Monday, January 21, 2008

the past as anti-future

Our in-person discussion last week ended up on some interesting ground that bears heavily on the question of the end of the world as a cultural form. We found ourselves wrestling with the question of the origins of apocalyptic fantasy, why these sorts of productions are so very popular. We basically hit upon five overlapping and sometimes contradictory motivations:

1) The roller-coaster hypothesis: We are able to enjoy scenarios about radical destruction or the collapse of civilized society because we do not fear they will ever come to pass.

2) The survivalist hypothesis: We consume these scenarios precisely because we believe they will come to pass, because we know they must come to pass.

3) The recursive hypothesis: Apocalpytic fantasies succeed in the box office and the best-seller lists because these sorts of fantasies had succeeded in the past. In other words, consumer culture just keeps feeding us the forms that have already worked, over and over again.

I think this is probably at once the best and worst answer, as it explains Cloverfield better than anything else, but can't explain the genesis of our initial attraction to the form at all. Take this as a given—I won't be talking much about it.

4) The bare-life hypothesis: We enjoy apocalyptic fantasy because we have been primed by ideology to recognize the absence of civilization as a ultra-Hobbesian state of permaviolence and degradation, which is to say that the purpose of apocalpytic fantasy is to serve as reinforcement and justification for the biopolitical power structures that already exist.

5) The wish-fulfillment hypothesis: We persist in imagining the end of the world because we secretly (or not so secretly) long for the destruction of society in general and/or capitalism in particular.

I'm tempted to note here that #1 generally goes with #4, and #2 generally with #5—but I don't believe it's that simple. They're all inextricably bound up with one another. I'm happy to accept "overdetermination" as the answer to this argument, but not without qualification—I think we must acknowledge that Jameson is essentially right when he insists (following Bloch) on the Utopian kernel at the core of both cultural production and daily life. Without #5—without the carrot, whatever form it takes—apocalypse could never sell. There are plenty of places where Jameson says this, but I thought it might be useful (given that our discussion last week came to focus on what exactly is the Utopian hook in a movie like Saw IV) to look at Christopher Sharrett's well-known essay on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not all of it is available online, but a good portion of it is through Google Books, in particular the part I was hoping to quote:

The point to be made here is that the failure of America's sense of divinely ordained "mission," the development of pessimism and the fixation by many American artists on a nonregenerative apocalypse, suggests a kind of wish-fulfillment calling for an end to history, a divine intervention meant to destroy what cannot be revitalized or what has worked against the earlier collective (that is to say white, male, capitalist) beliefs of society.
What is the nature of this wish-fulfillment? Against Sharrett I would suggest that it is almost no different than the catastrophe of science fiction, or rather that it is of a piece with the tripartite possibility that is opened up by the end of the world. When we pass through societal collapse and find ourselves on the other side, three dialectically interrelated possibilities present themselves:

1) We are now free to rebuild capitalist society, but "right" this time. This sort of story inevitably involves a kind of jack-of-all-trades, Swiss-Family-Robinson, white, male, capitalist Übermensch with exactly the skillset necessary to rise to the equation and restart civilization.

We can see already that this narrative hits nearly all the points above—the latest in a long tradition of Robinson Crusoe stories (#3) that we simultaneously don't fear and yet always expect (#1 and #2), this type of post-apocalyptic fantasy both wipes clean the slate of capitalism's practical injustices (#5) while simultaneously justifying an idealized form of capitalism as the natural state of humankind and our only protection against a life of utter deprivation (#4).

You can usually tell you're in this kind of story when the story ends just as it looks like they're about to get the lights back on.

2) In a second variation on apocalpyse, we find ourselves in the state of nature, again as an Übermensch but this time as one finally empowered to fight and struggle and conquer completely freed from societal constraint. The collapse of society is equated with the collapse of all taboo, allowing us to "do whatever it takes to survive," which often just means murdering other people without compulsion, but sometimes also includes such psychoanalytic breaches as abandoning our wives to sleep with our daughters. The post-apocalyptic here is therefore bound up hopelessly with both nightmare (#4) and with wish-fulfillment (#5)—the one feeds into the other—but it is a nightmare that our identification with the hero allows us not only to survive, but on some level enjoy. (This, as I argued in our meeting last week, is the brilliance of High Rise—Ballard makes all his characters so unlikable that we are denied identification and left with just the nightmare.) Clearly, too, this is a thrill ride (#1) that positions us through the power of identification as the unbound survivor hero we all imagine we would be (#2)—we are able to experience at last (albeit vicariously) the total freedom we long for (#5 again).

3) But there is a third track, which might be called the "quiet end" for capitalism, and which in a kind of reverse synthesis leaves #1 and especially #4 out of the equation. While there is always deprivation and destruction, it is always downplayed in favor of a survivalist mentality that denies the capacities of the individual survival in favor of the collectivity of survivors. It is here, not surprising, that we find the Utopian kernel in its purest form, and likewise that we find renewed in these stories a new sense of history that extends far beyond the "Great Disaster" and its immediate aftermath. This is the longed-for apocalypticism of primitivism or of Earth Abides, a life free from capitalism's pressures and contradictions, a literal turning back of the clock. The past, then, not merely as anti-future, but as super-future.

In the most extreme of these fantasies, as in 2007's The World Without Us, there are no longer any people at all—a strange Utopia, yes, but an undeniable one.

The sheer incomprehensible violence required to ever get there from here—the massive, world-historical hardship that would have to be endured—makes these vision of an ahistorical future no less Edenic when they are presented to us, especially—and this may well be the key point—given the fact that the power of narrative identification always ensures our personal passage, no matter how improbable, through the crucible of Tribulation into a better world.