Image credit: Lori Nix, “Subway”
No figure better represents the contemporary American attitude toward apocalyptic mass culture than Walter Benjamin’s angel of history—provided, however, that we reverse it. In a well-known passage from “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin imagines that the angel in Paul Klee’s drawing Angelus Novus is looking back on the catastrophes of the past. Although the angel “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” his wings are caught in a storm that forces him, backwards, into the future. While the American angel of history also gazes at catastrophes, he faces the opposite direction: his back toward the past, he is transfixed by the culture industry’s spectacles of the (post)apocalyptic future. And on this angel’s face is not an expression of melancholy, but a curious smile in which terror and exhilaration have become indistinguishable.
Rarely has a culture been so fascinated with narratives and images of its imminent destruction. Like the wreckage that piles up at the feet of Benjamin’s angel, today’s apocalyptic blockbuster films and TV shows, paperbacks and video games, comics and commercials, seem to be reaching a kind of critical mass. Amazon.com sells everything from the latest apocalyptic fiction and DVDs to knives, flame-resistant clothing, and other supplies for surviving the coming collapse of civil society. Advertisers use the image of the ruined city to sell heavy-duty pickup trucks during the Super Bowl, or, in director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Coca-Cola. The news mimics the plotlines of apocalyptic films as it routinely announces natural disasters, pandemics, financial crises, urban riots, and even the occasional “zombie.” As Marx once said of capitalism, the culture of apocalypse has nestled everywhere, settled everywhere, established connections everywhere.
The challenge that lies before the cultural critic is to understand why contemporary American culture enjoys its apocalypses so thoroughly. In other words, the problem resides in what Jacques Lacan called jouissance. Although roughly translatable as “enjoyment,” the French term has additional sexual connotations and signals, in Lacan’s usage, the “excessive, properly traumatic character” of enjoyment (Žižek): self-destructive enjoyment; neither pleasure nor pain alone, but pleasure in pain. I want to interrogate the apocalyptic jouissance of American culture by focusing on what I consider to be the dominant mode of apocalypse today, namely, environmental or eco-apocalypse.
Contemporary American culture has been imagining a seemingly endless series of environmental calamities: tidal waves, floods, Ice Ages, meteors, wastelands of gray snow, tornadoes in downtown Los Angeles, wildernesses growing among the ruins of New York City.
What atomic war was to the apocalyptic visions of the Cold War era—namely, the genre’s cultural dominant—corrupted and vengeful nature is to the apocalypses of our current age of climate change. The comparison is instructive, for in both cases—here I offer my first thesis about apocalyptic jouissance—apocalypse is the symptom of a culture that more or less consciously disbelieves in collective human action, since it can imagine qualitative, systemic historical change only by projecting action onto inhuman technologies and natural forces. Despair lurks in apocalyptic culture—the despair of praxis. Phillip Wegner calls this despair “political alienation: the radical sense of otherness too many feel when faced with the prospects of their own potential for action.” Thus, one of the reasons that visions of eco-apocalypse abound today is that our sense of the reality of climate change is inversely proportional to the conviction that we can stop it; in other words, the more vivid our perception of impending climate disasters, the greater the absence in the collective imagination of a political project that can stop them, much less reverse the dangerous trends.
If despair and alienation are all that is at stake in American apocalyptic enjoyment, then surely this enjoyment is perverse, perhaps even dangerous. It turns the despair of praxis into entertainment. Let us recall what the Angelino in Independence Day says right before the invading alien spaceship blasts the building upon which she is dancing ecstatically: “It’s so pretty.” To this we should reply with Benjamin’s critique of the fascist aestheticization of politics: “[humanity’s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”
But while such a judgment is essential to an ideology critique of American commodity culture, it is too limited. Eco-apocalypse comes in many aesthetic and political varieties. An anatomy of eco-apocalypse would have to include at least the following forms:
Perhaps the foundational text in this tradition is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson opens the book with a “fable” about the apocalyptic disappearance of birds and other animals from a small American town. The culprit is “a white granular powder” that “had fallen like snow upon the roofs and lawns, the fields and streams”—a pesticide, or as Carson preferred to call these chemicals, “biocide.” In Silent Spring and other eco-apocalyptic jeremiads, the apocalypse serves as a dire warning, a call for the nation to reform before it is too late.
In this form, environmental disaster upends the hierarchies of the political order. One of the most memorable examples can be seen in Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, in which extremely rapid and catastrophic climate change causes a massive migration from the United States to Mexico. Like the utopian satires of Cyrano de Bergerac, Thomas More, and Jonathan Swift, in which the representation of the European encounter with non-European cultures “originates in a satirical impulse to turn things upside down and inside out” (Rieder), The Day After Tomorrow satirically reverses the roles of the United States and Mexico. Apocalypse removes the United States from its position of power in the immigration debate by symbolically transforming its citizens into “illegal aliens.”
3. Nationalist comedy
In Deep Impact, the environmental disasters caused by a meteor destroy much of the United States, but the narrative and visual logic of the film suggest that apocalypse is actually the best thing that can happen to the nation.
As the proto-Obama President, played by Morgan Freeman, delivers a hopeful speech in front of a ruined White House, he reassures the nation that it will rise from the ashes. But the nationalist eco-comedy is distinguished not only by its happy ending, which it shares with most blockbuster apocalypses, but, more significantly, by its usage of apocalypse as an excuse—a motivation of the device, as the Russian Formalists would put it—for a triumphalist allegory of the nation’s rebirth. In this case, American apocalyptic enjoyment is not a perverse relishing of political powerlessness, but rather a technique for reinventing optimism. After the end comes the new beginning, the production of which turns out to have been the true end, the true objective, to which apocalypse is the means.
Nonetheless, I hesitate to revise the thesis I offered above. Is it not alarming that the price of imagining new political collectivity is mass violence and death? How enormous the blockage of the American political imagination must be if only a doomsday meteor can dislodge it.
But instead of continuing the anatomy, I want to toggle from genre to what is known in utopian studies as the utopian impulse. It is difficult to make blanket claims about apocalyptic jouissance because forms that can be regarded as triumphalist, reactionary, or even fascist nonetheless express a utopian desire or wish—if not for a perfect society, then for a society qualitatively better than the one in which the utopian dreamer lives. I may strongly disapprove of the way Deep Impact achieves optimism, and of the way that apocalyptic mass culture more generally makes fun of despair, but to ignore the utopian impulse within apocalypse is to overlook American culture’s persistent longing for alternative futures beyond the reformism of traditional politics. Once we extract the utopian kernel from the apocalyptic shell, we can arrive at the following answer to the question of jouissance: Americans enjoy apocalypse because it gratifies utopian wishes. Apocalypse serves as the symbolic underground, as it were, of the utopian imagination, a means of indulging utopian dreaming by momentarily disguising utopia as its opposite, the end of the world. In anti-utopian times, the utopian imagination must go underground and mask itself. While we need to account for the variety of motivations behind apocalyptic enjoyment, including quasi-fascist ones, we must recognize that what also captures the fascinated gaze of the American angel of history is the excessive pleasure of utopia.
To return now to eco-apocalypse, we can inquire more specifically into its utopian impulse. If the nationalist eco-comedy destroys America in order to save it, I want to highlight a utopian impulse that makes the nation disappear. My second thesis, which must stand in constant tension with the first, is that eco-apocalyptic jouissance is motivated in part by the desire to transcend the national form. For the end of the world is also the end of the nation as the dominant spatial and temporal frame of experience, and a starting point for imagining what I call post-national ecology, a form of community that comes after the end of the nation. Freed into the longue durée of green futures, of worlds in which the natural environment has outlasted the United States, the eco-apocalyptic imagination can discover more inclusive ways of being with human and nonhuman Others.
Lori Nix’s City
I will focus on two symptomatic visions of post-national ecology, the first contemporary, the second appearing at the outset of what used to be called the American Century. I begin with the work of the photographer and diorama artist, Lori Nix. Nix can be seen as a twenty-first century Thomas Cole, whom she considers, along with other Hudson River School landscape painters, to be among her greatest influences. What Nix finds compelling in the work of the Hudson River School painters is their representation of the sublime: “When one views these beautiful depictions of landscape, one immediately sees God in all his glory and is filled with awe and/or terror by His majesty.” Although her work differs from most landscape art in that Nix, with the help of her partner Kathleen Gerber, meticulously handcrafts her own settings, she is also an artist of the apocalyptic sublime. Her photography produces a compelling mixture of awe and terror—“the exact definition,” according to Slavoj Žižek, “of enjoyment (jouissance).”
Nix’s encounters with the sublime began during her childhood in a rural part of Kentucky that she describes as “known more for its natural disasters than anything else.” Every season produced its own local calamity, “from winter snow storms, spring floods and tornados to summer insect infestations and drought.” In contrast to the adults’ fear, Nix experienced these events as “euphoric” disruptions of everyday routine: “Downed trees, mud, even grass fires brought excitement to daily, mundane life.” An incident from Nix’s childhood exemplifies her experience of the serendipity of disaster: a few days after a tornado, Nix discovered among the debris an oven with a fully cooked ham inside.
To be sure, Nix admits that she fears the possible futures of climate change, but what makes her work such a fascinating object lesson in apocalyptic enjoyment is its ability to capture the dark comedy of apocalypse, its strange combination of anxiety and pleasure. “I am interested in depicting danger and disaster,” she writes, “but I temper this with a touch of humor.” If there were a counter-concept for Roland Barthes’s punctum, the aspect of the photograph that wounds the viewer, it would be the lightheartedness evoked by a raccoon in Nix’s Clock Tower, which playfully peeks out of one of the empty cardboard boxes that are strewn about the dilapidated, post-apocalyptic room.
Clock Tower is part of Nix’s “The City,” a collection of post-apocalyptic urban scenes that is reminiscent of the Desolation canvas of Cole’s The Course of Empire.
Nix describes the images as depicting “a city of our future, where something either natural or as the result of mankind, has emptied the city of its human inhabitants.” “These spaces are filled with flora, fauna and insects,” Nix continues, “reclaiming what was theirs before man’s encroachment.” In Subway (see featured image above), the floor of a rusted subway car is covered with mounds of sand and weeds. A rat scurries across the tiles of a Laundromat at Night. Plants bloom weirdly and luxuriously in Botanical Garden. But perhaps the most impressive image, at least for my purposes here, is Library.
The library is a common figure in post-apocalyptic representation because it provides an index of the conspicuous absence of the human world. When H. G. Wells’s time traveler journeys into the distant future in The Time Machine, he finds a library in ruins. “The brown and charred rags,” he observes, “I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces and every semblance of print had left them.” “The thing that struck me with keenest force,” he continues, “was the enormous waste of labor to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified.” Similarly, the protagonist of George Stewart’s post-plague novel Earth Abides, to which I will return below, surveys the ruins of the library of the University of California at Berkeley and wonders: “What would be the use of all these books now? […] There was no one left now, to carry on. Books themselves, mere wood-pulp and lamp-black, were nothing—without a mind to use them.”
A similar sense of loss haunts Nix’s Library. These books stand silently in their neat cases, or are strewn across the dusty floor, bespeaking an enormous waste of intellectual and creative energies. After all, books exist only for the sake of future readers. They are externalized memory, physical media that are potentially more durable than the mind, that fragile medium inside our skulls. As both Wells’s time traveler and Marx recognize, books are objectifications of labor power—the stored up intellectual labor of past generations. What Library allows us to glimpse is a world without readers—a world without any need for externalized human memory or “dead” intellectual labor. In fact, the wonderful irony is that Nix’s Library is not really a library, since the things in the bookcases and on the floor are not, strictly speaking, books. This “library” is instead a collection of objects that have fallen out of culture and back into the natural substances from which they were made (wood-pulp and lamp-black, as Stewart describes them).
There are no readers to make use of these books, to activate their cultural value as books, and thus to make them more than paper and ink. In their place is the inhuman gaze of what appear to be eastern bluebirds, who are perched in the trees that are growing, in a startling shift of context, inside the room. This gaze, which rests in the cool neutrality of not caring about books, marks the end of the human world. Ironically—and amusingly—there are also stuffed eastern bluebirds in a display case: but now the birds are free, and it is the dead human world that is “stuffed,” petrified, and on display.
But so far I have ignored the most important object in Library: the tree in the middle of the room, illuminated by the sunlight that pours in from the broken ceiling. The tree appears to be reaching for the light, growing toward it, as though the sun itself had called it to grow in the most unlikely of places. The tree makes good on the lyrics of the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Library is not only about the melancholy loss of culture, it is about the light that gets in through an apocalyptic crack in the human world. It embodies the fascination that competes with apocalyptic fear throughout “The City”—a fascination with change, with “what a changing world can bring” (Nix). What Library teaches viewers to enjoy the longer they study it is not only the skill and artistry that went into creating such a detailed post-apocalyptic setting in miniature, but the emergence of a different world, a green future blooming extravagantly across the old temporal and spatial boundaries of the nation.
As Wai Chee Dimock argues in Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, it was the myopia of national space-time that allowed American marines to ignore the destruction of a real library, the Iraqi National Library, with its irreplaceable artifacts from the ancient Near East, during the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Operating under a military timetable, and under the short chronology of a young nation,” Dimock claims, “[the marines] were largely indifferent to the history of the world.” Nix’s Library reverses this myopia: the photograph inverts the destruction of the Iraqi National Library, placing its library beyond the “short chronology of a young nation,” in the longue durée of earthly time.
My second example of post-national ecology is the novel I mentioned above, George Stewart’s Earth Abides. Published in 1949, in the early years of the American Century, Earth Abides is today regarded as a masterpiece in science fiction circles.
Outside the genre, however, most scholars have forgotten the tremendous breadth and depth of Stewart’s career. An English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the prolific Stewart wrote literary criticism (The Technique of English Verse, 1930), a biography of the California writer Bret Harte (Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile, 1931), a history of the Donner party (Ordeal By Hunger, 1938), cultural geography (Names on the Land, 1945), and philosophical anthropology (Man: An Autobiography, 1946), among others. As for fiction, Earth Abides was not Stewart’s first novel; two previous efforts, Storm (1941) and Fire (1948), were pioneers in the eco-disaster genre and were widely respected for their scientific rigor and imagination.
To give only the briefest of summaries, Earth Abides tells the story of Isherwood “Ish” Williams, a graduate student in ecology who has survived a plague that has depopulated most of the United States (and probably the planet). Admitting to my inability to do justice to the novel as a whole, I want to focus instead on two aspects of Earth Abides. First, Stewart periodically interrupts the narrative with italicized sections that describe how humanity’s near extinction has affected the natural environment. These sections of the novel highlight earthly and celestial environments that are indifferent toward humanity’s downfall, shifting the novel’s temporality into the earth’s “deep time,” which Dimock provocatively characterizes as “un-American time.”
The almost complete removal of man, though in some ways an unprecedented earthly catastrophe, had not in the slightest affected the earth’s relation to the sun, or the sizes and locations of the oceans and continents, or any other factor influencing the weather. Therefore, the first autumn storm which swept down from the Aleutians upon the coast of California was ordinary and conventional. Its moisture extinguished the forest-fires; its raindrops washed from the atmosphere the particles of smoke and dust. Behind it a brisk wind swept down cool and crystal-clear and air from the northwest. The temperature dropped sharply.
The passage resembles the book of Ecclesiastes, from which Stewart borrowed the novel’s title. Ecclesiastes belongs to the wisdom tradition in biblical literature, and teaches that “vain illusion is overcome and relative peace achieved when the striving of human beings, each with just a brief lifetime to live, is seen against [the] backdrop of natural eternity” (Miles). Stewart appropriates the naturalism of Ecclesiastes to depict the nonchalance of geological time, the longue durée in which the histories of nations, and of the human species itself, are mere moments. Ocean, continent, rain—these and others will survive humanity’s disappearance because they are older than we are and do not need us. Yet the sections of deep time must be italicized and offset because they are incompatible with the main narrative. Deep, nonhuman time cannot be narrated, at least not for long, and not without anthropomorphism. A narrative that is truly faithful to the durée of geology must read like an immensely long (and boring) procession of facts; from the human perspective, nothing can happen in such a “story” because whatever change eventually occurs can have no purpose, because no intention, behind it. At most, Stewart can place deep time and narrative time side by side on the page, thereby highlighting their tension. While the main narrative reminds us that the earth is ineffable in itself, that whatever lies beyond the human must be figured in human language in order to be intelligible at all, the flashes of deep time de-Americanize the American Century. Earth Abides deprograms the national imagination and opens it up to wider timescales and richer forms of life, reminding the reader of the nation’s transience, its smallness, the arrogance of its claim on the future and the planet.
The second aspect of this novel that I will highlight is the conflict within the protagonist, Ish, over the legacies of Americanism. After starting a small community with several other survivors in Berkeley, Ish struggles to motivate his “Tribe” to begin the hard work of rebuilding American civilization. Ish favors his son, Joey, because “he had the competitive spirit, the old-time drive, so characteristic of Americans, for getting to the front.” When Ish tells a group of children, who have only heard rumors of the Americans—that mythical race that created all the cars, guns, and the grocery stores’ seemingly endless supply of canned foods—that he is American, Ish feels “pride come over him…. It had been a great thing, in those Old Times, to be an American. You had been deeply conscious of being one of a great nation.” Ish even has a recurring dream that government officials appear and reassure him that the United States still exists. Ish will open himself to the utopian impulse of the post-apocalyptic world only when he escapes this dream, that is, when he no longer wishes to return to the American Century (which was still, we should remember, the postwar reader’s present, and which was rearticulated in the 1990s by the Project for a New American Century).
By the end of the novel Ish realizes that he has become the Last American (see my previous post on Mitchell’s The Last American for a possible intertext), the only living survivor who remembers the nation at all. The power of the novel resides in these closing chapters, in which Stewart presents Ish’s eventual acceptance that Americanism will disappear from the world as a triumph. His hopes dashed by Joey’s death, Ish comes to accept that the Tribe will not restore American civilization. Unlike Ish, the Tribe does not dream of the American “competitive spirit” and can-do attitude: “It did not want civilization. For a while the scavenging would go on—this opening of cans, this expending of cartridges and matches stored up from the past, all this uncreative but happy manner of life.” Yet because he is troubled by the prospect that the Tribe will one day run out of canned food, Ish decides to do something more concrete: he shows the Tribe children how to make a bow, and presents it not as a tool, but as an instrument of play. In this way, Ish satisfies his longing for creativity: “He looked at the bow, and knew that creative force had again returned to the world. He could have gone to any sporting-goods store, and picked out a much better bow—a six-foot toy for archery. But he had not done so.” This is the height of Ish’s achievement in the novel. Because of the plague, he never finished his dissertation and became an academic scientist, as he had hoped. But now he has made a simple bow, a plaything that eventually helps the Tribe learn to hunt without the old guns and other commodities. The bow figures the disappearance of postwar consumerism, the reconciliation of science and craft, and the end of mental labor’s tyranny over manual labor. In the bow dwells the reenchantment of work, and with it, a sense of Ish’s participation in—not mastery of—the world’s becoming.
Earth Abides was adapted for Escape radio in 1950. Listen to Part One here:
In the final moments before his death, Ish stops dreaming that government officials will return and rescue him. He now accepts that he is the last of a dying breed, that the future, and whatever the new generations of the Tribe may make of it, will not be American: “Whether the new would follow the course which the old had followed, that he did not know, and now at last he was almost certain that he did not even desire that the cycle should be repeated.” When Ish asks his great grandson if he is happy, the man is puzzled, and eventually answers: “Things are as they are, and I am part of them.” For the post-American Tribe, happiness consists in belonging to being. It is not based on individual achievement—the American drive to get ahead, as Ish describes it above—but on equal participation in all of existence. Ish understands this way of thinking as an affirmation of being as such, a respect for undifferentiated life. Noticing how the Tribe’s hunters encounter a mountain lion and simply let it walk past them, Ish comments: “he could not help thinking that the men had lost that old dominance and the arrogance with which they had once viewed the animals, and were now acting more or less as equals with them.”
What has replaced the American citizen is a type of human being who lives in richer bonds of solidarity with the earth and its nonhuman Others. This is post-national ecology, a form of life founded on temporal, spatial, and affective relations that are older, larger, and more diverse than those of the nation. In the green future, post-Americans may be able to “take our place,” to cite Dimock again, “as one species among others, inhabiting a shared ecology, a shared continuum.”
The Only Way to be Cleansed
This essay has tried to understand what I call the American angel of history, a reverse image of Walter Benjamin’s melancholic angel that represents American culture’s apocalyptic enjoyment. According to one of the most oft-repeated assessments of contemporary apocalyptic culture, it is easier today to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The claim is probably a paraphrase of Fredric Jameson, who writes in The Seeds of Time that “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.”Crucially, Jameson adds: “perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”
Jameson’s judgment informs my own initial thesis about apocalyptic jouissance, namely, that it is symptomatic of a deformed political imagination. The thrill we feel as meteors rain down on Times Square in this or that eco-apocalyptic blockbuster movie is the thrill of the momentous event, of history’s decisive turning. We do not need to wait until the end of the movie to find out if humanity will survive: the displacement of human agency by the blind violence of things proves that humans are already extinct.
Without wanting to reduce the force of this critique, I have nonetheless offered a contrasting interpretation of apocalyptic enjoyment as deferred utopia, an “underground” form of utopian dreaming. Focusing on the culturally dominant form of apocalypse today, eco-apocalypse, I have argued for the presence of a post-national, ecological impulse in visions of the end of the United States. For in addition to the unmasking and denouncing of pernicious forms of mass entertainment, I believe it is the task of cultural critique to pull the rug out from under even the most mindless forms of consumerist reconciliation, to spin them around and change their valence, thus showing American culture the other, utopian side of its desire, and reminding it that the present cannot satisfy its collective longing for a truly different, better future. If, in closing, I affirm the utopian wishes of the green future, of the self-destructive enjoyment of the nation’s eco-apocalypse, I do so not as an expression of mere anti-Americanism, but in the name of forms of life, liberty, and happiness that the nation leaves undreamed. Whether there is an America after nature will depend, if not on the nation’s destruction, then on its ability to answer the call of utopian transformation. While Benjamin’s critique of fascist aesthetics is a touchstone for an American Studies dedicated to ideology critique, it is to the eco-poet Robinson Jeffers to whom we must finally turn for an articulation of the utopian possibility of change within destruction: “And not fear death/ It is the only way to be cleansed.”
This is a draft of an essay that appears in America After Nature: Democracy, Culture, Environment, edited by Catrin Gersdorf and Juliane Braun, Winter Verlag, 2016. Please consult the print version for notes and references.