The Global Catastrophe Machine: Why Can’t We Stop Thinking About the End of the World?

Oct 16, 2018

TAA 0041– C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood discuss stories about the end of the world – in literature, film and religions. Where do end of the world fantasies come from? Why are they so appealing to us, and what can they tell us about being human?

C.T. WEBB 00:19  [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening and welcome to The American Age Podcast. This is C. Travis Webb, editor of The American Age, and I’m speaking with Seph and Steven. Gentlemen, how are you guys doing? 
S. FULLWOOD 00:28  Pretty good. Pretty good. 
S. RODNEY 00:29  I can’t complain. 
S. FULLWOOD 00:32  This is Steven Fullwood from the Nomadic Archivists Project. 
S. RODNEY 00:34  And this is Seph Rodney, editor at Hyperallergic Blogazine. 
C.T. WEBB 00:40  So we get to do something a little different this time. I’m actually in New York, in Seph’s studio. So we’re a little bit closer this time, which I’m happy about. We are rerecording this podcast. Last time we had some technical difficulties and one of us didn’t get picked up [laughter]. And so– 
S. RODNEY 00:59  That person will remain nameless. 
C.T. WEBB 01:00  That’s right, because we’re not saying who that was. 
S. FULLWOOD 01:02  So clearly it’s me, and I have no problem admitting it. It was an awful thing. For the audience, I simply didn’t push record. That was the technical difficulty. 
C.T. WEBB 01:12  And I started the last podcast on an addendum which I’d like to add because I’d like to make sure that’s on the record. In the last podcast, I said I had a PhD in Comparative Literature, which isn’t exactly right. I have a PhD in Religion specializing in Comparative Religion, but specifically what is called Critical Comparative Scriptures. So it has a lot to do with reading scripture and [its intended literatures?] very closely. So it’s similar to Comparative Literature but if anyone ever looked it up and wondered like, “What? That’s not what his PhD is in,” so. But I’m going to stop referring to that in the podcast because, like we bantered about last time, I think it’s a little self-involved, so I don’t need to throw my title out there [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 01:52  But I have a PhD, and I like throwing my title out there. 
S. FULLWOOD 01:55  And I’ve seen a PhD. I’ve dated PhDs, so I can put them together. Piled high and deep; is that what you guys are talking about? 
S. RODNEY 02:05  Oh, shit. 
C.T. WEBB 02:09  So today’s topic is the sense of an– what’s called the– I’m taking the title from a book called The Sense of an Ending, but the topic was suggested by Steven which is the sense of impending doom of urgency or apocalypse as Steven mentioned in the last podcast. So Steven, do you want to lead us into it? 
S. RODNEY 02:29  Well, just before he does that, I just want to mention there a– our listeners that we are a podcast about intellectual intimacy. 
C.T. WEBB 02:36  Thank you, Seph. 
S. RODNEY 02:38  So we would like you to be intimate with our thoughts over the next 15 or 20 minutes while we talk about apocalypticness. 
S. FULLWOOD 02:47  Apocalypticness. Thank you, Seph. Thank you, Travis. So I’ve noticed that there seems to more of an increase in the sense of apocalypticness in our culture. And I started to think about what that meant for me, personally. I started looking at, for example, around the ’80s there was this idea that the world was going to end, and before that the ’50s where we created the atomic bomb, folks started, for the first time, to think that the world could actually end for them in a bigger way than just simply leaving a place or war or what have you. It was something very sort of impeding doom as Travis had mentioned before that. In the ’80s, it was HIV and AIDS. It was AIDS coming in and sort of sweeping through a lot of poorer communities, black and Latino communities as well as white communities and killing folks. But I think that the digital age was the moment where we started to see how close– we could pick up on messages from other people and how other people felt, so that sense of doom could be encroaching. In the entertainment, I think Seph mentioned before, and I probably mentioned again, the movies, that kind of sensibility. I think people right now are trying to live for now. Maybe not in the right way or maybe in way that feels good. It just feels like the world could end more quickly now than ever. And so– 
C.T. WEBB 04:10  Seph, what do you think? 
S. RODNEY 04:11  I flashback on a piece that I had written several years ago about an artist named Adrian Villar Rojas, and the particular piece that he had – I think it was a gallery or museum show – was a kind of – what’s the word for it? – ruins, like sort of as if the Colosseum had been rejiggered or revamped and then torn down again. So there was statuary that was on its side, broken pillars, bells that were cracked, all huge pieces made of stone and ceramic. And what I’d written about the work at the time was that it made me think of how our fantasies of doom are essentially ways that we have of coming to terms with our desperation to be alone because living on the planet, we are constantly surrounded with other human beings and having to negotiate politically, socially, physically, having to negotiate one’s own place in the world because other human beings are kind of always around and in the way. It feels and it felt to me, when I wrote that piece, that that’s part of our generalized anxiety. So that gives the kind of turn to what Steven’s just been talking about, and I think there’s a sense of doom and, yes, that stuff might just end tomorrow, but I think partly, we kind of want it to end tomorrow [laughter]. 
C.T. WEBB 06:21  Yeah. There’s a kind of indulgence in the feeling of being alone or being those who are there at the end. There’s a kind of narcissism involved in that. Two things that came to mind and that I recalled from last time was, one, this sense of being overwhelmed by the proximity of strangers and other bodies isn’t new. It’s not modern unless you want to extend the modern era back thousands of years. A. L. Basham, who wrote a book called The Wonder That Was India, talks about the ways in which ancient South Asian sanskrit literatures came out of this anxiety around the crowded cities that these peoples inhabited. Now, by our standards, these cities were, of course, not crowded, but it sort of doesn’t matter how the goal post moves. The simple fact of the matter is we didn’t really evolve to be comfortable around thousands of people we don’t know. We can’t suss their intentions. It’s good if we speak the same language because then we can sort of translate our intentions. And this is one reason that foreign places and foreigners will give rise to so much anxiety around certain peoples. And so that sense of impeding doom, apocalypse, anxiety, the desire to be alone, like Seph just said, has been with us for a very long time. It’s not new. It’s just more dangerous. Now we’ve got weapons that can dispatch with a great many people very quickly. So anyway, Steven, what were you thinking about that? 
S. FULLWOOD 08:15  I was thinking about something you mentioned before. Was it the Dunbar–? 
C.T. WEBB 08:19  Oh, the Dunbar Number. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And originally, I thought it was very low, but it’s actually 150 people. So the Dunbar Number is a theory that there is an upper limit to our cognitive capacity to keep track of intimate social relationships. And that number is theorized to be around between 150 and 200. Now this is not settled science; it’s a theory. But I know that it’s taken seriously and there has been some social media research around this, so. I’m sorry, go ahead. 
S. FULLWOOD 08:52  It’s provocative. It makes you wonder when you think about your orbits – your immediate orbits and your other orbits, say, that might maybe professional, or friendship orbits – and how many people can you take. And Seph and I had a conversation months ago about being an introvert or being an extrovert. And what that means is how much social interaction can you stand in a day, on a good day? And so whereas I think I’m somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert kind of thing where I do draw energy from people but then sometimes I’m automatically– I don’t know where my supply is and it just cuts off, and I’m ready to go home. I’m ready to not talk to people, that it’s exhausting to try to keep up with all the energies and the conversations and the energy. So yeah. I was thinking of that. 
S. RODNEY 09:43  So I think that that colors our conversation, actually. And this is something that I just though of because you mentioned the introvert/extrovert dynamic Steven. I know for a fact that I’m introverted, and I’ve known this, I think, ever since I took the Myers Briggs Personality Test which I did when I was in London so– 
C.T. WEBB 10:03  That which is, by the way, not taken seriously [laughter] by psychologists. 
S. RODNEY 10:06  Okay. Well, that’s good to know. But even more profound as sort of the indication of who I was, was later reading a description which I’ve kept with me since, and I think is the most apt description of introvert and extroverts, and I’ll rehearse it. Basically, an introvert is someone who starts out the day with a whole bunch of gold coins, and we go throughout our day handing them out to people. When we get to the end of our gold coin supply, we’re done. Whereas the extrovert – and this makes perfect sense to me realizing that most politicians are extroverts – they start off the day with their bag empty and they go around collecting gold coins from social interactions. So that person who’s the go-getter, they’re the talker, the PR– 
S. FULLWOOD 11:11  Marketing. 
S. RODNEY 11:12  Yes. Yes. Kind of guru or the politician. They love social interaction. Me, I would rather talk to maybe a handful of people throughout my day, and the rest, really, I don’t need because those are the interactions like you, Steven, that I feel – what’s the word? – energized by. So I think this colors my view of what we’re talking about about this kind of greater anxiety around the world ending or the world continuing. And it reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode where a woman is imagining this world. She has this– well, we don’t know that it’s a dream, but when it starts out, the episode opens with this situation where the world is just getting hotter and hotter because something happened to the planetary orbit, and now it’s moving closer to the sun, and so things are unbearably hot and people are dying and there’s a full-on ecological disaster. Right? And then, at some point, she wakes up from this dream, when we find out it’s a dream, and it’s actually the opposite [laughter]. She’d been dreaming this because the world is actually getting colder and colder in such a way that, again, it’s the same sort of ending with the script flipped. Right? It’s an ecological disaster and people are dying. So I think there’s that in that kind of eschato– what’s the word? Eschatological? 
C.T. WEBB 12:56  Eschatological, yeah. 
S. RODNEY 12:58  Thank you. That sense of the world ending that is sort of hanging over our collective heads. I think it’s both desired and not desired. It’s desired because it feels like it’s the other doom, it’s the other side of the coin. It’s like, not doomed by being around so many damn people, but doomed by being completely alone. 
S. FULLWOOD 13:26  Wow. Wow. See, I keep thinking that – and I mentioned this before in the podcast that wasn’t recorded – that I think that the sense of doom and the sense of apocalyptic sensibility comes from, it’s a larger metaphor for having to change. The end of one’s world the way we know it. And I mentioned Jean-François Lyotard, this French philosopher who was– he had cautioned about us becoming cyborgs. Right? But that different people from different disciplines, feminism, they were like, “Fine. If we’ve all become cyborgs, then sexism will end, right?” I mean, there were different kinds of thoughts about it, but I remember– 
S. RODNEY 14:05  Donna Haraway, yes. 
S. FULLWOOD 14:07  Right. Because it’s identity. This is what we’re having to really deal with: identity and difference and having been– I grew up in a large family, and I was talking to Travis this morning about it, and now I’ve lived alone in different parts of my life, and right now I live alone and that it can be, like he mentioned, a sort of low level– you mentioned, not despondence, not depression– 
C.T. WEBB 14:32  Oh, sort of like a background melancholy. 
S. FULLWOOD 14:35  Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. 
S. RODNEY 14:37  Really? From living alone? 
S. FULLWOOD 14:38  Yeah. I’ll tell you why. Because I’m never just one person. I’m always a bunch of people. I’m never just one guy. So there are days when I’m not featuring anybody and other days when I’m like– I have people over all the time [laughter]. I try to. I don’t have a cat or a dog. I have plants that I talk to, but it depends on how I feel. And sometimes you don’t know when you might want someone with you there. It just pops up and it’s just the way it is, so. 
C.T. WEBB 15:07  Yeah. The conversation was around, in some ways, the luxuriousness of being able to live by yourself and what’s nice about it. But when I’ve lived by myself, which I do, there is a kind of pleasure in that. I mean, I have a family now, and I’m very happy to have a family. But there is, even amidst that luxuriousness and that time to be alone and to entertain thoughts or hobbies or readings that I might want to spend time with, there’s a very low level, almost in the background, sort of like white noise that I would describe as a kind of thin melancholy that’s sort of there waiting. There’s a Japanese term for this as it relates to the woods called mono no aware, which is roughly translated as the slender sadness. And it’s that thing that you feel, and the way that it was most provocatively described to me, was it’s that feeling in the woods after the snowfall and you’re alone and it’s quiet, and there’s a kind of slender sadness in that moment. And I always felt like there– it’s not overwhelming. I’ve never really battled with depression or anything like that, but just there. And so I do– Seph, when you made the move to think of apocalypse as this sort of just wanting the world to empty out, I get that. Right? But, of course, that is also terrible. Right? It’s overwhelming. I mean, sort of the sense of relief and then also just that presence of being alone. 
S. RODNEY 17:04  Yes. Exactly. I mean, that’s what I see in these films like I Am Legend, The Road, 28 Days Later, The Book Of Eli, 12 Monkeys. You can go on and on. In the past 20 years, there have been at least– I think I’ve seen at least 20 or 30 films that have that as a central motif, right, this notion that there’s some sort of ecological disaster, some disaster that comes out of– well usually actually some techno medical disaster. Right? So we try to cure something, and we release this virus into the world, and it decimates the populations. World War Z. And that is a sign of– yes, it’s a kind of manifestation of anxiety of worrying that– our anxiety, rather, that there are too many people, there are too much pressure on us to constantly be on, to constantly perform, but then the other side of that is that the world empties out, and then you’re by yourself and with that kind of– 
S. RODNEY 18:08  I mean, the poignant scene, I think, that captures that desperation that one would have in those circumstances is when Will Smith, in the film I Am Legend, starts to break down and he starts to have that conversation with the mannequin, and he starts to yell at the mannequin, “Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t you talk to me?” I think we’re always– as human beings, at least in this moment, we’re kind of always playing between those poles. Breaking down because there’s so many damn people around constantly demanding things from us, but also breaking down when we’re alone and as you said, Steven, because you are so many different people throughout your day, you never know when you might need or want someone there to be the sort of anchor for that person that you are in that moment. 
S. FULLWOOD 19:12  Yeah. Yeah. See, I’m stuck on this point about ennui, which is not what Travis described because I’m trying to parse that. So I’m actually still in this place where I’m thinking that, with the Dunbar Number and what you can and cannot do and how we’re being pushed to always be more, to push our brands, whether we’re selling something or not, what this or that platform, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted and I never thought it would be like this. I mean, who could have imagined the world or digital life in this way? 
S. RODNEY 19:56  Honestly. 
S. FULLWOOD 19:57  It’s amazing, and it can be really fruitful and very soul-destroying and also evidence for a crime because people– “We’re leaving now. We’re going to the opera. Wait a minute. Something broke in our house.” Or [laughter], “You just wait there. I’m coming to kill you.” That kind of thing. 
S. RODNEY 20:14  Right. Exactly. 
S. FULLWOOD 20:15  So we’re all very wary about this and that information breach at this platform, that platform. 
C.T. WEBB 20:24  So you and I are, and Seph probably is, we probably have enough– whether we’re strictly introverted or a significant portion of who we are is introverted. I’m sure it’s on a spectrum like everything is, and people like us are the ones that tend to write apocalyptic narratives. Right? Because we’re the ones that tend to spend time alone with pens in hand or keyboards in front of us or behind cameras. But I think of– so I relate to exactly what you just said, but then I think of someone like RuPaul. Right? Is there not a way in which RuPaul is maybe not entirely liberated in the digital age? I mean, think of the number of people that he can become and try on. And I remember actually, Seph shared that article with me where RuPaul was talking about sort of the origins of so many cultural movements come out of gay culture. It just takes five years, six years for it to seep out to become part of the mainstream and– 
S. RODNEY 21:28  Voguing, runway shows, reality TV, yes [crosstalk]. 
C.T. WEBB 21:31  It’s a very long list. And– 
S. FULLWOOD 21:34  Music. 
C.T. WEBB 21:34  And RuPaul was talking in this article about actually sort of this trickster personification of being able to put on and take off a variety of identities. And so I wonder for someone that is that, at least apparently, free spirited– I mean, I don’t know RuPaul, maybe this is just a mask for an interview. I can’t say. But I wonder if someone that has that type of liberal approach to their own identity, if the proliferation of identities and brands and notions of the self isn’t actually a kind of freedom for them, that kind of marketplace isn’t actually liberating, whereas it is clearly not for me. Again, to echo, I get exhausted by it, but I wonder if, for others, that’s true. 
S. FULLWOOD 22:28  It makes me think of people who didn’t get enough attention at home [laughter]. I mean, that’s the snarky answer, right? And that’s what people have always said just like, “Oh, so this why people become stars.” 
C.T. WEBB 22:38  Thank you for undermining my entire point just then. 
S. FULLWOOD 22:41  But there’s something interesting about what you’re saying about this persona bit, because then one person doesn’t have to take the weight of all the social energy. You can dress up and be this person, and this person gets a little love, and that sounds interesting. That sounds like that could be something really remarkable if that’s what you’re getting at. 
C.T. WEBB 23:05  Yeah. I mean, again, it requires just– I mean, I’m stealing from someone else. This is not how I move through the world. So I’m conjecturing that there are people like that, particularly younger people that may not feel the same kind of pressures. I don’t know if I’m convinced by that, to be honest, though. I mean, I know that a lot of self-reporting depression is way up in the digital age and suicide is a problem, drug addiction is increasing. So I throw it out there as a maybe as opposed to something that I would argue strongly for. 
S. FULLWOOD 23:44  It’s intriguing. Yeah. 
C.T. WEBB 23:47  I know– and Seph, do you have anything you want to finish up with because we have to do a relatively short podcast today because Steven has an appointment he has to get to, and we got started a little bit late. 
S. RODNEY 23:56  Right. Just one thing which is that it’s very possible, and we’re all sort of historians, different kinds of historians, but we all are. I wonder if whether there’s a point that– I wonder whether we could say, just generally, that human beings have always had anxiety about the world ending. And that kind of– our brand of anxiety is only just our particular brand of anxiety. Yeah, the way that the world has become digitized and globalized introduces sort of new valances to the underlying anxiety of being a human being. And some people are blunted by it, and some people are made larger and can fully bloom in the digital age. 
S. RODNEY 24:53  I do think that one of the things that make it possible to manage what is likely this ever-present anxiety is precisely religious practices. And I remember having this conversation with Travis a few weeks back, something– no, it was during the podcast, and it was either during or at the end of one, where I was complaining about organized religions in general and saying, “Why is that over the course of human history, we haven’t yet figured out how to move past these rather limiting ways of imagining ourselves in the universe?” And Travis turned it around and said, “Yeah. Think about it. Throughout the course of human history, we’ve generally stuck to these kinds of ways of organizing ourselves even though we, ‘Haven’t had to think about why we’d done that.’ So there must be compelling reasons.” 
S. RODNEY 25:52  Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe managing this anxiety is one of those compelling reasons, because I grew up in a Christian home. One of the ways that Christianity works is that it foists off all the responsibility for that anxiety onto a world in which a Christian essentially does not belong. Right? I mean, every Christian is supposed to be looking, essentially, to the heavens for Jesus Christ to come back and take them to glory where they’ll live for ever and ever, happily ever after, and la la la. That’s the dream. That’s the promise. That’s the thing that makes the– that’s the thread that you pull and the whole garment comes undone, the whole human garment comes undone. That’s a hell of a way to manage the freaking anxiety. Right? 
S. FULLWOOD 26:48  You said [you’d?] have nothing to say [laughter]. [crosstalk]. 
C.T. WEBB 26:52  So we’re going to let the podcast close on Seph’s very apt description of being a Christian. So, Steven, thanks very much– 
S. FULLWOOD 27:01  Thank you very much. 
C.T. WEBB 27:02  –for your conversation. Seph, thank you very much. 
S. RODNEY 27:03  Yes, indeed. And it was really good to talk to both of you. Looking forward to next time. We’re not sure what, yet, we’re going to talk about. I may be in Wisconsin for the next week, so [I won’t?]– 
C.T. WEBB 27:14  He won’t be. We’ll record the podcast early. So we’re going to work around Seph. We want Seph to be here. We’re going to work around Seph’s schedule [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 27:19  All right. That sounds good. All right, so until next time. 
S. FULLWOOD 27:22  Until next time. Thank you. 
C.T. WEBB 27:24  Thank you. [music] 


First referenced at 06:21

A. L. Basham

Arthur Llewellyn Basham was a noted historian and Indologist and author of a number of books.

First referenced at 13:26

Jean-Francois Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist.


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