by Jacob Blumenfeld, Brooklyn Rail
Did the world already end? Did we miss the moment of our own expiration? That seems to be the question we are collectively asking ourselves at this moment through the medium of popular culture. No longer satisfied by seeing our planet repeatedly threatened by aliens, disease, robots, nukes, or nature, we find joy in watching humanity manage the fallout of disaster instead of preventing its occurrence. No longer convinced by the theme of the unification of mankind against a universal menace, we take pleasure in watching people divide and fight each other to the death along lines of race, status, and country. To believe in the once utopian ideal of the working classes of all nations joining together to make a more perfect world signifies now more than ever that one is certifiably insane.
Is there any hope left for a future without perpetual war, economic crises, environmental catastrophes, rampant misogyny, racist violence, gross inequalities, horrendous prisons, endless work? Nothing points that way. Utopia was always a stillborn idea, pronounced dead on arrival to this world we must leave. For some, the world only gets better by including more people in the wealth of society. For others, the world only improves by investing capital in productive lines of industry. Most people, however, don’t care one way or another. The point is to survive, to manage my own exploitation as best as possible until society lets me cash out with enough money to feed myself, pay my debts, and watch my kids and grandkids fall with delight towards a much worse existence.
This is the dawning of the age of post-post-apocalypse: life not after the catastrophe has struck, but after it has settled in as a permanent condition. Whether you’re a Maze Runner or a Divergent, the collapse cannot be reversed, only partially escaped. The hot Fury Road leads to an endless desert, and revolution only brings more Hunger Games. The force has not awakened, justice has not dawned, humanity has not evolved. But a world without heroes does not mean a world without villains. Billionaire vigilantes, suicidal death squads, nihilist mercenaries, and neoliberal politicians have all taken on the role of saviors from the threat of the even-worse option. The message is clear: we are the villains we’ve been waiting for. The true enemies of the present, however, are not people but abstract structures of domination. And how do you fight an abstraction?
In our mass-mediated imaginations, the structure of civilization has already collapsed due to one of the many choose-your-own-adventure disasters occurring in slow motion all around us. Whether Syria or climate change, the prison system or Brexit, the refugee crisis or Trump—it all ends in the same way: the inability of anyone to change anything at all. Progress, if it occurs, comes by accident, luck, or automation; humans only get in the way. Collective political change appears only as a cover for individual tyranny. People are constantly changing their lives to accommodate the impossibility of changing anything at all. Cybernetic dreams of greener pastures and cosmopolitan citizenship may circulate among the diverse ruling classes of the world, but for the rest of us, there’s no way to escape the utter subjection to national borders, international law, and the global market. No cosmoproletarian heroes are here to save us. Refugees come and go in every generation, but the magnitude of the desperation at the moment is overwhelming. A world civil war beckons while history marches forward inexorably to its completion in the supersession of man. No time to be alive like the present.
I’m on a boat in Alaska watching the glaciers melt away. Up here, a local tells me, global warming has a face. I’m at a social center in Berlin with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran discussing how to improve their living conditions.How do you say, one asks, “This is shit” in German? I’m at a rally in New York hearing the same damn people yelling against the same damn shame. “We can’t breathe!” the crowd exhales, surrounded by an army of blue. I’m at a conference in Vienna analyzing the social ontology of injustice (Are race and gender social kinds or personal identities?), a party in Leipzig raising funds for a radical bookstore (I first read Adorno when I was fourteen, she laughs, I wince), a meeting in London discussing the fallout from Brexit (a Game of Thrones for elites, they tell me, but without Jon Snow). I’m trapped in Jerusalem looking for a way out (If you keep walking this direction, the soldier shouts, you’ll start a new war). Shuffling around the continent like a lost child, I listen to people rant about the state of the European Union: Is this what it feels like in the United States? Labor law, no thank you! Greece should have gotten out when it had the chance. It’s still safe here, for the most part. I can never go back to Turkey. Who votes for these people? Here come the British. It was much better ten years ago. They’re buying up all the property and raising the rents! America is finally getting the kind of regime it has been exporting for decades. The more they attack, the more the right gains power.
Meanwhile, in Berlin: a political art group Center for Political Beauty sets up Roman-style arena for refugees to be devoured by tigers; Alternative für Deutschland, the new far-right party in Germany, won 10% in the most recent local election; at Maxim Gorki Theater, women between the ages of eight and eight-four tell stories of their experience of communism, betrayal, revolution, punk, love, and loss in the live performance, Atlas des Kommunismus; the radical left milieu fractures based on the importation of latest American activist jargon; tens of thousands of refugees live in mass warehouses awaiting bureaucratic validation to find work and housing; hipster party outside new vegan burger stand turns into a riot; police and anarchists play cat and mouse around the city in game of tit for tat; all the while the German secret service is mired in scandal connecting politicians, neo-Nazis, pedophiles, mafia, and murder.
As Adam Curtis smarmily voiced-over in his latest collage film HyperNormalisation, the defeat of the ’60s-led radicals in the following decades to no longer confront crisis politically, but experience it aesthetically. Yoga, therapy, exercise, drugs, performance, consumption, entrepreneurs, academia—the revolution will not be social. That is, until the uprisings of the last few years. Unfortunately, the globally interconnected movements against austerity, inequality, authoritarianism, and corruption petered out as quickly as they appeared. What’s left are mere cultural representations of their evanescence. But instead of bemoaning the nonexistence of interesting political movements, I’ll investigate some recent and not-so-recent cultural products that obliquely reveal particular aspects of the contemporary experience of capitalism and attempts to transcend it.
To start, Don Winslow’s 2015 novel, The Cartel, is a Godfather-like crime masterpiece that charts the operatic saga of the Mexican drug cartels in the new millennium. Modernized, competitive, efficient—the cartels are the flip side of capitalist firms, functioning with the help of massive American consumer demand, huge supply chains stretching across the globe, imported weapon caches, immersive social media, complex political negotiations, impressive trade agreements, private militaries, federal support, and lethal violence. Fighting the cartels is about as easy as fighting capitalism. No single player is important in the grand scheme, and the dynamic has its own laws of motion that transcend any particular move. The level of brutality in Winslow’s historical fiction is grotesque, and yet the truth is much, much worse. Despite, or because of, the cartels’ transition to a more contemporary form of economic organization, the horror seems inescapable.
HBO’s The Leftovers exudes a similar unavoidable horror, but one much less tangible. One day, 2% of the world’s population disappears without a reason, leaving the rest of humanity to carry on in their absence. Although most individuals want to forget the event and move on, some people rearrange their entire life around commemorating the irreversible break in human experience. An anti-religious cult called the Guilty Remnant breaks through the monotony of everyday life by staging mute protests against mourning, against work, against family. As a study in mass trauma, collective survival, and cognitive dissonance in the face of the unknown, The Leftovers confronts the immense difficulty of coping with loss, failure, defeat, and historical rupture. The show poses the question, what side are you on? Those who remain faithful to the temporary break in human continuity at the risk of complete isolation, or those who normalize the abnormal into a manageable form of life. Whether we like it or not, the show seems to be saying: we are all guilty remnants, living reminders of a broken world that may or may not be reparable.
The plot of the French TV series, The Returned (Les Revenants) takes the inverse scenario. Individuals in a small French village inexplicably return after death with no memory of their passing and seek to carry on life as before. The villagers both want them and reject them, caught in between the twin desires of denial and acceptance. The dead just want to assimilate, to start back where they left off, even though everyone else has moved on. The literal return of the repressed breaks the normalcy of rural life, forcing the residents to confront the past and present decisions that bind them together. The dilemma between acceptance and rejection is nearly irresolvable, for either choice would destroy the equanimity of the community. Perhaps that is why the camera focuses so much on the natural environment—the mountains, the lake, the dam—in order to highlight the feeling of being trapped, dependent on forces beyond one’s control. Social anxieties are reflected onto the environs as the village suffocates under pressure of adapting to the new-old way of life.
Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation also binds the social, ecological, and mental aspects of contemporary existence together in strange and horrifying ways. As the first part in his Southern Reach trilogy, the book portrays a zone off the Florida coast called Area X, where the rules of nature are somewhat off in an indescribable way. Teams of researchers—anthropologists, biologists, linguists—are sent into Area X to study its non-conventional physical and ecological characteristics, but the environment itself refuses to be mapped, decoded, or understood at all. Instead, the landscape mimics the intruders, studying them, alienating them from themselves while absorbing their thoughts and feelings into its amorphous, spreading totality. If that doesn’t sound like the development of capitalism, then I don’t know what does. Inspired in part by The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, VanderMeer’s Annihilation can also be read as a literary response to the following thesis of Tiqqun: “Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us.” Annihilation naturalizes this idea, making confrontation and containment near impossible options, where the only hope of escape is through the unknown itself.
Here are two contrasting visions of escape from twenty years apart, one from Kim Stanley Robinson and one from Colson Whitehead. Robinson’s 1992 space epic Red Mars tells the story of how revolutionary scientists struggled to set up a new kind of political order on the barren wasteland of Mars: a new society where economics do not subjugate people to necessity, where politics do not separate people according to nationality, and where the environment does not suffer complete degradation. But the social relations of earth cannot be so easily overcome with a simple change of atmosphere. Just like on our gravity-plagued sphere, upending embedded social and economic practices requires a political force that can unify dissidents, challenge elites, and propose an alternative organization for the social reproduction of humanity. Although this is not easy, it is possible. Robinson’s subsequent books (Green Mars and Blue Mars, showing just how this could happen) are testaments to the ’90s optimism in the faith of human ingenuity, technology, and progress.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 book of speculative historical fiction, is a bit more ambiguous concerning the prospects of progress for humanity. The story follows the travails of a runaway slave girl who uses a real underground train to escape from a zone of terror to a life of freedom. Although she escapes physical bondage, her status as property follows her across borders, and she must always remain on watch for the subtle and shifting forms of domination that different legal regimes impose. It seems that no stop on the Underground Railroad actually liberates anyone from the scars of slavery, that no place is completely free from the threat of racialized or sexualized violence. That doesn’t invalidate the singular journey towards freedom, but incorporates it into a larger story of yet untold social emancipation. For Whitehead, no matter where one escapes to, the past is always trailing close behind, stalking in the shadows.
If there is no escape from apocalypse but only different ways to live with it, then why are so many superheroes saving the world at the box office? Superheroes usually symbolize the popular desire to short-circuit the complexity of socially mediated domination under capitalism by having selfless individuals and righteous vanguards act beyond the constraint of national laws and borders in order to do what’s right for humanity as a whole. Unquestionably, they are vessels of pure ideology: depending on the angle, they can represent our secret hopes for communist revolution, fascist justice, bourgeois egalitarianism, or anarchist individualism.
This year alone the public has been bludgeoned over the head with a ceaseless rollout of blockbusters like Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Deadpool, and Suicide Squad. Almost all these movies deal with teams of heroes fighting each other instead of some external threat. In a year when people are divided more than ever concerning what kind of future they desire, it’s more than fitting that such films locate the ultimate conflict between two visions of the good instead of a fight between good and evil. The transformation of the superhero film from Western to tragedy reflects the metamorphosis of American democracy itself into an internecine conflict over its very meaning.
On television, grown-up, urban, and gritty Marvel characters Daredevil, Punisher, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have all recently jumped from comic book to the small screen with their own Netflix shows. Fighting criminal landlord gentrifiers, super-powered sexual predators, multi-ethnic mafia bosses, and corrupt anti-racist politicians, these series are incredibly popular. Along with the juggernaut of Marvel and DC films, and the host of other superhero shows on TV, this contemporary trend highlights the mass demand for seeing individual solutions to social problems.
Although contemporary pop culture has become saturated with the stories and characters of comic books from the last fifty years, it has yet to truly delve into the wild narrative forms that they have experimented with. When the convoluted continuity of the DC comic book multiverse threatened to overwhelm every individual story, the writers came up with an elegant solution: blow it all up in one giant Crisis on Infinite Earths returning everyone to a blank slate in order to begin again without the weight of history. Does this not mimic the political desire to escape the burden of the historical past that weighs like a nightmare on the living, determining the arc of individual lives according to their location in the macroeconomic hierarchy of society?
Over time, predictably, the burden of continuity returned with a vengeance, and the cyclical reboot of the narrative universe became an anticipated summer event. The Crisis on Infinite Earths intended to solve the problem of history, but alas, redoubled it. In its wake followed an Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. As in the economy, crises became the norm, not the exception. Each narrative crisis was triggered by a mixture of overproduction of story and underconsumption of meaning, both of which stem from a more general tendency of the rate of continuity in comics to fall. Each crisis was in turn solved by a simultaneous devaluation of life and regeneration of value in the form of a reboot. The reboot form has in turn spread like a virus, infecting cinema, fashion, literature, technology, economy, and politics. Family dynasties are returning to rule with a fresh polish, stagnant economic policies are painted over to look new again, consumer products are updated and rolled out once a year for no reason—“everything old is new again” might be the slogan of our generation if wasn’t already taken from the past. The ’80s is the current crime scene for nostalgia, endlessly plundered for the simple reason that they represent the childhood fantasies of the next ruling class.
Against this trend, the avant-garde comics of today have overcome the need to placate the reader’s desire for absolute moral clarity, stereotypical male and female role models, apolitical story arcs, conventional linear narrative, and digestible characters without history. For instance, Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga captures in detail the difficulty of raising a child with parents from different backgrounds—in this case, two intergalactic races at war with each other. Beautifully told and drawn, Saga offers hope for the revolutionary dream of pulling the emergency break on war. But the costs of forbidden love are high, and rebellion without popular support is rarely successful.
Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy is an intergenerational story about the failure of the children of baby boomers to provide a solution to the problems their parents left behind. When individual superheroes finally try to deal with global economic crises, the story suggests, there is no other choice but to become a villain to the working class. Defeating evil planet-eaters with telekinesis is a piece of cake compared to managing market fluctuations in the price of goods for eight billion people. One crisis leads to another as the whole world falls apart in slow motion without any way out.
In Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine, reincarnated gods walk the earth as pansexual pop stars, trailed by hordes of obsessive fans who would die for a touch. In Kelly Sue DeConnick’s brilliant Bitch Planet, women are sent to prison on another world for being “non-compliant,” that is, for not conforming to gender norms such as submissive femininity. Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals focuses on two individuals, Suzie and Jon, who can stop time when they orgasm; they use this “power” for selfish but righteous causes, eventually brings them face to face with the sex police. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther finds the King of Wakanda struggling to contain a domestic uprising by a reactionary group called the “People” allied with feminist militants and using subversive technology from abroad. Focusing more on gender politics than race, Coates makes the interesting choice of depicting the Black Panther as a counter-revolutionary politician instead of a populist hero. Timely.
Above all, perhaps Jonathan Hickman’s East of West best captures the post-post-apocalyptic aura described earlier. The sci-fi western tale of the end of the world imagines an alternate America where the Civil War never ended, where Native American tribes unified and consolidated land, power and technology in an Endless Nation throughout the Midwest, where black monarchs rule the Kingdom of New Orleans, ranger vigilantes run the Republic of Texas, ruthless corporations control the Northeast Union, Southern whites manage their Confederacy, and Mao’s grandchildren lead a People’s Republic on the West Coast. Death, a gun-slinging horsemen of the apocalypse, gets distracted from his mission to end the world, falls in love, and has a child named Babylon. Needless to say, the pro-apocalypse factions of the various nations of America are not pleased, and everything goes to hell. The tagline of the series is, fittingly, “The things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us.”
In 2016, a series of political earthquakes shook the global system, including the surprising victory of Brexit, the demagogic rise of Trump, a failed coup in Turkey, endless terror attacks by ISIS, and a surge of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. Certain populist and far-right groups used these events to consolidate their power, creating an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and hate. At the same time, however, a mass movement against the conditions of work erupted onto the streets and squares in France, black youth pushed back against the police everywhere in the United States, women and men in Rojava pushed forward in their struggle against impossible odds, and people worldwide acted in solidarity with refugees.
The struggles of the present are confusing, contradictory expressions of a confusing, contradictory world. Some demand democracy, others demand nothing. Some chant for freedom, others chant against cops. Football fans, working mothers, slum-dwellers, graduate students, baristas, high school kids, pensioners, anarchists, and union members have occupied squares, blockaded refineries, held assemblies, smashed windows, debated theory, and altogether attempted to alter the course of history away from capitalism towards something else. This “something else” is a negative placeholder for an unknown future, a volatile vacuum waiting to be filled. Whether it contains the content of emancipation or something much worse is yet to be decided.
Scratch that: the people—some of them, anyway—have spoken, and the answer is something much worse.