“Eternal, Shiny, and Chrome”: The Fabulous Capitalist Megadisasters of the 2010s

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Apocalyptexts 5: Notes on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, Tomorrowland, and Other Gleefully Thanatical Films

After brewing throughout the late twentieth century and 2000s, over the last five years (2010–15) we have seen the full emergence of a new cinematic cultural dominant: the summer blockbuster megadisaster film. Certainly there is a wonderfully long list of antecedent disaster films, but the summer blockbuster of the second decade of the twenty-first century has significantly raised the size, scale, and frequency of spectacular destruction while simultaneously swelling box office profits. The summer blockbuster of the 2010s—one of the most visible and profitable forms of contemporary popular culture—frequently displays what I, loosely following McKenzie Wark, would call “thanaticism”: “a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death.”[1] 2015’s summer blockbusters are exemplary: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, and Tomorrowland (and others I am surely leaving out, such as Jurassic World), are terribly thanatic films. Each film, to a different degree, embraces or exploits spectacular representations of destruction (San Andreas). Each is clearly thinking about what disaster means in the age of observable climate change, global risk, and hyperobjects (Avengers). And in their better moments, these films ask their viewers what it means to look at and consume megadeath represented with a glorious abandon.[2] Even more rarely, they also dare to ask what it means that people are making money off such images (Tomorrowland, sort of) and maybe even how to talk about changing things (Mad Max, again, sort of). Concerning these latter two points, 2015 might also be a watershed for the summer megadisaster film in that Mad Max and Tomorrowland are critically self-aware of inhabiting this genre, something at this point not frequently seen outside of parody and satire.

It is hardly surprising, however, that these massively expensive films that gleefully embrace pornographic orgies of destruction were released in 2015 and that they are (for the most part) grossing gobs of money. Over the past few years, the big screen has been inundated by ecstatic thanoptic fury during the summer months. 2012 solidified this trend with The Avengers, Battleship, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Sky, and Total Recall. 2013: Elysium, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, This Is the End, White House Down, The World’s End, and World War Z. 2014: Aftermath, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, The Giver, Godzilla, Lucy, The Purge: Anarchy, Snowpiercer, SuperMegaDestructionofEveryingEver, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.[3] Such films, diverse as they may be, in varying degrees signal that there has fully emerged a mass-destruction genre unique to contemporaneity, and that, by and large, twenty-first-century disaster films have departed from the twentieth-century postmodern national fantasy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).[4]

I would like to propose a theoretical grab bag of tentative explanations for the extremely successful emergence of what I am calling here the “capitalist megadisaster film.”

First, extending Wark’s discussion of thanaticism, each of these films inhabits—critically, unintentionally, or otherwise—one of the central paradoxes of life in the twenty-first century: that unchecked capitalist production will consume all the carbon resources on the planet, burn them into the atmosphere, and thereby make the planet unlivable. More than merely an update of Sigmund Freud’s death drive,[5] Wark intends thanaticism as an explanatory term that better captures such global economic, environmental, and biological realities than terms such as neoliberalism, postfordism, or late capitalism. Thanaticism is “a social order which subordinates the production of use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of existence of use value. . . . Exchange value has to unreel its own inner logic to the end: to mass extinction.”[6] Thanaticism underlies the capitalist megadisaster film. All of these films, knowingly or not, are responses to the despair of contemporaneity: the world is sliding slowly, constantly, and irrevocably toward (a) disaster (that is already occurring), and we appear to be gleefully celebrating this fact. We cannot look away nor can we imagine changing the disaster’s trajectory (with anything less than the intervention of fantasmatic posthuman supergods). Thanaticism is what makes the narratives of Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland even conceivable as products to be sold to large audiences in the first place.[7] The capitalist megadisaster film is part of the global cultural logic of thanaticism.

Closely related to this, the summer megadisaster blockbuster is also a great example of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”[8] Following Fredric Jameson’s famous quip that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,[9] Fisher locates in such exemplary texts like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) “the suspicion that the end has already come.”[10] The megadisaster film is one of the principle vehicles for capitalist realism, and the blockbusters of 2015 are exemplary expressions of it.

Third, in a variety of ways these films are all (inherently futile) attempts at totalization, attempts to think the impossible totality of contemporaneity. In this, the capitalist megadisaster film grapples with what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects . . . things massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.”[11] Hyperobjects in their size and scale far exceed an individual human’s capacity for knowing or comprehending them. Global warming, the Milky Way Galaxy, the totality of the capitalist system, the internet, plastic, all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—these are all hyperobjects. They are massive in physical scale and extend into deep time, and can be both the result of human activity and/or radically nonhuman. The effects of global warming will still be around one million years from now. In tens of thousands of years one of the clearest indicators of previous human existence will be a thin layer of plastic in the geologic record. Objects that exist at these kinds of scales dwarf our ability to concretely know them in anything except the abstract.

Morton suggests that “all those apocalyptic narratives of doom about the ‘end of the world’ are, from [the] point of view [of hyperobjects], part of the problem, not part of the solution. By postponing doom into some hypothetical future, these narratives inoculate us against the very real object that has intruded into ecological, social, and psychic space. . . . The hyperobject spells doom now, not as some future date.”[12] Though I think that Morton is correct—both about what Jacques Derrida would call the to come of apocalyptic futurity, especially as it pertains to cold war nuclear narratives,[13] and about late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century environmental catastrophe narratives set close to the present as insufficient engagements with contemporary global risk[14]—I would like to suggest that the megadisaster films of the 2010s are beginning to perceive doom not at some point in the future, but in our present, all around us. As Steven Shaviro has written about our attempts to understand hyperobjects: “We may model [a hyperobject] mathematically and computationally; or else we may encapsulate it in the form of a story. One of the great virtues of science fiction in particular is that it works as a kind of focusing device, allowing us to feel the effects of these hyperobjects—of digital technology, or capitalism, or climate change—intimately and viscerally, on a human and personal scale, contained within the boundaries of a finite narrative.”[15]

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Take, for instance, Joss Whedon’s (intolerably boring) Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film is populated by attempts to grasp hyperobjects on a human scale through narrative.[16] We may not be able to completely grasp the awesome power of all the hydrogen bombs in the world, but The Hulk as an indestructible violent force of nature captured by human technological abilities (or accidents) makes a certain kind of sense. A transcendent posthuman singularity may be so far beyond human knowing that it exceeds the combined brainpower of all the seven billion people on Earth, but The Vision walking around, talking, and fighting bad guys is eminently graspable. All the Avengers arguably stand for, allegorize, and allow us to feel the effects of hyperobjects. Captain America, well, is the United States (in all of its exceptionalist, imperialist glory, while still trying to look like a really nice guy who can, like, “lead”). Hawkeye is humanity just trying to get by without any superpowers in a world that has quickly outpaced him (yes, the species is also a hyperobject). Quicksilver is something like duration, or speed, or the fabric of space-time itself. The Black Widow might be said to stand in for the combined intelligence forces of the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war, now divested of their previous ties and operating black sites without any oversight, obliquely hidden from the world stage—such as Blackwater. The Scarlet Witch has unique access to interiority: emotion, memory, et cetera, so she might be a nice analogue for the immense surveillance powers of the contemporary internet, whether the NSA or Amazon, and its ability to understand and track affect through consumerism. I’ve never been clear on Thor. He is, what, like a god? So he acts like one of the new gods, the emergent posthuman beings of the present (like capitalism [recently] becoming artificially intelligent). And, of course, bankrolling the whole thing is Iron Man, a thinly veiled, walking allegory for neoliberalism and its ideological fantasy of the mythical genius inventor-entrepreneur as the ideal subject of the twenty-first century. And who are they all fighting? Ultron, who takes control of the totality of contemporary digital technology, becoming nothing less than the technological or postmodern sublime. With Avengers we are in the orbit of Northrop Frye’s archetypes.[17] But we are also in the thoroughly un-, post-, or superhuman; we are in the realm of hyperobjects.

There have been a variety of explanations for the rise of the superhero genre in the twenty-first century. Most clearly, CGI has made possible the representation of acts of superhumanity, images impossible before CGI’s digitally rendered dreamscapes. Hollywood has capitalized on these new mimetic capacities in the form of serialized meganarratives like Avengers. Grant Morrison, important writer of superhero comics in his own right, has speculated that superheroes have taken the place of myth in modernity, these myths mirroring those of the Greeks but updated for the needs of the present. Batman can be a dark crime fighter against corruption in the 1930s (or really whenever), a campy psychedelic ironic knowing-smile in the television show of the 1960s, a reflection of cinematic excess in the 1990s, and neoliberal crusader in the 2000s.[18] And Dan Hassler-Forest has convincingly argued that the rise of the superhero genre should be understood as reflecting the post-9/11 policies of the Bush administration.[19]

Tying these three explanations together and extending them, Avengers is a failed attempt to think life in the age of hyperobjects, but one that we should nonetheless take seriously, especially because of its failures. It is easy to read superheroes allegorically, as I just have above, but the emergence of a cinematic form that is so thoroughly allegorical and archetypal should be cause for reflection. As Alexander R. Galloway has suggested recently, there is an “unrepresentability lurking within information aesthetics,”[20] and indeed, we can and should say that there is an unrepresentability lurking within hyperobjects; they are difficult to visualize. But the superhero film allows us to construct allegories for them, which is one way of confronting this kind of unrepresentability. Iron Man is not a hyperobject in himself.[21] Avengers does not represent hyperobjects because it cannot. As Shaviro suggests, the speculative nature of science fiction (SF) allows us to see and feel the effects of hyperobjects. And this is what Avengers does. Some of the effects of hyperobjects, at least in Avengers 1 and 2, are massive battles, destruction, catastrophe, alien invasion, wormholes, nukes, an out-of-control Hulk, an imminent galaxial threat, et cetera. The effects are astounding and beyond any individual’s understanding of the world. So more than anything, what Avengers allegorically makes clear is how the rest of us confront hyperobjects: with huge difficulty. The effect of hyperobjects, at least for this SF text, is dumbfounded awe and paralysis.

Avengers presents a world in which the normal human has little to no ability to affect the world. The struggles and conflicts of contemporaneity take place at a level far above and beyond everyday humanity. Humans are just potential victims; buildings are just potential rubble. Avengers imagines a world of warring hyperobjects, beings so far above and beyond human capacities that the human becomes displaced entirely. The scene where the Avengers “escape” and regroup back to Hawkeye’s family farm makes this clear. Humans (and Hawkeye) have no place here, no capacity to understand or converse with hyperobjects. Hawkeye’s contributions to the film demonstrate that humans can participate within the realm of hyperobjects, they can influence, create, and destroy them. They can even be them. But no matter what, humans are in some fashion ontologically displaced by the presence of these new nonhuman superbeings. Giving these transcendent heroes a safe haven is a cruel joke. They do not need any such succor, for humans, at the end of the day, are left standing in awe of these demigods, dumbfounded, waiting to be saved or destroyed, with no capacity for imagining any other response or way of being. (Hawkeye also displays such a reaction at times.[22])

In many ways, too, this is what the film is explicitly about. Avengers lays bare the despair of humanity in the age of global climate change. In the twenty-first century we are all extras in a superhero blockbuster but with very little say in the matter. Further, Morton suggests that the brute reality of hyperobjects is becoming more and more apparent. Recent books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), like Avengers, dramatize that our understanding of the world and experience of reality is increasingly one intimately tied to our attempts to narrate hyperobjects. But we need to tell stories not only about capitalism v. the climate (which we certainly do!), but capitalism v. the climate v. hydrocarbons v. energy v. drought v. terrorism v. DNA v. infectious diseases v. the internet v. the NSA, Google, and Amazon v. the US government v. globalism v. radiation v. inevitable human extinction along the scale of deep time v. corporate speech v. et cetera v. et cetera. With its panoply of inconceivable, nonhuman forces, Avengers is evidence of the desperate need to dramatize some of the complicated conflicts and immense objects that define global modernity.[23] That the film cannot imagine any place for humans except as spectators or cliché cinematic heroes going “above and beyond the call of duty” (like Hawkeye or Black Widow) is only further evidence of the foreclosure of the contemporary utopian imagination.

Given that the totality of Avengers is fifty years of comics and a whole lot else, this is even more cause for alarm. What is being called the Marvel Cinematic Universe is (so far) twelve films, two major television network series, five Netflix series, and another ten films that have been announced! Avengers is a cinematic megatext without equal. It is a narrative world that seems to be exponentially accumulating, almost as if it is an organism of its own, and it has absolutely absorbed the popular imagination of the over-developed world during the past few years, more than any other single text (if its box office success is a measure of such things). If SF can help us to feel the effects of hyperobjects through finite narrative, Avengers also reveals the incapacity for infinitely accumulating serial meganarratives to coherently confront anything except the brute, overwhelming reality of hyperobjects. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, twenty-first-century thanaticism is merely met with an outpouring of more thanaticism, which is why it is all so profitable. Within the heterogeneity, hybridity, and difference that some see as defining features of contemporaneity,[24] capitalist megadisasters speak a single global language that it seems like most anyone can understand. In the face of the massive global popularity of both the superhero and megadisaster films, the inability for these forms to do anything except politically, psychically, ideologically, conceptually, and economically proliferate thanaticism should give their audiences significant pause.[25]

The failure of Avengers to do anything but highlight the brute facts of contemporaneity are even more apparent in San Andreas. An awful film that uses megadeath as mere window dressing for an overwrought, boring, and cliché family melodrama, director Brad Peyton’s San Andreas is the capitalist megadisaster at its most insidious and ideologically dangerous. Like Roland Emmerich’s films before it, San Andreas abandons any coherent engagement with contemporary geology or climate science for cheap crisis and peripeteia. Yes, California is due for another major earthquake, and certainly there are real fears about a major quake that has fascinated the US imaginary at least since Earthquake (1974). But for San Andreas to project such hyperbolic levels of destruction only serves to utterly distract from the concrete realities of contemporary global risk. San Andreas does not even need to shrilly deny climate change by screaming on the floor of the House of Representatives about global warming being a liberal hoax. San Andreas just calmly points toward a different, utterly unrelated disaster, which still bears all the markings of spectacular environmental destruction.[26] By doing so, the realities of global warming are sublimated into a fantasmatic image. And because it still looks like an ecological disaster film, we can ignore that it does not address climate change once.

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In this fashion, San Andreas could be considered a baseline norm for how capitalist megadisasters channel the thanaticism of contemporaneity. The film brutally destroys most of metropolitan Los Angeles and San Francisco for the sheer spectacle of doing so rather than for making any point about the need to address the realities of the Anthropocene. Its narrative could be told just as effectively with, like, an-almost-but-not-quite-fatal small house fire or some other real but minor crisis. Nothing in the story it is trying to tell needs a massive earthquake for the narrative’s realization. One might suggest, like Roland Emmerich’s films before it, that the film’s real and only goal is to show destruction, and thus this hackneyed narrative is just a loose vehicle for getting as many falling buildings on-screen as possible. But the intolerable amount of time it spends on the narrative and not on falling buildings suggests the opposite. What if, rather than the actual subject of the film, its massive destruction is just the only way we can understand and represent the banal crises of upper-to-middle class life in the contemporary US? Massive destruction, in this, merely becomes the norm, the constant background radiation of the over-developed world. All activities, no matter how trite or insignificant, can be made meaningful only in terms of the slow violence of the present. How does one address the complexities of dealing with separation, the threat of divorce, and marital reconciliation in 2015? Through billions in property damage and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.[27]

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It is the final scene of San Andreas, however, that captures the audacity of the film’s despair best.[28] The final shots show Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and family, having all survived and lovingly reunited, standing on a hill overlooking a collapsed Golden Gate Bridge, a flooded San Francisco, massive rubble from toppled skyscrapers, and a fleet of ships (and an aircraft carrier!) spearheading the relief effort. The Rock’s wife asks him, “What do we do now?” There is a brief pause here. A pause long enough for me to have thought to myself while watching the movie, “Please don’t say ‘rebuild.’ That would be ludicrous! Did you not see and experience what just happened? That was clearly awful and could have been avoided if, say, one didn’t build massive cities upon fault lines!” But that is precisely what The Rock says: “Rebuild.” I have not seen a cinematic moment that so perfectly captures thanaticism better than this one word uttered by The Rock. Rebuild!

As Mike Davis and many others have made clear at some length, Los Angeles has long been a site of frequent and diverse disaster; geographically, it is a particularly poor place to build a megalopolis.[29] San Francisco, though not as singular a point of potential disaster as the City of Angels, has been hit by major earthquakes multiple times and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Further, as should be apparent in 2015 with the historic droughts ravaging California, The Golden State will be particularly susceptible to climate change in a variety of ways. At a structural, economic, and civic level, rebuilding hardly seems the answer. Rather than a ringing pronouncement of human fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, the Rock’s incongruous final words signal a radical despair.

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San Andreas is capitalist realism through and through because the film cannot possibly imagine any other response to disaster on this scale. Obviously the earthquake is an analogue for the natural disasters that have occurred around the world over the past decade.[30] This kind of film cannot imagine any alternative to this endless series of present and future disasters except the endless reproduction of an order that will produce more disasters ad nauseam. This is thanaticism. This is the audacious despair at the heart of contemporaneity. As Klein points out about what she calls “disaster capitalism,” neoliberalism particularly thrives on crisis, and in this sense, “rebuild” might be considered disaster capitalism’s mantra.[31] Faced with massive destruction, destruction intimately tied to geography and locality, to places that are not all that optimal for building massive cities, the contemporary imagination can do nothing except produce more catastrophe. Not only does it not occur to The Rock that they could rebuild somewhere else, but it certainly does not cross his mind that they might not rebuild but rethink, or even unbuild. Rebuilding guarantees more disaster, which will be profitably put on screen, which will serve to perpetuate the logic of disaster capitalism, which will be put on screen, which will lead to more and more rebuilding. This is the logic of the capitalist megadisaster film in a nutshell. The genre’s thanaticism is unmistakable.

But if Avengers and San Andreas could be said to represent a kind of apotheosis of despair in the capitalist megadisaster genre, I would like to spend the rest of these brief and experimental notes suggesting that Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland gesture toward the beginning of a filmic imaginary capable of coherently (and even profoundly) confronting the thanaticism of contemporaneity.

I was honestly shocked by how much I liked and how moved I was by Tomorrowland. The thesis of the film is simple: the beautiful, utopian vision of the future that characterized certain strains of the 1950s imaginary, and which gave birth to the section of theme park at Disneyland that is the film’s namesake, is over. We no longer have any vision of a better future. Utopia is nostalgic, retro, base, naïve, gone. One of the theses underlying much of Jameson’s work, especially on SF—that the utopian imagination has been foreclosed by late capitalism—is the thesis of Tomorrowland![32] Further, the film explicitly says that the waning of utopia, the disappearance of a bright and hopeful future, is because of all the capitalist megadisaster films. The massive proliferation and popularity of the spectacle of disaster in the early twenty-first century is the very thing that forecloses the future because these kind of projections shut down our ability to imagine anything else.[33] The film’s answer to this situation is also straightforward. We need to massively reinvest in an anti-eschatological imagination, in humanistic activity, in art.[34] And all that is not even the most uplifting part: Tomorrowland is a children’s film. Who would not want their children being exposed to such a seemingly necessary and (gasp!) hopeful message?

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But we should also be skeptical of something that may just ostensibly be a vehicle to increase attendance to a waning section of Disney’s theme parks, which has, for sixty years, been nostalgically profiting off of representing a mythical 1950s moment of American exceptionalism that never existed. For we should not mistake Tomorrowland’s primary purpose: to make sure that whatever sense of the future we have, it will be a Disney® future. The imagination and the future have always been among The Walt Disney Company’s principal products. And a movie about (i.e., promoting) an area of a theme park is baldly selling us this particular mode of utopian imagination. (This is something that Jean Baudrillard warned us of a long time ago about Disneyland.[35]) In Tomorrowland, imagining the future and imagining capitalism are inseparable. Further, a true cynic would suggest that Disney is playing the long game with Tomorrowland. They want people to look back upon the persistence of an area of a theme park devoted to thinking about the future even though we are already in it. Fifty years from now, having an old vision of a positive future to look nostalgically back upon will, I imagine, be quite profitable. That we (perhaps, depending on how bleak the future is) don’t have such a vision of the future right now means that it must be manufactured so that there will be something to be nostalgic for—i.e., 2015, a time when the world had not yet descended into water wars and madness and could still imagine a better world (more on this in a moment).[36]

So, with this mind, it is telling that the movie has proved to be a notably expensive box office flop.[37] Neither utopia nor Disneytopia appears to be very profitable, especially within the regime of the sensible created by thanaticism. Perhaps this signals the utter foreclosure of the imagination: not even Disney can make utopia profitable anymore. But this also means that it is perhaps all the more remarkable that Tomorrowland exists. The film refuses to spectacularly display and profit off of the spectacle of mass destruction (and its violence is fairly kid friendly). Tomorrowland’s rather striking commitment to an anti-eschatological imagination asks us economically, formally, and explicitly to think about a different world, one where utopia rather than apocalypse would be profitable. Few films accomplish such a thing, and it seems like a long time since any film has. For no other reason, Tomorrowland is a notable accomplishment.

Mad Max: Fury Road takes a decidedly different, and less rhetorically obvious approach to both inhabiting and critiquing the capitalist megadisaster film, while pointing a way beyond (and through) its form. To be clear, I think Fury Road is brilliant. I am hard pressed to think of a recent major film that have I enjoyed more and that inspired in me such serious reflection on a variety of things.[38] That such reflection was produced primarily through action sequences with astoundingly kinesthetic, violent, fast, and visceral images—rather than dialogue or exposition—I found absolutely remarkable.[39]

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From the moment Fury Road begins, there is something about it that seems inevitable. This is a film that was simply waiting to be made given the aesthetic regime of contemporaneity and the emergence of the capitalist megadisaster film. Spending scant seconds reflecting on the legacy of the first three films, how its world became a postapocalyptic wasteland, and the narrative loosely stretched between Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981; The Road Warrior in the US), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), we are thrust into a chase scene that never truly ends until the film’s teleological, orgasmic finish, punctuated by a flaming guitar ballooning out of the 3D screen in one of the most satisfying conclusions to a chase in the history of its form. Unlike Avengers, with its truly staggering amount of “character development,” or San Andreas, with its family melodrama, Fury Road has stripped away everything inessential. George Miller’s masterpiece has dispensed with any need for a dramatic architecture that develops in a traditional fashion. Long conversations between characters have been replaced by Max (Tom Hardy) barely grunting words while clambering over the remains of mid-century Detroit, speeding toward the blasted horizon. Flashbacks last for mere seconds, and instead we get Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron’s) foot on the gas.[40] Sinister monologues explaining the villain’s aims and motivations have been replaced by singular images of tyrannical despotism.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is what a capitalist megadisaster film looks like that no longer even bothers to try to hide its thanaticism.[41] Its cinematic accomplishment rests on the fact that, in the absence of heart-felt embraces and middle-class affect, San Andreas and Avengers would be relatively short films, and probably pretty unwatchable.[42] Fury Road can barely contain itself. Its runtime speeds by with nary a desire for the pace to be slowed, for a moment of respite from its relentless barrage of action. In this, Fury Road wonderfully captures the temporality of the present. Relentless, pounding speed fueled by hydrocarbons, ideology, enframing, and heavy metal, human life is willingly accelerating toward its purposeless, unquestioned telos and demise, and it is doing so ecstatically. It seems practically beside the point to say that such a vision of contemporaneity is a logical apotheosis of the form given the current trajectory of megadisaster cinema.

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The film’s vision is captured in the War Boys’ mantra: “May you ride eternal, shiny, and chrome!” An automobile death cult devoted to the tyrant, Immortan Joe, the War Boys are thanatics unquestionably loyal to the regime of blood, oil, milk, and water—the fluids that define the society of Fury Road.[43] Afflicted with lymphoma, anemia, and other cancers, using human “blood bags” to stay alive, and motivated by an afterlife in Valhalla, Miller brilliantly fuses together myth and capital with his creation of the War Boys. In recent years, faced with capitalist realism’s inability to imagine any other world than our own, thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek have suggested that “the solution resides in an eschatological apocalypticism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment. . . . This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement.”[44] Žižek’s point is that only a radical, apocalyptic rupture can change the thanatical trajectory of the present. The War Boys’ “eternal, shiny, and chrome,” however, speaks to thanaticism’s potential ability to traverse apocalypse. Even after the end of the world, Miller shows us the persistence of “a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death.”

One of the most important fictions that underlies our present neoliberalism is the idea that resources are rather infinite, that capitalism can keep consuming oil without having to regulate its use, without having to change or question itself. The free market will respond to global realities and create the best of all possible worlds. In the Mad Max universe, however, the apocalypse has come and gone but it has not dislodged the inhuman forces of capital, of thanaticism “eternal, shiny, and chrome.” The shiny, gooey interfaces of contemporaneity, the chrome of automotive infrastructure, the eternity of capitalist accumulation, these all persist after the end. The mythological force of “eternal, shiny, and chrome” in Fury Road, its power to shape the imagination of the War Boys, seems hardly ideologically different than the same mythological treatment of the automobile in something like The Fast and the Furious series (2001–15). Consequently, what Fury Road suggests is something even more bleak than Žižek’s thinking: even a revolutionary eschatology, even an apocalypse that disrupts and destroys the structures of our world, even a blasted wasteland without life, water, hope, or resources, even the reversion to violently oppressive feudal patriarchy, even in the face of all this, the thanatical logic of “eternal, shiny, and chrome” persists. Even after the fulfillment and realization of catastrophe, there will be more fantasmatic images of the same.

Part of Fury Road’s brilliance can be located in how it refuses to shy away from such a doomy, deeply cynical vision of human life. Tomorrowland ethically refuses to dwell on spectacular destruction; spectacle is Fury Road’s raison d’être. It takes the fantasmatic logic of disaster film and pushes it (and without too much CGI!) as far as it can go. It does not resist the genre. Fury Road fully inhabits it, celebrating its excess and hyperbole, its fabulous aestheticism and crass (if wildly complex) kinematics,[45] so that it can push through the genre to something else. For at the end of the day, the mantra “eternal, shiny, and chrome” is everywhere contradicted by Fury Road. Nothing is shiny. The automobiles are all mid-twentieth-century cars running on spit and hope, jerry-rigged for Armageddon.[46] Nothing is chrome. The only chrome available comes in a spray-can that poisons as it beautifies. And eternity? Death is everywhere, human society is barely hanging on to a post-biological planet that is about to enter a deep lifeless geologic nonhuman time.

Even more to the point, Fury Road, like Snowpiercer last summer, offers a rather significant vision of democratic, collective, societal transformation precisely because it pushes through (rather than against) its genre. There is no moment of revolutionary rupture, just a slow movement toward a transformation of the dominant regime by devoted revolutionaries capable of imagining a better world. Fury Road, like Tomorrowland, suggests that eschatology, in whatever form it takes, cannot create the conditions for a sustainable, livable future, nor can apocalypse serve as a way of envisioning significant social change.[47] Evan Calder Williams has powerfully suggested that “what we need, then, is an apocalypse.”[48] Fury Road suggests that apocalypse is part and parcel with contemporaneity, that there is no difference between its own radical “salvage punk” ethic and the continual repurposing of the past, aesthetically and otherwise, that defines contemporary culture. By embracing thanaticism, while coherently critiquing it, exposing it for what it is, Fury Road through the capitalist megadisaster quite astoundingly arrives at something new, emergent, unseen, unheralded.

I left Tomorrowland with the profound realization that the crisis of the imagination has now become so widely acknowledged that even Disney is attempting to suggest the need to reinvest in poetics. I left Fury Road with the realization that, no matter how bleak our present and no matter how widespread the cultural logic of thanaticism and its aesthetic regime may be, there is still the possibility for aesthetic emergence, for the imagination, for new ways of thinking about and understanding our world. That a film that is nothing more than a glorified two-and-a-half-hour chase scene was able to accomplish this I find absolutely remarkable. Thus the important word in my title that might distinguish Tomorrowland and Mad Max from Avengers and San Andreas: fabulous. Mad Max is fabulous because it wholly, complexly, and critically embraces the present in all its dumb stupidity and excess, and it does so by never for a moment shying away from the aesthetic.[49] We are hearing on all sides that the humanities are over and done with, that art has no role to play other than as a commodity, that we need reconceive of, say, the English major as job preparation. In such discussions, the importance of what art is and does can often be radically obscured. Mad Max: Fury Road is a testament to the power of the aesthetic to build worlds and to present the possibility of other worlds; it puts the imagination on violent, spectacular, hyperbolic, ridiculous display. Hopefully there are many more fabulous films to come.

 

Notes

[1] McKenzie Wark, “Birth of Thanaticism,” Public Seminar Commons 1, no. 2 (Summer 2014): http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/birth-of-thanaticism/.

[2] Not all the films have such better moments.

[3] N.b. that these are not exhaustive lists, merely the quickest I could generate skimming through summer releases from the past few years. This is also to note that 1) the trend of violent, spectacular, apocalyptic or postapocalyptic film is in no way a new phenomenon in United States or global cinema—i.e., the trend did not “begin” in 2012—only that it seems to have ramped up during the summer months in the past few years, and that 2012 seems as good a place to start as any (2010 or 2011 would be just as good candidates for beginning such a list, but many of those years’ truly postapocalyptic films did not appear during the summer months); and 2) not all of these films might be as spectacularly violent as others, and indeed, some are satires of such violence, but they all, in some fashion or another, revolve in megadisastrous orbit. (In other words, Iron Sky was not seen by many, and it is clearly a spoof on a whole bunch of things and kind of dumb, but it is still participating in the mass-destruction genre.) Also, one of the above films was made up.

[4] By my count, though nukes frequently appear in such films, when they do appear they are thoroughly removed from their historical context as weapons potentially employed in mass quantities by sovereign states. In The Dark Knight Rises a nuclear weapon (which is not even really a nuke) is used for terrorism; in the first Avengers film, Iron Man redirects a nuclear missile aimed for New York (to kill aliens) through a wormhole to kill aliens (saving New York).

capnuke2

The national fantasies involved with such representations of nuclear weapons differ significantly from the nuclear texts of the cold war. For more on the transforming national fantasies of the post-cold war period, see Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). For some of my own further discussion of the ways the post-cold war disaster imaginary has transformed, see Bradley J. Fest, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, ed. Michael Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), 81–103.

[5] See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), trans. and ed. James Strachey (1961; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

[6] Wark, “Birth of Thanaticism.”

[7] There is evidence that George Miller was developing Mad Max: Fury Road since at least 2002, which makes it all the more telling that it took roughly a decade to get made. Perhaps depicting the despair of the world risk society had not yet registered as a potentially profitable situation for studio executives willing to finance such a film until recently. See Adrian Martin, The “Mad Max” Movies (Sydney: Currency Press and ScreenSound Australia, 2003), 7.

[8] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2009), 2.

[9] “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations. I have come to think that the word postmodern ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind” (Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994], xii).

[10] Fisher, 3.

[11] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1.

[12] Morton, 104. I also cannot help quoting Morton on the doominess of contemporaneity: “Just to go hog-wild Heidegger-style for a moment, doom comes from doom and dooms doom; this doom marks a decisive moment in which humans doom the nonhuman and thus doom the doom of Earth with greater doom” (148).

[13] See Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now: Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives” (1984), trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 387–409.

[14] I am think especially of the work of Roland Emmerich: Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009). Though all of these films are ostensibly set in the present, their reliance on massive, unbelievable, unscientific, fantasmatic crises occurring and then destroying massive portions of the globe puts them nearer to the tales of MAD than they are stories that dwell on the disaster of the present. For instance, 2012 does not even posit climate change as the catalyst for global destruction. Rather, it explains its global catastrophe through changes in the sun. One might even go so far as to suggest that the fantasmatic nature of Emmerich’s disaster oeuvre represents a willful obfuscation of the realities of contemporary environmental issues for purely financial gain predicated on spectacular fear-mongering.

[15] Steven Shaviro, “Hyperbolic Futures: Speculative Finance and Speculative Fiction,” Cascadia Subduction Zone 1, no. 2 (April 2011): 4.

[16] I owe thinking about superheroes as hyperobjects to Gerry Canavan’s comments on Pacific Rim in, “Vile Offspring of the Long Postmodern: Capital as Artificial Intelligence,” at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference, Notre Dame University, October 2013.

[17] See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957; repr. with a new foreword, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[18] See Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011). On Batman as a stand-in for neoliberalism, see Aaron Bady, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Dark Knight: Occupy Batman,” New Inquiry (25 July 2012), http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/do-not-go-gentle-into-that-dark-knight/. (Also, I wonder what the action figure for “Neoliberal Batman” would look like.)

[19] See Dan Hassler-Forest, Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2012).

[20] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012), 86.

[21] Even if my language above depends upon just such metaphor. It is really quite difficult to discuss hyperobjects without recourse to figurative language.

[22] For a take on Hawkeye that furthers the reading of him as dumbfounded sideline witness to hyperobjects, see Matt Fraction’s recent run on Hawkeye, nos. 1–21 (August 2012-February 2015).

[23] I take this phrase from Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity? Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism,” The European Journal of Social Theory 6, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 275–92.

[24] See, for example, Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[25] After watching the finale to Season 5 of Game of Thrones (2011–15), one might be tempted to suggest this about contemporary television as well.

[26] The destruction of Los Angeles and San Francisco in San Andreas is indiscernibly different than 2012.

[27] And is this not exceptionalist US individualism at its most absurd?

[28] I owe the phrase “audacity of despair” to a couple different plays upon the title of Barack Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Crown and Three Rivers, 2006). See Donald E. Pease in Black Orpheus, Barack Obama’s Governmentality,” in “9/11/2011,” special issue, Other Modernities, special no. (2011): 1-28, esp. 28, where he shifts “audacity of hope” to “radical despair”; and David Simon’s blog, The Audacity of Despair.

[29] See Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage, 1999).

[30] E.g., Hurricane Katrina (2005), the earthquake in Haiti (2010), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), the Fukushima meltdown (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (2012).

[31] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[32] See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005). This book is the final chapter in Jameson’s (projected) six volume Poetics of Social Forms.

[33] As Jameson revised his famous quip: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (Fredric Jameson, “Future City” [2003], in The Ideologies of Theory [New York: Verso, 2008], 573).

[34] For my further discussion of anti-eschatology, see Bradley J. Fest, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatology in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” boundary 2 39, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 125–49. (This is another way of saying Tomorrowland feels like [the end of] my elevator speech: “In order to have a better future we need an anti-eschatological imagination; literature is one mode of articulating such an imaginary.”)

[35] See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), and America (1986), 2nd ed., trans. Chris Turner (1988; repr., New York: Verso, 2010).

[36] Or rather, in the spirit of the film’s hope, remember back in 2015 when we saved the world with Tomorrowland’s simple message about the imagination?

[37] See Pamela McClintock, “Disney Could Lose $140 Million on Tomorrowland Flop,” Hollywood Reporter, June 10, 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-could-lose-140-million-801244.

[38] And as this particular essay has ballooned far past my initial plans, I will reserve many of these reflections for a later date.

[39] Fury Road, in this, is very much in line with what Steven Shaviro calls “post-cinema” in Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2010).

[40] This is to say, of course, that there are a few brief interludes where we get Furiosa’s backstory, but I would like to suggest that her character is developed more powerfully through action than in these brief moments of narrative exposition.

[41] As McKenzie Wark says, “All cinema is anthropocene cinema, but not all cinema knows it. George Miller, it turns out, knew all along” (“Fury Road,” Public Seminar Commons, May 22, 2015, http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/05/fury-road/).

[42] Though I do think it is also inevitable that someone makes a Roland Emmerich film without any of the narrative: just two hours of disaster porn.

[43] On this point, see Wark, “Fury Road.”

[44] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (New York: Verso, 2009), 148–49. Žižek develops these points further in Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010).

[45] Cinema plus kinetics.

[46] The film significantly does not have any later model cars, as they would be impossible to keep running without digital computers.

[47] Recall that radical inequality persists in Snowpiercer’s vision of postapocalypse.

[48] Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2011), 5.

[49] I owe this point about the aesthetic dimension of Fury Road to a conversation with Racheal Forlow.

Repackaging the Archive (Part VIII): The Pittsburgh Pirates and Fantasy Football 2012

Anyone who has ever read this blog before is probably not too terribly worried about it turning into a “sportsing blog” (or even, for that matter, a blog that talks about fantasy football [hereafter “ffootball”] or football or balls or l’s), but the part of me who adores watching numbers get larger—a not insignificant part—that gamic, stats-seeking, archival, nerdy, baseball-card collecting citizen of these United States . . . that oozing little pus of an excuse for subjectivity, is participating in at least five ffootball teams this fall: two w/ friends and three w/ total strangers (b/c I get bored sometimes and think it seems like a good idea to sign up for random leagues, which always feels weirdly unfulfilling after the drafts are over). In other words, the National Football League for the next little bit, in a an unprecedented fashion for me, has the potential to become my own little tiny archive of interest—i.e. interest in players that I have no vested interest in, other than, quite simply, hoping their numbers go up. I’m horrified, excited, and embarrassed. Mostly, I suppose, embarrassed. (And excited by numbers getting larger. Seriously.)

And so you’re probably like: so why the hell are you writing about it then? We didn’t have to know. Would’ve saved ya a lot of embarrassment. Well, I guess that’s the thing. R. and I went to see the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight, the first time all summer, for what is by all accounts an important game,[1] and what an idea sports is/are. The Pirates of the past 20 years are debatably the worst “team” of all time (see fn. 2). But how much merchandise everyone was wearing. How many people were there.[2] How expensive the beers were. Etc. It doesn’t matter how good the team is, who owns them, who’s playing for them, what their uniforms look like, where they play. We realized that what people enjoy, what they pay for, and the very real pleasures that sports can provide revolve around the idea of the Pirates. The name. The abstraction. The “team.” W/ the recent incarnations of the Pens and Stillers, it’s been much more difficult to ascribe fandom w/r/t those teams merely around just some vague abstraction. Sidney Crosby may very well be the best player alive right now. Among the many other reasons one might watch the Steelers, Troy Polamalu may very well be the NFL’s most consistently fun player to watch since 2003.[3] In other words, it’s very, very easy to look at the ’burgh’s other teams and realize why people might like watching them, rooting for them, wearing their jerseys, paying the seven dollars for a hot dog, etc. The Penguins and the Steelers have had those “transcendent” moments since I moved here that sports fandom is all about. They’re great, and watching some of those moments has also been great. Each team is more (and less) than an idea. They are specific, concrete, actual. We can point to things we like about them: players, moments, etc. But, to be blunt (and unfair), it is difficult to do such pointing at the Pirates of the last 20 years (okay, 8 really, for me).

So just as there is absolutely no real reason to be a Pirates fan at this point other than a geographic and frankly arbitrary sense of fidelity to an idea (and not even a very good one at that; the Yankees or, say, Manchester United, are far better ideas)there is no reason to play ffootball other than its idea.[4] But what exactly are these ideas?

What the “P” on fans’ Pirates hats signifies, is, well, a greedy and poorly run corporate conglomerate that said fan is ascribing w/ way more value than said organization in any way deserves. Same w/ the numbers in ffootball. My 2 team freshman year in ffootball made two things clear that anyone who has engaged w/ the simulation even briefly knows: 1) it’s random, like really random, and there’s nothing you can do about it b/c there simply isn’t enough complexity to the game to play it so well as to avoid the sheer, stupid (if almost great) Jordy-Nelson-scoring-30-pts-in-week-17-and-thus-catapaulting-my-terrible-Tebow-led-team-to-within-one-point-of-the-championship randomness; and 2) it completely changes the way I watch actual foozball, finding myself caring about and cheering for dudes I didn’t even know existed before ffootball. In other words, my team is a poorly wrought abstraction that has very little to do w/ 1) me, my choices, or my agency; or 2) the players themselves (let alone any version of football whatsoever). Ffootball, and I admit that this is explicit in its name, can never be anything more than an idea/abstraction.

So what are these ideas that we find ourselves so collectively taken w/? For I will admit that I very much enjoy my ffootball team winning (as well as the Pirates tonight), and I, in all honesty, have little-to-nothing invested in either one, so such enjoyment seems meaningless at best, and insidious, compulsive, neurotic, solipsistic, etc., at worst. Well, as the ffootball season is about to get under way, I’m gonna try to figure that out, try to figure out why I enjoy these particular numbers going up, why I choose to watch this game rather than another (or better yet, doing something else), why I haven’t given up on the Rooney family even though they’ve kept (the simply reprehensible) Ben Roethlisberger around. And ultimately, in both the Pirates and ffootball’s case, I feel like the idea is probably an archival one.


[1] Seriously, I was in a place they were showing ESPN today, and I caught that the Pirates were gonna be on tonight! (My rare use of exclamation should signal how singular that is; it is probably also significant that I didn’t remember this until about the 4th inning. We had gone downtown to go out to dinner, and decided to go see baseball instead since it was starting in like 10 min. and we couldn’t see a reason not to, other than we were kinda dressed fancy [seriously, it was weird—there’s nothing like heels, a print dress, and some new black jeans (I think my first pair ever) to make one feel out of place amidst a gaggle of yinzers in jerseys (nothing gainst the yinzers—I prob. am becoming one at this point, and that’s the thing, the fancy dress was an accident; neither of us even realized baseball was a possibility before we saw the crowds [which also immediate revokes my “yinz card”—or in other words, I gave a vocab quiz today, what am I? my third grade teacher? (I’m looking at you Mr. Lohr)])].) I feel like I lived through a period of Pittsburgh baseball history spanning from 2004 (when I got here and started paying attention) until, well, just now, during which the Pirates did not once play in a game after Aug. 1st that appeared on ESPN. And if they did, it certainly wasn’t b/c they were in the playoff race. The randomness, and really perfection of the evening—the Pirates won 5-0, Wandy Rodriguez was impressive, as was the middle of the Buccos order, and it was freaking gorgeous at the ever wonderful PNC Park—was probably akin to some cosmic mistake, where all of a sudden the entire city of Pgh entered a simulation of what would happen if the movie Major League (1989) started to dictate reality (in no way to suggest a hapless-equivalence b/t the heroic 2012 piratical hickory wielding monsters of tonight’s diamond conflict and Charlie “Wild Thing” Sheen’s team). This is all to say, the Pirates right now are in a fairly good position to make the playoffs this year, not to mention have their first winning season since 1992. They’ve had the most consecutive losing seasons of any major American professional sports team ever. (Really.) No wonder I’d sorta gave up on them a year-or-so-ago. I just couldn’t take the front-office-has-given-up-so-many-times-and-as-a-result-look-like-they’re-not-even-trying-anymore-to pretend-like-their-only-goal-isn’t-to-just-go-on-happily-making-a-tidy-little-profit-by-paying-what-the-Yankees-pay-for-A-Rod-for-a-whole-team(-minus-Doumit)-while-dealing-away-every-player-I-could-possibly-care-about. Seriously, since I have lived in PA, to the best of my memory, Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jason Kendall, Jose Bautista, Nate McClouth, Nyjer Morgan, Mike Gonzalez, Oliver Perez, and Ian Snell, and many, many others have been traded away, year after year, right before the trade deadline (wow, if they would’ve kept, and paid, even just those guys, that would’ve been quite the team b/t 2008-2010, w/ McCutchen leading off, and at this point probably not even the best player on the team. Hindsight? No. Anyone in fracking distance could’ve told the Pirates that these were all guys they should’ve kept during the last 8-20 years. It’s nice to see them winning, but hell. Unlike Bill Simmons’s understandable (if annoying) Boston fandom (see Monday’s article on the BoSox), the Pirates owners have been too truly terrible. As such, it is a dubious proposition whether or not the team’s fans should reward them too much for one winning season. If the players do some awesome miraculous stuff this year and win the series, it’ll be great, but the sins of Nutting et al shouldn’t go away so easily. Needless to say, I am conflicted about my Pirate fandom.

[2] There also weren’t that many people there, to Pittsburgh’s credit. Many whole sections were vacant for this “important” game.

[3] And he’s a sweetheart, has long hair, is hot, and the ladies love him, unlike some of his other notable teammates.

[4] This, of course, isn’t totally the case, as Captain Eegee’s Tucson Expats have gathered together a geographically displaced—and thus not arbitrary—group of people who I will very much enjoy, well, whatever it is that people “do” w/ ffootball. Go Pgh Scholars (renamed Happiness Is Submission To).

No Pulitzer for DFW’s The Pale King. . . or Anything Else

So again, I somehow missed some DFW news (or non-news), but DFW’s The Pale King was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, the other two being Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. As Ann Patchet wrote in an op-ed for the New York Time, “And the Winner Isn’t. . . ,”:

With book coverage in the media split evenly between Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games, wouldn’t it have been something to have people talking about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterwork about a toiling tax collector (and this year’s third Pulitzer finalist)? Wallace is not going to have another shot at a win, which makes the fact that no one could make up their minds as to whether or not he deserved it all the more heartbreaking. (The Times also had a few people weigh in on who should have won the award.)

In my mind, however, the decision by the Pulitzer board makes a kind of sense. Admittedly, I haven’t read Johnson or Russell’s books yet, but if we just allow for the moment that The Pale King was the best U.S. novel of 2011, then the lack of an award speaks volumes. The Pale King is fantastic, but it obviously unfinished, and as such, I would have a hard time giving it any kind of award. (I guess I’m of the mindset that awards should be given for complete, fully realized works. My weird conservatism I guess.) Giving no award, however, is a kind of implicit acknowledgment of The Pale King’s value–i.e. in a year when one of the best novels was unfinished, and clearly had quite a ways to go toward completion, perhaps no one should win. In other words, I don’t think The Pale King is award-worthy, but in a year when an unfinished DFW novel is “more worthy” than a host of other texts, no one should get it. This isn’t a travesty, or the Pulitzer dropping the ball, or them doing harm to the ailing literary establishment, or not doing their part to encourage reading, etc. (and of course they did give out many other awards). Rather, it is a quiet statement that acknowledges DFW by not acknowledging him. And perhaps for such an unpublished, posthumous novel, no matter how deserving it or the rest of his writing may have been for a gaggle of awards (I need hardly mention Infinite Jest was roundly snubbed come award-time), the decision displays a kind of quiet poetic justice. (I also have to imagine he would have appreciated this sort of thing.) In a time when we are all too ready to quickly level hyperbolic and unfounded judgments and critiques against anything and everything, when loudly voiced opinion seems to be the only discourse with any traction in the public sphere, choosing not to judge, refraining from a decision, being mindful that doing nothing is preferable to doing something just for the sake of doing it, in short, preferring not to. . . perhaps the Pulitzer went to the only person that could win it in a year that saw the publication of one of the most important writers of the late 20th-c.’s final, posthumous, unfinished work: no one else.

Freedom and the Bomb Threats at the University of Pittsburgh, Spring 2012

I have been teaching Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) for the past five weeks. During that time the University of Pittsburgh received 125+ (and  counting) bomb threats,[1] with as many evacuations. That the conjunction of these things would lead a college literature course to ask more general questions of “freedom,” what it means to be free, what role institutions play, etc., is obvious. And we have had quite an interesting discussion of some of these issues. But, particularly within the context of Franzen’s novel, there are some deeper and more fundamental questions regarding freedom that these threats raise.

The terrorism the university is experiencing threatens basic academic freedoms. And not in the usual sense we ivory tower dwellers mean when discussing things like tenure or FERPA, but how something as simple as Mixmaster is powerful enough to threaten the very foundations of a major public institution. The effects such threats have on an urban campus like Pitt, with its attendant hospital buildings, adjacent universities and colleges, is considerable. And the threats are now beginning to spread outside the university.[2] When 34,000 students and attendant faculty are undergoing continual evacuations, to the point that attendance policies have been thrown out the window, the stress and anxiety in the urban/academic landscape is palpably evident.

And here we are, talking about Franzen’s novel, having a very interesting discussion online, and my students are afraid to come to class. The facebooks, with its multiple grad student/student/professor connections, has only exacerbated the situation. (Like, we all know more-or-less immediately that, in a completely unrelated incident, this happened the other day.[3]) And yet we are having class. And frankly, this has been one of the most interesting classes I have had the privilege of teaching, largely due to the fortitude of my students who are coming to class. I have made it clear to them that their attendance has ceased to be mandatory. Sure, not all of my students were there for the past two weeks, but many of them were.[4]

So it struck me last week, that since the questions of the course largely involved postmodern representation, with all the simulacra and simulation of White Noise (1985), the spectacle of 9/11 in the American imaginary, and various other writings of disaster, the form of these bomb threats and the affect they are producing deserves particular attention. Pitt is experiencing, quite simply, a simulation of terrorism, terrorism as simulation. The other night I was reading a particularly strong interpretation of the presence of aerial warfare in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and could not help but note how Paul K. Saint-Amour’s analysis of false air-raid alarms after World War I was particularly apt for the current situation:

The same assessments implied that the panic induced by false alarms was in some ways more disruptive than that caused by actual raids. Unlike the realized physical violence of a raid, a false alarm provides no catharsis for the sense of endangerment it produces; it mobilizes anxiety without providing it with a kinetic output. Thus the very falsity of the alarm emphasizes a condition of hideously prolonged expectation, a state of emergency that is both perennial, in having been detached from the arrival of violence in a singular event, and horribly deferred—the advance symptom of a disaster still to come.[5]

These bomb threats have effectively revealed that what was once an advance symptom of a disaster “to come,” has become the disaster in-and-of-itself. The state of exception, the feeling my students have of being constantly threatened, has become the norm. Campus life has adjusted, and already the bomb threats have become an old, perhaps tired point of conversation. The institution has already internalized the state of exception. Receiving 3 or so text messages daily from the university’s Emergency Notification Service is not only unsurprising,[6] but expected. And this is one aspect of what is so frightening about these bomb threats. They may never end.

Further, it was reported in both The Wall Street Journal and Forbes today that the FBI has seized the servers of activist group Riseup Networks in an effort to track the emails that are making up the bulk of the threats. Riseup provides an email service so that activists and whistleblowers can remain anonymous. Says the spokesperson for Riseup, Devin Theriot-Orr, “Our position is that anonymous speech is vital to a thriving democracy. Anonymous remailers are used by democracy activists, people in oppressive regimes and whistleblowers. There isn’t a way to run an anonymous remailer that allows good anonymous speech and not bad anonymous speech.” Theriot-Orr further added that, “[The FBI’s raid] is an attack on all forms of anonymous communications.”[7] That whoever is making these bomb threats is taking advantage of a system designed to protect freedom of speech is particularly disturbing.

Compounded with the fact that recent suspects included a transgender couple once associated with the satellite Johnstown campus, there is something disconcerting about the turn these threats are taking. At the time of this writing it is unclear why these threats are being made. No demands have been made public, and no ideological position has been taken by whoever is issuing these threats. Nonetheless, so far there is an undeniable political dimension to the (public) targets of the FBI’s investigation. And the fact that the FBI has seized the server of a group whose explicit goal is to protect speech, raises some very complex questions regarding security and privacy.

It has been difficult as an instructor to think through these questions vis-à-vis teaching Freedom. For Franzen’s novel complexly explores questions of, quite simply, freedom, and the difficulty of being “truly free.” As Lev Grossman writes in his article on Franzen for Time magazine,

For Franzen’s characters, too much freedom is an empty, dangerously entropic thing. After all, energy companies are free to ravage and poison the breeding grounds of the cerulean warbler. If Patty and Walter divorced, they would be free, but it’s a freedom they would do almost anything to avoid. At her lowest ebb, Patty reflects that she “had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.” And no one is freer than a person with no moral beliefs. “One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions,” Franzen says. “And a way of further surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions.”[8]

The bomb threats have made clear that a certain level of security is necessary, and I for one, as someone who is both professionally frustrated by the constant disruption of these threats, and concerned for my student’s physical and psychological well-being,[9] want these threats to end. The question of what restrictions on freedom are necessary to achieve such a conclusion, however, when it seems quite apparent that no one has any idea who is behind the threats, and that we have gone far beyond the question of does-freedom-of-speech-protect-your-right-to-yell-fire-in-a-crowded-theater, makes the current situation a particularly problematic one. For the threat being experienced by the entire Pitt community, costing millions of dollars, potentially doing damage to Fall enrollments, and further exacerbating the financial situation of an institution already making large cuts due to decreased state funding, is, at this point, fundamentally discursive.

For my final lecture of the year yesterday, this is something I emphasized to my students. For, no matter what one may think of Freedom (warts and all [or my own take, which I am of course not as emphatic about at this point]), our reading of the novel in the context of both the larger questions of the course and the ongoing bomb threats has served to emphasize that risk projection is an incredibly powerful force in the postmodern imagination. And perhaps, despite Franzen’s own worries about the role of the Novel in the late-20th c., that reading literature forces us to ask questions about freedom, representation, and disaster, about the increasingly precarious position of public vs. private discourse, this hopefully foregrounds the vital role studying the humanities can play in attempting to comprehend and imagine an alternative to the terror Pitt has experienced for months. If I myself have learned anything from my students this semester, it is that there is something important about getting together, carrying on, and talking seriously about a novel that deals with serious issues, perhaps especially in adverse conditions. And if nothing else, I am incredibly in debt to my students for that.


[1] And, crazily, the bomb threats already have their own Wikipedia page. See link above.

[2] I do not think it improper to point out that these threats are beginning to resemble spam. . . .

[3] Further, thinking that my students would feel safer outside the frequently threatened Cathedral of Learning, they are now expressing fear about the openness of the park we are in, and the possibility of a shooting.

[4] To add another layer of mediation, not only do I find myself frequently searching “bomb threats at Pitt,” I also just got a text message (one of many), informing me that the Cathedral hasn’t blown up this time either, in so many words.

[5] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Air War Prophecy and Interwar Modernism,” Comparative Literature Studies 42.2 (2005): 140.

[6] In fact, Pitt has recently started a video campaign played on monitors at various points on campus requesting that students not opt out of the ENS. Seriously though, receiving many text messages every day is quite annoying.

Also check out this vid from MSNBC.

[7] Qtd. in Andy Greenberg, “FBI Seizes Activists’ Anonymizing Server in the Probe of Pittsburgh’s Bomb Threats,” Forbes (19 April 2012), http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/04/19/fbi-seizes-activists-anonymizing-server-in-probe-of-pittsburghs-bomb-threats/.

[8] Lev Grossman, “Jonathan Franzen: The Wide Shot,” Time176. 8 (23 August 2010): 46, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2010185,00.html.

[9] One of the more despicable aspects of the threats has been the frequent and continual threats to student dormitories at late hours of the night or early morning. For instance, students have been forced to sleep on cots in the gymnasium during these threats.

Abstract: “‘Literature has always belonged to the nuclear epoch’?: Interrogating Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality”

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting / discussing at a seminar / roundtable at the 2012 Northeastern Modern Languages Association Conference (NeMLA), taking place March 15-18 in Rochester, NY. The panel/seminar will address nuclear criticism, and is titled “Nuclear Criticism and the ‘Exploding Word.'” Michael Blouin at Michigan State is organizing the seminar.

“Literature has Always Belonged to the Nuclear Epoch”?: Interrogating Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality

During the brief heyday when nuclear criticism was a visible and viable critical practice—from around 1984 to 1993—one of its principle debates raged around a provocative statement made by Jacques Derrida in the founding document of nuclear criticism, “No Apocalypse, Not Now.” Derrida famously remarked that global nuclear war is “a phenomenon whose essential feature is that it is fabulously textual, through and through.” Critics such as Peter Schwenger, Avital Ronnell, and, to a lesser extent, Richard Klein embraced this statement in quite productive and interesting ways. J. Fisher Solomon, William J. Scheick, and others, though clearly indebted to Derrida, took issue with nuclear criticism’s emphasis on the textuality of the nuclear referent, wanting instead to practice a more ethical nuclear criticism, one that constantly stressed the reality (rather than poststructural textuality) of nuclear weaponry. This debate culminated in Christopher Norris’s Uncritical Theory (1992), a considered response to Jean Baudrillard’s infamous article, “The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place.” Right around the time Roger Luckhurst, Klein, and Ken Ruthven were considering the “future of nuclear criticism,” however, not only did the debate end, but the explicit practice of nuclear criticism disappeared with the end of the Cold War. (Ruthven also suffered the curious fate of publishing the first and ostensibly last study of nuclear criticism in 1993).

As one of the goals of this panel is to seriously take up the question regarding the function of nuclear criticism at the present time, an endeavor I consider to be of paramount importance for a number of reasons, this paper will return to this historical debate in light of our contemporary moment. Rather than situating this debate between the “archive” or “text” and the “real,” however, my aim is to interrogate an equally provocative statement of Derrida’s that, to my knowledge, has not been seriously discussed anywhere: that literature “has always belonged to the nuclear epoch, even if it does not talk ‘seriously’ about it. . . . I believe that the nuclear epoch is dealt with more ‘seriously’ in the writings of Mallarmé, of Kafka, or Joyce, for example, than in present-day novels that would describe a ‘true’ nuclear catastrophe directly and in a ‘realistic’ fashion.” What does Derrida mean by this offhand remark? What could Kafka or Joyce have to do with the “nuclear epoch”? I will argue that for the practice of nuclear criticism to go forward, we must take Derrida’s statement quite seriously, for it points to a more fluid, rigorous, and historically adaptable form of nuclear criticism than what has previously gone under that name. Specifically, I will consider the final scene from the “Cyclops” chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and the “Nausicaa” chapter more generally, as definitively nuclear moments. To do so not only returns us to the past of nuclear criticism’s internal debates, but forces us to ask the serious questions: what is nuclear criticism, what are its current or possible roles, and what is its appropriate critical object? If something as canonically inscribed into the archive and as exhaustively studied as Ulysses can still benefit from the practice nuclear criticism (especially considering it cannot really be called explicitly nuclear at all), then we must take very seriously nuclear criticism’s current possibilities, not only in a world circumscribed by disasters of all kinds, but to imagine a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

If Decadence Signals the End, Then We’ll Experience the End Decadently; Or, the Pornographic Fallout Shelter: What to Do w/ Too Much Money

CBS recently reported that Van Nuys-based porn company Pink Visual is building a “luxury” fallout shelter for the “impending” 2012 global disaster. “Multiple fully stocked bars [and by “fully” I suppose this really means fully; the booze has gotta last for the rest of time. The production of Peppermint Schnapps I don’t think will be a priority in the post-apocalyptic wasteland], an enormous performing stage [cause clearly pole dancing will take your mind off your dead and dying friends and relatives], and a sophisticated content production studio [so that one of the major human endeavors of the early 21st c., according to any scan of the internet, will not cease: the production of pornography].” Orgy at the end of the world.

Would the advertisement go something like this?: Are you despairing that humanity is gone, and the reconstruction of the world is nigh impossible? Have you given up all hope? Can you see no way to go on, to make life meaningful again? Have you always wanted to live in a hedonistic lifestyle of non-stop orgiastic bliss? Do you care more about your own personal pleasure than about anyone else? Do you want to spend millions of dollars merely on the possibility that the world will end and you will somehow be able to make it to California (and survive), where clearly your now worthless money will grant you entrance to the VIP club of the party to end all parties!? Fear not, we have your answer! Spend the rest of your lifetime not trying to eke out a miserable existence among the dregs of an irradiated and potentially cannibalistic humanity, but rather cynically/naively forget the past and future by making, well, porn. Oh, and if the internet goes down, there will still plenty of porn on the networks in-house (or rather, in-fallout-shelter).

This is the worst. Weirdly, their design looks awfully panoptic. Read briefly about this absurdity here.

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.