Monday, 6 October 2008

Functional Apocalypses

Benjamin Noys (2008)

Harry Cleaver’s 1987 article “Uses of an Earthquake” presents what we could call the optimistic Marxist view of crisis:

Crises are not to be feared or “solved”; they should rather be embraced and their opportunities explored. We should always be ready to take advantage of any crack or rupture in the structures of power which confine us. Only those who benefit from these structures should fear such cracks. For the rest of us, they are openings through which we may gain access to more freedom.

What “use” can be made of nuclear war, or any other global end of humanity scenario (at least for us “humans”)? Very few could probably share the confidence of heretical Trotskyite Juan Posadas that “Humanity will pass quickly through a nuclear war into a new human society – Socialism.” Posadas provides a truly Marxist eschatology, in which the revelation or unveiling of truth (the meaning of the word “apocalypse”) is socialism itself. In its own way equally weird is the bracing class-struggle scepticism of George Caffentzis, for whom “everybody dies and even if everybody dies at the same time (I mean everybody) what’s the problem? The earth becomes a cleared tape and why should the angels grieve?” (“Work/Energy” 1)

Putting that scenario aside with admirable sang-froid, Caffentzis regards apocalypse as the indicator of the crisis of capital’s regime of accumulation: “whenever the ongoing model of exploitation becomes untenable, capital has intimations of mortality qua the world’s end.” (“Work/Energy” 1) These “functional apocalypses” are the revelatory signs of the rupturing effects of class-struggle, the unveiling of the old mole. From this perspective there is little time to be wasted on outbursts of nuclear paranoia or anxiety, instead we have “the simple indifference to the whole world-historical drama of Nuclear Apocalypse experienced by many because the rent’s going up, the job is ending, the children are hungry and the electricity is about to be turned off.” (“Power and Terror” 308)

Certainly this position allows Caffentzis to have some fun at the expense of the death-obsessed philosophies of nuclear terror, and what he regards as their common roots in the Heideggerean philosophy of technology. No Heidegger debate for him:

Defeat can lead to despair, but must it come to this grovelling before the Nazi philosopher? Many a NY leftish intellectual who would be horrified to touch a PLO leaflet quotes this philosopher of the death camps with slavish delight. History is a nightmare, but must its jokes be forever so cruel? (“Power and Terror” 314)

Even better is his and Silvia Frederici’s parody of the discussion between Lotringer and Virilio concerning the publication of Pure War, in which Virilio’s musings on the revelation of the essence of nuclear technology is presented as a thinly-disguised lust for the final day of judgement:


S: No, you cannot say this in the book...
(99; the capitalised section is a quotation from Pure War)

Of course the irony is that the distance between this kind of Marxist reading and Heidegger is not perhaps as great as Caffentzis would like to imagine. What is shared in common is a certain structural eschatology of unveiling, of the transformation of crisis into opportunity – although of course very different in each case. The revelation of the essence of Gestell in atomic power is configured by Hölderlin’s line “But where danger is, grows / The saving power also”. (“The Question Concerning Technology” 28) As Heidegger’s 1966 Der Spiegel interview suggested this could take a more “directly” religious turn as “only a God can save us”. Caffentzis, unlike Posadas and Heidegger, abandons any direct revelation through nuclear war, but he still reads the “danger” as “saving”. In his case the “Bomb Apocalyptics” of the early 1960s was ended by the refusal of the movements of the time to be intimidated by these threats: “[t]he grip of terror could not constrict the new class movements, their desires and disgusts.” (“Work/Energy” 28)

What we might call the political ambiguity of works like The War Game (1965) and Threads (1984) is their quasi-refusal of this structure of revelation. This lack of consolation refuses any element of hope, and while obviously both films function as powerful (if not overpowering) critiques, and embody a left position, this “blankness” makes them all the more disturbing. The threat here is of what Derrida called “remainderless destruction” (30). In both cases, of course, the remainder is there; they concern the aftermath of nuclear war. Yet, this is an obvious ruse as the implication of both films is that of non-survivability – they have recourse to necessary, as Derrida points out, fables or fictions (“I have recalled that a nuclear war is for the time being a fable, that is, something one can only talk about.” (23))

Unveiling still functions, but the “truth” revealed is the end of humanity should a total nuclear war take place. There is no opening here to “more freedom”, and unlike many other post-apocalyptic films they lack the “utopian” element – the imagination of some functional future society “arising from the ruins”. It is this trace of remainderless destruction that makes these films so disturbing, and which complicates and runs against possible “ideology-critique” readings: The War Game as critique of ruling-class complacency and the security measures by which it believes it will survive any crisis; Threads as the fantasmatic representation of social collapse and the possible non-reproducibility of capitalism. While these films by now may function as objects of a perverse nostalgia, they carry in them this inassimilable moment that threatens any functionalisation of the apocalypse.

Caffentzis, George, “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse.” Midnight Notes 2.1 (1980).
___, “Power and Terror in Bomb Philosophy: A review of Joel Kovel’s Against the State of Nuclear Terror.” Social Text 19/20 (Autumn 1988): 305-314.

Cleaver, Harry, “Uses of an Earthquake.” (1987), 2005.

Derrida, Jacques, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis. Diacritics 14.2 Nuclear Criticism (Summer 1984): 20-31.

Frederici, Silvia and George Caffentzis, “A Review Play on Paul Virilio/Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War.” Social Text 17 (Autumn 1987): 97-105.

Heidegger, Martin, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. and intro. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977.
___ ‘“Only a God Can Save Us”: Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger.’ In The Heidegger Controversy. Ed. Richard Wolin. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 1993. 91-116.