The Savage Fruit of Alienation

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford, Verso (2011).

Architecture, for all its aspirations, is usually far too dated. Even for the untrained eye, it is easy to spot when most buildings were designed. And yet, after the luster of newness fades, architecture still casts its long shadow on the future. It is on each side of this phenomenology of time and structure that the Situationists and their inheritors lie. The Situationists, enraptured by rapid mid-century urbanization, tore up cobblestones to find the beach beneath the streets. But after all that work, the beach was not paradise but a desert, and so they turned their rage on a deserving target: the police. Yet today, the life of the Situationists is not on the streets, but has been ossified into wooden art objects and thick academic tomes.

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Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, an anthology of the ‘zine that the Londoner published from 2005-2009, runs Situationism in reverse. It is like that dumb joke about what happens when you listen to a country music backwards – the cowboy gets his pickup, dog, and wife back. By the end of Savage Messiah, the utopian impulse of Situationist urbanism returns while the city is smashed, and even the police seem to fade into mere afterthought. The legacy of Situationism is obvious in Savage Messiah, as Ford explicitly names her project a dérive, the Situationist’s psychological exploration of the subjective experience of urbanism, and passages from situationist-related writers, theorists, and urbanists (Baudelaire, Bataille, Benjamin, Simmel, Ballard, Deleuze, Negri) are peppered throughout the text. But even more generally, the book offers a picture-perfect rendering of Situationist psychogeography because it presents a journey through a city that is too full of discontinuous times, spaces, and images to ever fit on a map.

Savage Messiah begins where the original Situationist International fell apart; the cover depicts riot cops emptying out whatever space might still exist outside dilapidated 60’s estates. This is disorienting at first, as the zig-zag history of architecture that structures the narrative hardly provides a stable set of reference points. Yet one needs not be from London to get the book. And perhaps it would even be best to never have been there at all. This book is better for swimming in than reading. Once the reader crosses the thick black edges that define the book’s own private world, Ford’s images, thoughts, and language remain only partially penetrable. Cut up and pasted side-by-side are many hand-drawn portraits, lists of punk shows attended or d’n’b songs overheard, occasional histories of revolt, stories of quick trips to a bar or flat, photos of empty hallways, recollections of strong smells, cleverly detourned graft slogans, shots of towering buildings, and many tales of being kissed by a new acquaintance. Despite the richness of the world presented, however, it would be a mistake to look for the numerous strands of the book to form a totality.

Rather than providing a fully-knowable totalizing perspective, the seemingly disconnected pieces of Savage Messiah make up an immersive environment that expresses the subjective experience of the city: alienation. The ideal reader is then an outsider. Replicating the experience of walking down the street, the book recalls times and places you have not experienced and never will. Its many people are strangers that you will never meet. Yet being alienated from this nowhere that is populated by nobodies does not produce a non-experience, but in fact, it presents the exact form of experience that dominates modern life. Run-ins and strange connections still occur during encounters with other alienated beings that drift through an environment beyond their control, but these unions are always temporary and feel more like an ongoing series of accidents than cosmic fate.

Yet the alienation of living in a shitty flat or being stuck in the rundown part of town is not something that the book laments. However, it is not something that the book celebrates or protects either, as Ford heaps out disdain for both yuppies lording it and encroaching Olympics 2012 development. Rather, the alienation that comes with city life is presented as fact, though that fact also bears an accompanying range of feelings and urges. Boredom, aimlessness, excitement, frustration, and rage become creativity, exploration, pursuit, destruction, and violence. And this potent mixture is neither more natural nor more inauthentic than mixes found elsewhere, whether it be in the heat of the factory or in wild country air. Rather, these feelings are simply how it is and the question question is only how to put them to use.

Savage Messiah is not without its commentators and critics. And in this regard, Ford’s work suffers a fate similar to the Situationists. On the one hand, the book gets accused of failing at dull stale leftist tasks. But it would be idiotic to read it as a field guide with organizational schemes (for it has none), or worse yet, to vulgarly reduce its richness to a rhetorical screed against gentrification. And on the other, the book gets reduced to art object or documentary archive that simply preserves forgotten or marginal aspects of the city for display. What both these interpretations miss is the purpose of Ford’s text: to fashion crumbling architecture into missiles and barricades. London is not to be saved from the developers but transformed into a punk war machine that screams “Estate Agents! Up against the South facing wall!” as it steamrolls through fascists.

It takes time in Ford’s boozed voyages past various people and places to build up a clear notion of what she finds beneath the city streets. But as the book begins to close, Savage Messiah is clearly set on its warpath. After an exhilarating description of riots, the book ends with a photo of Ford and her crew that is followed by a long coda of pitch black pages. In the final picture, a man casually stands over an upended monitor in triumph over The Spectacle, another two pick up a sofa as if moving it the barricades, and Ford poses in the foreground with a molotov cocktail in hand. The message of the image is clear. But what do the fully-saturated pages at the end suggest? A future too dark to depict? A future more rich than images? Or a future yet to be written?

Bring Back The Metropolitan Indians!

You have built the Reservation for us, and now you want to chase us back into it, into the ghettos of marginalization and despair. No more is this possible! Because it is precisely out of the ghettos that our Rebellion has exploded. Today Human Beings have found themselves again, have found their strength, their joy of collective living, their anger, and their thirst for communism.
-The Metropolitan Indians of North Rome, 1977

metro_indians_city

Some say that a certain distance lends itself to a certain obscurity, but a certain distance can also lend itself to certain clarity. When Franz Kafka wrote Amerika, his final novel, he had never been to the United States and in his book he describes the Statue of Liberty holding a sword in her hand, not a torch. Max Brod, the man who ensured that his friend’s work would become immortal after his death, did not edit out this error. We can only speculate as to why Kafka believed the statue held a sword. The torch in her hand is meant to be a symbol of freedom, a beacon for the poor and hungry immigrants of the world to flock to. But as we all know, when the immigrants arrived, they found the sword hanging above their heads.

We have no idea who the Whitherburo are but it is clear they are not from the United States. Their name is a combination of the English adverb whither and the Spanish word for donkey, one of the most dependable, stubborn, and burdened animals on the planet. Together, their name could be taken to mean, “to what place, donkey?”

The Whitherburo have pierced directly into the heart of the United States with their new book, simply titled Whitherburo. Their ideas of this country (a place they despise) are informed by history books, radical literature, the internet, a few conversations, a few visits, and a surprising amount of inspiration. But like Kafka, they have inserted one strange item into their text: the idea of the Indian.

They dwell often on the counter-culture that emerged throughout the developed world in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this upsurge of revolutionary activity, they find a desire to evoke, channel, or otherwise manifest the spirit of the earth and the forces of life that were being suppressed by fascist/colonial culture.

In the section of the book titled Indians, the authors write “the Americans unnaturally wiped out a people who loved and respected nature and integrated it with their lives. Now the Americans wander about, talking constantly about spiritual belonging, organic food, and so forth. They killed the Indians and paved the land only to regret it later. This is nihilism.” The forces of life that were suppressed during the colonization of North America are constantly struggling to return, to reverse the tide and push back “the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people (Symbionese Liberation Army, 1974).”

When the authors use the term Indian throughout the text, they are referring to these suppressed natural forces, the eternal antagonists to the American project of total fascism. Their use of Indian as a term potentially ripe with antagonism is perhaps intentionally ironic, or perhaps naively so. Regardless of their purpose and motivations, it revives a history of the fetishization of Native cultures while simultaneously asking us to consider how the symbol of the Indian might constitute the spirit of anti-fascism. In the section titled Digression on Nazism and America, the authors make clear that the nihilistic death culture of America is not accidentally, but consciously fascist. “If America brings the Nazis into its own country, puts them back in power in West Germany and Greece, and helps them come to power all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia, it is because America has an affinity with Nazism.

Franz Kafka was to die before the horror of the Nazis exterminated his entire family in the furnaces and death camps of fascist Europe. In regards to our dear Franz, the authors offer the following words. “Kafka well understood America, even though he never visited, and his book Amerika certainly deserves a higher estimation than it receives amongst Americans, who in their typical stupidity treat it as some sort of comedy unique amongst his works, instead of reflecting that he, as an early chronicler of the emerging bureaucratic nihilism, hound his only real country for study in America.”

Every metropolis is created by the forces of death. It surrounds and enslaves the forces of life, the rebels, the insurgents, the people who simultaneously inhabit this web of domination and struggle to destroy it. This war is constant and never ending, and the Indians suffer long defeats and sudden victories that threaten to engulf the world. The upsurge of revolution in the United States that took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a moment of possibility that revealed the continued existence of the spirit of life.

In the 60’s, the fun Americans were having is contextualized by remembering the horrific, earth-crushing sadness of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. When we hear of the street theater of the Diggers, the joys of Woodstock, of the counter culture, we see that Americans were finally starting to enjoy themselves, which meant a break with the Protestant death culture of willing nothingness…The nihilism of American life swallowed up the return of the Indian children, for a brief time at least. But it will only re-start, and this time in a more virulent and final fashion.

While their use of the word nihilism may not synchronize with the common, contemporary understanding, this author finds it to be appropriate. To them, America is the triumph of nihilism. It is nothingness made material and virulent, spreading across the entire world. It hollows out the minds of the population, turning them into dead shells who are concerned only with aesthetics, appearance, image, and representation. When these poor shells first dream of rebellion, they always start by imitating and appropriating the appearances of the rebels that the death culture has extinguished. They do not make this point to forever condemn all potential rebels, but merely to highlight the long and difficult process of decolonization.

In 1975, Bommi Baumann, a former fighter in the June 2nd Movement, published his memoir How It All Began while living underground. In the book, he explains the multiform, diffuse, and ecstatic counter-culture that came to be known as the “support base” of the various guerrilla groups that operated in Germany. Before it took on such a militaristic and lifeless character, the counter-culture was its own weapon of liberation against the forces of death. But all of that began to change.

In the second half of his memoir, Baumann laments this turn that the counter culture took. Before, people would smoke hash, grow their hair long, express their sexuality, commit irrational acts on the street in large groups, and burn things they did not like whenever they were possessed to do so. Life was the guiding force, the spirit that made Baumann quit his alienating job and become a freak. However, as a guerrilla in the J2M, Baumann suddenly found himself forced to dress like the people he despised in order not to be apprehended and remain underground.

Suddenly you’re right there again. You’re standing there with short hair, with a suit, with everything the same again as where you came from; and the people around you react in the same way, they’re just as hardened as you. So you wore yourself out all those years, and did everything, and suddenly you arrive right back there again…the more you make yourself illegal, that is to say, the further you isolate yourself, the more secret the things you are doing become, the more you fall right into this consumerism. Of course, you can’t run around like you did before, so you keep getting more velvet suits, and at the end you look like you’ve jumped right out of Playboy.

The authors of Whitherburo are correct in believing that most Americans (including American radicals, anarchists, etc.) have no knowledge of people like Bommi Baumann or the lessons that others like him tried to pass on. To them, Americans are a largely stupefied and ignorant mass of nihilists with no connection to the past and no hope for the future. The hatred of America that courses through this text cannot be overstated.

Unlike the Americans that they despise so deeply, the authors do offer a clear suggestion to their readers. They believe the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the Indian, will lay waste to the nihilist void threatening to destroy the world. Although the revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s might have imperfectly understood this spirit and appropriated forms that were not theirs to have, the authors do not discourage similar efforts. And nor does this author, for that matter.

Before we offer one final quote from the book, I would like to clearly state that we need a return of the freak, the mad, the irrational, and chaotic, and the wild. No more stupefaction, hollowness, depression, or frigidity. We need life, love, joy, rebellion, madness, and laughter. Bring back the Metropolitan Indian! Channel the spirit of the earth! Go wild, be free, and destroy what destroys you!

It is very appropriate that some revolutionaries of ’77 called themselves Metropolitan Indians. These groups knew unconsciously that their real enemy was America, and that the real enemy of America is not the proletariat but the Indians, who represent the power of spirituality returning to a world from which it had apparently been banished. When the factories crumble and reveal their spiritually transient character, all the magic, the metaphysics they had repressed from the world returns to a new and everlasting life. Now the next revolution in this historic chain of appearances will in its turn annihilate historical nothingness, the American Way of Life.

The Reign of Stupidity

Carnival and Cannibal, Ventriloquous Evil
Baudrillard, Jean.
London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010
92 Pages.

 More than others, Anarchists seem to suffer most under the Reign of Stupidity.  Stupidity reigns, has always reigned and according to Jean Baudrillard, it is virtually a perk of holding office.  Stupidity is what he says Power does to people, as it rules over our highly complex, scientific, techno-information-society.    Jean Baudrillard died before Barak Obama was elected, but it is certain that his conceptualization wouldn’t have changed:

rollercoaster

…a majority of [voting] Americans desire the presence in the White House of someone whose stupidity and banality underwrite their own conformism. The more stupid he is, the less personally idiotic they will feel…In this ‘stupid’ hereditary function, power is a virtual configuration that absorbs any element and metabolizes it to its advantage. It may be formed of countless intelligent particles, but that will change nothing of its opaque structure: it is like a body that changes its cells but continues to be the same…America will have become Black, Indian, Hispanic or Puerto Rican [and I would add Asian] without ceasing to be America… it will be all the more integrist for having become, in actuality, multiracial and multicultural. And all the more imperialist for being led by the descendants of the slaves. This is how it is. It is a paradox…” (pp.16-17, brackets mine, fj).

 Throughout his life, Jean Baudrillard was concerned with the effects of Wealth/Power on the life of the mind. Nearly alone among French philosophers, he took the Situationists’ Society of the Spectacle at its word and his work is a logical extension of theirs.  For him, ‘Spectacle’ is the whole of Western socialization: as it is taught in schools; seen in films and TV; propelled in advertisement;  built in architecture; legislated in representative democracies; meted out in punishments in courtrooms and jails; researched in laboratories and forced onto others by the actions of its military apparatus.

… We may ask ourselves whether these Whites…are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus (be) said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized- themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring…It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in its museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture.” (pp. 7-8, parenthesis mine-fj).

So the first part of this book is called Carnival and Cannibal.  Both words are shorthand for Jean Baudrillard’s 30 page depiction of the legacies of Western bourgeois culture.  “Carnival” is the parade of modernization: all the Western technical, economic and political values marching to the tune of evangelization, colonization, decolonization, globalization and hegemony.  “Cannibal” is the increasingly obvious sense that what is being produced by Carnival is a parody which devours itself (pp.4-11).
Everyone is ‘decked out’ in the signs of the master race, its fashion, its art, its technology, its free market, its ‘digital imperative’, but in the same moment, we falsify ourselves in our mimicry. One thinks immediately of college students and academics, of Bono, of Asian kids in German luxury cars, of “Bureau Indians”, of American puppet governments in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, of the new Billionaires of India and of course, of Barak Obama. Carnival and Cannibal are two movements of the same Westernization, from proselyte to self-parody.

 The previously held values of tribe, caricole, family, religion, temple, church and zen monastery all dissolve in the Carnival’s flood of words, images, lessons, attractions and commodities.  What’s left is the human fall-out we have today, a Disneyfied, Bollywoodized, Wall Streeted and 5th Avenue’d control society with its disoriented, demented participants: everyone in their places and wanting more, unable to think differently and destroying their own environment.  

The white missionaries of Wealth/Power hadn’t counted on the fact that they themselves are also their own victims. Western socio-political theory is thereby emptied out: no one (except maybe Zizek) believes in it anymore and the term ‘growth’ has a cancerous and pollutionary sense to it.  Cannibalism is a company against its employees AND its customers AND its environment (Wall Street). It is a country against the others AND its own people AND its own land (the US and the PIIGS countries). One thinks immediately of the French-Algerian rescue mission at an oil installation on 1/18/2013 which began by killing most of the hostages it was supposed to rescue. http://news.yahoo.com/deaths-escapes-algeria-hostage-crisis-still-not-over-141658716.html

Part Two of this book is 56 pages and is called “Ventriloquous Evil”. It is an address that was given in Quito, Ecuador in September 2006. Jean Baudrillard died the next spring, in March of 2007. In this part, Ventriloquous Evil is concerned with what happens after Western bourgeois cultural thought has been emptied of all meaning. It begins with an expression of the problem of ‘hegemony’ versus ‘domination’:

Domination is defined by what it is opposed to, by relations of force and internal contradictions. It is defined by a negativity, and, in order to exist, the master has as much need of the slave as the slave has of the master. Hegemony, by contrast, no longer has need of the opposite term; it does not need its contrary in order to exist – that contrary for which, unlike domination, it has no definition (which is why the concept of ‘liberation’ has no meaning for it: it has meaning only in the field of systems of domination). (pp. 35-36, parentheses in the original text).

Ventriloquous Evil is what happens when the Western “Good” wins and achieves hegemony. For those who might read this small book, it is best not to ruin it by telling the ending. Suffice it to say that Jean Baudrillard, right until his death, held out hope for humanity and he finds the solutions to these problems in the writing of Yukio Mishima and Alan Sillitoe among others – in the literature of Events. Jean Baudrillard’s symbolic realm of gift and potlatch opens a door for all of us:

There remains, also, the nostalgia cultivated by all heresies over the course of history – the dream, running parallel to the course of the real world, of the absolute event which would open on to a thousand years of happiness. The heightened expectation of the single event that would, at a stroke, unmask the enormous conspiracy in which we are immersed. This expectation is still at the heart of the collective imagination. The Apocalypse is present, in homeopathic doses, in each of us. (p. 89)

f. jones

To Beach or Not to Beach

He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” –The Road, (130)

The Road is a post apocalyptic sci-fi novel, a love story, and a dark and inspiring metaphor for the nihilist project of destroying this world. Contained within this metaphor are meditations on myth, identity, symbolic culture, innocence, why we do what we do, and how we evaluate the consequences.

molotov

The story takes place roughly ten years after a nuclear war has devastated nearly everything on earth. Almost everyone is dead, and almost every last can of food has been scavenged. Dead naked trees pock the ash blanketed landscape falling one by one as time goes on. Seeds no longer germinate and there don’t seem to be any living animals, bugs, birds, or fish. The only remaining life as far as we can tell are the handful of humans who have survived the immediate aftermath and now wander about choking on ash as they forage and/or hunt other humans. There is talk of the existence of communes but we never encounter them or learn anything about them other than the fact that those exiled from the communes can be identified by missing fingers on their right hand. McCarthy tells us nothing about why the bombs went off. This is not a story about war or global politics. It is a story about a Man and a Boy, a father and a son, and the love between the two of them, “each the other’s world entire”(6).

We encounter these two characters just as they determine that where they are offers nothing but grim certainty, “There’d be no surviving another winter here” (p.2). They set out to change their conditions by venturing into the unknown; heading towards what is for them merely a vague notion, The Beach. Without knowing what to expect and with no way to accurately calculate an outcome, they decide to risk everything in order to create a condition for themselves in which new possibilities can emerge, rather than endure their current situation in which only one thing is possible. All they have to guide them is an old torn up roadmap that is difficult to decipher, partially because it was made for navigating a world that has since changed significantly. The road is dangerous and promises nothing, but the misery heaped on them by circumstances over which they had no control has made traversing it necessary.

Along the way the Man and Boy struggle to stay fed and hydrated. The stores and houses they search through have already long since been ransacked many times over. They have to remain hyper vigilant because there are marauding bands of cannibals. Natural selection seems to have favored those most willing to be organized and vicious:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Don’t look.
…An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon…Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks…The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck spring in some crude forge upcountry…Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”(P 92)

At one point they stumble upon a pill box buried in someone’s yard fully stocked with food and water and various other supplies and sundries. Compared to life on the road, this comfortable hiding place resembles heaven on earth… Here they can enjoy the same basic material comforts as a prisoner, three hots and a cot, and about as much freedom. They stand no chance of improving their situation – of realizing any desires beyond mere survival. And the danger remains, any minute they could be caught helpless. On the road they can see danger coming and hide or run in any direction, they can also spot tracks and see if someone is on the road in front of them and avoid them, whereas in the bomb shelter they would be trapped like rats, one way in one way out. They decide they want more. They want the Beach.

The story flashes back briefly from time to time, sometimes to the Man’s memories of life before the fall, other times to a third person narrative or earlier events that lend context to the story. Some flashbacks are to what the author refers to as “the early years” in which “The frailty of everything [was] revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”(28) One is to the day when the bombs went off, and another is to a couple weeks after that when the Boy was born. One of the more profound and disturbing flashbacks is to the night the Boy’s Mother decides to take her own life “…with a flake of obsidian…Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.”(58)

Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is.”(Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism)

The Mother’s suicide shatters the Kantian imperative regarding humanity as an end in itself (although she might affirm that this would be a fine act to “universalize”). Her existence combined with sentience produces only tension, which she resolves with a nihilist cadence. She openly acknowledges that this is a selfish act that will have an impact on those who care about her and she does so not just unapologetically but in a way that is callously triumphant. She mocks what she perceives as wounded manhood in her soon to be widowed husband and the absurd notion that he could somehow provide a life worth living for her and her son. She tells him death is her lover who will give her what he can’t. She is the one with the courage to embrace the nothing. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. He didn’t answer. You have no argument cause there is none.”(57) Here, McCarthy takes that vulgar concept ‘sanctity of life’ that still haunts our culture, that serves power in its quest to erase the option of ‘nothing at all’, and iconoclastically ridicules and thrashes it. “And she was right. There was no argument.”(58)

Sci-fi authors have a way of using fiction to critique culture and power that is similar the means used by more academic social critics. For instance, what scholars like Nietzsche and Foucault offer with their genealogies that is of value to us iconoclasts is a means of rendering arbitrary and contingent the concepts and power structures we engage with in our daily lives that societies take for granted as being legitimate and sacred, universal and immutable. By examining and deconstructing the historical processes, the material and political conditions in which certain concepts gained utility for serving power and control (i.e., normalization) we can see how for example: normal and deviant, sane and insane, able bodied and disabled, masculine and feminine, white and of color, super-ordinate and subordinate, guilt and innocencen, etc., are not pure natural existential states but mere reifications acting as currency within a specific economy of power. And once the grid on which these elements operate is altered or destroyed they can all cease to exist or take on entirely new meanings and functions (like how paper currency became wallpaper after Argentina’s economy collapsed). Sci-fi authors do a similar thing by constructing a hypothetical future or an alternate past or present in which they can playfully imagine other social contexts where these concepts might have either different uses and meanings or possibly none at all.

The characters in The Road exist in a world that has already been destroyed. The material basis for the social relations that created the world we know has been annihilated by nuclear warfare. McCarthy shows us in his fictional scenario how–without having some social utility or institutionalized power structure to serve–once seemingly universal acontextual truths of human existence like justice, time, identity, morality, history, sanctity of life, innocence, community, progress, etc. all become useless anachronisms. There is a part when the Man points a gun at an attacker and explains a bunch of esoteric neuro-science about what is going to happen to the attacker’s brain when he pulls the trigger. The attacker asks, “What are you a doctor?” the Man replies, “I am not anything.”(68) No identity predicated on any category can have any meaning absent a symbolic culture in which to contextualize it. None of the characters in this story have names, “Who is it? Said the boy. I don’t know, who is anybody?” (49) McCarthy eulogizes in this story not just the death of people and infrastructure, but also the death of symbolic culture itself:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought…The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”(88) “The last instance of a thing takes the class with it.” (28)

Beneath the veil of abstractions, of spectacle and hyperreality, of social relations mediated by images, of culture and politics, we inhabit a world of bare ahistorical chaos and pure possibility just like the characters in this novel. The amenities in the world you and I live in are more abundant than what these characters have available, but the universe of abstractions that make up culture and meaning and a moral order are just as arbitrary and made up in both worlds, except that the characters in The Road have more control over the mythologies around which they orient their lives and gauge their decisions.

The man pretends to the boy that their life is given meaning by some cause that precedes and anticipates them, that exists outside of them and that can still exist even if they’re not alive to conceive of it. He tells the boy that he is appointed by god to protect the boy. He creates for the boy some millenarian myth of them “carrying the fire”. Carrying the fire protects them from harm and as carriers of the fire they do not engage in the behavior of the marauders, they don’t rape, kill, or cannibalize. The Man knows there is no such fire; he is only interested in protecting and comforting the boy. He does not do this because he believes their world contains any possibility of restoration or redemption. He is simply concerned with creating the least tortured existence he can for his son which sometimes means offering him a myth laden with hope, sometimes it involves holding a gun to his head ready to kill him before the cannibals find him. This is not a religious man. The closest he comes to prayer is a soliloquy in which he asks god if he has a neck by which he could throttle him. He has witnessed not only the death but also the cremation of god, the scattering of his ashes. But as Bataille tells us “The absence of god is no longer a closure: it is the opening up to the infinite.” It is greater and more divine and “(in the process I am no longer myself but an absence of self; I await the sleight of hand that renders me immeasurably joyful.)”(Absence of Myth, 48) For the boy, “the fire” is that sleight of hand.

We create myths for ourselves as anarchists, historic ones, they tell us where we came from and where we’re going and why our suffering is meaningful and redeemable. At times we even secularize the fundamental principal of eschatology: that history is not complete until God’s plan is fully realized in a human dimension. This myth-making can be helpful for us in the same way it is helpful for the Man and the Boy, it is a means of making sense of our choices within the context of conditions that are utterly absurd. But we are not agents of redemption here to restore humanity after its fall from grace. There is no state of grace and innocence to return to. There is no predetermined order that awaits humanity’s arrival at which point everything settles into its place and history stops. McCarthy’s story refuses any narrative of hope or redemption; he simply reveals choices and actions and consequences that occur in a chaotic ahistorical vacuum for no reason. Worlds come and go and the end is never the end and even if it is one day, it won’t mean anything because there will be no one around to conceive of it.

Where men can’t live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody.
Everybody.
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there will be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road there with nothing to do and no one to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”(173)

After watching the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, in which a giant planet crashes into the earth destroying it, I stood on a hill overlooking the entire bay area and imagined seeing a planet beyond the clouds hurtling towards the earth and contemplated a sudden fiery end. As I watched the machines below with their lights and smoke crawling over the gridded landscape as well as the flying ones above, I tried to imagine what this place looked and sounded like two hundred years ago. Armageddon has already come and gone here. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t around, just like the Boy who never experienced the world of the Man. For those who lived here for thousands of years, the entire world as they experienced and understood it has been obliterated by a series of catastrophic events that still continue. All I’ve ever known is the aftermath, that is my world. Like the boy, I’ve heard stories of what it was like before but those are “…thing[s] which could not be put back.”(287). To us these characters seem to be simply running out the clock in the hopeless futureless debris of the old world. I imagine we might look the same way to someone from the destroyed world that used to exist where I live now.

The choices we face are similar to the ones faced by the characters in this story (which I’ve chosen to read as a parable) . Sometimes we want to hide out from the worst of it in the shelter, hoping to just comfortably enjoy each other’s company unmolested for a while. Sometimes we wish to opt out entirely like the Mother did; when all our options seem to only promise terror and tedium, choosing nothing seems like the most sensible thing to do. And sometimes we make a run for the Beach, even though we know we’ll probably not arrive there and could die trying. “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.”(29) And it’s possible that it’s already or always has been too late, that we could remove the last paving stone and beneath it discover a Beach that’s not at all like we imagined: “Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy”.(215) But no matter what we choose on any given day, we have the ability to mythologize about our choices and their consequences however we please.

The next time you light a rag sticking out the end of a bottle half full of gasoline and motor oil ready to destroy everything that stands between you and the Beach, remember, nothing bad can happen to us because we are carrying the fire!

References

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth. New York: Verso, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Studies in Pessimism. ebooks. Adelaide. 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012