by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

It's all happening in the depths of my body, in the twists of my bowels, in the leaps across my synapses, in the nucleic acid transfers of my cells. So much activity, not even ceasing when I try to sleep. Doctor Daniel Paul Schreber discovers that he is being turned into a woman, as nerves of voluptuousness grow throughout his body; these nerves are constantly being stimulated to a pitch of orgasmic excitement. He must perpetually listen to the voices of dead souls and innumerable little birds, speaking to him in the nerve-language, "an empty babble of ever recurring monotonous phrases in tiresome repetition." He complains of the compulsive thinking that he is forced to endure, a process of "having to think continually," in opposition to "man's natural right of mental relaxation, of temporary rest from mental activity through thinking nothing." Never a moment in which not to think and feel. Machines within me, engines in hyperdrive, factories in constant overproduction. Bataille argues that nature and capitalism alike are driven not by scarcity, but by excess, a superabundance that we are unable to discharge: "The sun dispenses energy--wealth--without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving." My own body is suffused with such surplus. But it is impossible to emulate the sun, impossible for me ever to spend or squander enough. No wonder I find it difficult to get enough sleep. Schreber, suffering under the weight of this irreversible generosity, unable to suspend his exquisite soul-voluptuousness and pay off his debt, screams that the sun is a whore, and identifies it with God.

Even when the sun is gone, its excessive, radiant energy still refuses to subside. Afterimages assault me. Or else the night has its own agitations and terrors, like those encountered by Blanchot's Thomas the Obscure: "It was night itself. Images which constituted its darkness inundated him." Schreber is dazzled by nocturnal, no less than diurnal, radiance. The onset of his nervous illness is signaled when malign forces conspire to deprive him of rest: "a recurrent cracking noise in the wall of our bedroom became noticeable at shorter or longer intervals; time and again it woke me as I was about to go to sleep." Like Poe's and Lovecraft's narrators, I am unable to exorcise the merest hint of sound, a vibration just beneath the threshold of clear and distinct perception. Insomnia is the bane of my existence. It keeps me awake and alert just enough so that I cannot enjoy the refreshment of rest; but not sufficiently so for me to be able to compose and collect my thoughts. And so I find myself staring into the semidarkness, endlessly repeating fragments from unfinished dreams. Emmanuel Levinas thus describes insomnia as a state of anonymous, impersonal vigilance. My thoughts are tiresomely meticulous, my attention is painstakingly thorough; but I can't lay hold of anything concrete. The sense of a centered, stable selfhood dissolves; all this thought and attention belongs to nobody and is "suspended on nothing." There is no hope of bringing anything to a conclusion: I have to follow the very same steps, answer the same objections, count the same sheep, over and over again. "I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" (Beckett). It's not fear of death or deprivation that haunts me; rather it's the very exuberance of existence, this having always to go on, that becomes an ironic burden. If only I could sleep.

When will it all stop, we ask, how much longer can we stand it? "From a certain point of view it would be much better if nothing worked, if nothing functioned. Never being born, escaping the wheel of continual birth and rebirth, no mouth to suck with, no anus to shit through" (Deleuze and Guattari). Postmodern culture is pervaded by such apocalyptic imaginings, fears and longings. We are peculiarly obsessed with doom, with the end of the world. DOOM PATROL, living up to its name, is filled with signs and portents of the Last Things, barely averted threats of universal destruction. Our dread is only the flip side of a restless fascination, a deep yearning that arises in long nights of insomniac vigilance. Sometimes we want everything to stop, to die, just so that we can sink into final oblivion, together with all the rest. The pleasure of making the world come to an end is much like the pleasure of finally being able to take a shit. For Schreber, "liberation from the pressure of faeces present in the guts creates an intense feeling of well-being, particularly for the nerves of voluptuousness." But God, who is ignorant of how living beings actually feel, who only really understands sleepers and corpses, translates this sense of well-being into the delusion that shitting equals death, that taking a shit "is to a certain extent the final act" for any living organism. God wants both to push Schreber to the point of death, in order to withdraw from his excessive attraction, and to maintain Schreber alive in a state of unresolved voluptuousness, in order thereby to expropriate that voluptuousness for his own sustenance. And so, trapped in this ambivalent double bind, God tortures Schreber by producing in him the imperious urge to shit, while simultaneously denying him the ability to do so.

The logic of insomnia, like that of constipation, moves in a vicious circle of evasion and control. I agitate myself all the more, the more I strive to relax and establish peace. Whenever I seek release, I find myself invoking the very "miraculous" forces from which I am also trying to escape. Life's "extreme exuberance," Bataille writes, "pours out in a movement always bordering on explosion": an explosion that is always impending, but that never actually arrives. The compulsive thoughts and movements that deny me rest are the same ones that threaten to devastate the world; and so I only increase my own torment when I call upon them to unleash an ultimate catastrophe. Schreber finds that the divine rays that invest his own body with unbearably heightened sensation have also annihilated the earth, the heavens, and the entire rest of mankind. He is constrained within Being, made to live through his own destruction, to feel the evisceration of his organs, to endure more than any living organism possibly could endure. The apocalyptic vision of universal ruin is in this way itself the nightmare that interrupts my sleep, and throws me back upon the torments of involuntary wakefulness. And so I toss and turn in my bed, trying out every posture except the right one, the unique one in which my body would finally be able to relax.

These divine or infernal machines are at work in our bodies, and all throughout society. It seems that they are on the verge of destroying everything, but it also seems that they will remain forever in motion, insuring for all eternity that there is something rather than nothing. Schreber eventually realizes that the old world, which has palpably collapsed all around him, nonetheless continues to function in its accustomed manner. The process of his unmanning is inexorable, but it will take millennia. Quite similarly, the bewildered heroes of DOOM PATROL find themselves trying to combat strange apocalyptic forces that on one level menace the existence of the world absolutely, yet on another level seem to leave everything intact. In one series of episodes, a Gnostic sect called the Cult of the Unwritten Book summons the Decreator, God's dark double, who will reverse the order of the creation of the universe and return everything to the nothingness whence it came. The process of decreation is unstoppable and irreversible, much like entropy; but our heroes are able to slow it down, so that it will take billions of years to accomplish itself--the same length of time as for the entropic heat-death of the universe--instead of just a couple of days. The Apocalypse is in effect, but its progress is so slackened as to be nearly imperceptible.

In another series of episodes, a psychic apocalypse is visible only to "children, lunatics, and sensitives"; the spectacle of "New York ablaze, overrun by screaming phantoms" simply isn't noticed by anybody else. The Apocalypse, in this version, may be called virtual (as when we speak of `virtual images') rather than actual, since it affects not the immediate experiential world but "the soul of the world, the world's dream of itself." But such a virtual event is perfectly real, as Deleuze repeatedly says, even if it isn't actual; the psychic apocalypse, like a neutron bomb, may leave physical structures untouched, but it turns human society into a collection of "dead shells, zombie cultures, shambling aimlessly towards oblivion." In wiping out the world's dreams, it reduces us to a state of insomniac unfulfillment: we are dead in effect, but we are compelled like zombies to live through and testify again and again to our death. The agent responsible for this virtual destruction is called the Candlemaker: it has emerged from the virtual, traumatically charged realm of nursery rhymes and childhood imaginings. Dorothy Spinner, the teenaged girl who is the newest member of the DOOM PATROL, has the ability to project her innermost imaginings onto the plane of consensus reality; but she is more the victim than the master of this power. Her brain is overloaded with scary childhood memories, and anxieties over her first menstruation. Fantasy, for her, implies bodily shock and trauma; childhood is forever charged with danger and loss. And so she imagines the Candlemaker into existence: "It makes candles for the dead, that's what it does; it has to kill everyone so it can make candles for them." It has to murder, that is, in order then to memorialize. Dorothy's mind is trapped in a horrific feedback loop. In the Candlemaker's virtual apocalypse, as in the delirium of Schreber and in the busy vacuousness of insomnia, the very drama of extinction prevents us from ever attaining nothingness.

In this sense, postmodern also means postapocalyptic. The modernists proclaimed the millennium, finalities and absolutes of all sorts. They projected triumphant aesthetic utopias, and they encountered equally unmitigated political horrors. History, they thought, was coming to its dialectically preordained conclusion; whether this end was blissful or horrible--socialism or fascism, technological paradise or nuclear holocaust-- was only a secondary matter. But today, as the literal millennium approaches, we are more likely to conceive the end of life as we know it as an everyday and almost casual process, without a "final conflict" or an impressive, stirring narrative climax. All through the Cold War we were waiting for an ultimate cataclysm, some all-consuming event. But now that the Cold War is over, we have come to realize that nothing is ever really over. There are more wars and insecurities than ever before. It has been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. Well, now we must confront the fact that the only "end of history" is that history is always ending, so that in fact there is no end to history. We're beginning to understand that there can be no release and no respite, not even in our dreams of destruction and renovation. "A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before..." (Pynchon). It's all just business as usual: today is the first day of the rest of your life. Which is why our culture's privileged model of extinction is no longer nuclear war, but rather the excruciatingly slow, always-already-in-process, devastation of the environment. Ecological disaster is like constipation: nothing sudden, but a continuing inability to evacuate, expenditure blocked and turned against itself, a long-drawn-out and inconclusive torment, the slow poisoning of the bowels. Finality just won't come to an end. Nietzsche's most striking insight is not the banal modernist one that "God is dead," but the postmodernist qualification that "this tremendous deed is still on its way, still wandering... this deed is still more distant from [men] than the most distant stars--and yet they have done it themselves." We are still helplessly entangled in the endless ramifications and reverberations of modernism's supposed ultimates, as they perpetuate themselves to infinity; and that's the reason for the post- in postmodernism.

And so, we may say that the Apocalypse has already happened; or better, that it is happening right now, continually and inconclusively, even as we speak. Only nobody noticed. "Armageddon has been in effect; go get a late pass" (Public Enemy). Like the heroes of DOOM PATROL, we unwittingly find ourselves in the midst of the battle. Doom is no longer a distant horizon, a telos, an ultimate limit; it is all around us, it is the very air we breathe. We have already survived our own extinction, outlived the ends which alone gave our lives meaning. We already live on intimate terms with the forces that threaten to destroy us: they've simply become so ubiquitous that we take them for granted, and no longer pay them any special attention. The message, according to Jean Baudrillard, is "that the catastrophe is already there, that it has already occurred because the very idea of the catastrophe is impossible." Schreber realizes that he has only further seduced and excited the divine rays by trying vigorously to resist them; and so he comes to welcome their efforts to penetrate and unman him. He simulates femininity, already becoming a woman in practice by decking his body with "feminine adornments" and devoting himself to "the cultivation of voluptuousness," even as he waits for the interminably delayed miracle that will definitively feminize him. The word apocalypse literally means disclosure or revelation, the prophetic uncovering of last things; but in common speech it has come to mean those last things themselves. This displacement is appropriate, since the postmodern world is precisely one in which whatever may be revealed of the future has in fact already unfolded in the present. "The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion," says Donna Haraway. Our incessant waiting for catastrophe to happen itself enfolds or embodies the catastrophic event.

This is why so much of postmodern thought is concerned with events after the end of the world. Military think tanks generate contingency plans for "the day after" a massive thermonuclear exchange. I also recall a Trotskyist fringe group, the Posadaists, that preached the virtues of "revolutionary nuclear war." Such reckless calculations may scandalize many, but science fiction writers have long been doing the same. Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard both regard catastrophe not as the culmination of life, but as a precondition, and even a stimulus, for continued action. With disingenuous blitheness, Dick suggests that his Dr. Bloodmoney "is an extremely hopeful novel," because it "does not posit the end of human civilization as a result of the next war. People are still around and they are still coping." Indeed, they are "coping," in this and in other of Dick's postapocalyptic novels, with vast paranoid conspiracies, with crippling ontological doubts about the reality of everything they experience, and with mutants whose magical powers and manias for control lead them to inflict new forms of suffering; but this doesn't much change things. For Dick's point is that apocalyptic tremors, like psychedelic drugs, don't do anything other than force us to be more fully aware of the horrors (and the joys) that we are experiencing already. It would be superfluous to dread the onset of those very conditions (ubiquitous commodification, media manipulation, conspiratorial bureaucracies) that already shape our everyday life under late capitalism. We are compelled to acknowledge such forces, just as Descartes was compelled to posit the existence of God. If Ronald Reagan didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Many of Ballard's works are similarly set in the abandoned ruins of a superannuated industrial society, and depict a life that absurdly continues to flourish amidst rubble and ecological waste. Production has been abolished, and reproduced mass-media images circulate randomly and fragmentarily on their own, having outlived their ostensible purpose of creating demand and stimulating sales. In this postapocalyptic world, we are freed from what Reaganite and Thatcherite sado-monetarists like to call "the discipline of the market," but not for all that from the demands of nonproductive consumption and expenditure. Ballard fashions an affectless, yet strangely compelling, lyricism from our industrial and information-media leftovers. We are relegated to a life of restless scavenging for subsistence and for status; and we are beset by obsessive, futile dreams, now of orgasmic vehicular disasters, now of gliding in paradisiacal free flight and falling softly into the sun. "The optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan" ("Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan") on the one hand, and the beloved President's gentle, but inexorable, slide into senile dementia ("The Secret History of World War 3") on the other. For Reagan's miraculous body is our collective, postmodern equivalent of Doctor Schreber's: it suffers innumerable violent assaults and amputations, yet it remains untouched as a quasi-divine "substance of unity" (Kenneth Dean and Brian Massumi, First and Last Emperors). Ballard's obsessive catalogues of such things as radiation burns, wounds from auto accidents, spinal deformities, exploding helicopters, rusted machinery, ruined car parks, and fragments of enormous billboards, must be supplemented by those other strange and magical objects, the anal polyps and lacerating bullets and water on the brain, that surgeons are continually extracting from Reagan's flesh. The ex-President's glorious body, just like Schreber's, becomes increasingly saturated with voluptuousness: it evidences the messy afterbirths of a monstrous cataclysm that went unnoticed at the time, or that somehow never quite happened.

The postmodern Apocalypse is ubiquitous but invisible. The disaster never happens in the present, Blanchot says, for it is an abyss swallowing every presence and every present: "the disaster ruins everything while leaving everything in place." We cannot escape its overwhelming pressure, but we also cannot grasp it directly. It is happening now, but so subtly that we confuse it with everyday life; or else it has already happened, but so overwhelmingly as to have wiped out our memories of what things were like before. Let us then abandon the tired modernist rhetoric of crisis and loss. The superabundant energy that perturbs and threatens us, and that keeps us awake at night, will never be exhausted. Postmodern culture indeed displays a certain sense of urgency and impending doom, but one that is always being ironized, stylized, and indefinitely deferred. Even death, Bataille says, is a heightening of life, as it manifests life's irresistible propensity for the "luxurious squandering of energy in every form." Call it the Apocalypse if you like; but remember that the dinosaurs' destruction was our stroke of good fortune. The limit at which catastrophic expenditure occurs is not a finality; chaos theory tells us that it is rather a singularity, a point of phase transition or of metamorphosis. Niles Caulder, the Chief of the DOOM PATROL, reveals near the end of the series that he has deliberately, experimentally induced the calamitous events that transformed the members of the group into paranormal beings, discontented misfits with strange powers. Inspired by chaos theory, Caulder works to generate the "catastrophe curve," representing "the introduction of sudden, discontinuous change into a stable system. We cannot predict the effect of catastrophe, but we can use this model to help ascertain the conditions most favorable for its manifestation." Having produced catastrophe on an individual scale, he is now about to provoke it on a global scale, setting off a convulsion of such magnitude that all of humanity will "be forced to change and adapt." The Apocalypse thus appears not as a final consummation, but as a new Nietzschean throw of the dice, a fresh redistribution of "the movements of energy on the surface of the globe" (Bataille). Once we have started experimenting, we must go on to question everything: not to discover firm and unshakable foundations, but to make sure that nothing ever becomes that firm. Free from the conservative dread of disaster, and equally free from the nihilistic urge to bring everything to a final halt, Niles Caulder proclaims his "faith in the unexpected, the unpredictable... I believe in the catastrophe, I welcome it with open arms."

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