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Incredibly Strange Culture and the End of the World As We Know It

Traces of apocalypse culture have found their way into the mainstream with increasing regularity.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #15, September 1994

It's the end of the world as we know it
(And I feel fine)
— R.E.M.

Situating Apocalypse Culture

During the mid-1980's, a number of subcultural phenomena started to come into prominence. The most obvious examples of this development occurred in the realm of popular music, as both college radio-type alternative rock and hard-core rap began to increase their audience exponentially, and in American cinema, as a new wave of alternative films began challenging Hollywood's monopoly on taste. There were other examples of this development as well, however, including the explosion of interest in both alternative and traditional comics; the emergence of a new, darker science-fiction centered on the term 'cyberpunk'; and the transformation of 'political correctness' from an in-joke used by liberals and leftists to chastise themselves for being too automatic in their choices into the image of a powerful political movement sweeping America's campuses. All in all, what we have been witnessing since the mid-1980's has necessitated a gradual reconfiguration of our notion of the mainstream. Whereas we once might have thought of mainstream culture as an endless procession of standardized and uncontroversial pablum, we are now forced to recognize that what passes for mainstream today is interlaced with strands of what was even in the early 80's culturally marginal. Of course, this is not the first time that culture from the margins has necessitated a redefinition of the mainstream; but the emphasis today on what was at least at one time alternative to the mainstream is particularly acute.

One of the striking things about the development of an alternative culture within the mainstream is the extent to which cultural productions from widely divergent media are thought to have something in common with one another, a shared aura of the alternative. In other words, alternative culture is vehemently interdisciplinary (which explains why an alternative music festival like Lollapalooza also promotes underground poetry, various permutations of the 'cyber-' prefix, non-traditional political lobbying etc.) This allows for interesting subgroupings under that blanket rubric. While it is certainly possible to talk about alternative rock or cyberpunk by themselves, it makes just as much sense to group cultural productions from a variety of media in conceptual categories. Thus, so-called 'industrial culture' represents a subgrouping within alternative culture as a whole that embraces a vein of alternative music, certain literary texts with origins in sci-fi, the performances and films of Survival Re search Labs, and a number of other areas. Such subgroupings, it must be added, are by no means rigid: particular cultural productions can easily be grouped under a variety of headings.

A good deal of alternative culture's self-definition has to do with the notion that it is more extreme than mainstream culture. This ties in, of course, with basic assumptions about its marginal origins: what is on the margins must be there because the center, the norm has rejected or repressed because it is inassimilable, too hard to handle. Thus, alternative cultures aura is the aura of culture on the edge (avant-garde means 'cutting edge'). Within this culture, however, there is a subgrouping particularly invested in this 'edge'. There are number of potential names for this category, but I think Adam Parfrey's 1987 collection Apocalypse Culture provides the most appropriate, since it embraces the extreme within the supposed extremity of alternative culture and includes cultural productions fascinated with everything that seems to herald the disintegration of civilization as we know it (including their own fascination!): serial killers and mass murderers, eccentric David Koresh-like prophets of the apocalypse, abnormal sexual practices, the emergence of nostalgia for a pre-civilization tribalism, the unapologetic fringe of the drug culture, conspiracy theories that explain, however bizarrely, how everything is coming apart, etc.

Despite its extremity, however, traces of this apocalypse culture have found their way into the mainstream with increasing regularity. Alternative films such as River's Edge and Blue Velvet had already brought an unhealthy fascination with murder, drugs and the dark side of the provincial innocence of Main Street, USA into the spotlight by 1986. Since then, we have been getting glimpses of apocalypse culture from numerous angles: from the African-American/black community with the rhetoric of Nation of Islam-influenced rap acts like Public Enemy and Paris and the apocalyptic scenarios surrounding the gangsta culture foregrounded by N.W.A., Snoop Doggy Dogg, Boyz 'n the Hood and Menace II Society; from further developments in alternative film and TV such as the startlingly popular Twin Peaks and violent films like Reservoir Dogs and the current smash Natural Born Killers; from tabloid media culture on shows such as Oprah, Donahue, and, especially, Geraldo, who engaged with Charlie Manson in a particularly resonant 80's interview; from alternative rock in music and videos featuring Ministry, Nine-Inch Nails, Nirvana, and other self-consciously dark and 'unpalatable' bands; and from the mainstream success of cyberpunk as a concept, both with the rise in popularity of William Gibson and other authors and with a films such as Blade Runner and Terminator which were forerunners of the alternative mainstream and with more recent film and TV such as Terminator II and Wild Palms.

Even the more extreme 'pure' texts of apocalypse culture have attained surprising mainstream success. As Adam Parfrey notes in the 1990 revised edition of Apocalypse Culture, 'the original edition had the kind of initial order that was easily bested by short-run University Press monographs on Edmund Spenser,' yet soon 'the standard-bearers of culture who refused to acknowledge the book's presence...began to refer to the notorious Apocalypse Culture.' Eventually there was enough demand for a revised edition. Today Apocalypse Culture has come to share its own section in many a bookstore, such as Cody's Books in Berkeley, CA (USA), along with REsearch's series of books on 'incredibly strange' culture, other publications of Parfreys Amok Press, the not-so-academically-legitimate tiny theory books by Baudrillard, Deleuze + Guattari and others put out by Semiotext(e), and books on alternative literary presses like High Risk and Semiotext(e)'s Autonomedia affiliate. Also, such texts are now complemented in many bookstores both by professionally-printed magazines like Mondo 2000 and by examples of a burgeoning 'zine culture that often deal with the same extreme topics (there are zines devoted purely to serial-killers or conspiracy theories, for example).

Apocalypse Pleasure

Why has apocalypse culture become so popular? There is a simple answer: people take pleasure in it. But this answer begs much harder questions. Why do they take pleasure in it? What sort of pleasure are they taking? A glance through Apocalypse Culture reveals a disproportionate number of articles written on or by 'incredibly strange' people: real-life werewolves; a man who devotes his entire zine to information on the most efficient forms of mass-murder; a text by Adolph Hitler; Fakir Musafar, who tests the limits of bodily endurance by suspending himself from clamps, and constricting himself in various devices; etc. In one respect, then, the pleasure in reading Apocalypse Culture seems analogous to the sort people used to get at freak shows in travelling circuses. The conventional argument about such freak shows, however, is that people flocked to them in order to confirm their own relative normality. Do the readers of books like Apocalypse Culture merely seek a means of feeling normal?

In his introduction to the book, Parfrey appears to address this question of pleasure. He begins by noting that 'a pox-ridden corpse is arguably not a pleasant sight, yet it is the stuff on which the apprentice of communicative diseases cuts his teeth.' His ambivalence is telling: there may be unpleasure in viewing this corpse, but it's open to argument. 'The most successful epidemiologist divests himself of sentimental attachment to the healthy body,' Parfrey adds, suggesting that the book's readers will not be spectators viewing freaks to confirm their sense of normality, so much as scientists analyzing abnormal specimens for the sake of better understanding the normal. If readers are to derive any pleasure at all from the book, it would thus be the pleasure of scientists: not pleasure for its own sake, but pleasure at the opportunity to acquire knowledge. 'To examine the usual stupefied, amnesiac, frenetic, or pious reactions to our apocalypse culture will have the salubrious effect of detachment and its possibility of measured remedy.' Readers are not to identify with the strange people they read about, but maintain a detachment from them.

It is this idea that needs to be explored in greater depth. Parfreys invocation of science aside, a book like Apocalypse Culture must give pleasure to its readers in order to be successful, particularly when its popularity developed not by advertising or commercial promotion, but by word of mouth. I would argue that, for most readers, this pleasure derives precisely from the 'salubrious effect of detachment' that Parfrey describes. Whatever else one might say about alternative culture as a whole, both its producers and consumers spend a great deal of time making ironic commentary on both themselves and the world around them. Even if someone has what she or he believes to be genuine feelings, they are usually expressed ironically: the intensity that shapes them into something significant is removed until they are flat pasteboard masks of themselves. In other words, alternative culture is about cultivating detachment. Within this context, the notion that readers of Apocalypse Culture could derive pleasure merely by detaching themselves from something that might otherwise cause them unpleasure makes considerably more sense.

In a sense, then, people who consume apocalypse culture are much like Fakir Musafar in that they expose themselves to material that is 'objectively' excruciating in order to attain a state of sublime detachment. In his excellent Esquire (7/94) article 'The Big No' on the life and suicide of alternative rock icon Kurt Cobain, Steven Wright remarks that Cobain 'loved opiates because the state they induced was the closest thing to being asleep while you were still awake.' As Wright makes clear, for some one like Cobain, maintaining detachment from the world is a way of insulating oneself against pain that would otherwise be unbearable. Perhaps this can be said of all alternative culture, that the pleasure of detachment exists in direct proportion to the unpleasure from which it's detached.

The End of the World as We Know It

To fully understand apocalypse culture, we need to expand our scope beyond the realm of alternative culture. Since the mid-1980's, mass media have brought the sort of material found in Apocalypse Culture into mainstream prominence. Thus, though it might once have been possible to describe fascination with serial-killers, real-life werewolves, and necrophiliacs as an underground phenomenon, today these are 'hot' topics not only of tabloid journalism, but also of more respected publications and programs. It is probably the case that these mainstream presentations of apocalypse culture elicit identification as well as detachment in their audiences and therefore differ somewhat from the material in books like Apocalypse Culture. The closer we get to the millennium, however, the less clear the distinction between mainstream and alternative consumption of apocalypse culture becomes. Like the much-debated distinction between alternative and mainstream rock music, it seems doomed to the ashcan of history, however hard a film like Natural Born Killers might try to keep it alive.

As mainstream media have come more and more to mirror apocalypse culture, there has been a significant backlash led by both right-wing and left-liberal groups fed up with the lurid content of TV, film, and popular music (see Joel Schalit's piece in this issue). In numerous anti-obscenity campaigns throughout the country, these groups have tried to preserve or strengthen standards that place limitations on the content of mass media and public performances. These campaigns have often produced what amount to provisional alliances between people like radical feminist legal-scholar Catherine Mackinnon and members of the religious right. What makes such strange bedfellows work together, however unconscious they may be of their collaboration with one another, is a common belief that the content of an image, TV program, film, or popular song can significantly influence the people who consume it. Thus, advocates for restrictions on the availability of guns insist that a TV program or film filled with gun-play will influence its audience to think that guns are an acceptable means of resolving conflict. Similarly, anti-pornography activists hold that the viewing of pornographic images of women will influence men to think of women as objects, or to think that violence is an acceptable element of male sexuality.

Such campaigns seek to make it clear that just because something sells does not mean that it's alright to sell it. Just as it's not legal to sell heroin merely because someone will buy it, they believe that it should not be legal to sell TV programs, films, or popular songs that contain unacceptable content. Interestingly, regardless of whether they originate with the religious right or Catherine Mackinnon, these campaigns seek to place restrictions on the province of capitalism. By subjecting free trade in marketable commodities to standards derived from principles inimical to the totalizing logic of capital, they would limit capitalism's penetration into each and every aspect of our public and private lives.

Apocalypse culture, on the other hand, promotes capitalism. By leaving nothing sacred, apocalypse culture allows the totalizing logic of capital to extend itself into areas to which it has previously been denied much access. This might seem counter-intuitive at first. After all, much of the appeal of alternative culture in general has to do with its oppositional aura, the sense that it's offered as a critique of the system, the center, the banalities of power. The reason alternative culture has come to infiltrate the mainstream, however, is not because its cool, but because it sells. Apocalypse Culture sold out its first, university-press like run and kept on selling until it was time for a revised edition. Of course, it didn't sell anywhere near as much as a bestseller; but it sold well within its niche and turned its readers on to other products within that niche.

As Marx repeatedly states, capitalism alienates individuals from themselves by making them sell their own labor. There is a link between this sort of alienation and the detachment that alternative culture and, particularly, apocalypse culture cultivate that needs to be explored, but this is not the place. Suffice it to say that I think this detachment represents a new level of alienation. Surely this is a bad thing? Im not so sure. Marxist tradition has its own version of apocalyptic thinking that foresees the disintegration of capitalism as the inevitable result of its evolution. This is the part of Marxist tradition that is least fashionable, even laughable today.

But if we put aside our prejudices and suppose for a moment that capitalism can't be superseded until it has completely colonized every aspect of our public and private lives, the consumption of apocalypse culture can be read as part of a struggle to prevent this colonization from being hampered. Perhaps the only way we will ever get to a point where capitalism can be transformed into a more humane and equitable system will be to struggle against the residual formations like religion and morality that would limit the totalizing logic of capital. Our world is a capitalist world and the end of the world as we know it is to constantly reproduce and expand our capitalist system; perhaps the only way we will get to the end of this seemingly endless cycle is to stop hindering its repetitions.

Charlie Bertsch is a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at UC-Berkeley. He is beginning work on an interdisciplinary dissertation that will explore the relationship between high and mass culture in the post-WWII period. He can be reached at the following e-mail address:

Copyright © 1994 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.