The Catastrophic and the Post-apocalyptic

The present is filled with catastrophe and apocalypticism. A certain phrase has been deployed and redeployed in summarising the condition we find ourselves in: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalismWhile this phrase is typically used to crystallise capitalist realism, the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism, it also distils another truth: the end of the world has become the very air that we breathe.
As compelling as the discourse on apocalypticism might be it makes one fundamental mistake: it colludes with the very sense of impending catastrophe that it is usually trying to critique or to use as a means to mobilise a political movement. In what follows, I want to discussthe relation between catastrophe and apocalypse, and to look at what it would mean to shift the emphasis on the terms. I don’t mean to restate that catastrophe and apocalypse mean different things for its own sake but rather to emphasise that from the perspective of a postnihilist praxis we are neither catastrophic nor apocalyptic but living within the time of catastrophe as post-apocalyptic survivors.
Whether we turn our attention to the hyperobject of the climate and mounting predictions of ecocide or toward the ongoing catastrophe of Fukushima it is clear that we are living in apocalyptic times. We look to our economic structures- to capitalism itself- and we see the old vampire in the familiar poses of death throes; an oft-rehearsed death that has never come. The global economy, despite recent bubbles and upswings in manufacturing, is still in a state of terminal decline. The death of capitalism is everywhere predicated on its logic of growth, a logic that American anarchists Murray Bookchin once compared to another version of the undead: the infinite proliferation of cancer cells.
Another popular slogan: “we can’t sustain infinite growth on a planet of finite resources”. We have hit peak oil production, desertified the lungs of the earth, we are chasing new and dangerous sources of gas. Intimately, we are chained to cycles of accumulating debt that morally and materially shackle so many of us to meaningless “bullshit” jobs, with only compulsive hedonism as our empty reward. When we turn on the news we are met with images of drones bombing civilians in other lands or news of rising food prices and falling wages, we are shown images of disaster and death- a 24 hour news stream of collapse. Our nervous systems are constantly wired into networks of information, data and advertising that move faster than our brains can cope with, and permanently activate our threat response systems.
The ecological and financial collapse are thus conjoined to a psychophysiological one. All of this, more than any other time in history, happening as the result of an integral accident: capitalism itself. This is part of what it means to say that “the present” is an accomplished nihilism, other elements being the fallout of Darwinism and astrophysics. This is what it means to say that the present is filled with apocalypticism: we feel that the catastrophe is about to befall us, and we feel our vulnerability and impotence in the face of it.
If the world is this accomplished nihilism this means that nihilism is no longer a position or a disposition, no longer an anti-theoretical get out jail free card. There is no such thing as “a nihilist” or a “nihilist philosophy”. We know that there are no Gods who can save us, and there are no transcendental signifiers that can stand in God’s empty place. The history of postmodernism as the history of the death of metanarratives and grand discourses mirrors the various truths that have brought us to realisation that nihilism is not a meme or a cultural mood but a condition of materiality itself. Matter is meaningless, the universe is without purpose, and everything is fragile, precarious, heading towards destruction, and there are no philosophical tools that we can draw on to make this all better. In the most extreme expressions of these truths, we know that the sun will explode and the cosmos will cool, become inactive and “die”. So we have the most proximal and the most distal evidences of the unshakeable conviction that the it is materiality that is the nihilist. There are those that argue that apocalypticism is a natural and automatic response to this discovery- to obsessively approach the “end of the world” through fiction, film, cultural products of all kinds, so as to engage in the grandest of anxieties whilst neutralising it. Hence, a proliferation of disaster movies, of zombie movies, of films about dirty bombs and infections and outbreaks.
This year this trend has taken a new turn. Three films have come out that describe themselves as apocalypse comedies: It’s a disaster!; The world’s end; This is the end. These new films join Ghostbusters, Dr. Strangelove, Shaun of the dead, and Zombieland as films that imagine the end of the world in order to laugh at it. We could see in these films the attempt to take terrifying prospects of collapse and destruction and render them safe by having characters do and say stupid things or, in the case of Strangelove, as dark satires that reveal how the apocalypse could be brought on through the ineptitude of our leaders. Grim visions populate the imaginary of these films alongside slapstick humour and darker shades of humour that almost revel in the coming of the end. This might have been a legitimate way to read these films once but today, and especially in regard to the new crop, we have to read these films from within nihilism. If we no longer have a theoretical obsession with “the end” such that postmodernism was unable to break itself free from (the end of history, the end of politics, the end of the end) it is because “the end” has become as inevitable as the sunrise. Edgar Wright, director of Shaun… and World’s end has said that these films represent a ‘laughter in the face of death’, but what good is that laughter when the prospect of human extinction looms on the horizon and masses of people are struggling to eat, keep a roof over their head, or resist the seduction of suicide? No, I think it makes more sense to view these films via the golden rule of comedy: tragedy+time=comedy. It is possible to laugh at horror only once that horror has passed; it is possible to make light of tragedy only when the tragedy has been left behind. Following that rule, it is possible to laugh at the catastrophe because it has already occurred.
A statement like that (“the catastrophe has already happened”) seems strange. I am sitting in my flat, drinking coffee and smoking, a stomach full of food, waiting for a start date for my new job, writing on a laptop powered by electricity, electricity that is supplied by a fully functional national grid, powered by industrial processes that are keeping the lights of the world bright. The idea that I am a post-apocalyptic survivor, that I am someone living in the midst of a catastrophic collapse, might seem ridiculous or insulting. Yet this would be to reduce the register of the real merely to the actual and thereby obliterate the potencies that are at work in materiality without yet fully being expressed. In this regard, Fukushima becomes a perfect case-study.
In 2011 Japan was hit by a tsunami that disabled the cooling systems of the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s  reactors, causing three of them to melt down. The meltdown was triggered by the decay-heat that the reactors typically give off and that the coolant system is designed to regulate. When the coolant systems failed the resultant overheating led to hydrogen explosions. The meltdown, dramatic though it was, caused no deaths. The earthquake-tsunami had killed thousands but a nuclear power station going into meltdown had caused none and all the workers were reportedly safe and unharmed. It has since been revealed that Fukushima has a history of falsified safety records with similar flooding incidents in the past and warnings from plant workers going unheeded for some time. In 2012 The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found that the plant itself was unknown to be unable to withstand earthquakes and tsunami impacts and that no risk assessment or planning had been carried out by any of the agencies involved in the plant’s development and regulation. In short, although there was clearly a huge ensemble of ontological bodies at work in the meltdown (water, wind, the earth, the materials of construction, hydrogen molecules, coolant systems, capital, government regulatory bodies, individuals, workers etc), all reports could conclude that this was a man-made disaster. Still, no one died and radiation poisoning and carcinogenic mutation was predicted to be low to none.
That is, until July 22 2013 when Fukushima was declared to be leaking massive amounts of highly radioactive materials into the Pacific Ocean. The BBC quote Masayuki Ono, a manager at the Tokyo Electrical Power Company (owner of the Fukushima plant), as admitting that

One hundred millisieverts per hour is equivalent to the limit for accumulated exposure over five years for nuclear workers; so it can be said that we found a radiation level strong enough to give someone a five-year dose of radiation within one hour.

To date, about 300 million tonnes of the incredibly potent radioactive material has flooded into the Pacific Ocean and has been absorbed by now contaminated soil. While TEPCO have so far said that this presents no environmental risk, and the government has backed these claims up. Yet in 2011 it was shown that long-lived cesium contaminated  (30,000 sq km) of the surface-area of  Japan, and that large areas of that had very high radiation levels (inc. in Tokyo’s drinking water).  This cesium has now claimed most of the now depopulated 800 sq km exclusion zone from which inhabitants were evacuated for safety reasons. The cesium-137 that has contaminated these areas has a half-life of approximately 30 years, with some predicting that nucleotide disappearance won’t occur for hundred of years. As such, there is a distinct possibility that the radioactive contamination is going to outlast everyone living in Japan today. Cesium-137 contamination isn’t just massively distributed as time but also as space. As cesium is incredibly soluble it can quite easily and rapidly contaminate not just water and soil but the animal and plant life that make these their habitats, spreading like a virus through a body whose immune system has been crippled. Such contamination has been found in tea leaves, beef, spinach, milk and fish some 200 miles offshore. As cesium-137 becomes distributed across various ecologies the danger it poses increases, with reports of a 40% increase in thyroid problems in children being one immediate result. Japan exports fish (halibut, landlocked kokanee, cod,  carp, sole trout, and eel) caught in its coastal waters and further out into the Pacific to countries like Canada, distributing radioactive pollutants still further. In June 2012 the Japanese Fisheries Agency reported that fish were found with 65 becquerels of cesium per kilo, a higher reading than immediately after the disaster and far higher than is safe for consumption. The United States may also be at risk given Salmon migratory patterns. More broadly, questions could be asked about the safety of Japanese exports (such as contaminated baby formula).
There is a vast onto-cartography at work here that connects species of fish to coolant systems to hydrogen molecules to legislation on nuclear safety; legislators, parliaments, regulatory bodies, anti-nuclear activists; ideas like environmentalism; the food supply networks and geographic distribution of production centres; work practices; capital investments and the wider financial markets as Tepco’s shares fall; and those networks that specifically effect human beings in the exclusion area. After all, this exclusion zone has seen thousands of families leave their homes, their jobs, their friends, and the possessions that had been rewarded to them as recompense for their alienated labour. Consider that some of these people are still paying mortgages on homes they will probably never be able to return to safely. And there remains one more reactor in the water that has not melted down but possibly will- if not by human efforts to recover the fuel rods, then by the possibility of another unpredicted earthquake and/or tsunami. I don’t have the space or the desire to trace the onto-cartography of this disaster but it is clear that it includes both geological, ecological and capitalist bodies; indeed, it is clear that the capitalist bodies might be the ones that are ultimately responsible. According to Christina Consolo,

all this collateral damage will continue for decades, if not centuries, even if things stay exactly the way they are now. But that is unlikely, as bad things happen like natural disasters and deterioration with time…earthquakes, subsidence, and corrosion, to name a few. Every day that goes by, the statistical risk increases for this apocalyptic scenario. No one can say or know how this will play out, except that millions of people will probably die even if things stay exactly as they are, and billions could die if things get any (here).

I raise the spectre of Fukushima as catastrophe and as apocalyptic because it accords to what Timothy Morton has described as a hyperobject. In ‘Zero Landscapes in the time of hyperobjects’ Morton defines the states that

Objects are beginning to compel us, from outside the wall. The objects we ignored for centuries, the objects we created in the process of ignoring other ones: plutonium, global warming. I call them hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are real objects that are massively distributed in time and space. Good examples would be global warming and nuclear radiation. Hyperobjects are so vast, so long lasting, that they defy human time and spatial scales. They wouldn’t fit in a landscape painting. They could never put you in the right mood.

The ontocartography or “map of entities” that we could trace in relation to Fukushima doesn’t just include all those bodies we have listed already but also, and most importantly, it includes the radiation itself. Born of the unstable hybridisation of techno-materiality and geo-materiality in  pursuit of energy to satisfy the logic of the infinite growth of capital, the hyperobject of Fukushima’s radiation was unleashed and now exists independently of those techno-geo-capitalist assemblages. That this radiation exists on a huge spatio-temporal scale means that it exists beyond our evolved capacity to think. We evolved to cope with and to handle a world of mid-sized objects, the very tools and raw materials that helped to build Fukushima. In the language of transcorporealist thought: the weaving or interpenetration of various autonomous ontological bodies has led to this body composed of bodies. Just as numerous minerals, cells, exogenous microorganisms, mitochondria, oxygen, lactic acid, sugars, contact lenses, and so on go up to constitute my body in their choreographic co-actualisation so to does this process give rise to a similar shift in scale. In my body the shift is that from the molecular to the “molar” scale but in this case, the shift is from the “molar” to the hyper-scale. The radiation unleashed by the Fukushima meltdown exists on a geological spatial and temporal scale that the human animal is not equipped to readily perceive.
Such hyperobjects proliferate around us and are equally hard to detect in our proximal engagement with the various worlds we inhabit. They range from incidents like Fukushima to the more encompassing threats of the collapse of capital, ecocide and cosmic death that I mentioned above. The reason I have focussed on Fukushima is to illustrate the point that the catastrophe has already taken placeIn relation to the example of Fukushima the catastrophe occurred two years ago but will be ongoing for centuries. That I can sit here in all my relative comfort and enjoy the benefits of being a white male in Britain does not mean that I am any the less existing after the catastrophe. Catastrophes are discreet events that explode into being, even if such an explosion can seem very slow as they happen on the scale of vast temporalities. In the last analysis that can’t be carried out, the cosmos itself exists as one huge catastrophe; the moment of the big bang being the cosmic event, everything else since being the unfolding of that catastrophic actualisation working itself out.
In his book Combined and uneven apocalypse Evan Calder Williams noted that when we watch apocalyptic movies we often find ourselves watching scenes of devastation and horror, scenes that often resemble those found in Japan throughout this radiological crisis. Calder Williams points out that the destruction and the struggle for survival that we see in these films is in fact the very same destruction and struggle for survival we sometimes see on the news, but which is more commonly hidden from view. For Calder Williams it is what is hidden from view that is important in the apocalyptic moment. Apocalypse is about

‘all that we know very well yet regard as exceptional nightmares or accidents to be corrected with better, greener, more ethical management: hellish zones of the world, whole populations destroyed in famine and sickness, “humanitarian” military interventions, the basic and unincorporable fact of class antagonism’ (p.8).

According to Jacques Ranciere, the world of capitalism is predicated, in part, on a ‘distribution of the sensible’. This concept refers to the capacity of capital and states to determine a legitimate perceptual order that invalidates any other way of corporeally engaging with society. The ‘sensible’ here is the sensible of the sensibility of the flesh, its perceptual-affective ability to generate a world for itself from its embodied and cognitive engagements with materiality. In effect, the improvised nature of our creaturely production of a common umwelt becomes a site of control from choreographic interventions that recompose spatial and bodily comportment by erecting various partitions. For instance, the partitions between what is audible and inaudible, what is touchable and untouchable, what is thinkable and unthinkable and, most importantly here, between what is visible and invisible. This distribution of the sensible operates to include some aspects of the sensible world and to exclude other elements that might otherwise upset a community in which roles and class positions have been assigned. With this in mind it makes sense to understand that even if the catastrophe has already happened it has not happened everywhere at the same time because of that. In other words, alongside the distribution of the sensible, which regulated how, where, and what bodies may perceive, there is a concomitant distribution of the catastrophic that is open to the apocalyptic.
This opening onto the apocalyptic is clear insofar as it is through representations of the unevenly distributed catastrophe that we can glean an insight into the fact of the catastrophe having already occurred. In the industrialised world the catastrophe can only appear in pockets scattered here and there, as the police order that underpins the distribution of the sensible can’t allow our bodies into conscious perceptual contact with the catastrophe. Should we gain phenomenological exposure and conscious awareness of the catastrophe of the world this might coalesce into apocalyptic vision. For  Willaims, capitalism itself is already the post-apocalyptic world of the zombie movie. At this point it should be obvious that Evan Calder Williams is already engaged in thinking about post-nihilist praxis. Yet part of the problem with this version of such a praxis is that it too heavily stresses the spatial aspect of apocalypse, and that this already accomplished apocalypticism is one in which the apocalypse is waiting to happen. Yet this is precisely the point of declaring that the catastrophe has already occured: regardless of the empirical-material actualisation of the catastrophe, which has already begun, is already underway, imperceptibly, and all too silently, the corporeality of the catastrophe is already with us. It is not simply that the problem is unevenly distributed in space, just as Trotsky and David Harvey write of capitalist development, but that it is unevenly distributed in time.
Williams points out that apocalypse has to do with seeing the visible that is hidden- the hell zones of the world ruined by capitalism. Yet this is too limited. The hell zones aren’t just places already without water, already at war, already exclusion zones: it is not just places that have been plunged back into material scarcity, it is also with us in our lives. While we might be waiting to join these people in material terms we should not look to their situations as prophecies of our own and thereby continue the Eurocentrism of the past. While the material conditions are unevenly distributed, while the catastrophe has already happened, it is clear that we have not everywhere become post-catastrophic.  This doesn’t prevent us from being post-apocalyptic in a strong sense of the term of the Greek ἀποκάλυψις. The word means un-covering and is typically received in theological circles as referring to revelation, especially in relation to the Biblical endtimes. If our condition is that of being survivors of a catastrophe that has already happened then it is also the case that we are post-apocalyptic survivors. This is because we have seen the nihilism of the worlddespite the best attempts of capitalism and the state to suture the traumatic wounds in the time of our being. We are no longer waiting for the end.
This point, the point of living after the catastrophe and as post-apocalyptic, is often missed by people who are engaged in thinking about it. For instance, in First as tragedy, then as farce Zizek positively quotes Jean-Pierre Dupay

The catastrophic event is inscribed into the future as destiny, for sure, but also as a contingent accident: it could not have taken place, even if, in futur anterieur, it appears as necessary . . . . if an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is not inevitable. It is thus the event’s actualization-the fact that it takes place which retroactively creates its necessity (p.150).

For Zizek this accedes to a Hegelian logic that he also associates with Badiou’s thinking of fidelity to the event. To me this thinking is much closer to the stoic concept of fate than the Hegelian picture that Zizek produces. Nonetheless, this is how we are supposed to approach the problem of impending ecological collapse: we must inscribe it as a contingency that becomes necessary by its happening so that we can treat it as if it were necessary (ie. “destiny”) so as to undo it. This partakes of the same logic as the Sarah Connors character in Terminator 2 as she endlessly repeats that there is “no future but the one we make” (perhaps a good slogan for postnihilist praxis). Yet even Zizek’s move here of rendering ecocide necessary so as to denaturalise that necessity. From an imagined standpoint after the catastrophe we should look back and point out what we did wrong, how we could have avoided all this awful madness. This misses the point because that is precisely the position we are in. This is not an imaginary operation. We really do have to appropriate the position of the survivor (as opposed to the survivalist).  Yet as survivors, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to prevent the catastrophe but to mitigate it; we shouldn’t be looking for means of preventing the destruction but of building already from the ruins about us. The positing of the catastrophe into any kind of futurity is already a disavowal of the catastrophic real. Indeed, this might well be part of the development of a distinctly postnihilist ethics: like the survivors we are, shifting the terms of our thought from survival to rebuilding. Yet this rebuilding is not a question of a return to the pre-catastrophic world, and this is precisely where the importance of the post-apocalyptic comes into play.
As survivors of the apocalypse we can begin to think in a way analogous to that which Paul Virilio has dubbed ‘revelatory’.
Ancient and modern societies were revolutionary and brought into being revolutionaries. But I am a revelatory. For what is revealed is forces itself above what is past and forces itself upon our situation as a revelation, as in the case of the integral accident and finitude. Revelatory thought is a new kind of thought (Virilio Now, p.39).
In this distinction, the revolutionaries would belong to those who await a future that has been cancelled but who don’t realise that the death of the future is also its liberation. The radical openness that this implies is lost on the “revolutionaries” who we might better think of as simply those who have seen but refuse to bear witness. They are those who remain in the 20th century, arguing over a world that has died. For this reason only the revelatory can be the authentic revolutionary because it is the revelatory mode of thinking that is capable of beginning from the ruined world. Fukushima, a specific catastrophic moment, has already happened: those who refuse to bear witness to it (or those for whom the distribution of the tele-sensible forecloses the ability to bear witness to it) are those stuck waiting for the apocalypse.
Being post-apocalyptic means holding fidelity to the nihilism of the world in an attempt to move beyond it: it is precisely the world that is at an end and which must be assembled again, from scratch, as we survive. Fukushima has already happened; our job is not to wait for the apocalypse but to realise that the apocalyptic is a dimension that belongs to the unfolding of the catastrophe. To be post-apocalyptic, to survive the catastrophic, means, perversely, to hold fidelity to what has already happened.
Much is made of the prevalence of catastrophe and apocalypse in contemporary culture. “It is easier to imagine the end of the world…” except that it is precisely not. A world has ended and we can’t imagine it. This is is the point of Virilio’s references to the revelatory. A revelation is unbidden and necessary, it does not require an imaginative effort or a labour of thought, except after the fact. What daunts us is not that we can’t imagine the end of capitalism and what comes next but that of being held tightly to the problem of imagination, of being unwilling to step beyond it. The end of the world has become comedy but instead of laughing the left remains entranced with the catastrophe, refusing to occupy the post-apocalyptic space that it opens up. Doubtless this is because such a space is expansive and would require going beyond merely discussing representations of the end but actively working from the premise of such an end: the revelation that capitalism is over.
To me, this resonates with the anarchist commitment to ‘building a new world in the shell of the old’ where we recognise that the old world is a dead world, and the new world can only be built from its ruins. This implies the radical recomposition of everything existing- just as the broken hull of a boat may become a life raft and may in term become part of a new infrastructure. Without thinking that capitalism, the state and other apparatuses of power will disappear, it is crucial now to have done with the work of tearing down and to start build.

5 responses to “The Catastrophic and the Post-apocalyptic

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