Hypernormalisation of The Tram


Still from Adam Curtis’s documentary Hypernormalisation

I’d like to posit that there are two questions which dominate any given society as it lurches toward collapse, and that one of these questions is far more interesting and pertinent than the other:

  1. How does one recognize that they are living in a failing system?


  1. Once an individual, or a mass of individuals, realizes they’re living in a failing system, how do they respond?

The latter, especially today, is of greater importance in the national conversation. In America, I believe wholeheartedly that a significant portion of the population recognizes the inherent vice of our sociopolitical and economic structures, but they carry on in spite of the overwhelming evidence that we are—excuse my language—in some deep shit.

In the mid-2000s, a post-Soviet historian/theorist, Alexei Yurchak, proffered an incredibly compelling analysis of life in the final years of the Soviet Union. Yurchak took note of the unmistakable, inescapable faults in the U.S.S.R. that were apparent to the people—a people who, at the same time, seemed to simply “go on” living without offering a more pronounced challenge to the same system. They recognized that their institutions were hollow. They recognized their leaders lied consistently about the state of things, espousing one set of principles while executing another—but the people kept on playing their part and “making due.” The people worked within the rot, and the process of accepting and adapting to the abnormal conditions which surrounded them created a feedback loop; what was abnormal and farcical in its lack of apparent common sense suddenly became normalized, a process Yurchak called “hypernormalisation.”

A General comes over the state’s communication channels and explains that there was no water for two weeks because of “patriotic reasons” (115). The populace accepts this, even though it laughs at the idea under their breath, and in spite of itself. Hypernormalisation at work.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila evokes hypernormalisation in a contemporary, fictionalized Democratic Republic of the Congo through his novel Tram 83, elucidating the fashion in which the extreme, bizarre, and unconscionable day-to-day lives in the failing “City-State” revolve around a bleak acceptance of “norms.” The book’s notable use of repetition, and the actions it indicates (i.e. the repeated “do you have the time?” delivered by one of the novel’s many prostitutes) speak to this ever-churning machine continuing unabated. The narrator laments early in the book that for the individual of the City-State “your fate is already sealed, the route marked in advance… sealed like that of the locomotives carrying spoiled merchandise and the dying” (93). At one point, Requiem is said to remark “the tragedy is already written, we merely preface it. So let us preface” (111). This attitude, lackadaisical and dismissive of hope for change, pulsates throughout the book, rearing its head in offhand caustic remarks that bitterly strike at the heart of the City-State’s problems, offering nothing in the way of solutions. A character in the throes of coaxing a prostitute to his home remarks blithely “foreplay is like democracy, as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t caress me, I’ll call the Americans” (93), acerbically alluding to imperialism even in the throes of verbal foreplay.

People in the fictionalized City-State, then, one imagines, may well continue on into the night as they do at the close of the novel, eking out an existence within an unreal world whose breaches of normalcy have become, and remain, banal.


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