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Sunday Read: Rob Goodman on Modern Society’s “Dystopian Narcissism” and Apocalyptic Literature

 
In a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, author and political science PhD student Rob Goodman discusses apocalyptic literature and society’s fascination with the end of the world. Goodman calls the hype around doom prophets like Harold Camping’s (21 May 2011) forecasts into question, saying that, “We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves”. Goodman also declares that, “We’re virtually guaranteed to witness the end of nothing except our lives, and the present, far from fulfilling anything, is mainly distinguished by being the one piece of time with us in it.”

The RoadRome's Last CitizenThe Hunger GamesCatching FireMockingjayThe World without Us

According to Goodman we’re currently living in “a dystopia boom” in which apocalyptic literature like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies top best-seller lists. The reason, Goodman argues, is that we live in what philosopher John Gray describes as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility”. Goodman calls this “dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end”.

The author then continues to discuss the impulse called “typology”, which he describes as a way of observing the present. “Ordinary historical thinking tells us to look backward to understand the present; typological thinking tells us to make sense of the present in light of the promised future. The events of past and present are revealed in their true form only when our faith reverses the flow of history.” This, reasons Goodman, is what modern society also does regarding the apocalypse. “Our culture’s apocalyptic stories, not least the Book of Revelation, resonate in part because they promise uncovered meaning.”

Goodman goes on to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road as well as Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon with these comments in mind.

UgliesSpecialsPrettiesExtras1984Last and First Men

Nineteen days after the world failed to end, blood stopped flowing to the brain of Harold Camping, prophet of doom. Had he felt his stroke coming as he confidently forecast apocalypse? Maybe not; maybe he had no more foresight into his own demise than the demise of the world. Or maybe he had simply confused the two—after all, he was approaching his 90th birthday, and his own mortality couldn’t have seemed far off when, on national billboards and his own radio network, he set a date (May 21, 2011) for the end of days. For some, it is a short mental step from “my end is imminent” to “the end of everything is imminent.” Call it apocalyptic narcissism.

We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves. Even if the earth no longer sits at the center of creation, we can persuade ourselves that our life spans sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history’s fulcrum. “We live in the most interesting times in human history … the days of fulfillment,” writes the Rev. E.W. Jackson, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, in words that could have also come from the mouth of Saint Paul or Shabbetai Zevi or Hal Lindsey or any other visionary unable to accept the hard truth of the apocalyptic lottery: We’re virtually guaranteed to witness the end of nothing except our lives, and the present, far from fulfilling anything, is mainly distinguished by being the one piece of time with us in it.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://tomrymour.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Tom Rymour</a>
    Tom Rymour
    August 26th, 2013 @09:49 #
     
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    It's about time that Olaf Stapledon got some notice again. He had high praise from an admiring Virginia Woolf for his "philosophical romance" Star Maker, which was too early (1930+) to be labeled as subliterate Sci-Fi by ignorant crits.
    Here in Mzansi, Tom Learmont's novel Light Across Time (Kwela 2011) is the first episode in a Stapledonian sequence, Brief Music, which takes its series title from the closing words of Stapledon's Last and First Men: "... this brief music that is Man".

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 26th, 2013 @11:46 #
     
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    Fredric Jameson said it most succinctly in“The Antinomies of Postmodernity”:

    "It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations."

    I love that "perhaps".

    Perhaps it's a sign of imaginative advance that writers are experimenting with post-capitalist models in which the technologies of repression have eaten themselves rather than the earth.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    August 26th, 2013 @15:18 #
     
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    I am not sure about the 'post' prefix any more. It seems e.g. that the 'post' in 'post-colonial' is less accurate than the Marxists' 'neo', as in 'neo-colonial'; or Fanon's view that, after independence, Africa was entering the phase of the 'ultra-colonial'.
    The same applies to 'post-capitalism'. We're entering, perhaps, a new era where capitalism has moved past paying anything but the most cursory of lip-service, at best, to the old tenets of liberal democracy. The voting ritual has become a charade, because it shifts power not one iota. A lot of people have recently pointed this out....
    I think Enzensberger was accurate in saying (in his article on television) that technologies, in themselves, are neutral; it's the use to which they're put, and the people who decide this and control them. To get better, more human- and nature-friendly usage out of technologies, get rid of the people in power who are using them in the manner in which they're currently being used. Which brings us back to politics; certainly to capitalism, in its present phase....

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 26th, 2013 @15:35 #
     
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    You're right, Kelwyn - it's inaccurate shorthand. Post-anything begs the question what comes after post, and there's always something related to what came before. It's a continuum, not a series of discrete shifts. I recall my post (which is something you can do with post, but not email).

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    August 26th, 2013 @15:49 #
     
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    So my post was post your post (i.e. a post-post), and yours was a post post my post post your post (a post-post-post)? The mind is bloggled ....

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 26th, 2013 @15:51 #
     
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    :-)

    Post-script: I meant to say I recall my "post", but not the entire post.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 26th, 2013 @20:57 #
     
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    Ooh, I like "ultra-colonialism". How about "corp-capitalism" as a term for the current species of the beast?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 27th, 2013 @09:22 #
     
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    I'm a "late capitalism" man myself, but "ultra capitalism" has a nice ring to it. In SA English, of course, "late capitalism" means something entirely different from the original coinage.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    August 27th, 2013 @13:24 #
     
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    Trouble with 'late capitalism' is that it's been 'late' for quite a while ... it was already 'late' when I was 'early' .. so, 'very late capitalism'? 'extremely late capitalism'? 'doesn't know when to quit capitalism'?
    Chris Harmon has a nice name for the post-2007 period ... 'zombie capitalism'. ("Faced with the financial crisis that began in 2007 some economic commentators began to talk of 'zombie banks', financial institutions that were in an 'undead' state, incapable of fulfilling any positive function but representing a threat to everything else. However 21st century capitalism as a whole is a zombie system dead to achieving human goals or responding to human feelings but capable of sudden spurts of activity that cause chaos all around.")

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    August 27th, 2013 @16:44 #
     
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    I'll see your zombie capitalism and raise you with vampire capitalism.

    Or, to riff with another popular fiction trope, how about pre-apocalyptic capitalism?

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    August 27th, 2013 @16:55 #
     
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    An accurate description of it is neo-mercantilism, although corporatism also fits. It's an inherently collectivist contrivance that is deeply reliant on an all-powerful state and has no hesitation in funding causes that promote the inflation of the state, which is then leverage to create and enforce monopolies. It is inherently opposed to the individualism which lies at the core of laissez faire capitalism. It's greatest achievement has been the creation of a class of people prone to clamouring for measures that will further enable its predations while firmly believing they are acting in opposition to it.

    But hey, that's just me. I hear there's some hope n change about to hit Syria, so going to check that out.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 27th, 2013 @22:02 #
     
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    How about "vampire necrophiliac capitalism"?

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    August 28th, 2013 @07:43 #
     
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    Every time you think you're getting rid of capitalism, the vampire strikes back.

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