalization per se... the increase of options and possibilities, of potential access to knowledge and ways to communicate, of interdisciplinarity and unorthodox combinations... but also the increase of risk, of ever faster cycles of boom and bust, financial markets running wild, ecological disasters... expanded freedom of expression, but also backlashes against it... long periods of peace in some parts of the world, endless wars in others... gay mayors, and black or female heads of states, while racist populists and religious fanatics take advantage of fears and anxieties... these are usually some of the deciding, often contradictory factors that are given to explain our current cultural condition.
Yes, of course, all these factors are in effect. Many of them have to do with a technologically and economically induced acceleration of time and increase of geographical reach; with improvements in education, and achievements of emancipatory political movements, as well as backlashes against these. A multiplication of options and hopes, and of connected anxieties and fears.
Most of the things mentioned are quantifiable things: a dramatically increased number of people, things and options we may encounter or know about. Rising stress levels. But what are the qualitative effects? Apart from the hopes and fears: states of confusion and a tendency for many of these encounters to remain superficial, is what you may think at first. And again, yes of course, confusion and superficiality are in effect. But, as I will try to show, there is also a new mode of cultural production, circulation and reception coming into play that could be called super-hybridity.(3)

But before we can discuss what super-hybridity is, and how it may reach beyond mere confusion and superficiality, we have to confront these latter qualitative effects that the dramatic acceleration of time and increase of potential reach may cause. It’s obviously ridiculous to think that if you have hundreds, if not thousands of Facebook friends, that you learned much about any of them (apart from the most neurotically narcissist ones amongst them maybe, as they share intimate banalities you never wanted to know in the first place); or that if you join an online music service such as Spotify and, at a flat monthly rate, suddenly millions and millions of musical tracks are instantly available at your fingertips, that you suddenly have a deeper understanding of music and its imaginative qualities; or that if through visiting a website such as, which is an online digest of photographed gallery exhibitions from around the world, you had done all that it takes to have ‘seen’ these exhibitions.
What seems to be in effect is a loss of haptic qualities, of richness of expe- rience. If we only get to see or hear fleeting digital representations, isolated from other multi-sensory data (touch, smell, moving through space, etc.) we not only see or hear or feel less, we also lose opportunities to memorize these experiences. As the Art of Memory — the ancient techniques of memo- rizing and recalling complex data by relating them to imagined visualiza- tions — demonstrates, connecting information to concrete images, rhythms, narratives etc. makes it much more memorable. And as we don’t have a holodeck (yet), unless we employ these elaborate techniques of mnemonics, many of the informations we encounter thus must remain fleeting and superficial.
That said, isn’t there a quality precisely in isolating a visual, narrative or aural experience, making it possibly more intense? Just think of painting and photography; what made the mode of applying paint on canvas, or releasing the shutter to let light enter a dark box, such a successful medium through the centuries is that a scene, a face, an expression, a movement, a status or state of being is cut out from whatever surrounds it, is frozen, and potentially eternalized. The book isolates the story from the voice of oral narration (from theatre), but you can flip back and forth between pages, re- peatedly read the same sentence. You lose space, movement, surroundings etc., but you gain time. Time to look, listen, read more intensely. Another example is music: as long as we had vinyl records, the isolation of music from the actual situated moment of it being played created an uncanny mo- ment of intensity precisely because we could (potentially) endlessly repeat the experience, put the record on again and again. We can do the same thing with a digital music file, but until a few years ago it was isolated from a haptic or visual experience, such as touching the round black vinyl disc or looking at the cardboard album cover, holding it in our hands. When computers and the first ipods represented music still as merely a few letters or digits that we had to click on, the effect was that it became harder to emphatically listen, we literally lost track of music. More recently, soft- and hardware have started to emulate the more rich experience again: in iTunes for example, musical tracks are presented as images in a kind of curved horizontal stack, so that swiping along a touch screen or mouse pad, it’s as if we were flipping through records stacked on the floor against the wall. But it’s still only a faint emulation; and the question is whether the digitized world we increasingly enter can make do with mere emulations of analogue media. Painting, book, analog photography and vinyl record isolated a visual, narrative or aural entity from its source and surrounding, yet at the same time attached that entity to a new object (the painting itself, the book, the photographic print, the vinyl record and cover). A disembodiment fetish. Of course the computer and smart phone is a disembodiment fetish too — a non-virtual object offering access to the virtual — but it is not a parti- cular image or sound that gets attached to it, but potentially any image or sound. So the computer or smart phone is a disembodiment fetish not of images, sounds or narratives, but of the potential of accessing, circulating, or storing them. It’s a fetish of accessibility and connectivity, as any Holly- wood movie featuring a nerdy hacker gaining access into the crown jewels vault proves. An open social sesame fetish.
This shift from the fetishizable object of recording (book, record, painting, photo print) to the fetishizable object of accessibility (digital networking device) is an indicator of a techno-cultural shift from Modernity (under- stood as the entire spectrum from its early dawnings during Enlightenment to its baroque end phase, Postmodernity) to something else, a new era. At this point we don’t need to name that new era. We also don’t need to decide whether we should actually designate it merely a phase in a larger era including the aforementioned phases. It is probably simply too early to make that decision. We can leave that to later generations trying to come to terms with this shift in retrospect — later generations that know better what it has lead to.(4)
What we can do today, however, is to recognize that there is a fundamental shift taking place, as it happens all around us, and try to describe what kinds of effects it has on how people make experiences and how they convey them, wether in everyday life or in the production of art work. The technological side of that shift is as much the foundation — we cannot see it happen without the technological innovations that have made it possible — as it seems a symptom, driven as these very innovations are by economic inte- rest, political rationales as well as all sorts of desires (to be part of a collec- tive, be in control, be accepted, express dissent etc.). Complex data are constantly uploaded somewhere, and there is always an interest attached: the interest to celebrate, promote, criticize, reveal, rescue, excavate, earn money with, these data — and sometimes even the altruistic interest to simply make them available. In any case the effect is that almost any conceivable information and cultural artefact suddenly becomes available remotely and (almost) instantly. (It remains to be seen how much of that is actually an illusion, and how much crucial data, from cultural artefacts to political secrecies, are actually not available online.)
In recent years, a notable number of cultural producers (artists, musicians, filmmakers etc.) have made use of all these new possibilities. They tap into a dramatically increased number of sources and cultural contexts when producing work. Sometimes it shows directly in the aesthetics of what they do (bizarre combinations of many things), sometimes it doesn’t (a surface of calmness and reduction). But in any case, my argument is that they do not merely up the ante in the Postmodern game of referential pastiche: the controlled combination of a number of sources to make an ironic point (the Chippendale top of an otherwise modernist skyscraper; the New Wave singer wearing a Rococo outfit). Rather, they accelerate the amalgamation of sources and contexts to an extent that they are atomized and transformed into the seed of the next idea. The cultural sources become the wheat that make the dough (just add water, yeast, and a bit of salt). In US pop music, for example, young African-American performers such as Janelle Monáe or Nicki Minaj create multiple singing and rapping personas while simultane- ously creating a multifarious musical amalgam. The personas of Trinidadian- born Minaj include say, Harajuku Barbie (the Japanese cutie), Nicki Teresa (as in Mother Teresa), Rosa (with a rolled R, her Spanish alter ego), or Roman Zolanski, whom she has described as her ‘gay brother’. Minaj com- bines the visual over-the-topness of Lady Gaga with a musical hybrid of Hip-Hop, R&B, Electronic music, trashy Euro-Dance and a whole set of other miniaturized elements. Visual artists such as Helen Marten, Oliver Laric or Ryan Trecartin heighten the number of digital variations and copying of images, logos, gestures, fragments of data, translating all these into instal- lations or videos or combinations of both to an extent that may seem hys- terical — but just as with Nicki Minaj, there is a purpose amidst the whirl of influences, a discernible attitude.
It is no mere coincidence that super-hybridity as a method of cultural production may coincide with an artist’s mixed ethnic or ‘racial’ identities, or their non-heterosexual orientation. Yet crucially it does not seem to be a precondition — or to go further, it raises the question how non-mixed and ‘pure’ any identities or orientations could ever be to start with. In any case, historically, the theoretical notion of hybridity occurred in contexts where the mixed state of culture and ethnic identities was most obvious and could not be denied, and the question was not whether these states existed but what their political and aesthetic significance was. What was the aftermath of colonialism, of the transatlantic import and export of atrocities and myths, exploitation and cultural borrowing? The poet and theorist Edouard Glissant, for example, developed his ideas of Caribbeanness from the 1950s on in response to the prevalence of Afrocentrism and negritude as attempts, on the part of the colonized, to regain a sense of proud identity. ‘Composite peoples’, he stated in 1973, ‘that is, those who could not deny or mask their hybrid composition, nor sublimate it in the notion of a mythical pedigree, do not ‘need’ the idea of Genesis.’ 5 Having no possibility to resort to these myths, in everyday culture they rather make fun of ideas of pure origins. For Glissant, the challenge is to accept that one should not resort to some generalizing universality glossing over what he calls ‘opaqueness’, ‘the irreducible density of the other’, that which I cannot pretend to have understood in the other whose experience I share only in fragmented ways, and in some parts not at all; Humanity is perhaps not the ‘image of man’ but today the ever growing network of recognized opaque structures’.(6)
After Glissant, Homi K. Bhabha is one of the leading theorists who took this approach to a level of deconstructive refinement, as well as speculation about the future. In a chapter of his 1994 The Location of Culture entitled ‘How Newness Enters the World’, Bhabha discusses Fredric Jameson’s McLuhian meditations, in his essay ‘Secondary Elaborations’7, on how postmodern environments may alter our experience and expand perception. The non- synchronous temporality and spatiality of this experience is what Bhabhaidentifies as that which opens up a ‘third space’ where ‘borderline existen- ces’ play themselves out.(8)
He goes on to quote the New York- and Mexico City-based performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña who states that ‘the bankrupt notion of the melting pot has been replaced by a model that is more germane to the times, that of the menudo chowder [menudo is a Mexican soup made with chopped beef stomach; ‘chowder’ a North American type of thickened vegetable or seafood stews]. According to this model, most of the ingre- dients do melt, but some stubborn chunks are condemned to float.’(9)
Bhabha identifies these stubborn chunks as the ‘incommensurable elements’ as the actual basis of hybrid identities — much in the vein of Glissant’s ‘opaque structures’. These theorists show that the seemingly clear-cut alternative between a ‘pure’ identity defined by difference on the one hand (the modernist Afrocentrist, but also the white Supremacist), and a seemingly fluid identity defined by plurality on the other hand (the post- modern cosmopolitan), is flawed. The reality is that of the stubborn chunks amidst the broth, for better or worse.
We have talked about super-hybridity as an attempt to deal with the fetishist shift from the concrete image or sound (including the fetishized image of the Other) to the prospect of accessing any image or sound (including the fetishization of multiplied otherness). ‘Attempt to deal with’ here means that super-hybridity is not merely a celebration of this shift, but also possibly critical of it, but not through distancing oneself from it, but by way of con- sciously inhabiting and exploring it. It is especially in regard to the historical discussion around hybridity that the critical aspect plays itself out: as a con- stant reminder that the fantasy of fluid accessibility and connectivity may not only be interrupted by a bad Internet connection or a hard disk jammed with too much junk data, but may just as easily be confronted with the ‘stubborn chunks’ of traumatic experiences of exploitation, racism, sexism, ideological simplification, etc. By way of that, we are reminded that the Capitalist program of optimizing and flexibilizing the contemporary indivi- dual’s productivity is marred with moral panic and rationalizations of cognitive dissonance. One would think this program could produce truly cosmopolitan individuals who are as hard-working as they are ‘tolerant’ of others. But the truth is that the stress of having to be successful produces the attempt to single out difference, to defer the fear of failure to the ‘other’, the supposedly lazy or criminal immigrants etc. The super-hybrid artistic productions can, at best, subvert this logic: by producing stutters and hic- cups between business and laziness, flexibility and stubbornness, beauty and ugliness, mainstream and obscurity, transparency and opaqueness, original and copy. Stutters and hiccups at such an accelerated pace that they turn into a flow.

Jörg Heiser, July 2012

1. Benjamin Kunkel, ‘Benjamin Kunkel's Tale of Indecision’, radio interviewon NPR, 17 September 2005,
2. Hito Steyerl, in ‘Analyze This’, round table discussion, frieze Issue 133, September 2010 3. Cf. Jörg Heiser, ‘Pick & Mix’, frieze, Issue 133, September, 2010; see also
4. The term metamodernism, put forth by Dutch theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, acknowledges this provisional state, a kind of speculation about future retrospective assessments of our time as a self-reflective, ‘modern’ turn in postmodernity.
5. Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Disourse. Selected Essays, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1989, p.141
6. Glissant,p.133
7. Fredric Jameson, ‘SecondaryElaborations’, in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991, pp. 297-418
8. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London 1994, p. 218f.
9. GuillermoGomez-Peña, ‘Thenewworld(b)order’, ThirdText, vol.21(winter1992-3), p.74, cit. in Bhabha, page 218 f.

Printed version with dutch translation available here