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apocalpyse, dystopia, and the end of histoire

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Benjamin Kunkel has a very fine piece in that most pro-dystopian of little mags, Dissent, on the warehouseload of apocalyptic and dystopian fictions that have appeared over the past ten or so years. (Henry, at Crooked Timber, objects to the piece rather harshly given the counterevidence that he’s mustered contra…) He does a terrific job on the politics (often bad faith) of the books, and what sort of relationship they have to the context out of which they emerged.

There’s just one thing that I’d like to say – I think it’s more additive to than critical of Kunkel. And it has to do with the very smart stuff that he has to say about the blurring of literary fiction and the dystopian/apocalyptic genres and what it has to do with literary character. Here’s a bit of it:

[S]elf-awareness is in short supply in contemporary apocalyptic novels. There self-awareness in general gives way to a savage imperative of survival, and any struggles taking place within people are superseded by the struggles taking place between them. One effect of this approach, noted above, is that the neoliberal apocalypse abandons the field of competing legitimate claims that is the terrain of politics for a stark flat choice between good and evil or else a reign of uniform cruelty. Still, if we can’t take these books seriously from a political standpoint, and their only real theme is love, do they at least succeed as romances? In a way it has always been a virtue of historical romance that its facelessly beautiful or handsome characters are also morally uncomplicated to the point of vacancy. The same is true of the heroes and heroines of our apocalyptic romances; they possess the sentimental virtue of moral perfection in a world otherwise evil, and the biological virtue of attractiveness in a world otherwise ugly. Their unreality as characters makes them ideal objects of fantasy—with only the effect of disqualifying them as objects of love or items of literature. This leaves the neoliberal apocalypse with its constitutive contradiction: exalting the sphere of private life—in modern times the arena for the fullest elaboration of individual personality—it promotes a basically zoological idea of humanity, where mating and survival are all that matter, and these efforts are pursued with an absence of reflection tantamount to instinct. Self-preservation and moral life become identical, and differences of character fade into insignificance: at this level we are all clones.

The main formal consequence, then, of a withered moral imagination has to do not with subject matter (love, crime, the future) but with character. Fictional character derives from moral choices made, contemplated, postponed, or ignored—morality is the page on which the stamp of character appears—and the signal formal trait of genre fiction is nothing so much as its lack of complex characters. This deficit entangles even an acknowledged generic triumph like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, and the basis of the 1982 movie Blade Runner) in a certain incoherence. The ironic burden of Dick’s novel is to stick up for the warm-blooded humanity of androids (read: clones), and in this way imply the cold-bloodedness of any society that denies fully human status to some category of person. The rub, of course, is that such sci-fi humanism is quickly overcome with another irony, this one unintentional, since it is the hallmark of genre fiction to treat characters instrumentally, putting them through the paces of the plot according to their function as the embodiment of some general psychological or social category and failing or refusing to endow them with the individuality to be found among the livelier inhabitants of the traditional realist novel and, for that matter, the real world.

THIS IS the highly compromised “individualism” promoted by our collection of futuristic novels: individuality here means escape from the bad collective (cannibals, the corporate state) but does not entail real individuation. Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.

In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future—including, it seems, the future of the novel—he or she often forfeits the ability to imagine unique and irreplaceable characters, can no longer depict love credibly, and responds to political problems by rejecting politics for personal life, albeit one made meaningless by interchangeable characters and a zoological conception of family and love. The result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to “literature” that isn’t.

Now, I happen to think that Kunkel’s absolutely right about the recession of the characterness of character once the stars of literature and genre align. I may have something a bit different to say about what it means and how we should take this recession – there’s a wee bit of Tel Quel Maoism on me that might lead me to applaud such a literary development. But that will have to happen another time. For now, I to perform an odd exchange with Kunkel. He’s a novelist writing a fairly scholarly piece of quasi Marxist literary crit here (which is what I do at my day job when I do it), so I’m going be the literary scholar that approaches the issue not via historical context and ideological analysis but rather in terms of the writerly situation at hand and what this shift has to do with it.

Now, I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve been trying to write novels for a long, long time. I don’t – as a rule, so far anyway – send them out because I’m never really satisfied with them. (Or maybe it’s because my parents didn’t congratulate me the day the acceptance letter came from Yale. Who knows…) I do try awfully hard, hard enough to drive me a bit off-kilter, but I’ll probably work it out one day soon once the academic work recedes (ha!) a tad. Anyhow, I’ve basically followed the trajectory in my own halting work from the literary frame (that is to say, heavily interiorized stuff having to do, in Kunkel’s phrase, with the “moral imagination,” etc) toward dystopian or catastropic stuff. (One last time, there’s an abortive start to something I worked on this summer here…)

And there are lots of reasons that this shift in my work has happened. Partly, it’s the fact that I’ve always been invested in this stuff (first two works of literature I owned were 1984 and Purgatorio… the latter, a weird but understandable pick for a Catholic kid) but now, suddenly, it’s become acceptably non-genre to write it, per Kunkel’s description. A desire to write politically engaged fiction also factors; it’s easier at least to seem like that’s what you’re up to even if, as again Kunkel describes, lots of time this stuff goes south when it comes to good faith political response.

But there is something else, beyond or beneath all these other reasons, that I think forms the basis of the ultimate impetus for me to turn to the genre-literary hybrid.

Aside from all the ideological and meta-ideological reasons, aside from the contemporary relevance and the attention grabbing cover art possibilities, one huge reason why the dystopian and apocalyptic registers have traipsed to the center of literary literary production is because, christ almighty, they give you the opportunity to write a proper novel with multiple characters (albeit, sure, you can or structurally must do flat ones, as Kunkel suggests) and a plot, dramatic tension, crises and outcomes. Actual events happen, there are dramatic sequences and meaningful interactions of the protagonist(s) with other people. Or to put it another way – yes, these genres, happily, even gloriously, are incompatible with interiority – especially excessive, neurotic interiority! The characters are actually too busy to think, to have actual thoughts. It’s hard to be depressed or anxious or frustratedly horny when the canibals are trying to cook your son. And if you’re otherwise occupied dashing through Falluja-on-the-North-Sea, one tends to forget about the battle with drink or the middle life crisis, the traumas of high school and the sexual rejection that happened during the ice storm. Whatever.

If you write, and write in the wide and persistent wake of modernism – if you cut your readerly teeth on Woolf and Joyce – you know what your problem is. You want to do interior work; you do it really well, at least better than other things. But when you give your novel-start to a friend to read, they respond, nervously: “You know, the extended section about midnight-masturbation while looking at internet porn is, um, thorough and I’m sure it gets to the bottom of the subject – as does the long bit where the young wife has a silent nervous breakdown about her career prospects, the wrong turn that she made when she chose to major in Fine Arts instead of Chemistry, but… I’ve read your other stuff and I like the bit where, you know, things happen and people talk to each other. You should, you know, have some of that here… It’s all a bit, um, claustrophobic….”

They’re right – you lack for plot… and anything else that’s properly in a novel except the angsty interior work. And for good reason, really. This is where someone comes in and screams that of course there are plots out there, you just have to cast your eyes a yard or two beyond your whitebread world of pocket inteligensia in order to see that shit is happening all the time. Remember this bit in Adaptation:

Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world –

The real world?

Yes, sir.

The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There’s genocide, war, corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else! Every fucking day someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ’s sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!


Okay, thanks.

Mckee is, of course, right. But also definitely not. While the better part of me would love to write the great novel of the Bhopal Disaster or of the rise and fall of Allende, I’m not up to it. Neither do I have the knowledge, nor the time to acquire it, nor really (honestly) the inclination. And if we turn back to the standard fare for novelistic deployment in America, we find that many of the old strands and tropes are looking a little depleted. There are only so many discovery of sex cum end of American innocence novels that can be written, and generally speaking they really do need to be set in the 1950s, which most of us don’t remember as we were born in the 60s or 70s (or, urp, 80s). The frontier – even the final one – has long since been closed. Adultery only seems unboring when you spice it with a new, newer, the newest low: a student, a younger student, his brother, all of his brothers at once, all of his frat brothers, old people, really old people. Boring… Lolita preemptively probably took care of entire line right back at the start, everything else is tired variation on a theme. And the Bildungsroman suffers in an era when at the same time meritocratic progression becomes so tedious rote and actual class-shift becomes unlikely if not impossible, that no one but Jonathan Safran Foer knows what to write anymore.

But it’s more than the simple expenditure of motifs. There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization, the way that a high pressure system resists cloud formation. Periods that resist emplotment – both fictional emplotment and wider, socio-cultural sense of directionality and end-orientation – are psychologically tricky for everyone but maybe even trickier for novelists. (This is the point where I refer you to my published work on The Time Machine, a work that complicates Kunkel’s genealogies of the two forms he’s dealing with, as they’re both there at once – it’s knot in the lines that run from gothic to dystopia and from romance to apocalypse…. But oops, I’m a pseudonom-blogger so I can’t link to it… But the 1890s and 1900s, despite the memorable work that we retrospectively recognize now, were perhaps another such period…) The End of History meets the end of the histoire – the two ends are anything but unrelated. They called it decadence at the end of the 19th-century, a word which meant something a bit different then than it does today.

I’d rather not delve into strange causality, paranoid historicist envelope scribbling, but there is something in society that does not love empty time. Don’t ask me what it does about it. I definitely, definitely don’t want to suggest that it handles it by downing its own towers and collapsing its own markets. But that is, however, what its fiction writers start to do. Novelists who not long ago were invested in existentialist thrillers set along the Rio Grande turn to the flash and rumble to get a story started in its aftermath, just as filmakers who were busy with  naughty threesomes turn to the extinction of the race and rise of biopolitically-minded fascism.

The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity. And if you need more proof, think about just how invested these works are that Kunkel describes in playing out emergence of the climactic event out of the banally everyday… or even, most hauntingly, the persistence of that everyday despite the start of the endgame, the plot to end all plots. Remember the first scene of Children of Men, where our period’s mostly characteristically ordinary action – fetching coffee on the way to work – gives way to the terrorist bomb blast and the walking wounded missing limbs.

As if bound to gesture towards the unfertile ground from which they grew, the works cycle back, time and again, the the issuelessness of the present that is interrupted by the advent of the catastrophe or the revelation of the inhuman face of power once the veil of liberal democratic upwardness has dropped to the floor. None of this is out of sync, I believe, with Kunkel’s argument – it just points to the way that these fictional developments are determined at the same time by contextual issues and immanent problems of narrative form. And in fact, one more turn of the screw brings us to the realization – one that we have to take care with, not be cheap about – that the contextual issues are themselves in part symptoms of a society-wide crisis in self-narration, an inability to get the story of the present and how it meets a future, or even has a future, straight.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering whether the tendency toward dystopian and apocalyptic hybridization of literary fiction and what Kunkel calls B+ movies will continue as the world and its artists confront the very real crises that surely await us all in next few years. It seems improbable that the jobless will want to read fantasies of dramatic joblessness, or the cashless will fantasize about a world without cash. But I’m even more interested, and alternative hopeful and skeptical, to see whether society itself as a whole will begin again to compose its own plots about the path from here to there, its own sequence of events that lead through crisis to development. Still, it’s far from given that these storylines, if they do emerge, are stories that we will want to read, much less take our place as characters in, whether we maintain our interest as individuals, as characters, or not.

Written by adswithoutproducts

December 16, 2008 at 11:33 pm

12 Responses

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  1. CR, just to add a smidge to your majestic note. I think Kunkel misses something crucial regarding “the character problem” in these films (and novels and etc), which concerns the pursuit of what Darko Suvin termed “cognitive estrangement” — SF’s operative characteristic. In short, SF (and perhaps all “genre fiction”) must not be realist in style. Realism is by its very definition non-estranging, and thus as a style simply can’t do the work that SF is good for (here I think, for example, of complaints about the acting in Starship Troopers — a complaint which misses the point of the film as wildly as is imaginable).

    I am actually not that sure that Kunkel, for all his smarts and rhetoric, isn’t simply rephrasing the general antico-Marxist position against modernism and then in turn postmodernism?


    December 17, 2008 at 12:07 am

  2. I think I might agree with the second paragraph. But while I see what you’re saying in the first, I tend to think that realism is probably just as much about Suvin’s CE as anything else. Isn’t it? This takes us to the point where the question of realism (as an -ism of course) folds right over into Blanchot’s bit on the everyday. In naming it, you estrange it – bring out out of its essential place as backdrop. Once foregrounded, it’s not what it was before – it’s neither the real nor the everyday, in post cases purposefully so. Plus, certainly there’s a way that SF aspires to the same, especially the line of SF (or really, speculative fiction… Gibson and the like) takes great pains to sell itself as real, no? The estrangement depends for its effect on the fact that it seems right enough at first, but then it breaks otherwise?


    December 17, 2008 at 1:24 am

  3. Mmmn, I don’t really buy that about realism; for me, that’s one of the claims that is maybe true for a kind of scholarly reader and (while admitting there is real overlap between the categories) not so persuasive regarding the general reader who actually figures in genre fiction (you can tell by the names!) I think it verges on the tautological that “realism” indicates the non-estranging; certainly my writing students (who exist at an interesting border between general and scholarly readers) think so unquestioningly.

    It remains striking for me about Gibson that, even as hard as he tries, his prose fails the test of realist competency. Or used to, when he was writing SF (and that sort of makes the point, yeah?) Now that he largely knocks off DeLillo stylistically, it’s hard to tell. Mostly what gets estranged is the source: nothing estranger than a DeLillo novel compelled to end with a long caper sequence in Vancouver!


    December 17, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  4. “There was something about the 1990s that resisted fictionalization”

    The characteristic fiction of the 1990s was cyberpunk, was it not? (For the use of “the 1990s” that means the U.S. starting a little into the eighties.) I’ve written about that, and what ended it, here.

    The problem with the genre-literary hybrid, and with critics of such, is that the writers who approach this from the literary genre generally lack any appreciation of what SF does well. Every major U.S. literary novelist has had their one SF novel, in which they generally repeat some tired SF plot (“an alternate universe in which the Nazis won!”, “time going backwards!”) as if they were the first to think of it. And the critics always bring up PKD, because they dimly understand that he must be good in some way, but signally fail to understand him. When a PKD character is trying to negotiate with his door to give him a break on the nickel that he needs to feed it in order to get out of his apartment — when, in the book that Kunkel mentions, the protagonist finds out that his religious prophet is a cheap actor and that the miraculous still-living-through-radiation animal that he finds may be a cheap fake, and it doesn’t matter, religious transcendence is possible anyways — that’s the kind of character moment that is not safely middle-class, not proudly individual enough.

    Rich Puchalsky

    December 17, 2008 at 4:50 pm

  5. I have to go with Jane on the realism bit. If the experience of reality is estrangement then shouldn’t the literary-reflection of that experience, in trying to stay as “real” as possible, also be formally and contextually estranged?

    And then, I can vouch for the significantly small group of writing students who do question the relationship of realism and estrangement, despite occasional lapses in discussion…

    Regardless the main article was interesting/informative as I stumble towards an existence in the general-scholastic.


    December 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm

  6. Jane,

    I’m not sure why, when dealing with realism itself, the distinction between scholarly and regular reader would really matter. No one actually wants a yawning glimpse at real reality (OK, I do, but I’m a perverse reader). Everyone wants reality plus, reality told slant, etc etc. Even when general readers want something that’s realistic in terms of character, they don’t really – most people (me included) are fucking boring!

    I’m worried I’m being a bit simple minded about this. But seriously, at the end of the day I’m Barthesian and we’re sort of obligated to say thing like this. It’s not really worth arguing about… I definitely see your point too…

    The point about Gibson moving Bronx ashcan to the pacific northwest is wonderful, jesus. Exactly right.


    Cyberpunk may well have been, yes, the characteristic form of the 1990s. I guess I meant in terms of “literary” fiction, per the distinction that we’re working with here, and I suppose Kunkel and I would agree that cyberpunk is another one of those genre strands melded into the literary as we entered the new century.

    I don’t disagree with what you say about the “inappropriateness” of the characterization in Dick et al… I think that’s right.


    Yes! And it often is… It’s not hard to think of modernist narrative as exactly what you’re describing – a form that brings realism to the interior in all its glorious estrangement. And is Madame Bovary a realist text or not?


    December 18, 2008 at 7:56 am

  7. I find it strange, and rather provincial in fact, that Kunkel sees character, and the prudential moral choices that they make, as the ultimate horizon of the novel. Novels do, in fact, allow for other forms of consciousness, of individuality, subjectivity, choice, outside of the liberal, hand-wringing neurotic he fears has vanished and taken with it “democracy” or some other canard. Consciousness exists both in and on the surface of the novel–that is, there’s this person who puts words on the page and arranges them in some sort of relation to the world in which she lives. Kunkel seems to forget about that.

    I don’t disagree ultimately with his sense of the vanishing of character. But this is a pathology that affected the literary novel long before its merger with the dreaded genre-fiction. Those characters with rich, neurotic inner lives have long been pastiche themselves, and the dreariness of American literary fiction’s attempt to rewrite Philip Roth or Raymond Carver, has long been a dead-end. In any case, I think the antinomy he sets up between moral characterological imagination and dystopia is ultimately a false one: think Kafka.

    I’m curious, too, about your abbreviated periodization above. You seem to suggest that dystopia and apocalypse are a reaction to the dullness of a stable culture, to halcyon days. But Kunkel is talking about the bumper-crop of post-9/11 novels and films, no? That is, novels and films which are a reconstellation of the real and really horrible unfolding of history. Things may have been relatively mild for us here in the imperium over the last seven years, but everybody knew, even without knowing, what was on its way.


    December 18, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  8. Jasper,

    I know what you mean about Kunkel’s fixation on character. But on the other hand, I also think he’s right when it comes to mainline literary fiction. Whether that matters or not I suppose depends on your perspective. But it’s still out there, some people still read it. It’s not all character-driven, but lots of it is…

    Oh wow, though. Exactly right in the third paragraph. Very helpful to say that – I need to say more about the persistence of the 90s atmospherics after the Big Events started to happen. Let’s see if I can’t must a post just on that… Yes, you’re right! I think your last line is headed in the direction that I’d head – quite a bit of this blur, as I say in the post, is about the strange persistence of the high pressure system of normality despite the apocalyptic stuff that’d crop up in the corners of the cone of vision.


    December 18, 2008 at 11:57 pm

  9. Yes, I think that’s absolutely right, the overlaying of the 90s onto the 00s. . . I have a super-smart colleague here who’s writing a diss on crisis and apocalypse, financial and otherwise, in contemporary fiction at the millenium and after, who makes precisely this point, how Y2K and 9/11 trade places. . .

    I’ll take the risk of sounding self-promoting and say that my book of poems, about LA, hinges precisely upon this superimposition. It’s a book in some ways about the apocalyptic LA of the 90s, Mike Davis’s LA in other words (which, incidentally, was far from stable and uneventful), but one written largely during free periods in NYC after 9/11, and then here in Berkeley, and so all of those moments bleed together. You could make a semiotic square, if you were Jameson, and put the 90s and 00s, and LA and NYC, at various corners.

    Listen, CR, since you’re such a smart guy and all, I’d like to give you a copy of my book, with no strings attached–that is, no obligation to say anything about it. Is there a way you can give me a mailing address w/o unmasking yrself? My email bernes [at] berkeley dot edu


    December 19, 2008 at 3:42 pm

  10. Potential problem solver: as Jasper’s publisher, CR, I’d be happy to send you a copy; does that work all around?


    December 19, 2008 at 4:50 pm

  11. Ah excellent! Would love to see it. I’ve just written both poet and publisher in this regard…


    December 21, 2008 at 12:08 am

  12. Ads,

    Late in on this, but when it comes to end of the world as known, I guess it’s always better late than never.

    These sentences have stayed in my mind and bring me back to this post again now:

    “The apocalyptic and dystopian, in other words, bring plot and event during periods in which plot and event seem to have slipped down the drain of the tub where the boats are busy rising or not rising. In turning the everyday inside out, they expose the implicit, imminent sound of the other shoe dropping, the storyline that must be nestled amidst all this affluent absurdity.”

    The question I’ve had in my mind is this: is it not possible we are stubbornly intent on NOT getting the story line of what is occurring, simply because we’re too close to it–forest for the trees, etc?

    Have been checking out some of the interesting data on strange new cloud formations occurring, like the asperatus clouds showing up like great bronzed clumps of sheep intestines in the sky off Port Richie, N.Z., or the increasingly frequent sightings of rare mammatus clouds (usually post-tornado/post-cyclone stuff) in places where they’ve not been seen before. What I find curious is that unlike in Hollywood movies, nobody seems to pay much notice, let alone worry about what it means.

    Did two posts on this, using Rimbaud as what I’d thought an appropriately apocalyptic text. And of course nobody noticed the clouds or that it was Rimbaud. Business as usual, getting and spending, have a nice day.


    Night in Hell

    tom clark

    August 18, 2009 at 8:37 pm

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