Monday, 6 October 2008

Anticipatory, Ordinary Apocalypse

Michael Sayeau

In an age of deadened aesthetics, there is at least one narrative trope that has come to life during the past seven years as a site of political negotiation. The seemingly simple matter of the representation of passing time - the ticking of the clock while something doesn't happen - has proven itself both to possess propaganda value and potential as a tool of critique. Above all else, it is in the way that the passage of ordinary time has been deployed in the apocalyptic visions presented in films and television programmes (both fictional and factual) that we can best see the way that it materializes some of more important and complexly ambiguous ideological developments of our period.

The most obvious manifestation of this trope is by far the most sinister - and, disastrously, perhaps the most politically effective. In the months and years after the attacks of 2001, a pseudo-philosophical meme began to circulate around the American media and punditocracy that is usually referred to as the "ticking time bomb scenario." The most famous enunciation of this scenario came in a column that the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2002, but the idea soon after spread rapidly out to blanket the cultural and media spheres.

The scenario goes like this. Somehow, the authorities have learned that there is a Weapon of Mass Destruction hidden somewhere in or on its way to a Major American City. Fortunately, these authorities have captured a terrorist who happens to know the secret location of this weapon, but of course said terrorist won't talk. Tick, tock, tick, tock. It's not even a true bind; there's only one answer. The authorities are forced by the situation to abandon their better principles and torture the information out of their captive. It is a modest but bloodthirstily utilitarian logic, and one that perfectly combines the adaptability of loose metaphorics (for "ticking time bomb" one can substitute... just about anything) and the audience-capturing grip of a stirringly noir-ish fictional situation.

You are probably most familiar with the trope from its appearance on the show 24, where it was not only the guiding conceit of the programme (literalized in the ticking clock pictured above which appeared before and after each commercial break), but also an incessantly deployed plot device. In the course of almost every episode, the troubled hero Jack Bauer, against his principles but for the benefit of the many, would torture the bad guys in order to obtain the just-in-time information needed to save the president's life / the city of Los Angeles / America itself.

In this scenario, the passing seconds are indexed toward an imminent event, but they are only eventful in and of themselves in that they are filled with an extreme form of police violence that is summoned by the ticking of the clock itself. A secondary apocalypse - a soft catastrophe of illegality, ethical compromise, and human bruise and blood - is required to keep time ordinary, to keep the clock ticking. And, as we have seen time and again in the real world, the anticipated event that throws the whole process into motion is able to recede, indefinitely draw back, or even disappear altogether without disturbing the ticking of the clock and the brutality that it enables.

The second form - less pervasive but much more interesting - is a bit harder to spot. It can be found in almost any representation - fictional or otherwise - of catastrophic events from the past seven years. It can be found in the opening scene of Children of Men ( or the footage that you can find on YouTube of the first minutes of CNN's coverage of the 2001 attacks ( But I don't even need to refer to a specific film or television show for you to see it. The family, at home, is settled into their quotidian affairs. They are eating or readying a meal to eat. The children are playing, or everyone's settled into the living room to watch tv. The scene is actionless, nothing is happening but the ordinary things that happen everyday. Everything is OK, OK, OK. But the longer we stay with the scene, the more unsettling it becomes. When we spend more than a certain amount of time with this family, when it starts to become clear that we've exceeded the customary time that it takes to deliver a telegraphic visual rendering of normality, everything tilts on axis, and suddenly we know that we aren't watching so much as waiting. We are waiting for the tv set to go funny, for the breaking news graphics to appear, for the distant rolling thunder that breaks through a cloudless night, for the lights to flicker, for the knock at the door, or for the sudden and irreversible fade to black.

We are canny enough, by now, to pick up on this even before we get the punch line.The still shot on the news, the movie's trip into the coffee place, gives us all that we need to know that the explosion is on its way. In fact, one might start to wonder whether the blast, the crash, need arrive at all, so prepped and ready we are to read the ordinary as run-up, to presume that the shock is on its way. The family in front of its television, the tourists gaping at the skyline, the plane bissecting the city's airspace during its final approach, the routine shopping trip, the subway ride into work - when we stay with any of these scenes, in mind or on screen, the anticipatory faculty rustles, the reflex draws us tight and down. Why would these everyday events be happening - why are they showing us these non-eventful happening - if they aren't about to be interrupted, interrupted by their end?

Of course, in one sense, these related forms of rendering the passage of time are simply contemporary versions of the oldest bylaws of narrative construction. It might be a bit reductive to say that this trope used to live in the genre that we call "horror," before horror grew tired of it, drifted into self-referential pastiche, and loaned it to the renewed genres of apocalypse and catastrope. (The blonde combing her hair in front of her mirror, at night, in a big house, alone. We wait too long, we have seen this film before - we know what is about to appear in the window behind her...) Narrative, at its essence, relies upon a rhythmic relationship between ordinariness and eventfulness. A novel that is all climax isn't a novel at all. The crisis and the material in which it swims (all that local color, all that slow development of character and scenario, all stuttering elaborations of the realistic "reality" of the thing that we're consuming) are dialectically related, can't be broken off from one another.

But sometimes - and this may be one of those times - the rhythm becomes confused, the dialectical dance turns in on itself, the ordinary can't quite find it's way to the event that makes it what it is, that makes it ordinary. As Walter Benjamin noted in his essay on Baudelaire, the most interesting thing about shock isn't what happens when it arrives, but what the anticipation of it does the the anticipator. "The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the most efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]." We slip swiftly from the baffled pain of the unexpected shock to the probing anticipation of it - our consciousness itself is transformed by the process into an index of traumas past and future, Similarly, as a culture, we are perhaps in the process of sliding from the anticipation of the imminent apocalypse to the immanent registration of the apocalypse that is already here, the apocalypse right now.

Children of Men enacts this shift in the relationship between its first scene (the coffee shop, the television news, the protagonist steps outside, and the shop he was just in explodes) and the rest of the film, which stages the end of the human world not by terrorist bomb blast or heavy weather, but rather by the simple cessation of life, the animal reproduction of the species. Despite the fact that human life itself is dwindling out, that these people are living in either the aftermath or the final stages of what looks to be the ultimate catastrophe, one which will surely culminate, within a few years, in the end of the human race, they go about their business - commuting to work, stopping for coffee, watching tv, etc. The film pounds us with the savage uncanniness of the thought of rejiggering our retirement accounts, redoing the kitchen, and, of course, seeing movies as the world quietly ends around us…

This temporality has spread out beyond the borders of movies and television to the point that it's hard to see whether the representation is driving the reality or vice versa. The current financial crisis, to pick just one example, is quickly revealing itself to be another film in the same genre. Collapse is promised daily by pundits and analysts. Collapse has been promised for a decade now. But the collapse never comes, the fissuring event never quite happens. Perhaps it will - perhaps it has happened by the time you are reading this - but every indicator points to the fact that the charts will hold their lines, sink and then rally. And they will do this because, just beyond the edge of the chart, something else is afoot. They will not let it fall; they will not let the crisis come. The remnants of the state, the remaining strength of the currency, the jobs and spending power of the citizen - all will come to their own apocalyptic end, out of view, in service of maintaining the forward progress of that thin, vibrating line. As all else fails, the numbers will still tick up and tick down on the screen of the world, perhaps even if there weren't a soul left in the world to see them.

We are shattered, our perceptual apparatus is on the blink. We look around us, at any thing at all, and find reflected all these premonitions of disaster. It is not, I think, a good thing to be this way - it is not a happy thing for the world to take on the dark red tone of apocalypse. It is the mark of an unhealthy time, and a signal that the hope of change is so buried that perhaps we can't even anticipate change for the worse, let alone for the better. On the other hand, the lingering theology of consequence, of telos, may well be losing its hold, giving way to a sliver of perspective on a secularly "Messianic cessation of happening." As Walter Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.” That may be what we are starting to learn, and learn the hard way, from the films that run outside us and the films that run within.


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