Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Zero Books, 2011. 264pp.
Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse tracks apocalyptic visions of the future back to their occluded origins, which for Williams is to say, back to the present moment. In different contexts, Teresa Heffernan and Slavoj Žižek have similarly asked: what if the apocalypse has already taken place, and we missed it? (Heffernan 6; Žižek 150-151). Williams’ book takes this provocation seriously, theorizing and critiquing the pervasive “apocalyptic fantasies of late capitalism…in the cinema and the wider cultural, political, and economic landscape from the end of the ‘60s to now” (1).
Following Fredric Jameson, Williams puts pressure on apocalyptic narratives by reading cultural texts as symptoms and signposts of the contradictions of global capitalism. He declares that the symptoms accompanying crisis—specifically the 2008 financial crisis—can, and should, be diagnosed as terminal. Here, Williams depends upon a distinction between crisis, catastrophe and capitalist apocalypse that is useful. Williams maintains that crises happen as a part of the normal and smooth functioning of the capitalist mode of production. Collectively we pass through them without experiencing structural change. Unlike crises, structural catastrophe represents a broken system—an end to prosperity without meaning or hope. When compared with etymological understandings of apocalypse (from the ancient Greek apokalupsis meaning revelation or unveiling of the true order), catastrophe is an end “without revelation” (4). Finally, capitalist apocalypse involves an active recognition of the apocalyptic present—for example, a naming and acting on the 2008 collapse of financial capital as terminal for capitalism. Capitalist apocalypse
is the possibility of grasping how the global economic order and its social relations depend upon the production and exploitation of the undifferentiated, of those things which cannot be included in the realm of the openly visible without rupturing the very oppositions that make the whole enterprise move forward (8).
Given this reading of catastrophe and capitalist apocalypse, crisis is left aside as work for other analyses. The focus of this book is, on one hand, to theoretically analyze the symptomatics of apocalyptic thinking as they surface in contemporary film and, on the other, to urge contemporary thought and action to respond and take responsibility for the apocalyptic presence in our everyday lives.
Following his introduction, Williams divides Combined and Uneven Apocalypse into three sections: “Salvagepunk,” “Plague in the Gears,” and “Combined and Uneven Apocalypse.” The first chapter reads like a manifesto, urging new and critical ways of seeing and knowing the present. It attends to the cyberpunk and steampunk subgenres of Science Fiction (SF), adding salvagepunk as a third, generative variant. Williams describes the relation of salvagepunk to its predecessors in the first chapter:
To put the punk into salvage is to occupy it too well, not to stand outside the logic of the game, but to track it to its far horizons. There we see the frayed hems of a mode of thought…. [Punk] had to do with the intersection of a close attachment to its historical present with the fact that it no longer believed in a future – the present is already the hollowed-out promise of that future (32).
With a similar understanding of political time, salvagepunk recognizes the apocalyptic nature of the present, and instead of grasping a wholeness or unity, it takes up the leftovers of the capitalist mode of production that do not fit neatly into the system of which they are a part. Principle among Williams’ examples in this vein are Richard Lester’s 1969 film The Bed Sitting Room and the Mad Max films (George Miller 1979, 1981, and with George Ogilvie 1985).
Chapter 2, “Plague in the Gears,” provides a loose cultural history of zombies and zombie films. Beyond clearing up misconceptions, including the fact that fast zombies were actually an innovation of Dan O’Brannon not Daniel Boyle, Williams reads a host of zombie movies—for example, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, John Carpenter’s They Live, O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, and Boyle’s 28 Days Later—tracking the historical development of what he calls the nightmare image of the day (72). He deploys ‘nightmare image’ in a twofold sense: first, zombies are a “reigning cultural bad dream” (72); and, second, they represent “an eternal present of the world not coming to an end” (72). Part of the work behind this cultural history of zombie movies involves dispelling surface readings and misconceptions common to thinkers and fans of the genre. Williams takes issue with academic and intellectual readings of zombie movies that just scratch the surface: “Simply because a film seems to point out problems of social inequality does not mean that it is a radical film, or even one that is therefore ‘smarter’ and more aware than those films hell-bent on entertainment, social critique be damned” (79). In other words, for Williams there remains something to be desired in readings that take the movie’s setting, a mall for instance, to stand as a critique, of say, consumerism. Williams reads such interpretations themselves as reified thought, suggesting that lacking a theory of aesthetic or cognitive realism sufficient to the condition of late capitalist culture, “zombie films better capture the logic of the times, that opaque ‘almost-thought’ which always escapes the closure of facile critique” (86).
But the critical importance of zombie movies should not be over-read. For Williams, it isn’t that zombies no longer mean what they used to; rather, “they no longer mean what they could” (143). He identifies the problem, in the larger framework of apocalyptic literature, as a cultural blindness. These films seem to be unable to think beyond the individual, the family, or the lovers, beyond the smallest and least collective portions of human life and culture. But, Williams refuses to give up or give in to these objects. He still sees in them “apocalyptic potential” (156).
The final section, “Combined and Uneven Apocalypse,” operates doubly as a theoretical culmination and working through of the first two chapters on salvagepunk and zombies, and as a projection for and a program of action. With the term “apocalyptic potential,” Williams hopes for something that is not tied to forms of catastrophe or crisis and for a space generated by apocalyptic thought that has some level of autonomy (although I doubt he would use that word). Following the denotation of the word apocalypse, Williams calls for a “permanent visibility of the hidden” (156). By carrying on with his analysis through films and books, Williams reveals the nearest approximation of the structures undergirding capitalism’s totality: combined and uneven development (157). He considers such a view post-apocalyptic and reorients the implication of the ‘post’ from a temporal to a political axis. For Williams, a post-apocalyptic view is “a necessary optic onto the flourishing wastelands of late capitalism, the recognition that the apocalyptic event has beenunfolding” (my emphasis; 158). At the heart of his project lies a commitment to the way things could be. If we are already apocalyptic, Williams’ book suggests that we begin the work of uncovering the image of the nascent post-apocalyptic subject.
An exposure to an object threatens to become, according to Adorno in “Culture and Society”, a “cultural criticism [that] shares the blindness of its object.” (27) There is a feeling that Williams’ book may at times be victim to this familiar critical tendency. I believe this closeness to the object, which at times risks becoming a problem in the text, also enables some of the more compelling aspects of the book. Of course this book, like the genre of narratives it engages, repeatedly spells out certain doom and a lack of future; but Williams shows that this need not determine how we read apocalyptic narratives. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is not the mind trap that it could be, considering the pervasive tendency of contemporary apocalyptic narratives to foreclose revolutionary thought rather than generate it.
One element of the book I find immensely useful is the work Williams does in categorizing apocalyptic narratives in light of the different types of (capitalist) crisis covered earlier. For instance, his detailed taxonomy of eco-apocalypse narratives offers a valuable contribution to the very active scholarship on this sub-genre today.
 Williams’ description of O’Brannon’s 1985 film Return of the Living Deadfeatures more than just fast zombies. It actualizes the cultural references and pastiche so common to postmodernism, entrenching both the aesthetic tenets of the zombie film and the deep symptoms of late capital.
Adorno, Theodor W. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Prisms. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. 19-34. Print.
Heffernan, Teresa. Post Apocalyptic Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. London: Verso, 2009. Print.
Brent Bellamy is a PhD Student at the University of Alberta, Canada. His work focuses on the intersection of post-apocalyptic narratives and late capitalism. He is currently teaching a course on the 1980s and apocalyptic fiction. His article on the durability of the metaphor of the road in American song recently appeared in a special issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies.
Getting pre-2012 jitters? Me too! But consider these other dates given for the End of the World…
∆ Around 30 AD: Taking the New Testament literally, this is the time-frame Jesus gave for The Second Coming. Matthew 24:34, "…This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” The date is based on the life-expectancy in that era, thirty years.
∆ 500 AD: Hippolytus of Rome, a 3rd-century theologian, predicted world will end on this date, and uses evidence from the Bible (including the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant) to prove his point. The belief that the world would end in 500 AD was popular at that time, and Hippolytus’s opinion was shared by fellow theologians Sextus Julius Africanus and Irenus.
∆ 1000 AD: The first big “End Times” craze. Mass panic. Christians giving away their possessions. Christians fighting with Pagans, trying to convert as many as they could before Christ came back. You can only imagine what would have happened if they had the Internet back then, with those little “1000 AD: Apocalypse” YouTube videos.
∆ 1033 AD: The Christians who predicted the end of the world in 1000 AD realized that they forgot to add in Jesus’s age. Oops.
∆ 1186 AD: Around 1184 certain prophecies began to talk of an impending “New World Order,” instructing the citizens to run to the caves and hide because of all the famine, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that were to follow. Stop me if you heard this one before.
∆ 1284: Pope Innocent III came up with this date by adding 666 years since the founding of Islam.
∆ 1346 AD and afterwards: Black plague sweeps across Europe, killing 1/3 of population, scaring the hell out of everyone else. At least this one had something to really back it up.
∆ 1496 AD: 1500 years after the birth of Jesus, this was another popular End Times date for the eschatological set.
∆ 1669 AD: Fearing the return of the Antichrist on this date, 20,000 Old Believers in Russia burned themselves to death between 1669-1690. That’ll show the Antichrist.
∆ 1792 AD: A date believed to be the end of the world by some Shakers. By now, every group seemed to have their fave date for the Apocalypse.
∆ March 21, 1843 AD: William Miller, founder of the appropriately-named “Millerite” movement, predicted the Second Coming of Jesus on this date. This was apparently a very popular belief, and when 1843 passed and Jesus didn’t come back, Miller…
∆ October 22, 1844 AD: …chose one year later to be his new official End of the World date. Still high off the last build-up to the end, Christians sold their property, quit their jobs and waited. This date is also known as “The Great Disappointment.”
∆ 1874 AD: One of many dates chosen for the end of the world by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (or people related to them). After the failed 1975 date, there was a good deal of fall-outwithin the church.
∆ 1891 AD: Mother Shipton, a 16th century mystic, allegedly wrote the following rhyme: “..The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty-one.” The fact that I write “allegedly” tells you a lot.
∆ December 17, 1919 AD: Meteorologist Albert Porta predicted that a cosmic alignment of 6 planets would make the sun explode. He was also wrong about rain over the weekend.
∆ 1973 AD: "Children of God" leader David Berg predicted the comet Kohoutek would destroy the United States; which, of course, means the end of the entire world, because the USA is so awesome.
∆ The 1980s AD: As the years got closer to 2000, the End Time Race really heated up – with the Eighties being a popular decade to start looking busy because Jesus was coming back. Celebrity psychic Jeanne Dixon predicted the Earth would be hit by a comet in the mid-80s, for example. She also predicted the first woman president for the same time period. Coincidence?
∆ May 25, 1981 AD: 50 members of the “Assembly of Yahweh” gathered in Coney Island, NY to await the end of the world between the hours of 3 PM and sundown. Yes, there were bongo drums.
∆ 1988 AD: Edgar C. Whisenant, in his book “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988,” gave a three day period in which believers would be “caught up with the Lord.” When 1988 came and went, Whisenant followed the methodology of many would-be prophets before and since, adding one more year to the predicted date.
∆ September 6, 1994 AD: Radio evangelist Harold Camping wrote in a book called “1994?” his own entry in the Apocalypse Sweepstakes: “if this study is accurate, and I believe with all my heart that it is, there will be no extensions of time. There will be no time for second guessing. When September 6, 1994, arrives, no one else can be saved, the end has come.” He currently has a new end-date, October 21, 2011.
∆ 1999 AD: Quoteth Nostradamus: The year 1999, seven months, From the sky will come a great King of Terror.” Quoteth Prince: “The sky was all purple, there were people runnin’ everywhere Tryin’ 2 run from the destruction, U know I didn’t even care.”
∆ 2000 AD: The Y2K “millennium bug” had the whole world holding its breath on New Year’s Eve, 1999. But you can choose from any number of predictions of *The End* for the year 2000. Religioustolerance.org has counted 42.
∆ 2004 AD: We have an Apocalypse two-fer here! Watcher Ministries based their date on the return of Jesus on an analysis of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Donna Danna & Clay Cantrell based his date for the Rapture on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. One only one (or none) could be right!
That said, the world’s totally going to end in 2012. Or 2013.
The Apocalypse, Textual Futures, and What Comes Next
March 2-3, 2012
Apocalyptic prophecies and futurist narratives have always had a special place in culture, from Y2K fervor to the periodically updated Rapture to the upcoming end of the Mayan calendar in December of 2012. In addition to the “real” end-of-the-world predictions, and perhaps in response to them, our literature and pop culture has spawned innumerable fictions of a future unaccounted for. This unknown future folds back upon our past through historical representations of colonialism’s reconfiguration of territory, ownership, and identity. In the present, our cultural climate seems to speak to the end of the material world as we have come to understand it, as we transcend print-based media and move up into the digital media cloud. Furthermore, as social media continues to collapse the boundaries between public and private into one great field of liminality, we face questions of how to negotiate the creation and maintenance of personal and intellectual property. These issues raise a number of questions, including: do texts end? How and what does that mean? How do we resolve tensions between prediction and actualization? What role has prophecy comes to play in literature and culture at large? Can there be a terminal point for any construct, whether it be abstract notions or concrete teleologies? How does uncovering revelatory discursive practices relate to our shifting epistemology?
We invite papers on the following themes:
—Apocalypse: renderings of doom and resurrection in literature and society —Utopia/Dystopia: history and impact of re-imagined worlds —Media, Monographs, and the Printed Word: the end of text as we know it? —Private spheres in the Public Spectrum: Individual Power and Social Media —Ruptures, New Beginnings, and their Remnants
This year, Concordia University’s English Literature Graduate Colloquium will investigate the concept of ‘ending’ as it pertains to us in literature, culture, and the scope of history. We invite graduate students to contribute to this interdisciplinary English Literature colloquium by submitting a 200-250 word abstract and a 50-100 word bio to email@example.com no later than January 13th, 2012.