This piece first appeared on the Dissident Voice and Counterpunch webzines.
Who will remember what this age was like? And how will it be remembered? For the abyss of silence at the center of all the noise? The fierce shadow cast by all the blazing lights that never went off, that burned night and day?
The one terminal war foreshadowed endlessly in the last century shattered into fifty endless wars all going on simultaneously, fought only by the poorest people in the most degraded landscapes? (Where there was nothing but oil. Nothing but diamonds. Nothing but cobalt.) Two towers coming down, a hundred towers going up. The slums stretching as far as the eye can see. The cities that are factories, the farms that are factories, the ships that are factories. The plants that are machines. The animals that are machines. The factories that are cities. The first trillionaires?
The vast fields of oil-stained asphalt surrounding the gargantuan concrete temples in which there were no collective public rituals, only individual ones, requiring currency transactions. The heads of mountains sliced off and their guts ripped out and their veins bleeding black waste through the bleak towns. The dry exurban plains of the brown world glittering everywhere with acres of windblown plastic trash. The mountains of waste, as tall as Everest, as deep as the oceans. The waste, the waste, the waste.
But the cute puppies? The teen pop stars? The home videos? The first-person shooter games? The selfies at the Grand Canyon? The tiny glowing devices that told a million lies a second, shining in everyone’s hands. The phones, the phones, the phones.
And the hydroponic gardens, the solar panels, the bike paths. The “creative class” – right! The swank bistros. The delicious, artisanal, expensive food. The cocktail craze, the wild game craze, the pop-up restaurant craze. The celebrity chefs and their TV shows in endless reruns always playing somewhere on the 500 channels. The swag, the bling, on display, every home a store. The pretty tourist towns, anywhere in the world, as carefully decorated and lifeless as a Hollywood set. The cruise ships that are cities. The airports that are cities. The planes, the planes, the planes.
The horror stories of dismemberment and necrophilia? Of stolen fetuses? Of school shootings and mall shootings and post office shootings and cinema shootings and campus shootings and abortion clinic shootings and army base shootings and family shootings and ex-wife/girlfriend shootings and drive-bys and snipers and standoffs and road rage shootings and shooting range shootings. Of property better protected than ever in the history of property, of children ever more at risk of dying of gunshot. Of paranoid white men killing cops, of paranoid white cops killing black men and boys. Of men of any skin color killing women they’ve had sex with.
(Mostly, all right mostly. The age when it became (almost) impossible to exaggerate anything.)
The working class in the global North drifting into narcotized nicotine-addicted alcoholic diabetic televised poverty, in the global South scrambling frantically into the soulless middle class. The shopping malls in the North dying into spaces out of a post-apocalyptic fantasy, into Miss Havisham’s great dark cobwebbed halls of regret; the shopping malls in the South exploding, growing white as false teeth over razed forests and slums. In the North the black cities coming down, collapsed by debt, scoured by floods, the white cities rising in an orgy of speculation out of their weed-choked ruins. In the South city after brown city erasing the old farmland. The glittering towers rise, the gleaming gates slam shut. Takes money to make money. Are you in or out? The hedge fund managers. The media conglomerates. The megachurches. The crashing trees. The gigantic dams. The transcontinental smog.
The promise of multiverses where everything we failed to do could happen anyway. The promise of superstrings (but what are they?), of dark matter (but what is it?) of black holes at the heart of everything (but – really, who cares?) The promise of space colonization: extract, consume, deplete, move on – forever. The final frontier! The promise of becoming a machine. We HEART puppies but we H8 animals, and above all ourselves as animals. Who wants to be meat anymore? The medical miracles. The designer drugs. In one lifetime the average human lifespan expands by 25%. In one lifetime the number of human beings doubles, the number of wild animals is halved. The viral loads. The superbugs. The superweeds.
The superhighways, the soft wheels turning everywhere. The global triumph of the private car. The daily traffic jams. A city disgorges ten million vehicles and they inch along a ten-lane freeway. What’s the saddest pretty thing in the world? At night in the western desert, the endless line of diamonds winding up the grade, the endless line of rubies winding down. A whole separate history unfolding inside each car. A history whose unique and intricate detail will disappear like a melting snowflake leaving behind only a genetic trace – perhaps – and a tiny increase in local entropy. “All these memories will be lost… like tears in the rain.” What is human?
Outside each car? The Sixth Extinction.
The heat waves, the droughts, the floods. The emptied reservoirs, the flooded coastlines. The polar vortex. The tornados, the tsunamis, the blizzards, the haboobs, the superstorms. The beautiful shiny blue days after the storms, before the brown haze drifts back in to choke the skyscrapers. The calving glaciers shrieking like mortally wounded Behemoths as they upend themselves into the sea. The sinking islands. The acid seas, the dissolving starfish, the maddened otters, their brains teeming with parasites. The jellyfish blooms. Mile after mile of delicate corals bleaching. The meltdown, the invisible poison spreading in color-coded plumes across the sea. The color-coded charts and graphs documenting every decimal point of the data no one looks at except the generals and the scientists. The last amphibian? The comeback stories: aww, look, a bald eagle!
The terror, the terror. But Mistah Kurtz, he not dead. The age when everything dead kept moving, kept coming back. Zombies, vampires. Empires. Striking back, and back, and back. Torture techniques from ancient China officially sanctioned by modern states. It will be recorded that most people were okay with that. Imagine a boot stamping in the human face – forever? Not my face, the terrorist’s face – fine, okay with that. These are times of hard choices. I don’t make the rules. Freedom (my freedom) isn’t free. “Empathy fatigue.” Slavery comes back. What will next year’s polls say about that?
The mountaineers, the deep-sea divers, the long distance runners. The records broken, the wild acclaim. Look, he came from a village with no drinking water to set a new marathon record! Look, they climbed a cliff of ice that won’t be there next week! The professional activists. The coordinated risings, the colorful marches, the big puppets and banners, the handwritten signs, the sit-ins and camp-outs and die-ins – the only mass public rituals besides sporting events and pop concerts. The only ones that are free. The baptism of tear gas and baton, of rubber bullet and beanbag round. Stephen Daedalus said god was a shout in the street – is that what he meant?
The young, enraged, betrayed, powerless. Distracted. Suicidal. Terminally anxious. Criminal. The drugs, the drugs, the drugs. The military plans for dealing with social breakdown. All rocking-horse winners now: there must be more money, there must be more money, there must be more money. The spies and hackers. The mercenaries (“contractors”). The cops, the prisons, the weaponry, the gear. Tasers? Drones? Whatever you can dream, they can build.
Gerontocracy. Plutocracy. Kleptocracy. All words for the same thing.
The age when they doubled down. When they told us, well, we’re in a hole here, and we’re just going to have to dig ourselves out of it. With this new technology that the X Corp is developing. A bioengineered, artificially intelligent laser guided quantum computed fiber optic cold fusion nanotechnology shovel! Ta-daaa!
The age when they told us, well, greed doesn’t actually work, but it’s too late, it’s all we have left, greed and terror – let’s pull out all the stops.
The death even of irony. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, booming out in the Wednesday night retro disco. Imagine all the people wafting through the dying shopping mall.
The contingent sanctuaries, the oases in the desert of the real. The last river you can drink from. The last forest where you can go a whole week without hearing the noise of a single machine. The last tundra from which you can see the pulsing velvet blackness of the night sky unpolluted by any other light. The last village where no wants to leave and no one has to leave to make money. The last glacier? The last uncontacted tribe. The Last Poets.
The exquisite art and music. Far from the galleries, the concert halls, the recording studios. In homes and bars and church halls, on street corners and walls. Spoken aloud. Sung together. Rising and falling, ephemeral. Not preserved, not hoarded, not digitized, not owned by a reclusive billionaire. Not a dead thing that keeps moving. Alive, which means it dies. The purpose of art is to produce something alive, said the writer Henry Green. Whom (almost) no one reads today. Along with most of the writers who have ever written. Written on the wind.
Sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind.
The sense that it was all foretold, by word-poets, image-poets, first and last. It was all foreseen long before the Bomb went off or the Wall came down – the what, if not the how. What “freedom” would look like. The infinity of darkness under all the lights, the silence under all the noise, the reverberating sound of the final crash echoing distantly, daily, somewhere in our minds. Which never comes but is always here, our constant companion, close as our own shadow, from now on, world without end, amen.