Showing posts with label apocalypse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label apocalypse. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On the Beach w/Zoe Strauss

I've been on a hiatus for a few weeks. Just painting and such, nothing exciting. One of the highlights though has been following Philly based photographer Zoe Strauss on her blog as she documents the BP disaster down in the Gulf. She's provided compelling images but has also been a sort of on the ground surrogate for me and I assume many others as we watch from afar. This is what artists do of course and it helps to have honest commentary about her inner dialogue as she engages this calamity.

Tyler Green has an interview with Zoe at Artinfo. com: Q & A One and Two.

image: Zoe Strauss

Friday, May 21, 2010

Gulf plume -live stream

Live Broadcasting by Ustream
The live footage of BP's underwater black hole is now up.

Via FDL:

Note: The video seems to be coming in and out, so if it appears to be down just give it a few minutes and a couple of old fashioned refreshes and it should come back.

I encourage you to bookmark it and monitor the leak’s progress (or lack there of) for yourself. After all, we can’t really depend on anyone else to do it for us.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vampires and Zombies: Transnational Transformations

Saw this and just had to re-post for the sharper minds that walk among us.

A call for proposals for an exciting anthology has crossed our transom:

Vampires and Zombies: Transnational Transformations (working title)

Editors: Dorothea Fischer-Hornung (Heidelberg University, Germany), Timothy Fox (National Yilan University, Taiwan), and Monika Mueller (University of Stuttgart, Germany)

The undead are very much alive in the contemporary cultural imagination. Vampires and zombies have garnered a generous amount of attention in print media, cinema, and on television. The vampire, with its roots in medieval European folklore, and the zombie, with its origins in Afro-Caribbean voodoo mythology, find multiple transformations in global culture and continue to function as monstrous representatives of zeitgeist.

A publisher has expressed interest in a volume examining the phenomenon of vampires and zombies as transnational cultural icons. Contributors are invited to submit papers on aspects of zombies and vampires as they relate to texts and media across cultural boundaries. Approaches and topics that papers may address, but in no way are limited to:

  • Readings of individual texts, authors, and media
  • Histories and anthropologies of the zombie and the vampire
  • Genre, gender and sexuality, class, and race/ethnic interpretations
  • Comparative, transnational, and translingual analyses (traveling tropes, cultural diffusion, mapping translations)
  • Globalizations and cultural contexts (economies of power, colonialism, post-colonialism)
  • Terrorism, modern warfare
  • Migrations, creolizations, hybridizations, the cyber-undead
  • Xenophobia: the Other, the alien, the invader, the intruder
  • Horror, fear, anxiety, paranoia
  • Encounters with Thanatos
  • Tainted blood, disease, pandemic, viruses and other biological agents of infection
  • Formation of inhuman Communities
  • The postmodern, the posthuman, apocalypse and post-apocalypse
  • The pop culture industry and consumption (series and sequels, slapstick, satire, the “mockumentary”)
  • Video gaming and clubbing
  • Graphic novels and comic books
  • Self-publishing technologies (digital books, print on demand), the Internet (YouTube, social networks, blogs, e-zines)
  • Interviews with authors or filmmakers

Please submit a 500-word abstract and a CV, including contact information, to: (vampzomb at

Deadline: March 15, 2010.

To facilitate procedures, we request that in the Subject space of the email you write: Abstract-[contributor’s name].

The editors will select from among the submitted abstracts according to suitability for the project and contact submitters by April 1. Successful abstract submitters will be requested to submit a full paper (approx. 7,000 words) by August 1.

via: infocult

Thursday, February 04, 2010

the past decade as Horror

Weeks into 2010, the final year of our first decade into the new century, and I’m just now getting around to assimilating all the year-end lists of 2009 and for that matter decade-end appraisals of the "aughts" floating about. There has been much to gleen, but a few commentaries have really stood out as being quite prescient for the strange time we now live. I assume that these lists are basically an attempt to model our contemporary world . For the most part we're handed consumer lists or within the arts another incrongruous helping of post-modernism for our reflection. So consider this post as the first of a series of attempts at highlighting some places that perhaps speak newly about our contemporary condition.

Our horribly distorted world...

Infocult, which at the close of 2009 pointed out the persistence of gothic rhetoric in current American culture. I knew the obsession with vampires had substance behind it! They’ve done a wonderful job of rounding up examples of commentators referencing horror for their political-historical meditations.

via Infocult:

The world in 2010 is a Gothic world, says Bruce Sterling. Monsters roam the scene:

People have stymied sense of denial about the situation. It's very neurotic, anxious, and repressed. It's feeding into a strongly Gothic political temperament where popular culture is haunted by vampires and zombies. The population *identifies* with vampires and zombies, wants to marry them, settle down with them.

There's an autumnal hush over the cultural landscape. People really hope they won't be hit between the eyes with the two-by-four again, but they also know that they are helpless to defend themselves against the sources of the blows.

RJ Eskow adds some horror movie tropes:

It's that final plot twist, the last horrifying revelation that wrings a final scream out of the exhausted audience. You've seen it a hundred times: The ambulance driver taking the battered victims to the hospital grins ... and he has fangs. A close-up shows that the shambling, good-natured GI taking the townsfolk to safety has the marks of alien spores on his neck...

all is not well in Happy Ending Land. The invaders of our civil liberties are being protected. A pointless war drags on. Health reform is being co-opted by cynical politicians and special interests. What else can it be but a Horror-Twist ending to a Horror-Movie Decade?

Jules Crittendon: "God Damn the Naughts,".

He starts off by describing Christmas in Armageddon - the town, that is. And has fun with strangers: “Look, it’s the Angel of Death,” I said. “Let’s go get him.”

image: Carl Dreyer's Vampyr

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thursday, September 18, 2008

dipsticks and lipstick

Remember that little war between Russia and Georgia a few weeks ago? I didn't think so. We should be thinking on it though in light of the ABC interview with Sarah Palin and her eagerness to please her neo-con tutors on the national stage. When asked about the conflict she said she's ready to go to war with Russia on behalf of Georgia, We better take that seriously before any levers get pulled in November. World War III is not my New Year's resolution for 2009.

What are the political games being played inside the McCain camp that would not only turn Georgia into Chechnya, but put so many lives at risk? What is the real story of Mikheil Saakashvili, and why is it that the US Taxpayer has to now rebuild his military for the bargain price
of $5 billion?

The Nation's Mark Ames looks at the troubling questions and more.

On August 14, just as the Georgians and Russians signed their ceasefire, the pro-McCain neocon rag The Weekly Standard published an article "The Pain Game: A military response to Russia's aggression?" calling for the Pentagon to refit Georgian forces to fight a protracted, Chechnya-style guerrilla war against Russia. The author, an old cold war goon named Stuart Koehl, admitted that pushing Georgia into a Chechnya-style guerrilla struggle against Russia would result in a "long and difficult war" and would be "messy," because the Russians "will probably respond to this as they did to the bloodletting in both Afghanistan and Chechnya"--in other words, by killing tens or hundreds of thousands of Georgians. But that's no skin off this neocon's back, because if Georgia managed to hang in as long as it takes for such a war, victory over Russia could be achieved "in a way that would not directly involve US or NATO forces." In other words, Koehl and the rest of the neocons are ready to fight Russia to the last Georgian. And that might literally mean the last Georgian, if you look at what the Russians did to Chechnya.

The idea seems to be gaining traction, as an anonymous defense analyst told a military reporter a couple of weeks ago that America should convert the Georgian armed forces into a "Hezbollah" guerrilla force for the same purpose--bleed the Russians into defeat, while we sit back and chant "Hoo-ah!"

Lost in all of these apocalyptic plans for "helping" Georgia is what the Georgian people themselves might think. How do they feel about the McCainites' plans for turning their ancient, charming country into one of the world's bloodiest hellholes--Chechnya meets South Lebanon by way of Afghanistan, according to the neocons' own words. As the popular war blogger Gary Brecher explained: "Starting a guerrilla war means sentencing most of the people in your address book to a very nasty death." Do Georgians really want that?

Regarding Saakashvili he offers this:

In our conversation, Kochladze raised the most important issue that no one in America will talk about: Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili's anti-democratic credentials. The false spin on Saakashvili as the Jefferson of the Caucasus has driven the hysterical talk of going to war with Russia. Maintaining this false image of Saakashvili has also been key to McCain's candidacy, given McCain's tight relationship with the controversial Georgian strongman.

Jefferson he is not. A former senior US diplomat who served in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans told me, "What Saakashvili has done since coming to power--controlling the television media, rigging elections, attacking opposition protesters and driving his opponents out of the country and now launching a war against an ethnic minority--I've seen this before. Saakashvili is just another Milosevic. He's the kind of guy who will do anything to stay in power for life." It's not like Saakashvili's authoritarian credentials are the world's biggest secret. Freedom House this year downgraded Georgia's freedom rating to the lower end of the "partly free" category, placing it on par with such beacons of democracy as Venezuela--yes, that's right, Hugo Chávez's Venezuela--and Guinea Bissau.

Georgia's freedom index dropped below even such basketcases as Sierra Leone and Papau New Guinea, where nearly a third of the registered voters for last year's heavily-criticized elections were found to have been long deceased. What's more, Georgia's slide towards authoritarianism has only gotten worse, as Freedom House reports:

Georgia's political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the restrictions placed on political opposition following the November 2007 emergency declaration, and the civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the circumscription of media and expression in the aftermath of the November protests.

Georgians took to the streets to oppose President Mikheil Saakashvili in October and November 2007, turning out in the largest numbers since the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which swept Saakashvili to power. The authorities violently dispersed the demonstrators, causing hundreds of injuries, and imposed a state of emergency on November 7. The next day, Saakashvili called a snap presidential election for January 5, 2008. The state of emergency, which remained in place until November 16, banned all news broadcasts except state-controlled television and restricted public assembly. Also in 2007, former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, a onetime Saakashvili ally who subsequently emerged as a principal political rival, was charged with corruption, jailed, and then quickly released.
Chilling, but read the whole article which will have the active links. Also, if you are interested in the developments in Georgia and now Ukraine, I have found Paul Goble's blog a universe of information, history and grounded perspective. WindowonEurasia is a daily read. Paul Goble is director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.

image: Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Will Oldam and David Maisel at Headlands - 2night!

Ok - this makes me very jealous of anyone who can attend this event. If you do go, please send me a note on how it goes. Two very intense artists.

5/22/08 Apocalyptic Sublime:
Will Oldham & David Maisel

David Maisel, Library of Dust
David Maisel, Library of Dust

Date: 5/22/2008 (Thursday)
Time: 7:30 PM
Location: Headlands Center for the Arts

Ticket Info: FREE

For a real fish out of water experience, join us as one of America’s most influential songwriters calls to all music lovers. 2008 AIR Will Oldham composes songs that are by turns lilting and jarring. His lyrics and melodies capture the conflicted, painful and joyful nature of daily life. 2008 AIR David Maisel finds the aesthetic beauty in environmental and social devastation, photographing “Black Maps” that show the stunning colors and the patterns of polluted landscapes. His recent body of work, “Library of Dust,” visually depicts what remains of people who were abandoned to a forgotten place by their families and society.

Listen to Will's music here.

Please note that capacity for this event is limited to 120 PEOPLE. We will have a waitlist and an overflow room with a live simulcast. Thank you for your understanding.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

La Jetee and Sans Soleil

Criterion Collection is releasing La Jetee and Sans Soleil today. I believe this is the first packaging of La Jetee with another Marker film. Previous versions were with Alphaville or in my case a cruddy a VHS tape. If you are unfamiliar with Marker this is a great place to start.

I'm excited to see this again after so long especially now that we have the Road and Children of Men context to compare this Cold War era apocalyptic vision. But beyond that, it is a marvelous use of the still image as cinema.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dear Apocalypse

Somehow I missed this opening on my hiatus but Lens Culture cites the following show which just opened at the New Museum - APOCALYPSE: CONTEMPORARY VISIONS (May 30 - July 27, 2007).

The blurb from the show states:
It is not specific, nor is it political. It is meant to be deeply psychological, more fantasy than reality. We have looked for photographs that suggest something. If they are literal, they may not be obvious, as in Stephen Vaughn's image of an iceberg melting quietly on a beach.
Funny I know some bloggers who have a few thoughts on this and would have loved to use that image. Perhaps this could be the official picture for the Democrats in '08...

image: Lucian Perkins: A Survivor of the Gulf War, 1991

Thursday, February 01, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity V

  1. apocalyptic sublimity I
  2. apocalyptic sublimity II
  3. apocalyptic sublimity III
  4. apocalyptic sublimity IV

This conversation largely began for me with the film Children of Men and the book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. These pop cultural sources seemed to be resonating with many others as evidenced in previous installments linked above or as Rough Theory has dubbed them - the cliff notes for the apocalypse! See also the Blogocalypse at Mostly Harmless (now that has to be a candidate for new word of the year!)

This conversation is starting to come full circle with K-Punk's excellent analysis of Children of Men. What is of special merit from that post for me are the following points regarding why the film feels so contemporary.

Firstly, the film is dominated by the sense that the damage has been done. The catastrophe is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn't end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies long in the past.

Secondly, Children of Men is a dystopia that is specific to late capitalism. If, as Wendy Brown has so persuasively argued, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism can be made compatible only at the level of dreamwork, then Children of Men renders this oneiric suturing as a nightmare. In Children of Men, public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and to stalking animals. But, contrary to neo-liberal fantasy, there is no withering away of the State, only a stripping back of the State to its core military and police functions. In this world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.

The third reason that Children of Men works is because of its take on cultural crisis. It's evident that the theme of sterility must be read metaphorically, as the displacement of another kind of anxiety. (If the sterility were to be taken literally, the film would be no more than a requiem for what Lee Edelman calls 'reproductive futurism', entirely in line with mainstream culture's pathos of fertility.) For me, this anxiety cries out to be read in cultural terms, and the question the film poses is: how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?

Children of Men connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbours only reiteration and repermutation. Could it be, that is to say, that there are no breaks, no 'shocks of the new' to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the 'weak messianic' hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing - how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?

Rough Theory also has linked to Joseph Kugelmass which has two posts adding to the subject:
The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part One: Destructive Fantasies
which revisits the cross-blog discussion, offers its own analysis of types of apocalyptic fantasy, and draws particular attention to the phenomenon Joe calls “thin slicing” - the instrumental and selective mobilisation of symbolically charged evidence directed to ideological ends, and predicated on the assumption that social connection necessarily requires agreement and sameness; and
The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O'Hara's Personism.
which moves from an analysis of Cuaron’s Children of Men to an analysis of O’Hara’s Personism, in order to unfold a series of reflections on the potential for a vision of social connection that transcends instrumentalist “thin slicing”.
(*I want to read more on "thin-slicing")

Larval Subjects has returned from the Vegas lecture and posted Apocalypse Now Redux - Back from Las Vegas. Sinthome suggests that the emphasis on religious apocalyptic narratives (though timely) suffers from these tendencies:
1. In focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives, other pervasive forms of apocalyptic narrative are ignored, leaving unasked the question of just why these fantasies are so pervasive. It is remarkable that there are a wide variety of secular apocalyptic narratives, which suggests, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that apocalyptic narratives are something of a social symptom.

2. In focusing on religious apocalyptic narratives as a threat against which liberal democracy must defend, we foreclose questions of how apocalyptic narratives might function as a fantasy and a symptom responding to some fundamental conflict or antagonism characterizing contemporary social existence.

3. The focus on the political impact of apocalyptic narratives tends to cover over questions of why these narratives have become so pervasive at this particular juncture of history.
Sinthome admits that some of "these narratives could possibly be true in the non-analytic sense, but we must nonetheless account for how they have come to so pervasively occupy the contemporary mind."

Recalling the Lacanian theory of fantasy in mind, Sinthome hypothesizes that apocalyptic fantasies are a symptomatic response to the fact that “society does not exist.” Echoing Zizek, the point here is that the social field is constant with antagonisms and internal conflict and therefore can never be represented as harmonious in function - Lacan's "impossible-real".

In this regard, apocalyptic fantasies can be seen as theories of both why society is failed and fantasies as to how this failure, this antagonism, might be surmounted once and for all. They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. These visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative, while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (Jameson - it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement).

What is perhaps most interesting here is that these fantasies are organized precisely so as to preclude any engagement with directly transforming dissatisfying social conditions. Apocalypse always comes about through some sort of foreign, divine-like agency and instigates the collapse of the social field calling for people to rise up and heroically respond to these new social conditions and transform their social relations so as to produce a new people. The transformation of the social field is not to be undertaken by social subjects themselves.
Apocalypse could then be seen as the fantasy of revolution without revolution, of a foreign element that disrupts social life and creates ripe conditions for a reconfiguration of the social world, while allowing us to keep our hands clean of a violent revolutionary upheaval of society.
I will argue here - though I agree completely with Sinthome - that there is a new wrinkle to the political nature of apocalyptic desire. Traditionally apocalyptic desire/dread was situated with marginal groups whether they be religious or political in nature. Small bands - generally ostracized by the larger social apparatus and often fighting for physical/spiritual survival. What I think is a unique contemporary mutation is that the apocalyptic is now an orchestrated political pursuit/strategy. The transformation of the social field will still happen via the "deity" but it is the political, militaristic and commercial obligation of the "faithful" to act as agent for the divine reconfiguration. This being said the following technique is true too:
... by perpetually holding open the possibility that apocalypse might occur, that it is right around the corner, while also rendering social transformation the result of an aleatory event sans intentional human engagement, that might never occur. It thus renders social life bearable by holding out the ever present possibility of another social organization, while perpetually deferring the disappointment that might come from fulfilling that desire.
Two primary variants are cited: (paraphrased)
Rightwing - protecting the harmony of tradition. That there was a tradition which was noble but has been eroded by the foreign and the traitorous enemy within.
The Leftwing apocalyptic fantasies inevitably represent the antagonism that disrupts society as being self-reflexive, which is to say, as a result of the actions of that society itself. A drive to exceed limits, absolute profit/materiality, egoism.
I would add here that currently, the rightwing positions itself as victim and protector simultaneously. It is a paradox not easily understood but seems to work well in galvanizing populist support.

What if this antagonism is constitutive of the social itself? If society does not exist then this is because it is subject to the logic of the boundary or limit, thereby perpetually encountering its own undoing and inner antagonism. Rightwing and leftwing apocalyptic fantasies are two ways of trying to heal this constitutive wound, or antagonism at the heart of the identical: The first by striving to destroy the other that would destroy itself (as the boundary would thus be erased), the second by seeing a fundamental disequilibrium inside the heart of the social itself and trying to surmount this antagonism which would, again, lead to its demise by leaving it without an identity to distinguish itself. Yet, as Hegel shows in demonstrating how this dialectic culminates in “bad infinity” or the endless repetition of an operation without reaching completion, this antagonism never resolves itself.
Apocalyptic fantasies in both their secular and religious, leftwing and rightwing forms, indicate, in a profound way, that the space of the present has withdrawn where social action is concerned, such that the space of the living present is no longer seen as a space where action and change are possible.

The question suggested by apocalyptic fantasies is that of how we might shift from being subjects of desire to subjects of drive, giving up on fantasies of total social transformation where antagonism might be eradicated once and for all, such that an actionable space of the present (to use a word drawn from the Administration) might be redeemed.
This is an excellent conclusion/question.The apocalyptic fantasy - though it makes its participants feel chosen at the expense of others - invariably acts to demobilize the "chosen" and dehumanize the "unchosen". It justifies the disasters surrounding one as prophesy/fate and therefore outside of the human ability to act in response to the unfolding disasters. In essence, the chosen are expected to wait for the "signal" and then be exited from the real horrors about to be enacted on their behalf. That is their reward for waiting and staying passively vigilant. The "signal" is the spectacle of revelation , that may never come but requires one to be at the ready - in essence, always at unease and awaiting the worst. The toll on the collective psyche is enormous.

The unique problem we face now with regard to the apocalyptic is that technology, religion as capitalism, and climate change have all converged at a time when daily life is truly unpredictable and volatile for the average citizen. Administrative law is a shamble and fails to protect the following features of a society: Civic, Economic, Safety, and Health. Basically every household below the $100,000 threshold is one accident away from personal catastrophe as are most urban and rural communities. There are no protectors at a government or private level. The gulf-coast illustrates this in dramatic fashion but it is also observable through the lens of tort law since 1980. This awareness of a lack of traditional safety nets leaves many of the weakest very open to narratives of apocalypse which readily provide victim status and revenge to an individual besieged by many micro-apocalypses of daily life. To simply look around is "proof" of a coming doom.

Assuming that the actionable space of the present has largely been voided by such accumulating forces as deregulation, global capital, - rather the practice of starving a govt. to purposefully fail - there also seems that we have a new politics of apocalypse. This is a politics of denial, an activism of obstinacy through ignorance and neglect. It denies the interiority and value of the "unchosen". This is a maximal politic - reserved for winners at the expense of losers, including the natural world.

Perhaps we need to reconsider the way we understand revolution as a key to why we increasingly rely on apocalyptic narratives to give us value through imaginary "other worlds".


image: The "Doomsday Clock" which is currently set to 5 min. to midnight

Sunday, January 28, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity [IV]

1. apocalyptic sublimity [I]
2. apocalyptic sublimity [II]
3. apocalyptic sublimity [III]

[C]ould not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement). - Frederic Jameson

Yes, I am bringing you another installment! I think this quote by Fred Jameson really gets at something that is current. It's something that Chris Hedges has tapped into - the "Weimarization of the working class"

There has been, along with the creation of an American oligarchy, a steady Weimarization of the American working class. The top one percent of American households have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. This figure alone should terrify all who care about our democracy. As Plutarch reminded us "an imbalance between the rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics."
Hedges also has yet another interview - at Salon.
In the beginning of the book, you write briefly about covering wars in Latin America, the Middle East and the Balkans. How did that shape the way you understand these social forces in America? What similarities do you see?

When I covered the war in the Balkans, there was always the canard that this was a war about ancient ethnic hatreds that was taken from Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts." That was not a war about ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a war that was fueled primarily by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia. Milosevic and Tudman, and to a lesser extent Izetbegovic, would not have been possible in a stable Yugoslavia.

When I first covered Hamas in 1988, it was a very marginal organization with very little power or reach. I watched Hamas grow. Although I came later to the Balkans, I had a good understanding of how Milosevic built his Serbian nationalist movement. These radical movements share a lot of ideological traits with the Christian right, including that cult of masculinity, that cult of power, rampant nationalism fused with religious chauvinism. I find a lot of parallels.

People have a very hard time believing the status quo of their existence, or the world around them, can ever change. There's a kind of psychological inability to accept how fragile open societies are. When I was in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, at the start of the war, I would meet with incredibly well-educated, multilingual Kosovar Albanian friends in the cafes. I would tell them that in the countryside there were armed groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who I'd met, and they would insist that the Kosovo Liberation Army didn't exist, that it was just a creation of the Serb police to justify repression.

You saw the same thing in the cafe society in Sarajevo on the eve of the war in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic or even Milosevic were buffoonish figures to most Yugoslavs, and were therefore, especially among the educated elite, never taken seriously. There was a kind of blindness caused by their intellectual snobbery, their inability to understand what was happening. I think we have the same experience here. Those of us in New York, Boston, San Francisco or some of these urban pockets don't understand how radically changed our country is, don't understand the appeal of these buffoonish figures to tens of millions of Americans.
It adds to the discourse follwoing these main points that I think are prescient from the previous posts and bloggers.

1. Can we even imagine a world post - global capitalism?
2. Is our pre-occupation with the 'end' truly rooted in our "understood" failure as a society?
3. Have we passed a threshold without even realizing it on political and social levels?
4. Is there a conscious drive to destroy ourselves fueled in part by our obsession plot?
5. Is the way forward fighting for the trace hopes of aspirations past? (Zizek)

I think we have to really consider Zizek's parallax on the impossibility of the social itself. Rather "that the social is not one or the other (communitarian organic bonds versus collections of autonomous and self-determining individuals), but rather the very tension between these two conceptions of the social." I think Jameson's point from the qoute above also supports this notion of inbetween tensions - of a deep sense of failure and rage:
"[C]ould not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level"

We all know that Apocalyptic mythology has always been around in virtually all cultures and all human traditions. In modern times, it plays a distinct role within politics (fascist) and taints most propaganda and discourse in various ways depending on the era. It was faithfully employed by the Nazis as an obvious example but even crops up in left-leaning concerns like climate change - although I think we can all concede that in the case of gloabl warming we are likely to be treated to some maximal consequences quite soon. Increasingly (it seems) apocalyptic thinking is an important part of much modern conflict, as a mechanism for galvanizing populist support. The examples are endless, ranging from Hamas, Christian Zionists or the messianic settler movement in Israel.

A recent commentor at I Cite brought a forward a great example of the political ramifications of apocalypticism. He notes the infamous Italian zealot Savonarola (not to mention English and American revolutionary periods) via PGA Pocock. "Pocock makes some interesting comments on how the apocalyptic changes one's relationship to time and how one sees time. For Pocock, what happened in Savonarolan Florence, for example, was that the apocalyptic message brought time down to earth--so to speak--giving the believers the idea that they had a direct role in the outcome of history. This opposed the Augustinian conception of time and the two kingdoms, since in that framework the two worlds did not intersect except at the end of time, which God was in control of and which humans had no role to play."

This active role is what played so well to the masses surviving the Weimar years and what I suspect is fueling the rise in Pentecostalism among the American Middle and Working classes (as one example). The Penetcostal church was begun at the turn of the 20th century in Topeka and/or Los Angeles. One unique feature was its integration of white and black followers - unheard of in 1906 - which defintely helped keep the faith on the margins until the 1950's.
Today it is growing rapidly and influencing other evangelical groups as more and more people are receiving the special gift of the holy spirit. The most recent being the Toronto Blessing. My point in going into detail here is that this particular brand of fundamentalism has growing appeal partly because of its focus on passion, special spritual gifts, and the ecstasy not only of God but community -erasing pain, class and race. In short average people have given up on modernism, science, and capital/caste. There is a parallel with the rise of the broader (social/political) evangelical movement and the shift of the American economy from manufacturing to a service based economy which has decimated the middle class through outsourcing and wage depression while simultaneously undermining the American Labor Union. The union provided a voice and communitty function that is largely missing from suburban life. As the power and influence of evangelicalism has risen, largely because its success at framing much of the social and political discourse through logocide, the quality of life for the average worker has plummeted. Only 8% of the working population has acces to a union. The lowest since the inception of labor. This imbalance is critical to quality of life issues and opens the door for alternative narratives for success. Consider that there are 70-100 million evangelicals in America alone- 200,000 churches. 84% of Americans except Jesus as God's Son, the same number believe they will face God at Judgement Day and 1/3 are expecting the Rapture any day now.

Larval Subjects has this to add recenty:
The central feature of apocalyptic narratives seems to be that they present the time of action as deferred, as if we are powerless in the present, unable to do anything now to transform our social conditions as the forces of capital are too strong to be resisted and fought against. The time of the now, of the present, has disappeared. Or, put otherwise, the present no longer appears as an actable space. Fundamentalist apocalyptic narratives become powerfully attractive under such conditions, as they promise the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world where these antagonisms are resolved and the disruption at the heart of the social is finally pacified. The problem, of course, is that in being seduced by these narratives, the followers are led to endorse a number of other downright frightening things at the level of policy... Policies that are often directly against their own self-interests...
missing from these discussions is the role played by the contemporary hegemony of the "discourse of the victim". One of the uncanny points of identity between both left and right is the primacy of victim discourses as the only authentic position from which to formulate an ethics and politics. Thus we have victimhood as minority status on the left, and the perceived persecution of Christians and white heterosexual males as the dominant trope on the right. One question worth asking is why politics must today take the form of a discourse of the victim. I haven't come up with any answers to this question, yet it does seem that "being-a-victim" confers one a minimal ontologically substantiality or identity in a world where identity has progressively been virtualized and rendered precarious by the collapse of the big Other.
Sinthome really hits it on target - the why, or rather central theme here is a victim narrative, which is used steadfastly in maintaining or renegotiating our apocalyptic dread/ectstasy fantasies. Consider this from scholar Robert O. Paxton (via Chris Hedges):

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

i'll close with that for tonight

painting: Frederic Church

Saturday, January 20, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity [III]

So this discussion on apocalyptic culture continues. The previous posts reference contributions by Alec Soth, Jodi Dean, Poetix, K-Punk, Larval Subjects and Rough Theory. (These are great blogs – read them!)

To briefly summarize, here are the main observations from the previous posts:

1. Peter Schjeldahl: The present widespread disarray and morbidity of the arts in Western civilization represent, it occurs to me, a long-term toxic effect of the atom-bomb terror of the last three decades…Most insidious of the terror’s by-products is what I’ll call the no-future effect. Conditioned to living on the eve of doomsday, we have lost the ability to conceive of a future stretching farther than our own most distant personal goals or responsibilities.

2. Jodi Dean: what if the world has already ended and we are persisting in its degrading memory? I need the first point in order to account for the persistence that is in the process of fading and dissolving. So we persist, but the distinctions are fading, and with it, the people we have been, the lives we have led. At any rate, the incompleteness of the theory, its failures, also indicate that it's right (in the grand tradition of Marxism and psychoanalysis, the disproof is the greatest proof): the failures indicate the process of dissolution in which we are caught. Clarity is lost, impossible now that the world has ended and we are but drifting components of its dwindling memory

3. Poetix(Dominic): Socialism or Barbarism: the slogan presents itself as if it were describing a moment of decision, a fork in the road. The decision cannot be deferred any longer, the slogan insists: it must be taken immediately. But nothing seems easier to believe than that there is now no choice: barbarism is what is, to an already frightening and intensifying degree, and it is even more what is to come. We have gone too far down that road, impelled along it by all that seems most intransigent, most unalterable, about our “nature” or our “condition”. Once it seems that the moment has passed when things might have turned out otherwise, does not the slogan lose its cogency? ...
The conventional form of the urgent call to action, in the face of some existential menace, is “no future, unless…”.

4. K-Punk: If it is increasingly difficult to imagine alternatives to capitalism, that is because the world has already ended. In this condition of mors ontologica, the world goes on, but nothing new can ever happen; what remains is a mechanical permutation through options that have already been fixed…The time to act was in the past; the damage is done; all we can do is await consequences which can no longer be averted...

5. Larval Subjects(Sinthome): considers collective apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement).

6. Rough Theory(N Pepperell): presents Adorno’s considerations on socialization-All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.
Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” - particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute.
I'd like to look a recent follow up on the previous posts by K-Punk. - After the end, again.

He asserts that there is a difference between the UK and US popular unconscious when it comes to apocalyptic dread (I think we can consider apocalyptic fetish as a parallel to that dread). K-Punk cites the Cold War as the truly apocalyptic era where the fear of nuclear destruction was a daily ritual of anxiety and nightly dreams of annihilation.
Jodi is right that there is no British equivalent to the religious apocalypticism that features so prominently in American cultural life but this is less apocalyptic dread than apocalyptic ecstasy, a fevered anticipation of the Rapture.The kind of apocalyptic dread I am referring to was in any case far too pervasive to be reduced to particular cultural artefacts; nor was it confined to religious groups. There were, of course, innumerable films, novels and songs which explicitly dealt with apocalypse of one kind or another, but the dread was so widespread, so deep-rooted, that it amounted to a psychic climate. Jeff Nuttall's indispensable Bomb Culture went so far as to claim that the impulse behind postwar popular culture in its entirety was the virtual presence of nuclear war.
K-punk rightly observes that such ‘end time’ dread was pervasive background noise – not unlike what Schjedahl observed in 1978. However, for him this dread is no longer present now in the UK though assumingly still alive in the US.
Certainly, Sinthome's remarks - in particular, his claim that 'apocalyptic fantasies' are 'omnipresent' in American culture - suggest that apocalypse has retained its hold on the American unconscious. The key passage in Sinthome's post is the following, where, in an echo of similar claims by Fredric Jameson, he makes the case that apocalyptic fantasies mask disavowed utopian impulses:

[C]ould not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement). - Frederic Jameson

Continuing, he mentions that alongside Larval Subject’s 'hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content', N Pepperell at Rough Theory suggests that 'we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously ... on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.' He wonders if the ‘fantasies’ mentioned by Larval Subjects are more aptly called ‘survivalist’ fantasies as the by product of a stripped down ‘self’ – a ‘minimal self’ resultant of continuing waves of catastrophe and threat.

I want to reflect back for a second on some of the links earlier and the type of environment imagined in Children of Men. I have pointed to Guantanamo, Corrections Corp. of America as well as the timely conceptual/political art of the zone-interdite project. In accordance with these notations on the budding exclusion and isolation zones – non-places purposed for containment and control - Nick Turse via Tom writes of the future envisioned by the Pentagon.

Baghdad 2025: The Pentagon Solution to a Planet of Slums outlines the following philosophy and futures strategies of the US military.

For years now, U.S. war planners have believed that guerrilla warfare is the future - not against Guevarist focos in the countryside of some recalcitrant, possibly-oil-rich land, but in growing urban "jungles" in the vast slum cities that increasingly dot the planet. For years now, U.S. war planners have believed that guerrilla warfare is the future - not against Guevarist focos in the countryside of some recalcitrant, possibly-oil-rich land, but in growing urban "jungles" in the vast slum cities that increasingly dot the planet.
The report is from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA sees the following:
the Pentagon's best minds have dared to venture where most United Nations, World Bank or State Department types fear to go ... [T]hey now assert that the 'feral, failed cities' of the Third World - especially their slum outskirts - will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century." Pentagon war-fighting doctrine, he notes, "is being reshaped accordingly to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized segments of the urban poor."
In fact, this past October the U.S. Army issued its latest "urban operations" manual. "Given the global population trends and the likely strategies and tactics of future threats," it declares, "Army forces will likely conduct operations in, around, and over urban areas - not as a matter of fate, but as a deliberate choice linked to national security objectives and strategy, and at a time, place, and method of the commander's choosing." Global economic deprivation and poor housing, the hallmarks of the urban slum, are, the manual asserts, what makes "urban areas potential sources of unrest" and thus, "[i]ncreases the likelihood of the Army's involvement in stability operations." And "idle" urban youth (long a target of security forces in the U.S. homeland), loosed in the future slum city from the "traditional social controls" of "village elders and clan leaders" and prey to manipulation by "nonstate actors" draw particular concern from the manual's authors.
It’s well worth the reading the whole as it mentions rumerous contractors building wildly futuristic weapons and intelligence systems that will transform life as we know it. Think Terminator, Robocop, Blade Runner etc. etc. The desire is to shape and control conflict as it unfolds.

As alarming as these plans and omnipotent gadgets are, what is terrifying is the FEAR and apocalyptism that is at the heart of these multi- $billion dollar R&D initiatives. That fear is the sending of troops into an enemy-friendly urban mega-slum which punctuates a future vision of international periphery zones for the elite and the scorned. The metropolis is the future battle field. As Nick Turse points out there is a dark irony at play here. Ever since the U.S. high command moved into its self-described virtual “city” – the Pentagon has had a distinct inability to decisively beat anyone save its weakest enemy. Though able to cause massive casualties and
historical destruction, the war machine has proven rather unremarkable in achieving its goals.

Despite this reality-
Now, the Pentagon has decided to prepare for a fight with a restless, oppressed population of slum-dwellers one billion strong and growing at an estimated rate of 25 million people per year. To take on even lone outposts in this multitude - like any of the 400 cities of over 1 million people that exist today or the 150 more estimated to be in existence by 2015 - is a fool's errand, a recipe for both carnage and quagmire.
These statistics should give us all great pause. I'll close this installment with what Larval Subjects has to say by way of Lacan.
For Lacan, of course, the real must not be confused with reality. Where reality is understood as a combination of the symbolic and the imaginary characterizing the familiarity of our everyday lifeworld, the real is to be properly understood as the impossible or those formal deadlocks that haunt the symbolic and prevent its closure

painting: Franz Johnston

Friday, January 19, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity [II]

The place where they lay, it has a name - it has none
- Paul Celan

The previous installment ended with this by Jodi Dean:

Apocalypto imagines past apocalypse--not future. And, Children of Men imagines present apocalypse…. I came away overwhelmed by a cliche (which says nothing about the movie per se, in other words, don't blame the movie)--if Guantanamo is in the world, then all the world is Guantanamo. Although this is a cliche, it may apply more than we think…. the 'solution' of containment zones for troublemakers just seems obvious...

Are we living in macro-micro containment zones as pictured in Children? Consider some evidence in America as posted by Latina Lista on the holding facilities in texas for illegal immigrants. Also consider this alarming story by Subtopia on the booming business of border fences across the globe.

It seems almost every month there emerges from some border ‘zone’ a proposal to build a new fence. One might think the border fence is as popular to the construction industry today as the global skyscraper, the suburban tract home, or the gated community. In fact, who is to say they are not somewhat at least symbolically interconnected. Anyhow, this month it is Pakistan who announced “a new solution to the problem on its western frontier.” That is, according to this report: “mines and fences along the Afghan border, designed to keep militants from crossing in and out of the tribal zone.”
(The post goes onto link many previous posts on borders – well worth clicking)
Then there is this project - Zone*Interdite by Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud
as noted by Outside the Ivory Tower blog.

Since early 2000 the two Swiss citizens have been collecting data on military exclusion zones and presenting a compilation of the data on the website The platform is linked up with a Google search function, meaning that information available via Google can be called up for the now circa 2.000 entries with just one mouse-click – a function that is as low-key as it is stunning, for it offers visitors to the site effortless direct access to a plethora of information and images about the individual zones, although the military obligation to kept restricted data confidential dictates that the general public should be kept in the dark as much as possible and certainly should not be told the truth via images.

If you go to the artist’s site : Zone Interdite - you can visit Camp Delta at Guantanamo, Coleman Barracks – Germany, an Islamic training camp – Sudan, and Bagram Airbase – Afghanistan. It’s a very interesting project and well defined in its aims at connecting/mapping the power apparatus - rather the complex phenomena of perception triggered by prohibiting such perception.

These micro- geographies, fragmented place/zones are starting to proliferate globally which seems to declare an entropy - a passage out of the traditional nation-state structure into something more reductive, barbarous and splintered. So to repeat Dean, if apocalypticism is present, does that mean that the world hasn't already ended?And what of "other worlds? It is precisely because other worlds have been that there remains a glimmer of hope for other worlds to come. David Graeber has suggested something similar in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. He asks:
What sort of social theory would actually be of interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs?
- it would have to proceed from the assumption that another world is possible.
That institutions like the state, capitalism, racism and male dominance are not inevitable; that it would be possible to have a world in which these things would not exist, and that we'd all be better off as a result. To commit oneself to such a principle is almost an act of faith, since how can one have certain knowledge of such matters? It might possibly turn out that such a world is
not possible. But one could also say that it's this very unavailability of absolute knowledge which makes a commitment to optimism a moral imperative: Since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify, and reproduce, the mess we have today?

As Dean pointed out, Zizek takes a somewhat similiar commentary as he suggests that our political duty today is to keep these past traces alive, to recall past aspirations. This reminds me of Morris Berman’s assertion of the need for a new monastaticism to protect the best of Enlightment values and the pursuit empirical knowledge as a bunker against the decline in law and education and the increased reliance on "special" knowledge to explain the world - ie. ancient religious texts. * Zizek on Children of Men link.

The conversation on 'the end' takes a slight turn with a psycho-analytic musing on our new sense of apocalypse - Larval Subjects blog summons Freud to testify.

Apocalypse Now Redacted
The question revolves around the issue of whether or not the damage to the world is irrevocable and whether another world is possible (i.e., whether there's a limit to capitalism or an alternative to capitalism). Rather than directly taking a stand on these questions, I would instead like to approach the issue psychoanalytically from the standpoint of collective fantasies.
One of the things I began noticing a few years ago is that I was encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful (struggling to survive, to rebuild the world, etc). As I reflected on this phenomenon a bit, I began to notice that these sorts of fantasies populate the social space everywhere. In cinema there is an entire genre of apocalyptic films from both rightwing and leftwing perspectives such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact, and many more I cannot remember. In the world of "literature" the Left Behind novels have been a stunning success, selling millions of copies and leading to popular television shows and made for television movies. In news media, of course, we are perpetually inundated with apocalyptic threats from eco-catastrophe, to the bird flu, to the threat of massive meteors hitting the earth or supervolcanos exploding or even a star going supernova and evaporating our atmosphere, to terrorist attacks employing nuclear or bio-weaponry. The Discovery and Science Channel regularly devote shows to these themes.

While I am certainly not dismissing the possibility of these threats, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenerios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions of the present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the ubiquity of these scenerios in popular imagination... An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room?

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we're to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that, another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative-- for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement).

As such, these fantasies serve the function of rendering our dissatisfaction tolerable (a dissatisfaction that mostly consists of boredom and a sense of being cheated), while fantasizing about an alternative that might someday come to save us, giving us opportunity to be heroic leaders and people struggling to survive rather than meaningless businessmen, civil servants, teachers, etc. Perhaps the real question with regard to this pessimism, then, is that of how the utopian yearnings underlying these representations and the antagonisms to which they respond might directly be put to work.

Rough Theory blog follows this tack with a slight tangent by looking at Adorno as opposed to Freud. Here the concern is more about the importance of physochological theory to the general project of critical theory but does point out an interesting sub-text to the apocalypse discussion.

For present purposes, since the topic of apocalyptic fantasy started me on this tangent, I will explore only one: Adorno’s proposal for how a critical psychology might complement a critical sociology in making sense of the appeal of social movements that seem oriented specifically to destruction.
Since Larval Subjects’s post provided the immediate spark for these reflections, I’ll briefly draw attention to some elements of that post to get us underway. Larval Subject begins by citing examples of apocalyptic fantasies from a wide range of contexts, and then asks how we should understand this phenomenon.
Larval Subjects thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content - something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against LSs appropriation …but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which LS has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a non-manifest content - a longing for transcendence - we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path - on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.

Adorno’s argument is complex - and not necessarily in ways that are productive for theoretical reflection by those not committed to Adorno’s own framework. For present purposes, I won’t attempt to outline Adorno’s interpretation in any comprehensive way, but will instead comment on just a few elements within a single text: Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology”, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968.

Adorno begins this text with a rejection of the concept of objective historical laws, and suggests - as I have suggested above - that this rejection implies the need to supplement a critical sociological theory with a critical psychology. Much of the article then revolves around two arguments:

1. a critique of other attempts to merge sociology and psychology
2. an often scathing critique of Freud and of various psychoanalytic traditions, in the service of an attempt to appropriate Freudian categories in a more historicised and critical form.

Adorno’s arguments are often brilliant and provocative, and I will try to revisit them in appropriate detail in another post. For present purposes, however, I want only to isolate out a couple of points that seem - to me, at least - to have potentially broader relevance for theoretical reflection on the psychological undercurrents of mass movements.(apocalypticism)

What I find particularly interesting and disturbing in this text is the very simple and, once stated, obvious question that motivates Adorno’s analysis:
What might happen, psychologically, to individuals who possess critical sensibilities in circumstances in which those individuals are too frightened or overwhelmed to act?

Adorno unfolds an extraordinarily pessmistic analysis in response to this question, focussing on the strain placed on an ego whose reality testing abilities enable it to discover both the potential for and the isolation and impotence of the individual to bring such a transformation about. Adorno argues - and I won’t elaborate on his analysis here - that much of what Freud took to be innate psychological structure derives, instead, from the violence of socialisation into such a context, from the scars inflicted by the ego on itself when, confronted with its own powerlessness, it responds by repressing conscious awareness of potentials for transformation, and driving emancipatory impulses into the unconscious realm.

Adorno suggests that several consequences follow from this form of socialisation:

1. a brittleness and attenuation of the ego, which renders it easier for the ego itself to be overwhelmed by infantile and irrational impulses; the presence of unusually strong barriers separating the unconscious from other dimensions of psychic life, which has the effect of “freezing” the unconscious in an infantile state and undermining the ability to sublimate infantile desires

2. because on some level the awareness of transformative potentials persists - an unconscious reservoir of rage at the unnecessary sacrifices imposed by an unjust society.

All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.
Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” - particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute.
While fuelled in some sense by an experience of transformative potentials, these destructive desires are not, within Adorno’s framework, masks for utopian longing, but blind rage and pain at sacrifices unjustly imposed - a rage and pain that, can sometimes try to “rationalise” its own sacrifices through the destructive imposition of equivalent sacrifices on others. Rough Theory concludes:

In reality, I’m actually quite critical of this dimension of Adorno’s work. Specifically, Adorno uses this appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, among other things, to account for certain qualitative characteristics of forms of subjectivity that I think can be explained far more easily via sociological analysis. As well, there is a certain element to Adorno’s reworking of Freud that - for all its scathing criticisms - is a bit too literal and loyal… I’m not particularly drawn to the actual contents of his psychological theory - I am, however, drawn to his question –
the question of whether the experience of living in a society that suggests the potential for its own transformation might, under certain historical circumstances, render likely the emergence of abstractly destructive sensibilities. At the same time, I am cautious of elements in LS’s post - of how quickly the interpretation jumps from the claim that manifest fantasies of destruction might have some kind of non-destructive latent content, to the even more contentious claim that the specific latent content might be utopian in character.
More to come......

image - David Maisel