Pin It
The Extreme Self
Words: Basar, Coupland, Obrist; Image Pamela Rosenkranz, Work in progress, 2019; Design Daly & LyonWalther & Franz König

This novel asks how humans can weather this era of extreme change

The Extreme Self: Age of You is Douglas Coupland, Shumon Basar, and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s comedic and calamitous reflection on politics, tech, history, and human connection in the 21st century with wicked humour and imagination

Between the continuous global pandemic, growing political polarisation, and an all-consuming digital world, ‘nightmarish dystopia’ is a bit of an understatement. In The Extreme Self: Age of You, novelist Douglas Coupland, editor Shumon Basar, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist are challenging the seismic pressures of the 21st century through investigations of technology, politics, fame, and intimacy – guiding us to reconsider the world around us.  

The Extreme Self acts as a timely sequel to 2015’s The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, which was a riotous, razor-sharp reflection on the madness of our media, a glossary of the then-emerging language of a new internet age, and a self-help book for a world in motion. Their latest book features imagery curated from artists, photographers, technologists, and musicians across the world paired with kinetic design by Wayne Daly and Claire Lyon. It consists of 14 chapters – each built with elevated meme-style graphics and paired with philosophical dissections of fame, post-work and new crowds, identity crisis, eternity, and more. It is teeth-achingly self-aware, with biting humour and somehow both crazed and insightful predictions for the now and near-future. Think an astute rumination on an everyday person’s management of their social interactions online, to humans “skullfucking” a robot in place of human relationships.

Prior to the pandemic, the authors staged an exhibition of The Extreme Self in Toronto, crediting the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as the main sources of inspiration for the book. Now, however, the novel seems to represent the past year-and-a-half’s worth of loss, worry, and growth amid extreme changes in society. Inhale it in one compelling, uncanny sitting, and you’ll have a mind-expanding understanding of our current crises.

“We now inhabit a new space of knowledge – although I still think it's mostly ignorance – and we’re beginning to feel the effects of these transformations in every part of our lives,” said Basar in an interview with Pin-Up Magazine in 2020. “We don’t necessarily have the language or the words to describe what these things are and what they’re doing to us. That has always been the nature of our projects together: to try and give names and words to a set of shared feelings that we all have, but haven't been able to articulate yet.”

Here and in the now, we speak with Coupland, Basar, and Obrist about the launch of The Extreme Self, neologising our reactions to new world events, and hopes for a radical shared future with human connection amid the advancing digital landscape. 

Could you ever have predicted the seismic cultural and social changes from the prequel in 2015 to now?

Douglas Coupland: Prediction is a charged word and I reject it. I do think that with The Age of Earthquakes we identified a huge number of tendencies within the broader culture which, in their moment, seemed almost unworthy of comment, like, ‘Yeah, but so what?’ It was only when hyperpolarisation, BLM, and COVID ignited the fires that suddenly most of it made almost shocking sense. We staged ‘The Extreme Self’ in Toronto in the summer before COVID and many Canadian critics tried to posture and dismiss the show as flat-footed avant garde alarmism. When COVID and 2016 hit, we were the only show of any sort on earth that had any form of broad accurate diagnosis. I’m proud of that. There was nothing else out there. Nothing.

How has your perception and humour also changed since then?

Douglas Coupland: Me? I was a bit spooked by it. Especially by our words around time perception and being and doing and nothingness. That freaked me out. It still does. I’m not a troll, but trolling people about COVID is actually kind of fun. People take everything literally, and oftentimes I’m unsure if I’m even dealing with human beings. COVID was so much about thoughts of death, and where there’s death, there’s sex. Watching people react to COVID has taught me quite clearly who is dominant and who is submissive. It’s never what you would have thought. I don’t think people realised they were broadcasting something so clearly sexual out into the world.

How should we as a society be reacting or engaging with this frenetic time – is outright horror or resistance the ‘right’ response? 

Shumon Basar: The pandemic pushed us faster and further into the future, while at the same time, making us feel like the future – as we once knew it – had been cancelled. It’s been impossible not to feel horror: at the loss of life, the loss of loved ones, the empowerment of political stupidity. A shock to the system is a shock to the system. There are two vital tools we need to claw back agency against procelerated change.

The first is being able to discover new words to describe new feelings and new conditions. Without a shared language, we can’t express our shared predicament. This is why Douglas, Hans Ulrich, and I are so obsessed with neologisms. The second tool is history. Much of what is considered to be a “new” phenomenon, brought about by an unprecedented technology, has possibly happened before, in a previous paradigm shift. This is why a deep understanding of deep history can situate our histrionics, and by doing so, neutralise our piercing anxiety. Knowing history arms us to speculate about how the future might take shape. For The Extreme Self, we have been guided by a seminal historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and his 1994 magnum opus, The Age of Extremes: A History of the Short 20th Century. Can you see where we got our title from now?   

“Bowie was the original Extreme Self. He realised that to become the most maximum version of yourself, you have to create avatars, and then inhabit them” – Shumon Basar

What celebrity, cultural artefact, technology or contemporary event speaks most to this era of the Extreme Self for you and why?

Shumon Basar: The very last page of our new book consists of an image of David Bowie’s face, cast in plaster, set on a plinth, as if in an archeological museum. Bowie was the original Extreme Self. From the moment he changed his name from David Robert Jones to David Bowie, and then, birthed Ziggy Stardust, he invented modern personhood. He realised that to become the most maximum version of yourself, you have to create avatars, and then inhabit them. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, it’s as if Bowie reincarnated himself, while alive: The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Krautrock Berliner, New Wave Pierrot. Is this not what anyone on social media does today? Invent versions of themselves? Broadcast them? A kind of digitised method acting.

Bowie died on January 10, 2016, on his 69th birthday, having just released one of his most acute albums – Blackstar – that was all about facing mortality and eternity. I joke about how Bowie, ever the futurist seer, sensed the monstrous nightmare that was about to be unleashed from 2016 onwards… and ghosted the future. The spirit of Bowie is also to be found in one of my recent favourite accounts: “@deeptomcruise” on TikTok. Let’s face it, deepfakes are now mainstream, and this Tom Cruise deepfake is all kinds of WTF uncanny valley – therefore very Extreme Self. 

What are some of the most unsettling or challenging social tremors The Extreme Self predicts we’ll see in our future?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I get up very early every morning, and I always start the day by reading 15 minutes of the Martinican poet, writer, and philosopher, Édouard Glissant. His work is like a daily toolbox, a means of understanding our world, but also a way of thinking through other possibilities for it. Glissant wrote that, ‘archipelagic thought makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity nor the collective identity are fixed and established once and for all. I can change through exchange with the other, without losing or diluting my sense of self. And it is archipelagic thought that teaches us this.’

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote extensively about how we only understand ourselves through encountering the ‘other.’ Empathy is not only inhabiting someone else’s consciousness – it’s seeing yourself from someone else’s perspective. Imagining a shared future requires radical empathy. This is why Glissant’s ‘archipelagic thought’ is vital in not only opposing the homogenising forces of globalisation, but also the extreme polarisation we have all seen unfold over the last years. 

“I cherish the unique social and political value of human bodies in space together. We must insist on protecting this value, without rejecting the advances made by technology as it redefines human connection and collective potential” – Hans Ulrich Obrist

What emotions or thoughts do you feel seeing the digital world collapsed into the real one?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Stanisław Lem’s 1971 novel, The Futurological Congress, the hero, Ijon, starts out at a conference in a Hilton hotel. After a riot breaks out, the government spikes the drinking water with psychoactive drugs. Ijon ends up in a future world, where hallucinations have replaced reality. There are many other examples of science fiction that speculate about a future where the virtual and the real collapse into a kind of delirium. Through my lifelong interest in contemporary dance and performance, I cherish the unique social and political value of human bodies in space together. We must insist on protecting this value, without rejecting the advances made by technology as it redefines human connection and collective potential. Reality has never been something we can take for granted; it’s always a work in progress. 

The Extreme Self: Age of You is published by Walther & Franz König, released in the UK and Europe June 17, and the US and rest of the world July 20 2021