- Trans-historical Apocalypse?
Peter Paik's new book, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe, makes an interesting contribution to the growing study of science fiction. Paik continues the move away from the study of texts, which dominated work on the genre in the 1970s, to study comics and films. Paik is a thoughtful and attentive reader. In particular, his close and careful analysis of Alan Moore's series, The Watchmen, brings out aspects of the narrative it is easy to miss even in repeated readings of the series. He captures the depressing fatalism of Moore's V for Vendetta, and offers a nuanced reading of the contradictory relations between the comic series and the problematically appropriated narrative in its film form. Paik maps out the historical dimension of each narrative, whether the alternative history offered by The Watchmen or the critical reaction to Thatcherism in V for Vendetta. Perhaps more significantly, he recognizes a common thread running through a group of seemingly disparate texts and films. His book begins with the analysis of Moore's The Watchmen, discusses Jang Joon-Hwan's Save the Green Planet in the second chapter and Hayao Miyazaki's manga and anime work in the third, and concludes with an analysis of the Matrix films and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta in the final chapter. If Paik focuses on the figure of the superhero, he also shows these texts' larger social conversation, connecting Moore's critical reading of superhero comics with the paranoid science fiction of Joon-Hwan and the epic narratives of Miyazaki through a set of common ethical concerns.
Paik opens his text with the statement, "This book is a study of revolutionary change" (1). The connection between this claim and the focus of the book, a series of film and comic narratives that critically engage with the figure of the superhero, is negotiated by understanding revolutionary change not as a collective act but as an act of the "demiurgic creator." Paik negotiates this shift through a reading of Boris Groys's The Total Art of Stalinism, which argues that socialist realism "strove after and achieved the objective of the avant-garde to organize 'the life of society' according to 'monolithic artistic forms'" (qtd. in Paik). That logic, according to Groys, depends on the role of the artist as creator of a new world. Stalinism shifted this desire onto the state, creating new artistic forms in order to effectively achieve "a consummate unity of aesthetic theory and political practice in his [Stalin's] leadership over the revolutionary state" (Paik 16-17). Paik notes that Groys's "terms...strikingly resemble the narrative conventions of American superhero comics" where he argues that "the struggle between the 'positive hero' of Bolshevism and the counterrevolutionary 'wrecker' is a conflict that unfolds on a transcendent plane, in which material reality is reduced to a mere staging ground for their superhuman battles" (Paik 17). Through this gesture, Paik argues that the Soviet project and U.S. dominated liberal capitalism constitute mythic forms, containing "an ideological symmetry that betrays in turn their shared faith in technology, whether in the form of sociopolitical engineering or of an infinitely expanding global market, to eliminate forever the historically intractable afflictions of poverty, scarcity, and war" (18). Both Soviet and U.S. projects fall back on a sort of messianism, legitimating extraordinary acts of violence and exploitation to create a new and more perfected world. Drawing on the work of conservative jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt, he argues that these formations continue to be constituted through secularized versions of older political theological debates concerning the relation of the sovereign to an omnipotent god. The demiurgic creator becomes the hidden double of the secularized figure of the sovereign, one who creates new orders, rather than preserving the old by invoking a state of exception (18-9).
Paik argues that the material he examines critiques these mythic formations, revealing the hidden acts of violence that were necessary to their foundation. He argues that this critique comes...