In replying to the question of why apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives have become so popular in American culture in recent years, one may seek the causes in the major events of the past ten years – the newfound sense of vulnerability caused by the attacks of 9-11, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the destruction which overtook New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But I was recently at a conference where I got into a conversation about the subject with a professor of politics, who argued that the apocalyptic mood of the culture is nevertheless not quite commensurate with actual events in the world. The US might be undergoing a diminution of geopolitical influence, but this loss of power is relative, not absolute. The US is still the most powerful and influential country in the world, even if it is less capable of projecting its power in certain regions of the globe. Indeed, the scaling down of US power is taking place largely on its own initiative — its hand is not being forced by a military disaster on the scale of the annihilation of the Athenian expedition on Sicily. While the economic crisis has disrupted the lives of millions across the globe, there is no immediate prospect of famine or the loss of other necessities in the industrialized world. A global pandemic poses a serious threat, but it remains at present one fear among many drifting through the clouds of an interconnected globe. The industrialized nations might be faced with economic and possibly political readjustments that are painful for many, but on a historical scale, these changes are quite minor beside such upheavals as the fall of the Roman empire, the coming of the Black Death, or the French revolution.
So does the glut of films, novels, and TV shows in the US dedicated to portraying the apocalyptic collapse of industrial society amount to an overreaction to our current predicaments? In my book I consider the popularity of apocalyptic narratives as a symptom of the waning of historical consciousness, by which I mean not only historical memory but also the loss of the capacity to believe the possibility of enacting change on the stage of history. This sense of helplessness turns the specter of historical change into a nightmarish prospect, something which is unwilled, an inhuman force which reveals the vanity and hopelessness of human efforts to control their fates. But accounting for the sense of disproportion between our historical and economic predicament and our culture’s response to it requires a greater sense of historical specificity. For it is the lack of historical points of reference that make American apocalyptic narratives so emotionally wrenching, while also depriving them of wit and subtlety. J. G. Ballard and Michel Houellebecq provide compelling and persuasive depictions of apocalyptic upheaval and transformation, but it is hard to imagine an American writer taking on the motifs of the inhuman with the wry, sardonic, and detached gaze they cast on collective delirium and psychopathology. Perhaps this is because American culture lacks a concept of radical evil – it is difficult for us to view atrocities, especially our own, as possessing a wholly gratuitous character. Instead, our violence proves to be inextricably embedded in a redemptive framework, serving to pave the way for a society of universal consumption, a McDonald’s where the descendents of oppressors and the oppressed may alike enjoy cheap, fattening, chemically modified food, while a smaller number among the former rake in the profits.
Both Ballard and Houellebecq, for all their fascination with the global expansion of American values, nevertheless belong to the Old World, and in Ballard’s case, that Old World also includes Asia. They write from a historical consciousness that runs more deeply than that of their American counterparts. This depth is not merely a function of quantity, in that Europeans simply have a longer history than Americans. Rather there is a significant aspect of historical experience that is missing in American culture, which I think goes a substantial distance in accounting for both the mainstream popularity and the hysterical character of our apocalyptic narratives: the experience of being conquered and dominated by a foreign power.
Almost every people, and the majority of countries, in the world have in their historical memory the experience of suffering a defeat in war that led to their being ruled by a foreign enemy. France was conquered by Nazi Germany, and before Napoleon won his great victories at Austerlitz and Jena, the lands of the German princes were turned into the slaughter-grounds of the wars of religion. The Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Koreans, and Persians were conquered by the Mongols. Asia and Africa came under the domination of the Western powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the more ancient a people is, the more memories it has of being subjugated by a foreign other. Even normally unconquerable England, as Simon Schama reminds us, in essence surrendered to a Dutch armada when William of Orange forced James II into exile and ascended to the throne with his wife Mary. In most instances, the loss of independence and autonomy becomes a formative aspect of national identity, serving as a decisive rallying point in the constitution of a people, as in the mythologization by Serbian nationalists of the defeat at Kosovo in 1389 or the reverence of the Vietnamese for the Trung sisters, who died as martyrs in the struggle for liberation against the Han dynasty in 42 CE. While the memory of defeat in war and conquest by the enemy is too often associated in the present with the nursing of grievances that explode in outbursts of fanatical and murderous nationalism, such an experience nevertheless grants a people a broader sense of what is possible in the realm of historical experience. Foremost among the lessons of such an experience would be the rather obvious truth that no country or people remains ascendant forever, that the process of decline is an unavoidable part of history. Power, wealth, and influence, as well as social stability and strategic initiative, are finite quantities that dissipate and vanish over time. One could furthermore add that the experience of conquest provides a powerful incentive to be conscious of how one’s behavior, and the behavior of a society, can make a country vulnerable to forces beyond one’s control. It provides a kind of hidden railing to check and constrain individual behavior, and to keep it within reasonably cautious limits.
It is said that the American dream stands as a thoroughgoing repudiation of the laws of historical thermodynamics, in its insistence that things will only get better in the future, that abundance is an unalterable norm, and thus that to place constraints on one’s material expectations and ambitions is hopelessly wrongheaded and defeatist. But in the absence of the experience of foreign conquest, which is a form of traumatic adversity that is not identical to apocalyptic collapse, there seems to be little in American culture that might provide a pivot on which to discard illusions that have become destructive and to embrace a new way of life that is better suited to the times. Such flexibility and realism, it seems, have been thrown out with the bath-water of the constraining customs and undemocratic hierarchies of the Old World. Our culture has become bereft of a middle ground between the confident possession of autonomy and the total breakdown of civilized restraints.
Susan Faludi, in an article and book, argues that the attacks of 9/11 opened an old wound in the American unconscious, the bloody war fought by the early colonists against the Wampanoag led by their Chief Metacom (more widely known as King Philip), in which the adult male Puritans were often unable to protect their women and children against the warriors of the enemy. 9/11, in her view, provoked the destructive response of reviving fantasies of omnipotence to repress the “awareness of our vulnerability.” It is my contention, by contrast, that what is formative for us in the present is a historical experience that we have never known.
The lack of this experience constrains our ability to understand history as well as to create meaningful narratives. As Simone Weil points out in her famous essay, “The Iliad: Poem of Force,” it is the ability to view war from the perspective of both the conquerors and the conquered, that makes the epic a genuine advance in ethical consciousness, unprecedented and seldom equaled by later works. What gives this insight the status of a moral breakthrough is the “extraordinary equity” that animates it – the brutalities and indignities of war are shown afflicting Greek and Trojan alike (Weil, 179). The impartiality with which the poem gazes upon the victors and the vanquished strips away the illusion that one can ever master force and exempt oneself from the fate of becoming reduced to the horrifying and inert condition of a thing. But such dispassionate lucidity, which leads one to wonder whether the author of the poem is indeed a Trojan and not a Greek, is born from the experience of defeat, the trauma of becoming oneself conquered. Weil refers to Thucydides, who recounts that the Achaeans, eighty years after the sack of Troy, were themselves were conquered and uprooted as refugees. Only a people that, having once ravaged and plundered the cities of others, was forced to endure the pillaging of their own homes and the slaughter of their loved ones, could come to acknowledge the truth of force.
The turn toward apocalypse, then, serves as a kind of groping in the dark for a lesson that other peoples have already learned. Whether such a lesson can withstand the assaults of neoliberal affluence is a topic for another post.
Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.