2012: An Addendum

Just picked up Žižek’s new short book on the economic crisis, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, and it struck me while reading it last night that perhaps, even though 2012 was in production far before the “economic downturn” which struck in the Fall of 2008, the real horizon of the film is in fact the “seemingly out of nowhere,” “once-in-a-century credit Tsunami” (Greenspan).[1] (I am indebted to Kirk Boyle for making me recall this insight, as he made much the same point about 2012 on a panel we were both on last fall in NY.  Check out his abstract for “Metaphors that Destroy Us: Projections of the Financial Crisis,” and his very interesting article “Children of Men and I am Legend: the disaster-capitalism complex hits Hollywood.”)

The lack of any concrete, “real” cause of disaster in 2012, the fact that the films just spirals out-of-control between one seemingly unrelated disaster to the next (i.e. how could Yellowstone turning into a Volcano and the San Andreas Fault be related. . .), that drastic measures must be taken immediately w/ little to no concern for the constituency of the country, that the leaders in power ignore any other solution to the problem other than vast influxes of capital into abstract arks—rather than say mobilizing the workforce to save itself (the economy)—all these point toward the fact that 2012 may in fact be (metaphorically) dramatizing the global economic disaster.  And yes, this is perhaps to give Emmerich too much credit, that the film seems far more enamored w/ its special effects and lackluster narrative, but despite all this, what is on display in 2012 is the disaster at the heart of capitalism itself.  Not some pseudo-scientific excuse to blow up the world again, but an acknowledgment that the apocalyptic rhetoric spread around the financial collapse was far more extreme than for real natural disasters; only a film like 2012 could actually give us an image of what was being imagined in the minds of bankers, financiers, and government officials at all levels: total global destruction.

Strikingly, and I’m inclined to not wholly agree w/ him on this, Žižek focuses on various sites of apocalyptic threats as the only sites which could give the communist “Idea a practical urgency.”[2] In his latest book more clearly than ever before, capitalism contains a multitude of apocalyptic scenarios in the heart of itself—it is apocalyptic.  And it is the very ways in which it is apocalyptic which could create new antagonisms for the universality contained w/in communism, not a hearkening back to the past, either its successes or failures, but rather reinventing the lines along which the battle must be waged entirely.  He is very clear that there are four such sites of impending capitalist disaster which may in fact provoke such a reinvention:

The only true question today is: do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today’s global capitalism contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction?  There are four such antagonisms: the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums. . . . What the struggles in all these domains share is an awareness of the potential for destruction, up to and including the self-annihilation of humanity itself, should the capitalist logic of enclosing the commons be allowed a free run.[3]

Prior to the release of 2012, there was a viral marketing campaign of videos (even though they were also OnDemand) which showed Woody Harrelson’s character running through the list of possible scenarios that would “prove the Mayans right” (including nanobots, the Hadron collider, aliens, nukes, eco-disaster, etc. etc.—all the usual suspects and more).  What is interesting about these, is that 2012 could have made use of any of these threats, most of them a result of capitalism (or its future).  They are all contained w/in the logic of the film.  So the fact that 2012 had to pull a magical-rabbit-disaster out of its pseudo-scientific hat proves all the more what is at stake.  For Emmerich, and for Žižek as well, we are living at the end times.  And, whether acknowledged or not, capitalism is the horizon in which we experience what that actually means.  Of course, knowing that one is living near the end of the world is nothing new, but notice Žižek’s conviction that we are in fact there:

We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject, a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito.  For this reason, a new emancipatory politics will stem no longer from a particular social agent, but from an explosive combination of different agents.  What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletariat who have “nothing to lose but their chains,” we are in danger of losing everything: the threat is that we will be reduced to abstract subjects devoid of all substantial content, dispossessed of our symbolic substance, our genetic base heavily manipulated, vegetating in an unlivable environment.  This triple threat to our entire being renders us all proletarians, reduced to “substanceless subjectivity,” as Marx put it in the Grundrisse.  The ethico-political challenge is to recognize ourselves in this figure—in a way, we are all excluded, from nature as well as from our symbolic substance.  Today, we are all potentially homo sacer, and the only way to stop that from becoming a reality is to act preventatively.  If this sounds apocalyptic, one can only retort that we live in apocalyptic times.  It is easy to see how each of the three processes of proletarianization refer to an apocalyptic end point: ecological breakdown, the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines, total digital control over our lives. . . At all these levels, things are approaching a zero point; “the end of times is near.”[4]

And this is the whole problem.  If on the one hand, we have Bush, McCain, and Obama declaring the end of the world as we know it unless we push through the stimulus package, and Žižek saying that it is the very threats capitalism introduces which would cause the end of the world and may become sites for radical political upheaval, AND Roland Emmerich getting us all collectively “off” w/ abstract spectacles of some vague disaster-reality—do we not need to dial it back a bit?  Yes, 2012, you may be “about” the Fall of 2008, but that simply puts you (and Žižek and all the rest) in a ridiculously long tradition of this sort of thing.  A tradition that has at the heart of itself the fact that this apocalypse never happens! We are always living in the end times.  This is why all these rhetorical eschatologies are so effective.  If in fact what 2012 is enacting is financial meltdown, thank god it looks so familiar, that it is just another rhetorical disaster which will never occur, but whose effects will have real world consequences—i.e. more banking corruption, etc.  Perhaps the real lesson here is that we should just multiply possible rhetorical apocalypses, all so to insure that none of them ever happen.

[1] And perhaps nowhere is this Tsunami imagined better than when it is sweeping over the Himalayas.


[2] Žižek, Slavoj.  First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.  New York: Verso, 2009.  90.

[3] ibid., 90-1.

[4] ibid., 92.

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