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peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.

I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:

Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.

We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.

I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.

We have here – and at so many other places in Crash – an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel – the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.

Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”

Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses. 


But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:

An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.



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May 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

“something tawdry about following the state in this way”

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Can’t believe that I’ve never posted a link to this essay by Coetzee. You should go read the whole thing if you have the time, but for now – and apropos of some of the issues that I and others have been discussing here and elsewhere – here’s my favorite bit:

Some years ago I wrote a novel, ”Waiting for the Barbarians,” about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience. Torture has exerted a dark fascination on many other South African writers. Why should this be so? There are, it seems to me, two reasons. The first is that relations in the torture room provide a metaphor, bare and extreme, for relations between authoritarianism and its victims. In the torture room, unlimited force is exerted upon the physical being of an individual in a twilight of legal illegality, with the purpose, if not of destroying him, then at least of destroying the kernel of resistance within him.

Let us be clear about the situation of the prisoner who falls under suspicion of a crime against the state. What happens in Vorster Square is nominally illegal. Articles of the law forbid the police from exercising violence upon the bodies of detainees except in self-defense. But other articles of the law, invoking reasons of state, place a protective ring around the activities of the security police. The rigmarole of due process, which requires the prisoner to accuse his torturers and produce witnesses, makes it futile to proceed against the police unless the latter have been exceptionally careless. What the prisoner knows, what the police know he knows, is that he is helpless against whatever they choose to do to him. The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.

The fact that the torture room is a site of extreme human experience, accessible to no one save the participants, is a second reason why the novelist in particular should be fascinated by it. Of the character of the novelist, John T. Irwin writes in ”Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner”: ”It is precisely because [ he ] stands outside the dark door, wanting to enter the dark room but unable to, that he is a novelist, that he must imagine what takes place beyond the door. Indeed, it is just that tension toward the dark room that he cannot enter that makes that room the source of all his imaginings – the womb of art.”

To Mr. Irwin (following Freud but also Henry James), the novelist is a person who, camped before a closed door, facing an insufferable ban, creates, in place of the scene he is forbidden to see, a representation of that scene and a story of the actors in it and how they come to be there. Therefore my question should not have been phrased, Why are writers in South Africa drawn to the torture room? The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of representation.

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

This is just right. The whole game for the novelist who would write “politically” is to figure out the very very ambiguous difference between critique and inadvertent PR work. Showing the worst can sometimes – with a deeply dark irony – be doing the very bidding of that which is opposed. On the other hand, as Coetzee has it here, avoiding representation altogether is unacceptable as well.

(There are a few tangential things to mention while on the topic of this essay. First of all, readers of Disgrace should be able to see the centrality of this image of the “torture room” and the “locked door” in that novel… Second – and here’s where things get really complicated – one of the strange facts about Coetzee’s career was that he was able to evade South African censorship when many of his fellow SA writers weren’t. Reportedly, this has to do with the formal and thematic complexity (opacity?) of his early work… a situation that begs important questions about the position taken in the essay above….)

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May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

don’t need a weatherman…

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Strange situation: not all that long ago, it seemed to me obvious that dystopian speculative fiction was one of the genres if not the genre best adapted to a left political stance. The drawing out of the inevitable ramifications of all this, the dramatic revelation of the crisis whose traces were already starting to streak the screen of things-as-they-are, the warning that the relatively bearable everyday was already pregnant with something much, much worse – these seemed to be close to the best one could do with narrative art today.

I even started writing some myself, a project that I’m constantly tempted to return to…. But honestly it’s feeling increasingly wrong-footed, if one would be even a mildly political narrative writer, to head in this direction given the way things are now.

Given that the fact is that the world over austerity measures, privatizations and rationalizations, and other efforts to starve out what vestiges of the welfare state remain are being sold to the public under the very brand of inevitable and interminable crisis. People sort of vaguely accept, I think, that things are bad and something needs to be done as it’s only going to get worse. 

Depicted catastrophes tend to blur together into a generalized air of imminent expectation of the worst. We’ve seen two phases of this already, lately. Roughly the first stage with its quiet but persistent stream of “untimely” bleak visions amidst the high water marks of post-Cold War affluence, globalization, and tech bubbling. The second, much less discrete, came amidst the televised events and wild market swings of the first decade of the 21st century. The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism. Even depictions of dystopian situations born of capitalism itself play into, I think, the message that those who administer capitalism need to have distributed right now…

Not a hard and fast position I’m taking here – just an inference, an intuition, that I’m trying to think through a bit. Of course I’m painting with too broad a brush, even if I’m just speculating at this point…

(Perhaps worth mentioning that I’m going to write something soon about Evan Calder Williams’s new book soon, once I’ve finished it….)

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April 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in aesthetics, crisis, dystopia

yeats and the imf, harry potter brutalism, apple store art museums: aesthetics via the wsj 19/11/10

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In addition to my IHT, I like a financial paper every day, as the “business section” is the only section where the actual news happens. I used to read the Financial Times until, at MSA 2008, I saw Frederic Jameson carrying around a copy to match mine (we’d probably both walked to the Borders down the road as there was nowhere else to buy such a thing in Nashville) and realized at that moment that this FT shit had, as they say, jumped the shark. So now I kick it old school with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal – European Edition, which is cheaper by miles anyway.

(a joke, btw – in case it’s not clear. maybe a joke. i dunno)

Anyway from yesterday’s WSJ, a strange melange of aesthetics / politics / commercialism that gives us the present state of play in snippets. First, from an article on Ireland’s debt crisis / IMF intervention:

It (an editorial in The Irish Times) went on: “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.” In Ireland’s parliament, a deputy recited the stanza of Yeats from which the editorial takes its title, an elegy for the dead of an earlier, failed, revolution.

Let a billion quasi-leftist grad seminar papers bloom. Folks have been – at times very cheaply and with a tinge of, dunno, residual and deeply perverse ethnocentrism – using Ireland and its literature as a way to be a “post-colonialist” without dealing with, you know, black people. This would seem to me to be the wet dream via Naomi Klein version of this…. The quotation in question, as another article in the WSJ indicates, was from ‘September 1913’:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Funny thing is that there are better bits from that poem to cite on this occasion, namely the first stanza (“What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence” etc). If I were one of those erstwhile hibernian pocoists, that’s where I’d go with my deconstructively angled paper…  Alternately, if I were still attending “mass” on weekend evenings at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, I’d ask and receive, I’m sure, incredibly fascinating analyses of this poetry-cum-or-anti-economics issue from the (sometimes) friendly and strangely erudite pensioners who go there to receive liquified communion.

And then there’s this from an article about the CGI in the new Harry Potter film(s):

Leavesden (Studios) is also home to the fictional Ministry of Magic, which is supposed to sit beneath a real street in the London government district of Whitehall. To create the ministry, which first appeared in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, Mr. Craig studied underground structures such as the London and Moscow subway stations.

For the new film, Mr. Craig added a towering monument to the ministry’s atrium. The Soviet-style sculpture shows wizards crushing cowering muggles—people without magic powers—and bears an engraving that says “Magic Is Might.” The totalitarian aesthetic, Mr. Craig says, highlights the theme of a world dominated by evil. He used seemingly long, winding corridors to give the ministry a Kafkaesque feel. As the characters explore the building, including an upstairs office and a basement courtroom, viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.

Leaving aside the sublation of the Red Menace into noseless (syphlitic?) baddy magicians, that final phrase is a bit bizarre: “viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.” Location, Location, Location real estate imaginineering meets Kafkaesque Unheimlichkeit in some sort of illogical and unholy union, no? Perhaps that, my friends, is the definition of the uncanniness of our times: bureaucratic befuddlement that somehow you feel cozy in, that you want to take out a variable-rate mortgage in order to buy-to-let, even though there are no mortgages to be had…

Finally, and winning today’s Rem-Koolhaas-Was-So-Right prize, is this on forthcoming renovation of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague:

“You can think of a cross between the Apple store in New York and the Louvre,” is how Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker describes the museum’s hopes for the extension and renovation. “We’re going to open up the gates. Then you come in and you end up in a very large, spacious and light-filled foyer.”

And things finally head full-circle. The Apple Store aesthetic, stolen from what I can tell (or remember) out of certain now-lost Soho (NYC) sleek coffeehouses, which in turn had stolen their look out of the galleries that were just then on their way out, returns to garnish the place where they keep Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What is the next turn of the screw to come in our frenetically static cultural world, the palpating infrastructure built atop an ever self-renewing base? Apple Stores shaped like Aeroflot terminals? Childish pre-sex fantasies (wtf?) cast in the light of Allende-ite democratic socialism? Ezra Pound cantos about usury and the Jews recited on the House floor?

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November 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

robson on mccarthy on (implicitly) mcewan and the aimlessness of innovation

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In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:

What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.

In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.

OK. A few things about this:

1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:

McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.

I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”

But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).

2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.

At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.

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August 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

judt again on social democracy

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Tony Judt has a new and valuable piece on social democracy in today’s Guardian:

We need to rethink the state, and rearticulate the language of social democracy. Social democrats should cease to be defensive and apologetic. A social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector. The welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidised education or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services. We have long practised something resembling social democracy, but we have forgotten how to preach it.

Agreed. And I agree with just about all that Judt says in this piece… except one thing. When he casts around for an angle to take in preaching it, he (somewhat reluctantly) lands on morality as the fulcrum point of whatever case we might make moving forward:

If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity: and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself. The inculcation of a sense of common purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the linchpin of any community. Inequality is not just morally troubling: it is inefficient.

In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our “benevolent instincts” and reversing our selfish desires that we can “produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety”.

Morality is a lovely concept, but to my mind it’s better at filling Santa’s kettle outside Bloomingdales than forming an axiomatic basepoint for a political movement. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks and months, but I would substitute beauty for Judt’s morality, aesthetic instincts for Smith’s benevolent ones. The aesthetic marks a point of negotiation and often enough junction between the individual and the collective, and as such it bears within it the possibility of the suturing of self-interest and collective good in a more psychologically and socially realist form than morality or benevolence.

Anyway, this is something I’m going to be working on moving forward, so there’ll be more on here about it I’m sure – and on Judt, whose Ill Fares the Land dropped through the mailslot as I was reading the above article in the Guardian. I’m sending my first book off for peer review today or Monday, and so it’s time to open up new research. And I gave my blog-derived paper that might be the start of a new book on social democracy and aesthetics for a second time in two weeks last night – this time to a management / marketting department which was interesting and appropriate, as it’s exactly the wisdom of advertising that I’m trying to poach for our side.

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March 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

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