The Year is 1984:
Notes on Hypofiction

Baudrillard conceptualised the hyperreal many decades ago as a certain quality of postmodern experience, wherein we cannot clearly distinguish between what is real and what is not. It is a term that he applies explicitly to ever-improving technologies of representation, such that nowadays, in the age of deep fakes and AI-generated photorealism, it feels evermore prescient and inescapable.

Hyperfiction used to refer to any sort of digital media that had exceeded the restrictions of paper and ink in the early years of the Internet. An example of hyperfiction, then, could be any kind of online fiction that utilised hyperlinks. But I think Mark Fisher retooled the concept and made it far more interesting and useful when talking about Toy Story in Flatline Constructs. There, he discusses the film as a fictional narrative about toys, following the release of which the toys are themselves made purchasable and material. It is not simply the case that the distinction between reality and fiction is blurred, but rather that fiction far more explicitly intervenes within reality.

It was an interesting time to be a child when that first Toy Story movie came out. A lot of the toys I’d play with as a kid, aside from my Dad’s old Lego box, were generally movie tie-ins from other eras. Star Wars merchandise, for instance, like miniatures of various characters, were among my favourites. But Toy Story changed things.

I knew the film itself was not real, as an animation, but when my uncle bought me a Woody doll for my birthday one year, I remember being quite disturbed by the possibility that my toys may well come alive when I’m not in the room. (A phenomenon Fisher talks about this at length in his thesis, drawing on Sherry Turkle’s research into how the technological innovations of the Nineties, particularly the Internet, were reshaping subjectivity.)

It was like sensing the installation of your own superego. To play with my toys was now to be reflexively aware of their own (apparent) agency. A Kleinian playtime was not necessarily about processing my own feelings, but rather being afraid of the ways my toys might be toying with me and might be having feelings of their own. (Perhaps I was just a neurotic child, plagued by adoption trauma, but that Woody toy made me feel nothing but guilt when I left it on its own in my room, like a neglected pet or another child.)

Personal anecdotes aside, suffice it to say that I found my Nineties hyperfictional childhood unsettling in all sorts of ways, and not so much a reservoir for nostalgia. Cultural theorists like Fisher and others have certainly helped many of us to critically reflect on that time in hindsight, but it was also already readily apparent, even to us as children, that new things were happening and some of them felt really weird.

It’ll be interesting to see what sort of cultural artefacts comes to dominate the zeitgeist if and when we millennials come to explore these neuroses in more contemporary media, although we seem far more preoccupied with being cross-generational “middle children” than actually dealing with this stuff.

On the one hand, we bemoan Gen Z for not knowing what VHS tapes or landline telephones are, as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we all thought we’d be our parents by thirty, when in reality the the material conditions of our present moment mean we’re becoming developmentally arrested in our mid- to late-twenties instead. On the other hand, this helps us tell ourselves that we’re still cool because we get our TikToks second-hand on Instagram.

But if there is anything interesting about being a millennial, maybe it is seeing the push-and-pull for what it is. Gen Z get on and do what they want, intensifying a gender revolution — not unlike the sexual revolution of the Sixties — whilst a culture war rages overhead that is punctuated by a resentful cloud of Gen X wistfulness and nostalgia. And as time goes by, that Gen X nostalgia only gets weirder and weirder.

Stranger Things is quaint compared to what’s coming down the cinematic crapshoot later this year…

There have been two recent film trailers that I have not been able to escape online over the last few weeks:

1) Tetris, the 2023 movie about the creation and marketing of one of the most famous and best-selling video games of all time.

It looks like it has an interesting story to tell — a story far more interesting than the game itself. But whatever. I’m of the Nintendo 64 to PlayStation 1 generation. I never had much interest in Tetris, and so I wouldn’t have thought much about this forthcoming film at all if it weren’t for….

2) Air, the 2023 movie about Nike’s pursuit of a partnership with Michael Jordan to create the Air Jordan sneaker franchise.

Now that’s another story I really couldn’t give a shit about. But taken together, both of these soon-to-be-released films signify an interesting (if depressing) development in the extraneous marketing strategies of late-stage capitalism.

What’s particularly interesting, to my mind, is that both these films dramatize an increasingly prevalent movie genre. Retellings of Eighties “coming-of-age” stories are old hat now. Today it’s all about “coming-to-market” stories.

And what is further interesting about these two coming-to-market stories in particular is that they are for two products first released in the year 1984. It’s a significant date for this kind of movie, in fact. It’s as if they are all echoing the blueprint of the Steve Jobs movie, which similarly seemed to orbit that moment in space-time.

It’s a moment that Mark Fisher draws upon in his final lectures, which I’m sure most are familiar with by now, where he begins by discussing Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial, directed by Ridley Scott:

What this did, really, was seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now, I think, standard in our imagining: the idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset.

And what is clever, I think — or certainly significant — all advertising you could say is a form of dreamwork — dreamwork, as Freud says, involves conflation, and a compressing, a condensing of different ideas together. All this does, if you look at the imagery, is it condenses Cold War imagery — which none of you are really old enough to actually remember except historically, I think — Cold War imagery associated with the Soviet Union in particular; negative imagery to do with dreariness, bureaucratic submission of individuals. If you look at the film, these grey drones trudge around being subjected to the ultimately top-down commands coming from the talking head, clearly referencing 1984 of Orwell … But it conflates that imagery that has long been associated with the Soviet bloc, with imagery to do with big computer corporations, such as IBM, which then dominated the computer world.

Apple is positioning itself as an upstart, as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This, then, is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened! In a certain way, it was prophetic. It was more than prophetic; you could say it was hyperstitional. It helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing. From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this, then, is the way in which it suggests there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery — what it’s suggesting is … there is only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world, is boring and dreary, and that’s an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be.

And of course, the story of what comes next is well-trodden. “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984“, the commercial concludes, and so ignites a desire for something else. A desire for another 1984; a capitalist rather than “communist” 1984.

But has that desire matured at all? Or has it stagnated? Why, almost 30 years later, does 1984 still feel like a libidinal threshold, arrived at and then stuck with? After all, don’t these movies insist that we must keep desiring the same old 1984 of Apple, Air Jordans and Tetris?

Whereas Toy Story, for an impressionable child at least, gave the world of commodities a newly agentic (or gothic materialist) charge, letting you feel adrift and untethered in a world of objects that might have their revenge on your consumerist indifference, this kind of fiction instead contracts capitalist time around you and further exacerbates a feeling of stasis. It is less hauntological and more hauntographic. It is nostalgia wholly cut off from its generative function — and such a nostalgia does exist. (Grafton Tanner is excellent on this.)

These films are instead temporal aberrations of a kind we’ve not really seen before. This is no longer a kind of hagiographic biopic of an entrepreneurial guru. This isn’t a film about a Steve Jobs or a Coco Chanel. This is a film about a product. But that doesn’t make it a hyperfiction necessarily either, since these products have been fetishised for decades. It’s not even an example of retromania, since there’s little frenzy to this, little sense of fraught expansion and excitement about the recent past.

This is hypofiction. This is the contraction of capitalist space-time, rather than its technicolour expansion. It’s not nostalgia but hypochronia, in which old time pools under the surface of a disenfranchised generation not only old enough to remember the Old Days but mentally stuck there. Previous generations made this kind of film about specific “events” and eras — about the Swinging 60s, or the Roaring 20s, or even (perversely) about the chivalrous time of the two World Wars. Today, Gen X makes films not about the events it lived through, strictly speaking, but a more restrictive kind of capitalist event; it makes films about the things it used to buy.

For what purpose? It is hard to say. The obvious answer might be that these brands simply want to reinvigorate their IP. We have moved from product placements to product-protagonists, and so the self-mythologising function of capitalist dreamwork has fallen victim to its sense of signifying inflation too. Once upon a time, a Superbowl commercial would suffice; now you need a blockbuster. But still, the question is: why?

In 1984, we might argue that a new capitalist fiction was still being written. These products were the backbone of Cold War dreamwork, as commodity fetishism spread from capitalist enclosures into their outside. (Tetris, in particular, seems to really play up the whole Cold War drama of the story being told.) But the old dream is dead. The world is still defined by drudgery. The technicolour promise has been revealed as a lie.

Capitalism is no longer in the business of making things new. All it can do, it seems, is reinvigorate the old spirit of 1984, and the products brought to market that lent a superficial agency to our own purchasing power. As the capitalist ideal is humiliated through its infernal repetitions, the myth must be re-grounded. We can still “buy in” to that time of promise, if only by going to the cinema, re-immersing ourselves in that still- functional dream factory; in the darkened room, which cloaks the late-capitalist reality of empty shelves, faltering production and the depressing capture of the shop floor.

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