Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (7): Combined and/or Uneven

To begin with a point of departure, from a review by Michael Willand:
More than a blueprint for liberation, Williams’s limpid and creative dissection of these cultural artefacts is an exemplary illustration of the serious scrutiny we should apply to our imaginative lives.
And to show that it amounts to damning not so much with faint praise as with actual damning, and makes a non sequitur of the fundamental question of what it is about our ‘imaginative lives’ that deserves serious scrutiny, and for what purpose we should engage in the ‘creative dissection of cultural artefacts’. Or, to put it another way, what’s the point of film and literary theory, other than showing that you can learn to do them very well.

Evan Calder Williams has been blogging at Socialism and/or Barbarism for the best part of three years, although it would be more precise to say that he has been straining the blog form for most of this time, alternating between pieces of micro-critique, full-blown, exhilarating journal-length essays and brutally articulate invectives of such length as to spill out of the format altogether, counselling the author to split in two parts what didn’t need to be, insofar as a web page can accommodate texts of indefinite length (or, rather, depth). It would be tempting to call some of these excesses self-indulgent, were it not for the obvious fact that self-publishing is that by definition, and that furthermore conceiving of outside editorial intervention as the means of curtailing excess and ensuring that a piece of writing adheres to a more common – read: virtuous – set of expectations is far from unproblematic. That said, Evan is one of the few bloggers, or writers more generally, to whom I don’t begrudge the occasional rough draft, for it rarely fails to offer sharp poetic turns and interestingly jagged edges. And besides it can be as much in the throwaway one-liner or image association as in the controlled long-form essay that one can detect the changes of trajectory in the development of his ideas. (None of which – this must be said for it’s far from a given – have ever been regarded by their author as ‘too good for a blog’.)

All of this work has been conducted against the dual backdrops of the global financial crisis and most especially the permanent struggle against the dismantling of public higher education that has in Evan’s adoptive California one of its nerve centres, and is therefore shot through with and necessarily informed by the author’s own activism. And so the blog’s subject – which broadly speaking has been thus far the study of apocalyptic texts, with a particular emphasis on film – with its attendant reflections on the collapse of institutions and broader social structures, is moored to a context that surfaces time and again in explicit fashion amongst the posts, allowing us to provisionally establish at the very least a contiguity between the political and the aesthetic, but also giving the blog its own peculiar, angry time signature.

It should be clear by now that I am talking again of a genre-defining blog, much as Socialism and/or Barbarism is certainly not alone in what it does. It is the blog that gave us salvagepunk and one of the most acute and challenging analyses of the zombie canon, as well as the work in progress of hostile object theory – whose relevance to my own field of research I’ve had occasion to comment on – but yet existed in that uncertain zone, freely accessible yet hard to piece together, suffering as it were from the excess of vitality of the not-yet-printed word. And so when it transpired last year that Evan would publish with the British imprint Zero Books, it produced the likely expectation that he would organise this material and produce a less malleable, more discrete object to think and work with, as well as making that at times implicit dimension – of political injunction, as opposed to critical analysis – more fully explicit.

The resulting book, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, is on a level just that. Organised as a three-part study of an eclectic selection of fantasies of the capitalist apocalypse from the late nineteen-sixties to the present day, the book acknowledges the influence of the particular instance of crisis in which it was produced, but doesn’t draw legitimacy from it. One of its central points is to underscore rather the immanent, as opposed imminent, nature of the apocalypse, its being already here except not everywhere at the same time – hence combined and uneven, a play on the Marxist theory of historical development inaugurated by Trotzky – and how the various articulations of this fantasy, with their corresponding eschatologies, are integral to capitalism as a global system. There is one passage in particular that deserves to be quoted in full:

[C]capitalist apocalypse […] does not mean just an end of capitalism or even an end that suddenly reveals things about it which we didn't know before. Rather, capitalist apocalypse is the possibility of grasping how the global economic order and its social relations depend upon the production and exploitation of the undifferentiated, of those things which cannot be included in the realm of the openly visible without rupturing the very oppositions that make the whole enterprise move forward. And by “undifferentiated things,” we mean 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, closure of access to common resources, the rendering of mass culture more and more banal, shifting climate patterns and the “natural” disasters they bring about, the abandonment of working populations and those who cannot work in favor of policies determined only to starkly widen wealth gaps. (8)

This is the apocalypse we have, an unfolding, developing story with several converging endings that demands to be approached not by fretting about what is going to happen, nor by hastening the end, but rather by making a stand ‘from the position of what has already been lost’ (203). Hence a book that is committed to rummaging through pasts according to the logic of salvage – in search of what is useful, as opposed to supposedly representative or symptomatic – and that locates its central texts in two films from the beginnings of the surveyed period: Jean Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) and Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969). Yet also a book that, more than is usual, was consigned to the past from the moment it came into being.

It happened at the book’s London launch, earlier this month, when Evan and China Miéville proceeded to declare salvagepunk dead and to question its political pretensions, as well as, by extension, the mechanisms of circulation and appropriation of critical terms. (Salvagepunk is dead not just because of its actual inherent conceptual limitations but because it is literally everywhere already, a victim from birth of its cool-theory sheen.) Caught between those performative moments – the slow, accretive coming together of the material on the blog on one hand, the launch on the other – the book remains trapped oddly outside of time, doubted, if not quite disavowed, by its authors (plural, for Miéville played a major role in the genesis of salvagepunk), declared outdated before the ink was even dry, thus an object that one does not quite know what to do with, which would be appropriate enough – as if too needed to be salvaged, repurposed – except for its having declared itself a work of ‘prescriptive theory’ (12), thus explicitly an object to do things with, and at this moment.

That’s where the Michael Willand quote at the top of this post comes back into play. If salvagepunk (and, by extension, the book) is not a ‘blueprint for liberation’, as is charged, then what is it that makes ‘Williams’s limpid and creative dissection of these cultural artefacts’ not just delightful and instructive but in fact useful and even necessary, something we ‘should’ engage in? In fact it is the premise of the statement that is nonsensical: the failure of the book to develop its insights based on the study of films ‘into a comprehensive plan for an alternative society’ (from the same review) is an utterly literal-minded response to the book’s exhortations to make use of the logic of salvagepunk, to retrofit the zombie genre and to occupy the zones of combined and uneven apocalypse. All of these analyses remain politically useful in a way that is analogous to Donna Haraway’s famous treatment of cyborgs – who, like the zombies of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, also had to be rescued from under a mountain of deeply entrenched yet utterly banal critiques in order to ‘make them mean otherwise’ (146): namely, as analytical tools – or more precisely: sets of politically inflected optics designed to make visible what would otherwise be hidden – and as templates to understand social and labour relations and (re)construct antagonistic subjects.

And so too the burial of salvagepunk – its intriguing and lively fanfare of self-critique notwithstanding – was, one feels, premature, and offers one more timeline to be occupied and resisted: that of critical terms that become devalued through overuse and reduced to the level of memes before they’ve had time to even mean things. It is time already for a revival.

Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books, 2011.


Michael Willand said...


I'm delighted you've engaged with my review. I do think, however, you treat me a little unfairly (so apologies for quoting myself).

- The quote of mine you begin with. You seem to think it is damning because it reduces ECW to some kind of film-criticism circus act -- but I specifically say that his criticism is an example of "applying serious scrutiny to our imaginative lives" i.e. more than mere pyrotechnics.

- I'd like to think that the whole of the review that precedes that final sentence makes an argument for "what it is about our ‘imaginative lives’ that deserves serious scrutiny, and for what purpose we should engage in the ‘creative dissection of cultural artefacts’". When I write that "Williams explores cinema’s fantastical distillation of capitalism’s inner workings" I don't see "capitalism's inner workings" as one more aesthetic "theme" for the critic to draw on -- clearly, ECW's critique has political ramifications. You mention "labour relations" for example -- I agree this is ECW's concern, which is why I report him as analysing the zombies as "the concealed exploited making their repressed exclusion manifest."

- In my second paragraph: "The task of the theorist, then, consists in providing 'a necessary optic onto the flourishing wastelands of late capitalism'; discerning the shape, not of things to come, but of underlying reality." Isn't this a similar interpretation to yours? ("All of these analyses remain politically useful ... as analytical tools – or more precisely: sets of politically inflected optics designed to make visible what would otherwise be hidden – and as templates to understand social and labour relations and (re)construct antagonistic subjects.")

- What you report as my judgment of "the failure of the book to develop its insights based on the study of films ‘into a comprehensive plan for an alternative society’" refers to a sentence where I say "Williams would not be alone in failing to build his positive suggestions for localised responses to this “combined and uneven apocalypse” into a comprehensive plan for an alternative society." -- I'm hardly leveling a criticism! I'm saying we shouldn't expect this of him (with the exception of the moments where he invites this expectation).

- Again, you suggest that I "charge" him with not providing "a blueprint for liberation". But I say that his book is "More than a blueprint for liberation", because "it may be that theoretically uncovering capitalist fantasies’ displacement of the Other is the boldest response conceivable." Again, surely a charitable reading of my assertion would take it to be saying something rather similar to you.

None of this is to say there are no differences between our interpretations; I just think our differences are more parochial than you suggest. (I like your point about going into the past rather than merely representing... though I'd have to think a bit more before agreeing.)


Giovanni Tiso said...

Hi Michael

I can see how you may feel like you have been quoted too selectively there. I wrote the bulk of this before the video for the presentation became available, and after I watched that I became a bit obsessed with the book having been declared a dead thing already, this idea of the birthgrave. In the end I wanted to take issue as much with Evan and China Miéville as I did with you, and ended up doing neither very well.

The way in which I found that first quotation immediately useful was the fact that it contained that impossible demand, “more than a blueprint for liberation”, which then inevitably colours whatever positive you might say about the book, even to the extent that it’s not so very dissimilar to my take on it. Obviously if the book offered a blueprint for liberation that would be bloody fantastic! There is no amount of theoretically uncovering capitalist fantasies’ displacement of the Other that could make up for that (and here I took your “boldest response conceivable” to mean that’s the best we can achieve, critical theory can’t go beyond that). But I think you get to the crux of it in your response: we shouldn’t expect the book to offer a blueprint for liberation with the exception of the moments where it invites this expectation. Here I do think you were too literal in your interpretation, but I have skirted around the exact nature and content of that political injunction myself. If I am entirely honest, I don’t think that the optics and the tools to understand social and labour relations and construct antagonistic subjects is all there is to it. It’s nice stuff, sure. But I have always felt that in Evan’s writing there is a spark, something that can actually ignite things.

What stopped me short of elaborating on that was the comedown from the book’s presentation. Not because the content didn’t make sense – the critique of the flaws of salvagepunk as it is articulated in the book is certainly valid – but because that prescriptive theory element wasn’t addressed if not negatively. Miéville snuck in a very nicely self-deprecating quip there (“what political lessons can we learn from how awesome our taste in films is?”) and of course we should always be wary of that attitude, but it seems to me that the work in the last chapter especially would have called for a different kind of discussion.

(That said, there was something about a successor to salvagepunk at the end, it just didn’t make the video so I can’t respond to it.)