Saturday, October 16, 2010

Post-apocalyptic Now: Evan Calder Williams' Combined and Uneven Apocalypse

The following statement from Fredric Jameson is well known and often cited, becoming something like a pithy formulation of the contemporary political imagination, "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 imagination." One way to read Evan Calder Williams’ forthcoming Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is as an exploration of the concealed conjunction in what Jameson’s statement disjoins: what is the connection between all these images of the end of world, these post-apocalyptic wastelands, collapsing cities, and worlds overrun by zombies, and the end of capitalism, the end that we imagine and desire? Not the end of the world or the end of capitalism, but both at once (and one through the other).

Williams’ book covers many of the themes that I have covered on this blog, zombies, Wolfen, and of course the post-apocalyptic genre. However, where I have dabbled in these topics, scribbling a few lines here and there, Williams brings a focused investigation, continuing the Zero Books tradition of merging sustained intellectual engagement with an attention to popular culture. Williams’ book is a work of post-apocalyptic criticism: it reads the various images of the end, examining them for how they envision or fail to envision the end of the world, but it also examines us, our preoccupations, from this end. It asks what will remain of this world, our commodities, our obsessions, ourselves, after it comes to its inevitable destruction. It is thus an enterprise of salvage, of constructing another world from the gutted remnants of this one.

The book deserves a lengthy response, more than I have time to dedicate to it here and now. It also seems odd to review, in any thorough sense, a book that has not been released yet. There is after all no possibility for critical discussion. So I thought I would offer a few remarks on a few citations, citations coupled with their corresponding visual elements. The book is very good at reading films, paying close attention to their logics and visuals. Thus it seemed fitting to pair image and text in order to do just to the book's attentiveness to the intersection and disjunction of each.

That the book discusses The Road Warrior, perhaps goes without saying: the film has such a massive influence on the entire apocalyptic imaginary, and is being remade again and again. What is interesting, however, is the attention that Williams brings not to the familiar aspects, the mohawks and motorbikes, but to the often overlooked opening montage.

“What’s striking here neither the severity of the envisioned apocalypse nor its ideological inconsistencies, but the way that it salvages established narratives of the war against fascism and social progress and uses them otherwise. In this case, to inscribe an anti-modernization polemic in which all roads end in gasoline-obsessed hoodlums prowling the post-oil desert. So, in turns out, the slaughter on the Normandy beaches and the Maginot Line were about the panic of disappearing “black fuel.” The barricades of May 68: what are they if not a “firestorm of fear,” the frantic clawing of the masses in the “nothing” that follows the end of affordable oil? Furthermore, the films are not set in the future: the historical images are drawn from and lead up to the time in which the film was made. As such, they aren’t a projection of the far future, but a reinscription of previous events so as to make the “real world” present genuinely apocalyptic and to enable a flight into another type of fantasy.”

Williams is not interested in this as prophecy, as peak oil avant la lettre, but as the way it imagines the present. After all, the series of images end with the present in both senses, with the present of the film's date (the early nineteen eighties) and the present depicted in the film as a “while line nightmare.” The introduction rewrites history as a history of warring tribes, in some sense naturalizing a battle of all against all. Williams does not comment on what has always struck me about this introduction and that is what is conspicuously absent from it; namely, the familiar mushroom cloud of atomic war. This will be included in the third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome when a different history of the present is given, one that is not a cinematic montage but a mash-up of different historical modes of narrative and visuals: storytelling, cave art, radio sound effects, View-Master. I have always found that little bit of rewriting curious. Why not include the iconic image in the second film? Or why does everyone assume that the bomb has been dropped in the second film? If it is not part of the trilogy's narrative, then why included in the third film? Is it a matter of rewriting the narrative to conform to everyone’s expectation?

That the bombs never fell, or The Bomb never fell, in the second film is its most utopian dimension, suggesting that the demise of society is more about our fascinations with cars, property, and weapons than the world becoming unlivable. The locations of the two films suggest this as well: the first is shot in the outback, which is still populated, as much as it ever was with rabbits, snakes, and dingoes. It is still relatively green. The third film, however, is shot in the desert, a desert where nothing lives, or could live (with the exception of the oasis where the children reside).

Williams returns to this reading of The Road Warrior later in the book, contrasting it to the closing credits sequence of Wall-E.

“This sequence only makes full sense when compared with its inverted partner in crime, the opening of The Road Warrior discussed earlier. In both cases, a rescripting of inherited cultural images is used to situate the present of the film in terms of a constructed lineage of Western history as such. Yet while the peak oil catastrophe image story of The Road Warrior describes its present moment (the time of the film’s narrative and the early‘80s historical moment when it was released to the “real world”) as the descent into the apocalyptic collapse, the cooptation of art styles serves to describe a different arc in Wall-E. It’s telling that it does not include any approximations of painting after Van Gogh: like the gentle techno-ethos of steampunk, the narrative it tells never gets to the full technocracy, chaos, and pollution of the 20th century, resting instead in the slow pastoralism of its last image before black. And furthermore, we’ve already seen the final image in the story, the entire film of Wall-E itself. Retroactively, the film we have seen itself becomes the last image in the sequence, a clue to the lurking darkness behind the move forward. A move forward that, like the conclusion of the Mad Max trilogy, means going back, starting over, and “getting back to basics,” even as the post-post-apocalypse it describes is a return to the normal of late capitalism.”

Here the continuity is not that of Hobbesian conflict, which is presented as our past, present, and future, but that of technology. Technology is the disease and the cure in Wall-E: it has made us docile, passive, and pathetic, but it is only through it that we can claim and repopulate the earth. Williams criticizes this failure to engage with the apocalyptic, to think about how far we have already gone over the cliff, and how much we will have to change, socially, politically, and aesthetically.

Williams also points to the fascist themes of homeland and soil, of a cleansed and reborn race, that animates this segment. This is one theme that I wish there was more of in the book. Brian Massumi once called survivalism a uniquely American form of fascism, and it too is part of the post-apocalyptic culture. Ultimately, The Road Warrior and Wall-E can only indicate politics, economics, and social relations negatively, it is at the limit of their oddly circular and thoroughly naturalized histories, in which the past is the future and vice versa.

There is also a great reading of Return of the Living Dead.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Combined and Uneven Socialization: Remarks on The Social Network

Several years ago, I taught at a small liberal arts college. The college was over an hour away from where I lived. Not an especially long drive, but the drive through the frozen tundra of central Maine was boring as hell. So I tried books on tape to deal with the commute. I was teaching Philosophy of Film one semester, basically a Deleuze course, and I thought it would be interesting if I found some book on film to listen to while I drove. I basically wanted to offset my theory with something a little more concerned with the practical matter of making film. The best that the library could offer was something by Sidney Lumet. I am a fan of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict, so I decided to listen to it. I do not remember much of the book, mostly stories about the making of various films, but Lumet did talk about how much he hated what he called “Rubber Duckie Stories”; simple stories of single event offered as psychological motivation. Basically, someone steals a child’s rubber duckie and he becomes the rubber duckie killer, or something to that effect.

As I have written here and elsewhere (numerous elsewhere’s in fact), Marx’s critique of “so-called primitive accumulation” could be understood as a critique of psychological causality. The idea that moral qualities, such as thrift and greed, are themselves sufficient to drive history, to constitute the formation of capitalism. I will quote the entire passage here just because I love it so (Marx can write some dull passages, but when he hits it, he really hits it).

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.”

What does this have to do with The Social Network? First, it is necessary to contextualize the film a little bit. One can reasonably imagine that behind the film there is a massive drive to turn every social phenomena, every fad, into a major picture: break dancing, skateboarding, and even the forbidden dance of the Lambada (did anyone actually do that?) have had their respective films. There have been rumors of a facebook film in development for years, most of which, like the rumored facebook stalker film, sounded ridiculous. Although it is worth noting that part of the reason that a facebook movie sounds ridiculous is that the internet is just a much more efficient machine at capturing attention, at turning activities into webpages and hits. Texts from Last Night, Cats that look like Hitler, Passive aggressive notes, ugly tattoos, there is a website for all of them. Movies might try to capture trends, putting parcour in a James Bond film, but they are generally too slow, lumbering dinosaurs compared to the fleet footed internet.

David Fincher’s film answers this corporate demand, but does so in the form of what is largely a biopic. However, as the film’s trailer suggests, this story of Mark Zuckerberg (facebook’s founder) is supposed to be a story of us, revealing something of how we have been changed by social networking. Zuckerberg’s obsession with status and almost pathological inability to connect are supposed to explain our tendency to confirm that friend request from someone we hardly know and the fact that all of these “friends” leave us feeling very alone. History is psychology.

This is especially true in the scenes that bookmark the film. In the first, which has been discussed countless times, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him, telling him that he is an asshole. Much of the rest of the film is dedicated to confirming this conclusion. This traumatic break-up drives Zuckerberg to create Facesmash, a website that allows men to rate women based on their looks. This basic thesis, that the internet is driven by misogyny (its original sin) is confirmed latter in the film when we meet Sean Parker (creator of Napster) who also has a break-up story. The internet is presented as compensation for lost love. Zuckerberg’s particular failed romance also concludes the film. The last scene shows him, successful but alienated from his friends, looking up the girlfriend from the first scene, and clicking “Add as Friend.” Friending an old girlfriend is the new Rosebud.

I actually like the last scene. It is one of the few points in the film that actually touches on something of the social experience of facebook. Its tendency to render every social relationship present: we don’t have memories anymore, even regretful ones, we have embarrassing search histories. There is something tragic to the image of the creator of facebook hitting refresh again and again, waiting to see his request for a friend confirmed. All of his wealth and power means nothing at this point. ("A friend request, a friend request, my kingdom for a friend request.") However, for the most part the actual “social network” remains off-screen. What motivates and drives it, and drives our participation in it, is only alluded to in the psychology of the characters. We cannot completely fault the film for this, a film of people checking their email status, looking at pictures of their secret crush, and “liking” LOL cats would be horribly boring.

This is not true of all of the scenes in the film. The scene in which Zuckerberg unleashes Fasesmash is interspersed with scenes from one of the legendary parties of the final clubs in which women are bused into campus to party with the future elite. The camera cuts from isolated men, or men in small groups, rating women on the internet to actual women, ready and available to the frat boys. This scene could be read as part of the film’s Revenge of the Nerd’s plot, a more high concept staging of the eternal struggle of nerds versus jocks, in which the latter always get the girls. However, it also could be read as a statement about the internet itself. Not just how much of it is driven by sex, or the spectacle of sex in a kind of pervasive voyeurism, as Matteo Pasquinelli has argued, but how social networks are driven by the fantasy of actual sociality. Everyone appears to be having more fun than us, and we forget that we are part of that appearance too. When Zuckerberg says he wants to put the college experience online he does not just mean the social relations in college, but the interplay between inclusion and exclusion, the constant feeling of missing out: the idea that the next click could get you to the real interesting party.

It is in scenes like this that the film departs from its “Rubber Duckie” narrative, situating the social network within the social relations that it exploits, and the social drives that it cultivates. These are always secondary, however, to the pathologized psychologies of its protoganist. Which raises the following question: given that the film has been universally praised, not just as well shot and acted, but as revealing something of the present, as our Citizen Kane (?), why are we so willing to recognize ourselves in this image? Why do we, or at least most of the critics, see ourselves in Mark Zuckerberg?