models for participation ii: new horror
.... and the apocalypse?!!!! part one of two
I’ve been meaning to write something about contemporary eschatology and medieval millenarian movements for years now, I think since early 2018, when I saw the Annihilation movie. This is going to be about that kind of movie, and the kind of person that watches that kind of movie. Annihilation, the new Suspiria, Midsommar, The Dead Don’t Die. They are all new horror films, very conscious of aesthetics, with cool, creative gore. My argument here is that this kind of movie attracts and collaborates with a certain kind of spectator, and then reinforces in that spectator a worldview which is (to me) rather disturbing. I’ll also talk about some medieval stuff, which will be fun.
But first a tangent about ‘normalization’. Something that I hear a lot is the idea that a certain tendency in media can normalize a certain idea. For example, casual sex in movies normalizes the idea that one should be having casual sex, or representation of a certain demographic normalizes the idea that people of that demographic can do cool and varied things. I am inclined to think that this notion of normalization through media (put another way, media conditioning) is bullshit. Nobody who doesn’t like something is going to go see a bunch of movies that feature that thing and reemerge with an entirely changed opinion. This isn’t to say that media can’t contribute to the entrenchment of certain tendencies, but in general I’m more inclined to think that normalization comes from the immediate social group (or from what is percieved as the immediate social group, while media mostly serves to a) affirm or articulate ideas that a person is already amenable to or b) introduce a person to new ideas that he would have been amenable to, anyways.
Back to the point. In the centuries surrounding the end of the first millenium A.D., certain people in Christian Europe were swept up in a wave of millenarianism, believing that the second coming of Christ was immanent. This is one my favorite media/participant relationships ever, because it is so illustrative. For those who believed that they would see the second coming in their lifetimes, the world was, from a semiotic perspective, incredibly rich. Speeches by clergymen and works of millenarian literature, beginning with the Bible, provided a complex lexicon of signs which ‘consumers’ could then apply to their own lives. The personal stake for believers was immense, as the issue was nothing less than the security of their immortal souls. Thus came about an extraordinary example of slippage between spectator and participant, namely, crusader culture. Guided by the signific lexicon of the Bible (and other prophetic texts), young men set off for the Holy Land in an attempt to manifest Christ’s kingdom on Earth. This movement in turn produced crusader literature, which was itself prophetic, laden with interesting apocalyptic details like the Holy Lance and rivers of blood. This is not to say that the reasoning behind the Crusades was entirely apocalyptic. It is to say, however, that crusaders (and those who supported them) were both consumers and participants in a millenarian culture which endured for a few hundred years.
It is rather fashionable nowadays to compare this particular historical moment to contemporary life. This can be a productive comparison if it is not taken too far. It is certainly true that apocalyptic media exists today, as it has in most eras throughout history. I think, however, that our apocalyptic media is different. Take, as examples, the films Annihilation and Suspiria. To my mind, both can be classified as apocalyptic fiction, as they each propose a sort of eschatological revelation. Annihilation depicts an alien force with the capacity to absorb absorb all life into a grotesque ‘one’; Suspiria would have us see Dakota Johnson as the manifestation of a goddess who alleviates pain. What these films have in common, I think, is a void in the typical ‘god’ space, a negative vision of divinity which can only alleviate or replicate, never create.
In Annihilation, we have a godlike force which acts through ‘refraction’, bending light, radio waves, and DNA. Through this attribute it is capable of both absorbing individuals into itself and replicating their forms. The scene of revelation takes place in the lighthouse, as Natalie Portman watches an alien blob learn to imitate her movements, and then her face. This is a higher intelligence, perhaps, capable of destroying human individuality, but it offers no transcendence, instead wreaking havoc on the bodies and minds of the organisms around it. Its effect is manifested primarily by very stylish gore. Some might argue that Annihilation is not a religious narrative in the slightest, and had no obligation to do anything other than what it did. But of course it is religious, if only in its narrative elements, which have a sort of mystery-cult air about them. A mysterious natural force destroys the ego of those who are chosen to interact with it. The scientists that enter the ‘shimmer’ are like initiates, experiencing revelation and dissolution of self as they penetrate further into the zone. So it is not religious, but it has a religious tone, and religious references (everybody has noticed the similarities to Tarkovsky’s Stalker). With all of this in mind, the lack of even a glimmer of transcendence begins to feel depressing.
Suspiria is more explicitly apocalyptic, as the crowning of Dakota Johnson as Mother Suspiriorum heralds, apparently, a new age. It is a movie with its own cosmology, its own vision of history and deliveration. Here divinity is just as void as the ‘shimmer’. As a divine agent, Dakota apparently can do one thing, which is to alleviate pain through oblivion. This is illustrated in two instances. The first is when she allows her tortured fellow ballerinas to die during her initiation ceremony; the second is when she erases the painful memories of the psychologist at the end of the film. I walked away from Suspiria with the impression that, in the world of the film, people are generally victims, and the merciful way to alleviate their constant suffering is oblivion, whether through the destruction of the mind or the destruction of the body. Within this schema, trauma, whether individual or historical, is the defining condition of human experience. History is a great wound, as is personal experience. Of course oblivion would be preferable to this, and a deity whose only function is to eliminate would make sense. Here, again, there is no transcendence. There is instead the cessation of pain. Here, also, the plot is carried by some very stylish gore.
These apocalyptic visions do not require nearly as much action as that of the crusaders, but they are still, in subtle ways, participative. They are not, to return to this discussion of norms, ‘normalizing’ anything, but they are expressions of prevalent tendencies in the cultures that make them possible. Would Annihilation be possible without a certain strain of nihilism towards human culture, a barely-articulated idea or fear that the destruction of the species would result in a more beautiful, somehow more moral world? Would Suspiria make any sense without a discourse that priveleges trauma and victimhood as central characteristics of human experience? Both of these movies feature horrible images, but they are also both fantasies made possible by the inclinations of their viewers. I know that, reading the novel Annihilation for the first time when I was sixteen, I felt some sympathy for the anti-humanist worldview of the biologist, and even for the obscure agenda of the thing in the lighthouse. There is a kind of beauty in the grotesque living landscape proposed by the book (and film), just as there is, if you are inclined to think about it in these terms, a sort of relief in the idea that death brings about a cessation of pain, and that forgetfulness could resolve the great wound of history.
The thing that I do not like about these movies, however, is that these fantasies are essentially negative: they are about taking something away. They are about removing the human stain, cancelling it, not redeeming it or even transforming it. They are emblematic of the reason that contemporary eschatology tends to fail. This is that, in the end, there is no revelation beyond the idea that it would really be better if we had never been here to begin with. Consciousness is a burden — much nicer to efface it entirely. This is a position without agency, a position of total victimhood. If consciousness and history and self are all terrible mistakes, then one is victimized from the moment of his birth. There is nothing he can do to escape his terrible condition, and he might as well just wait for it to end, for an apocalypse that is not an apocalypse because it promises no hidden knowledge beyond the endless void of death. The crusaders, on the other hand, were agents at the end of the world. They did their gruesome deeds partly because they felt that they might be powerful enough to bring about an extraordinary new life.
I am not suggesting that anyone go about crusading, of course, but I do think that the opposite— a life of congenital victimhood— is not a good one to live, and that this nihilistic view is culturally prevalant enough that it makes media like what I discussed above interesting and affirming to some people. I would be interested to see what a contemporary model of the sublime would look like, as well as one of agency within a secular cosmology.
(this is the first of two parts — I’m going to write something about Midsommar, which proposes what i think are bad answers to those final questions, eventually)