There Is No Threat

Aaron Schuster

Three snapshots from the end of the world:

 

(1) It would seem that the new chic destination for centimillionaires and billionaires seeking refuge from the coming apocalypse is New Zealand. This haute survivalism is exemplified by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who, it was reported in February 2018, added a panic room to his lavish retreat there. But he is not the only one interested in the country as a failsafe paradise: “In the first seven days after Donald Trump’s election, 13,401 Americans registered with New Zealand’s immigration authorities, the first official step toward seeking residency—more than seventeen times the usual rate. The New Zealand Herald reported the surge beneath the headline ‘Trump Apocalypse.’”[1] Apart from the desire for self-preservation, there is perhaps something else that appeals to luxury survivalists: to have the perfect vantage point from which to survey the collapse of civilization. Like the hyper-privileged interstellar time travelers at Milliways, the “Restaurant at the End of The Universe,” who come to toast the Big Bang in reverse, we might imagine our rich survivalists sipping Chardonnay while watching the world burn. The catastrophic vision Douglas Adams offered in his book is surely one of the funniest and most outrageous ever conceived: stellar extinction as the ultimate consumer spectacle. As the host at Milliways tells the restaurant-goers: “So, ladies and gentlemen… the candles are lit, the band plays softly, and as the force-shielded dome above us fades into transparency, revealing a dark and sullen sky hung heavy with the ancient light of livid swollen stars, I can see we’re all in for a fabulous evening’s apocalypse!”[2] The commodity to beat all commodities is to have a ticket to witness the end of things. For all their worry about the apocalypse, survivalists don’t believe in the end of the world, precisely because they think that they will be somehow excluded from it. For them, the apocalypse will be televised.

 

(2) On January 13, 2018, at 8:10 am, an emergency broadcast alert was sent to hundreds of thousands of cell phones across Hawaii: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” It took nearly forty minutes for officials to correct the error; the process was evidently slowed down by the governor’s having forgotten his Twitter password. At first, the false nuclear alarm was blamed on an ill-designed user interface, with a drop-down menu placing “Missile Alert” and “Test Missile Alert” precariously next to each other; later, it was blamed on a twitchy employee with a history of mistaking drills for reality. Despite the calls for a review of emergency procedures and improved public communication, one has the impression that the entire episode took place in order to stage an aesthetic event: the real meaning of the false alarm was to produce the image of a freeway sign amidst luscious palms and gleaming sunlight proclaiming, like a conceptual signage piece from the 1990s, “There is no threat.” At moments like this, reality becomes an icon of itself, the world appears as a readymade artwork. What better image could there be of “trouble in paradise”? Another instance of the world appearing as art, also linked to North Korea, was provided by the CCTV photo of Duan Thi Huong, one of the killers of Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam. Caught on camera after splashing her target with a nerve toxin, she is seen in a carefree pose, her white long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with the letters “LOL”—a truly original portrait of a political assassin. Huong claimed that she thought she was involved in a reality TV prank, that the whole thing was a harmless stunt meant for the screen. She was the dupe of a murderous North Korean plot; the laughs were on her.

 

(3) Aired on June 25, 2017, the eighth episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s new season of Twin Peaks, titled “Gotta Light?,” presents a stunning nuclear phantasmagoria, pushing television into the realm of video art. Starting with the explosion of the first atomic bomb at White Sands, New Mexico, it ventures through the epochal blast—a kind of original sin of modernity—to the outlying reaches of the show’s cosmology of good and evil, including the origins of Bob and Laura. One of the key characters in the episode is the Woodsman; the episode ends with him brutally murdering everyone at a local radio station and then repeatedly reciting over the airwaves a demonic verse: “This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes, and dark within.” This eerie refrain—reminiscent of the last lines of “The Man Comes Around,” Johnny Cash’s ballad about Judgment Day: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts / And I looked, and behold a pale horse / And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him”—is like an emergency broadcast message from hell. Except that instead of alerting the populace to danger, it entrances its listeners and lulls them into a state of complacency and unconsciousness. Rather than making people wake up, this ghostly “atomic” alert puts them to sleep. Is this not the ideological imperative of the security state, that we should “drink full and descend” into slumber?

 

One of the striking things today is this return of the nuclear menace. The office of FBI director Gordon Cole, played by Lynch himself, contains two framed pictures: one of Franz Kafka, the other of a mushroom cloud. The apocalypse can take many forms: in the last decades, it is fear of an out-of-control AI or an errant asteroid or, above all, climate change that have captured the popular imagination. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear threat receded and was largely forgotten. Now that it has returned in the guise of the North Korean bomb and a militarily resurgent Russia, its historical reappearance takes the form of a farcical repetition, with the Twitter battle between Trump and Jong-un (Dotard versus Rocket Man), or the Russian online contest to name its sci-fi nuclear-powered nuclear missile (Balalaika being a popular proposal). Like Duan Thi Huong’s shirt was telling us: the first time as tragedy, the second time as lulz.

 

  1. [1] Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” The New Yorker, 30 January 2017. Available at <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich>.
  2. [2] Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 114.

This piece is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet will produce articles surrounding our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop based on reinterpreting and reimagining man's essential needs.

Aaron Schuster is a philosopher and writer based in Amsterdam. His first book, The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis, was published by MIT Press in 2016. He is currently writing a book on Kafka’s philosopher dog, and another on the philosophy of tickling.


Photo courtesy of @sighpoutshrug on Instagram