“Kiss me, you’re beautiful, and these are truly the last days.” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
“The world is everything that is the case.” – Wittgenstein
Six or eight years ago I lifted some of the text from Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s Dead Flag Blues for a poem set during one of the many sieges of Rome during the second or third century. That text itself was lifted from a never completed film called “incomplete movie about jail” written by Efrim Menuck, one of the members of the band. Godspeed You! Black Emperor lifted the name for their band from a film about a Japanese motorcycle gang.
The monologue at the beginning of the long piece, the first movement of GY!BE’s brilliant F# A# ∞ is set in “the last days.” You can also imagine Cormac McCarthy listening to this in 1998 and embarking on The Road. George Monbiot, and English environmentalist said that McCarthy’s work “could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.”
The work of McCarthy in The Road is far from unique in the genre – many stories include a decimated ecosystem. From Mad Max to the fiction of J.G. Ballard – but The Road does something differently. The where in Ballard’s Drowned World you see an ecosystem that’s not hospitable to people, in McCarthy’s vision there simply isn’t an ecosystem.
The Road is a thought experiment of what happens when there is nothing left – no resources at all. The Road is an experiment in maximal anthropocentrism: the only resource is people, and since there are few or no other beings in the world, there are increasingly few humans. In many apocalyptic fictions the focus is on the people and how they are surviving. In McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision the people are simply not surviving because there is nothing for them to survive on.
The crisis of McCarthy is almost certainly a biotic crisis (or abiotic crisis) – the problem is that there are no other things than people. That is not an incidental effect of some other cataclysm – that is the cataclysm itself. That’s why The Road can and should be read as an ecological text.
I routinely ride my bike up the hills in the East Bay. An easy ride takes me up to Inspiration Point. From there you can see Mount Diablo and the San Pablo Dam Reservoir and the Briones Reservoir. A family was sitting on another bench – the father said to his wife and adult daughter, “That’s California – there’s eight million people one side and on the other: nothing.”
It’s easy to think that way – and I ride up there specifically for this reason: to get away from the people – to find a less anthropocentric situation. But to disregard the newly green hills as not being because they don’t have people living on them is absurd. In fact, this, and nearly every part of the world has been colonized – once these hills were covered with wild flowers, bears, elk, deer, wolves – now they’re covered with super competitors like Mediterranean grasses and people who “appreciate nature.” The very water has been annexed for use by the eight million people on the other side of the ridge and is carefully controlled. Nothing is rarely, if ever, actually nothing.
In The Road the immediate crisis confronting the characters is the lack of food. In a world where the ecosphere is in crisis the super competitors will consume everything. So in The Road you’re left with nothing but people, who then prey on themselves. It’s like the fabled rat ship. The Rat Ship, drifting at sea aimlessly, full of increasingly fewer more terrifying cannibal rats is a parable of our time. Of course, the lack of food isn’t the real object here – the mass extinction event, is the hyperobject we’re looking for in plain site in The Road. Even if the cities are covered with ash, or the buildings toppled in on themselves – the real problem is that there is no beings but humans.
The Road has something in common with another work of apocalyptic fiction: Wittgenstein’s Mistress. David Markson’s novel takes, rather than a cataclysmic physical scenario, a cataclysmic philosophical premise. While Markson explores the world of as he found it in Wittgenstein, McCarthy explores the world as he found it – already over.
Where Wittgenstein’s protagonist is forced to confront a world where communication is impossible – language itself is falling apart, McCarthy’s characters face a world where the biosphere has collapsed, rendering everything impotent, mute, limited, and unsustainable.
“They set out through the dark woods. There was a moon somewhere beyond the ashen overcast and they could just make out the trees. They staggered on like drunks. “ – McCarthy, The Road, 97
“The car is on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt
and we’re on so many drunks with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death.” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dead Flag Blues
The Road and Dead Flag Blues are both anticapitalist – they are both apocalyptic visions of a logical conclusion of hypercapitalism where all available resources are consumed. In the end of Dead Flag Blues, the nameless narrator says, “I open up my wallet, and it is full of blood.” In The Road, the only real currency is human flesh – in the film there is a scene were money blows in the road, worthless. This brutal metaphor is also after Wittgenstein, wherein, this symbol of value taken out of context becomes utterly broken.
I think that McCarthy’s vision of the apocalypse is meant, in some ways, to incite the “appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma—indeed, the ecological trauma of our age.” After Morton. The absence of the non-human shocks us as does the absence of any clear cause for its absence – that too is intentional. Why should there be a single specific cause for mass extinction when there are so many reasons – as Morton points out in Hyperobjects: probability is more reliable than causality, because causality is impossible. While it’s impossible to prove that people are causing global warming it is so incredibly probable that it’s absurd to disagree. It’s possible to walk through a wall since both you and the all are mostly empty space, but it’s absurd to think that you can walk through a wall because the probability of doing so is so low.
Vice ran a story on A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction, the same study that I wrote about here previously. Of course, the author declined to name or even quote the original study. Rather, it’s simply an apoplectic piece of puerile bloggery that doesn’t need to be written off, because it just as easily writes itself off: “It’s grade-A clickbait with a highbrow twist, the Holy Grail of the modern media.”
In a breathtaking journalistic turn, Clive Martin goes on to say, “We’ve known the polar ice caps have been melting for years now, but how many of us have changed our lifestyles because of that? Let’s just keep going as we are, and hopefully we won’t care about dying when it finally hits us.” I don’t think this is a reasonable response because even in the paper that Martin alludes to, there is a course of action that I even quoted directly last week: Reduce consumption of resources and economic disparity.
“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.” Is a pretty clear allusion to the engines of hypercapitalism but it’s also points to the collapse of ecology. When everything is dead but us, we probably won’t be playing much Flappy Bird or listening to Drake. There will be a whole lot more freezing to death and eating each other. That will be a lifestyle change.
But that’s beside the point. What both Wittgenstein’s Mistress and The Road emphasize is this concept of ecology: nothing works out of context – Wittgenstein’s ultimate argument against solipsism is the essential necessity of communication. That is, the object of language collapses without its use. In The Road the object human collapses because it lacks a context. Morton calls this thing the “mesh” in order to appropriately convey how utterly enmeshed every object is with every other object. The Road is a thought experiment in un-enmeshment in the same way that Philosophical Investigations is an argument for the necessity of the location of language in a system of communication.
Heidegger’s tool analysis is one of the key to the way that these two works are interesting. The tool of language in Wittgenstein’s Mistress is fundamentally broken and therefore it is foregrounded. In The Road the ecosystem or biosphere is demolished so it’s impossible to ignore anymore.
There’s much more to say about this, and I want to talk about Joyelle McSweeney’s vision of the Necropastoral and Terry Gifford’s version of the Post-Pastoral – but not today. There’s also the fact that despite McCarthy’s generally dark outlook – there is once again, just like in The Foundation, an ending that fails to follow through on the brutal logic of the world as he found it. Whether that was because the novel was too deeply personal to end tragically or he wrote in the not-horrific ending for the benefit of the film watching public it’s hard to say. But it goes without saying that not one of us people can completely avoid the anthropocentric.
Until then, keep on dancing ‘til the world ends.