The poem and the apocalypse, part one: Destructive fantasies

(x-posted to The Valve)

Recently, a number of different bloggers have begun writing on imaginings of the apocalypse, a theme that continues to haunt popular culture and that has changed in focus since the end of the Cold War.

The fastest way into these discussions is the link here, to N. Pepperell’s Rough Theory site, which points the way to relevant posts at K-Punk, Larval Subjects, I Cite, and elsewhere.

For me, all this goes back to a conversation with two friends about Frank O’Hara.

We were on foot in North Beach, San Francisco, talking about the poets who succeeded the canonical modernists, and my friend S. mentioned how much she loved Frank O’Hara. The conversation (I’m paraphrasing) continued like this:

“But what about global warming?” B. said. “I’m just so tired of reading poems that will add up to nothing when Greenland melts. O’Hara lacks ambition. His poems are monuments to nothing.”

“Well, but I love the intimacy of them,” S. responded. “His poems are like notes written on napkins; he explicitly conceived of them as messages between friends, or between lovers.”

What on earth does Frank O’Hara have to do with global warming? To answer that, we have first to examine the apocalyptic fantasies themselves. That is this post; in my next post, I will bring the matter back to O’Hara and his manifesto on “Personism,” which, according to its author, may be “the death of literature as we know it.”

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There are basically two kinds of apocalyptic visions: those where no-one survives (or where the horror that will ensue goes beyond what can be thought), and those where a small, committed band of people fights for survival, usually against other people as well as against a harsh environment.

In the first kind of fantasy, our culture tries to confront its own total lack of response to genuinely troubling developments. Thus, people who believe the worst is coming are portrayed paradoxically as madmen who are mostly or completely in the right. For example, in the second season of the show 24, Kim Bauer is trapped in a fallout shelter with a strange man, at a moment when a nuclear attack on Los Angeles is imminent. The man built the shelter in fear of an attack which is in fact underway, but the drift of the show is that Kim needs to escape him because her father will manage to divert the bomb in time.

Even more telling is George Sibley’s descent into madness in Six Feet Under, which finds him staring hopelessly at a computer projection showing when the Earth’s potable water will run out. The show never gives the slightest indication that Sibley’s calculations are wrong, and yet he is portrayed unsympathetically because he has stopped working and relating to his family. As Theodor Adorno once put it, the message is basically to keep going because “the King needs more soldiers.” We are forced to make a false choice between the inaction of paralyzing fear, and the inaction of the status quo.

This false kind of reassurance reminds me of the hilarious subtext of the film Armageddon, in which the Earth is going to be destroyed by a meteor that can only be stopped by oilmen. Thus the symbol of the real environmental threat – the oil rig, and all the environmentally damaging processes that begin there – is defused by the miraculous good luck of a planetoid that the drillers must destroy in order to save our Earth.

THIN-SLICING

In the second type of milennial fantasy, which features a band of survivors, the crucial question is one of ideology. Basic ethical principles, such as altruism and the acceptance of responsibility, become stark necessities, irresistible for every person of conscience.

This is an obvious distortion of the realities of scarcity and disaster. No resurrection of conscience is worth the wholesale destruction of human lives, and the day-to-day misery of the survivors. When, recently, the price of oil more than doubled in this country, we did not experience a sudden return of moral values. Life just got a little more expensive, a little shabbier, for everyone, and a lot harder to bear for working people on the edge of poverty.

What is not distortive about these fantasies is the obvious desire for a common project that will order the world and convoke a community of fellows. This is the world-swallowing equivalent of what Malcolm Gladwell, in his self-help book Blink, calls “thin-slicing,” meaning “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (23). Gladwell’s thesis is that professionals who can perform quick, successful analyses in the field do so by figuring out how to separate relevant data from distracting, misleading noise…and by doing this on the level of unconscious reflex.

Of course, the very notion of “relevant data” comes from having a goal, which is why Gladwell uses almost nothing but occupational examples. Goal-oriented thinking is literalized in apocalyptic fantasies, which is why many of these fantasies make such heavy use of road and path imagery. The most obvious example is Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Road, but I am also thinking of the journey to the sea in Children of Men, and the journey to Earth in Battlestar Galactica (with anybody who strays from that path lost to the vicissitudes of space).

This kind of ideological thin-slicing is understandable for two reasons. First, many people have the alienating experience of doing work that seems meaningless and irrelevant. Sinthome, a practicing psychoanalyst who blogs at Larval Subjects, writes that he began

…encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful.

Second, whether or not a given individual is familiar with Marxist theory, it is hard for most people to imagine their wishes being granted without the intervening elements of our current society being conveniently swept away. Sometimes this means blowing up buildings, as in the film Fight Club, and sometimes the mechanism is even sillier, as in the graphic novel series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, where every male besides the protagonist has been kind enough to die of plague.

But all this raises the following question: if Gladwell thinks that people can accomplish thin-slicing in the here and now, is this kind of intensely desired ideological thin-slicing already happening? The answer is definitively yes. In a recent post to his blog Acephalous, Scott Kaufman tackled the following statement: “Many domestic novels open at physical thresholds—such as windows or doorways—to problematize the the relation between interiors and exteriors” (Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture 43). Scott wrote:

The nature of the claim-structure is backwards here: I believe X, and “many” cherry-picked novels begin by thematizing it…. The “many” employed in this passage obscures the fact that many, many more domestic novels don’t open at physical thresholds. It also conceals the reason why many domestic novels would do so: they’re domestic. We should expect thresholds and windows to appear frequently for the same reason we expect spaceships to make regular appearances in space operas. Why even make the claim? Why not focus on how often tables or children appear instead?

The answer is that the relation between interiors and exteriors is a major concern of contemporary theory, when it is understood to mean the relationship between the “inner lives” of persons, and the structure of their society. The question concerning subjectivity effectively pares the domestic novel down to its windows and doorways.

This is only the tiniest example of the kind of cultic privileging that has begun to crop up everywhere in philosophical, political, and cultural discourses. It is strongly related to the rhetorical efficacy of specialized languages and dense symbolic imagery, because these establish the conditions for the projection of a winnowed world. I will use Slavoj Zizek as an example, because my next post will use him as a reference: even the majority of his admirers cannot help but worry that his continual recourse to Marx and Lacan has left him with little to do besides repeat himself against a changing backdrop of examples. As Adam Kotsko wrote in a review of The Parallax View, “many of the later books come to seem like an attempt to push forward a Zizekian ‘take’ on every academic trend that comes along.”

The same phenomenon of iteration is visible everywhere on the blogosphere, where the daily effort of writing polemics and responding to commenters leads finally to an exhausted self-awareness. For example, the blogger Twisty at the feminist blog I Blame The Patriarchy writes sentences like, “I frequently beat this dead horse, but I can’t help noticing that, despite my repeated floggings, there abounds a great confusion concerning the constituent aspects of ‘the feminine’.”

The point is not that Zizek, or even a given blogger, is actually wrong about the matter they’re discussing. The point is how uneasy we feel whenever we get the feeling that another person’s thinking, their entire Weltanschauung, has become mechanical, iterative. Furthermore, the reduction of the world by ideology makes fellowship dependent on agreement: the essential bonds of social affection get tied up in the ideological requirement of conversion.

The good news is that Zizek and apocalyptic art, at their best, are perfectly positioned to help us understand mechanistic ideology. My next post will look to Zizek’s book The Ticklish Subject, and Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men, as signposts towards a different kind of ideology, one that transcends the repetitive idiocy of thin-slicing and embraces O’Hara’s manifesto.

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