Notes on apocalyptic method

[Two sets of three thoughts: on what is to be drawn from thinking combined and uneven development and on what an apocalyptic version looks like.]

What is the perspective which underlies this model of combined and uneven development and which it offers beyond itself? What does this have to do with making sense of movies about the end of the world and our reversion/conversion to cavemen, gas-obsessed barbarians, walking corpses, insane loners in an empty city? And what foothold does it give for a radical politics posed against late capitalism?

First, it is a perspective onto the ways in which we see neither a simple monolithic advance – or reversal, at times – of history as progress nor a scattered patchwork of different time scales, historical projects, and their resultant organization of bodies and moneys. Rather, it is a properly dialectical conception of real abstractions, in this case between political geography and visions of where the world historical project is going. Specifically, it considers the consequences of the intersections between such a monolithic perspective (the march forward of global capitalism through and toward liberal democracy as a way to weather the increasingly severe economic, ecological, and sociopolitical crises bound to emerge) and the zones which can never be seen by it as other than barbaric pockets of anti-modernity, lingering vestiges of intolerance, superstition, and simpler times to be celebrated for their “authentic diversity” while folded in under certain strictures of extractive market relations.

This isn’t to say that one perspective or the other, either the unified teleology of capitalist progress or the competing and incompatible micro-visions of different historical trajectories, is more or less true. Rather, the point is to grasp how the unified vision only gains consistency through its relationship to what cannot fit into it and of how it provides an ideological backdrop for the material shaping of a world that will preserve those unwelcome zones. In other words, decisively not “flattening the world” and welcoming all equally into the financial fold, but providing the narrative of that as the cover story for an opposite practice.

Second, what does or would it mean to fight “progress”, to refuse the trendlines and timelines offered? Neither to desperately cling to past regimes nor, crucially, to fetishized the way things were. Instead, to wonder, like a strain of idiosyncratic apocalypticism at once anti-capitalist and anti-modern, if the savage might throw away his bow for a rifle in order to take aim at the very need to throw away the bow in the first place. To take up the arms of the contemporary capitalist world, either to beat it at its own game (a certain Communist vision of employing “capitalist” technology in order to develop productive forces beyond the limits of capitalist scarcity) or to take it down from within (alternately, versions of Italian workerism and certain Situationist and anarchist cultural practices). The point, as always, is to stay a bit savage in the midst of all this mediated savagery, to fight for something more equal, organized, perhaps even clean and modern, by never going totally non-native.

Third, to stress the givenness of this order. One is always in the shadow of the world that rejects you, and privation is not reduced to the grayness of a degree zero. These are apocalyptic zones, sites in which we see exposed both the collapse of capitalist universality and the revealed presence of what cannot be included (“differentiated”, recognized) without undermining the workings of the global economic order. For this reason, the degradation to the status and material forms of the “backward,” the primitive, the anarchic, the hell-on-earth is always historically marked, and not in terms of what era of backwardness a region approximates. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of certain zones (deep in jungles, high on mountains) as “unchanged since the 13th century”, or the like, claims which, while perhaps accurate in describing agricultural practices, family structure, etc, are incapable of recognizing that such zones are historically tarred, however much in shadow, with the sign of the Now, precisely because they are visible to us only as a not-this, not-Now.

Even on a less extreme scale, the collapse – and willful maintenance by powerful nations – of certain areas into the barest subsistence farming, warlord powers, “clan” battles, uncontrollable ravages of disease, and aching famine: these must be grasped as “signs of the time”, not as vestiges of what should be outmoded if we could just get everyone to agree on the universal model of liberal capitalism. These barbarisms are the direct result and fundamental support system for all those new beasts springing forth, odd innovations in finance, different ways of streamlining shipping containers, revolutions in the time scales and cycles of capital. The seeming banalities and technical details are the real writers of a new apocalypse. To counter this, to write otherwise, is to also refuse to pass through the old stages, to stand in the present while recognizing that any capture of it we manage is of a moment already passing. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, indeed.

Before proceeding further, we need to take stock of a theoretical question perhaps specific to my apocalyptic project. If “combined and uneven development” as a concept and model itself grasps the levels of hellishness that ensure and ensured, what does combined and uneven apocalypse offer, beyond a demonstration of a deep attachment to pithy rewording? The point isn’t just to ramp this up, to stress that the political and social effects of capitalism are “apocalyptic,” in the looser sense of so bad that it signals the end of things. Rather, three reasons.

1 . It is rather to stress the apocalyptic potential of these spaces, not as permanent catastrophe – a paradoxical catastrophe that does not signal end but systemic health – but as permanent visibility of the “hidden.” It is not permanent, but a historical duration, particular to the 20th century and only getting worse, in which no event can signal a phase shift. It is diffuse apocalypse.

2. Despite our brief forays into consideration of “real world” conditions, the emphasis here is on the cultural fantasies of apocalypse and what follows it. Crucially, however, these should nor be taken as just hyperbolic versions of how things really are. Visions of the world after peak oil don’t just ramp our seemingly inevitable situation, zombies don’t just take the struggle of laborers and the denigration of the homeless and make them more mindlessly and necrotically horrible. If there is an allegorical relation at play between these movies and their historical conditions, it isn’t one of standing in as the limit-case of what already is the case. Rather, the argument is that given the ideological structure of capitalism, combined and uneven development is an invisible truth. We know it to be the case, but to speak it, to show it, remains something altogether different. These films and books, mass cultural phenomena and subcultural obsessions, are the closest articulation we can get of the structures of totality underpinning this, not a mirror but a prism. In the distortions of this restless cognitive mapping, we get closer to not just the texture of an age, but the support structure on which it is stretched and formed.

3. If this odd collection of instances, this anti-canon of shared apocalyptic dreams and nightmares, are an inconstant lens onto how things are, they are also a path to be followed to what may be. They are concrete fashionings not of how things will go (the real possibility of zombie holocaust remains unlikely) but how we might like them to, kickbacks against the horror of the endless same, projections out from the barely detectable of this conjuncture to a conjecture of where this leads us. With this comes, necessarily, a revision of what apocalypse can or should mean, and an insistence on readying ourselves for the role we will have its coming to be.

So forget enlightenment, forget the worry of starting in the dusk and losing our way. Let's willfully begin at midnight, with the singing of and about the dark times.


Jeannette said...


I would like to use the owl image to print onto a pillow case for my daughter. It is not a commercial venture, just a one off of birds she loves for her bedroom re-vamp

Would I be able to use the shot, how, how much etc ?



socialism and/or barbarism said...

By all means, appropriate and use. Not actually my image, just something I found online. Any and all belongs to anyone and all, particularly if it's for what I imagine will be a pretty amazing pillow.

Anonymous said...

It's for you to decide how this relates but I've long wanted someone to conduct a careful chart of metrics having to do with human rights, animal rights and degrees of advancement, degrees of civilization. Each metric would be measured and quantified and then nations would be scored in areas of animal rights and treatment of women and minorities. Then each nation would be measured for its degree, quantity and saturation level of Christ's teachings. For instance, to a country, those withot any significant Christ saturation in their recent history treat their women, children and animals like chattle or much worse. That was the message of the movie Apocolypto - Christ changes things. And now, with thousands of years of history and records, this can be charted and this truth claim can be either affirmed or falsefied. But just looking at what people do in broad daylight in countries where Jesus is absent proves this claim. And where Christ is most taught - the human and animal rights simply skyrocket Not so where Jesus doesn't shine as seen here: