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against apocalypticism

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Why is it that capitalist culture has always been so well provisioned with visions of its own end? Whether in the catastrophic or entropic tense, it has always been easy to predict and represent an end of the world that arrives via the developments of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction (and the concomitant emergence of “unemployment” as a concept) during the Great Depression of 1873-1895 informed the mindless dystopia of Wells’s The Time Machine. The high pressure system that settled in after the two great wars of the early twentieth centuries postered its bedrooms with images of an all-too-achievable Mutually Assured Destruction. Our own fin  de la siècle (and start of another) can’t seem to stop showing itself its own imagined death scenes – by plague or alien invasion, loose nukes or technology gone sentient or, of course, environmental catastrophe.

So the first thing that it’s important to know about capitalist apocalypticism is that it’s persistent. These visions just keep appearing, always impersonating their predecessors while at the same time adapting these predecessors to new local dynamics. If one wants it to mark the arrival of an actual crisis, one has to admit that this crisis is nothing new, but rather a persistent feature of capitalism itself.

It’s understandible, to an extent, why many on the left find hope in representations of apocalypse. Slavoj Zizek has famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. During a period in which it in fact became close to impossible to imagine either capitalism’s end or a potential replacement for it, many of us decided to take the end of the world as sort of allegorical stand in for the end of the current economic regime. If we couldn’t have the latter, we’d settle for the former and rebrand its anxieties as a strange sort of hope. Many of us, therefore, watched both the filmic representations of catastrophe and the increasingly ominous news about the state of the economy with at least some degree of perversely optimistic anticipation.

But if the “arrival” and playout of the current (and long-awaited) economic catastrophe signals anything at all, it is not the imminence of climactic collapse but its opposite – the very power of capitalism (together with the co-opted state) to avert crisis. The specter of collapse, the possibility of the arrival of the end of the hegemonic economic form, is deferred, as it has been and will forever be deferred, by means of a massive transfer of wealth from the state into private hands. “Too big to fail” was from the start an apocalyptic claim, an apocalyptic fiction, mobilized by the banks themselves in order to trigger the response that was bound to be triggered.

The cynical narrativization of the crisis by the banks and their helpers in government speaks to a larger issue  – the issue of the native temporality, or temporalities, of capitalism. While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can. It attempts, at every turn, to transform qualititative change into quantitative accumuation, differential turbulence into a concretized status-quo. In fact, recent economic developments point toward the secret trajectory (and capitalist use-value) of neo-liberalism. While for many years it was possible to think of the emergence of the liberal center-left as a hybirdization of social democratic politics in service of a cynical (and cynically capitalized) power grab against the strong right of the Thatcher and Reagan era, the last year or so has shown what the relatively strong state of the the third way was actually for – collusion with and the buttressing of corporations, the nullifcation of risk.  Along with risk, of course, disappears the temporality of risk – that is to say time itself, in any form more open than inevitable progression of the same. Catastrophe itself is ransomed off by state funds.

It is very important for us to be clear about agency and intention and reception when we discuss cultural works and ideology. “Capital” does not make films and other cultural works, though films take capital to make. While films of course are influenced directly and indirectly by those who would use them to distribute propaganda, this still, in our current culture, is not the driving force behind the composition of films. Further, while capitalist culture may make certain messages difficult or even impossible to distribute widely, it generally does not directly prohibit or promote certain forms of content to political ends. (Again, there are of course exceptions). The current bubble of apocalyptically-themed films should not be interpreted as propaganda. The rise of the genre, according to all indications, should be attributed to its mass-appeal.

But mass appeal is not necessarily equivalent to usefulness in the cause of mass politics. To be sure, the ultimate goal of any left-oriented cutural politics must necessarily be to appeal to the masses, but not blindly, without full consideration of the source and potential ends of the appeal. While the most obvious answer in this case might be the libidinal pleasure that comes of watching things be destroyed, often on an incredible scale, there are many genres and plot-types that can afford opportunity for the delivery of this sort of thrill. While the destructive violence is the affective content, there has to be something about the form in which it is contained that concretizes the special interest in this form now and before.

Capitalism has always fought a halting and ambivalent fight to separate itself from older social forms and cultural manifestations that have lingered on past its arrival, persistently obsolescent. The fight is ambivalent because at times it makes peace with one or more of the old forms in order to do better battle with others. Religion, the family, value-in-land, the strong state in certain incarnations, racial and sexual difference, the organic community – the trendlines run against all of these, though all of these causes have been taken up by states, parties, and factions in service of the progress of capitalism and capitalist reaction – as well as of course retrograde reaction against capitalism.

The appeal of the apocalyptic cultural product, beyond the libidinal magnetism of destruction, seems to me to take the shape of another one of those concepts lingering on past the point of its own obsolescence. That concept is, of course, eschatological itself – anticipated endings, summations, terminal crises. Like religion or racism, natural hierarchy or sexual difference, it is a concept that functions to abridge that which is difficult to contemplate and live with.

When I was a Catholic school boy, I used to wonder about the purpose of Judgment Day, the biblical Apocalypse. If most everyone – all but a tiny fraction still living when the world ends – have already been judged and sentenced at the hour of their death, why design a system in which everyone is resummoned from hell or heaven, or has their purgatorial sentence commuted, only to judge them all again, redelivering a verdict that almost all of the souls have long since known and lived (after-lived?) with? The only good answer that I can come up with now is that the Apocalypse is one of those contradictory temporal abstractions that softens the cognitive blow that comes of the contemplation of sublime temporalities – the time of incessance is reified down into a concluding punctum. It is mystification by shorthand, a perspectival trick.

Nothing ever ends, and certainly nothing ends like that. There’s a picture of a queen on the notes in my wallet. And my children attend a school where there are crayon-drawn illustrations of scenes from the Bible on the walls. Not all that different from Emma Bovary’s ravenous desire to experience an event like those that she’s read about in her aristocratically-originated romances, we today still long for the cognitive and psychological benefit that comes of abbreviation and culmination. It is pleasing to have what troubles us – whether the corrupt inhumanity of our economic system or the slow-motion collapse of our enviroment – narrowed to two hours, wrapped up before the closing credits, fully contained within a dramatic movement.

Whatever happens, and whatever the news and the entertainment providers tell us, nothing will ever come to an end, at least not at once, and definitely not climactically. This is simply not the way the world works, nor has it ever, nor will it ever. Change comes sometimes in fits and starts, othertimes at a glacial pace, but whatever the change is, it never brings anything fully to an end and always bears within it the contradictions that it would have us believe it had eliminated. The terrors that await us – economic or environmental – will never finally arrive, but rather will take the pattern of crisis and resolution, new crisis and new resolution, that we’re quickly becoming accustomed to in our still relatively new century. Most important of all, if we would use art to provoke improvement, we would do well to accustom our audience both to the real paceless pace of capitalism as well as the rhythm of life in a better world, which would be anything but apocalyptically accented.

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 29, 2009 at 10:12 pm

16 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, particularly this line:

    “While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can.”

    I’ll write something in response to this.


    November 30, 2009 at 7:18 am

  2. Thanks Glen… I look forward to see what you write…


    November 30, 2009 at 9:40 am

  3. AwP: While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can. It attempts, at every turn, to transform qualititative change into quantitative accumuation, differential turbulence into a concretized status-quo.

    Kvond: I think you are right on target with the Affect-to-Concretization analysis, but I don’t believe it is towards a status quo (yes, there are strong Concervative tides used to re-anchor the deterritorializations, as well as whiplash into other more “primative” accumulations (ethnic hatred, religious fundamentalism)). It is towards an increase in speed, tempo, a flattening which resists its mere “status quo” reterritorialization. Think of how the entire United States, despite the widening gap in class, has turned into one HUGE affect pool of experiencing subjects (experiencing primarily technologies of entertainment and communication) used to drive Asian economies. It is this transformation of modern class in the West into an affective pool such that Asia is in reverse strip-mining the West, so to speak. What the lower-middle class wants is not voting rights or healthcare, but rather cable television. Yes, this involves political disenfranchisment, shiftings of wealth, but it is a shift that is even more concerned with the production of affects themselves, as a source for change.


    December 1, 2009 at 7:51 pm

  4. kvond,

    Sure, but increasing tempo is not the same thing as increasing rate of change. Think of the difference between playing a song ever more quickly vs. playing ever new songs. It’s a case of the intensification of the same rather than the production of change.

    Also “used to drive Asian economies” undercuts the complexity of what’s afoot a bit. If “Asia” is “strip-mining” America, they’re going to have a hell of a time repatriating the ore they’ve scooped up.


    December 2, 2009 at 6:22 am

    • If there were simply a ditty being played over and over, yes, playing it faster would be nothing. But when speed and intensity become pursued ends, the song itself starts to change. Fingering changes, counter-point, variations on theme. Speed heads towards threshold limits, and change is produced.

      And yes, this is a simplification, but so was your depiction as well, as if there was little more than a status quo being pursued. Human relations have never changed to the degree that they have changed in the last 20 years, even if centuries had passed. Never before has geography and even class been so bent, so curved.

      I’m not sure what you mean by Asian economies repatriating the core they’ve translated out of the West. China essentially owns the American debt.


      December 2, 2009 at 6:39 am

      • Speed wasn’t an “end in itself” at the beginning of the twentieth century? In the middle of the nineteenth? Didn’t the song “begin to change” a long time ago and continue to change, but change predictably from then on? I’m not sure we’ve not already tapped out this metaphor, but the fetishization of “speed and intensity” is nothing new. Factory labor, deskilling and intensification of work practices, informationalization, globalization are all constants – ever intensified, but not qualitatively new.

        Human relations changed significantly in the last 20 years? I don’t mean to be glib about this, but how? We’ve got some new technology at hand – so, say, you and I can have this conversation – but aside from that I’m not sure things seem all that different to me since 1990. Employment is more precarious, yes. The rewards and penalties are greater. But what’s changed about basic social relations? I’m wary of fuzzy metaphorics: what does it mean for geography or class to be “bent” or “curved”?

        Oh, and with China. Quite famously, there’s a double bind at hand. China does indeed hold quite a lot of American debt. Problem is that were they to call in their loans, the American economy would tank, and along with it about a third of their own economy. Can’t even float the yuan without simultaneously crimping their exports and devaluing their stack of American notes. It’s a longer story than this, but trust me – it’s not going to be easy for them to call in that debt.


        December 2, 2009 at 7:00 am

  5. I’ll be glad to answer your questions about what I mean, but let me get this straight first. Your point is that human relations really haven’t changed from the “status quo” (in any number of registers, if not ALL registers) since when? Since 1900? or 1970? I just need to know what you mean by “status quo” so that I can identify meaningful changes at cross currents to it.


    December 2, 2009 at 7:06 am

    • Sure there’s been change… But it’s more a matter of intensification than the emergence of much that’s qualitatively new. More contact, more differentiation, more informationalization etc. I simply can’t see any sort of paradigm shift, any revolution in human relations – but I am extremely novelty shy, constitutionally even, and err on this side rather than the other.

      But sure, the “status quo” that I was talking about is both on the level of the political and, more concretely, on the hedging of so-called “creative destruction” in the realm of economics via the co-opting of the state and its resources.


      December 2, 2009 at 7:13 am

  6. p.s. I won’t be able to answer until tomorrow, but I’ll be glad to expand upon why the “status quo” is not either the aim, or even the result of Capitalism in the last 20 years.


    December 2, 2009 at 7:07 am

  7. Looking forward to it kvond!


    December 2, 2009 at 7:19 am

  8. Ads: “But it’s more a matter of intensification than the emergence of much that’s qualitatively new. More contact, more differentiation, more informationalization etc. I simply can’t see any sort of paradigm shift, any revolution in human relations – but I am extremely novelty shy, constitutionally even, and err on this side rather than the other.”

    Kvond: I’m going to respond thematically I think, because this is a very big subject, but first I have to say that I’m not sure how you differentiate between “quality” and “intensity”. A change in intensity is a change in quality, take a trip to the dentist before you object to this.

    I also want to say that I am not a fan of Fischer’s Dystopian view of Capitalism, which wreaks of afluence that does not acknowledge itself, dreaming that it is actually representing something other than a privileged circulation of text producers and text consumers.

    As to change itself, and I am not one for “novelty” per se, as a category of measurement, there are quite a number of registers upon which rapidity of development, communication, connection become historical shifts of great margin (and I am not interested in locating “paradigms” either). To start with there are certain tempo barriers that condition the relativity of other tempo shifts. For instance, life spans though lengthening form a kind of margin against which rates of change taken on a frame of reference. This can be underestimated. If one changes careers once in a lifetime, or 12 times in a lifetime, there is a qualitative shift in the meaning of this unto the very limit of a lifetime. Couple with natural life-markers like generations and there are built in parameters against which tempo alternations create very different effects. To some degree alterations are framed. So yes, speeding up a tempo is one thing, but the tempo is in contrast to a larger music which is somewhat stable. The full effect of these intensifications is likely very difficult to measure, but I suspect that it is profound and permeating.
    There are also lower-level thresholds of tempo. For instance when cinema was able to surpass the threshold of frame-changes and create the illusion of seamless continuity, and entire matrix of identifications (projective identifications) upon media has qualitatively changed. When alternations dip below cognitive thresholds, the way that the human subject can identify with projective or virtual effects is dramatically changed. As more and more communicative connection comes to be below the cognitive threshold, more and more of our virtual existence is enabled to appear “as Real”. The lack of “lag” is not simply convenience factor, but one that comes to inhabit our bodies, and eventually define their affective capacities. That text, image and response have come into great confluence under a regime of simultaneity is really stupendous for how subjectivity is framed and molded. To list a few meager differences. In the West 12 year old girls know how to literally “look like a movie star and fuck like a porn star” as part of their media-esteem feedback loop, for better or worse. Our virtuality also enables the body itself become more involved in problem-solving. Video game instincts become related to mathematical landscapes. I’m not saying that these are positive developments, simply that these extra-terrestrial changes are changes of significance.
    A further development in human relations can be considered the way that cultural DNA is allowed to be recombined (to use a metaphor). In the past there strong geographical barriers (largely tranportational, but also linguistic) which allowed cultural development to occur in isolation, as if in Continents. Branches of human development occur with some independence from each other. One would seldom come in contact with what you are not. It was in a sense that sub species of culture did not cross pollinate except in highly idealized fashion. What changes with communications, speeds and intensities is that what was once far “over there” is “right here”. I can, or anyone can, identify with and interact with persons in very different situations. It is not just that viruses can spread across the globe, but also the cultural DNA of persons can as well. Related to this is that political actions, let us say the failure to act in terms tragedy, or the decision to bring war (to name an obvious two), now have a face, a literal face. This is to say, if bombs kill we may find ourselves face-to-face in identification with victims we would never have heard about, consequences we might never imagine. There are also inhuman consequences as well, video-game weapons and the whatnot, but I think it cannot be underestimated what it means for affective identification to have been extended, in real time, across the globe. Now is a time that affective consequences of policy leak out with great contingency. The face of the young lady shot in Iran echoes with reverberation that non-yet know. This is not just a change in speed or communication. It is change in the entire feedback loop of cognition and self-identification.
    There are of course other very radical differences happening, the way in which the actual genetic code of ourselves is being re-written, with human beings becoming self-determining in fashions never before conceived. There are the ways in which communities are being built not simply due to race or class, but electronically (like our interaction here, that would never have happened in 1990).
    All of these are vast differences in the way that human beings relate. And yes, it is true, trans-global companies are indeed changing the way that powers relate, subverting to some degree the powers of states (private blackwater, or Xe, armies are interesting). And yes, the Capitalization of the political process certainly is done in the context of these changes in human relations and redefinitions of identity. There are strong pushes for “status quo” (in the reactionary cultural sense, and also the urge for power to preserve itself), but these constitutive changes in human relatability run even deeper than that. In my view thresholds are being crossed.

    Sorry for the long response.


    December 2, 2009 at 11:15 pm

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  10. I’m a bit puzzled as to what exactly you think is capitalist about present-day apocalypticism, especially since you mention that apocalyptic fantasies have always been with us in one form or another. Aren’t you possibly being a bit lazy in using big words like “capitalism” to stand in for “present-day”? At least I’m not sure what extra work is being done by the term, since as you point out “capital does not make films…”.


    December 6, 2009 at 12:55 am

  11. A terrific post on the attribution of that Zizek line (turns out he hasn’t in fact said it, famously or otherwise).


    December 13, 2009 at 1:15 pm

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  13. is not real your comment no end of the world 212


    September 8, 2011 at 4:40 pm

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