Definitions: Hypernormalization & Hypernormal

Neither hypernoramlization, nor its British spelling of hypernormalisation are found in the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam Webster as of February 2023. Wikipedia sources the phrase to Adam Curtis‘s documentary of the same name, which pulls the term from Alexei Yurchak, a Russian anthropologist who used the term in his 2005 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.

Watching the Adam Curtis documentary is the best way to catch the mood of the term, however, his style is an acquired taste and the film is nearly three hours long.

There are many ways to deconstruct the word to make it usable in other situations:

Noramlize: to make (something) conform to or reduce (something) to a norm or standard

Normalization, is the act of normalizing something; the making or reducing of something to a norm or standard. Hypernormalization gets interesting in its interpretation, because it could imply that the prefix ‘hyper-‘ applies to ‘normal’, or to the act of ‘normal-ization’. Is Yurchak making hypernormals or is he normalizing in a hyper faction?

‘Hyper-‘ as a prefix means “super, excessively, excessive, that is or exists in space of more than three dimensions” when defined by

When Curtis’s work is referenced it often includes the popular Solzhenitsyn quote:

“We know they are lying, they know they are lying, they know we know they are lying, we know they know we know they are lying, but they are still lying.”

Attributed to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008)

Building on this quote and the documentary, a hypernormal would be a normal that is super, excessive, or even exists in space of extra dimensions. From the Curtis film and Yurchak’s work, the hypernormal results from the manipulation of reality – through media, propaganda, social conventions, and society to create an unsustainable perception of reality that defers from the underlying physical surroundings.

For Yurchak, the collapsing USSR was a giant hypernormal in which he lived, worked, and studied. Part of life in the hypernormal is that everyone can see the problems, but the situation prevents them from defining another way to live. In a hypernormal there is acknowledgment that things are wrong, however, there is an inability to conceive of a method to fix the situation. A need for change is acknowledged, what to ‘change to’ is unknown.

If we take an undefined noun – the hypernormal – as the original part of the term, then hypernormalization is the act of creating such a scenario. Hypernormalization is the creation of scenarios where the population recognizes they are in a hopeless scenario, however they cannot perceive a way out of the scenario.

Normalize is itself a loaded term, and perhaps should be the focus. If we normalize something and codify an activity that was previously novel, we run the risk of accepting something that should not become acceptable. In this scenario, hypernormalizing would be normalizing things at a great rate – an activity which could inadvertently create a ‘hypernormal’. By normalizing too fast, a society may recognize it is broken but be incapable of creating solutions.

Neologism: Are you in a hypernormal?

In a normal period of time – removing the modifiers that create a hyper normal – everyone may note something is wrong, but they can correct course. In a normal period, perhaps they don’t know things are off, but in that case, they don’t know that they need to change. Also in a normal period, things can be okay, in which scenario there is no need for change.

A 2×2 breakdown of hypernormal shows that it exists under two conditions:

  • A need for change is known.
  • Change is not possible.

One could exist inside of many hypernormals;

  • A work situation hypernormal.
  • A regional situation of hypernormal – for example failures in local utilities requiring upgrades.
  • National situations of hypernormal – for example tension between nations causing local supply chain failures, and no one is capable of resolving the issues.
  • Global hypernormal – there is a need for collaboration on certain crops or fisheries, yet no resolution is possible.

In fact, it is easy to see a situation where someone exists in multiple local hypernormals where problems can be easily addressed, but are never resolved. From my perspective, this was the warning of Curtis’s documentary – that the act of creating hypernormals is now easily done and is proliferating. The scenarios described in Martin Gurri‘s Revolt of the Public could be hypernormals – the situation is bleak, neither the protesters nor those in power no how to change course.

The world is ‘normal’ when we first wake up in the morning, when we pursue the same tasks we’ve lived with our entire lives – but minute by minute we encounter more hypernormals where we see inherently broken systems that are under no system of repair, maintenance or rejuvenation.

Hypernormal (noun)

An accelerated version of reality where the outlook is bleak, and yet there is no ability to change course.

“We thought it was difficult in normal times, but then the hypernormal came and not only were things difficult, we could see that there was no end to the difficulty and no ability for us to change our lot.”

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