For an event awash in flames, horizon-thumping explosions, and streets flooded with human tissue, the apocalypse has become increasingly tedious to witness. With every additional spectacular flourish, with every additional grim-dark and dystopic portrait, the mind only becomes more and more deadened by the machinic deployment of stiffened, ossified tropes. The mountain of sensation cannot hide the molehill of thought.
Really, this is not surprising at all.
I am, like many, extremely skeptical of the apocalypse and the end-times as they stand in the current popular imaginary. Trends in speculative fictions ebb and flow for a number of different reasons, and if end-time speculations are not quite at their height now, they are still in vogue and still worth examining for all of their failures in imagination. And these failures are endemic.
Walter Benjamin famously observed that in the time of Homer, the human was an object of apprehension for the gods, but that in modern times, the human had become an object of apprehension for itself. This allowed the human species to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order.” But in a sense, we have been objects in this way for a long time now, turning our collective miseries and fiercely fought battles into orally told stories, written chronicles, popular literature, and now, film and video games. This is not to repudiate the existence of differences in these forms, and in the qualities of objectification, but rather to affirm similarities.
So instead of discussing the fallen nature of the fictional apocalypse as some unfamiliar symptom – even our jeremiads about stagnancy and repetition tend to grasp for a sheen of redeeming newness – I would rather talk about it in the sense of a periodic collapse in imagination, an illness which is cyclical and recurring. There are periodic times when renewal is needed for particular modes that are in shambles, nothing more than rotting archways of a once great discourse. And see, in “rotting archways,” that the tendency of this illness is to aestheticize everything. Our imaginary apocalypses are old and dead, but the apocalypse of the apocalyptic is new! The lack of originality is original! This problem of making everything consumable and spectacular is part of a larger issue, but remains an integral vector of these fallow periods.
There is, however, a disjuncture between my skepticism of cataclysm in popular representations and the actual, real possibility of cataclysm, which is not obviated in any way by false or stupefying conceptions of “the end.” In fact, I would strongly interrogate the notion of cataclysm leading to something as neat and tidy as an end, something so discontinuous with the way things were before. This notion strikes me as wistful and self-serving, a childish fantasy that if structures collapse, a new and better world can be built like the hackneyed phoenix out of stale ashes. It should be clear that whatever is born in staleness is likely to remain stale, and that our organizational apparatuses (of economics, of control) tend to stick around and mutate after they are fobbed off, reappearing in the most unexpected situations.
Wistful fantasy is one aspect of this speculative decline. It is the bad-faith employment of apocalyptic events as pre-texts to engage in a fantasy wherein we transcend our institutions and economic structures and personal subjectivities. By no coincidence, this wistful fantasy is concomitant with a reflexive cynicism highly beneficial to the ostensibly despised status quo: “why do anything?” This attitude says, on one slightly more socially conscious hand: “Things may be shit now, but soon enough everything will collapse and out of the dust we can begin again and build a new world.” On the other, more hedonistic hand, it says: “I may be a timid government employee or an awkward clerk at a gaming store, but if the world goes sour like a rancid piece of processed pork in my fridge, I will slather myself in camo and ammunition belts and seriously fuck things up, man.” Cue the ominous post-rock music.
This last bit is apocalypse as self-help, as crass self-actualizing. “We can all be Rick Grimes!” It is the childish, unimaginative fantasy at its most masturbatory, and most politically reactionary. The phoenix built of stale ashes is a reader of Ayn Rand. This is often the use of the apocalyptic as an excuse to indulge in a pornography of masculinist, fascist impulses, what has been called, “sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.” The apocalyptic event gives way to the dystopic, and the dystopic regresses into pure ideology. The dystopic is blunted as an artistic weapon, and degraded into a Hollywood backdrop, with the limitless and uninteresting permutations of visual theme (cyberpunk! steampunk!) cycling back and forth as the only excuse for variety.
This is the transformation of the apocalypse as opportunity for salvation (originally in the religious, now in the secular sense) to mere repetition. Why expect the unexpected from a mode that in its current form, assumes that world-shattering events lead only to more of the same? But in a way these representations, featuring identical Rick Grimes figures exerting totalitarian authority, are more realistic than the wistful fantasy of change. They recognize that modes of behavior and organization, that apparatuses of control, do not disappear when the overt, official structures supporting them are destroyed. The problem is that they wallow in this rather than condemn it, or they do both, and do justice to neither.
Again, the murder of the apocalyptic in the popular imaginary, and the resulting skepticism, does not mean catastrophe cannot happen. At a time when catastrophe looms as near as ever, unimaginative fictional representations do not help us to think about catastrophe, but merely provide hedonistic exercises that blunt our imaginations at a time when we need them. As consumers of these kinds of fictions, we are libertines of decay.
Looking back through scribblings I made two years ago, when I still bought into the “newness of the lack of the new,” here is how I diagnosed the contemporary role of the apocalyptic and dystopic:
“The ugly, spiraling cityscapes and zombie wastelands sprouting up from nuclear civilizations were originally envisioned, intended, and functioned as some variation of protest or political deterrent, or at the very least as ambiguous premonitory fables. Even if it was a politics of resignation, of apathy, or even of hope, like Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, it still held a political function. But now it has become so aestheticized that it is nothing more than aesthetic, is only fashion, a Hallmark card. There are no meanings, no politics in the post-apocalyptic discourse anymore. It has been emptied, sucked dry, and filled with dollars. It is a frontier marketing has already colonized, a territory that exists only for the division of its demographics, and the currency that lies hidden under its ground like black oil.”
Against such absolute statements, I would argue simply that this is a period of stagnation, one that happens to be exaggerated by the culture industry’s thirst for milking cows long after they have departed from the living. The only treatment for the illness is to focus instead on other worlds, rather than after worlds, and means of averting cataclysm rather than masturbating to it.