6. Fine.

I did not possess you, but I can blow up history.


In the world of "the Text" as Oberst Enzian defines it, which is the domain of culturally or historically responsible narrative, we seem surrounded by a new condition of being and function. So much is apparent in the vignette with which we began, which offers a remarkably clear illustration of autopoetic breakdown. The Jamf Ölfabriken Werke might stand not just for the postindustrial order but for the postmodern as well, with its incredulity toward metanarratives. So it is that Enzian rejects the conventionally historical explanation for the ruins around him, which (according to the textbooks-to-be) are the remains of a Nazi synthetic gasoline plant razed by Allied bombing. Such simple stories will not do for the first scholar-magician of the Zone. In Enzian's speed vision, the metanarratives of war, politics, and technological progress fall away as he begins to see himself inscribed within a more complex and ambiguous narrativity. The plant only looks like a ruin. In fact it is a working mechanism whose design and function Enzian must kabbalistically interpret a search for the "real Text" that may well be infinite or asymptotic, its object eternally dissolving into new forms. But again, what sort of Revelation is this? What does it imply about history and our place within it?

In October, 1992, a fundamentalist Christian sect based in Korea predicted the beginning of the Last Days, erroneously as it happened. For the benefit of those disappoined by the Rapture, a Boston radio station recently began its broadcast day with an old favorite by the band R.E.M.: "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." This piece, which indeed might serve as theme music for the new apocalypse, expresses very clearly the teleological revisionism with which we are confronted these days. As the title suggests, the song is essentially ironic. It may be the end of the world, but here am I, postmodern subject, feeling just fine. The chorus (quite literally) underscores this message:

    It's the end of the world as we know it (Time I had some time alone)

    It's the end of the world as we know it (Time I had some time alone)

    It's the end of the world as we know it (Time I had some time alone)

    And I feel fine. (Stipe et al., 1987)

The italicized phrase represents a descant sung over the chorus, mixed in more and more prominently toward the end of the song a juxtaposition which is highly suggestive, both verbally and musically. Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s vocalist and lyricist, gives the word "time" heavy emphasis, his voice breaking slightly on the initial high note. The word comes back again at the end of the phrase. None of this is surprising given the general theme of the song, but if "End of the World" is about time, there would seem to be at least two kinds of time involved. On the one hand, the song describes a period of social catastrophe ("That's great, it starts with an earthquake/ Birds and snakes and aeroplanes"). But the descant defines a different sort of time, one that is occupied not by mass humanity ("population overflow") but by one staunchly independent subject who feels overdue for some "time alone." This subject seems to prefer feeling fine to facing finality: "Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives/ And I decline" that last verb meant perhaps in both transitive and intransitive senses.

It might be tempting to trace this refusal back to rebellion-without-a-cause or nihilist survivalism, or to relate it to the no-future sentiments of the late seventies. But this is a song from 1987, not 1977, and the crisis against which it reverberates most strongly is not the guns of Brixton but Black Friday on Wall Street. Like a large segment of their audience, R.E.M. belong to what Fred Pfeil calls the "yuppie PMC," or professional-managerial class (105). Though the band seem grudgingly comfortable in their alternative rock idiom, they do not swim in the genre's idiot-romantic mainstream; Michael Stipe is no Axl Rose. So the apparent nihilism of "End of the World" is probably something more complicated than metalhead abnegation. Indeed, it seems imbued with a particularly tricky form of nostalgia. Back in the heyday of strategic brinksmanship, Stanley Kubrick told us to stop worrying and love the Bomb, since neither solutions nor alternatives were offered. R.E.M.'s endorsement of apocalypse echoes that unfunny joke, but it also tropes it to new effect. As Andrew Ross points out, there are now considerably stranger things to love/hate than the hydrogen bomb. We are concerned not just with the end of the world, but with the end of the world as we know it; and the modifier here is crucial. Apocalypse now is not so much a matter of ignition as of cognition, not of armageddon but paradigm shift, from Cold War to New World Order. The move into postindustrial time changes the ontological status of catatrophe from explosion to irruption, from imminence to immanence. As Charles Newman has it: "The Apocalypse is over. Not because it didn't happen, but because it happens every day" (56).

Newman's apothegm calls down its own deconstruction. How can the Apocalypse be "over" when it is a fact of everyday life? Well, in a sense it can be "over," outmoded, a terminated terminus but we can grasp this sense only if we understand the paralogism of the new wor(l)d order. We are concerned no more with apocalypse or postapocalypse but rather with panapocalypse: an understanding of the world not in crisis but as crisis, an articulation of momentary conclusions, or to steal another phrase from Gravity's Rainbow, "an aggregate of final moments" (149).

"The End of the World As We Know It" defines this panapocalyptic perspective with remarkable eloquence. Like "We'll Meet Again" in Dr. Strangelove , this musical statement is an exercise in strategic irony. Linda Hutcheon observes that "irony may be the only way we can be serious today" (39). Yet irony was arguably an even more serious subject in 1987 than in Kubrick's 1962, since by the late eighties it was apparent that we might not be able to rely on mutual assured oblivion and the comfortable terrors of the Cold War too much longer. The end of the world as we knew it had changed out from under us; a fact which R.E.M. register in their representation of the times:

    Six o'clock, TV hour

    Don't get caught in foreign tower

    Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn

    Lock it in, uniforming bookburning bloodletting

    Every mode of escalate, automotive-cinerate

    Light a candle, light a motor

    Step down, step down

    Watch your heel, crush crush

    Uh-oh this means

    No fear cavalier renegade steer clear

    A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies

    Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives

    And I decline


Stipe and company are notorious for their lyrical vagueness so much so that their first album, Murmur, earned the sobriquet Mumble. R.E.M. lyrics often shift into glosso- or idiolalia, so the reading given here is conjectural, which is no doubt as it should be. "End of the World" is a musical collage, frequently overlaying simultaneous statements, as in the descant on the chorus or the three-part round with which the song ends. The logic of the piece (if we can use that term) is not serial and discrete but densely parallel, producing a deliberately overloaded text. Verbally, the song strings together oblique references to alienation ("listen to yourself churn"), resurgent fascism ("uniforming bookburning bloodletting"), Biblical eschatology ("Watch your heel, crush crush"), and Realpolitik ("a tournament of lies"). And yet for all this chaotic fragmentation, the song does seem to contain at least traces of metaphoric unity. As the descant hints, this is a song about time: four minutes and seven seconds of musical densepack defining the listening experience as a barrage of complex, highly elliptical references. Which is a structure that ought to be quite familiar to members of the baby-boom PMC. The verse cited above gives a precise reference for this temporal scheme: "six o'clock, TV hour," or the Evening News of Destruction.

"The End of the World as We Know It" is not so much a song about apocalypse as an enactment of the cognitive apocalypse a song about the broadcast world. As cohorts of the postwar generation, R.E.M. have always shown a high awareness of mass media. Their first hit single, "Radio Free Europe," begins with the challenge: "Decide yourself if radio's gonna stay." On "Radio Song," the lead track of their 1991 album, the rapper KRS-1 declaims: "Now our children grow up prisoners/ All their lives RADIO LISTENERS!" It would seem that, in a PMC context, "rapture" must be redefined not as a gathering up to the Maker but now an in-gathering before the Receiver, radio or Tube. In the early song "Catapult," Stipe notes that though "the bomb could be dropping," we will still tune in faithfully "It's nine o'clock, don't try to turn it off" driven by a media anxiety expressed in the phrase, "did I miss anything?" All of this critique must be understood in ironic context, of course. R.E.M.'s successful crossover from "alternative" to mainstream rock depended largely on the fact that radio did not stay the principal venue for pop music, but was displaced by music video, a medium ideally suited to the band's evocative, imagist style. This may be the ultimate reason why "Lenny Bruce is not afraid" of R.E.M.'s apocalypse, or why Michael Stipe finally feels fine. In another recent song ("Fretless") Stipe sings: "Don't talk to me about being alone"; and indeed there can be no "time alone," if what we are seeking is time out from the media blitz. Or perhaps solitude can be found, but that with which we are left alone is always the End of the World As We Know It, live from Baghdad, Moscow, L.A., or wherever the next crisis is sited.

The Revelation will indeed be televised, planetwide and around the clock; or it will be scripted, as Wim Wenders suggests in Until the End of the World, as an image-obsessed apocalypse, a "Dance Around the Planet" for networked multimedia. In our new aggregate of last moments, the world ends neither with bang nor whimper but with a subliminal flash repeated 30 times a second as the electron guns aimed at your face redraw their mosaic universe. And so Thomas Pynchon is wrong and Charles Newman and Jean Baudrillard are right the Apocalypse is over because it now recycles indefinitely without polarization, end-of-the-world without end, amen. This finality is not as we knew it, not at least those of us who grew up in a mixed, print/electronic media ecology.

Paradigm shift, redraw the myths.

Forget the Beast, forget the Four Horsemen. The herald of Panapocalypse is nothing like those old bogeymen. No leviathanic gigantism here, no thundering militancy for us in these late, late days. Our new totem is about a foot tall, covered in plush acrylic. Doubtless you have seen this spectre already. We all have, old fans who have always been sitting in front of the Tube. It's that little pink automaton in shades, symbol both of ubiquitous technology and self-ironizing simulacrum, eternally cruising through commercials that only look like parodies of commercials it is none other than the Everready Bunny, true signifier of our times, whose battery-powered drumbeat just keeps going and going and going...


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