“The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma” - Patrick Star
Today, The Saint sets sail for her final voyage of the year. I submit for inspection, therefore, the following claim:
Our culture is obsessed with its own end.
From the hellscapes of the 20th century sprouted a new kind of imagination. In 1916 the Danish film The End of the World planted a seed into the European cultural mind that has since grown to Hollywood proportions, an unstoppable triffid feasting on our ecological and nuclear anxiety.
Something was in the air: world war, the smell of blood, dreams of dust. As the sun rose on the 20th century it brought with it a new zeitgeist, captured in Modernism’s single most enduring line of poetry: “this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Forward wind one hundred years. An average Brit, outside of working hours, will subject themselves to horrific simulations of the end-time. Think Hunger Games, Black Mirror, or The Handmaid’s Tale. This is not done out of civic duty. We want to feel good.
Modernist poetry like Eliot’s – ‘London bridge is falling down falling down falling down’ – and films like The End of the World prompted perhaps the predominant aesthetic in literature, cinema, and video games in today’s cultural space.
Overworked, underpaid humans trying to feel good? The success of apocalyptic media? What’s the connection?
Well, Slavoj Žižek’s point that 9/11 consummated a collective fantasy is as uncomfortable as it is insightful here. Zizek points out that 9/11 was presaged in the cultural imagination by eerily similar cinematic portrayals: films like John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape From New York, in which a hijacked aeroplane flies into a New York skyscraper, or 2001’s The Lone Gunmen, whose first episode centres on the hijacking and flying of an aircraft into the World Trade Centre.
Both these examples (mere stars in a galaxy) point to an underlying cultural cathexis: an obsession with catastrophe. Portrayals of disaster relieved us of the minutiae of everyday life. 9/11, Zizek claims, was something we unconsciously desired.
Enter Jez from Peep Show. "I think the truth is, basically, I've been bored ever since 9/11. I mean, I was watching the news with Mark the other day, and he was like, all up in my grill about the Euro. And I was like, ‘Ooh, the Italians might leave the Euro, big wow. It's not exactly planes smashing into buildings, is it?’”
For Zizek, television doesn’t preach evil to a passive audience, rather, the opposite, draws from its own desires. This is basic market economics: consumer preferences dictate product design. Films reflect our demand.
The cinema screen nurtures our demons; we consume its content as separate from us. What we want, it seems, is the end of the world. Apocalypse is culture’s new fetish.
Consider 1999’s Fight Club. The ending to that film – everything exploding, Tyler taking Marla’s hand, the ‘let’s-go-upstairs’ eye contact, the Pixies song – is just so kinky. Here we see what Zizek calls our ‘libidinal investment’ of catastrophe. Civilisation is crumbling and horny as hell. A fine example of apocalyptic erotica.
This recalls a stanza from Hart Crane’s 1930 poem To Brooklyn Bridge:
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene Never disclosed, but hastened to again
What is “never disclosed” is the psychological reality of the scene: we go to the movies not because we love sticky carpets, but because we want our own desires played back to us as if they weren’t our own, the ultimate psychological “sleight” of hand.
This has immense real-world importance. On 20 March, the IPCC released its latest report. “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity”, it warns, “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.
Meanwhile, we are “bent towards some flashing scene”: films like Dune or Mad Max: Fury Road or Wall-E, or The Day After Tomorrow, all of which occupy the same space in the cultural imagination with their ecocide aesthetics.
And so stark warnings like the IPCC’s never snowball into collective praxis. Why? Maybe because ecocide is now libidinally invested; the object of a desire that we cannot admit. Ecocide is on our screens, and it is spectacular.
Does Thanatos lurk behind it all? Subjected to enough analysis, would we find at the heart of apocalypse consumption an originating death drive?
The same idea – that endings obsess us, that apocalypse monopolises our cultural gaze – can be made linguistically. Language clusters around coordinates of particular cultural emphasis, thus mapping the social mind. The Saami of northern Scandinavia have around 180 words for “snow”. The Brit has almost as many for “ending”:
Denouement, resolution, climax, finale, conclusion, close, finish… (the list does not stop).
Contrast this to middle, for which we have precisely zero exact synonyms. You know, that bit between the beginning and the end? Yeah, that bit. The thorax. The zone.
The line between interest and fetishisation in culture is not obvious. What is clear, however, is that our society has turned its gaze toward the Last Day, rooted in the middle ages but longing for the end.
The energy in Culture today feels much like being in a museum, its objects suspended briefly in time before they inevitably decay. Eternity’s waiting room.
It’s a strange thing. Like a firework’s climb before it explodes. The popcorn public stand frozen, awaiting the spectacle.
We ought to stop consuming apocalypses like Big Macs. Stop turning a global crisis into a sanitised Hollywood aesthetic. Stop getting off to our own destruction. Perhaps then we will be able to seriously mobilise some resistance to the encroachment of chaos.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons