Wednesday, January 17, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity [I]

On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world. Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road
As many people have been murmuring over the past month, the film Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s book,The Road (still reading) have struck a major cord in the psyche. Regarding the film, I still find myself lingering over various images a month after viewing it. The 'illegal' immigrant zones seem to have the most staying power for me– the most horror – the most real, as they look to be facsimiles of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the lesser known – Corrections Corp. of America. The film is tragic and beautiful and violent. It also looks like a very familiar ‘future’. The final battle scene seems to put you directly in Fallujah or what Sadr City might be like should US troops go in hard against Al Sadr.

Many bloggers over the last few weeks have been thinking about ‘the end’, many spurred on by Children of Men, McCarthy, the Arctic thaw, and the potential for yet another ‘theater’ in the war on terror -which if you haven’t noticed is starting to flare up more and more in Africa.

Alec Soth did some good digging when he brings to light the following from Kurt Anderson and the eternal art critic Peter Schjeldahl.
“Apocalypse is on our minds,” Kurt Anderson wrote in New York Magazine, “Apocalypse is … hot…. Apocalypticism has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and the present uptick is the third during my lifetime…but this time, it seems, more widespread and cross-cultural, both more reasonable (climate change, nuclear proliferation) and more insane (religious prophecy), more unnerving.
Peter Schjeldahl made similar observations in his 1978 essay, The Hydrogen Jukebox, Terror, Narcissism, and Art:
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.
Schjeldahl goes on to explain how this has changed the role of the contemporary artist:
The personality type of our time is the narcissist. Obsessively self-regarding, self-referential, self-consuming, the narcissistic personality finds authenticity only in the moment-to-moment convincingness of bodily sensations and mental events. The narcissistic artist or poet offers to a shadowy public evidence of the dramatizations of these sensations, inviting that public to join in the self-contemplation. Anger, at world or self, alternates with a husky or antic seductiveness, a siren song of love and death or sexy fun, and with abject complaining, the cries of the abandoned baby within.

Good stuff from nearly 30 years ago! Now I have had the privilege of a painting critique with Mr. Schjeldahl not so long ago when he quipped something along these lines.
These are dangerous times. Some people are flocking to church and the rest are buying art!
An astute observation when you compare and contrast the $billion booms of international art fairs (and museums in China) and the swelling of Evangelical mega-churches and the international conversion growth within Islam, Mormonism and Scientology.

Over in the more cerebral corners of the blogosphere, an intense discussion has been volleyed between Poetix, K-Punk and Jodi Dean regarding the 'new' apocalypticism. It began with the post from Jodi thinking on patterns of dissolution.

Time, Entropy, and the Dissolution of the World

More on the pattern: the lack of distinctions between fact and fiction, truth and lies; the encroaching ecological disaster; the way that the US is giving up on democracy and people stay isolated in their homes; the lies about Iraq (Bush says that the deaths there are exaggerated by the insurgents' sophisticated media operation and those who hate America); the horror of Darfur that persists and persists and persists...

Two ideas:
1. physicists can't explain why time runs in one direction.
2. entropy, stuff tends toward disintegration or dissolution

Conclusion from the details and the two theories: what if the world has already ended and we are persisting in its degrading memory?
I think that 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
Poetix responds to this proposition with some very clear assertions:

No Future, Except

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…”. Unless we reduce our emissions, eradicate global poverty and disease (good liberal conscience version); unless we do something about the massing barbarian hordes (bad hysterical racist version). But at least one plausible model of climate change asserts that all the emissions needed to change the climate irrevocably have already been emitted, and the effects of this change are even now ineluctibly unfolding: we pass from tipping-point to tipping-point. HIV/AIDS has already killed millions across the world, making orphans of millions more. None of this can be undone, and there is no possible future world unmarked by these catastrophes. The future designated by the “unless”, the future hoped for by the Western environmentalists and NGO workers of the 80s and 90s, cannot now come to pass. It “has already ended, and we are persisting in its degrading memory” - how many of the narcissistic disorders of our culture can be attributed to this awareness?
He concludes:
We should acknowledge that our world is doomed, that it has no future; but also that it is not the only possible world, that other worlds have been and will be.
K-Punk disagrees and takes a further turn of pessismism with some intriquing thoughts on the role capitalism plays in our inability to imagine to diffirent worlds.

The Damage is Done
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...
K-punk then quotes Poetix regarding climate change and concludes:
It's worth pausing here to reflect that, in the debates over climate change, it is no longer the apocalyptic potential of current trends that is disputed; what is doubted is whether any effective action could be taken to deal with it. Questioned about whether they will give up flying in order to combat climate change, people will often respond that there is no point, because others will continue to fly: thus runs the fatalism of capitalist realism. If Dominic is correct, of course, then they are not fatalistic enough.

Jodi Dean sums up and with the following:
First, I agree with Dominic on "other worlds." It is precisely because other worlds have been that there remains a glimmer of hope for other worlds to come. The traces of past hopes remain. At one point somewhere Zizek mentions that our political duty today is to keep these past traces alive, to recall past aspirations. Perhaps a way to say this is that ghosts matter and that as we linger in a world that has already ended keeping these ghosts alive is the only thing we must do. Or, we are responsible to the lacks in our ended world.

Second, I am taken by Dominic and K-Punk's emphasis on the pointlessness of action insofar as it is already irrelevant. This makes me think of Children of Men and the continuation of struggle even at the end of the world. Maybe, contra Zizek, simply persisting as dead, simply preferring not to act and remaining/becoming an obstacle, is actually not enough. Isn't it the case that once we recognize that we are choosing the worst, that we are not grounding our acts perversely in the service of a future history, that we are precisely then actually free? Differently put, perhaps only irrelevant action is free. (Of course, we need to be clearer about relevant to what--the operative notion here is relevant to a future; but, it may be that in a world already ended, the notion of relevance changes completely such that we have to think of it in terms of relevance to a past, to ghosts, and to lacks.)
Third, at one point K-punk writes:
Oddly, apocalyptic dread - so omnipresent during the Cold War - seems to have been extirpated from the popular unconscious….So, it seems to me that apocalyptic dread is alive.

But what does this mean? If apocalypticism is present, does that mean that the world hasn't already ended? I don't think so. Here's why: pentecostals and evangelicals are waiting for the Rapture. That they haven't been raptured means, for them, that the world hasn't ended. But, if one doesn't expect a Rapture, then it's easy to recognize that these poor souls are persisting in a delusion so as to avoid facing up to the brutal reality of an ended world. 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.

Had enough? ......more tomorrow

image: Emmit Gowan


fisher6000 said...

Holy moly!

Not fair to start a scene like this when my dance-card is full.

Your thrust seems to be that apocalyptic mindset is a mental trap, that it promotes ennui and renders action pointless. If so, I pump my fist and shout "fuck yeah!" at you.

Looking forward to more.

highlowbetween said...

Well a ton more is coming as I'm processing 2 more blogs that have taken to the subject. Not sure what the thrust is just yet but I am fascinated by this idea that something has ended and we're still running on the fumes. Action is never pointless - despite what Adorno says in the next install...

Anonymous said...

oh come now.. the end? the nearest thing is the singularity.

Anonymous said...

McCarthy is one of favorite authors and The Road wins hands on in the apocalyptic genre. & I have saved ur post in my Google Notebook for later reference, your writing is so da## good. Thanks.