Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse
This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.
Why do disaster movies always show the culminating disastrous event happening in slow motion? Two reasons, I would say: first because otherwise the fictional cataclysm happens too quickly for cognitive processing, so there’s no real impact on the audience’s psyche. If a conventional disaster movie fails to generate rank emotion, then it has failed in its narrative function. (And that’s important chiefly because it makes its most essential function – making a buck – a lot more difficult to accomplish.)
But there’s also a less opportunistic process at work: This is how life-threatening disasters can actually feel to those who experience them: an unfolding of horror and disbelief during which time seems to yawn infinitely as the event (no matter how brief its measurable duration) goes on and on—and not just the event itself, if you survive it, but the dawning realization of all its causes and consequences, rolling out like shock waves, flooding and swamping your tiny individual life all the way to its inevitable, imagined end.
And even on beyond that, somewhere in our collective consciousness, forever, until those repercussions flow into the void of some projected final, universal human failure. Visualize extinction. “This is the way the world ends,” the poet hisses in our ears – bang, whimper, or both. And a true disaster is always the end of the world, in a relative way. For a group of people, an enduring place or species, a unique culture or ecosystem.
Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia was one of the neatest exercises in genre re-purposing I’ve seen, taking what would seem to be this least re-purposable genre, the disaster movie, and elevating it to an existential inquiry about what happens when personal depression, social dysfunction, and terminal crisis intersect. Its isolated fairy tale setting and gorgeously supernatural cinematography were clues that the attempt was to go beyond a limited notion of allegory (which was as far as most of the American critics got; i.e., deep depression feels like the end of the world) to the creation of a modern myth.
It was also a convention-wrecker in its ruthlessness – this is not a movie where personal heroism is of any avail in mitigating the crisis or saving a social remnant; the earth is destroyed at the end, in seconds (no slo-mo either), and that’s that. The story being told is not about how to survive but how to die; it is a canny memento mori for a culture obsessed with the idea of self-perpetuation at all costs, one that blathers inanely about progress even as it rips out the planks from its three million-year old lifeboat. There’s no uplifting moral about human behavior to be found, only the utter indifference of the universe and its mysterious workings to all the drama going on on earth.
That said, the actual effect of Melancholia is not nihilistic and the experience is not depressing. The film contains beauty, satire and biting social critique (also missed, unsurprisingly, by most American reviewers), humor, pathos, and surprise. It’s meant to be a cosmic analogy for profound aspects of human experience, not a freak-out over a hypothetical ecological or cosmological disaster like a global tsunami or an asteroid hit.
There is almost certainly no evil twin planet hiding behind the sun, but that doesn’t mean all life on earth won’t be extinguished some day (the latest calculations say in about 1.75 billion years). There is still the enormous question of what to do in the meantime, other than looking for escape routes, technological or psychological. Most of our current behaviors, Melancholia deftly suggests, are not really helpful. But ironically, depression is not the most counterproductive, and can actually morph into something almost transcendent in a real crisis. The melancholic state of mind was identified in earlier days from the Renaissance to the Romantics as an integral one, pregnant of deep inspiration or acts of creativity. This might be something to think about before deciding to let Big Pharma hook you on another suite of chemicals.
It would seem apropos that the widespread fixation with doom in post-millennial USA has been called apocalyptic narcissism: the idea that we’ve inflated our pathetic little overfed, contingent selves to the extent that it’s more comforting to imagine the end of the world, or at least the end of civilization, than to accept our own individual mortality – or even the intractability of our limitations while alive. It’s kind of the ultimate in sour grapes –pretending that the future we won’t be part of anyway will be so awful we wouldn’t want to be alive in it. Scholar Rob Goodman, in an excellent article titled “The Comforts of the Apocalypse,” put it thus:
We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves. Even if the earth no longer sits at the center of creation, we can persuade ourselves that our life spans sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history’s fulcrum. “We live in the most interesting times in human history … the days of fulfillment,” writes the Rev. E.W. Jackson, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, in words that could have also come from the mouth of Saint Paul or Shabbetai Zevi or Hal Lindsey or any other visionary unable to accept the hard truth of the apocalyptic lottery: We’re virtually guaranteed to witness the end of nothing except our lives, and the present, far from fulfilling anything, is mainly distinguished by being the one piece of time with us in it.
You would think that Melancholia’s parataxis of clinical depression with a killer planet about to flatten earth would be the ultimate in “apocalyptic narcissism,” and it was read that way by critics wedded to the easy idea that it was mostly about Von Triers himself, a well-known sufferer of depression. But those paying better attention could see that’s exactly the kind of thinking Melancholia upends. It does this in fact by imagining a totalizing event, one that offers no possibility of the survival of the righteous – no afterlife or “post-apocalyptic” scenario.
Melancholia justly denies you, whether you are a Christian fundamentalist, a New Age spiritualist, a Peak Oiler, an anti-civilization anarchist, or a disappointed Marxist, the silly privilege of attempting to say to the world: I am saved and you are lost, I bought gold, I’ve got Jesus – or the backyard garden, the bunker, the semi-automatic, the Right Ideas… Instead, death is the end, that’s all. For everybody, including you.
Narcissistic or not, the apocalyptic continues to haunt many discourses, in spite or even because of the flame-out of breathlessly hyped signs and portents like the end of the Mayan calendar. You don’t need to look only to the scads of disaster movies, conventional or unconventional, to find it in mass culture. Cable television’s most popular anti-hero in recent years, Walter White from Breaking Bad, recites at the series close one of the most apocalyptic poems in the Western canon, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which depicts by allusion the downfall of an ancient tyrant and the desertified waste that is all that remains of his once-powerful kingdom. The final line: “the lone and level sands stretch far away,” presents the perfect apocalyptic image: not restricted to a past event, it haunts the present and portends the future of all hubris-ruled human endeavor.
Less exaltedly, “disaster porn,” and “ruin porn” are also terms that have emerged recently to describe works that focus obsessively on large-scale destruction and waste. These can be fictive, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or documentarian, like the cluster of films and photo-shoots of post-industrial Detroit, such as Detroit Wild City. The terms suggest the creepy, solipsistic fetishism that any obsession can degenerate into if it spreads until it strangles all other interests, like a psychic kudzu. As in, who needs shoes or dolls when you can get off on TEOTWAWKI? *
*the end of the world as we know it
As with every other phenomenon of our cantankerous, consensus-free cultural moment, the significance, aptness or usefulness of apocalypticism, if there is such a thing, is much debated. This itself is a sign of the power of the apocalyptic as a contemporary meme.
Blogger and polymath John Michael Greer has taken on the Peak Oil set from whom he emerged for indulging in doomer porn scenarios involving imminent economic and social collapse, which Peak Oilers appear to await breathlessly with speculative orgies of apocalyptic narcissism. Malthusian in their contempt for politics and their fear of the poor, equally dependent on a reductive formula to serve as the single pivot upon which an inevitable, final, and universal collapse will turn, Peak Oil adherents are probably the single most apocalyptic voice that isn’t coming from a Christian church, and they seem just as undeterred by counter-argument.
Reading some of their surly online jeremiads recalls a superb takedown of the doom fetish in the British comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, dating unsurprisingly from the height of the Cold War: a gaggle of followers gathered on the mountaintop awaiting the great cataclysm, which their rather grouchy leader describes to them in lurid detail. When watches are synchronized and the appointed hour passes (“it was GMT, wasn’t it?”) with absolutely no sign of “the conflagration we’d been banking on,” the leader brushes it off: “Never mind, lads, same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day.” A very convenient truth.
Greer’s post The Next Ten Billion Years was a useful thought experiment. Like Melancholia, his stoic, “evolution has no direction, and no special role for humans” scenario was somehow charming and tonic, rather than depressing. A lot of interesting things can happen in a few billion years. While he gave humans a long run before their inevitable extinction to taunt the doomers, his main intellectual adversary was actually “the religion of progress” underlying Western thought across the ideological spectrum, violating, in his view, the obvious truths of living systems: there are no straight lines leading infinitely into the future; no species exists outside a whole complex web of relations with other life forms that must remain intact for that species to thrive; and death, including the eventual death of any species, is an inevitable part of life.
These seeming opposites, apocalypticism and the ideal of limitless progress are perhaps more like twins, the former the latter’s shadow self – in constant tension. Trapped in a culture unable to construe the world except through binaries: self and other, good and evil, civilization and barbarism – our minds reel from pole to pole unable to create a meaningful synthesis. That should make us seriously question the whole paradigm, but it hasn’t.
And rescuing the idea of progress is in fact a great dilemma for anyone who believes in human agency and sees the desperate need for a better social system. As the literary theorist Frederic Jameson famously remarked, it now seems easier for most people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Journalism professor, activist (and Christian) Robert Jensen, who cites this idea of Jameson’s, has written an article about reclaiming the etymological sense of apocalypse as “revelation or unveiling.” His injunction to “get apocalyptic” is in the sense of “coming to clarity” about the severity of the multi-faceted crisis and then joining in collective action to confront it. And he rightly underscores the difference between what that action looks like in times of expansion versus its fragmented, more circumscribed nature in an age of limits.
One useful notion that could emerge from this context is that the idealist notion of progress has failed and will continue to fail because it is an abstraction, and “progress” is meaningless in the abstract. It is always progress toward something that we mean, and it is patently clear that progress toward an age of thinking machines, for example, does not at all guarantee progress toward greater ecological consciousness or social equality.
To be able to make real progress at this juncture, perhaps we need to view progress in a more limited way – essential in certain contexts: towards the elimination of cruelty, waste, or injustice – but by no means expandable to the level of a law guiding all of human history. When you stand on the edge of a cliff, some wag has said, a step backwards is progress. Social critic Ronald Wright has given us the helpful idea of “progress traps,” social behavior that appears to produce great progress in the development of a civilization – until it doesn’t, until that same behavior starts to undermine the foundations upon which the civilization stands.
Catastrophism was a recent collection of essays from a left perspective warning of the political reaction that is facilitated by apocalyptic thinking, and demonstrating how, conversely, such thinking is of little use to building mass movements for social progress. It contains an interesting (and novel, at least in my reading) overview of ultra-leftist apocalypticism, and exhortations to resist the temptation of construing capitalism as either monolithic or inevitably (and imminently) apocalyptic.
This is a beneficial corrective for any leftists who may be slipping into the fallacy of fear-based organizing. But as its authors acknowledge, it’s not simply irrational despair or panic to recognize that something enormous is ending. Witness the vanishing glaciers, these ice behemoths, hundreds of thousands of years old, groaning and shrieking as they fall – they are perhaps the most awesome talisman of the sheer scale of what our species has unleashed. But there are many more signs, intimate to international. We can’t fix what we have broken and the enormity of that breakage is unprecedented in our experience. Mechanistic ideas of “repair” or “management” are hubristically grandiose or pathetically token.
People who have not abandoned their work for a transformed social reality must still be allowed to grieve, to feel intimately all that is passing away, without being suspected of reactionary tendencies. To mourn, not just organize, with apologies to Joe Hill. Affect is not merely bourgeois mysticism or a primitive impulse to be manipulated into panic, solipsism, or despair by an anti-social system. It is a profound and ancient way of knowing. We distrust, reduce, or dismiss it at our peril.
Unfortunately, Catastrophism’s weakest chapter is its only one focusing on the apocalyptic in cultural production. A narrow look at zombies and other representations of monsters from an anti-capitalist perspective, it could have benefited from a much broader view of the topic. Republishing Mike Davis’s great chapter in The Ecology of Fear on the reactionary worldview of dystopian fiction (a prototype of the clarity and insight that’s possible in leftist analysis of cultural production, if not very much in evidence in contemporary cultural studies) would have been a better treatment of this aspect of the theme.
It’s important to get this right because apocalypticism is in fact much more deeply rooted in cultural production (particularly if you include religious texts) than in other forms of social activity. Apocalyptic tropes in literature are as old as literature itself – older, being part of the store of concepts of pre-literate cultures that handed them down to succeeding generations. This alone suggests a need for a deeper understanding of how they function.
The essay’s author quotes Walter Benjamin’s prescription: Radical critique “is a question of the dissolution of ‘mythology’ into the space of history.” This is one of the few failures of Benjamin’s poetic insight, and it is a failure into which much of contemporary cultural and literary theory has followed him. “Dissolving” myth into history is like turning circles into squares. The mythic worldview is incomparable to the historic, not some vanished precursor. Echoes of the mythic survive in all forms of cultural production, religion, social relations, psychology, and political struggle itself. And not the pejorative sense of a widely believed untruth that the word “myth” has obtained in contemporary parlance, but as something profound and fertile that, like other supra-rational aspects of understanding, cannot be dismissed without doing violence to a vibrant and complex whole.
The real error in apocalypticism is caused by the radical artificiality of our reduction of time to the historical. This causes the misperception that the mythical apocalypse actually occurs (will occur) at some point on the historical timeline. But mythic time is not historical time. The mythic apocalypse is always occurring, will occur, has occurred. Mythic time is not a line, nor is it a circle of things simply returning, the same, the same, the same. Rather, mythic time is the one absolute in a contingent world. Myth approaches time metaphorically, the only way an absolute can be approached by any contingency. The apocalypse is a metaphor for the fact of destruction and rebirth at cosmic scales of time and space. Associating this fact with a particular model of ethics such as sin and salvation is entirely bound by which culture in which historical moment is generating the apocalyptic story, but the story’s real purpose is to put us, whoever and wherever we are, in touch with a cosmic level of significance.
As with any profound understanding, the more it is denied, the more it comes back to haunt you. If there is such a thing as a social sin, then our biggest contemporary sin is denial. Denial of limits, responsibility, consequences, interconnection, imbalances of power, irreducible complexity – you name it, we are in it. So it’s important to remember the etymology reclaimed by Jensen instead of simply conceding the apocalyptic to a dusty shelf in the library of political reaction.
We are haunted by the idea of a profound failure, and we have reason to be. But our cosmic stories cannot help us if we fail to understand them, if we reduce them to literalist nonsense or irrational superstition, or else push them into the realm of sterile conceptual abstraction, as science does. We will have to circumscribe our actions and free our imaginations simultaneously in order to better understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Apocalyptic stories can help, but only if we know what they are trying to tell us.