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Introduction: Apocalypse

While it is unlikely that the end of the world is truly at hand, the apocalyptic mood is quite real, and needs to be accounted for.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #15, September 1994

These are apocalyptic times that we live in. The fall of the Soviet Union, global warming and overpopulation, Michael Jackson's post-racial surgical identity, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, the coming turn of the millennium. Everywhere we look we seem to be surrounded by signs and portents that humanity is making a transition from one era of its history to another. Just a few years ago, you may recall, the scholar Francis Fukiyama grabbed a good deal of attention with his thesis that we had finally reached the end of history, a secular version of Christian apocalyptic narratives, with the Kingdom of Capitalism standing in for the Kingdom of God.

While it is unlikely that the end of the world is truly at hand, the apocalyptic mood is quite real, and needs to be accounted for. One way to start is to understand that mood not as prophecy, but as the expression of a wish. The end of the world is anticipated as much with relief as with terror. In popular fantasies like Terminator 2 and the recent television adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, the apocalypse is exhilarating as well as dreadful. Why would that be the case? What does it say ab out the United States as a national culture that we have come to take such pleasure in imagining our own annihilation, over and over in such varied and compelling forms?

An answer might be found in our contradictory feelings about social and political change. On the one hand there is a deep and profound desire for substantive change, a belief that a radical transformation of our culture is necessary to prevent a national apocalypse. Yet on the other hand, there is an equally profound cynicism regarding the actual prospects for change. We live steeped in a sense of despair, fearing that any changes we actually try to implement will only serve to make things worse.

Fantasies of the apocalypse arise as a 'solution' to this contradiction. If change is necessary, but we do not trust ourselves to bring it about, then we console ourselves with the hope that someone or something else will intervene to provide it for us. In other words, apocalyptic fantasies are displaced ways of imagining social revolution. Such fantasies are ultimately cynical about human nature because they deny to human beings the possibility of being the positive agents of their own transformation. As in the Christian apocalyptic narrative, human beings are seen as imperfect and tainted, unable to save themselves, and requiring the intervention of a supernatural force. That force could be God or the aliens, as in the case of UFO cultists — but the common thread is that we are unable to save ourselves.

However, as bad subjects we wish to remind everyone that, as Marx wrote long ago, human beings are free to make their own history, even if we cannot make it just as we please, because we must make it under conditions not of our own choosing. We are stuck with the past, but the future remains as much a realm of freedom as of necessity. If we abandon faith in our capacity, as individuals and as a species, to become better than what we have been, then we seal our doom as surely as any providential deity could do for us. We must not lose sight of the fact that the end of the world as we know it is also the opportunity to create a new world unlike any we have known before. But that means taking responsibility for our collective future, and recognizing our collective power to transform the world — a power which we currently contemplate in an alienated form in fantasies in which transformation comes, but from outside, and not through our own efforts.

This issue examines the current culture of apocalypse from a number of angles. What all of the essays share is an understanding that the rhetoric of the end of the world is always a way of discussing politics in a disguised and mystified form. We invite you to use these essays as the basis for your own rethinking of the apocalyptic signs, portents and fantasies that you encounter in your everyday lives and perhaps to share your thoughts with us at a public discussion on 'Alternatives to the Apocalypse,' which will be held on September 22nd from 6-8pm, in room 330 Wheeler on the UC-Berkeley campus. And of course, we also encourage you to respond with letters and/or essays of your own.

Beginning Our Third Year

And in other news... You will notice that a number of changes are being implemented beginning with this issue. The Bad Subjects Collective has been expanded to include all who wish to join. Starting in the next issue, you will find a new membership card on the back page that you can cut out and sign, so that you can become a card-carrying bad subject. And even if you don't carry the card, please feel free to identify yourself as a member of the collective (be bad!). The people responsible for putting out this publication are now called the 'Production Team.' This issue marks the first essay for Bad Subjects from Matt Wray, and introduces a new layout designed and produced by Ana Marie Cox. Both are new additions to the Production Team. We are also pleased to announce that we are expanding distribution of the hardcopy version of the publication beyond the Berkeley area. Joel Schalit will be managing distribution in Toronto, Canada, while new member Jonathan Sterne will distribute in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Geoff Sauer continues to provide online support and services from Pittsburgh.

Joe Sartelle is Editor-in-Chief of Bad Subjects. In addition to several essays for this publication, he is the author of 'White Men in Danger: Hollywood Movies Since Star Wars,' which will appear in A History of the Cinema 1895-1995 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). He is currently co-authoring a book with Kathleen Moran on the various versions of Star Trek, tentatively entitled These are the Voyages. He can be reached through e-mail at:

Copyright © 1994 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.