Media

Armageddon Obsession

Years back, at DisInfoCon (I’ll try to find the link later and stick it here), Grant Morrison, comic-book writer, ritual magician and Glaswegian, mourned what he considered the western youth’s slide into what he deemed “apocalypse culture.” It’s an interesting cultural development; this is perhaps the first time in history that a vast amount of our consumable entertainment media has been based in worlds which appear to be ruined versions of our own.

Let’s take two huge examples: Post-Nuclear Apocalypse and Zombie fictions. These have been done to death of course, but they provide adequate examples of settings and scenarios which, fittingly, refuse to die. These genres stretch far back in our popular culture; A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the earliest novels set in the scorched wastes of a world which has in recent centuries undergone severe nuclear devastation, came out back in 1960. Night of the Living Dead, obviously not the first occurrence of zombies in folklore but perhaps the first time the subject matter had beed appropriated by the western culture industry, came out in 1968.

And yet still we obsess over these tropes. The Walking Dead is more popular than ever, and the Fallout games still move millions of units effortlessly. These genres have basically gone unchanged, and I reject the notion that zombies have been ‘deconstructed’ over time; dark notions of what people are willing to become in order to survive have been present in the genre since the beginning, as has the question (repeated ad nauseam) “are WE the real monsters?!” Making the zombies capable of running hardly constitutes a revolutionising of the whole stage. Post-Nuke stuff seems satisfied with ‘yesterday’s tomorrow forever’; the way they perceived the possibilities of the future in the dawn of the Nuclear Age, rising steel statues ravaged by fire, twisted impressions burnt into the earth for those who come after to find and ponder over.

Would it be reductive to simply consider this ghoulish western obsession with the apocalypse either a bizarre manifestation of the Judaeo-Christian ‘End of Days’ eschaton or as an example of mass-unconscious self-loathing imperialist decadence? We’re still caught up in the hall-of-mirrors that is post-modernism, an era chiefly characterised no longer by its incorporation of myriad narratives but instead by a nihilism born of diaspora and self-obsession. Adorno & Horkheimer wrote that “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), and whereas The Frankfurt School were principally concerned with the inherent homogeneity which characterises art produced in a capitalist society, this lends itself perfectly to the longevity of the genres in question: what better product to market to a society which finds itself in the existential crisis which accompanies imperial decline than one which offers a masochistic vision of said society catastrophically humbled by its own hubris? And one which (and here’s the kicker), depicts the viewer-projection protagonist as a survivor of the horror which surely awaits us?

Want to make an actual deconstructive zombie film? Okay. Have the film open on a shambling pack of zombies, whatever era you deem most intriguing, and follow them for 90 minutes as they wordlessly scuttle about, picking off shrieking survivors and rooting through buildings. Offer absolutely zero human element to the narrative, the backstories of any survivors glimpsed are of no significance.

That was a clumsy (spellcheck suggested ‘classy’ there) way of trying to highlight how post-apocalyptic fiction often tries to offer the audience the vicarious and deeply self-indulgent fantasy of being present for the world’s eventual devastation yet not succumbing to it. It’s the Bystander Fallacy, the delusion some people have that in a high-intensity and adrenaline-heavy situation of violence or disaster they would surely remain calm, collected and capable throughout the ordeal, logically approaching the situation rather than losing their heads and screaming about the place like the other lesser beings present, who unlike the solipsist fantasist in question are not the Protagonist of the situation.

The impression one gets from observing these highly-successful genres is that our culture is one in the throws of an anxiety; we’ve all noticed the trends and parallels, historically. We feel like we know where this is going. Fallen is Babylon, it’s the Last Days of Rome, etc. Pornhub reveals year after year that our tastes are growing more extreme and abstract, populist movements surge behind authoritarian statesmen who hark incessantly to bygone, civilised (and notably caucasian) golden ages which never truly were. It’s all coming down, maaan, and now every generation which follows gets to experience an even more crystallised terror of being all-too-conscious in the seconds after the wheels lose traction on the ice beneath and the car spins into the night, breath held in the timeless moments before the crash.

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Media

Mental Diarrhea #00003 – An Entertaining Maiming

What is our cultural fixation on romanticising psychopathic behaviour? Grant Morrison touched on this at his drug-addled DisInfocon lecture many years back.
“John Wayne Gacey?” He said, “John Wayne Gacey’s a fucking prick, killed a bunch of innocent people and did some shit paintings.”
And yet people pour over these admittedly shit paintings, hoping to gleam some dark kernel of insight from the artwork of a madman who butchered children. What are they hoping they’ll find?

The human being is predictable. We’ve had about 4000 years of civilisation to get to know the human, and hir behaviours haven’t changed that dramatically. We eat, we sleep, we procreate, and in one of nature’s little flourishes we also developed an advanced consciousness that allows us to consider ourselves and our place in the universe. To pull a quote from True Detective:

“I believe human consciousness was a tragic misstep in our evolution. Nature created an aspect of itself separate from itself.”

Perhaps our fascination with the macabre habits of our darker representatives is rooted in the “unheimlich”, or what we call the uncanny. We’ve gotten so used to the human that it really spooks us when they throw a curveball at us. Did WE do that, we ask ourselves? One of US? Us guys, who painted cathedral ceilings and built nanomachines and discovered that if you tug on pork a little people will pay fucking bank to eat it in a dusty focaccia roll?

We’re horrified/obsessed by our own capacity for inventive cruelty. People describe brutality as “animalistic,” but animals are far more to-the-point in their bloodshed. You won’t find any SS officers among a herd of hippos, and no capuchin monkeys ever formed their own adorable version of the Tonton Macoute. There aren’t any bears performing Mengele-esque experiments in dank operating rooms.

We’re the worst animal, and we love/hate being reminded of such. Perhaps this is why media always paints the psychopath as a cultured artiste. Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan: these are charming, personable eccentrics with an inventive flair. We like to remind ourselves that with all of our potential for expression, beauty and critical thinking, we nevertheless retain a capacity for unimaginable malevolence, and it is this very creative aspect of ourselves which grants us the ability to devise horrific means of violence and torture, both physical and psychological.

There is another potential angle to all this, though. Quick question; do you play video games, reader? If not, congrats, I’m sure your life is very fulfilling. But to anyone who answered “yes,” let me ask you: How many virtual people have you killed? This is a rhetorical question, and I’d be pretty unsettled by anyone who could actually give me a confident answer. If you’ll continue to indulge this tangent, let me ask; how many people were disposed of like so much cannon-fodder in the last action or horror movie you watched?

This is a round-about way of pointing out that ours is a society desensitised to violent death. It’s popcorn stuff, entertainment. Hell, ask any crime reporter: “The gorier the better,” they’ll tell you before getting into a fistfight with the guy from Channel 6 about who gets the closest shot of the crying, blood-drenched students outside the community college.

We’ve had so much blood, gore and war for breakfast that we start to crave something a bit ‘spicier’ for dinner. So we make the killer’s inventive. We give them layered personalities. We give them complex motivations and a modus operandi to die for.

It seems kind of dull, in the long view. A room full of coked-up semi-creatives trying to figure out the most sensational kind of violence for this week’s episode, for this year’s series title. Hopefully we’ll eventually get over our violence-obsession, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Anecdotally, many of my friends are making the shift towards veganism lately. I myself am sort of dabbling with it. I don’t think I’ve eaten meat or dairy in a week, and that’s without even trying. But even within these conscientious, kindly people beat the black hearts of warlords, assassins and and butchers. My girlfriend hasn’t eaten meat in years and won’t even let a balloon fly into the air because it might (read: probably will) suffocate a dolphin one day, but she loves her some Game of Thrones. A good friend of mine is a hardcore vegan with a huge axe to grind against the military-industrial-complex, but during our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns he regularly bathes his dark god’s amulet in the open, sucking chest-wounds of the recently slain.

I’m no different. I’m probably worse, because I’m not even trying to make the world a better place in my day-to-day. It’s just unsettling to think about: we’re so tied to our bloodlust that we can comfortably manage the cognitive dissonance of adopting a position of pacifism while racking up 1000 kills in about 15 minutes in a game of Dynasty Warriors.

An end note: I don’t have any research to back this up, so blow me, but I read somewhere that generally speaking, horror movies and violent media don’t tend to sell well in nations that have recently or are currently experiencing genuine war and upheaval. It brings to mind the part in Girls where Lena Dunham’s character is freaking out about STDs at the clinic, and somehow brainfarts her way into thinking that her obsession with AIDs might be an unconscious desire to contract the virus, which earns her the most withering fucking stare of all time from her doctor, who gravely asserts that “No, you do not want AIDs.”

All this artificial violence. When the real thing suddenly slams down into the street, leaving tattered, bloody rags and shoes that might/might not have feet in them strewn about, will we still want to watch Samuel L. Jackson blow someone’s brains out? It’s been a century since the Great War, which heralded the mechanisation of the war-machine. Up until that point, war was still seen by many as something ‘glorious,’ ‘noble,’ ‘honourable.’ It was only when people received news that “Your son has been chewed up like fucking hamburger by artillery, his death served no purpose, nothing was learnt, God Save The King,” that we realised the terrible corner we’d backed ourselves into.

We learn nothing.

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