Friday, October 31, 2008

Longing for the Apocalypse

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one was the last one written, and since it was the last, it exploded into a cavalcade of diverse thoughts that I wanted to say, this being my last opportunity. It begins with some unknown German guy summarizing literature about the image of "apocalypse" in theory and slides into my first attempt to pull together a number of threads I've been thinking about lately--primitivism, intellectual influence, and literacy.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In the most revealing passage in Klaus Scherpe’s serviceable summary of Continental intellectual trends relating to the notion of “apocalypse,” Scherpe says
In Kafka’s stories the exception begins and remains the rule; an idea’s reversal is always implicit in its being thought. Kafka’s literary modernity is a state of emergency, which means that the revolutionary impulse implicit in the notions of “interruption” and the “breakthrough” propagated by Benjamin’s theory of modernity can never occur; the catastrophe can never set any energy free nor provide the stimulus for change. (Scherpe 113)
Benjamin has swallowed the notion that modernity soaks us to the core, that the “‘age of information,’ when norms are purged of meaning and time is characterized by its ‘empty’ homogeneity” (106) requires the notion of a radical break to even conceive of change. After taking both notions on board, postmodernity becomes the last shock available as, for instance, Baudrillard “proclaims a condition of the absolute absence of events.” (100) The question would seem to be: why is such an absurd conclusion taken seriously by smart people? By using Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I would like to trace a path to re-engineer the position so-called postmodern intellectuals have found themselves.

The two positions Scherpe traces have Baudrillard on one side and his “German prophet,” Gerd Bergfleth, on the other. Baudrillard, in effect, pushes the self-directed ironic masks worn by the Romantics to achieve autonomy to its outermost reaches, what he calls “objective irony.” Baudrillard sees quite rightly that a truly all-pervasive irony, when taken out of its normal state of (subjective) context-dependence and amped up into a (objective) reality-rule, becomes an indifference that ultimately denies change: “Everything has already happened.”[fn.1] (100-1) This de-dramatizes reality because by denying change/events, we’ve effectively relieved ourselves of waiting around for something to happen (so-called “drama”). Scherpe says perceptively that the German side of the equation is missing the irony of Baudrillard’s position—whereas from Baudrillard’s position we might as well drop the nukes, from Bergleth’s vantage (a “typically German version of the postmodern condition,” (123) Scherpe says humorously), we need it. Bergleth has an “intense desire for some sort of deadly seriousness” (126) in the midst of French playfulness, a “longing for death” (127) as the last place to find meaning, the true flipside of Camus’ insistence that the only pertinent philosophical question was whether to commit suicide.[fn.2] Bergfleth must re-dramatize the notion of apocalypse to regain Benjamin’s hope for change and (for what ends up resting on the ability to see differences) meaning.

If we turn to White Noise, I believe we can trace the interesting patterns that accrue to the fascination with catastrophe and apocalypse. In Chapter 14, DeLillo shows us Jack and his kids watching television, “floods, earthquakes, mudslides,” “totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death.” (DeLillo 64) The significance, and ultimately the disturbing fascination Jack sees, is that “Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.” (ibid.) The next day Jack asks Alfonse why “people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe”? (65) He replies, not only that “it’s natural, it’s normal,” (ibid.) but that “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.” (ibid.)

I would like to unpack this section in several different ways. First, DeLillo and the postmoderns all take very seriously the effect of technology on our culture and consciousness. This point should not be underestimated, as all other points fall from there. Modern society is not only bombarded with information, but it better stores and recalls that information. If info is blandly defined as our sensory input, then it is flatly false that we get more info now than before—it is everywhere and always the same saturated state. However, the creation of technology, Prometheus bringing the Gods’ fire to us, has expanded exponentially our ability to store and retrieve information and has altered our consciousness accordingly.[fn.3]

One consequence of our ability to retrieve the past more quickly and accurately has been the increasing sense that the past is a burden. This can be seen quite clearly in the evolution of poetry. In Homeric times, oral poetry was the only form of paideia. As this transferred into prose form, written poetry shuttled into a stage of theological instruction (Dante being the great exemplar). Petrarch marked a great change in all this, as the poet turned inwards, towards his own problems, personal and otherwise. By the time of the Romantics, that shift had been solidified—poets had become so self-conscious of the past that the insular search for something new to say began in true earnest.[fn.4] Irony was instrumental in their search for new ways to shrug off the past—as a stance, it put one in a skeptical relation to the past, and as a figure, one could repeat the past while meaning something else.

The last idea to put into play is that of primitivism—the notion that the past was a glorious time, if only we could restore it. This might seem entirely counterintuitive, but as anxiety over contemporary decadence increases, such that things as time goes on are getting worse, it seems natural to suppose that things were better earlier, before they got worse. Primitivism, in a simple sense, is a typical conservative reaction—too much change is bad for the system—and is as old as recorded time.[fn.5] Primitivism takes on a new cast during the Enlightenment, suffused in the form of Rousseau. Rousseau wished to reach back to the past, as a simpler time. But Rousseau realized the almost insurmountability of this problem because the problem was society itself.[fn.6]

Thus enters the fascination with apocalypse. Bernard Yack suggests that Rousseau transmitted to the European intellectual tradition a “longing for total revolution.”[fn.7] By locating the pernicious evil in the very civilizing, socializing process, Rousseau put out of practical reach our ability to change: “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” he says famously in the Social Contract. As technological rates increase, the burden of the past chains us tighter and tighter to where we have been, and the more we dream of being released. For the poet, from the great masters of the past. For the political revolutionary or spiritual purist (who, in true Rousseauian spirit, end up being one and the same), from modern society. We become fascinated with catastrophe as our sense of “we’ve seen this all before” increases, and as time goes by, greater and greater catastrophes of greater magnitude are demanded to breach our attention. And as the Mountains of Time begin to blot out the Sun, we begin to pray for the Great Leveler. The turn in DeLillo, in post-apocalypse, is the same turn in Rousseau—a sudden, renewed sense of community as the TVs die away.


Works Cited

Bate, W. Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, 1991.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1997.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, 1985, 1999.

Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. New York: Universal Library, 1963, 1967.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934, 1997.

Nehamas, Alexander. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections From Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Rice, Eugene F, Jr., with Anthony Grafton. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970, 1994.

Scherpe, Fredric. “Dramatization and De-dramatization of ‘the End’: The Apocalyptic Consciousness of Modernity and Post-Modernity.” Cultural Critique. No. 5 (Winter 1986-7), p. 95-129.

Yack, Bernard. The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 1992.


[1] Baudrillard is right about irony because the classic notion of irony is a directed notion, from speaker to audience, author to reader. What irony does is hide the meaning of a statement. Though often thought of as a simplistic “means the contrary of what it says,” Romantic irony has more to do with the irony of Socrates, as when Alexander Nehamas argues, against the traditional “contrary” version that Gregory Vlastos stands at the far end of in Socratic studies, that irony is a “concealment”: “Irony seems to create a mask. It does not show what, if anything, is masked. It suggests depth. It does not guarantee it.” (Nehamas 67) When Baudrillard expands the ultimately faceless mask of irony to a world-condition, he seems to understandably draw the conclusion that, since 1) all depths are created by a concealing mask, 2) everything is a concealing mask, and 3) every mask pulled off finds us with another concealing mask, the very notion of a “reality” to be taken seriously and differentiatedly is suspicious and should be treated indifferently because it can/could/should/has been revealed to be a different, faceless mask (hence his concept of the simulacrum, a representation with no represented—like a signifier with no signified—which means every representation represents the same thing: nothing).

[2] While L’étranger offers a wonderful portrait of a life seemingly devoid of internally generated meaning (and hence careening towards the only thing that would stand out: death), Camus investigates in prose the question of suicide in Le mythe de sisyphe.

[3] Here I would refer to the work of Walter J. Ong and Eric A. Havelock on orality, literacy and the beginnings of Greek (Western) thought. In our Homeric, oral state the only way to store info was in memorable pieces (because they had to be personally remembered) by the instrumental use of hexametric verse, rhyme, formulas, the use of heroic figures. As Ong says,
The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought. Havelock [in Preface to Plato] shows that Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic essentially (if not quite consciously) because he found himself in a new chirographically styled noetic world in which the formula or cliché, beloved of all traditional poets, was outmoded and counterproductive. (Ong 24)
This marked the true birth of what we now think of as poetry—broadly, the attempt to write in an original way. Poetry had previously been involved in reproduction of noetic resources, but writing provided an external way to save these.
Our sense of accuracy has also increased as our technological capacities have. Writing allowed us to record thoughts. It also allowed us to record history, to record events in a more individuated way than ever before (the detailed History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides rather than the amorphously mythic Works and Days of Hesiod). The printing press registers as another significant event in the history of our consciousness. The reproduction of classic texts for the length of the Middle Ages were largely left to the hands of monastic scribes, most of whom were illiterate and were simply trying to copy as closely as possible the marks. The invention of moveable type changed everything:
Manuscripts, totally dependent on the skill, learning, and care of the scribe, had always been inaccurate and unreliable. Furthermore, this inaccuracy and unreliability were becoming increasingly great as successive generations of scribes copied the errors of their predecessors and added their own. The fundamental contribution of printing to learning was that it halted this progressive corruption and made possible the long and continuing effort to restore the great texts of the past to something approaching their original integrity. Printing gave scholars all over Europe identical texts to work on. (Rice 7)
The weight of the past has increased exponentially since that time as more and more is reproduced and preserved, not only the great and vast, but the boring and trivial. We have it all at our finger-tips.

[4] In this Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet is instrumental, as is Harold Bloom’s transformation of Bate’s more historical thesis into a theory of poetry in The Anxiety of Influence.

[5] On this see Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas’ Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. One of the many benefits is their distinguishing between various senses of “primitivism.” The sense I shall use it is as a “cultural primitivism.” Lovejoy says, “The cultural primitivist has almost invariably believed that the simpler life of which he has dreamed has been somewhere, at some time, actually lived by human beings.” (Lovejoy 8)

[6] As Lovejoy says of Rousseau’s First Discourse, “The study of the arts and sciences does not contribute à épurer les moeurs [to the purification of mores], and there it is of minimal value, and often actually harmful.” (Lovejoy 274)

[6] Yack says that the “subjective awareness of the inability to produce a desired object distinguishes a longing from a desire….”
In both longing and desire we feel the uneasiness created by the lack of a desire object. But while in desire our uneasiness focuses on the desired object, thus promoting attempts at its acquisition, in longing the awareness of our present incapacity to acquire the object diffuses our uneasiness. The energy produced by that uneasiness has no obvious outlet—thus the vague, generalized feeling of uneasiness which most of us associate with longing. … When we discover the obstacle to our satisfaction we generate a new object of desire: a world without that obstacle to our satisfaction. And if we find ourselves incapable of removing this obstacle, our desire becomes a longing which, in turn, generates the definition of new objects of desire. (Yack 5-6, italics mine)
Compare this to Scherpe’s nice little slap at Baudrillard: “the curious manner in which this form of theorizing constantly creates new objects in order to make them disappear….” (Scherpe 99) On my reading, this is exactly what is to be expected at the long, self-conscious end of Platonic theory. Nietzsche saw Hegel grasp previous generations and drain them of their power for his own, thought it a neat trick and went directly at the main offender—Plato. Heidegger saw Nietzsche invert Plato, and saw the next step as an inversion of Nietzsche. Derrida sees Heidegger and ups the inverting ante, but by now the jig is up and the game of inverting back and forth infinitely becomes increasingly boring.


  1. Speaking of forced brevity, are you doing NaNoWriMo? (If you have to ask, I suggest you do a search, you might like it).

  2. MLA - Multiple Letter Acronym?

  3. On a side note Matt - I checked out your "LISTEN TO ME" link. I've been pausing for an occasional laugh from time to time.

    "So what if I like to here the sound of my voice... Pricks..."


  4. Man, that was from forever ago.

    I made a mistake in the sidebar link there, though. I'm not sure why I did it this way, but it just goes to the audio, and the whole idea, originally, was to have an audio version of a text that is in front of people go "off the rails." But just listening to the audio without the text, you wouldn't have been aware that the audio diverges from the text at the end.

    I was going to do a whole series of them, reading my old stuff and spiraling out of control into a whole series of different audio sketches. I think I still have my notes on them lying around somewhere. But I'm kind of like a house cat, an intense hunter, but easily distracted and playful. And the objects I hunt aren't that hard to get. And I'm furry.

    Try this to see if it's any funnier.

  5. I gotta know what "forced MLA" means.

  6. Oh, I'm sorry Glenn. I couldn't figure out if what you said was just a joke or a question, too.

    MLA stands for the Modern Language Association, the English Department's equivalent of the APA for Philosophy Departments (or, confusedly, for Psychology Departments, depending on which field you're talking about).

    The MLA has an official style, with instructions on how citations should look and other bullshit, called "MLA." The only other official style on the market these days is APA style (the psychology one). Most humanities disciplines use, I think, MLA and most social science APA (I think physicists use telepathy).

    I think APA was the first style to phase out footnotes and endnotes, which differentiated it from MLA, but by now the latter has followed suit, which makes the two nearly identical. The only other official style I've ever heard of is "Chicago style," which I've always associated with "using footnotes."

    People actually say that footnotes and endnotes clutter a text and make it harder to read. I think that's retarded (with all due apologies to people with mental disabilities because they're just doing the best they can). Hmm, what's more annoying and stylistically bulky and cluttering--randomly placed parentheticals with unknown names and numbers or tiny superscipted numbers?

    I had a professor who once said, when asked in class what kind of citation method we should use, snidely replied that we could present ourselves anyway we wanted for him, and if we wanted to appear shoddy and unprofessional, we could go ahead and use parentheticals.

  7. Ah, thanks.


Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: