Business / Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Apocalypse Now and Then

Felandus Thames, A Mother, A Daughter, and Mother-in-law

Image Credit: Felandus Thames, A Mother, A Daughter, and Mother-in-law. (2018) 24″x 39″ x 1″, Hairbeads on coated wire. Courtesy of the artist.

For the many thousands gone and Cheryl Wall in particular

When the editors concocted the thematic for this issue, we’d hoped that “Apocalypse Now and Then” would do more than corner an unmistakable allusion to the title of the 1979 film addressed to the ravages of the Vietnam War and star-studded with some of Hollywood’s iconic male actors of the era; we wanted more than a metaphor, and for reasons that generations will obsess over within the hearing of their grandchildren, we got exactly more than that. We got the real deal: the world ushered in by the new year—and who knew on that (quite loud) New Year’s Eve night in San Francisco’s “Mathilde,” with its exquisite food and buzzed patrons?—not only lay in wait, but incubated like a serpent hidden in a bank of flowers. It was only a matter of days, it seems, after “Auld Lang Syne” and right-knee-replacement surgery for me that the unthinkable happened. A disease erupts on the other side of the globe, mediated by Europe and of all luxurious loci, the cruise ship, but lacking a distinctive moniker like certain famous literary diseases—erysipelas, tuberculosis, syphilis, dysentery, or any of the great fevers (typhoid, scarlet, yellow), or diseases of old joints in old people (gout and rheumatism). This killer, sharing symptoms with the common cold we are told, borrows its name from other viruses—a few other respiratory disorders are also called “coronavirus.” But for all that, this new Bug-Thing has accomplished a repertory of fright that I’ve not seen in a lifetime, even in the Badlands of US Southern apartheid where I grew up. What we have undergone, then, since mid-March shows all the signs of what we imagine “apocalypse” entails.

On this landscape of peril and grief, cracks and fissures are divulged that one did not realize could be broached in the first place; gaps in ourselves and between ourselves and institutions, and this spectacle of ruin unfolding on fragile ground underfoot. Too many examples could be evoked here, and that’s the nauseating part—what seems an endlessness to the misery—but one instance will be more than enough to drive home the point, since it is definitive in character: The US Constitution and the armature of legend and fable supposed to situate it are defenseless—or so it seems—to protect the social order from the sociopathic capture of a dysfunctional federal government and an abusive executive branch, headed by an impeached president. This unimaginable circumstance, so grave in its ramifications, yet so parodically orchestrated by a clownish, infantile, illiterate public figure, with the solid backing of an imploded political party and a whopping forty-five percent of the country’s voting population, is precisely what we failed to foresee. I would say that this opening in the chain of necessity is comparable to, perhaps even a version of, a belated classical Error, an originary event that incites catastrophe, or the spectacular pile-up of dead bodies that litter the stage at the end of the tragedy. That an elected president could be rendered impervious to impeachment, as well as to the implementation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment; that a single senator, if he is the leader of the majority senatorial party, could hold the nation time and again hostage to his own cockeyed political motives; and that a political party, rotten with corruption and malevolence—the current iteration of the Republican Party of the United States—could so dramatically, so nakedly manifest an unmitigated contempt toward the people and polity of the United States, and that these patterns of violent abuse could be swallowed by millions of citizens every day, in some quarters, gladly, all indelibly inscribe what might be called the unmaking of the United States.

But then again, we would be obliged to observe that it is the unmaking and unmasking of the official United States, the theoretical one of an ideal imago, rather than the actual one of heart-rending inequalities and iniquities running right alongside the ideal—where, for instance, a black man’s neck may be kneeled upon by a white police officer for nearly nine minutes until the man pinned down is dead. Or, for that matter, in Navajo Nation, which straddles a trio of US states—Utah, Arizona, New Mexico—where, according to reports,1 some fifty to eighty percent of the Nation lives without running water, a material deficiency that would make it virtually impossible for the Navajo to maintain certain hygienic practices related to combatting COVID-19, for example. In both instances, the conditions of existence, in their sustained precariousness, are often experienced as agonistic possibility, or a shapeless threatening mass of anomie; for these communities, the social order has rarely presented itself as an ideal to be unmade in the first place. If, however, as Abou Farman persuasively argues in this issue, future could be imagined growing out of an apocalyptic end rather than the latter being thought of as the end, then such precariousness might well be transformed and instead opened onto other possible worlds.

For the longest time, Americans prided themselves on what was thought to be the “genius” of their political system, and the intellectual eminence that the Republic’s founders were imagined to have commandeered accrued to the benefit of the ages; but what we now realize is the extent to which the cohesion of national life and the system of governance that underwrites it are predicated on a kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” of cooperation and civility between historical actors that more or less assures the smooth relay of functions of government. The social order is generated out of this apparent continuity that one is keenly aware of now only because it has been interrupted—by a power imbalance between legislative and executive branches, or the suspension of checks and balances; the evisceration of bipartisan compromise; the intrusion of the Chief Executive into the order of the everyday. In other words, having to think inordinately about the persona of the president of the United States is new to the American citizen, and if I am myself any example, not particularly welcome. What we have now lost is the representability of the presidency—one has now to focus nearly all the time on the man in the office—and the appearance of the power of coordinated performance and our desirable distance from it—myriad parts of the socius that no longer necessarily carry out their respective tasks in the quiet anonymity of discrete units of labor. I am now too aware that my comfort, my “normal,” swim in vast seas of plumbless ignorance, unintended oblivion, and a certain degree of accorded privilege, e.g., access to goods and services, as in health care, when millions have been undone by actual and symbolic disease.

I now understand on the pulse of the nerve, rather than simply abstractly, that I am in danger because the social order trembles, or, as elaborated in this issue by Jesse Montgomery, riffing on theoretical aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s project, the social order has contracted a “crisis of authority.” Then again, I am reminded that I am also endangered as a black person, daily conscripted into the familiar and unfailing social logics of sacrifice—“I can’t breathe” might enter any mouth of my position. If I do not misread here, then these unmakings, unmaskings, liberations from illusions or misprisions are analogous to Alex Dubilet’s evacuations, in which case the social subject encounters a scene of radical outcome—“the reality of an evacuated present.” Alongside Montgomery’s and Farman’s, Dubilet’s work joins other powerful meditations of this issue, including those, additionally, of Ariella Azoulay, Nathan Grant, Anthony Reed, Greg Tate, Christopher Winks, and Rich Blint in circumlocuting “apocalypse” as an ineluctable rupture or tear in the fabric of time; in other words, sometime proximate to the Ides of March, we awoke—blasted, we were—elsewhere.

This sense of disorientation, of dislocation, while vividly felt, is difficult to describe; perhaps it would be more accurate to say that attempting to describe it does not clarify what it means to be out of time, off time; for instance, I “lost” last Thursday, had no idea how, but did not realize that I had until I heard a journalist on television thank God it was Friday. My sense that the person speaking was in error was simply palpable (and humorous in its confrontational sincerity and conviction!). The effort to recalibrate the hours in my mind never gargled up the missing day, the twenty-four-hour hiatus, interposing itself between the world and me. Might we not, then, be enroute to Anthony Reed’s interlude, “a modality of life itself,” defined by waiting? Neither the world we have known, nor the one struggling to be born, precisely locates us in interstitial time, wedged between past and future in some indeterminate present. Greg Tate calls our future the “post-Rona Truth,” for African-Americans, a “post-pandemic cultural sphere.” What it might look like is open to fictive and conceptual speculation that Tate evinces here as “nothing but tunnel at the end of this light-year.” Tate’s imagery proposes or posits no exit—in fact, we could think of it not only as a passageway (via the tunnel), but also, under the same figural auspices, as a kind of enclosure, wherein sight and hearing are so compromised that context is utterly withdrawn. Under these conditions, Tate might well look to speculative fiction as imaginative release from capture, just as Ariella Azoulay proffers a textual gesture here as a challenge to “imperial authority.”

Azoulay’s time-sense, this rendezvous with the temporal, locates its primary impetus in the historical dimension, broadly speaking, and in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a specific instance of “unlearning imperialism.”2 But from Rich Blint’s perspective, as it is refracted in a reading of the film Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, this “unlearning” appears to be given existentially—right up front—with black life in its totality; how true it must be that for “all the tea in China, all the oil in Texas,” one would not trade black consciousness now for even a single day of white blindness and self-deceit; the latter, in its persistence and intensity, would have to provoke “crisis,” as Nathan Grant understands the depredations of capitalism. In other words, the ideology of white supremacy, which has culminated in the vicious contagions of our present, powerfully twins with Grant’s fifth horseman of the Apocalypse to engender a global scene of death and destruction. For all we know now about the career of late capital and its thriving fetishes, Grant underscores the uncertainty of the next step, but insists that it must be taken as if our lives depended on it, and our lives do, in fact, depend on it, as well as the prehensile grasp of what has so far eluded our understanding, and that is to say, after Pierre Bourdieu, a theory of a “general economy of practices.” To put it another way, the choice, for instance, facing governors of the nation’s Sunbelt as to whether or not to “re-open” their states to commercial and social activity three or four weeks ago was erroneously configured as a binary confrontation between “economy” and “growth,” on the one hand, and “lockdown” and “safety,” on the other. In this case, a narrow reading of “economy” as an uncontaminated analytical and synthesizing element, unruffled and unbothered by other positivities around it, soon locks horns with error—in short, economic recovery is socially induced. But narrow economism describes both our history and our undoing.

The seam along which our total circumstance becomes visible to us is, thankfully, rarely come upon, but Christopher Winks instructs us here that it falls to the lot of the prophet, as in the paradigmatic biblical figure of John, the Revelator of Patmos, and in the modern world, the poet, as in the late Kamau Brathwaite, to do exactly so in acts of language and prophecy, long associated with Apocalypse; if, as in Winks’s vision, Apocalypse is tantamount to revelation, then it becomes clear why its portents and prospects are rife with the awful sense of the terrifying—things revealed that have been hidden “since the foundation of the world.” There is not a spot on earth more ripe to bring on itself a lick of Apocalypse than these United States. We yearn for the country of our birth and our becoming, but realize with averted eyes, with profoundly embarrassed eyes, that the time has come for it to see itself as it really is and how long, how far the latter from how it might be.

Works Cited
1 MSNBC. News Live; Chuck Todd, Katie Tur, Anchors; May 27, 2020.
2 Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019).

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