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


The Constructivist said...

Thanks for the nod--turns out others beat me to the phrase, even someone who either is or does a great impression of a wingnut. I take it you're in for April 1?

By then, I hope to have had time to think through all the great points that have been made here and elsewhere....

highlowbetween said...

my pleasure - well you can take credit for it here! What is April 1? I'm afraid I'm unaware...sounds promising though

The Constructivist said...

well, it may not happen after all, but I proposed to the WAAGNFNP hierarchy that we make this April 1 the official day of the Blogocalypse Carnival. the proposal is taking its time, wending and winding its way through the bureaucracy. may not end up happening at Mostly Harmless, but it just might. whatever happens, I'll let you know--hopefully sooner rather than later....

I also thought I had a chance at originality with Blogoramaville, but no dice there, either, dammit.

highlowbetween said...

Sounds good - but definitely let me know before it's too late. I'd hate to be LEFT BEHIND on this one.

I feel your pain on Blogoramaville -but that's bloggery for you!

The Constructivist said...

Sorry for the late notice, but the Blogocalypse Carnival is coming to Mostly Harmless, after all, on April 1. Submissions due March 31.

highlowbetween said...

Constructivist! ok will try and ready for the due date

The Constructivist said...

"Hurry up please it's time" (you're the third special on the menu[s])....