the contested politics of the u.s. post-apocalyptic novel

These remarks are the public presentation portion of PhD defence. I remain thankful to my friends and colleagues for attending--they offered a crucial intervention, converting my anxiety adrenaline into performance adrenaline, or at least that's how it felt.

Before I begin, there are many people I would like to thank. Today, I will restrict myself to those who helped directly with the writing of this presentation and those present here today, and leave the rest for the Acknowledgements of my dissertation itself. Thank you to Alexandra Carruthers, Marija Cetinic, Jeff Diamanti, and Katie Lewandowski for helping me as I prepared this talk. Thank you to Dr. Janice Williamson, our fearless chair, to Dr. Priscilla Wald, Dr. Natalie Loveless, Dr. Mike O’Driscoll, Dr. Mark Simpson, and Dr. Imre Szeman for taking the time to read my work—I eagerly look forward to our conversation. Thank you also to those of you here to listen today. I hope you find it lives up to your expectations. The title for my talk this morning is:

The Contested Politics of the U.S. Post-Apocalyptic Novel

It seems humorous to me now that I decided against studying stories that centered on the apocalypse itself. I could not commit myself to researching such a sensationalist genre where implausibly everyone seemed to survive. How was I to know that implausible survival would be precisely what I could come to expect from the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel as well? For instance, take an opening paragraph of a recent novel:
“On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on the golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned. In her mind it was a township, and Cal was the mayor. She was the mayor’s wife” (Lepucki 2014, 3).
This is how the narrator of Edan Lepucki’s California (2014) begins the novel. It contains in miniature instructions for the post-apocalyptic plot: after catastrophe look towards a new Edenic beginning, document destruction, struggle with adversity, leave things behind, and, at the end, re-form the social. Compare it with how Hig, the narrator of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (2012), begins to recount his story:
“I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than anything” (Heller 2012, 3).
The first striking point of comparison is the gruffness and closeness of Heller’s first person to the distanced knowledge of Lepuki’s third. Curiously, too, this difference deepens when we notice that Lepuki’s narrator describes a couple, and, though Hig mentions his late wife on the first page, Heller’s is a confident solo pilot. Each character anticipates their future as much as they look back on their past. They express a relationship to fuel and are fixated on survival. California and The Dog Stars are examples of U.S. post-apocalyptic novels that fit into the literary fiction end of the form’s literary-popular spectrum. These two novels stand at one coordinate of what I am calling the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel. 

Popular U.S. post-apocalyptic novels have tended to include blight and toxicity as elements of their story worlds. There are stark examples, the gory death of anyone who feels that tickle of the Captain Trips disease in their throat in Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) or, looking back further, the barren deserts and anti-intellectual climate of Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1964). Devastated story worlds are not only the stuff of the popular side of things. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) banishes any colour but ash grey from its landscapes. We find a different kind of devastation in Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) as the narrator muses on his colleague Julia’s vision of the future. 
She says her goal “is to connect the coasts and the north-south borders with great corridors of wild land—farms, forests, suburbs reclaimed by nature. One day there will be no more cities—their shells will be ghostly interruptions of the new nation, which will be composed of rural communities linked in all directions. Even if we aren’t here, the land will be: My money will keep it safe. When the rain comes back—ever the optimist—this is where her utopia will be” (Amsterdam 2009, 125).
Amsterdam’s narrator relays Julia’s plan for the future despite the signal that their part of the world has been plagued by drought. In this way Amsterdam’s novel takes a step away from the blasted setting of the popular variants of post-apocalyptic novels. Cast between the craggy-rock worlds of earlier novels and the green hope of novels like Lepucki’s and Heller’s, Thing We Didn’t See Coming offers a tantalizing read precisely because it does not offer a revelation of what disaster has taken place. In each of its nine vignettes, there are hints that some major event has transpired, but the first person narrator has no vantage from which to determine what went wrong. Amsterdam’s novel recognizes that knowledgeable exposition has become a tired trope of the post-apocalyptic novel. Thus, through its formal innovation, Things We Didn’t See Coming differentiates itself from the popular strain of the post-apocalyptic novel, while thinking critically about what it can and cannot plausibly represent.

The narrative form of the post-apocalyptic novel, how the story is told, lends it generic coherence despite this contest over what it can (or should) do. The work of British literary critic Frank Kermode on the apocalyptic provides a rich place to begin a formal understanding of the post-apocalyptic novel.  In The Sense of an Ending, Kermode suggests apocalyptic concerns allow individuals and societies to locate themselves in space and time—we know where we are because we can see that we are headed for an ending. Post-apocalyptic novels undertake an inversion of Kermode’s apocalyptic narrative, beginning from the apocalyptic end and working towards resolution in a new origin.

In the post-apocalyptic novel the origin of historical time within the story is identical with the end of the historical time of the reader. Put differently, post-apocalyptic novels develop claims about the present as they work through an interpretation of their historical conditions. Thus, we could say that the post-apocalyptic novel attempts to look beyond the telos, beyond the ending, of the apocalypse by distancing the confines of the present through an estranging, apocalyptic event. Their formal inversion generates a newly cleared space in which to imagine how social ways of being might change. I call this device cognitive reduction—the elements of life under late capital are stripped away, inviting imaginary scenarios to unfold in their place. Despite all of their setbacks, these novels still promise to engage in thinking beyond the apocalyptic imaginary outlined by Kermode, and that, to me, makes them worthy of our time and attention.

Before I proceed too much further, I should answer two questions: why talk about the novel and why the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel in particular? I am a literary critic by training, and an explanation for why I took up the post-apocalyptic novel as the centerpiece of my study may not be needed in this company. However natural this decision seems, there was choice involved. I found that the novel allowed for me to avoid the sensational images of post-apocalyptic film (I have somewhat of an axe to grind about the Emmerich perspective so widely used in his and other apocalyptic films). Further, the novel has a rich history in grappling with historical change, which can be seen in the assessment of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel by Georg Lukács and the description of “setting” in U.S. literary history by Phillip Fischer in Hard Facts. The post-apocalyptic novel offered the occasion for me to ask questions about history, form, and politics (which just so happen to be three of my favourite things).

The United States acts as a geographic boundary for my dissertation for both practical and methodological reasons. As for the practicality of it, I had to limit the number of texts I would address in the dissertation: even a focus on the post-World War II United States meant leaving many novels out of the dissertation. The methodological reasoning was that United States has been going through a major historical transition in the late 20th and early 21st century. It has been moving from a phase of historical dominance as an economic and political superpower to a phase of uncertainty. Three particular moments of this change interest me most: first, the moment of U.S. dominance just after the War at the zenith of what has been generally called the American Century; second, the tightening grip of neoliberal dominance in the mid-1980s; and, third, the moment of free fall between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the on-going global financial crisis of 2007-2008. The coincidence of U.S. decline and a veritable rash of post-apocalyptic novels struck me as the ripest relationship to consider in my dissertation.

When I began to plot out the dissertation, I was intrigued by the way these novels seems to be operating, simultaneously, with uncanny precision in their estimations of the scope of our current crises and with a wildly inaccurate sense of what to do in the face of these various cataclysms. I began to trace this seeming paradox of acuity to their role as national allegories. U.S. post-apocalyptic novels, in particular, struggle with how historical change takes place. They seem to want to come to terms with how to maintain the way of things in the face of knowledge that this might not be the most equitable, ethical, or environmental way of life. Their main theory of history seems to be that of rupture—that only the apocalyptic event could restore order, enabling a return, or just a turn, to a mode of social organization that will restore the promise of what the U.S. could be. The problem for a critic reading these novels is that this is a corpus composed of exceptions. The way they represent the apocalyptic break and what they will suggest should follow in its wake varies wildly from one novel to the next, which makes the post-apocalyptic novel as form into a site of contest. The inversion of Kermode’s apocalyptic narrative turns the post-apocalyptic novel into a veritable sandbox for storytelling.

Along with those first two coordinates of the more popular or literary variants, these novels also struggle politically over what is to come. For instance, on the one hand, James, Wesley Rawles’s Novels of the Coming Collapse take a libertarian position, placing the individual and that individual’s allegiance to a cadre of trusted militia-survivalist patriots at the core of its post-apocalyptic enterprise. The United States have collapsed and anyone from on the road, whether they are cannibals carrying copies of Mao’s little red book, I kid you not, or folks claiming to be from the U.S. government, they are not to be trusted. Rawles’s novels make a political bid through their encyclopedic form, which is codified in their extensive glossaries: these will be novels people learn from and look to in the event of actual crisis. On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984)—the first novel in a trilogy that imagines three different versions of Orange County, California—brings a realist approach to the post-apocalyptic novel. The novel meditates on what life might look like in the wake of a targeted apocalypse: the fictive conceit of The Wild Shore is that a world government banishes the United States to technological backwardness and political obscurity through a nuclear strike. The politics of Robinson’s novel are equally contained in the form: the novel is a kind of microcosm of the Three Californias trilogy precisely because it presents multiple social ontologies in conflict without judiciously selecting one as dominant or preferable. Robinson, rather than fantasizing about how history could consecrate his politics, depicts a rich, plausible post-apocalyptic world. As an aside, I have included my mapping of this novel with the Jamesonian adaptation of A.J. Greimas’s semiotic square. I would be happy to offer further explanation of this device after my talk.

In order to get to the bottom of the adaptability of the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel to different political ends, I chose to understand it as a mode or sub-genre of science fiction, because of the latter’s much lauded capacity to think historically, to grapple with difficult questions, and to encourage its readers to think critically. I suspect that we can adopt the way Fredric Jameson describes science fiction to the post-apocalyptic novel, as well:

“its multiple mock futures serve the...function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005, 288).
Gerry Canavan and Priscilla Wald give life to Jameson’s theoretical formation in their “Preface” to a special issue of American Literature on science fiction:

In a world whose basic coordinates are under constant flux from eruptions of ecological crisis to the emergence of genomic science, from the global realignments of religious fundamentalism to the changing parameters of liberation theology, from the ongoing unfoldings of antiracist activisms worldwide to the struggle for LGBTQ rights, the estrangements of SF in all its forms, flavors, and subgenres become for us a funhouse mirror on the present, a faded map of the future, a barely glimpsed vision of alterity, and the prepped and ready launchpad for theory today” (Canavan and Wald 2011, 247).
Thus, the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel could be read as a contest over the future of the state and the social in the wake of the political uncertainty generated by U.S. economic decline and military action on the world stage. Because the post-apocalyptic novel’s imagined futures are contested, they invite an engagement with literary form, history, and politics that has implications for understand the relationship between U.S. hegemony, global capital, and the possibility of a more equitable future.

The political stakes of my research are that we can and should know the world, especially in the face of the relentless accumulation of capitalist production and its devastating social and environmental effects. My dissertation does not offer a grand scale mapping of literary endeavours and elements, nor does it offer a molecular assessment of each novel’s humming particularity; rather, it immanently studies the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel against the historical conditions of U.S. declining hegemony. In this way, my project takes its cue from American Studies, which invites a number of methodologies and approaches under one roof in order to see where the tensions lie and, crucially, where they might lead. Indeed, as I develop this study for publication, the production of U.S. post-apocalyptic novels continues unabated as does their political contest. In light of recent developments and the insight they offer, I find myself returning to a symptom only briefly mentioned in this talk: the talk of fuel in California and The Dog Stars. How are the post-apocalyptic novel and its settings sustained by the ideology of energy? Do post-apocalyptic novels offer a vantage from which to assess what critics have come to call petroculture? Does the contested politics of the post-apocalyptic novel read differently, with more urgency perhaps, when considered in light of our current anthropogenic climate crisis? These questions are meant to tantalize. Please do feel free to stay for the discussion of my thesis and, whether you stay or other have places to be, thank you for coming.

Works Cited

Amsterdam, Steven. Things We Didn't See Coming. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
Gerry Canavan and Priscilla Wald. “Preface.” American Literature 83.2 (June 2011): 237-249.
Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Lepucki, Edan. California. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.


into eternity, on our waste containments and energy futures

This is the text of paper that I delivered at the Science Fiction/ Fantasy Now conference at University of Warwick in August. Thanks to Mark Bould, Valerie Savard, and Rhys Williams.

The first shot of Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010) captures the border between the snowy Finnish woods and what appears to be a transformer station in grayscale. The shot draws a visual comparison between the skeletal trees, standing silently, and the vertical structures interlaced with cables in the background. Several large stones sit in the foreground of the shot. The only sound comes from the low rumble of bass drum. The shot fades to black and a new shot fades in. The camera tracks down a well-lit concrete tunnel and the title fades into focus “Into Eternity: A Film for the Future by Michael Madsen.” A few more rumbles of the bass drum sound as the camera rounds a corner, revealing a narrowing of the tunnel that fades into pitch black in the back ground. Here, the voice over beings: 
I would say that you are now in a place where we have buried something from you to protect you and we have taken great pain to be sure that you are protected. We also need you to know that this place should not be disturbed and we want you to know that this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from this place and then you will be safe. (Madsen 2010)
The shot cuts from the tunnel to a rock wall covered with signs and diagrams in the deep dark. Trickling water can be heard. At this point two minutes into the film, even before Madsen speaks to the camera and to the audience from the dark of the tunnel, a central problematic has already been established. The opening voiceover launches the film’s science fictional stylistic conceit as an address to the future in so far as it asks the viewer to imagine a fictional being receiving the message—“you should stay away from this place”—thousands of years from when it was recorded. The reason for the ban on entry to “this place” has not yet been revealed, and still the visual comparison of the trees and the rock with the power lines and cables, the slow movement of discovery down into the earth while an audible warning plays, and even the low rumble of the bass notes speak to the core problem of the film: how to keep future entities—human, post-human, or alien—from entering Onkalo, Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility, for at least one hundred thousand years.

Through Into Eternity’s science fictional conceit of addressing the future, we discover that the working components of Onkalo are deceptively simple—the signs of warning and the entombed waste. To reach a future when the waste will no longer cause harm, the warning signs must remain constant and undisturbed, while the tomb must maintain a stable state for the waste. Later in the film, Madsen explains to the camera that “it is quite possible that we will not be understood by the future, especially by the distant future” (Madsen 2010). The historian of technology Maja Fjaestad describes one of the film’s main themes as the “imagined technological competencies of future humans” (Fjaestad 372), while, in film scholar Andrew Moisey’s words, the project captured by the film seems to want to “lure the distant future closer to the past” (Moisey 114-115). This “luring” names precisely the temporal negotiation undertaken by the film, and is captured in its opening scene as its talking heads try to conceive of how to keep future generations away from the toxic spent by-product of the energy generation of the recent past. By following the development of Finland’s solution to nuclear waste storage, Into Eternity presents an account of the impasse between the consequences of modernity’s energy use and the continuation of life on Earth as we know it.

Nuclear energy has been receiving more attention of late. In the face of anthropogenic global warming, much of this can be accounted for due to nuclear fuel’s zero level of carbon emissions, but framing nuclear energy as relatively environmentally responsible raises a set of concerns not imagined in the nuclear debates of the mid- to late-twentieth century. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while recognizing the clear advantage of a zero-emissions energy source, are quick to elaborate the barriers to increasing use of nuclear energy, including “concerns about operational safety and (nuclear weapon) proliferation risks, unresolved waste management issues as well as financial and regulatory risks” (Bruckner et al. 5). Of these prospective threats, it is waste that is the most difficult to incorporate into the calculation of environmental sustainability. To begin with, the risks of nuclear energy frustrate existing territorial frameworks of measurement and jurisdiction, even as decisions about the future of nuclear energy remain largely in the hands of individual state actors. “Embracing nuclear power,” historian of science and technology A. Bowdoin Van Riper suggests, “saddles national governments—and, by extension, the entire human species—with the problem of dealing with spent nuclear fuel” (Van Riper 99). Compounding the difficulty of distinguishing the jurisdiction of nation and species is the radically more challenging prospect of calculating the time of nuclear waste.

Timothy Morton describes the time of nuclear waste, in his book Hyperobjects (2013): “There is no away to which we can meaningfully sweep the radioactive dust. Nowhere is far enough or long-lasting-enough…The future of plutonium exerts a causal influence on the present, casting its shadow backwards though time” (Morton 120). For Morton, then, the time of nuclear waste involves a thinking of two times at once. The present and the future are one way to name these temporalities, which could be measured by the time when the waste is toxic and when it is not. Another way would be to think of the time scale of the human next to the time scale of the waste. That we do not have access to an epistemology of geological time is at the source of our concern about the radioactive half life of nuclear waste. Neither of these conceptions of time thinks about the energy created in the first place. The whole problem of nuclear waste arrives on the scene precisely because of the energy demands of late capital. Whichever formulation of plutonium’s “causal influence” and overshadowing of the present, Into Eternity manages the temporal crux of nuclear waste through the science fictional conceit of an address to the future.

The figure of the earth as container cuts across these two novel challenges—jurisdiction and temporality—in the contemporary debates about nuclear energy’s relative ecological costs and benefits. The IPCC has suggested that in order to maintain life on the planet as we know it we must leave all remaining reserves of oil in the ground (NewScientist 2013). In an odd inversion, relying more heavily on nuclear energy in a turn away from oil and natural gas will mean placing a whole lot more material into the ground in long term storage facilities like Onkalo. This inversion does pinpoint the way that debates about the time of energy—from concerns about peak oil to carbon reduction measures and from the energy demand met by nuclear fission compared with the shelf life of nuclear waste—are insistently emplotted in space, in this case the ground, in the very earth itself. The level of risk involved in this plan remains palpable throughout Madsen’s documentary in a way that sets the film apart from other recent documentaries concerned with the legacies of nuclear power.

Madsen’s film takes an approach to the topic that one might hope for in this complex situation: a presentation of facts. The film engages the engineers, scientists, and technocrats of the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant and the tomb they are constructing to house its spent nuclear fuel, while simultaneously grappling with “the disturbing idea” that our “most lasting legacy will be the nuclear waste we bury” (Van Ripper 102). Construction on Onkalo began in 2002 and the storage facility is slated to accept the first shipments of nuclear waste in 2020. Estimates indicate that the site will remain open for a century before being sealed and will eventually house 5500 tons of highly radioactive waste: “Placed in copper canisters insulated with a layer of dense, impermeable clay and sealed using advanced welding techniques, the waste will be inserted into a network of horizontal shafts bored through solid granite 450 meters (1500 feet) below the surface” (Van Riper 99). Onkalo is the Finnish word for “cave” or “hiding place.”

Madsen’s film does a compelling job of uncovering the inconsistencies in the plan to construct Onkalo. Despite its simplicity, the architects at Onkalo, like those at the U.S. waste containment project in Carlsbad, New Mexico, cannot settle on a method to keep future human, post-human, or alien others, out of the tomb. Michael Brill, the architect for the New Mexico facility designed seven options to keep intrudes out: A landscape of thorns, “a dark masonry slab, evoking an enormous ‘black hole,’ an immense no-thing, a void,  land removed from use, worthless,” spikes bursting through a grid, or a rubble landscape (Brill 1993). To add this list, the experts at Onkalo suggest using many reproductions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) to keep people out. While these methods of keeping out curious entities would seem suitable for the present, they may not keep out the very addressees of the film—countless unknown and unknowable others from the future. Madsen address these imagined future viewers of the documentary promising that “We will leave written information for you in all the major languages of our time” and telling them that these are attempts to “give you a feeling, rather than give you a detailed message” (Madsen 2010). Similarly, the plan to pass on information about Onkalo by telling future generations founders when Madsen points out that keeping information about the long term waste storage in a “permanent manner” (Madsen 2010) shares the same risks as short-term nuclear waste storage—the power might go out, conditions might change in the archives, or wars might cause the political climate to change on the surface.

Used heavily in the film, the technique of the sound bridge mirrors the desire for consistency and transmission from one moment to the next. On screen, as the Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity” plays, cameras move attached to the automated arms that cycle the rods of radioactive material into the reactor, as the engineers and scientists in the film puzzle over this temporal problem of representation—that the sign for Danger! will change over the course of one hundred thousand years. Cameras track slowly down long hallways, behind supply trucks outside of facilities. Crane shots, dolly shots, and careful tracking shots show workers preparing a vat of material for water storage. These sequences are shot at a higher frame rate and the figures move in a slight slow-motion, mimicking a music video effect. They are unified by the beat of the song as shot cuts into shot. Another deployment of the sound bridge happens with the experts that are interviewed. Similarly, talking heads are introduced with a title and a shot, but sometimes as they speak the shot cuts to another expert who appears to sit listening, attentively, to the words of the first. Here the sound bridge suggests that they have received the message attentively just like the viewer should, just like the future view may. The experience of the film as an aesthetic object stands out as an affective experience that supports the problematic described through its dialogue and interviews. Put differently, the science fictional atmosphere remains in productive tension with the film’s documentary elements.

Even without the formal element of the sound bridge, the talking heads generate uncertainty. Van Ripper contributes to this observation through his own treatment of the talking heads and he suggests that the interviewees “project none of the confidence of traditional documentary ‘talking heads,’” speaking instead in “soft, halting voices with long pauses between and after thoughts” and, rather than cutting to a new shot after the subject has stopped speaking, “Madsen frequently holds the camera on the subject’s face, waiting—like a patient but disappointed teacher—for something more substantive” (Van Riper 101). The bind that I identified in the opening shot between quiet storage in the earth and the intervention of some future being repeats itself in these moments as the film never allows its viewer to forget the sheer impossibility of imagining how the future will divert from the present.  This insistence provokes the productive realization that Madsen and each of his experts are not actually addressing the future. Instead they imply a far future viewer who, for the interim can only, disappointingly, be a viewer from their own present. One problem with nuclear waste and the human temporality is that time cannot pass quickly enough. Even though we can conceive of multiple future possibilities for Onkalo—nuclear waste containment, cultural consistency, cultural change, breach by humans, or breach by unknown others—which emphasize that the present is a moment where decisions need to, and can, be made, geological time still only crawls by. The logic of containment in the film seems to insist that whatever our energy future looks like, something will be left below in the deep dark.

Patricia Yaeger offers a language to name the problem Into Eternity grapples with in her PMLA editor’s column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” She raises the idea of an “energy unconscious,” (Yaeger 306) a structuring presence that is often outside the described events of a narrative and suggests that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” (Yaeger 309). This energy unconscious follows Jameson’s assessment of the literary as a “socially symbolic act” in The Political Unconscious (1981) where the conflicts and impasses of the present find expression through signs and symptoms that must be interpreted. Similarly, Yaeger posits, 
We might argue that the writer who treats fuel as a cultural code or reality effect makes a symbolic move, asserts his or her class position in a system of mythic abundance not available to the energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion. But perhaps energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars. The touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light magic of electrical power, the anxiety engendered by atomic residue, the odor of coal pollution, the viscous animality of whale oil, the technology of chopping wood...(Yaeger 309-310)
Yaeger’s schema resonates with a scene that captures Sami Savonrinne, a blaster at Onkalo, in a long shot where he is two-thirds into the frame and two-thirds down it, flanked by a half-lit rock wall that runs out of the top of the shot. He says, 
This tunnel feels like a time capsule sometimes. When you arrive in the morning it may be sunny, almost like summer outside. When you come out at the end of the day, it may have snowed like hell. The weather will have completely changed and you think “how long do I actually spend in that tunnel?” And likewise: you go to work and it is dark, and when you come back up after work it is dark. And it feels like time has stopped. (Madsen 2010)
However, the worker and his “carnal exhaustion” appear as the sign of a deeper moment in the film, a moment closer to what I imagine Yaeger had in mind. Thus, I would suggest that nuclear waste acts as a glaring symptom of this energy unconscious and that Madsen’s film offers an occasion to plumb its depths. The discursive symptom, “the field of force that have causalities outside the text,” in Into Eternity is that no one can seem to imagine a sign or symbol that could last even a few hundred years, let alone 100, 000.

Into Eternity clarifies the idea of an energy unconscious, and outlines the problems associated with the study of energy in the humanities. As Madsen’s film confirms, the problem of narrative is indissociable from the discursive and political limits of the present. The film offers us a sense of the vast chambers lurking beneath surface, the catacombs entombing radioactive waste, that are at the same time a symptom of our comfortable energy reliance above the surface. The film investigates one solution for one country’s nuclear waste—to engineer and design the place where things might be laid to rest beneath the surface until their latent poisons dissipate. And yet, guided by some strikingly relevant science fictional writings, I would like to conclude by suggesting an image that completely opposes and arrests the visions of the future presented in Madsen’s film.

Into Eternity seems incapable of thinking the kind of future we get in Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “The People of Sand and Slag” (2008) as anything but a nightmare image.  In a distant future Montana, three mutated, genetically engineered, and weeviltech implanted humans oversee a mining operation. They seem to be capable of eating the very refuse, tailings, mine dumps, and slimes spewed out by the machines tearing up the countryside, they can re-grow severed limbs, and they appear to heal from cuts near instantly. The plot revolves around the trio discovering a dog wandering out among the tailings—they are baffled by how this creature could survive. One of the three revealingly observes, “‘It’s as delicate as rock. You break it, and it never comes back together” (Bacigalupi 45). The three react to the dog, a survivor from a different time, the “dead end of an evolutionary chain,” (Bacigalupi 53) much in the same way that a reader might be estranged by the three demigod humans who eat sand and slag for dinner. They vacation in Hawaii; the narrator describes his partner’s grace as a swimmer: “She flashed through the ocean’s metallic sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels” (Bacigalupi 52). The future, in “The People of Sand and Slag” presents the opposite solution to Onkalo’s containment: a kind of total immersion. This solution to the problems generated by our energy commitments remains unimaginable by Madsen’s experts. It inverts the idea of the Earth as containment and renders “delicate” the very deep stone that appears so solid and immutable in the walls of the opening shots of the film. Onkalo is not a solution to the problem of nuclear waste. It is merely a stop-gap solution, a massive sludge bucket of leaky refuse that we are not quite sure where to stash. The quiet elegance of the snow covered trees and imploring address—“this is not a place you should live in”—could both be lost on future humans, as they certainly would be on Bacigalupi’s people of sand and slag.

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print.
Brill, Michael. “An Architecture of Peril: Design for a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, New Mexico.” Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter (3 June 2014) Web (Fall 1993).
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Into Eternity: A Film for the Future. Dir. Michael Madsen. International Film Circuit, 2010. Film.
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Jameson, Fredric. Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One. New York: Verso, 2011. Print.
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Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013. Print.
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*** The following is a paper I delivered at MLG-ICS 2014 on a panel titled "Discourses of Carbon Culture" with Bob Johnson and Jeff Diamanti (you can read Jeff's paper here www.analogouscity.com). This paper is also based on an entry I wrote for Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, and Patricia Yaeger (Fordham UP, in progress).***

Let me repeat, we are dealing with a potentiality, the realization of which depends on prevailing circumstances. The emergence of a new style is dependent on many external influences; and there is also a double internal danger which, in the history of literature, has often marked periods of transition. There may be reluctance, on the one hand, to accept the logic of some new subject-matter; there may be a timid hanging-on to traditional styles, an unwillingness to give up old habits. There may also be, on the other hand, a tendency to overemphasize abstract aspects of new subject-matter (‘in history,’ wrote Hegel, ‘every new phenomenon emerges first in abstract form’). Abstraction thus gains the upper hand. Concrete realities—the exploration with the help of the new consciousness of as yet unexplored subject matter will be neglected or considered of secondary importance.—Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time (1971: 115-116)

Lukács disqualified the sciences as fetishes of the particular, unable to grasp the totality, over which only the non-science of philosophy had dominion…But climate science is not such a science. And curiously, it takes as its object totality in a quite different sense: the totality of metabolic processes that take place on a planetary scale, and in particular the contribution of collective human labor to those processes.—McKenzie Wark, “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism”

In ecological thought, thinking big is back in a big way. And why not? The twin problems of global warming and ongoing pollution are both intensified by an energy-reliant system of accumulation and dispossession that operates at a massive scale. Thinking big seems to match the size of solution-seeking to the size of the problem. In “The Rise of Energy Humanities, Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman frame this problem in terms of an ecology-energy impasse: “It is not an exaggeration to ask whether human civilization has a future. Neither technology nor policy can offer a silver-bullet solution to the environmental effects created by an energy-hungry, rapidly modernizing and expanding global population. (Boyer and Szeman 2014). They posit that the problems we face as a species fall within the expertise of the human sciences, from studies of ethics, habits, and values to understandings of institutions, belief, and power. The discursive mode arguably most interested in coming to terms with the scope of our ecology-energy impasse is that of theory, with examples ranging from Eugene Stoermer's and Paul Crutzen's theorizations of the Anthropocene, to Timothy Morton’s attempt in Hyperobjects (2012) to furnish a language suitable to both new materialism and what he calls the “ecological emergency” (Morton 2012). But how do we begin to think between the proliferating big ideas of geology, climate science, new materialism, and the energy humanities?

I would argue that a particular risk in contemporary ecological theorizing is not the result of trying to think too big; rather, it is a problem of taking too easy a path to thinking that bigger picture. Totalities are nuanced, to say the least, and the way we imagine social and ecological relations can be expressed only in complex and indirect ways, lest we fall back into what Hegel called “picture-thinking.” To avoid the pitfall of mistaking the abstract whole for the sum of its concrete parts, I posit petrorealism – literary, cinematic, and gaming narrative forms, for example – as a possible way to creatively mediate the scalar problem between thinking big and the specific situations and contexts of petromodernity. I use Petro- because I think it is important to conceive of all texts produced within petroculture as functionally marked by the ontology of oil even as they anticipate a world after oil, and I use -realism because I aim to emphasize the way its variants share an ability to mediate the variegated scales implied in specific instances within a larger whole at once and, thus, better grasp the energy-ecology impasse.

Petrorealism (or its absence), for example, is what is really at stake in Amitav Ghosh’s seminal essay “Petrofictions: The Oil Encounter and the Novel,” where he observes the oil encounter does not produce an equivalently rich corpus of novels as the spice encounter (Ghosh 1992: 138). Extending Ghosh's desire for big thinking, in “Oil and the American Imaginary” Peter Hitchcock cleverly suggests that sugar and coffee are two commodities that could also function analogously to oil (Hitchcock 2010: 81). But if we understand Ghosh to be marking not merely a paucity of fiction of the oil encounter, but also expressing a desire for petrorealism, then these commodities are not so easily substituted for one another. Attention to the formal strategies necessary to representing the oil encounter would reveal that the scale of big thinking is itself among the subjects of this fiction. Realism, in its varied forms and modes, has a penchant for narrating structure without losing site of specificity. Indeed, Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet (1984-1989) and Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927) respectively fuel Ghosh’s and Hitchcock’s desire for a realistic petrofiction. For Ghosh, the slow and careful details of Munif’s story make it stand out: for instance, few of the oil developers from the US are named, and instead are simply referred to as the Americans, one exception being Sinclair, who leaps out from the page like oil gushing from a well because his obvious namesake is the 20th century author. Hitchcock’s reading of Oil! attaches importance to Upton Sinclair’s realistic portrayal of the beginnings of US oil production and dependence. Hitchcock figures oil’s centrality to the American political and cultural imaginary, placing Oil! and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation There Will Be Blood (2007) as bookends of America’s century. Hitchcock does acknowledge, however, that oil's centrality manifests primarily in its in invisibility: “it is oil’s saturation of the infrastructure of modernity that paradoxically has placed a significant bar on its cultural representation” (Hitchcock 2010: 81). Though oil’s ubiquity has seemed to keep it from being of central focus, petrorealism could elaborate the near omnipresence of oil in everyday life in an attempt to defamiliarize or to make strange our petrosubjectivity.

As a materialism term, petrorealism also has a polemic function: it offers an important corrective to philosophical senses of thinking big that evacuate the subject and any form of politics from its imaginations. The speculative realism of philosophers Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux contests our all-too-humanist claim that knowledge is ultimately subjective, while silently opposing already existing materialisms, which, as Wesley Phillips remarks, is notably strange when one considers their shared preoccupation with realism (Philips 2012: 290). Contrasting new materialism with historical materialism emphases a key difference between speculative realism and what I am calling petrorealism: as Phillips explains speculative realist philosophers share an understanding of “the real as the physical” (2012: 290), whereas I argue that petrorealism maintains that the abstract, and not the only the vulgarly physical, can be and is material. I do not want to suggest that the desire to decenter the human and human consciousness from the world is invalid; rather, I would suggest that by thinking along the lines of petrorealism, we can begin to recognize speculative realism as a symptom of the vast, alienating and thoroughly unhuman forces of oil-fueled capital accumulation. As Lukács suggested in the “The Ideology of Modernism,” intention can be read into a text, not as the author’s personal aim, but as the Weltanschauung or ideology of that author (Lukács 1971: 19). Thus, we might say, the object oriented ontologist seeks to escape a situation of their own making by subtracting the human from ecological questions and preferring to speculate about the consciousness of the geological formations on which human impacts have been wrought. No matter how one understands its intention, the effect of this subtraction of the human is an evacuation of politics. By contrast, Morton’s thinking about hyperobjects implies a politics: as a collection of discrete yet like objects (all nuclear materials, or all plutonium, or all uranium), or a place demarcated by a spatial imaginary (the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador), or an entity all but invisible except for its effects (a black hole), or a set of processes and relations (global capital) – a hyperobject can be transcoded as another word for totality. Yet hyperobjects still lack mediation – and thus with petrorealism, I aim to restore mediation to its place in thought, human or otherwise, especially big thought about the energy-ecology impasse.

Examples abound of novels, films, documentaries, and other kinds of texts that outline what petrorealism could be and do. Situated within distinct formal mechanics, the following examples manage to think big without falling into the trap of picture thinking, and are, at least provisionally, divided into five categories:

Maps of energy presents that do not foreground energy: Noel Burch and Allan Sekula’s exploration of container ships and the global circulation of commodities in The Forgotten Space (2010), Max Brooks’s depiction of social totality through circulation and exchange figured as contagion in World War Z (2006), or Steven Soderbergh’s chart of global flows and borders, whether figured through the drug trade or the spread of disease and the development of vaccines, in Traffic (2000) and Contagion (2011).
 Postcolonial film and writing: in the recent short film Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu 2010), water sovereignty and labor as a clean energy source clash with the protagonist’s discovery of uncontaminated soil. Jennifer Wenzel’s description of petro-magic-realism in Ben Okri’s story, “What the Tapster Saw,” combines “the transmogrifying creatures and liminal space of the forest in Yoruba narrative tradition” and “the monstrous-but-mundane violence of oil exploration and extraction, the state violence that supports it, and the environmental degradation that it causes” (Wenzel 2006: 456).
 Science fiction energy futures: when Kim Stanley Robinson discusses terraforming in the Mars Trilogy (1993,1994,1996) he shows that petrorealism need not be only about oil, but should be able to hold together the complex of various forms of energy, their scales, and temporalities.
Actual accounts of the petro-present: James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello’s travelogue The Oil Road: Journey from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (2012) maps the oil present spatially, economically, and ecologically. Their figure of the “oil road,” reviewer Adam Carlson notes, “gives us a powerful tool for representing the totality, for seeing through the haze, to make sense of both the physical Oil Road, and the Carbon Web – the political, social and economic, the superstructure of the infrastructure” (Carlson 2013).
 Interactive documentary and documentary/videogame hybrids: Offshore (Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Labs 2013) and Fort McMoney (David Dufresne 2013) offer an immersive petrorealism. The former depicts an oil rig modelled on the Deepwater Horizon, which viewers explore at their own pace and direction by navigating an eerie maze of stations and compartments; in the latter, viewers travel to Fort McMurray, Alberta and explore the town – they can follow bottle collectors, visit the Oil Patch, and vote on important town issues.

Following these examples, petrorealism does not operate in terms of longing for a return to a time before oil. Instead, it follows Stephanie LeMenager’s (2012) insistence on the irreversibility of petrocapitalism and looks to futures that take the infrastructures and imaginaries of petromodernity into account, with ingenuity and rigor. Petrorealism is, of necessity, an attempt come to terms with petromodernity from within; indeed there is no vantage from outside from which to write about its flows and limits.

In Realism in Our Time (1971) Lukács makes a useful distinction between the view critical realism had from outside socialism versus the view socialist realism had from within it. As he points out, despite enabling the critical realist to better grasp his or her own age “it will not enable him [sic] to conceive the future from the inside” (Lukács 1971: 95). But this is precisely the task before us. To quote another mid-century Marxist “Petroleum resists the five-act form,” and so we must embrace the new styles and forms that resist petroleum! (Brecht 1977:29). My hope is that by learning from petrorealism we might reach as close to the root of the energy-ecology impasse as possible, drawing spatial connections between capital’s energy demands and effects and the temporal possibilities of reaching beyond our energy-dependant, growth-based system of social relations to a future in which energy is no longer the metaphor or the cause for speculation, but the actual driving force of our creative endeavors to overcome such crises. By maintaining a moment of narration within the elaboration of a vaster totality, petrorealism sharpens our focus on the task at hand: we must accept the logic of the impasse without overemphasizing its abstract qualities. It is here that the work of petrorealism stands revealed as a critical task to set for ourselves as much as it is an already existing archive of material.

Works Cited

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web (3 April 2014).

Brecht, Bertolt. 1977. Brecht on Theatre. ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang. Print.

Carlson, Adam. “Petrorealism in The Oil Road.” Introduction to Mika Minio-Paluello “Unpublished Talk” at the Humanities Centre, University of Alberta (18 October 13).

Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.”Incendiary Circumstances. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. 138-151. Print.

Hitchcock, Peter. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations 69 (2010): 81-97. Print.

LeMenager, Stephanie. “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24.1 (2012): 59–86. Print.

Lukács, Georg. Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper Tourchbooks, 1971. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.

Philips, Wesley. “The Future of Speculation?” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 8.1 (2012): 289-303.

Wark, Mackenzie. “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism.” Public Seminar Commons. (25 April 2014) Web (26 April 2014).

Wenzel, Jennifer. “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature.” Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-464. Print.


zone one - it was new york city

*** The following is a chunk from the Epilogue of my dissertation. In a moment of poetic justice I am cannibalizing it into a sharper reflective section. Who wants to do readings in their conclusion anyway? This was largely influenced by Andrew Hoberek’s excellent review of Whitehead’s zombie novel (the full citation appears in my citations). So if you’re looking for a place to dig into that novel, I would start there. ***

With three long chapters titled “Friday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday,” Zone One describes the passing of three days in the titular segment of Manhattan. The protagonist Mark Spitz is part of Omega Unit, and along with the gaunt Gary and the ever-practical unit leader Kaitlyn he moves up and down office towers and apartment blocks searching for any remaining “skels” or “stragglers.”[i] Skels resemble a typical zombie—hungry for human flesh, in a state of decomposition, more dangerous in groups, and vicious—the stragglers, less so. The latter are Whitehead’s contribution to the zombie plot: stragglers just stand or sit or lie and stare. They are skels that have thoroughly checked out; they often return to a fixed place, perhaps still meaningful to some recess of muscle or blood memory, and just wait. Omega unit’s mission is straightforward: clear each room, dispatch any skel found there, and record everything. However clear the plot is, the story must be pieced together through the regular digressions of the third person limited narrator, who fills the reader in on Mark Spitz’s story from the time of the ruin through to the present. The narrator’s dislocation and overlap with Mark Spitz dislodges a similar correspondence in earlier post-apocalyptic novels, from Stewart’s Earth Abides to Brin’s The Postman. There is no ruse of history here, instead Mark Spitz’s mediocrity, rather than his exceptionalism, is the root cause of his survival and the basis for his radical anti-post-apocalyptic decision at the end of the novel.

The narrator’s digressions cannot quite be characterized as flashbacks, but they are motivated by Mark Spitz’s memories. The narrator describes him as a “thorough, inveterate B,” while, in his review of the novel, Andrew Hoberek calls Mark Spitz “the modernist antihero cum superhero,” whose power of mediocrity “renders him perfectly suited to the post-Last Night world. Or so the narration, so finely calibrated that his thoughts blend seamlessly with those of the narrator, insists.”[ii] Similar to the way memory functions in The Road, this blending of memory and reflection maps the novel’s post-apocalyptic present through the affective attachment Mark Spitz maintains with the past. Unlike the way McCarthy’s novel maintained a distinct sparseness, Whitehead’s novel draws on popular and mass culture to fill in the gaps in the narrative. For instance, Mark Spitz identifies a skel in the first group he encounters as reminiscent of an old grade school teacher who had a hairdo called “a Marge, after Marge Halstead, the charmingly klutzy actress who’d trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty tete-a-tetes on late-night chat shows.”[iii] This kind of reference shuffles the typical trope of zombie stories—rather than having to kill his friends (i.e. “I had to kill her, she was going to turn”) he dispatches unknowns but only after assigning them affective weight from his memory. But, memory in the novel does not only originate from within the individual; instead, the city itself seems to be able to project something resembling a memory.

In an incredible passage from early in the novel, the city becomes the subject, deindividuating any of its particular denizens and reframing the apocalyptic event of the novel as another in a long line of reformations and reshapings that have changed the composition of Manhattan. Mark Spitz used to visit his uncle there. He would stare and look out the window at the city:

He remembered how things used to be, the customs of the skyline. Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows. Inevitability was mayor, term after term, yesterday’s old masters, stately named and midwife by once-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the façades their insides were butchered reconfigured, rewired according to the next era’s new theories of utility. Classic six into honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubical mill. In every neighbourhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of the rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City.[iv]

Everything is here: the consecration of each age of urban planners and architects by the previous generation of social planners, the marks left by the smog of automobile use, the shift from labour heavy industry to the cognitive lightness of creative industries, and the crash of wave after wave of new immigrants eager to become “American.” But, for Whitehead, each of these figures becomes a mere synecdoche, something contained in the still vastness of the New York skyline as it is surveyed by the mediocre boy in his uncle’s apartment. This narrated rise and fall of a city echoes what Samuel Zipp has described as Manhattan Projects, those efforts in the nineteen-sixties to remake the city which allow Zipp to articulate “the rise of a world city and the decline into urban crisis,”[v] as twin processes, which, in turn, shapes the moment of Whitehead’s own formation in the wake of the nineteen-sixties and his response to this formation in Zone One.[vi] The turnover of New York City from the mid-century to the post-industrial city of tomorrow in the 1960s and 1970s is a change that Zone One figures in order to target the contemporary turnover of U.S hegemony—the places remain the same, and in many cases so do the names, but everything seems different now. This attempt to come to terms with a new economic order makes up the backdrop of Mark Spitz movements through the Zone.

Breaking up the action and mediating activity through memory and recollection, the insistent interruptions of the narrator demonstrate presumed self-importance through referentiality. As in other post-apocalyptic novels, the network of relations, now dead, from whom the protagonists draw sustenance, speak through the narrator, as they cannot speak in the present. In his review of the book Thomas Jones find this type of digression to be uninteresting:

The banality of the backstory is part of the point—Mark Spitz is proudly mediocre and credits his mediocrity as the core reason for his survival—but compared to a post-apocalyptic novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Zone One gives little sense of what, if anything, has been lost.[vii]

Mark Spitz is caught between a host of memories and the grim, slow task of combing nearly every square inch of Manhattan for skels. Through its focus on slow process, the novel suggests that loss is rarely a punctual event, but occurs slowly, accreting shape and form until one day it confronts us fully fleshed out and hungry. For commentators like McGrul, this process of loss registers a “rapid corrosion even of our secular myths about the self, not least the myth of its rational autonomy,” which shifts Zone One “not to realism but to the weirdness of allegory.”[viii] Not unlike the racialized fears captured by the earlier post-apocalyptic novels of the long-fifties, Hoberek suggests that Zone One could be read in an allegorical light “for more specific fears of immigrants, of terrorists, of the people who want to get into our gated communities.” The post-apocalyptic novel form that once used to contain and process white racial fears, as in Matheson’s I am Legend, in the hands of Whitehead becomes a critical tool to examine the way those anxieties return to fore after 9/11 and what this might mean for the U.S. in the wake of its catastrophic bid for hegemony in Iraq.

In the wake of massive crisis, PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), one of the novel’s great innovations, generates a moment of profound reflection on the cultural function of post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. Most often used to refer to the still human who cannot seem to cope in their post-apocalyptic world, the novel plays with the aural similarity of PASD and past:

“What happened,” Mark Spitz asked, "he get bit?"“No, it’s his past,” he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moanedsome more.“His past?”“His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand.”

Accounting for the trauma of the post-apocalyptic story world has not been done before in this way. Indeed, that version of skels known as the straggler even seem to have PASD and simply stop or return to places of profound meaning from their pre-apocalyptic lives. The novel names these figures stragglers because they seem to be living in the past. Hoberek neatly traces this slippage to the way trauma plays across the register of the individual and the collective, “like the Last Night story, and like a past more generally, trauma is the thing that makes everyone at once unique (because everyone’s is different) and the same (because everyone has one).”[ix] PASD, thus cuts across identity lines (and even unifies the living and the undead) to mark a culture that is in deep shock and denial. As Hoberek has it, “crucially, the moment late in the novel when we find out that Mark Spitz is black occurs when he is telling Gary his Last Night story, and Gary—otherwise an encyclopedia of ‘racial, gender, and religious stereotypes’—fails to recognize the one (black people can't swim) that adds an additional element of irony to Mark Spitz's nickname.”[x] Thus, Mark Spitz final decision in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), to dive into a mass of zombies, rendered in the novel as a “sea of the dead,” flags one resolution to the tired march of survival undertaken time and again in post-apocalyptic novels.[xi] Whitehead’s novel, which features zombies who have given up, dramatizes a new finale for the familiar narrative movement of post-apocalyptic novels from destruction to survival. Like the mother from The Road, in the face of an eternal return to the same, Mark Spitz decides to give up. So even though “Now the world was muck,” the narrator still suggests that systems die hard—they outlive their creators and unlike plagues do not require individual hosts—and thus it was a well-organized muck with a hierarchy, accountability and, increasingly, paperwork.”[xii] Rather than read Mark Spitz’s decisions to embrace the mass as a discreet act within a novel, what seems striking about his decision is that it flies in the face of the genre as whole. His gruesome decision to “learn how to swim” shakes the foundation of both the repetition compulsion and the focus on the individual demonstrably found in the post-apocalyptic. But, eliminating the focal character does not eliminate the post-apocalyptic scenario it only undoes our access to it.

The long architectural passage I quoted above gains new significance in light of the close of the novel. Whitehead may be narrating the changing urban plan of the city, the social relations that undergird it and shore it up, but in providing a theory of the urban metabolism he also gestures to a deeper connection between the form and content of the post-apocalyptic novel itself. If anything, the allegorical slippage of Whitehead’s narration makes up an informal history of formal change that is not strictly limited to the city at all, but can be read as a metahistory of the post-apocalyptic novel: “Up and down the island the buildings collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another’s shadows.” The effects wrought by the writers taking on their visions of after the end are replaced or one-upped as “Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks.” It wasn’t New York City after all it was a zombie novel.

[i] As Thomas Jones points out, the name Omega Unit is “a nod to the 1971 movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, one of the many adaptations of Robert Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, also a major influence onNight of the Living Dead.” Thomas Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” in The London Review of Books 34.2 (26 January 2012), 27.

[ii] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” Contemporary Literature 53.2 (2012): 410.
[iii] Colson Whitehead, Zone One (New York: Doubleday, 2011), Zone One 14.
[iv] Whitehead, Zone One 5-6.
[v] Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in New York (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 29.
[vi] Hoberek’s review is one again instructive for me here: Whitehead “presents New York as an imagistic assemblage of scenes glimpsed through windows: the curator is none other than the author himself. Here we see a profound difference between Whitehead's approach to his genre materials and that of, say, Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Whitehead (b. 1969) and Diaz (b. 1968) belong to a generational cohort of mostly male American authors—Michael Chabon (b. 1963) and Jonathan Lethem (b. 1964) are others—who embrace the genre forms of their youths. But whereas Diaz, in Wao, turns to the clunky, semi-Victorian diction of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy as a way beyond the minimalist, Carveresque prose of his first book. Drown (1996), Whitehead tells his zombie story in highly polished, formally perfect prose.” Hoberek, “PASD,” 409.
[vii] Jones, “Les Zombies C’est Vous,” 28.
[viii] McGurl, “Zombie Renaissance.”
[ix] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 411-412.
[x] Hoberek, “Living with PASD,” 412.
[xi] Whitehead, Zone One 259.
[xii] Whitehead, Zone One 162.