It has become banal to observe that the world as we know it is coming to an end. A recent national poll found that twenty-two percent of Americans believe that they’ll live to see the end of days. This should be no surprise given the extent to which contemporary U.S. culture is permeated by narratives of catastrophe and collapse. The obsession with apocalypse is shared across all levels of society, from the typical suburban multiplex cinema to war-gaming bunkers deep within the Pentagon to the obscure annals of environmental science. We are faced with what Antonio Gramsci called an organic crisis, one that permeates all levels of society, ramifying from the local to the global scale. In such conditions, as Gramsci put it, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
In some cases, the symptoms of this unsettled interregnum are quite literally morbid, as the legions of zombies who traipse through the ruins of North American civilization on television shows such as The Walking Dead (2010) attest. More alarming, however, is the opposite trend to this obsession with morbidity: the escalating appeal of survivalism, for the focus of The Walking Dead, like other recent post-apocalyptic series such as Revolution (2012), is on those who struggle to remain alive in the face of collapse. Yet if, as Marc Abélès observed recently, survival is the horizon of contemporary politics, this horizon is symptomatic not of politics in general, but rather of cultural reaction formations stimulated by the eclipse of U.S. imperial hegemony. Catastrophism in its dominant forms must therefore be linked not simply to the undeniable realities of the organic crisis of our times but to an imperialist obsession with the triage of global humanity.
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It has to be said that sheer acknowledgement of the gravity of the present crises can seem like a victory given the preponderance of know-nothingism among elites. The Great Recession of 2008 demonstrated that the ideology of neoliberalism was quite literally bankrupt, and yet the way out of this situation has been the imposition of savage austerity programs on vulnerable nations such as Greece and Spain, as well as the deepening of the debt spiral for millions of student debtors, mortgage holders, and others in the U.S. Of course, this austerity is not evenly distributed. As the Occupy slogan goes, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” While elites are better off than ever, battening on the carcass of the welfare state in a voracious frenzy of disaster capitalism, the vast majority of people in both the global North and South are facing increasingly dire circumstances. Given the silence across the political spectrum in the U.S. today about the underlying structural causes of the economic crisis, the presence of undead shuffling through wasted landscapes on network television can seem like a form of heightened realism, an uncannily accurate depiction of a world in which increasing numbers of people are forced to inhabit. If, in other words, we are living through an era of zombie capitalism, it is no accident that an apocalyptic necro-realism is the dominant mode of representation of our times.
What are the primary characteristics of this representational rubbernecking? Are there, in other words, equivalents in the life of a particular culture to the fragmented, difficult late style that Edward Said anatomizes in the work of great modern artists such as Beethoven, Thomas Mann, and Jean Genet? To what extent does the financialization of empires in their senescence that Giovanni Arrighi catalogues in such powerful political economic terms also have aesthetic equivalents? Do previous perceptions of decline—think, for example, of H.G. Wells’s rehearsal of entropy in The Time Machine (1895) in late imperial Britain—register in a similar manner and mode? These are some of the questions that hover in the background of each of the reviews published in this special issue of American...