Apocalypse and Utopia


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El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal

/1/ – The Closure of a World

Personal confession: There has always been something about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction/films/games that has always sat right with me. From the Mad Max trilogy to the Fallout games there’s always been something oddly comforting about the earth facing almost complete devastation. The fictionalized results varying in their nightmarish contents – alien invasion (Half Life 2 and beyond, War of the Worlds, Independence Day) ecological disaster (Cowboy Bebop, The Day After Tomorrow) deadly plague (28 Days Later, Twelve Monkeys) war (Mad Max trilogy, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Planet of the Apes series) technological revolt (The Terminator series, The Matrix series) and so forth.

The most interesting central element of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works is that of the not-too-clean-slate. The question of: how much of what was is still left (physically and metaphysically)? What is held on to and is it held because it needs to be there or because of fear of some void?

These questions bring me to Cormac McCarthy’s newest novel The Road in which a father and son wander the ash laden earth after an apocalyptic event described only as “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (p. 45). The novel, through its beautifully bleak description makes several interesting comments about the relationship of utopian and (post)apocalyptic thought. Just from the very fact that it is a young son and older father sets up the (dis)connection. The father, for quite some time saves a bullet for himself and his child so they can die together but eventually decides against this in an odd moment of hope. This is strange because of his attitude of the immediate in the book: “He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death” (p. 15). There is a utopia longing in the child, that the old man wishes to humor: “Sometimes the child would ask him questions about the world that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard how to answer. There is no past. What would you like” (p. 46)? Near the close of the book there is a wonderfully dismal passage about the concept of returning to what was before as a kind of utopia:

“The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence” (p. 230-231).

The naiveté of the old man is similar to that of Sergei Pankejecc (known best as Freud’s Wolfman). The idea is that both think that seeing the act of their own copulation, whether on a grand or small scale could somehow explain their dismal outlook. This is to ignore the fact that it is assumed that the act is there for someone to see, that an impossible point of view could lead to a deeper understanding of the act of formation.

/2/ – Abandon Hope?

I couldn’t get away with ignoring Sir Thomas More. There has been and continues to be much debate whether or not we’re all missing the joke in More’s Utopia. This has mostly to do with the well known debate over the word utopia itself as meaning ‘no place.’ However Moore may have been using a latin pun (with a Greek prefix) having the meaning be ‘good place land’ (according to Wikipedia). Regardless of the depth of More’s sense of humor I do not think it particular matters. Impossibility does not need to foreclose the striving for utopia, this is the easiest mistake. The utopian ideal seems a necessary part of human existence. Even the skepticism of a Lacanian critique admits the very necessity of the utopian hope. Yannis Stavrakakis in his text Lacan and the Political discusses the necessity of the utopian longing.

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‘I defy your utopian concepts’

Žižek, in his typical shift of perspective, discusses utopia in relation to disaster films in Astra Taylor’s Žižek!. He points out that, at least in American cinema, it is easier to imagine the end of all life on planet Earth then a slight but none the less damaging change in capitalism.

[Here though I would make one critical remark against my dear Slavoj through the example of the film Fight Club. Tyler’s final plan in the film is, through fairly destructive means, to seriously harm capitalism by wiping out the debt of countless people. Interestingly though, in reality Tyler’s plan would have worked prior to serious networking and backups created in anticipation of a kind of technological apocalypse – Y2k.]

He then goes on to say that our sense of utopia needs to be reinvented and that there are two false meanings of utopia: 1 – that utopia is an imagined impossible future and 2 – that our current state is a form of utopia, a place of endless pleasures a land of do-as-you-please. Žižek argues that utopia needs to be thought of as the urgency that requires the current situation to be redefined when it limits us, when we cannot see past its horizon. Utopia is that moment where our very survival requires us to break the bounds of the present.

/3/ – The Science fictive symptom

It is the relation between survival and utopia that speaks to the tension between the titular terms of this entry in science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The (non)relation of apocalypse and utopia in sci-fi is so common it almost needs no mention. But why is this the dominant framework in sci-fi? On level it may be the simple heavy use of myth in sci-fi and in particular in regards to creation. In all the major series there is the mythical or at least mythologized ‘paradise lost’ The myth is always knotted together with complete destruction – In Star Wars there’s the fall of the Old Republic, in Star Trek there’s WWIII leading to the invention of warp drive, the search for the 13th colony in Battlestar Galactica after the near extinction of humanity etc.

BattleStar Galactica

The relationship can be read, quite directly, as a symptomal one, as not necessarily a relationship of two separate things but two manifestations of the same element. The Lacanian symptom is that which both undermines and gives consistency to the very being of a subject. Žižek describes the symptom in the following way:

“What we must bear in mind here is the radical ontological status of the symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject. In other words, symptom is the way we – the subjects – ‘avoid madness’, the way we ‘choose something (the symptom-formation) instead of nothing (radical psychotic autism, the destruction of the symbolic universe)’ through the binding of our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 75).

/4/ – Lost in the wasteland…

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The painful ignorance or attempted division of the symptom is evident in the acclaimed show Lost. The so called ‘Others’ are, one way or the other, the children of a failed utopian project. The kidnap children and try to forcibly reform people who are seen socially as ‘damaged goods.’ It is unclear why the Others are where they are or why they see it necessary to break people down, perhaps to bring them back to a clean state.

Another example of clean slates and damaged goods is in the aforementioned Fallout series of computer games.
As the nameless hero in the first game, you are chosen to leave the vault (a huge city like fallout shelter) in order to try and find a replacement for the broken component of the water purification system. After doing that and then defending the vault from the threat of supermutants your character is cast out because you’ve changed too much. You’ve been perverted by the outside world and no longer belong. [It is discovered later that your Vault, Vault 13, as well as all the other vaults were differing experiments set up by the government. You were forced to leave because you might have disrupted the results.]

Here we could again address Žižek’s argument for a contingent utopia. It cannot be perceived as a closed system from which all the ‘bad’ elements must be excised. Nor can one accept a seat in the armchair of becoming, to ponder ‘I don’t know when but a day is gonna come…..’ The first instance we see ourselves as craftsmen whittling at the rotten wood so that a utopia, that exists at the core, in the pre-symbolic way, can be freed from the prison of its own form. The second mistaken instance is to go the other way, to export all the revolutionary potential and place in the wretched conditions of our world as we wait for it to falter. This is the mistake of Marx, of the lesson he missed from Feurerbach.

For the sake of an actual utopia one must reject the false choice between these two forms.


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