The unquiet earth, 1

[Combined and Uneven Apocalypse will be coming out sometime at the start of 2011, which gives it one year of existence before 2012 wipes us all off the face of the earth like crumbs.  As such, I'll post some teaser excerpts from the final chapter - which is on post-apocalyptic cities and things like nature and bad behavior and Godard and Snake Plissken - every so often in the months before it becomes a heavy paper object.  Some of this has its far earlier roots in the initial posts on apocalypticism back before this became a more all-consuming project.  Some of it is far more recent.

The final chapter takes on four figures of the city:

1. The city as ruins emptied of human life, a melancholic remainder and reminder of the voluntary extinction of the species at our own hands

2. The city at war with nature, on the losing end of an ongoing battle to assert itself in the face of deep ecological time and the constant push of the green into the gray

3. The city as site of uneven time, of the coexistence of apocalyptic zones with the overall functioning of commerce and urban daily life

4. The city as time-out-of-joint zone within the world order as a whole, the consciously neglected site in which collectivities may begin to emerge

What follows is a bit on the first.]

Post-apocalyptic cities tend to cling to the far poles of a primary opposition between the empty and the full apocalypse, the barren and the teeming. They oscillate between loners wandering the evacuated sites of life and abandoned hordes swarming in some reclaimed outpost of lost humanity. To be sure, the most subtle iterations claim a 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).

Running beneath this opposition, however, is a consistent aesthetic and affect of the city “after the fall,” namely, the melancholic contemplation of decay, the dysphoric nostalgia of reveling in what can never be the same again. It is not, however, a question of being alone in the urban mausoleum. To draw from film: there may be a single survivor who eventually finds a few others (The Quiet Earth [1981], the Matheson versions [I Am Legend/Omega Man/Last Man on Earth], The World, The Flesh, and The Devil [1959]); there may be a band of them (End of August at the Hotel Ozone [1967], pretty much half of all zombie movies ever made, the more lyrical parts of Terminator Salvation [2009]); there may be a whole city holding out against the wilds and wild things pounding at the gates (28 Weeks Later, Zardoz [1974], in an odd way). The thread running through is the fantasy of the contemplative museum of ruins, a waste zone (echoes of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Marker’s Sans Soleil intended) that cannot be escaped: all that remains to do is to mourn without ever putting the past properly to bed. Just the pornography of decay, perhaps experienced en masse but never collectively.

In Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a consummate film of the broken worlds loveliness, the sort of extra-urban Zone, guarded by the military, is a space closed off 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 apocalypse, 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, an empty anti-commons. The vestiges of day-to-day existence become otherworldly in their vacancy, fused with a halting spirituality notably absent in the far more subtle novella (the Strugatskys Roadside Picnic) that forms Stalkers source. This runs the full gamut from a faded painting of Lenins face, watching over an abandoned room, to the sad, silent majesty of interior sand dunes that may as well be burial mounds.
Geoff Murphys New Zealand doomsday film The Quiet Earth (1985) has the conviction to stick with the going-insane reality of a lone survivor, scientist Zac Hobson, for a decent chunk of the movie. It tempers this with some needed pleasure, a whole lot of rage, and some unforgettable visions of how to take revenge at a world with no one left to blame (other than yourself). Notably, we see a balding man dressing in a womans slip and Cesar robes, pontificating from a balcony to a pre-recorded soundtrack of applause and an audience of cardboard cut-outs of luminaries such as Adolf Hitler and Bob Marley.

This is quickly followed by a consummate revenge fantasy: shotgun in a cathedral, blowing away crucifixes, and getting to declare yourself God. Unfortunately, however, the film cannot quite take full pleasure in this, or even in the more mild forms of indulgent joy in fucking with the remnants of a world suddenly without other humans. (Aside from watching our protagonist enjoy a breakfast of a raw egg cracked into a flute of expensive champagne, the great moment of sheer pleasure comes when we cut from a model train circling aimlessly to watching Zac drive a real train.) Instead, it hints from the start that there is something fundamentally wrong with making a racket. Even before Zac discovers two other survivors and develops a normal living situation tensed around a love triangle of sorts, the film already hints that his need to yell loud and destroy the edifices of that past life are wrong, that the correct relationship to the land of the dead is deadly silence and quiet contemplation. One should lead a quiet life on this quiet earth.

Folded into this is an odd assertion of the strength of resignation. The three survivors all survived the galactic disruption of the “elementary charge” because they were at the moment of death: at the respective losing ends of a fight, a faulty hairdryer, and ones own hands, slipping into a pill overdose slumber. (There are connections between the individual decision to end one's life and the "end of the world" landscape, but here, we can imagine it turned otherwise, back onto a system-wide level: to willfully push civilization to the point of total collapse so as to therefore mediate the terms of that collapse, to weather the storm and be ready to come back from death. The worst of bellicose apocalypticism.)

The broader issue is how our melancholy, yearning, or resignation is marked spatially. We could return here to 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.” In these examples, and running throughout the genre as a common tendency, the fantasy of utopian “liberty” and the visions of an other world are located in the site of the past. And on this site, we encounter both the doomed nostalgia epitomized by strains of primitivist thought, at best, and, at worst, a form of Hegelian logic distorted beyond recognition: the strangers' encounter in the forest, to be mediated and navigated into the master-slave relation, is instead writ species wide into the fantasy of the human race confronting itself in mortal combat.

To be clearer, here, we might think of the recurrent instance in post-apocalyptic culture (for example, in Hiroki Endo’s Eden: It’s an Endless World! manga series) when an individual subject acts willfully or hints at the desire to do so in order to bring about the death of the species as a whole. This is neither bald misanthropy nor the kind of anti-human logic espoused by certain radical ecological movements (though the manga series does articulate plenty 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 “scorch the earth and reset the clock” fantasy of posturing black metal bands, this is the paradox suffocating and structuring those who face the bloodbath of the 20th century as well as those loners wandering those waste zones on the other side of the irreversible catastrophic event. Like the being that must be unlike itself to prove that its more than bare 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.


Benjamin said...

excellent news! Coincidentally advanced copies of my book arrived and one (metaphorically) has you name on it.
Explain the cover?

socialism and/or barbarism said...

ah, terrific. hold it for me, I'll grab it when I'm there in November for our sludgefest.

(by the way, will you be around a bit prior to HM? Might try to come early, perhaps I could join you in Bognor for a bit)

Cover is a drawing by Laura Oldfield Ford, of fire, graffiti, decay, general blightedness.

Benjamin said...

cool cover; be down for HM on Thursday-Sunday, teaching on the Wednesday and free before that.