Some Thoughts on The Apocalypse (Nothing New Here)

Do you guys know about Warhammer 40,000—the max-dystopian sci-fi fantasy book series based on the tabletop miniature wargame of the same name? Perhaps it goes without saying: Warhammer 40k is thrashingly bonkers. Indicative of the general maximalist vibe, the action takes place in the year 40,000. (None of this namby-pamby 2050A.D. stuff!) From what I gather, the fictional universe is one of constant total war wherein intergalactic humanoid mercenaries romp perpetually over wasted landscapes of gore & skulls, slashing their way through storms of violence in an attempt to […I missed that part]. Id Est: An Toto Wampage.

Like any cult hobby, Warhammer 40,000 is a world unto itself. Fans participate in this world by painting elaborate miniatures, playing with their armies of miniatures (basically tabletop LARP), and/or consuming the many Warhammer 40k books penned by a roster of sci-fi authors. Or, if you’re like me, you participate in this world by drinking BLLs in your friend’s basement and asking him to explain what, exactly, is a Chaos Space Marine?

One of the most interesting aspects of a fictional universe set 40 centuries in the future is the confused relationship to the past—and in particular, the space dudes’ relationship to the technologies they use. Even though the characters fly around in massive spaceships and are themselves composed of robotic appendages, they only have a functional understanding of these technologies inherited from some hazy & distant past. They know how to recharge the ship’s space batteries (I’m making this example up), but they don’t understand the principles by which the batteries operate. As a result, a kooky thing has happened to their space culture. The space dudes attribute the functioning or non-functioning of a space battery to superstitious forces and thus a confused spirituality has arisen in which space dudes pray and make offerings to the unknown magic that governs the space batteries.

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ANYHOW! The other day I was thinking of the Warhammer predicament with the space batteries in relation to a thought experiment posed by the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. MacIntyre asks us to imagine a scenario where the natural sciences suffer the effects of a catastrophe:

A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles…. None the less all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices, which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all….

In such a culture men would use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ‘mass’, ‘specific gravity’, ‘atomic weight’, in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost.

MacIntyre poses this thought experiment about a collapse of science to make an analogy. MacIntyre believes that in our current age the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of science in his hypothetical scenario. In his view, our moral language—and thus, our moral reasoning—is comprised of disjointed fragments of conceptual schemes shorn from the original contexts from which the moral assertions derived their meaning. One consequence of this collapse is that moral arguments are interminable—not that they go on and on, though they often do—but that they have no grounding on which they might be compared, let alone resolved. They are incommensurable. Moral discussions in MacIntyre’s view are now a hodgepodge of conclusions & arguments extracted from the larger systems of utilitarianism, humanitarianism, Christian morality, and Kantian ethics, admixed with the arbitrary emotivism of “Because I wish it / Because I said so”.

This view that we have become unmoored from the “grand narratives” or “legitimizing myths” that formerly framed our ethical culture has an essential overlap with thinkers like Frankie Lyotard. And MacIntyre’s view that we are flailing about, unaware of the significant historical background of our beliefs, sounds a lot like Freddie Jameson (e.g., “the present [is] an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place”). Which is only to say that MacIntyre sounds quite du jour. Which is fine—we don’t mind our kontemporary konfusion described by our contemporary thinkers—it’s comforting even!

But then we remember that this is basically the argument Nietzsche was making 130 years ago. He was ranting against a European bourgeois culture in which the moral sentiments ostensibly grounded in Enlightenment rationality or the Christian worldview had outlasted the collapse of the credibility of both. (Y’know, ‘God is Dead’—not in the sense that the Old Man in the Sky has been felled, but that He is no longer a viable bedrock for absolute morality.) My point here is that when reading the distressed diagnoses of MacIntyre/Lyotard/Jameson/et al asserting that we live in the turbulent wake of a cultural collapse, you have to hear Nietzsche in the background saying, “Dude, don’t act surprised about this news in 2011—I’m covering the same beat in the 1880s and I’m saying it’s already happened!”

My jam here is not that Nietzsche’s or MacIntyre’s specifics are right, but to point to the more general notion of the slow unwinding of culture. [FINALLY CLOSING IN ON MAIN POINT] I bring this up in relation to our ubiquitous cultural fantasy about a Mad Max/The Road­-variety apocalypse (…on which—don’t get me wrong—I enjoy riffing as much as any!) But this cultural fantasy is just that—a fantasy—a hypothetical escape route from our Boschian gyre / a wishful return to some simpler Natural State. Something like a gritty update on Treasure Island. And implicit within this fantasy, another: that the apocalypse is coming. But I’m like: Forget Apocalypse Now, I’m saying Apocalypse Already. Nobody is going to be Raptured one decisive day; the world adrift will continue to drift.

And that’s fine—me suspect that’s how it has always gone down! & I’m not trying to cruise around on a Bummer Enforcement Patrol—I’m just rappin’ about constant flux, baby! Quit dreaming about the world getting taken care of. Or made anew.

[To be continued… like the worlb]

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3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on The Apocalypse (Nothing New Here)”

  1. Matthew Says:

    But we’re not at all unmoored from grand narratives and legitimizing myths; it is just that capitalism has become the grandest of the grand myths in every sphere (even to the point that people don’t recognize it as such). It is the all encompassing ideology. It is the singular narrative of not on economics, but ethics, politics, you-name-it. And I don’t think that it’s a hodgepodge of parts of other wholes as much as it is the market taking the parts of what it needs from elsewhere to legitimize itself.

    • doomspirals Says:

      Right. I’m not trying to argue that no longer are there any myths or narratives that frame our cultural horizons. And surely capitalism is a cultural dominant of such gravity that it warps norms and brings others into its orbit. I was looking at MacIntyre/Nietzsche’s depiction of ethical disintegration to “dip into the berry bag” of the pattern of cultural decay. In many ways capitalism represents an apocalyptic wave washing over older systems of human relations/thought. And as the tide rises we have to ask the perennial question: What shall we store on the ark? The subject of the next bloggy post… once I get a spare moment from me toilsome wage labor!

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