4. Explosions Failing to Come

Yessir, that's technology, that's where the box office is the century is so full of dread at the godlike proportions man has assumed, that the only cure for dread is to extirpate every taboo and see which explosions fail to come.
Norman Mailer

These days, to ask about the function of the Text (or indeed about any narrative enterprise) is to embrace a context of complex and multiple crises, to live in expectation of explosions which may or may not come. One source of the trouble is simply calendrical. Our present lookout includes not just fin de siècle but fin de millenium into the bargain placing us at a point in time highly susceptible to decadence, catastrophe, eschaton and other teleological obsessions. Yet as Frank Kermode pointed out long ago, there is something ironic about calendrical epochs, since they imply a periodicity which sooner or later must decay into fiction. Nothing really ends on the "last" day except the innocence of a certain discursive formation; this is what we learn on the day after the End of the World. The calendar's "sense of an ending" inevitably proves false according to that antithetical sense of primal words or collapse in ideas of the opposite that gives telos its etymological link to wheel.

At least as far as human experience is concerned, the apparent exhaustion of any system presumes further transformations if not of the defunct system, then of the medium in which it arose. Civilizations may waver but history persists. A few years ago Francis Fukuyama announced the "end of history," but like the End-of-Ideology men before him, he was eventually moved to recant, perhaps because he wanted to go on doing historiography. History "understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process... taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times" (xii) may indeed be as implausible as Fukuyama suggests; but this judgment is cultural, not eschatological. Strictly speaking, social history will terminate only when the human race becomes extinct, or perhaps when it is so changed that it no longer recognizes itself as human. We aren't quite there yet.

Therefpre the "end of history" occupies a curious position in the register of ideas. As Jacques Derrida has noted, the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it may be the one concept which stands outside the metonymic deferrals of language: "The only referent that is absolutely real is thus... an absolute nuclear catastrophe that would irreversibly destroy the entire archive and all symbolic capacity, would destroy the 'movement of survival,' what I call survivance, at the heart of life" (28). The end of the world is the absolute insensible ending, the end of the Text. The genuine and unequivocal end lies beyond our linguistically mediated, acculturated conceptions tautologically so, since the terminus of human experience may not be humanly experienced. Absent transcendence, we have no way of verifying an eschaton; though meanwhile every prophecy is subject to disproof.

Derrida's analysis of nuclear discourse, or as he calls it, the "Apocalypse of the Name," suggests that crisis constructions are inherently hyperbolic, always something less-and-more than the catastrophe they proclaim. And yet we must contend (however warily) with an evident crisis in the western historical imagination, an apparent breakdown in the operations of narrative. At least we must do so if we accept Lyotard's definition of postmodernism as narrative incredulity, an hypothesis whose influence cannot be ignored. But the breakdown that this credibility gap implies must be understood not just in the common meaning of malfunction or seizure, but also in the specialized sense that "breakdown" bears in autopoeisis and cognitive science: the point at which a system can no longer adequately account for or integrate itself into its context (Winograd and Flores, 32). At breakdown, aspects of a system lose their transparent functionality and become available for revision and repurposing, much like the bombed factory of Enzian's ride. One system's catastrophe furnishes initial conditions for the next dispensation. We see the elements around us as if for the first time and begin to wonder what as yet unrevealed functions they might perform.

As Charles Newman observes, this conception is characteristic of our belatedness: "It is very 20th century to see the world in terms of systems. It is quite Modern to see all systems as prone to breakdown. It is the essence of Post-Modernism to define the system by its breaking point, to see the world as a humanly imposed system of distortion" (83). Newman condemns this postmodern attitude as inimical to "human response"; and while that moral is debatable, his characterization of the times is not. Things do seem to be falling apart, including of course the very Modernist apocalyptic from which we inherit that tired topos. These "last" decades of the "last" century of the ("last?") millennium seem increasingly nostalgic, not to say elegiac, in their approach to grand and terminal narratives. Aware of this tendency, Lyotard observes that "[l]amenting the 'loss of meaning' in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative," adding that such lamentation "does not necessarily follow" (26). Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, may be legitimated according to the improvisations of language games instead of the internally consistent logic of material or historical necessity. We might embrace infinite variation rather than Endlichkeit. But such a conception forces us to reconsider the nature of our narrative enterprises, our articulations of social experience in the medium of time.

According to Fredric Jameson, postmodern thinking about history suffers from the pernicious influence of simulacral technologies: "the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future... [has] become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.... the past as 'referent' finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts" (18). Jameson does not invoke the one "Real Text" of Enzian's vision, but rather "texts," a manifold or multiple. For a critic so firmly pledged to linear-causal historicism, this multiplication must be deeply problematic. Jameson is no Enzian. In his view the ruins of the reality factory are smashed beyond repair (if not renovation). To replace reference with representation, to trade holistic metaphor for fragmentary metonymy, is indeed to wreck the machine, extirpating the highest Marxist/materialist taboo, the belief in rational order as a primary attribute of history. Such wrenching iconoclasm may seem inseparable from the "cultural logic of late capitalism," or as Mark Poster describes it, the transition from a mode of production to a "mode of information" (16). But in this uprooting of history, what explosions may come? And what if the outcome is not explosion but something entirely different?


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