Saturday, July 4, 2009

Apocalypse Man and the Battle of the Nuclear Sublime

First order of business: I’m urging people who read PPP to become followers or comment or something, cause I have no idea who hits this page and I’m real curious.
It's a super long post this month. I wrote the article for the second issue of Ampersand Magazine which is an awesome, thoughtful indie magazine that totally bypasses on all the shit fashion and posuery that most of those lil magazines inflict on your soul. I’m not sure the next issue comes out but issue zero is AMAZING and you can glimpse it here. Or you can get it at Magnation and Polyester in Melbs or Gleebooks in Syd. The second issue will have a DVD extra Of Willoh S. Weiland’s Spoken word performance “Yelling at Stars”, which was the coolest thing I have seen in years.

So as many of you know I have been thinking, talking and writing about disaster movies and apocalypse for ages. Kinda like that sandwich board prophet on the highway in Arncliffe. This article is some of what I’ve been thinking but I am also doing a fringe festival apocalypse performance work called ‘meet me at The End’, so be sure to look out for it and come when it happens (late September in Melbourne).
My friend Karl Logge totally realised my vision of The End. Achtung! Die Melbourne:



The world I inhabited as a child consisted of people who had and did not have Nintendo. Before bed I spied through a peep hole at a parallel universe where things weren’t so black and white. In this terrifying TV land a third category of people lived, starved, were shot at or blown up and didn’t have Nintendo. Safe under the covers, shivering from the shock of it all, I would fall asleep to dream a recurring cataclysm that rolled thundering down the highway from Mildura to Waubra. It would destroy everything. It would rip the weatherboards from my house and send them frisbeeing through the paddock. Everything we owned would float away like errant wizfizz on a breezy recess. Luckily, we had time to escape our own deaths if we climbed quickly into the Ute and headed for Ballarat. The terror thus established, I spent the remainder of the dream poised, stressed and alone before my mantelpiece, choosing which pieces from my precious collection of ornate, though mostly empty perfume bottles I would take with me.

This was a childish nightmare about material loss, but it was also about the knowledge that the TV hold separating my world from that of the people who died starving at border checkpoints was tenuous indeed. At any moment I could be flung screaming into an existence where material possession would no longer be possible. The perfume bottles were bound to break on our perilous flight. Worse, after this there would be no Nintendo - not for Christmas, not when you turn 12. Never.

In the morning I would ask repeatedly for confirmation that yes, Waubra was too insignificant for anyone to bother bombing. Eventually my frustrated Mother informed me that even Melbourne was too irrelevant to bomb. This was confusing but reassuring. The dreams ceased.

I learned to understand mutually assured destruction as a full stop to the logic of bombs. I believed most grown-ups operated on a principle called common sense, which allowed them to be things like rulers of entire countries. That my own rulers were two people and remained so even after divorce helped me understand bipartisanism. When they wanted opposite things it was likely that no-one got what they wanted and this was called stalemate. I got it. No one would drop the bomb but it was very important that everyone let you know that they could at any time. Common sense. Check. They learn so fast at this age.

From then on whenever I thought about nuclear threat it was in an environmental context. As in, uranium mine. As in, nuclear reactor in the middle of the cancer belt or Jacques Chirak blowing up Mururoa atoll or nuclear waste site planned for (insert pristine Australian landscape here). There was a garish yellow sun decal above the outdoor dunny captioned ‘Uranium? No way.’ This linked ‘uranium’ and ‘dump’ in my cortex like two halves of a best friend chain.

It’s only now that the nuclear has returned to its context of total and complete annihilation. In fact total and complete annihilation has become something of an obsession for me and judging by the apocalyptic preoccupation in film, advertising, music and literature, I’m not alone. We are entering into a third nuclear age. The first was the 1950s - 60s when the bomb first blew out the consciousness of the world. The second was the 1980s and Reagan’s threat to the stalemate of M.A.D (Star wars). Since the Cold war ended we have had a bit of time to lay off the bomb, but now, as poorer countries break the piggy bank to start their own mass destruction stockpile we can put nukes back onto our apocalypse threat list right next to the ‘environmental threat’ of climate change. That means we should renew our passion for writing and thinking critically about it too.

During the eighties (the second nuke spell), a clique of post-structuralist literature critics banded together to urge people to write about complete nuclear annihilation. The discipline ‘Nuclear Criticism’ would be a strategy for inventing the history of the future “because if it happens, it may never have a history”. You dig? Total nuclear war can only ever be recorded in literature before it happens. After it happens there will be no writing about it. In fact there will be no literature about anything. It’s the end of history. The end of the archive. Despite its super star theorist proponents the discipline diminished. Lately, I’ve been thinking that it needs to be dragged back to the page with the extension of the term ‘nuclear’ to cover anything that is complete and total in its apocalyptic potential. What is most interesting to me is the way that we write our annihilation, and how that reflects the way we feel about society in the time we are living in. Apocalypse Man, who is our projection of the ultimate survivor as written into our disaster movies and end of the world books, but also carved into our imagination when we fantasise about how we ourselves would be in The End, changes from decade to decade and it is an interesting exercise to analyze these differences.

Like right now, we are anxious about the end of everything. We are concerned about floods, famine, disease, hurricane, earthquake, terrorism and new nuclear powers, but more than that we are concerned desperately with how we will manage these events. We have no infrastructure for disaster. Hurricane Katrina broke any illusion we may have harboured about the common sense powers-that-be being prepared for our SOS. This was 21st century America ferchistsake. If America won’t step in and play Steve McQueen to its own burning building, what chance do the rest of us have?

There are political and moral lessons in apocalypse texts, whether the texts are big budget action flicks or clippings from a newspaper. The US especially knows this. They even went to the trouble of stretching the subtext of one of the most important apocalypse texts, The Book of Revelation, to contain a kind of moral Sci Fi event - ‘The Rapture’, in which thousands of good American Christians are simply beamed up into heaven before the Earth is sogged with flood, plagued with plague and inflicted with all kinds of biblical wrath and satanic fury. The Rapture is an interpretation of scripture which is not recognized by major, non American Christian denominations such as the Catholic Church or the Chruch of England. It seems to exist only in American evangelism, to support the continued deferral of privilege to a powerful, just and mighty race. It means that even after the apocalypse certain Americans can go on being certain Americans - to hell with the rest of us.

The Rapture allows Christians to read the apocalypse as just another fable with a lesson at the end. It’s a great example of the desire for a ‘nuclear sublime’, which is defined by Richard Klein as “That all too familiar aesthetic position from which one anticipatorily contemplates the end… from a posthumous, apocalyptic perspective of some future morning, which, however appalling, adorably presupposes some ghostly survival and retrospective illumination.” It also lets Americans triumph over that old arch enemy, death, begging the question of how the US would look if it were not under attack from an extremely dangerous and evil perceived threat (Satan, The European Economic Community, Terrorists, Russians, Commies, global warming, drugs – all aptly re-titled in the grammatical slippage that occurs when we hear of the abstract ‘war on terror’). Threat supports power – affirms its existence. In this sense the US needs a nuclear enemy so that the definition of what it is to be an American is not disrupted.

But when, as in the case of Katrina, the U.S. government fails to shepherd its flock in the shadow of the valley of death, anxiety levels reach their peak. Watching images of Hurricane Katrina on TV was traumatic. Hearing survivor stories was even worse. It made no sense. It’s no wonder that when we think about The End these days, we believe we will be abandoned by common sense. This was evidence that there will be no safety net, no deployment of troops. It will be survival of the most unscrupulous.

A really new apocalypse text that gets stuck into the psychological and social affect of this is James Lee Burke’s hurricane Katrina southern noir, The Tin Roof Blowdown. People do terrible things in crime narrative, that’s the point, but in setting the story in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina the author has invited a political interpretation of a pulp genre. In Burke’s vision, criminals exploit the chaos of the storm to do terrible things and get away with it. Apocalypse Man is an impotent drunk and a bruiser who can only fight flood with fire. Animal survival instincts are coupled with a disregard for fellow man that the rogue biblical figure of protagonist Detective Dave Robicheaux would put down to both ‘evil’ and crack cocaine. The relationship between blatant apocalyptic fantasy and insidious societal breakdown is explored in depth. When a junky priest is pushed into the flood waters by a gang, onlookers witness a glowing phosphorescence which is quickly mythologised as both the priest’s holy admission to heaven or decent into the depths of hell for his weakness. Later it is suggested that the halo of light was caused by a government helicopter’s lights reflecting in the agitated water as it flew past the scores of people who were about to fall from the collapsing spire of a church and drown, without attempting to land. The good Christians aren’t Raptured. The only thing that will get you up into the sky come Armageddon is white skin and cash.

Ten years before Katrina, this glowing light that eclipses our view of late capo societal injustice could be read into the ‘white sickness’ (an instant and highly contagious loss of vision) which plagues earth in Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness. Here, humanity is snow-blind, unable to see a world “in which all hope is gone”. The whiteness is like the symptom of over stimulation. It’s ecstatic, a heavenly possession of the senses. Comparison to an exquisite orgasm is drawn - one of the afflicted thinks her blindness is the side effect of pleasure, but it doesn’t wear off and the lover is gripped by panic, she tares herself for the bed and runs screaming and naked into the tawdry hotel corridor. I read Blindness as a text demonstrating a complete loss of faith in capitalism. It made me sad. It asked terrible questions. What can be expected from people who have been neglected, oppressed, exploited and marginalized systematically for generations in the interest of making more money? Saramago compares that great emblem of capitalism, the city, to ‘a rational labyrinth’, but when men are blinded it becomes “demented… where memory will serve no purpose”. Is capitalism a building, an asylum, already ablaze? In its destruction how do we remember and enact the ideals which both motivated and corrupted its architecture?

In the 60s, during the first wave of nuclear fear, the asylum was still being renovated. Sound proofing was being installed to deaden the buzz and yelp from the ECT rooms. Sure, people were almost certain that the world was going to end – but they were confident that everyone was doing everything in their power to make it dignified. Back then, Apocalypse Man was a stand-up guy.

In Nevil Shute’s 1957 apocalypse novel On the Beach, it is the not so distant future (1963) and the fallout from the deployment of nuclear warheads has caused a wave of deadly, incurable radiation sickness which is set to wipe every human being off the face of the earth. The last country to be affected in Australia, the narrative follows the final months of a few of our country men and as far as Shute’s predictions are concerned, we should be very proud of them. Despite their own certain death the military men and scientists uphold the rules until The End. Citizens spend their final months close to family, putting their affairs in order. Total nuclear annihilation forms nothing less than the syntax of a perfect new logic. It is the reason to do or not to do. The Grand Prix must be held before the winner, by process of elimination, is merely the man with the highest tolerance to radioactivity. The nuclear apocalypse can be used as an argument to get up and go to work, or equally to stay in bed with a snifter of brandy and a cucumber sandwich. Both arguments make sense and everyone leaves it at that. If anyone needs anything they simply take it from the store but no-one would dream of calling this activity ‘looting’. Men and women still court each other and are appropriate in their advances. The rape and violence of Saramago’s and Lee Burke’s worlds are completely absent. For Shute, even the disaster itself is orderly. The radiation that will ultimately wipe out human life on planet Earth moves at a polite and even speed down longitude lines from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

In On The Beach, the last days for humanity take place in Melbourne (Mum was right. Most. Irrelevant. City. Ever. Oh, I mean except for Hobart) which, in its most desperate condition, reminds an American character of “an oriental city in the making.” This is a wonderfully innocuous racist observation which not only ignores geography, but also suggests that ‘western’ civilisation is such a finely oiled machine that even when all its structures unravel, it is still clean and efficient. Even in death, the linen is crisp and white.

The end of the archive and the destruction of history are a necessary part of Shute’s vision. When it comes to the crunch no-one knows who pushed the button first. The final war is ‘short’ and ‘bewildering’ and “no history has been written or will ever be written now.” This is typical of first wave nuclear fiction. Characters exchange gossip about which event actually caused the total nuclear war but the lines are blurred, China did this – but then Israel… And Russia. In The End, who cares? The affect is total. What’s is not so typical is the lack of a survival story. Shute is not seduced by the endless thighs of the nuclear sublime. Apocalypse Man does not triumph but takes his suicide pills and lies down with his family to die neatly, with dignity, before radiation sickness puts him at risk of soiling his person. Although submarines can host human life in the radioactive landscape, no-one suggests governments start building a submarine city. There is no On the Beach 2, the movie, starring Nicholas Cage as Jesus the Surfing Robot. Shute soberly acknowledges that the human race has made a mess of things and that the planet would probably be better off without it. He also resists the temptation to moralise our endings. Apocalypse is no-one’s fault. It is as inevitable as human nature. Maybe some other, nicer race will make a better go of it.

There is no such dignity in Blindness. Whole passages are given over to the shame and mess of shit, vomit, menstrual blood and tears when there is no careful infrastructure to conceal them. For Saramago, whether or not to embrace the nuclear sublime is a moral dilemma. The doctor’s wife – the only character who has actually ‘seen’ the disintegration of civilization watches the people rejoicing their restored vision in the street. Her knowledge, her perspective prevents her from celebrating with them. She looks up to the sky and sees the logical whiteness. Because she has seen the end, she must now go blind. Whether the ‘rational labyrinth’ of the city beneath her is still there because she sees it, or because in some way cities, even in ruins, are always still there is up to her/us.

It’s as important to analyse the imagined apocalypse of bible belt shock jocks, Hollywood heroes and authors of all kinds as it is to have our own. It’s also important to use fiction and theory to wrestle the ‘realness’ of catastrophic futures from fear mongers and hysteria parasites. Our survival fantasies and the way we write Apocalypse Man illustrate our values from decade to decade. Our world destruction scenarios reflect current anxieties about society. Deconstructing them helps us untangle the question: what are we really scared of when we think about the end of the world? Often the answer speaks volumes about dominant cultural paradigms. To me in the eighties the worst disaster was a life without the chance of material gain. To me in the 90s it was a suffocating city world without trees, but back then I thought we might get to move into space. These days, I’m not so sure. I don’t want to have the same visions as Saramago and I want to think that Katrina was just one big, terrible mistake: an accident within an accident. It would be great to have faith that people, for the most part, take care of each other and that government policy ensures that rescue helicopters will land and pick up poor black people as well as rich white ones. Unfortunately the evidence asserts that wherever poor black people are is where they will be left. When I imagine myself as Apocalypse Man, I see a very scared and conflicted person, incapable of recognising the magnitude of the event, and equally incapable of doing anything to change myself or my world. It will be too late for writing then.

The most unsettling aspect of the last days of the planet in On the Beach is the silence. People continue about their day to day. They plant for the spring that they will never see. They buy gifts for loved ones who are already dead. They consume and plan as though they didn’t know the world was ending. They still speak as though there is a future, more than that, they still speak as though total annihilation was something they could not even begin to conceive.

“’I suppose I haven’t got any imagination,’ says one of the main characters ‘It’s – it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”

And then it’s The End.