Combined and uneven apocalypse (Apocalyptic notes, 3)
Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.
- Heine, Lutetia; or, Paris
The world is always already apocalyptic. Just not all at the same time.
What must be overcome is a notion of apocalypse as evental, as the ground-clearing trauma that at once founds a new nomos of the earth. What we need instead is a conception of combined and uneven apocalypse.
In other words: we have always occupied a world in which Heine's entirely new beasts have emerged and exist alongside us, real organizations of suffering and domination. All the more so, in unprecedented invention and brutality, under capitalism. The question is the visibility of these beasts. They are always rearing their figurative heads, yet as they are not accidental but rather necessary functions and consequences of the world order particular to capitalism, they are structural blindspots with profound material effects. The intentional symptom, the shouldn't-be that has-to-be for it all to work: no wonder it's so hard to write a new apocalypse.
This isn't to dredge back up the persistent (and always relevant) point that we remain conveniently unaware of pockets of hell on earth, the zones that approximate the total breakdown of civility and quality of life, or that we catch glimpses of them only when they surge up in the midst of supposedly advanced sectors of the world. The rotting refuse of Katrina revealed what we've "known all along" about the structures of poverty, race and urban decay in America (as the dark mirror barely approximating the zones scattered across our planet of slums).
Instead, a different tack here, moving through the dream-image of salvage punk and the nightmare-image of the dead rising, to venture a properly unstable third: the recognition that the post-apocalyptic is not an image of that-to-be. It is not that which lies beyond the apocalyptic event. It is a necessary optic onto the flourishing wastelands of late capitalism, the recognition that the apocalyptic event has been unfolding, in slow motion accompanied with sudden leaps and storms. Behind our backs and in front of our faces. In waiting for the cataclysm, we missed the drift of it.
The figure of thought to unravel this all here - and the figure of thought around which our post-apocalyptic work must center - is the city. The city in the era of decaying industrial first-world cities, the petro-wealth boom towns beginning to slip, the slum megalopolises across the globe, the epochal transformations that we strain to recognize fully. In a time in which, as Mike Davis has shown with clarity, cities across the globe are wracked by conditions we would be hard pressed to describe as other than apocalyptic, we need to look to the cultural instantiations of apocalyptic cities and their post-apocalyptic refigurings as a way to think through and past our time.
To unravel its post-apocalyptic figuration along three lines:
The city as ruins emptied of human life, the structures of urban existence reclaimed by nature
The city as site of uneven time, of the coexistence of apocalyptic zones within the overall functioning of commerce and urban daily life
The city as time-out-of-joint zone within the world order as a whole, the consciously neglected site in which new modes of collectivity may begin to emerge
To get into it, then...
Post-apocalyptic cities seem caught between two primary fantasies which give a sense of the imagined apocalyptic event that produces the situation: the empty and the full apocalypse, the barren and the teeming, between the loners wandering the evacuated sites of life and the abandoned hordes swarming in some reclaimed outpost of lost humanity. To be sure, the most subtle iterations claim the space that is both (think of the plague city of loners flooded with the walking dead, at once the excess of bodies and the apparent desolation of life). Yet much of the dominant vision of the city "after the fall" is that of a waste zone, echoes of Tarkovsky's Stalker (and Marker's Sans Soleil) intended. In Tarkovsky's version, the sort of extraurban Zone, girded by the military, is a space delimited from "normal" life surrounding it, in all its decay and Soviet rust-belt prettiness. In our move away from the global event version of the apocalyptic condition, we find again and again the borderland and the bound, the space encircled to keep without and within. Yet in Stalker, what is preserved (as the emancipatory potential of a post-apocalyptic, post-rational Zone) is the hollow, a sort of empty anti-commons. The vestiges of day-to-day existence become otherwordly in their vacancy, fused with a halting spirituality notably absent in the far more subtle novella (the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic) that forms the source material for Stalker. (In addition, we might note the future-oriented echoes between the conditions of Stalker and the very real conditions, and consequent decay aesthetic, that came to be in Chernobyl.)
From Lenin's face watching over the abandoned room...
... to the sad majesty of interior sand dunes that may as well be burial mounds.
The result, as evident in the images above, is a form of tragic "magical" realism, of the ruins now entering into contact once more with Nature, succumbing to deep ecological time. A description early in Maurice Dantec's 2005 Cosmos Inc. (about which a much larger reading of post-apocalypticism is deserved) sums up this tendency acutely:
Nature may have been pushed aside by ecoglobal planning, but human cities are turning back into jungles: half-petrified virgin forests in the stagnant water of this unified human world, barely distinguishable from what remains of the natural wilderness around them, or from the out-of-control efflorescence running riot in the deserted streets, the silent highways; the empty buildings, shopping centers, and subway stations.
In these dead cities, cities abandoned by men, nature has become savage again, escaping the automated cycles and engineers of geo-global planning. It is the last vestige of liberty left by technology to the world of Homo sapiens. It does not lack a certain tragic beauty.
We might think here again of the function of the dream-image thinking its utopian future, shedding off the accrued material of the recent past and sliding back toward the impossible time "before it all went bad." The location of liberty in the site, and mode of sight of, the after-city is, at best, the sort of doomed nostalgia epitomized by anarcho-primitivists (and the highly conservative, survivalist, blood and soil, reversing the course of history ending of Wall-E), and, at worst, a form of Hegelian logic distorted beyond recognition: the naked ape (or two self-consciousnesses, to be precise) encounter in the forest, to be mediated and navigated into the master-slave relation, instead writ species wide, the fantasy of the human race confronting itself in mortal combat.
To be clearer, here, we might think of the recurrent instance in Hiroki Endo's Eden: It's an Endless World! manga series, the moment when an individual subject acts willfully so as to bring about the death of the species as a whole. What is at stake here is neither bald misanthropy nor the kind of anti-human logic espoused by certain radical ecological movements (though the series does articulate some of those "the earth would be better off us and our attendant damage" sentiments). Rather, buried within all their survivor-guilt and loathing of "what we've become" is the dangerous gambit of a properly apocalyptic dialectical ethics:
The human race is only worth preserving if we have the courage to make the willful decision to exterminate it.
More than just the petty fantasy of certain posturing black metallers, this is the paradox suffocating and structuring those who face the blood bath of the 20th century as well as those loners wandering those waste zones, on the other side of the irreversible event. Like the being that must be unlike itself to prove its capacity as more than mute drive and instinct, the impossible thought here is that only suicide proves that you are indeed an autonomous subject. Species-wide Russian roulette: you have to pull the trigger to realize that you never should have done so.
Ubaldo Ragona's 1964 The Last Man on Earth, the most haunting adaptation yet of I Am Legend, is riven by this, caught and split between the melancholy of nights alone, listening to old jazz records and drinking while the zombies feebly try to break in, and the task of extermination, the long slow work of daytime dispatching of those who will rise.
Of course, in the remarkable turn now well-known and the sudden and utter collapse of the narrative of persistence and lone heroism, the task of extermination finds its real blindspot: the one to be killed is the killer, the one who cannot grasp that a new order has been inaugurated. He kills to preserve the irrevocably gone and cannot make the one kill that alone redeems him. Only in staking himself would the death of the human race become something worth mourning.
Tragic as this may be, we don't want a revolutionary thought-model that is tragedy. (As for whether farce is the correct alternative remains to be seen, though I'm not alone in my suspicions.) We see, in short, the sticking-point of the empty world post-apocalyptic model: it remains in thrall only with the possibility of its own death and with the non-subjective processes to come along and swallow up the ruins of humanity. If this is the dominant figure of our day, we should be truly afraid, for it is the end of politics, the end of the thought of intervention in the patterns of history.
However, the incisive force of apocalyptic thought lies elsewhere and deserves to not be cast aside because one strain of it moves toward self-genocidal visions. Of more interest and promise is the city of uneven time, underground histories at odds with the apparent ruling organization of the urban zone.
Gary Sherman's remarkable Death Line (1972, titled Raw Meat in the U.S.) is one of the most startling articulations of this tendency, a version that, appropriately for this blog, demands the question "socialism or barbarism?" with a subtle, off-kilter severity and a degree of unparalleled literalism. In this case, the definitive answer appears to have been barbarism. Yet the above poster, attempting to shoe-horn the film into the market for exploitation horror, is at striking odds with the film itself. (One might imagine some seriously alarmed viewers looking for gore and nudity, finding instead a dark parable about the capacity of an economic order to turn against those who labor it requires.) Rather, the film is far closer to this:
The moment of mourning, of mute suffering struggling to comprehend. The rough arc of the story is as follows. In 1892, a group of workers digging tunnels for the London Underground were trapped in a collapse. No attempt was made to save them, not because the accident was undetected, but because the corporation behind the digging covered up the incident and went bankrupt, never willing to threaten their crumbling reputation with the disclosure of what happened. The workers were left to rot, slipping through the cracks of a now disappeared company and a state that couldn't be bothered to oversee the abuses of system. In short, capitalism in its standard operating procedure. And what results, then, is barbarism, of the "descent of the species", generations of the workers maintaining a community underground, winding through passageways to pick off commuters for cannibalistic feeding.
Two aspects of the film need to be considered as more than implausibilities needed for the sake of horroring up the plot. If they were trapped collectively below, why have they lost their ability to speak English in just 80 years? And if the underground dwellers know how to get to the other stations to feed, why do they not then return to the world above through these routes?
Regarding the first question: why do they not develop off the bedrock of the Victorian culture to which they belonged? One might imagine a more interesting film in which they maintain a flourishing underground community below, a community that departs from the state of affairs above at their time of burial and then articulates its own history. The Victorian moment in isolation from the world system, set to unpack its ideologies and ways of living without contamination from elsewhere. Instead, though, what we are given is a total slide back to that impossible time. A nightmare image of the human animal cut off from society, we see here a similar tendency to envision that the post-apocalyptic instance is a resetting of the clock, of a slide toward long-forgotten modes of barbarism. The political appeal of this is an apology for the barbarism of capitalism, a tendency one borne out especially in the marketing of the film that shows, unveiled, the true conception of the laboring subject under the industrial order: once humans, but now no longer men and women, less than animals, just the raw meat of production...
The second question, that of their staying below, is that of the post-apocalyptic zone as time out of joint and, against the seeming degradation of those within it, a nascent structure of realizing the act of conscious will to occupy and territorialize an alternate history. For while it is the seemingly contingent set of circumstances that "seal one off" and create this off-time, the pocket of other living that is the negation of the dominant mode of life in the city, we know better: these circumstances are structural, necessary, desired, not by any planner but by the general logic of the capitalist order. These pockets are rarely as dramatically underground (both literally and figuratively) as in Death Line. Consider one of the sharpest post-apocalyptic films to date, Godard's Alphaville. Because, at the end of the day, the point of Alphaville is that you don't need to build a set to approximate a dystopian future. You just need to drive through Paris.
No other world, no forgotten tomb below the hygenic, ordered, and adminstered city. The city itself is that set of off-times, of catastrophes written into the organization of the city, engineered to remobilize them to a productive destruction of frozen capital and the possibility of redevelopment, kicking the unwanted further and further to the periphery.
This leads to the final consideration of the post-apocalyptic city, not just as a fabric of facilitated zones of development, with the attendant post-apocalyptic sites wedged between (and at times situated directly within) massive outlays of new capital, but as a post-apocalyptic zone as a whole. The city as lived waste zone, as designated site of apocalypse, a dark space that gives shape to the combined and uneven development of international capitalism. The city as a negativity, one that is perhaps up for grabs not as a lost site to be reclaimed by nature or newer, greener capital but as a determinate negation.
The great filmmaker of the post-apocalyptic city (that is not in the future but lived now) is John Carpenter, and Escape from New York, that sloppy mess of uncertain politics and lumpen life, is perhaps the best articulation of what is at stake here. The film opens, after announcing that in 1988 "the crime rate in the United States rises 400 percent", with a cartographic depiction of the transformation of Manhattan Island into a designated lived waste zone, the space where all prisoners will be sent and kept in.
The successive additions, most notably the coloring in of the empty space, reveal that the city to be abandoned to those forced there is the hollow zone of after-the-fall: it is a space of collectivity, of bodies that need to learn to coexist. And like the subway dwellers of Death Line, we are seemingly meant to assume that they would want to leave, that being condemned to live there is necessarily worse than the world that sent them there. To echo and alter the early statement, you need to be exiled to realize that you wanted out in the first place.
Not to valorize or romanticize the situation. The Manhattan island of this film is a bleak place, all wet pavement and scattered debris. And one of the opening moments of the film, in a perverse echo of the rafts of refugees struggling toward the shore of developed nations, is a group of convicts on a makeshift raft, heading across the river to the walls of the prison.
Shot down by a helicopter, we see the city first in its exteriority, a dark, dead space from which one will escape, even by certain death.
New York City as the consummate wasteland, the negative space from which life flees. Again, the silent necropolis, halted in time.
But on the ground, things look different. It is an assemblage space, a site of trash and debris, scurrying figures in the shadows, through which the lone hero walks against the backdrop, in the infamous shot of the downed Air Force One, of the total collapse of the American version of managed life.
The more time we spend with Snake in this space, the more familiar it becomes. Like Alphaville's Paris, the discomfort is uncanny, not sublime: we know these sort of spaces, we've walked through the "bad part of town," forgotten as the money and occupants have gone elsewhere. The city of anti-development looks like much of the collapsing urban areas of the West, albeit without the frantic attempts at urban renewal.
Yet in this city, itself the designated apocalyptic zone of America, we find spaces that are truly post-apocalyptic, where life doesn't begin again but has never stopped. The cheering crowds at the deathmatch, the collectivity ready to act together. And in perhaps our finest articulation of Proletkult after the kinotrain, the emergence of culture outside of any industry, the convicts in drag putting on a show.
One makes do. Or rather, ones make do together. Against this cuts Snake, the mercenary who will trade against his fellow criminals out of an apparent continued belief in an American beyond the walled city. He does save the president, he does escape New York, he does resist participation in group formation.
But there is the ending of the film, that crooked non-grin of the misanthrope who will damn the world. After the president makes evident his lack of care for "those who died along the way," Snake pulls the consummate prank of culture jamming, replacing the cassette with necessary information for the defusing of a delicate, nuclear-backed political stalemate, with a cassette of "Bandstand Boogie." Having stated, "although i shall not be present at this historic summit, I present this in the hope that our great nations may learn to live in peace," the cheery sounds that spell nuclear war boom out. Below, the face of power confronted with the big band jazzy consequences of his lack of care for his citizens, even those cast off and refused.
In the final shot of the film, Snake limps away, apparently having produced an exquisite fuck-you not only to the president, but to world peace itself, tearing the tape from the cassette containing the possibility of glossing over the work of death needed to maintain the status quo.
Is this the same misapplied Hegelian logic, that by letting it burn we find there was something we should have saved? It seems not. Snake's gesture operates differently, in that we are no longer facing a flat world in which the decision can be made definitively. The fallout of his actions are not a universal condition (like the later turn in the Endo series, in which we learn eventually that what seemed to be a pandemic ending the human race has affected only certain areas and that much of the world goes on as before). Snake's refusal to play along, then, is different in that it is a knowing rejection not of the world as such but of the first world's claim to be the only world, to be the hegemonic universal beyond which there is nothing worth saving. While the film overvalorizes the "elite" or vanguard group able to navigate a survival of the fittest state of affairs, it simultaneously models a powerful and subtle version of what the revolutionary militant can, and perhaps must, be: to act as if my actions are universal while refusing to forget the embeddedness and particularity of the conjuncture, of recognizing both that we need to think that there is a course of history to intervene into while doing so by recognizing that history is out of joint, uneven and scattered.
To end, then, is to urge us to think about our position as that of apocalyptic analysis and post-apocalyptic ethics and tactics. Neither to urge the hurrying toward a bloody collapse of the system nor to sit and wait for it to come. Instead, to fully analyze our apocalyptic world. Post-apocalyptic is a mode of thought, not a state of affairs. And we face a globe in which portions are designated obsolete, forcibly shuffled off the world historical stage. In those spaces we might detect modes not of protesting this but of moving past it, of recognizing that we haven't been misplaced by accident. We are out of time, in both senses, stuck in histories that don't belong but which can be taken up and used.
If there is a site to fully recognize and deal with this, it is undoubtedly the city. Davis, Harvey, and others have been increasinly calling for the elevation of "right to the city" as a crucial rallying cry, one that might take the form of Brecht's 1921 question from his diary cited by Davis:
Where are the heroes, the colonisers, the victims of the Metropolis?
The world isn't flat, despite what capitalism and its apologists like to themselves and us. It never has been, never has worked that way, and has always depended on the casting to the wolves of whole populations, whole spaces of life. We inherit and occupy the material sites of this casting off, and the first step toward our casting off, both from this point in history and in casting off the weight of a monstrous world system, is to take fully on the burden of an apocalyptic world so that we can start to refuse it and, in this negation set on the grounds of those cities salvaged and never-quite-dead, write the post-apocalypse we want.