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Eco Next: The Mechanics of Hyperpraxis
G. Willow Wilson.jpg

Eco Next: The Mechanics of Hyperpraxis

Why—or more precisely, how—does a corset symbolize something very different when it is worn by Madonna than when it was worn by Victorian housewives?

by G. Willow Wilson

Introduction

In the modern information economy, few subjects are as tension-filled as symbol-manipulation. Politicians, media figures, religious leaders and even pop stars rely on symbol-manipulation to convey and control information. But recent discussion of symbol-manipulation has tended to address either the creation of interpretable symbol-sets (particularly applicable to computing and advertising) or symbol substitution (the rise of the term 'collateral damage' to replace 'civilian casualties', for instance). Less often discussed is the ideological manipulation of static, existent symbols. Why—or more precisely, how—does a corset symbolize something very different when it is worn by Madonna than when it was worn by Victorian housewives? How has the Starbucks logo become a symbol of the anti-globalization movement? How has the Nike 'swoop' gone from consumer fad to symbol of sweat-shop labor to rehabilitated mega-corp logo?

To address these questions, we can turn to an idea posited by writers and critics such as Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard and Nick Perry: hyperreality and hyperrealism. Hyperreality is variously defined as "the simulation of something that never really existed" (Baudrillard) and "the authentic fake" (Eco). Hyperreality describes a phenomenon of modern western consumer culture and its informational environment: the symbol, endlessly replicable and improvable, has come to replace the 'real' object or idea it once represented. The map, as stated by Jorges Luis Borges, is sometimes substituted for physical territory. As we can see from the complex and deeply psychological impact of border-drawing in areas like the Palestinian Territories and the former Yugoslavia, this is often literally true; in the modern world, when a country ceases to exist on a map, it ceases to exist in reality.

Those who ideologically manipulate the infinitely replicable, recognizable symbols of modern culture—the Nike swoop, the Starbucks logo, Madonna's now-infamous corset—operate not within reality, which is subject to the laws of physics and time, but in hyperreality, the reality of replication and interpretation. As a practice, the ideological manipulation of static, commonly recognized symbols could thus be accurately termed hyperpraxis. While the original connotation of hyperreality was decidedly negative, hyperpraxis can be a very positive phenomenon; to engage in hyperpraxis is not necessarily to endorse hyperreality, but to accept it as the norm of the modern information and consumer (and information consumer) economy.

Defining Hyperpraxis

A basic definition of hyperpraxis might be 'the ideological manipulation of a static, established symbol or practice within a religious, spiritual, political or social tradition.' The terms 'static' and 'established' are especially important in this context: the cross is a static (largely unchanged and unlikely to change), established symbol of the Christian faith; likewise, the Pepsi logo is a static and established symbol of the Pepsi Corporation. The invention or alteration of symbols is not hyperpraxis; this might be termed hypercreation or hyperalteration. Praxis in this context is taken to mean practice within or tangential to an established tradition (whether ancient or modern), as in orthoprax Buddhism, a heteroprax anarchist, a practicing Wiccan, etc.

An interesting example of hyperpraxis in modern western pop-culture is the shifting connotation of a shaved head: this was originally a symbol of punk subculture, but in the early 1980's it was assimilated by neo-nazis to appeal to disaffected youth, hence the term 'skinhead'. Today, there is a movement within the punk subculture to reclaim head-shaving as a non-racist symbol. Thus, the ideological manipulation of the symbol—the established symbol, a shaved head, remained unchanged; the meaning behind it was consciously altered—is bringing that symbol full circle to its original connotation. Some modern feminists, such as Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, have used hyperpraxis to de-sensitize and rehabilitate symbols and words for the female anatomy. Similarly, segments of the western gay rights movement have sought to rehabilitate and reclaim the word 'queer'. Any movement to "take back the language" is a form of hyperpraxis: assimilating a symbol (including a word) in common use and altering the meaning or value-set behind it. The result can be either positive or negative—or purposefully ironic—depending on the intent of the hyperpract.

Hyperpraxis, then, can be differentiated from heteropraxis because it does not alter the symbol-set of the tradition in which it operates. A heteroprax Christian might (for instance) replace the Lord's Prayer in his or her personal practice with a prayer he or she has written, or even a prayer from another religious tradition. A hyperprax Christian would continue to use the Lord's Prayer even if he or she found its typical (orthodox) connotation to be negative; rather than altering this commonly accepted symbol/practice, he or she would endow it with a new, unorthodox or personal meaning.

Thus, in religious traditions, hyperpraxis can produce individuals who are outwardly orthoprax (typical in their personal religious practice) but highly unorthodox in their thinking and/or belief. A wider recognition of hyperpraxis in this context has tremendous political implications; in the West's search for 'moderate' Muslims, it has overlooked hyperprax Muslim leaders in favor of heteroprax figures whose devotional eccentricities (or outright atheism) typically leave them with little moral authority in the greater Muslim community. Recognizing and supporting hyperprax Muslim leaders (such as former Egyptian Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad al Tantawi, who in the 1980's famously issued a fatwa legalizing sex-change operations) would provide the West with deeper and more meaningful ties to the Muslim world.

Deductive Versus Intuitive Hyperpraxis

The form of hyperpraxis we have been discussing thus far is a phenomenon I will call 'deductive hyperpraxis'. It is the manipulation of a symbol or practice whose commonly accepted meaning is known to the hyperpract; a meaning that he or she has come to understand through study or memetic cultural transmission. The new meaning with which the symbol is endowed by the hyperpract is deduced from personal experience (I'm told the symbol means X, but because I've experienced the world in a certain way, I feel its appropriate meaning is Y), social/political aim (I'm told the symbol means X, but if I am to alter people's perceptions in a certain way, the symbol must be changed to mean Y) or a combination of the two.

Intuitive hyperpraxis is something altogether different. We know intuitive hyperpracts as oracles, shamans and fortune-tellers: people who intuitively interpret symbols that have no commonly accepted or widely-known meaning. Bird-diviners, bone-readers, palm-readers, dream-interpreters; all these could be considered intuitive hyperpracts. Rather than working symbol-out (the symbol arises from the idea; ie, the United States was established before it took the bald eagle as its heraldic device), intuitive hyperpracts work symbol-in (the idea arises from the symbol; a palm reader must see the pattern on a hand before he or she can tell you what it means).

Intuitive hyperpraxis differs from intuition because it relies on symbols; a tea-leaf reader can guess nothing about a person's future without first examining that person's teacup. Having a hunch that a certain friend is about to call is not intuitive hyperpraxis; having that same hunch because of a particular spread of tarot cards is intuitive hyperpraxis.

Intuitive hyperpraxis differs from standard praxis because one symbol—say, a specific pattern of sticks in I Ching—may be interpreted many different ways by many different hyperpracts. As with deductive hyperpraxis, in intuitive hyperpraxis, the symbols are standardized; the meanings or ideas are not. While some forms of intuitive hyperpraxis have been codified over the centuries (like I Ching or dream interpretation with the advent of Jungian/Freudian psychology), each form is still deeply subject to the impulses and intuition of the individual hyperpract.

While intuitive hyperpraxis is an observable phenomenon—there are plenty of people who claim particular abilities of intuitive symbol-interpretation—the point of this essay is not to assert whether intuitive hyperpraxis is always or ever an accurate science.

Hyperpraxis in Action: Red vs. Blue States

A good example of the nature and potential memetic impact of deductive hyperpraxis (which from now on I will refer to simply as 'hyperpraxis', since the intuitive variety has only peripheral practical applications) is the manipulation of 'red' and 'blue' as symbols of political affiliation in the US. Today, 'blue' states are majority-Democrat states: liberal, usually urban, socially progressive. 'Red' states are majority-Republican states: conservative, usually rural or suburban, socially traditional. During the Cold War, however, the same colors—red and blue—were used to denote opposite political affiliations. A 'Red', a 'pinko', was a liberal—someone sympathetic to communism and supportive of unrestricted free speech and women's advancement. It was during this era that the color pink came to be closely associated with the burgeoning gay rights movement that arose out of Machina and the Stonewall riots. A 'blue-blooded' American was a conservative—someone supportive of America's opposition to communism abroad, of traditional social values and roles, and of state's rights.

While 'red' and 'blue' are still the colors used to denote each state's (and each American's) political affiliation, the reversal in the meaning of each color is the result of hyperpraxis; the intentional ideological manipulation of symbols in common use. As during the Cold War, today the color red is perceived in America to be a color of aggression and expansion. In the post-WWII era, communism as it spread across the globe was seen to be an aggressive, expansionist ideology; those who sympathized with either its mission or its member states were 'red'. Today, however, conservatives who support the enforcement and expansion of western values abroad are called the aggressors, the 'reds'. The term 'blue-blood' has undergone a similar hyperprax transformation, and is used by conservatives to denote an aristocrat: soft, over-educated, snobbish, the 'new liberal'. Author Phil Patton, writing for the AIGA Journal of Design, poses another theory for the value-shift of 'red' and 'blue': "One has to suspect that the first usage of it [red] to represent Republicans was inspired by an effort to seem non-prejudicial," in other words, to negate political stereotypes associated with the color red through hyperpraxis.

Looking Ahead

Hyperpraxis is a new word for a very old practice. The effects of hyperpraxis as a means of altering public perception can be found in the Bible; when Jesus entered Jerusalem, its citizens, eager for self-rule and the expulsion of the Romans, put palm-fronds, the symbol embossed on Roman coins, beneath his feet. In a moment, the symbol of foreign rule became the symbol of a religious revolution; Palm Sunday is still celebrated by Christians today.

In the modern world, the uses and implications of hyperpraxis might even be greater. When information is a commodity in and of itself, hyperpraxis functions as both a tool and a weapon, providing a method to rehabilitate, but also to co-opt and denigrate, symbols in common use. A higher awareness of the function of hyperpraxis in modern media, politics and religious and social movements will give rise to a better-educated information consumer, one who is able to analyze the technicalities of spin and spin-control. The question 'how' is a process-oriented question; anyone who can answer 'How do the meanings of symbols change?' has access not only to the implications, but to the very mechanics of information design and delivery.

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G. Willow Wilson is a Cairo-based author and journalist. Her articles about modern religion and the Middle East have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Canada National Post, as well as other North American and Egyptian publications.