Aesthetics of Apocalypse

In the eons since my last post, Haiti suffered a few more secondary quakes, then Chile had an earthquake, Iceland erupted, covering the skies with volcanic ash, Greece’s ongoing crisis spiked again and got bailed out, Thailand tried to have another revolution, American liberals continued to fantasize about right-wing revolt, then British Petroleum vomited death all over the Gulf Coast. And Tennessee got flooded. Of course it hasn’t been anything close to eons, just a couple of months. Though unstylish, Bill McKibben has the right idea: the bad old days of ‘alienation’ from Nature are over. We don’t even live on Earth anymore.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re living in the end times. Even for someone as preoccupied with the unimportant as I am, the loop linking apocalypse culture product — CGI spectacles of urban destruction, zombie movies, post-apocalyptic video games, David Simon’s new show, Treme — to its critics — academics, magazine critics, bloggers, anyone with a Facebook account — didn’t occur to me as something worth considering until Roger mentioned it in the comments below and elsewhere.

So then I did consider it, and my conclusions are just as depressing as everything else. First, it seems clearer to me now than ever before that that which the authorities designate as ‘popular culture,’ rife for most of its existence (but especially now) with apocalyptic fantasies, is about as helpful for thinking about shifts in public consciousness, utopian desire, and affects, as a BP press release, or one of Obama’s speeches. Films like 2012 or even marginally more intelligent ones like 28 Days Later exist to provide an imaginary audience with the experience of what it’s supposed to think and feel. Reductionist, yes, but to militate too much against reductionism on the consumption end gives a free pass to reductionism on the production end. If the zombie film should be the most self-aware manifestation of long-term cultural regression, its sense of irony has already grown stale and decadent; the basic premise of the genre, the horror of limitless need in a limited world, is a limit on thought and feeling that stopped being productive a long time ago.

We live in the high point of a moment when previously discredited genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero bildungsromane have cache among critics, when high and lowbrow just as often refer to different perspectives on the same object as they do different objects. I suspect the vogue for these texts is grounded in an aesthetic sympathetic with modernist architecture’s dictum that form should express function. In the great non-psychological literary tradition of Voltaire or Kafka or Borges, ‘genre’ texts do not assume any relationship between individual psychological experiences and universal significance; they merely announce a set of rules and perform a series of variations, allusions, and allegorizations geared toward maximum readability. The interesting ambiguities lie in just how the pieces fit together: is Deckard an android? Or in the fine points of allegorical reading: does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism? Or in how to parse an ethical dilemma: is it ok for Batman to surveil all of Gotham? Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims? Whose revenge is justifiable in Hostel (try Martyrs for a more interesting version of this question)? The world is grasped as a theoretical structure that can only be interpreted, known, and/or changed by structural means: the physical actions of a character, the revelation of a secret, the destruction of the world.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel profoundly not getting it in the pages of Dissent from a while back:

“Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.”

The thoughtful reader of anyone outside the trajectory of Jane Austen, Henry James, and the 20th century American short story will no doubt scoff at Kunkel’s naivete, though it is post-Lacanian, Post-Jamesonian critics whose tastes are being caricatured here. But do his retrograde views on the centrality of psychologically complex characters to fiction imply anything different in practice to this more ‘modern’ taste for structurally transparent riffs on popular genre? Don’t both use their tastes to justify giving special attention to a limited set of individual, ‘properly cultural’ texts? There are clear echoes of the Richardson-Fielding debate over interior account vs. mock epic, or character vs. author, a productive dissensus essential to the ‘rise of the novel.’ As a bored Alec Guinness intoned at the end of Star Wars, death only makes certain individuals stronger. The author-function is now an empty signifier through which any number of historical forces, zeitgeists, and collective fantasies can be read.

As a corollary, a masterpiece today is not necessarily the work of a heroic, individual master, but an individual text that metonymically summons the world on stage. Even better, really, if no one is responsible — a neo-romantic aesthetic, not of nature or natural genius, but of public opinion. Surely the problematic merger between fine art and mass culture Kunkel sees operating in literature is both a) not restricted to literature and b) somehow linked to the perception of ideological transparency of popular genre products, considered more popular the more rigorously processed for the market they are.

The contemporary-apocalyptic impoverishment of the word ‘culture’ to refer to the sterile contradiction ‘lifestyle’ vs. ‘fiction,’ culture’s near-total commodification, is, I think, precisely what creates the expectation that it should ‘tell us something’ about human experience that no other source can. That something includes an associated pantheon: Society, Values, The Unconscious, Desire, The Will to Utopia, Ideology. But what can a discourse so increasingly cut off from everything that might give it content ‘tell us’ beyond itself? Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). There are many other examples. If we grant that the apocalyptic is a dominant discourse in need of parsing, shouldn’t it be more useful to see how it works in the context of actual events than to restrict ourselves to the universe of fantasy conjured by the spectacle (and its supplementary critique)? The same questions can be asked in the context of real-time ideological warfare. On BP’s oil spill for example, the points of entry are too numerous to list more than a few: the company’s cosmetic concern for keeping the oil concealed, underwater, where it can do even more damage; the technocratic fantasies of elite teams of scientists solving our problems a la Armageddon.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the traditional objects and methods of aesthetic criticism once and for all, whether for ideology critique or for anything else. But I do want to make a point about professionalism and myopia.

Take today’s politics of apocalypse. Obscene levels of corruption are publicly announced every day. Everyone is “fiddling while Rome burns.” BP executives wining and dining government officials, the general prostration of public interest to oil conglomerates common to both Obama and Bush Jr.’s administrations, JP Morgan executives inventing credit-default swaps while drinking heavily at a post-fraternity bacchanal. The scandal, that which is in excess of the justice/injustice of the results of the deals, is that they are made unofficially. Any charge of corruption comes after the making-public of a community existing behind the explicit democratic structure of official discourse, in (dialectical) contradiction to it. As has been all too evident lately, the public revelation of what everyone already assumes, even if it is a critique of illegitimate power, can only strengthen it if nothing is done as a result. The critic who speaks from the imaginary position of either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the law thus always risks extending the power of a ruling elite at the expense of democratic legitimacy as a whole. It is in just this sense that the social critic is in league with her target (despite the necessity of her function), a kind of court jester, producing the aura of authority in the very act of ‘speaking truth to power.’

Is it really much of a stretch to say that when we media critics — today we are all media critics (we are all ‘intellectuals’) — discuss a Hollywood film or a bestselling novel, we are in the same situation? Just as the professional ethics of journalistic ‘objectivity’ insist that reporters stick to official public facts and statements, professional aesthetic criticism focuses primarily on ‘culture,’ which (just as in the ‘rational public sphere’ of press releases and stump speeches) is dominated by the official statements of entrenched powers. They will forever be scandalized by the entirely pedestrian difference between a given discourse and everything else. That old insult, ‘idealist,’ should then be updated to refer to anyone who is ‘just doing their job.’ A reporter should never deal only in official facts; a film critic should never only write reviews; a philosopher should never write ‘pure philosophy.’ Impartiality is irrelevance.

This also entails that we suspend the notion of ideology as a unitary discourse, such that no field, type, genre, or medium can contain ‘the key’ to its structure. If searching for and retrieving that key is the only value Arts & Entertainment are thought to have, then they are by definition worthless. The Zizekian argument about ideology (which I borrowed above in modified form) holds that distance from ideology just is ideology — the claim that one ‘really is’ in excess of the law (whether as authentic human being, social critic, or scheming corrupt politician) even while continuing to perform one’s ideological function flawlessly. In typical Zizekian fashion, to be ‘really subversive’ is not to point out the difference between illusion and reality, but to follow the public law in spite of the unwritten law (the law’s ‘obscene supplement,’ aka the ‘way of the world,’ aka the ‘antithesis’ stage of the dialectic), thus embracing, as he puts it, the “‘crazy’ totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very moment of its excessive exaggeration.” Don’t just do something, sit there! Conformity is dissent! For Zizek everything refers back to ideology, especially its ‘outside.’ He uses the term ‘ideology’ to indicate the transcendental structure of whatever happens to be the ‘dominant social practice,’ with other social practices just orbiting planets unless they perform the impossible feat of usurping the center. This apparent failure to distinguish between the CNN news ticker and its consequences is really a feature; his ‘innovation’ after all is to avoid the complexities of mediating between (say) Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Wall Street by taking screen reality at face value, reading Red Dawn and Afghanistan in exactly the same way.  As tea leaves.

Which is to point out a dead end, an exhausted discourse, and redirect attention to its ‘context,’ for lack of a better, less bureaucratic term — that which the Borg-like pretensions of so many theories of ideology disguise, no less effectively than utilitarian theories of personhood and efficient markets. Ideology is not, for example, prior to class, or gender, or petroleum. It is not a singular ur-text; ‘in itself’ no more than an empty term that brings strangers into contact. The truism ‘everything is ideology’ suggests instead that there is nothing left to discuss once that contact is established. A speculative, aesthetic definition of Apocalypse Culture might then be: a tendency of otherwise unrelated discourses to collapse around their nonexistent center, to hypnotize each other into talking about nothing. My friends and I, I feel (I can’t think it), have lost an ability possessed by earlier generations to speak without paying tribute to a ghostly imperative to negate ourselves, whether through a meticulously defined but meaningless jargon, or stutters, lapses, and interruptions between vague sentence fragments wrapped in protective irony. Since (according to us) we can only speak about ‘the world’ in terms of commodities, doing so always seems like a ridiculous prospect, even if necessary at times. The only grand statement about the zeitgeist I feel capable of making is that when I watch C-SPAN on YouTube, or read press releases and news websites, I see what looks like the same thing. So we are deaf and dumb. But which is ‘dominant?’ The structural void of ideology that supposedly ‘explains’ our ‘failure to communicate,’ or the 39 million gallons of oil devouring the Gulf Coast?

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13 Responses to “Aesthetics of Apocalypse”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). This is what I try to do in that piece for Extrapolations we’ve talked about, which maybe I can bug you to read before I send in the final draft if you have the time.

  2. […] * My friend Traxus is blogging again, this time about apocalypse culture. […]

  3. “Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims?

    If they’re Bosnians, then I guess it’s fine. Those are not real Muslims anyway. I mean, they think they are, but they’re not who they think they are! Like Americans, for instance.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    @gerry send it over!

  5. I wonder if power is a better way to look at all of this than ideology. The fact that the “American ideology” has been so effective over the last 30 (or 40 or 60) years has to do with the fact that it works, i.e., it exercises a sway over the individuals who follow it. Quality-of-life (measured in commodities purchased, especially food) really has gone up in that period (in the U.S., not everywhere, obviously), while real wages have gone down. It has worked because when people are able to shut up and buy, that’s what they do. BP exercises a structural role in that commodity system that is incredibly crucial – not only cars and air conditioning, but plastic products and the industries that manufacture all of our commodities run off of oil. The cynicism about oil is structurally defined; one hates the heroin dealer, but one needs him. Contra a certain left, I would say that the efforts of the utopian left to produce autonomous lives, to create living situations separate from the laws of capital, is really one of the only viable ways that “we” have access to a distinct mode of living separate from capitalism and its law of constant exploitation. They can be faulted for many things, there are many failures (many instances where the “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”) but it seems that theirs is the only way to make societal shifts (at least until one has created a sufficient movement in the direction of that shift, a possibility which seems rather hopeless for the moment). As I put it in my facebook feed, the failure to move 6.7 billion people (or the more modest 500 million) ≠ ideology. We’re competing with a machine that has had many years of practice and has a great deal of resources put into it. People who are constantly talking about how stupid capitalists and the MSM are may want to reassess, because they’ve seriously undervalued their enemy. Capitalism may be stupid, in the sense that it wastefully exploits every last remnant of the human and non-human world, but it’s not stupid when it comes to getting what it wants, or rather, capitalists aren’t stupid when it comes to getting what they want. And they have an army of actuaries, media specialists, politicians, lawyers, etc. backing them up. You know this: you went toe-to-toe (sort of) with Lanny Davis.

    On the one hand, ideology critique helps us understand that the way society represents itself is different from its “reality.” But one has to take the next step. I think this is what you are saying, but I think we need to add that the enemy/enemies is/are not alone, not a group of fearful men who get terrorized every time an anarchist picks up a molotov cocktail. They have a professional army, with all its correlate wings (hearts-and-minds, and when that doesn’t work, send in the shock troops).

  6. traxus4420 Says:

    Alex,

    agree with everything you’ve said — a note on ‘utopian leftism’:

    i think the pejorative ‘utopian left’ is pretty ideology-centric in the sense i discuss here, abused to indicate literally any leftist who is not a marxist, or who isn’t with a union, a theorist, or a member of an official marxist party. and that’s just when marxists use it (not everyone is so ahistorical, of course). when actually the theorists — those who don’t engage with anything outside a theoretical canon and fantasies of ‘total revolution’ — are more properly termed ‘utopian’ than, say, exarchia. i guess there are plenty of intentional communities that don’t engage with anything outside themselves, and abstain from politics, but even they (it seems to me) are probably less utopian than the ‘armchair left.’

    and on our dependencies and the smart, powerful capitalists — yes, and while one can try to theorize these things in terms of some sort of unified theory of ideology, stopping them isn’t determined by ideology until ‘the lonely hour of the last instance’ that never comes, i.e. when capitalism is officially ended (and i’m saying here that ideology doesn’t become univocal until the last instance either). i’m sure you know plenty of people who think The Left needs to imagine a New Ideology in order to ‘win,’ and who read gramsci to be calling for something like adbusters. but again, i think this is what we should mean when we say ‘utopian left.’

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    it’s really no surprise if you think about it why apocalypse and ideology go together so well. like apocalypse and monotheism. there’s something of a logical (dialectical?) sequence internal to the theory that is only secondarily about the destructiveness of capitalism.

  8. “does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism?

    http://api.ning.com/files/HT73XdSKGLcHWzahCdHWeqQ*9Jyi0DpZ4uQ2xBzE-rE_/TolkienOnFairyStories.pdf

  9. traxus4420 Says:

    here’s a good reading by Joseph Kugelmass of what i’d call the ideology of ideology criticism, in terms of Avatar:

    http://kugelmass.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/avatar-the-film-thats-good-for-somebody-else/

    So what you get from Avatar is not an actually immersive or groundbreaking film, but rather a film advertising itself as those things. It is precisely because the film only signifies art’s greatest qualities, without embodying them, that professional and amateur critics alike protest so stridently in its favor. By making us its advocates, Avatar gives us something important to do. Levy again: “But, as I insist, you don’t buy a ticket to Avatar for a good read. You buy one, rather, to share the sensations that overcome Jake when he ventures out into Pandora inside of his avatar for the first time.” It is easy to detect the implied command: “you buy a ticket” really means “you should buy a ticket.” But the command is presented in the blurry language of inevitability, just like the idea that Avatar‘s historical importance is completely independent of what anybody thinks about it, and therefore they should think it important. Why should critics be insisting that we buy tickets to a Hollywood blockbuster? Shouldn’t they be putting that effort into something like An Education? But they won’t, because it’s depressing to try to bump the ticket sales of a small film. Much better to feel partly responsible for a “cultural phenomenon” that seems to be promoting consensus values, like the worth of the environment and indigenous cultures, and that is guaranteed to do well at the box office.

    i would just add that making us the critics (not just advocates) of ‘popular culture’ gives us something to do as well. all that matters is that it be ‘important.’

  10. traxus4420 Says:

    It seems that traditionally literary or philosophical discourse has been made to function as a substitute or as a general envelope for all other discourses. Literature had to assume the value for all the rest. People have written histories of what was said in the 18th century by passing through Fontenelle, Voltaire, Diderot or the New Heloise, etc. Or else they have thought of these texts as the expression of something that in the end failed to be formulated on a more quotidien level.

    In regard to this attitude, I passed from a state of uncertainty–citing literature where it was, without indicating its relationship with the rest–to a frankly negative position by trying to make all the non-literary or para-literary discourses that were actually constituted in a given period appear positively, and by excluding literature. In Discipline and Punish it’s a matter only of bad literature.

    Foucault, “On Literature” (1975)

  11. Very interesting post. There is no bigger set of ideological principles out there than religion. And prosperity christianity has fused with climate change denial to create the very real possibility of significant climate upheavals in the not too distant future.

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