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apocalyptic overreach

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See, here’s the sort of thing that I worry about w/r/t the influence of the theorists and pseud0-theorists and their turn to apocalypticism. From the blog of a sometimes AwP commenter:

This wishful thinking wards off the sinking feeling of doom, not the fear of something happening, but the knowledge that nothing will. For doom is not felt but known. It is what the characters in Sartre’s No Exit feel when they realize that they aren’t waiting to go to Hell, they’re already there. It’s George Orwell when he says “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” It’s 54 percent of Americans thinking – knowing – their children will live more miserably than they do.

You should go read the whole piece for the context, which has to do with “our” inability to conceive of change, but I hope that you can see the problem. Made me laugh out loud the first time I hit that last line… An America in which 54 percent think – or even know in italics- that things will be to some degree worse for their kids (harder to find work? harder to attend university? harder to afford a house?) is a worried country, but it ain’t exactly Sartre’s Hell or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Obviously, if you give yourself over to ridiculous hyperbole, if you apocalypticize what is a bad but certainly a long way from interminably and unalterably fucked, you’re going to find it hard to conceive of paths forward politically.

Why this reflex then, the overselling? It smells of grad seminar overreach, trying to render the significant but mostly mundane ills of society in gaudy technicolor out of fear that the reader – or more probably the writer himself – would get to bored dealing with the world as it really is. One more quote from the piece:

American politicians toy dramatically with apocalypse, a government shutdown or a reached debt ceiling threatens the end but is always narrowly averted.

Apocalypse, huh? Well, perhaps the writer wasn’t yet politically conscious back then, but we’ve made it through that sort of thing before. Led to some nasty political results, but a long, long way from the end of the world.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 5, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in catastrophe

20 Responses

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  1. Well, why would anyone want to actually perform the usually dull & unrewarding work of political engagement when you can sit back and spout abstract bollocks all day? Declaring the End Is Nigh obviously means no “proper” progress can be made until the old paradigm has completely collapsed & decomposed, so meanwhile we can just kick back and argue about the last Burial album.

    Seb

    May 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    • Yep, exactly…

      adswithoutproducts

      May 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  2. Dude, it was a 600-word blog post, how can you get it completely backwards? The whole point is that the apocalypse isn’t coming to save us from the world as is. It’s the sinking feeling that things will get worse but stay the same, not all fall down. The question of the post(which I thought was pretty clear)is: “What if it didn’t collapse? What if it just kept going?”

    And the politicians “toy dramatically” – not that a shutdown will end the world, but that the politicians sure talk about it like it would. The country’s been worried between ’83 and now, but this is the first time a majority has responded this way to that question, do you think it’s because Zer0 is such an overwhelmingly popular publisher in America?

    Also, never been in a grad seminar in my life, so you can readjust your nose there bud.

    mpharris

    May 5, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  3. Dude, I understood the post. Everything you say is still in reference to apocalypse, as the world is structured only according to things-apocalyptic and things-not-apocalyptic. That’s the problem – and that’s the problem with the pseudo-theoretical trend that I’m after here.

    You still haven’t explained the issue with the bit that I quoted. Are you denying that you established a parallel between hell, interminable totalitarian face-kicking, and a slight dip in the poll results? Do you stand by that parallel? After all, if it’s just an issue of temporality, there are lots of other things you could have used there other than Sartre / Orwell…

    adswithoutproducts

    May 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  4. It’s not just an issue of temporality – though that’s certainly a big part. There’s nothing hysterical or hyperbolic in Sartre’s Hell (which is a room with people, not a lake of fire) or Orwell’s boot (surely you’ve seen first-hand that totalitarians aren’t the only ones kicking faces). Neither of them were warning about the possibility of coming disaster, they were diagnosing the present. Diagnoses that hold up today.

    To read any writing about apocalypse (or not) as a pseudo-theoretical conspiracy to publish under-read books and make other people more famous/published than you, rather than as symptomatic of something that’s actually happening (or not), is silly and unflattering.

    mpharris

    May 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    • Given that jack-booted thuggery & neighbourly contempt have been the status quo since the beginning of history, it’s not a particularly helpful or illuminating diagnosis to say these things are happening and will continue to happen. In other news: bear defecates in woods! To paraphrase a bearded dead guy, wouldn’t it do better to think about changing these conditions instead of merely diagnosing them?

      Also silly and unflattering is to think that apocalyptic dread & dystopian forecasts are novel or fresh, as opposed to a perennial perspective that is regaining some of the popularity it lost after the close of the Cold War. It cycles in & out of fashion, just like zombie movies or facial hair.

      Seb

      May 6, 2011 at 7:01 am

  5. To paraphrase a bearded dead guy, wouldn’t it do better to think about changing these conditions instead of merely diagnosing them?

    Right, and that’s my point. Apocalypticism (and its relatives) promote quiescence.

    adswithoutproducts

    May 6, 2011 at 11:11 am

  6. My grandma lived through the great depression (as one of the poor people) and then bombed during the most horrific war in human history. She saw the welfare state created, only to have that tempered by the presence of nuclear weapons pointed in her direction. She saw telephones and airplanes go from being weird machines in movies to mundane objects. She worked non-stop (often in two jobs) from the age of 13 to 60. She retained a pretty consistent identity the whole time. I doubt the internet, Iraq and a credit-based economy challenged that much.

    In the words of a favourite rapper:
    “This ain’t something new, coming out of nowhere. This is something OLD and DIRTY.”

    W.Kasper

    May 7, 2011 at 3:28 am

  7. For other generations (ie. those witnessing history first hand and not via spectacle), ‘apocalypse’ was nothing new:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Choules

    W.Kasper

    May 7, 2011 at 10:56 am

  8. W. Kasper – sorry for some reason your second to last comment was stuck in my spam folder!

    adswithoutproducts

    May 10, 2011 at 10:27 am

  9. Can’t agree with you, Seb and W Kasper on this one. Plus-ca-change-ism isn’t really adequate. Yes, people have been declaring the Apocalypse to be imminent for centuries, but I think we can say it’s different this time and not be found guilty of generational exceptionalism, for the reason that there’s a fairly strong scientific consensus rather than a Christian crowd psychosis. Climate basically, with a crowd of smaller crises getting on the act at the fringes. There’s also a case for being very very afraid about the extent to which Capital is escaping any meaningful restraint, playing one legislation off against the rest with this constant threat of relocation. Getting that back in the bottle will require an international co-ordination of action which, yes, I almost despair of ever seeing.

    But I also take issue with this assumption that invoking apocalypse necessarily means its aesthetification and a kind of political quietism. I’m sure there are plenty of blogs guilty of both, but raising these spectres is also pretty powerfully motivating… I remember at school being fed some seriously dystopian stuff about rainforests, ozone, impending doom – it really radicalized some kids. For me it came later with different influences, but let’s not assume that despair, inaction & indifference are always and inevitably the result of apocalyptic rhetoric.

    ZSTC

    May 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    • I agree that (for lack of a better word) the flavour of apocalypse is different now, but I’m not convinced the threat of it is necessarily greater than it’s been in the past. Those grew up with the atom bomb dangling above their heads are intimately familiar with potential annihilation, as were the various cultures & civilizations eradicated by better-armed invaders (be it Hernan Cortez or Genghis Khan).

      And I’m certainly not arguing for a different kind of quietude that says, “C’mon, unclench your buttocks, things aren’t THAT terrible.” Obviously, there are a terrifying number of very real problems that require concerted & immediate action. The reason I don’t think this particular style of apocalypticism can produce the “international co-ordination of action” we both think vital is, frankly, it smacks of the cloistered chin-stroking of bookworms who’ve listened to too much black metal and/or Morrissey. If we’re awaiting a revolutionary avant-garde to arise specifically amongst university poetry profs & film-school TAs, then we’re on the right track. But this is just too nerdy a conversation to be a radicalizing call-to-action over a broader societal cross-section. Yes, the spectre of Armageddon can be powerfully motivating across all demographics, but even “10 O’Clock Live” does a better job of explaining what’s a stake than the current crop of marquee theorists. If younger generations are being hammered with incessant harbingers of doom without concise, pointed, practical advice for fighting back, what does all their anger, confusion, and energy produce? The Black Bloc and Odd Future.

      Seb

      May 12, 2011 at 3:34 am

      • “what does all their anger, confusion, and energy produce? The Black Bloc and Odd Future.”

        Or even more ominously, The EDL and Black Eyed Peas.

        W.Kasper

        May 12, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      • That’s a brilliant comment, Seb…

        adswithoutproducts

        May 13, 2011 at 12:23 pm

  10. “There’s also a case for being very very afraid about the extent to which Capital is escaping any meaningful restraint, playing one legislation off against the rest with this constant threat of relocation. Getting that back in the bottle will require an international co-ordination of action which, yes, I almost despair of ever seeing.”

    – I kind of agree with this, but I do take issue with with the aestheticization of apocalypse in popular culture. It’s the aesthetic that is being responded to by many commentators, not the hard economic motives and effects of Capital. It’s becoming a niche market of western Left discourse. Perhaps more fruitful than Jameson’s ‘easier to imagine the end than communism’ is his statement that our doomsday/decline scenarios are actually based on 2nd/3rd World regions in the here and now.

    The doom narrative has its right and left-wing variations. It seems the right-wing one now has the upper hand. Scarcity, crisis, Hobbesian social antagonism and the ‘clash of civilizations’ are being played up by (increasingly extreme) right-wingers running most western governments. Apocalyptic scenarios aren’t proving that ‘motivating’ to the opposition (relatively mundane worries like welfare, education etc. are the real motivators). If anything, it’s encouraging further resignation (especially in response to economic ’emergency’ – those supporting savage cuts are being sold an ‘aesthetic’ of crisis in a sense. It’s a slick self-referential narrative, at least). Right-wing politics use despair and pessimism well, and have done across its spectrum for a century (Thatcher promised ‘inevitable’ solutions to crisis as much as Hitler did). In the Right’s imaginary, society is always on the verge of crumbling, there’s never enough to go round, and the outside world (be it nature or nations) waits at the gates threatening to overwhelm us. Maybe for the Left to play on ‘apocalypse’ too much is to comply with the Right’s terms of reference. So maybe the Left needs to consolidate a different narrative.

    W.Kasper

    May 13, 2011 at 1:46 pm

  11. Yes – agree with all of that. Especially this bit: “Perhaps more fruitful than Jameson’s ‘easier to imagine the end than communism’ is his statement that our doomsday/decline scenarios are actually based on 2nd/3rd World regions in the here and now.”

    Of course it’s difficult, but one aspires to a left writing that is legible everywhere, not just here. But can you imagine what it would be like to read Zizek or any of his newer acolytes in a place where the catastrophe has long since already come?

    Here: I’m going to post something new w/r/t what we’re talking about.

    adswithoutproducts

    May 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

  12. (ok, this is ZSTC from above, trying to dodge AWP’s overzealous spam filter)

    just a few points – I’m in a slightly false position here, I don’t read the blogs that Ads & Seb are taking issue with, so I don’t want to get sucked into some confusing defence by proxy of something I only have impressionistic knowledge of.

    – Seb: nuclear annihilation, well, I was counting that along with the present crises. Cold War is over but the threat remains. There’s a difference though in that it involves a small number of decisions made by a small number of people aware of the likely consequences. What’s so scary about the ecological crisis is that – to push one of Ads’ buttons – it’s a problem of aggregate desire. We’re wolfing down resources, and *we want to*. A thousand small impulses every day: the lights flicked on, the refrigerated drinks, the five-minute drive to save a 15 minute walk. etc. I don’t see any precedent anywhere in history for a civilization training itself to consume less.

    – black bloc and Odd Future? come on, those are non sequiturs. Black bloc may feed into these bloggers, but not the other way round – its history goes back many years. Odd Future no, black metal yes.

    -@ WK… very true about the right’s fundamental reliance on a Hobbesian assumption abt wolves at the gates etc. As for consolidating narratives for the Left generally – this is a pretty small niche of theory bloggers we’re talking about right? I don’t see Ed Miliband striding onstage with projections of Terminator 3 stills behind him or anything.

    …but, if you want to look at it on that scale, don’t forget Tony Judt’s remarks about socialists/social democrats having to reimagine themselves as small-c conservatives – defending the post-WWII settlement and state against asset stripping neoliberals. There’s a distinction to be drawn btwn aestheticizing (the) Apocalypse, and looking at what the Tories are going to leave behind and thinking in terms of rubble/ruins.

    anon

    May 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    • “Black bloc may feed into these bloggers, but not the other way round…”

      Precisely my point! The bloggers/thinkers/speakers that Ads (I presume) and I take issue with have absolutely NO influence on the Black Bloc, Odd Future, or the EDL & BEP for that matter. Members of the Black Bloc and OF project much of the disillusionment & frustration that could be harnessed for nobler struggles – the very kind of struggles that unsaid bloggers/thinkers/speakers advocate. My point is that it’s the precisely bloggers/thinkers/speakers’ failure to communicate effectively that lets so much energy & effort go to waste smashing hotel windows and shouting “Faggot!” instead of, y’know, doing something useful.

      The Black Bloc & Odd Future aren’t the unfortunate product of good intentions. They reflect the failure of the self-titled leftist avant-garde to communicate to anyone other than each other.

      Seb

      May 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm

  13. HF

    May 14, 2011 at 5:21 am

  14. OK point taken about Judt’s remarks. It’s not apocalyptic per se – as an older relative said to me: “Cameron just wants it to be like India! Either be rich, work in a call centre or starve to death!” (a huge generalisation, yes. But it ties in to Fredric Jameson’s remark). Social ravages should be foregrounded (even on an everyday level, there’s more crime already), but when movies etc. are invoked, surely that’s addressing only one audience niche? A sector that may find all that aesthetically comforting?

    If Miliband did appear with Terminator 3 posters behind him, it would be hailed as a bold new dawn for the Left (not by voters, commentators). But summer blockbusters and The Labour Party are two bad 00s memories that I’d rather erase…

    W.Kasper

    May 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm


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