From Crimson Paradise to Soft Apocalypse
Despite its modernity and decimalism, the French calendrier républicain or révolutionnaire had no Year Zero, but it re-set the terms of understanding. A topic that had been conceived as an intersection of religious commemoration with astronomical fact became overtly ideological, and dominated by considerations of secular politics. The new calendar, which replaced AD 1792 with the first year of the new ‘Era of Liberty’, lasted for less than 14 years. It was formally abolished by Napoléon, effective from 1 January 1806 (the day after 10 Nivôse an XIV), although it was briefly revived during the Paris Commune (in AD 1871, or Année 79 de la République), when the country’s revolutionary enthusiasm was momentarily re-ignited.
For the left, the calendric re-set meant radical re-foundation, and symbolic extirpation of the Ancien Régime. For the right, it meant immanentization of the eschaton, and the origination of totalitarian terror. Both definitions were confirmed in 1975, when Year Zero was finally reached in the killing fields of the Kampuchean Khmer Rouge, where over quarter of the country’s population perished during efforts to blank-out the social slate and start over. Khmer Rouge leader Saloth Sar (better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot) had made ‘Year Zero’ his own forever, re-branded as a South-east Asian final solution.
Year Zero was henceforth far too corpse-flavored to retain propaganda value, but that does not render the calendric equation 1975 = 0 insignificant (rather the opposite). Irrespective of its parochialism in time and space, corresponding quite strictly to a re-incarnation of (xenophobic-suicidal) ‘national socialism’, it defines a meaningful epoch, as the high-water mark of utopian overreach, and the complementary re-valorization of conservative pragmatism. Appropriately enough, Year Zero describes an instant without duration, in which the age of utopian time is terminated in exact coincidence with its inauguration. The era it opens is characterized, almost perfectly, by its renunciation, as fantasy social programming extinguishes itself in blood and collapse. The immanent eschaton immediately damns itself.
Historical irony makes this excursion purely (sub-) academic, because the new era is essentially disinclined to conceive itself as such. What begins from this Year Zero is a global culture of ideological exhaustion, or of ‘common sense’, acutely sensitive to the grinning death’s head hidden in beautiful dreams, and reconciled to compromise with the non-ideal. From the perspective of fantastic revolutionary expectation, the high-tide of perfectionist vision ebbs into disillusionment and tolerable dissatisfaction – but at least it doesn’t eat our children. The new era’s structural modesty of ambition has no time for a radical re-beginning or crimson paradise, even when it is historically defined by one.
Pol Pot’s Year Zero is sandwiched between the publication of Eric Voegelin’s The Ecumenic Age (1974), and the first spontaneous Chinese mass protests against the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (over the months following the death of Zhou Enlai, in January 1976). It is noteworthy in this regard that Deng Xiaoping eulogized Zhou at his memorial ceremony for being “modest and prudent” (thus the New Aeon speaks).
In the Anglo-American world, the politics of ideological exhaustion were about to take an explicitly conservative form, positively expressed as ‘market realism’ (and in this sense deeply resonant with, as well as synchronized to, Chinese developments). Margaret Thatcher assumed leadership of the British Conservative Party in February 1975, and Ronald Reagan declared his presidential candidacy in November of the same year. The English-speaking left would soon be traumatized by a paradoxical ‘conservative revolution’ that extracted relentless energy from the very constriction of political possibility. What could not happen quickly became the primary social dynamo, as articulated by the Thatcherite maxim: “There is no alternative” (= option zero). The auto-immolation of utopia had transmuted into a new beginning.
Whilst the era of not restarting from zero can be dated to approximate accuracy (from AD n – 1975), and had thus in fact restarted from zero, in profoundly surreptitious fashion, its broad consequence was to spread and entrench (Gregorian) Calendric Dominion ever more widely and deeply. The prevailing combination of radically innovative globalization (both economic and technological) with prudential social conservatism made such an outcome inevitable. Symbolic re-commencement wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and even as the postmodernists declared the end of ‘grand narratives’, the first planetary-hegemonic narrative structure in history was consolidating its position of uncontested monopoly. Globalization was the story of the world, with Gregorian dating as its grammar.
Orphaned by ideological exhaustion, stigmatized beyond recovery by its association with the Khmer Rouge, and radically maladapted to the reigning spirit of incremental pragmatism, by the late 20th century Year Zero was seemingly off the agenda, unscheduled, and on its own. Time, then, for something truly insidious.
On January 18, 1985, Usenet poster Spencer L. Bolles called attention to a disturbing prospect that had driven a friend into insomnia:
I have a friend that raised an interesting question that I immediately tried to prove wrong. He is a programmer and has this notion that when we reach the year 2000, computers will not accept the new date. Will the computers assume that it is 1900, or will it even cause a problem? I violently opposed this because it seemed so meaningless. Computers have entered into existence during this century, and has software, specifically accounting software, been prepared for this turnover? If this really comes to pass and my friend is correct, what will happen? Is it anything to be concerned about?
Bolles’ anonymous friend was losing sleep over what would come to be known as the ‘Y2K problem’. In order to economize on memory in primitive early-generation computers, a widely-adopted convention recorded dates by two digits. The millennium and century were ignored, since it was assumed that software upgrades would have made the problem moot by the time it became imminent, close to the ‘rollover’ (of century and millennium) in the year AD 2000. Few had anticipated that the comparative conservatism of software legacies (relative to hardware development) would leave the problem entirely unaddressed even as the crisis date approached.
In the end, Y2K was a non-event that counted for nothing, although its preparation costs, stimulus effects (especially on outsourcing to the emerging Indian software industry), and panic potential were all considerable. Its importance to the history of the calendar – whilst still almost entirely virtual – is extremely far-reaching.
Y2K resulted from the accidental — or ‘spontaneous’ — emergence of a new calendrical order within the globalized technosphere. Its Year Zero, 0K (= 1900), was devoid of all parochial commemoration or ideological intention, even as it was propagated through increasingly computerized communication channels to a point of ubiquity that converged, asymptotically, with that attained by Western Calendric Dominion over the complete sweep of world history. The 20th century had been recoded, automatically, as the 1st century of the Cybernetic Continuum. If Y2K had completed its reformatting of the planetary sphere-drive in the way some (few deluded hysterics) had expected, the world would now be approaching the end of the year 0K+111, settled securely in its first arithmetically-competent universal calendar, and historically oriented by the same system of electronic computation that had unconsciously decided upon the origin of positive time. Instead, the ‘millennium bug’ was fixed, and theological date-counting prolonged its dominance, uninterrupted (after much ado about nothing). Most probably, the hegemonic cultural complex encrusted in Calendric Dominion never even noticed the cybernetic insurrection it had crushed.
Between 0K and Y2K, the alpha and omega of soft apocalypse, there is not only a century of historical time, but also an inversion of attitude. Time departs 0K, as from any point of origin, accumulating elapsed duration through its count. Y2K, in contrast, was a destination, which time approached, as if to an apocalyptic horizon. Whilst not registered as a countdown, it might easily have been. The terminus was precisely determined (no less than the origin), and the strictest formulation of the millennium bug construed the rollover point as an absolute limit to recordable time, beyond which no future was even imaginable. For any hypothetical Y2K-constrained computer intelligence, denied access to dating procedures that over-spilled its two-digit year registry, residual time shrank towards zero as the millennium event loomed. Once all the nines are reached, time is finished, at the threshold of eternity, where beginning and end are indistinguishable (in 0).
“0K, it’s time to wrap this puppy up.” – Revelation 6:14
(next, and last, the end (at last))