When I was a kid, growing up in the 90s, Y2K loomed as a strange beacon on the horizon. Its presence was a fact of life. My dad, always quick to find accept the weirdest of all possible explanations for things, organized a lackadaisical supply of water, canned goods, and MREs. I have no idea if he actually believed that the catastrophe was actually impending (if he did, then he surely didn’t plan for the severity that it entailed), or whether or not it was an interested “just-in-case” type deal. Either way, onrush of this technological-temporal breakdown was just one bit of the household soundtrack, nestled neatly alongside – and overlapping with – running commentaries on Clinton, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Janet Reno, the American militia movement, so on and so forth.
It was a similar case in social life. Many summer evenings were spent with the kids on the block getting together and discussing the end of the world and all those things that come with it: Y2K, prophecies – Biblical or otherwise – that foretold Millennial doom, paranormal occurrences (ghosts, UFOs), and government conspiracies. I don’t think the response to these things was skepticism, nor was it a blind acceptance. It was something more akin to a movement between bemusement and excitement, if not at the prospect of apocalypse itself but at the possibility of it. We were all being raised by oddball parents (one friend of mine had parents who were collecting twenty-dollar bills in a “Y2K jar”; when a little bit of money went missing they frantically called everybody’s parents demanding to know which child had taken it… as if paper money would be good in such a doomsday event!), the X-Files, and Coast-to-Coast AM – but each of these three addresses something wider about American culture, something that truly exploded in this time period but by no means was unique to it.
In his book American Apocalypses: The Image of the End of the World in American Literature, suggests that “the whole question of the apocalyptic ideology, of the historical transformation of space and time from old to new, from corruption to innocence, from death to rebirth, is fundamental to American literature”. If apocalypse is all-pervasive in American literature, then apocalypse is all-pervasive in American culture. Perhaps we could adopt the position of what Dominic Pettman calls “libidinal millenarianism” – a desiring-flux oscillating between a “specific strain of the carnivalesque and a revulsion against it” that is”ever-suspended between orgasm and extinction” – to analyze this position, bringing with it the Freudo-Marxian toolkit that he uses to get purchase on these dynamics. I’ll leave to that future posts (which probably will never arrive).
For Pettman, this libidinal millenarianism “blossoms in that psychically and politically charged space between anticipation and climax”. The 90s, fueled by the tech-bubble and astoundingly irrational exuberance, fueled a millenarianism frenzy that was at once utopic (frictionless global capitalism! the end of history! the singularity!) and apocalyptic (New World Order conspiracies, Y2K crashdown, maybe the Second Coming of Christ). Neither can really be separated from one another, nor can they be separated from what happened on the other side: no orgasmic explosion at the end of all things, but a climax spoiled – the empty discharge of the anti-climax. Cue the two-fold truncation of the American future, first with the bursting of the tech-bubble and then with the events on the morning of September 11th, 2001 – and so commenced the long shadow of post-Fordism in its most crisis-ridden mode and the neocon remix of neoliberal governmentality. As of yet, we haven’t truly escaped either of these things.
We had a second chance at apocalyptic splendor with 2012, the purported end date of the Mayan calendar’s long-count and ‘galactic alignment’ between Earth and the galactic center. 2012 was the farcical repetition of Y2K, which it shared a sort of common cultural DNA with. Both millennium fever and 2012 were a reflection of the archaic revival, a weird sort of time-tangling in which advancing technology seemed to engender a return of the deep past. Terence McKenna, himself the author of the book The Archaic Revival, was a seminal figure in this tech-hippy counterculture that spawned so much anxious jubilation in the run-up to 2000 – but he had also helped popularize anticipations surrounding 2012 through his Timewave Zero theory, which a cosmological rush, mappable through fractalizing wave-patterns across history, to an eschatological zero point. This point was December of 2012, adjacent to the end of the Mayan calendar.
Despite these juicy bits wooey high strangeness, 2012 never achieved the same level of intensity that 2000 did. Maybe it’s because the years prior to 2012 were characterized by breakdown, as opposed to the sense of build-up that characterized the 1990s. Maybe people simply couldn’t be bothered, either because of the still-lingering anti-climax of the millennium or because such fantastical notions offered little in the face of economic crisis.
For myself and many others, 2012 was itself an odd year, characterized by a sense of temporal disjunction that was perhaps fitting for a time in which an apocalypse that nobody cared about was said to be imminent. 2011 had been a year of intense social upheaval, which had manifested in the United States as the Occupy movement. I had participated in the NYC part of the movement – the de facto ‘hub’ in what was ostensibly supposed to be a hub-less movement – in the latter part of that year, but by 2012 that was all over. I had blown off school for the final time, and was spending my days working in the warehouse of a failing novelty company. Time, which had seemed to oscillate wildly between being dynamic and explosive to bitter and disappointing just a year prior, was now a smooth plane of openness – but it was by no means empty.
During OWS I had picked up Anti-Oedipus, and so much of the next year was characterized by working through both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia for the first time. In trying to understand what the fuck was happening in those books, I stumbled across Mark Fisher’s K-Punk blog, and eagerly consumed it in its entirety. It was an invigorating experience, and inspired me, by the end of the year, to create my first blog, the Deterritorial Investigations Unit.
This time was also characterized by a worryingly large consumption of adderall and alcohol, and nights of partying, days of work, and evenings of theorycel studying all blurred into a long continuum. It was also a time of collective experimentation. One such experiment was an attempt to make a concept album based on a mixture of 60s garage rock and what our impression of contemporary suburban adolescent boredom was like. It was never complete, no doubt in due to the overwhelming tendency to chaotic noise jamming, but here’s a sample:
(and yes, before anyone asks, a release of recordings from the Flying Dogs, spanning the years 2007-2013, is indeed in the works. Place your orders now).
Another experiment was the Committee for the Liberation of Autonomous Amusement (CLAA), which was an attempt to recapture what I had found to be the most interesting of what Occupy had to offer (a re-imagining of urban space, collective transformation, a subversion of daily life) and jettison what was interesting the least (political reformism and the baggage that come with it, democratic organizationalism). A manifesto with a list of demands was drawn up and was posted all over town (one attempt to graffiti slogans ended in a car case). We also drafted a declaration against a fashionable hotel and art museum in downtown Louisville, though the great plan to distribute copies of it inside the museum, like the concept album, never came to fruition. (insane multiplication of projects + failure to complete is an eternal struggle)
At the heart of most of my concerns in this era were with identity – not its consolidation, or comfort with it, but a struggle to get out from under it. There was a notion that had been the source of much conversation, that beneath the self was an immense void, and that this void could be experienced. Obviously a sophisticated theoretical route could be taken to get to this conclusion, but this was a less-than-rigorous conception based on half-assed readings of Bataille and Elaine Scarry that went, if I’m recalling correctly, something like this: the more one approaches an experience that can only be registered individually, the more language collapses as a means to express the nature of that experience, alongside a progressive collapse of a way to get a handle on the world. A sufficiently intense experience thus pierces through the external veil of identity and opens the incommunicable void that lies beneath it.
A major way to articulate this at the time was in relation to nights spent on the dance floor of a local bar. Here, the loss of self – the loss of individual identity – happened at a collective level, albeit a small collective. At the time, however, it also seemed that something similar was at work in many sites of collective experimentation. At the wild and woolly edges of the Occupy movement it was certainly there, and its presence could be felt moving beneath the times playing music collapsed into disorder.
This drive is perhaps also related to the libidinal charge that the specter of the apocalypse brings. Back in 2012 the way in all these threads pieced together was elusive, but a recent re-listen to Fisher’s comments in 2013, as part of a panel on the “Death of Rave”, has been illuminating. After discussing what he calls the “depressive hedonism” – the realization that material success does not deliver one from abject misery and alienation – found in the music of Drake and Kanye West, Fisher states
Even if you’re stupendously wealthy like he [Drake] is, there’s still something missing. I think captures something really fundamental, which was available even to the poor in the 90s, which is collective delirium of depersonalization. Alain Ehrenberg has that expression, it’s the title of his book, the Weariness of the Self. It’s miserable for everybody to be themselves. It’s not just you. It’s miserable for anyone to be themselves… the rise of reality TV and social media are completely convergent with, or completely coincident, rather, with the decline of what we’re talking about here. It’s kind of a magical capture that is all done with mirrors. On the 90s dance floor – you know that great line that you quoted about “impending human extinction becomes as accessible as a dance floor” – there’s that enjoyment of the dissolution of identity, which it’s just miserable to be human, for all of us. And instead of that the key kind of social technologies of the 21st century are facializing, you know, encouraging us back into this identification with ourselves. The Willem Dafoe character in, you know, David Cronenberg’s ExistenZ calls this “the most pathetic level of reality”. Psychological individualism. It’s much better to be these kind of depersonalized intensities than to be a person.
The famous Zizek quip is that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the imagine the end of capitalism – but the argument of Fisher here suggests an occult link between apocalyptic imaginaries (communicated through the infamous line about human extinction and the dance floors, which was plugged directly in the libidinal charge of Y2K) and post-capitalist imaginaries. Pettman argued a similar point, regarding libidinal millenarianism: that is constitutes a hyper-focus of libidinal energy onto some sort of object that serves as the means to a transvaluation of values. Taking stock of the reality of something like anthropocenic climate change, we might also say that alongside the inability to imagine the end of capitalism is coupled to an inability to imagine the end of the world.
The apocalypse is something like a historical limit-experience, an imaginal counterpart to the depersonalization that operates at the limit of individuality. Loss of self, even if temporary and especially as a collective, is a brush with some kind of death. To bring this down to earth (and to conclude these rambles), here’s some interesting comments on Blanchot’s conception of community by way of Xenogoth:
for Blanchot, Nancy’s consideration of death as wholly inoperative — simply because it is a limit-experience — is an unhelpful simplification and one which does not speak truth to the reality of “community” as that which occurs in the spaces between “us”.
For Blanchot, death is not the end of community, nor, by contrast, is birth its start — although there would, of course, be no community without either event. Birth and death are rather those events which are responsible for bringing the very community of which they are apart together. They are community at its most potent but that is not the same as being a bookend. What ruptures community in the taking-place of these events is that relation which escapes expression. In this sense, death may be the limit of the individual but it is the height of community, where love, at its most potent — “love” understood here, via Blanchot, as that name for the unshareable affectation of the communal — erupts within and without community, as it is physically instantiated.