Note: This is a draft of an article submitted to an essay collection focusing on the work of René Girard.
Readers of René Girard are familiar with his thesis that the primary source of conflict in the modern, secular world is rivalry, which is no longer constrained by the sacred hierarchies and sacrificial practices that defined the archaic community. For Girard, the danger posed by the escalation of rivalry and competition in modernity is the necessary and unavoidable consequence of the demystification of sacrificial violence. Although the Bible has succeeded in dispelling the essential illusion on which the efficacy of sacrifice depends, this moral breakthrough has at the same time deprived human beings of the beliefs and mechanisms that enabled them to control violence in times of crisis. The Judeo-Christian revelation has the effect of leaving the world more at the mercy of rivalry and antagonism than ever before. Whereas the hierarchy of class and networks of interlocking duties formerly restrained and moderated competition, whether by curtailing the material aspirations of the common people or by channeling ambition into otherworldly directions, modern society, by removing these social barriers, exacerbates feelings of envy and resentment as equality becomes the defining value. Modernity, in drowning the ambitions of the nobility and the devotions of the religious in the icy water of equality and egotism, brings men to face the real conditions of their life and relations with each other, which for Girard means unconstrained antagonism.
The disappearance of sacrifice leaves only “mimetic rivalry,” which is prone to “escalate to extremes.” According to Girard, the breakdown of the sacrificial illusion leaves modern societies hovering on the brink of apocalyptic calamity, in which the outbreak of mimetic conflict can easily escalate into the effort to annihilate entire peoples. Human beings are thus left with a stark dilemma, in which they must choose between becoming “reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries” and resigning “themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity.” Although he framed this either-or during the penultimate decade of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the globe, Girard has continued to insist on the relevance of this formula for the crises of the present – the war on terror, ecological destruction, and economic meltdown – on the basis that they remain subject to the possibility of apocalyptic escalation. Yet in his recent books, Girard’s remarks imply that a different interplay of forces might be at work in contemporary consumer society and that his model of mimetic conflict may require some rethinking in light of present-day realities. In one dialogue, he admits that it might be the case that “contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire,” a development which he had earlier regarded as unthinkable: “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings.” Similarly, in his discussion of anorexia, Girard observes that “our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us.” It is thus “no wonder” that “many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps of a peculiar type of boredom.”
What happens when one loses the willingness or the capacity to copy the desire of the other? The only alternative to mimetic desire that Girard offers in any detail is its overcoming: the spiritual liberation in which one renounces rivalry and gives up the fantasy of one’s exceptional status in a manner that evokes and encompasses the Christian experience of conversion. Can the loss of desire, and the impulse to drop out of an increasingly ferocious competition for status be grasped within Girard’s paradigm of mimetic rivalry, or does it call for fundamental revisions to his theory of imitative desire? Indeed, other theorists such as John Gray and Jean Baudrillard take as their point of departure the dilution and enervation of desire in a society characterized by unprecedented affluence and the dissolution of taboos and prohibitions. In taking up the question of what causes these mechanisms of mimetic desire to unravel in the absence of a spiritual revelation, and how a narrative portraying such a collapse might lead us to reconsider or revise Girard’s theory of violence, I will examine a recent metafictional work of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods, as well as the work of Gray, Baudrillard, Pierre Manent, and Philip Rieff. These thinkers focus on the kind of nihilism which Girard, I will argue, underestimates.
The dissolution of mimetic desire that takes place without reference to a spiritual conversion is likely to be a tale of horror, as it points to a psychic condition where there is neither hope nor anything one desires. Yet one of the chief emotions evoked by horror cinema has been the intense desire to live. Carol Clover observes that the “final girl,” the courageous and intelligent female who alone among her friends escapes death at the hands of the serial killer or monster, demonstrates an “astonishing will to survive” in withstanding brutal tortures, repeated reversals of fortune, and severe injuries to escape her assailant and even to defeat him. But recent horror narratives feature endings where no one is spared a violent death, including children and infants, or depict evils that are so overwhelming as to drive characters to suicide. In The Mist (2007), which deliberately evokes monster movies from the more optimistic decades of the American century, a father shoots his own young son to prevent him from being killed by the grotesque creatures that have entered the earth from another dimension. In the comic The Walking Dead (2003-present), the climax to one of its major story arcs breaks a taboo of mainstream entertainment by depicting, in a panel that takes up the entire page, the killing of the hero’s wife and infant daughter. It is an ending that Gerry Canavan describes as the “moment” when “the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut” and “all hope is lost” in the series. Such depictions of suicidal despair are not limited to comics and popular films, nor is the despair merely suicidal – in the art film Melancholia (2011), written and directed by Lars von Trier, the depressive heroine curses all life as “evil” and welcomes the impending destruction of the earth in a collision with another planet.
We could account for the fascination with such unrelievedly bleak narratives in terms of the demand for novelty, since nothing ages more rapidly in modern mass culture than spectacles of violence and transgression, and so even more shocking images must be contrived in order to arouse the interest of the viewer. But these representations of crushing hopelessness and despair evoke the finality of extinction itself, a turn which also indicates the exhaustion of novelty itself. But is it possible to grasp this fixation with extinction and annihilation, an event which is impossible to integrate into any psychic framework or symbolic system, as yet another instance of the escalation of mimetic desire that for Girard defines the modern, post-sacrificial age? Can the “traumatic reality of extinction,” which in Ray Brassier’s view not only erases the future but also voids the past of any meaning, become a proper object of mimetic rivalry? Or could it be that sacrificial murder does not constitute the most foundational form of violence after all, and that there is a violence that is more anterior and thus more foundational still, one which would generate the desire for annihilation itself?
One of the most promising narratives with which to unravel these questions is the recent horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by him and Joss Whedon (2012). As a work of metafiction, the film operates as a playful, self-reflexive satire when it is not offering up scenes of carnage, but its resolution has special relevance for Girard’s theory. For The Cabin in the Woods culminates in the failure, with apocalyptic consequences, of a sacrificial ritual. Moreover, this apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humankind, results from a decision that, within the moral universe of the film, appears wholly justified and legitimate. The film opens with the clichéd premise of five undergraduates traveling to a remote and isolated house in the country for a weekend of partying. Each of the students evokes a distinct social type, corresponding in turn to the archetypes from whom the sacrificial victims must be drawn: the athlete, the prostitute, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. The five friends inadvertently summon demonic creatures that attack them in the order one expects in a horror film. But the film also reveals that these creatures are being controlled by a group of technicians working in an underground bunker beneath the cabin of the title. The technicians belong to the American branch of an organization charged with arranging the slaughter of the young as part of an ancient ritual to appease the dark gods that slumber deep beneath the earth. If these “ancient ones” are not satisfied by the bloodshed, they will rise up and destroy all human life on the planet.
The Cabin in the Woods alternates between two storylines. In the cabin and the surrounding environs unfolds a familiar horror scenario, in which the students, in the course of drinking and playing truth-or-dare, come to explore a hidden basement. Descending into the dark and sinister cellar, they come across strange artifacts, which exert an irresistible fascination on the group. By handling these items, the friends cause undead ghouls to emerge from the depths to murder them. In the underground complex, on the other hand, the managers and scientists meticulously orchestrate the events above-ground. They monitor the vital signs of their victims, use chemicals to tamper with their hormonal levels, alter the temperature in different sections of the forest, and prevent escape by blowing up a tunnel. The entire operation takes place in a high tech bunker that calls to mind NASA or perhaps more properly NORAD, given that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet the banter between the two chief administrators is made up mostly of ribald jokes and risqué observations about their co-workers as well as the five doomed youth. They run a betting pool in which the various departments (engineering, maintenance, accounting, R&D, bio med, digital analysis, security, electrical, psychology, etc.) make wagers over which murderous creature will be chosen by the five victims as their executioner.
Both storylines are defined primarily by their comic elements. In the case of the five friends who are to be offered up to the dark gods, the humor arises mostly from the disparity between them and the roles they are forced to play as part of the sacrificial ritual. Jules, the woman who is given the role of the whore in the rite, is in fact a studious pre-med major, and so the organization resorts to adulterating her hair dye to reduce her intelligence and weaken her inhibitions. She shocks her friends with her wantonness when, during a game of truth-or-dare, she plays at kissing the head of a wolf mounted on the wall. She becomes so swept up by her role that her tongue makes contact with that of the decapitated trophy. Later, when she sways erotically to a song with sexually wanton lyrics, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of the virgin, Dana, and the scholar, Holden, gaping in shock and embarrassment. The athlete Curt makes crude remarks about Jules’ sexual desirability and then rubs into Marty’s face the fact that he and not the latter will be having sex with her. Marty, who as the fool is the only male in the group without a female counterpart, is not insulted but puzzled by Curt’s bluster, which he finds uncharacteristic of him. When Dana expresses skepticism toward Marty regarding his suspicions that they are being observed and influenced by shadowy forces, he reminds her that Curt is a serious student who is receiving a full academic scholarship. While Dana and Holden for the most part do not conflict with the roles assigned to them, Marty perhaps fits too well the role of jester for the purposes of the ceremony. Although his head is in a cloud of marijuana smoke for the first half of the film, he is the only one of the five to suspect that something is gravely awry. Indeed, Marty’s behavior proves disruptive and unpredictable to those in the control room, and his words and actions on several occasions threaten to ruin the ritual altogether.
While the scenes focusing on the young victims usually involve an irony that is not always humorous, the scenes in the control room play out as a black comedy in which the lewd and coarse repartee of an upstart tech firm or too-big-to-fail investment bank is transposed into an institution charged with performing human sacrifice. Making bets on how the victims will be butchered and eager to watch the woman assigned the role of the whore engage in sexual foreplay, the personnel working for the organization in Cabin in the Woods fail for the most part to display the solemnity and reverence one would expect from murderous cults that commit atrocities to placate dark gods. Instead, we are presented with a series of humorous episodes in which the chief administrators, Sitterson and Hadley, make crude remarks laced with sexual innuendo, gyrate their hips to the music played by their victims, and otherwise display an arrogance that would be insufferable if the nature of their work were not straightforwardly horrifying. Only two employees demonstrate a degree of seriousness about the operation. Mordecai, the grim and repulsive old man whose job is to give the young victims fair warning about the sinister history of the cabin – is turned into the butt of a joke when he calls the control room to confide to Hadley his worries that the ritual could turn out badly. Daniel Truman, who is the new head of security, is secretly horrified by the proceedings and keeps to himself, refusing to take part in the betting pool or to celebrate with the others when it appears that the sacrifices have been succeeded in propitiating the evil gods.
At the premature celebration of their success, the lower-rung employees complain about not receiving overtime and make pathetic romantic overtures to each other, while the video screen above them shows Dana being thrashed by a ghoul. It is thus with elation and delight that the viewer takes in the destruction of the complex and the slaughter of its personnel, after Dana and Marty, who also survives the attack of the undead, release all the monsters from the menagerie. What follows is a spectacular encyclopedic montage of post-1970s horror film, as demonic creatures and fantastic beasts set about massacring the employees. Swarming into the complex, the monsters voraciously dismember, devour, impale, stab, strangle, and set fire to panic-stricken scientists in lab coats and managers in button-down shirts. A wraith pulls a guard’s soul from his body, while goblins tear apart their victim and throw half of the bisected corpse against the camera. Zombies feast on mutilated scraps, while a ballerina whose face is made up of fangs pirouettes through the carnage. The sadomasochistic demon from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser tortures an employee hanging upside down from the ceiling, and the face-hugger from Alien leaps onto the shoulders of its prey to implant its lethal egg. The film cuts between direct shots of the carnage and images of the massacre shown on multiple video screens used by the security system, lending a documentary immediacy to the massacre of the organization’s personnel.
In unleashing the monsters on the organization charged with sacrificing them and their friends, Dana and Marty cause the ancient gods to reawaken. An encounter with the director of the organization, played in a cameo by Sigourney Weaver, almost convinces Dana to kill her friend Marty for the sake of saving humankind. In a nod to Carol Clover’s ground-breaking study of horror films, the ritual stipulates that all the designated victims must perish except the virgin, who herself need not die but only suffer. The timely intervention of a werewolf prevents Dana from firing the gun she has aimed at her friend. In the final moments of the film, the two friends, bruised and soaked in blood, reconcile and huddle together to share a joint while the complex collapses around them. The final image of the film is of a giant hand rising from the depths to smash the cabin.
The two groups portrayed in the film – the attractive victims slaughtered above and the leering workers below – are not enmeshed in mimetic rivalry with each other, but it is nevertheless the case that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. It is properly inconceivable for the members of the organization to place themselves in the role of the sacrificial victim, just as Dana and Marty are stunned by their discovery of the organization seeking to offer them up to vicious gods. Although Dana aims her pistol at Marty when informed that the salvation of the world depends on his death, she hesitates because she cannot quite assume the subjective position of the director who urges her to murder her friend. The film accordingly does not stage the “destruction of differences” or allude to the threat of reciprocal violence, both of which for Girard serve as key conditions for the recourse by the strife-wracked community to sacrificial violence. Instead, the characters are too weighed down by their own perspectives to be swept up into the orbit of envy, imitation, and disavowal that enables one first to identify with the object of sacrifice, then dismiss the doomed other to his fate, and finally reap the fruits of sacrifice. The inability to respond imaginatively to the other, even if the ultimate purpose is to ensure his or her murder, appears to sap the qualities needed to bring the brutal and pitiless ceremony to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the brief moment when Hadley expresses his awe and admiration for the pluck and resolve shown by Dana to keep fighting even in the face of impossible odds comes to an abrupt end when he is distracted by the arrival of his subordinates bearing liquor to celebrate the completion of the ritual. Similarly, the one occasion on which Sitterson behaves with solemnity is when he mutters an anxious and fearful prayer of supplication to the ancient ones just after the zombie family has butchered the unfortunate Jules, their first victim.
These latter scenes reveal that the ceremony of sacrifice has degenerated into a sterile, utilitarian exercise. It has become, in the absence of reciprocity, a vacuous, contractual operation which is destined sooner rather than later to run off the rails. The element of reciprocity for Girard both exacerbates rivalry and hastens the recourse of the community to finding a scapegoat in order to prevent conflicts from escalating into the war of all against all, the ultimate expression of reciprocal violence. The absence of reciprocity in the film, by contrast, has the effect of depriving the organization of perhaps the only effective countermeasure to the possible uncovering by the young victims of the apparatus behind their suffering and death. If a member of the organization were selected to be slain as part of the ritual, perhaps by fulfilling the archetypal role of the adult who makes a courageous but futile effort to save the young victims, then perhaps the director might have succeeded in persuading Dana to save humankind by appealing to her sense of guilt. On the other hand, the neglect of the organization of the advantage of participating in the sacrificial ritual as victims alongside the doomed youth conceals a form of violence that, though notably lacking in mimetic character, sets in motion an outcome perhaps no less destructive than unchecked mimetic rivalry.
For the belief of the technicians in efficiency is far stronger than their awe of the sacred or their fear of annihilation. They are willing to have others die for their sake, but they are unwilling to do everything in their power to prevent the worst of all evils. Indeed, it never occurs to them that there might come a time for them to do everything in their power, because to this point at least one of the rituals, which play out in multiple locations across the globe, including Stockholm, Rangoon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, has always managed to succeed. The ugly reaction of the administrators to the shock of learning that the Japanese team, which had hitherto a perfect record of success, is so unabashed as to be comical: Sitterson leans over the video monitor, screaming out obscenities at a group of intrepid elementary school-age girls holding hands in celebration after having defeated a demonic spirit: “The Japan group should have had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?” The technicians in The Cabin in the Woods thus exemplify the subjective position in which one is willing to have others suffer and die for the sake of one’s own comfort and well-being but is unwilling to put at risk one’s own life and well-being, even for the sake of defending one’s self. They only come around to fighting for their lives when it is too late and the instruments by which they secure their safety and well-being – or the entities they have instrumentalized for this purpose, turn against them. Such a disposition is not the consequence of mimetic desire running rampant or of its magnification in the competitive capitalist market, but rather of the death of desire, in which the will and attention required for purposeful action are dissipated in advance by the constant need to keep one’s eyes from glancing at an obscure verdict against oneself.
According to John Gray, what endangers desire is the immense affluence achieved by the industrialized world. The high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy that has spread across the globe since the late 1990s is distinguished by the fact that it depends not on “stimulating demand,” but instead on “inventing new vices.” The most characteristic products of an economy “driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty,” which requires the “manufacture” of ever more “exotic needs,” are S&M clubs and drugs like Viagra and Ecstasy. But we would be wrong, argues Gray, to understand the ceaseless production of transgression as the consequence of the cheerful and insouciant pursuit of hedonism. Rather, “designer drugs and designer sex” are not “just aids to pleasure” but more importantly function as “prophylactics against the loss of desire.” Provocation and transgression, and their constant escalation, have become economic necessities in a race to forestall the satiety that would cause the economy to unravel. Yet the constant exposure to formerly forbidden spectacles and experiences cannot stave off the uneasy thought that such a way of life cannot have a healthy and peaceful future ahead of it: “The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.”
This secret suspicion, and the directionless anxiety it arouses, is what supplies most of the humor in the sequences set in the underground facility, as we come to realize, with a touch of uneasy identification, that Sitterson and Hadley have been unknowingly laughing at their own violent deaths. But the virulent effects of this festering doubt do not spare their intended victims either. Marty, in one of his marijuana-induced soliloquies, gives voice, on the level of everyday wise-cracking, to the sentiment that the social and economic order is undeserving of continued existence: “Society needs to crumble, [but] we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.” Indeed, it is the decision of Dana and Marty to doom the world that make evident the peculiar psychic deadlock created by this verdict. For although their treatment at the hands of the organization is clearly outrageous and unjust, the two friends do make a choice that goes against the good of all. Yet, the film depicts their refusal to sacrifice themselves as the logical and natural response to a social order that needs to commit inhuman violence for it to continue. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice have become accordingly inconceivable where the only choices are to betray one’s friends or die as a dupe for gloating jackasses. On the other hand, even if one accepts that the decision they reach is an unavoidable one, it is hard to suppress the thought that the two friends arrive at it with inordinate haste. Dana and Marty, in subjecting the world to a cruel demise, are not constrained by the hope that there might be some uncorrupted quarters of human life – for example, the principle that children are innocent of adult vices and should not be punished for the wrongdoings of their elders does not factor at all in their deliberations.
In The Cabin in the Woods, it appears that humankind is annihilated in a fit of thoughtlessness, which evaporates all doubts as well as their not inconsiderable benefits, by protagonists who have come to the realization that there is nothing enviable about their own existence. The ending of the narrative thus poses a fundamental challenge to Girard and his theory of violence. For Girard, what is to be feared most in the demystified, modern age are manifestations of what Nietzsche called active nihilism, exemplified by mass ideological movements that embark on cataclysmic, self-defeating attempts to restore the practice of sacrifice. The collapse of Soviet communism has not caused the threat of planetary conflict to diminish by any appreciable degree. Rather, Girard characterizes the era of globalization as one in which “mimetism has gained ground since 1945 and is taking over the world,” with radical Islam as the most conspicuous form of “violent imitation” that has become the “rule today.” The denial of sacrifice in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, implies that the dangers of passive nihilism, having to do with the weariness and decline of the powers of the spirit, should not be underestimated. Indeed, passive nihilism, the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings, has become more widespread than the more vigorous and energetic varieties of nihilism in those parts of the world pacified by globalization.
In contrast to the heated and passionate violence borne of rivalry, Baudrillard argues that the violence endemic to the global system of interconnected markets and interdependent economies derives from the impulse to prohibit violence. The global system, spearheaded by the West, seeks to impose a society “in which conflict is virtually banned and death forbidden.” It aims at establishing a monopoly that would subject all cultures to an “unforgiving law of equivalence.” But such an undertaking to proscribe violence is self-defeating and doomed to end in catastrophe, not so much because it stokes mimetic passions and harnesses them to a project of domination, but rather because the global system seeks to universalize itself at the very historical moment when the ideas and values that constitute and legitimate this universality – “human rights, democracy, and freedom” – have become drained of substance. The neglect of “symbolic equilibrium” means that, like the hapless individuals running the sacrificial organization in Cabin, we can no longer properly conceive of being placed in a situation of “having to do everything in our power,” even if it looms right before our eyes. Far from being a sign of our freedom or a proof of our moral progress, Baudrillard likens our exemption from sacrifice to the condition of slavery, in which we have been stripped of the right to give a part of ourselves back to the “technical system of generalized exchange and general gratification.” The deeper source of violence in the global system lies in the fact that globalization is a project advanced by a “culture that has lost its values” and “can only take its revenge on the values of others.” Operating under the horizon of consensus, the global system cannot conceive of the other as anything other than a criminal, and its understanding of itself as “obvious Good” means that, unlike traditional empires, it cannot even conceive of the long-term advantages or strategic prudence of allowing the enemy a right to his otherness. The other, has become an entity whose difference is a temporary aberration and who is fated to share the same pleasures and to submit to the same appetites as oneself.
The destruction of values does not require the exercise of deadly force to proceed, and it can also be carried out by people who have no idea of what they are doing and who possess no awareness of the impact of their actions. Baudrillard’s account of global violence goes a long way toward explaining why Marty and Dana, though lacking malevolent or vengeful intentions, nevertheless act with a hubris that is invisible to them. For the judgment whereby they condemn the world rests on the certainty that the emptiness of their lives, as well as those of their persecutors, is the ultimate destination of modernity. Although they are quick to recognize the global system as destructive and sterile, they nevertheless cannot help giving their assent to its values in their conviction that the deprived will become just as depraved and as undeserving of life as the wealthy should they themselves ever attain wealth and status. They are, in effect, the products of a culture that, in the words of Meic Pearse, has “excommunicated all cultures” but their own, as well as their own “past.” Dana and Marty might chafe at having to be attired in the mantle of the virgin and the motley of the fool for the purposes of the ceremony, but they fail to realize that these costumes are draped over the nakedness of a still more radical commission, that of the mediator, which confers on them the imperial prerogative not to envy or copy the beliefs and dispositions of the other. Accordingly, they find it natural to suppose, or to cling to the conviction, that they have circumnavigated all human desires and found them empty. This belief, to be sure, has nothing to do with arrogance in any conventional sense, because it presumes that human beings are incapable of resisting or rising above their appetites. In other words, it considers its foundations base enough and lowly enough to nullify any accusations of elitism or oppression.
Such an attitude is in essence totalitarian, as it issues from an act of closure toward vital and enduring human realities. It denies that human beings are capable of dedicating themselves to ends and objectives that transcend self-interest. For although Dana and Marty make uneasy references to the need for “a change” and to give “someone else a chance,” the film makes clear that the other for them can be nothing other than demonic. Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, the totalitarianism of the present, which, in accordance with what Philip Rieff calls the therapeutic, is based on the eradication of all “renunciatory modes” and “creedal constraints.” It does not impose moral demands on the people for the sake of creating a new society or incite them to persecute targeted minority groups or mobilize them for war. Instead, it is a totalitarianism of the individual, centered on his desires as well as his feelings of powerlessness, which operates through a volatile and contradictory pair of injunctions. On the one hand, the individual is told that it is hopeless to struggle against his weaknesses and appetites. To be human is to submit to nature. No one can sincerely believe that one can have too much money, or that anyone would forgo the sexual opportunities that come with an improved social status. On the other hand, he is also told that, in addition to being equal to others in his submission to nature, the only thing that stands in the way of his efforts to raise his status is an unjust status quo. To be an individual is to be free of the bounds of nature, since nature is merely a social construction that can be reshaped and re-engineered to alleviate one’s resentments and grievances.
These contradictory injunctions comprise the divided and ambivalent heart of a totalitarianism that operates by means of inflated pride and low moral expectations, yet this very deadlock serves as the fuel for a staggeringly prosperous economy. But as Stephen L. Gardner points out, such an economy requires a “vast amplification” of personal and public debt to keep the resentments and grievances of individuals from boiling over and destroying society. The capitalist market succeeds in transforming “envy, jealousy, resentment, rage,” and the other forces that endanger human societies into sources of profit, but it cannot escape periodic crises created by imbalances of appetite and the flagging of desire, or, more disastrously, by the onset of self-hatred when the population becomes poisoned with disgust at the spectacle into which it has made itself.  The strategy that capitalism adopts toward the debts it accumulates and the social crises it sets in motion can only be one of postponement, but the longer it puts off the day of reckoning, the more devastating this reckoning will be when it finally arrives.
In The Cabin in the Woods, this strategy of postponement is shown arriving at its inglorious demise. Desire can no longer be sustained, in spite of the brutal fates to which the adults are willing to abandon their children. Like other varieties of the katechon, institutions which employ measured doses of force and fraud to stem the tide of chaos that would otherwise sweep away the possibility of commodious living, the capitalist market serves to distract human beings from the dark truths regarding their conditions of life, postponing in effect their confrontation with the violent foundations of social existence. Girard frames the exposure of this elemental violence as an apocalyptic encounter: the individual, upon being confronted with the violence that founds the community – and continues to contribute to its well-being – may shrink from the implications of this disclosure and double down on his or her defense of sacrificial practices, a path which Girard on numerous occasions emphasizes will lead to global destruction. The other choice at this moment of cataclysmic danger is to renounce violence in manner that Girard associates with the Gospels. The endings of such films as The Cabin in the Woods and Melancholia imply that Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred.
It is difficult to imagine that this third response would not be far more common than the other two, as it belongs to those who have become convinced of the pointlessness of all communal purposes and who lack the will and inclination to commit themselves to a spiritual discipline. In other words, it is the response proper to passive nihilism. After being deprived of the distractions afforded by an expanding capitalist market, such individuals are henceforth delivered over insignificant and helpless to an evil that strikes them as pervasive and omnipotent. They cannot find a way to integrate this knowledge into a historical narrative, whether Hegelian or realist, or a spiritual framework, such as the Augustinian doctrine of the fallenness of humanity. They are thus plunged into guilt at having been the beneficiary of cruelties and injustices while being unable to take consolation from the virtues and struggles of the past. Thus, far from imagining that they can take meaningful action on behalf of victims undergoing persecution and oppression, they appease at most their guilt by consenting to piecemeal measures that are likely to worsen strife and escalate conflicts but do not at the outset appear to erode their standard of living. The revelation, moreover, that domination is the way of humankind leads them not to renounce domination altogether but to maximize the petty dominations, sexual or economic, that they believe will never rise to the level of a communal or political purpose. Such individuals end up doing what the founding myths sought to prevent men and women from doing, which, in the words of Manent, is to “stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.”
This “stumbling” may take men and women back to the cruelty of their origins, but for all the turmoil and despair it stirs up in them, it does not serve to deepen their sense of historical identity. They are not led for the most part to wonder about how previous generations might have dealt with such knowledge, and why it would not have triggered in them the same response of overpowering horror. The monsters of the contemporary imagination cause them to revert directly to cannibalism without experiencing an interval of mere barbarism. The horror they evoke reflects our collective decision to feed on ourselves. For the immobilization of perspective is a consequence of the pact that the totalitarian individualist has made with himself or herself to salvage his or her pride from humiliation, which Gardner calls the “definingly democratic passion,” the “sense of nothingness experienced in self-comparison to others.” It is to defend his or her pride as the final redoubt of a brittle and precarious identity, rather than to embrace a spiritual discipline based on compassion for the other, that the therapeutic individual heeds the Girardian commandment not to copy the desires of the other.
 René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 137.
 René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 198.
 René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 136.
 René Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 251.
 René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, trans. Mark Anspach (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), p. 36.
 Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 36.
 Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative,” Extrapolation 51.3 (Fall 2010): 444.
 Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 239.
 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 127.
 John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 163.
 Ibid., p. 160.
 René Girard, Battling to the End, pp. 42, 13.
 Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (Verso: London, 2003), p. 98.
 Ibid., pp. 88-89.
 Ibid., pp. 102-103.
 Ibid., pp. 97-98.
 Ibid., p. 100.
 Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 51.
 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 15.
 Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy, ed. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 95.
 Ibid., p. 109.
 Ibid., p. 95.
 See for example Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 180 and 251, Battling to the End, p. 103, Evolution and Conversion, p. 237.
 Stephen L. Gardner, “The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man,” in Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 232-233.
 Pierre Manent, “La leçon de Ténèbres de René Girard,” Commentaire 5.19 (Autumn 1982): 462. Translation mine.
 Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt,” p. 96.
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.
Nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyberwarfare, and the depletion of resources necessary for running the industrial economy – for J. G. Ballard, missing from this list of the disasters most feared in the present would be the calamity in which there is no disaster. Millennium People, his novel of 2003, gives us a glimpse into the kind of social problems that would prevail in an affluent, high tech society that had reached the point where it had little to fear from external dangers and could take for granted its continued prosperity. That human beings might be fundamentally unsuited for such a pacific existence finds support from history as well as evolutionary biology: it is only in the late twentieth century that human beings, at least in the industrialized world, had within their grasp a way of life in which there was no need to struggle for necessities – one needed only to struggle for luxuries, and even then struggle was not always requisite either. One could also describe this situation as an impasse in which a species long inured to contending with a hostile environment and unrelenting competition from rivals, finds itself at last without any natural enemies. If human beings only truly take notice of and value what they perceive can be taken away from them, in other words, those things they understand to be under some kind of threat, what happens to their concerns and cares if all significant threats have become swept into the dustbin of history? The easiest and most immediate answer would be to invent new threats, and thereby bring about one’s servitude to new forms of necessity. For we do not find intensely meaningful those things that we create or choose, but rather those things to which we find ourselves forced to submit.
The protagonist of Millennium People, the psychiatrist David Markham, is drawn into the sects and rituals of weekend activism after a bomb on a baggage carousal at Heathrow Airport takes the life of his ex-wife Laura. The fact that he is a psychiatrist supplies a productive point of entry for examining the desires and anxieties of the highly educated professionals who dedicate their spare time to protesting an enormous range of causes: calling for the removal of nuclear waste stations, attacking travel agencies, and defending badger dens from development. Convinced that the culprit behind the bombing spun out from one of the more deranged orbits within these protest movements, Markham goes undercover at various demonstrations in and around London in the hopes of uncovering clues that would lead him to the Heathrow bombing. For Markham, the weekend demonstrations are far more than political events, rather, their essence can only be described as religious: “Protest movements, sane and insane, sensible and absurd, touched almost every aspect of life in London, a vast web of demonstrations that tapped a desperate need for a more meaningful world. . . At times, as I joined a demonstration against animal experiments or Third-World debt, I sensed that a primitive religion was being born, a faith in search of a god to worship” (pp. 37-38).
What does Markham mean by a “more meaningful world”? The world of which Markham speaks is not the narrow and familiar world of pleasures and fears in which we are locked by our own preferences. Instead, one enters it by means an encounter with otherness that is both painful and pleasurable, painful because it reveals to us the limited nature of own knowledge and experience, and pleasurable because it fills us with new and unfamiliar sensations, which are richer and more potent than ordinary freedom and mundane happiness. A “more meaningful world” is by definition beyond one’s grasp, as a middle class, law-abiding individual. One needs contact with someone or something more intelligent, more impulsive, more insane, more dangerous, or otherwise less scrupulous than oneself in order to gain access to it. We may note that in premodern times, such a role was typically fulfilled, for better and for worse, by the Church. We may note as well that the fascination exerted by the criminal, the cult leader, and the tyrant arises from their promise to transport us to regions where we would, on our own, never seek to venture. The enduring popularity of the film Fight Club can be attributed to how it depicts, without quite laying bare, the charismatic appeal of the leader who offers his followers psychic rejuvenation through acts of physical violence and wanton destruction.
As in Fight Club, the protagonist falls in with a group of militants dedicated to committing acts of destruction to shake middle class society out of its spiritual torpor. But unlike in Fight Club, these gallant activists are longer in the tooth, paunchier, and more grey-haired, making Millennium People refreshingly free of the youthful glamour that absolves all mischief for Hollywood audiences. They are also portrayed with a biting humor, not least when they are most hell-bent on spreading mayhem. The most forceful personality in the group belongs to a film studies lecturer named Kay Churchill, who has been suspended from her academic post for giving her students the assignment to shoot a pornographic film. Her reasoning: “I thought they needed a day trip to reality. There’s too much jargon around – ‘voyeurism and the male gaze,’ ‘castration anxieties.’ Marxist theory-speak swallowing its own tail. . . Fucking is what they do in their spare time, so why not look at it through a camera lens? They wouldn’t learn much about sex, but they’d learn a lot about film” (p. 53). Kay is a force of nature whose outbursts of righteous indignation are charged with an irresistible sexual allure, enabling her to become the telegenic center of attention for both police and protesters. Markham becomes her lover knowing full well that once the affair ends, she will miss him for ten minutes and take up the “game of emotional snakes and ladders” leading to her bedroom with the next lodger in her house (p. 212-213). But the psychiatrist also comes across Kay holding a photograph to her chest with tears in eyes – it is a snapshot of her daughter, who moved away to Australia with her father after he was awarded custody over the girl. “Only the deepest obsession could assuage that kind of sadness,” reflects Markham.
Dust covers Kay’s coffee table and writing desk like “an ectoplasmic presence, a parallel world with its own memories and regrets” (p. 50). Ballard is not poking fun in this instance at the slovenly habits of a middle-aged single professional woman. Rather, the fact that Kay does not keep these wooden surfaces bright and shiny is a sign of Ballard’s identification with her. For a steady source of irritation for Ballard, a single father of three, was how female journalists, whenever they showed up at his modest suburban home to interview him, would without fail note the clumps of dust accumulating in the hallways and over the furniture. One wonders whether Ballard wishes for Kay’s outlandishness to be more seductive and intoxicating than the extremity of his own vision. Trying to recruit Markham to their subversive activities, she rails against the spiritual oppression of the middle class in Britain, who are enslaved by their educations, sense of responsibility, and adherence to the law. When the skeptical Markham asks rhetorically, “like the poor in a Glasgow tenement?” Kay replies without skipping a beat and without a trace of irony, “Exactly.”
But Kay is anything but a humorless scold who wants to announce to one and all the deep personal sacrifices she is making to combat the injustices of the world. Rather, the operations she undertakes with her group have an air of devilish playfulness, with a lightness of touch that is largely missing in Fight Club. Pretending to be carrying out a lifestyle survey, Kay asks a housewife if she is in favor of wife swapping, and then steers the conversation towards the legalization of bestiality, after getting the exurbanite to state that she is in favor of consensual sex. Another interviewee, a female doctor, is asked how often she cleans her toilet. Kay then suggests that she have her family bathe less often, on the grounds that “natural body odours are an important means of communication, especially within families” and would give her time to “adopt a freer lifestyle” (p. 88). Kay declares that she and her group seek to root out the beliefs and practices that serve to put the middle class in the straitjacket of proper behavior, the social codes that dictate the “right way to have sex, treat your wife, flirt at tennis parties or start an affair” (p. 89). But what Kay herself feels about the method of liberation she so mischievously prescribes to others is something of an enigma wrapped in a hypocrisy. She tells Markham that she is also busy unlearning these tyrannical bourgeois protocols, but makes sure to assuage what she detects must be for him a grave reservation, “Don’t worry, I still shower every day” (p. 89).
Such double-edged characterizations, in which a single gesture can act as both a warning and a come-on, pervade the novel — they are the hallmark of Ballard’s novels, which effortlessly create the vertiginous effect that accompanies the movement of stumbling into a world more historical and thus more real than one’s own. This playful and alarming sense of ambiguity defines the revolt of the middle class that breaks out in an affluent housing development called Chelsea Marina. The doctors, academics, and civil servants residing there, confronted by a negligent management company that keeps raising fees while refusing to do repairs (“You have to plan when you need a shit,” complains one of the subversives [p. 79]), decide to go on strike against their school fees, maintenance charges, and utility bills. They set up barricades against the police, set fire to cars, and hurl a barrage of souvenir stones gathered from tropical beaches in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the officials attempting to serve an eviction notice. But they also turn to shoplifting from nearby supermarkets and delicatessens, and cannily maneuver their toddlers as human shields to deter police brutality. The vehemence of their resistance makes the working-class refuse collectors too fearful to enter the development and do their work.
Walking past the burned out hulks of BMWs and Volvos sitting along the empty streets of the abandoned by its residents, Markham lingers over the discarded detritus of the educated middle class: “The skip was filled with books, tennis rackets, children’s toys, and a pair of charred skis. Beside a school blazer with scorched piping was an almost new worsted suit, the daytime uniform of a middle-ranking executive, lying among the debris like the discarded fatigues of a soldier who had thrown down his rifle and taken to the hills. The suit seemed strangely vulnerable, the abandoned flag of an entire civilization. . . “ (p. 8). But if the residents of Chelsea Marina, recognizing themselves as the new proletariat, have fought a desperate struggle against the government and the police, their risky and provocative actions appear wildly of out proportion to the fate they seek to avert. When Markham asks why the residents won’t simply to move in response to the deliberate negligence of the management company, which is in cahoots with developers eager to tear down the houses and build more expensive units, Vera, one of Kay’s comrades-in-arms, replies, “We’re all locked into huge mortgages. People have sky-high school fees, and the banks breathing down their necks. Besides, where do we move to? Darkest Surrey? Some two-hour commute to Reading or Guildford?” (p. 79).
The middle class professionals of Chelsea Marina carry on street battles with the police in order to avoid their banishment to more distant and less posh neighborhoods. While the reader, like Markham, is seduced by their political commitment, their willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of what they consider to be right, it is nevertheless impossible to escape the thought that what they are fighting for does not merit such extreme sacrifice. While their grievances against the management company are fully justified, the revolt of the middle class takes on a momentum that carries it beyond mere economic concerns. Liberal democratic ideals like justice and equality proves to be thin gruel compared to the trangressive thrills offered by the suspension of the rules governing everyday reality. The loss of reality comes through in the hyperbolic identifications made by the bourgeois extremists in decrying their plight, the readiness and utter lack of constraint with which they compare their situation to the gulag and the Holocaust.
Millennium People calls to mind, in a somewhat satirical manner, Giorgio Agamben’s contention that the distinction, foundational for classical politics, between “private life and political existence,” no longer holds in the present epoch, since sovereign power has achieved complete domination over human life (Homo Sacer, p. 187). Whereas for Agamben the catastrophe of modern politics is exemplified by the unchecked power of the state, for Ballard, the crisis stems from the bourgeois individual’s own conflicting desires. As the novel’s diabolus ex machina, a doctor working with severely handicapped children, puts it:
“People don’t like themselves today. We’re a rentier class left over from the last century. We tolerate everything, but we know that liberal values are designed to make us passive. We think we believe in God but we’re terrified by the mysteries of life and death. We’re deeply self-centered but can’t cope with the idea of our finite selves. We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature. We’re obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos. We believe in equality but hate the underclass. We fear our bodies and, above all, we fear death. We’re an accident of nature, but we think we’re at the centre of the universe. We’re a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we’re somehow immortal” (p. 139)
What this means for a bourgeois society undergoing economic hardship, just as it does for one that is unshaken in its confidence in future growth, is the loss of any sense of reasonable equilibrium in political life. What burdens are fair to ask of every individual? How are we to distinguish hobbies from duties, or to separate necessary desires from superfluous ones? Such an equilibrium underpins broad social expectations of fairness and reciprocity. The fact that such expectations have become a chimerical quantity is in my view the greatest obstacle to a politics of economic justice.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
J. G. Ballard, Millennium People (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).
The 2009 horror film Daybreakers, in which a plague has turned most human beings into vampires, provides an overt allegory for the dependence of advanced industrial societies on fossil fuels, so it’s nice in a slightly regressive sort of way that salvation in the film comes from getting behind the wheel of a speeding, out of control vintage Chevy. It also contains supporting performances by Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe, whose film careers took off, respectively, after their portrayals of an underachieving (by today’s standards) Antichrist and a deeply ambivalent Jesus of Nazareth (it’s too bad that Graham Chapman is not around to fill out the triumvirate).
The few surviving humans are hunted relentlessly by the bloodsuckers, who, to their misfortune, now make up the majority. The humans they have caught are kept comatose and hooked up to machines that extract their vital fluids, in many-tiered platforms that recall the limitless levels of dreaming pods that make up the Matrix. They are housed in a complex owned by the Bromley Marks Corporation, this fictional world’s red-dyed corn syrup version of Monsanto or Halliburton. But their supply of blood is being rapidly exhausted — there are not enough humans left in the wild to replace those that die once they are all used up. The CEO of the corporation, played by Sam Neill pushes his top scientists to develop a blood substitute that does not skimp on the iron content and preserves the metallic aftertaste, giving a grim inspirational speech in which he quotes the arch-realist William T. Sherman.
Ethan Hawke, whose moroseness is usually well done, plays Edward Dalton, the lead hematologist at the firm. Adding to his glumness is the fact that he avoids drinking human blood, taking nourishment instead from a concoction made from the blood of pigs, which would make him something of a vegan in vampire society. His work in the laboratory is made especially urgent by the fact that vampires who do not get their regular allowance of blood lapse irreversibly into a feral state, their features becoming increasingly grotesque and their behavior uncontrollably violent. These subsiders, as they are known, provide the second major threat to vampire society. The other major task of the soldiers, among whom include Frankie, Edward’s brother, in addition to hunting humans, involves remedying the problem posed by this violent underclass by wiping them out.
Daybreakers contains interesting and timely ideas. An economic system that cannot sustain itself in its present form and is in need of a radical transformation, if collapse is to be avoided. The insatiability of the desires that drive the society to its destruction. The painful ordeal involved in breaking with the existing state of affairs. It moreover contains some startlingly memorable images: a vampire blazing in flames after flying through the windshield of his car; vampires rioting at a coffee stand when they are informed that the blood content in their lattés has been reduced; a group of manacled subsiders being dragged into daylight by an armored vehicle, defiantly raging at the soldiers overseeing their extermination; the gaze of longing which a vampire father turns ominously on a picture of his runaway, still-human daughter; an orgiastic feeding frenzy that ensues when one group of vampire soldiers encounters another group that has returned to being human.
But as various reviewers and several friends have noted, the film does not manage to develop these ideas and images as fully as it might. Instead, the demands of the genre, i.e. the need for chase sequences, take up too much screen time and prevent the film from becoming a fascinating exploration of a grim and desperate world that mirrors the fears and drives of contemporary capitalist society. One missed opportunity comes about when the CEO Bromley becomes inadvertently cured of his vampirism. This moment in the film could have been the occasion for reckoning with and regret over his past actions, or for a deeper look into the fatalism that would lead an individual to reject and repudiate the cure to his affliction. Instead, the film opts for the conventional path of having Dalton and his female companion Audrey take revenge against the predatory boss.
The film’s critique of capitalism has moreover been derided as obvious and facile (“It was never about a cure. It’s about repeat business.”). For my part, I thought Daybreakers captured well the cult of choice in capitalism, when Bromley reminds his employees that artificial blood will be a product for the masses, and that they should not neglect the luxury market, as there will always be wealthy vampires willing to pay extra for real human blood. The cure to vampirism, on the other hand, has emphatically religious overtones. The accident that cures a vampire of his condition is filmed in a manner that evokes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus — a body bathed in light, after being thrown from his vehicle. The cure that Ed Dalton devises with the ex-vampire played by Willem Dafoe takes place in a vineyard. Audrey, to keep Ed from losing focus from hunger, cuts herself and compels him to drink her blood. The soldier Frankie comes to regret his career, after receiving a damning glare from a girl who has chosen to become a subsider in response to being turned into a vampire by Frankie himself. After becoming human, he gives himself to a group of ravenous soldiers, who tear and rend his body for nourishment. But unlike the lead villain, who gets dismembered after being cured, Frankie’s corpse remains miraculously whole, his arms slightly outstretched like the image of Christ offering salvation to his followers, and a peaceful expression is left on his face.
The idea that religion provides resources for countering capitalism, or least mitigates capitalism’s destructive effects on social bonds, has become more prominent in recent years as faith in political change has waned. But there is something about the resort to religion in films or other narratives that are critical of capitalism that strikes me as inadequate — it seems too easy to oppose consumer society, however vampiric, with images drawn from the religious tradition. Such imagery might bespeak, if not religious faith, then certainly a desire for religion as an alternative to a society ruled by instrumental values. The creation of a community in which human beings look after one another and which is governed by disinterested actions on behalf of the common good, however, would not be a morally relativistic one. Such a change would, for people accustomed to highly individualistic societies, would amount to a step away from what Tocqueville regarded as the “mildness” of democratic rule. Daybreakers, to its credit, does underscore the pain involved in undergoing the cure, but does not flesh out what it would mean to stumble away from this particular cave.
The concluding event at the alt-SCMS conference in Tokyo was the informal presentation given by two of Japan’s leading directors to the attendees. I have not yet seen Aoyama’s work, which includes the highly regarded Eureka (focusing on the survivors of a horrific bus hijacking), but consider Kurosawa’s Cure to be one of the finest horror films ever made. I did begin an article of sorts which focused on Cure, and plan to revisit it soon. Here are some excerpts from “A Cure for Serial Killing” (warning: contains many spoilers):
At the start of the film Cure (1997), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), the Tokyo police find themselves utterly baffled by a rash of murders. In each case, a long and deep “X”-shape has been cut into the lower neck of the victim, severing the carotid artery. The suspects are all different people, and seemingly have no connection with each other. In one instance, it is a middle-aged man who murders a prostitute, in another scene, a female doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and proceeds to peel off his face. Furthermore, none of them can give a motive for their actions once apprehended – one of the suspects simply states that at the time, it seemed like the “natural thing to do.” The detective in charge of the case, Takabe, speculates that some kind of mind-control technique might be involved, given the fact that the suspects are all clearly distraught and despondent after the act. The police eventually take into custody a drifter named Mamiya, a former medical student who appears to be suffering from amnesia. Takabe investigates Mamiya’s shack, where he discovers a collection of books devoted to the German pioneer of hypnosis, Franz Mesmer, and the mummified remains of a monkey tied to a bath-tub pipe with its limbs twisted into the shape of an X. The police psychiatrist Sakuma is at first skeptical that hypnosis could be behind the murders, because, in his view, no hypnotist, save a superhumanly powerful one, can change a person’s basic moral sense. However, Sakuma, against the wishes of Takabe, places Mamiya in a psychiatric ward, and warns Takabe not to get too deeply involved with him. For Sakuma is wary of Takabe’s obsessiveness, knowing that the detective is currently under severe psychological strain because of his wife’s slow descent into insanity.
The film does a remarkable job of showing how its psychotic manipulator gets into the heads of his prey. Whenever Mamiya encounters a new person to hypnotize, he tells him or her that he has no memory of who he is. Or rather, it is his interlocutor who infers this, because Mamiya asks the same questions over and over again, in the befuddling manner of a spaced-out stoner. “Where am I?” he asks a concerned school-teacher. “Azuma Beach” the teacher replies. “Where?” Mamiya asks again. The teacher repeats the answer. “Where is that?” Mamiya asks, and the teacher then speaks the name of a nearby town, which prompts Mamiya to ask once more, “Where?” Mamiya repeats this pattern for all other topics, shirking any question directed at him about his identity, until he grabs a lighter, flicks it on, and says to the other person, “Tell me about yourself.” The film is adroitly reticent about what people tell him as they become transfixed by the flame, or by the reflection of light on spilled water, but it is not difficult to conclude that Mamiya guides his victims to the murkiest levels of fantasy in which all are murderers.
As the narrative unfolds we are given more detailed glimpses of how he operates. The policeman who kills his partner admits that he had found his partner, who did everything by the book, a source of daily irritation. The woman doctor is told by Mamiya that she must have a hard time in her profession, “because women are inferior beings to men,” and that “the first time that she saw a man naked was when she dissected a corpse.” He then refers to her real desire, that of becoming a surgeon, and speaks to her sense of grievance, alluding to the satisfaction that she would feel in cutting open members of the opposite sex whose prejudice has hindered her career from the outset. Mamiya induces his victims into a kind of emotionless stupor – when they do their killings, they appear calm and methodical, as if obeying a principle of a blind automatism. The marvelous irony of the film consists of its insight that when people act on their most repressed desires and fulfill their most disavowed fantasies, they do so mechanically, even mindlessly, with all the gusto of robots or zombies.
But Mamiya’s power is demonstrated not only through the actions portrayed on the screen but also in the emotions aroused in the viewer. In the scene where the vagabond is shown to a room full of law enforcement officials, he flusters one police chief so much that the latter, having lost his nerve, turns away and casts a helpless and aghast look at his colleagues. Mamiya turns the tables on his questioner by relentlessly badgering him with the question, “who are you,” each time the chief tries to get some information. He even deploys a bit of the rhetorical judo that was used to memorable effect by Charles Manson in his legendary “These Children That Come at You with Knives” speech to the court in Los Angeles, when he brazenly chides his hapless interrogator by adding, “You think about that.” The blunt and inane way in which Mamiya repeats the question, “who are you,” makes it clear that the only acceptable answer to it is the void of subjectivity itself. Earlier, he tells Takabe, “the detective or the husband – which is the real you? There is no real you.” Like both the detective and his boss, the viewer feels outraged and disgusted by the drifter’s bewildering demeanor, the way in which he replies to each question with another question, and his overwhelming apathy towards those whom he manipulates and their victims. In short, Cure highlights one quality not conventionally associated with serial killers, or with sublime demoniac rebels for that matter – the fact of being annoying. The imperious charisma and disdainful allure often attributed to cinematic portraits of evil are utterly lacking in Mamiya, a disheveled sort whose scrawny, almost delicate frame and perpetually vacuous bearing convey an overall impression of shabbiness.
But the very fact that we find Mamiya annoying, and almost welcome the impulse to lash out at his physically frail body, is precisely what renders us vulnerable to his power, for annoyance serves as the germ carrying far more violent and destructive emotions. Indeed, the film’s spare and barren portrayal of Tokyo gives rise to a truly ominous portrait of the metropolis, where murderous rage appears never far below the strained courtesies of everyday life. Director Kurosawa creates an atmosphere of dread and barely suppressed violence in the events of the narrative that are subsidiary to the main storyline. When Takabe goes to the dry cleaners, the sound of the manager obscenely cursing his employee, and then threatening physical violence, is clearly audible in the background, before the employee approaches the counter with Takabe’s clothes. Takabe’s first gesture whenever he returns from work is to shut off the dryer, which his wife, Fumie, leaves running all day without any clothes in it. Fumie’s increasing withdrawal from reality is registered in the repetition of an enigmatic scene which appears to be a dream but is impossible to ascribe definitively either to her or to her husband. In this scene, Fumie and Takabe are the sole passengers on a bus, which appears to be flying through the air, as moving clouds and a blue sky are clearly visible through the windows. She asks him when they will be going on vacation to Okinawa, and Takabe says that they will not be going. Fumie then remarks how beautiful it will be, as if she hadn’t registered her husband’s reply. When the scene is repeated, Takabe is shown sitting alone.
The detective disobeys Sakuma’s advice and decides to interrogate Mamiya. In a sequence that subtly transforms the physical space of Mamiya’s cell into a landscape of the unconscious, the camera frames Takabe sitting to the left in a darkened room, with Mamiya above in a well-lit bathroom in the center of the frame. The lighting emphasizes the demarcation between the two spaces, yielding the sense that the well-lit space in which Mamiya sits is the image of Takabe’s consciousness. Takabe grows infuriated when Mamiya tells him that he knows about his wife’s worsening condition, and how it is undermining his ability to do his job. Knocking down Mamiya’s lighter just as he lights the flame, Takabe declares that he will wait in the room until Mamiya gives him answers. In the silent interlude that follows, the screen gets darker until the sound of a downpour is heard. Then, in a blurry, low angle shot of the detective, a black stain expands slowly on the ceiling just to the left of his head, as if it were an excrescence of his own consciousness. Dirty water then drips from the stain onto the table near Takabe, who is immediately transfixed by the sight of the puddle. The excretory nature of the wish fulfillment brought about by Mamiya’s technique of hypnosis is conveyed by his enigmatic remark, “I was once full, but what was inside me is outside now,” at once underscoring the negative ontological status of evil and the experience of subjectivity as void that is said to distinguish the serial killer. After this encounter with Mamiya, which leaves the viewer with the suspicion that Takabe has been hypnotized, the film becomes increasingly elliptical, with abrupt transitions separating the scenes. Takabe is informed by Sakuma about a murder case at the turn of the century in which a woman, a follower of a mysterious cult, killed her son and slashed an “X” pattern into his neck. When Sakuma switches on his bedroom light, we see a large “X” painted behind him on the wall. The actual scene of Mamiya’s escape is not shown, although it is clear that he has somehow brought about the killing of his guard. Then there is a cut back to Sakuma’s apartment, where the police discuss how Sakuma had handcuffed himself to a pipe before strangling himself. It would appear that Sakuma’s “basic moral sense,” at the cost of his own life, has kept him from committing murder. Takabe travels to an abandoned house which served as the headquarters for the cult. Mamiya meets him there, and tells him, “Anyone who wants to meet his true self is bound to come here.” Takabe responds by shooting Mamiya twice, but the dying drifter merely raises his arm, pointing toward another room. Takabe, still infuriated, empties his gun into Mamiya’s body, and then goes into the room, where he finds an old Edison home phonograph player. He turns it on, and a garbled, disembodied voice calls out, “Fearsome heart of his healing hand… Take sword, a man but dew… road of healing not a long… heal… oh water-grass, oh winter… falls snow that heal… Take in hand… heal.”
The next scene begins with a shot of the psychiatric hospital where Takabe has committed his wife. A nurse apprehensively turns around at the sound of something being wheeled behind her in a corridor – it is Fumie, upright on a gurney, with an “X” carved into her neck. Then we see Takabe vigorously finishing a meal in a restaurant – in an earlier scene, he had been unable to eat at all. The waitress clears away the plates, and Takabe lights a cigarette. In an astonishing long shot, we see the waitress going back to the kitchen to fill more orders, until the manager approaches her. The waitress nods at the manager’s words, and then picks up a butcher knife, grasping it like a weapon. This disturbingly understated image concludes a remarkable allegory of carnage as contagion, as the film’s portrayal of an evil at once collective and inchoate evokes the national trauma caused by the release of sarin gas into the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult a mere two years prior. Indeed, the antinomian connection between healing and murder was a central element of the theology developed by Shoko Asahara, the partially blind, failed herbalist who was the leader of the cult. Asahara drew from Tibetan Buddhism the notion of poa, whereby a guru by the strength of his meditation can “transfer either a human soul or an animal” into higher realms, and combined it with parables in which spiritually enlightened persons kill and eat animals – a seeming violation of the Buddhist imperative to revere all life which is revealed in the end as the merciful act of absorbing the “bad karma of these creatures and so elevating their lives in death” (Lifton 66). Asahara transformed the idea of poa into a doctrine of altruistic murder, whereby the spiritual elevation of the people who were not adherents of the cult and thus leading “worthless lives,” could be accomplished by killing them.
As Robert Jay Lifton points out, the idea of killing people in order to save them was not an innovation of Asahara and his cult, as the official propaganda for the bloody military conquests that defined Japan’s emergence as a world power and its engagement in World War II mobilized Buddhist ideas. D. T. Suzuki, who would later achieve fame for introducing Zen to the West, maintained that the act of killing the enemy was “religious in nature,” while other teachers applied the bodhisattva principle of saving others to the practice of warfare, asserting a doctrine of “the compassionate taking of life” (Lifton 250). With Aum, one sees the universalization of the infamous remark made by US troops during the Vietnam War who asserted that they were destroying a village in order to save it. The release of sarin into the subway system was intended to trigger a nuclear conflagration, after which Asahara and his followers would inherit a purified world. Because Asahara viewed himself the Final Liberated One, he could freely dispense immortality to all in his planned omnicide, as poa became for Aum a shortcut to Enlightenment through the act of killing. The underlying fantasy of Asahara, according to Lifton, is quite similar to that of Charles Manson, who likewise hoped that the murders of wealthy and prominent residents of Beverly Hills would lead to a race war culminating in Armageddon, which would allow his family to take over the country. Like Asahara, who asserted that the people who would survive the nuclear holocaust to inherit the world with him would have all become his clones, Manson looked forward to the day when he would be the last man: “The only way anyone can live on earth is one world under the last person. I am the last and bottom line: you will all do what I say or there will be nothing” (Lifton 280). Seltzer, for his part, notes that the “serial killer’s fantasy of murdering ‘society’ itself” is essentially a dream of survivalism, the desire both to be the last man standing and to give birth to oneself (Seltzer 130).
The charismatic appeal of the leaders of violent and suicidal cults such as Asahara, Manson, and also Jim Jones of the People’s Temple lies in their ability to embody polar opposites, to be both holy and base, magnanimous and cruel, to be recognized by their followers as both God and anti-God, Christ and anti-Christ, as the one who gives life and takes life (Lifton, 284). The fascination aroused by the capacity to unify these opposites is not limited to their slavish devotees, for as Michael André Bernstein points out in Bitter Carnival, real-life cult leaders and murderers such as Manson and Ira Einhorn have their literary precedent in a figure whom he calls the Abject Hero. For Bernstein, the tendency of modern culture to ascribe the values of authenticity and profundity to those who break moral and social taboos has led to the full-blown emergence of a distinct cultural type who plays the fool, “but only in order someday to replace the well-dressed courtiers,” and cunningly disguises his ressentiment, born of anger, envy, and pride, in the “language of social compassion” (Bernstein 30, 10). The Abject Hero may rage against unjust social conditions but does so primarily out of wounded pride and his own sense of exclusion from social privilege, and thus “will never be able to shake off a servile longing for approval from the targets of his wrath” (Bernstein 51). The most characteristic rhetorical gesture of these figures, whose ranks include Diderot’s Rameau, Dostoevsky’s Fyodor Karamazov and Underground Man, and Céline’s narrator in From Castle to Castle, is to affect the pose of a buffoon or madman in decrying the soulless complacency and moral corruption of society while at the same time engaging in self-mockery, admitting to his own status as that of a charlatan and a fraud. Like Manson and Einhorn, the Abject Hero stakes his bid for the prestige and dignity he so badly desires based upon his understanding of society’s willingness to admire and glorify the figure of the defiant rebel (Bernstein 173). His “most promising option,” therefore, is to “pass himself off as a monster. The very reading that has helped blight his self-esteem has shown him the curious prestige habitually attached to the monster. If he were to succeed in embodying, both for himself and his interlocutor, the role of civilization’s daemonic double, the madman who rages forth when all the compromises and repressions of socialization have been shattered, then the Abject Hero might indeed effect a sudden reversal in his wretched position” (Bernstein 31). Such a reversal is, of course, dependent upon the degree to which one’s threats will be taken as credible, and it is thus a familiar technique for the Abject Hero to resort to the rhetoric of apocalypse.
It is my contention that the contemporary fascination with serial murder is difficult to extricate from the fascination with the apocalypse, a yearning for the end which, under the antinominian desire to take active measures to bring it about, becomes unleashed in Saturnalian outbursts of murderous frenzy. This blindly antinomian drive, in my view, is the reverse side of the passive nihilism that afflicts wealthy, industrialized nations. For the triumphalist declaration that liberal democratic capitalism is the best form of social and economic organization, in seeking to choke off any alternatives, cannot help but have a suffocating effect on social reality that will find expression in the realm of fantasy. Thus, Zizek among others points out how the collapse of the WTC Towers was anticipated repeatedly by the catastrophes depicted in Hollywood blockbusters. Or, as one follower of Aum sums it up, the widespread fascination with the apocalypse in Japanese culture stems not only from the historical experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but is also born of a “desire to press the reset button on life” (Murakami 276).
1. Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World To Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan, 1999.
2. Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.
3. Michael Andre Bernstein, Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
4. Haruki Murakami, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage International, 2001.