Friday, February 8, 2008

survivability and thinkability

I'm trying something on for size here. I'm not sure I'm ready to make a down payment.

"...the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically — collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning."
—Susan Sontag, "The Imagination of Disaster"

"Perhaps if we have a terrible privilege it is merely that we are alive and are going to die, all at once or one at a time."
— Frank Kermode,
The Sense of an Ending

"What protects us is that in nuclear war the event is likely to eliminate the possibility of the spectacle.
This is why it will not take place. For humanity can accept physical annihilation, but cannot agree to sacrifice the spectacle (unless it can find a spectator in another world)."
—Jean Baudrillard, "Fatal Strategies"

In Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Bokonoists announce "Now I will destroy the whole world" when they elect to kill themselves. Individual death bound up with collective death, even universal death—this is the ethical question smoldering at the heart of futurity. Why should I care about anything that happens after I am dead? Or, from another angle: why should the potential annihilation of society fill us with so much more revulsion and dread than the certain prospect of our own inevitable demise?

Or: What does it mean to imagine a future, good or bad, Utopian or dystopian, without you in it?

There is surely a biological imperative at work here—but there is also, it seems to me, a phenomenological one, a kind of onto-epistemological blind spot that demands the projected permanence of one's conscious mind, the makes the actual absence of one's personal subjectivity by definition strictly unimaginable, strictly unthinkable.

Thus, we rechannel our own self-consciously impossible wish for immortality into an imagined collectivity that extends into the future, and the death of collectivity thereby becomes renewed as both the object of horror and the object of desire—in both senses really just our own denied deaths returned to us.

Futurity is the (failed) denial of death.

We can find this impossibility of representation revealed in any imagination of apocalypse—the promise of survivability (and therefore futurity) emerges in any ultimate disaster, the point of view character who dodges every bullet and emerges through to the other side, whether to rebuild capitalism anew or simply wallow decadently amidst the ruins. Even the rapturous, totalizing moment of nuclear annihilation has its inevitable excess, tunnels hidden underground where life, it is imagined, might still go on.

And even in the very rare case where narrative does let the bomb does go off, where all life ends, still we watch it happen from a cosmic position of complete safety, an atemporal position of non-embodiment—outside the text. Think of your position when you see the Earth blow up. Where are you standing?

On the Beach, which with its slow and horrid countdown to the total extinction of humanity heroically attempts to face this problem of death head on (and which consequently may well be the most depressing book ever written) in the end cannot dance to its own music: after jumping perspectives over and over in its final chapter, hoping to escape the necessary moment, it ends with its American hero and his doomed crew still technically alive, still sailing south, towards what little is left.

Bazin writes in "Death Every Afternoon" that “for every creature, death is the unique moment par excellence.” Whether it is personal extinction, or atomic Rapture, or H.G. Wells's giant crabs scuttling about on an empty Earth, death is futurity par excellence; it is that moment towards which all things point but which no things point beyond. It is the most unknowable moment of any history and yet the most familiar—we are doomed to speculate over and over “What if I were dead right now? What if I am to die in this next moment?”, but despite its intense familiarity we are completely unable to ever consider the absence of our own consciousness. Always, this is the way we imagine death: a still body inhabited by a still-waking mind, observing ghosts hiding haunting the ruins. Any and all narrative representations of death must necessarily fail—all possibility of identification ends at the moment when the represented figure dies, at the necessarily distanciating moment when we recognize the character has died but we are still alive. (We can recognize death, but never our own.) Consciousness cannot negate itself; it is always there, even when it is trying to play dead.

We are dealing here with something narrative promises but can never deliver: the authentic, projected sensation of surviving ourselves, in the sense of outliving either our physical bodies or the techno-social, biopolitical structures with which life has become functionally identical. Narrative—and not merely in the death scene or in the apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, but also in the jump-cut, in the chapter break, in the fade-to-black and the page turn after The End—can only reinforce the quintessential solipsism endemic to symbolic consciousness: the principle that no matter what happens our subjectivity is eternal and inviolable, that each of us occupies the center of the universe.

This ideological reinforcement may be called, after Bloch, the dystopian function, and while we can find it across genres we can find it most clearly in horror, in apocalyptic fantasy, in science-fiction disaster, in rape, torture, szchiophrenia, madness, snuff, Holocaust, nuclear winter, death: in depicting what's as-bad-as-things-can-get, we are at the same moment promised that we can survive radical transgression, that nothing can undo us, that our individual subjectivity will survive all, even total destruction, even its own destruction. The dystopian function provides the vicarious, spectacular experience of how bad things might get precisely so that it might again make the impossible promise that you will somehow pass through safe and whole to the other side.

So perhaps we could just as well call it the denial-of-reality principle.

Narrativized attempts to transgress the radical boundaries of bodily integrity and societal longevity, to take the reader over the line into new territory, are always a stretching, never a transposition—the subject will always return to where she is anchored in the end, she will neither move nor break in two. There are limits past which neither representation nor imagination can take us, though we may compel both to try. The dystopian function will always in the end fail the reality test: you cannot just sample death, you can only plunge fully into it. Like any other subgenre of futurity, apocalyptic fantasy—relying as it does on the continuity of subjectivity for its very transmission and comprehension—can never shake us from our subjectivity, and so despite its obsessive attempts to transgress of the life/death, now/then boundary, it is always doomed to fail.