End Games

Some time late on the 21st of December last year [2012], Terrestrial Omega Event 2012 streaked past relatively quietly, on a trajectory from the dread realm of ominous premonitions into the cobwebbed vault of defunct absurdities. (The fact that its glancing blow reduced Urban Future to a tangled wreck of smoking weakly radioactive debris need be of no concern to anybody except our five regular readers.) Another non-event was thus added to the long chain of ontological omissions that compose the Apocalyptic Tradition. Things continue, on their existing tracks, as common sense had confidently predicted.

For a world saturated in modernist irony, where even the most passionate beliefs are modulated by forms of mass-media entertainment, no ‘Great Disappointment’ is any longer possible, such as that afflicting the Millerites of the mid-1840s. A 2012 Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 10% of the world population (and no less than 20% of Chinese) had ‘sincerely’ expected the End to arrive on December 21st. When it didn’t, so what? There’s always something else on — or rather, the same thing, in different flavors.

Channel hopping is especially easy because it isn’t even necessary to switch genre. The collapse of the Occidental World Order is like Henry Ford’s Model T: “You can have it in any color you like, as long as it’s black.” What you can’t do is get it over with. It’s too big to fail, even after it has manifestly failed.

The December non-event was not the End, or even the end of the End, but rather the end of the end of the End. Dated Doomsday has been de-activated, leaving an indefinitely dilated Ending without conclusion. Now that the prospect of a finish has finished, finishing becomes interminable. Dates march onwards, without destination, into ever extended horizons of collapse. Apocalypse, stripped of Armageddon, is normalized. It can now demand undistracted recognition as ‘the system’, the way of the world, feeding upon the spectacle of permanent crisis through the Media-Apocalypse Complex. As (Fukuyama-final) Liberal Democratic politics adjusts to a chronic state of emergency, it is finally possible to ‘get things done’, in a time when nothing can be done. Disinhibited insanity delights in its ultimate mania.

Because it’s insanity, it can’t really last, but Apocalypse has outlasted Doomsday, and reality has lost its last signs. For purposes of polite conversation, therefore, it is best to grant the Keynesians / Postmodernists absolute triumph, and to concur that the consequences of irrealism can be indefinitely postponed. When in Bedlam, do as the bedlamites do. Anything else would be pointless irascibility, out of keeping with the spirit of the age. After all (except itself) Apocalypse Forever is the final Western religion.

Progressive Apocalypse, Apocalypse Forever, assumes the death of Doomsday, which provides the occasion for an obituary. For reactionaries of the ‘Throne and Altar’ variety, mourning will incline towards eschatology, as the moment of definitive judgment is interred. Here in the eschaton-blitzed wreckage of Urban Future, however, our remembrance is more concisely arithmetical. We recall dates gone forever, and with them the time inversions that are expressed through countdowns, intensive escalations, and compressions. When the end had a date, time could zero upon it, rather than dissipating into endlessly-extended fogbanks of blighted futurity.

December 21st, 2012, was the last Doomsday date, and thus the day Doomsday died. It might even have been the most popular, but it was very far from the greatest. Extracted predominantly from the calendar of the Mayans, it neatly concluded the 13th Baktun, but in doing so broke quite arbitrarily from the (already awkward and compromised) numerical organization of the dating system, with its preference for modulus-20 unit hierarchies. Whatever the attractions of exoticism, turning to pop Mayanology for a planetary Apocalypse schedule was also radically arbitrary, given the Abrahamic Hegemony that had structured the world order over the previous half millennium. Still, the Maya had conducted their own preliminary experiment in collapse, enabling Mel Gibson to excavate a striking movie from the ruins, introduced by a quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

When estimated in terms of numerical elegance and metaphysical profundity, the truly great Doomsday was Y2K, the most beautiful weapon in history (despite its failure to detonate). Y2K was automatic and techno-compatible (actually, techno-dependent), chronometrically precise, perfectly counter-Abrahamic, and calendrically creative (re-setting AD 1900 to Year 00). It was staged from the absence of an integrated, malevolent subject, out of simple arithmetic, targeting an exactly scheduled, consummate fulfillment of millennial expectation through sheer coincidence. The world order was to have been softly terminated, by ‘chance’. Nothing that has ever actually happened in history made as much sense as this (which didn’t). The more closely it is examined, the more exquisite it appears. Among other missed Doomsdays, none comes close. But as Y2K said, insidiously: Never Mind.

Even the shoddiest of the Old Doomsdays satisfied intellectual appetites that will now hunger forever. First of all, and most basically, they catered to the transcendental impulse, understood as a search for ultimate or enveloping structures and principles of organization. As a metaphysical event, conclusive Apocalypse promises an escape from distracting detail and an apprehension of the frame. Biblical bases for such apprehension are found in Isaiah 34:4 — “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll.” This image is repeated in Revelation 6:14 — “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together.” Apocalyptic time does not add a new sentence, or even a new chapter, to the chronicle of events. It uncovers the limit of the scroll, by exceeding it. For that, however, it has to complete itself.

Secondly, a punctual Apocalypse fulfills a semiotic (and in particular numerical) realism, as expressed — most lucidly — in occultism and schizophrenia. The apocalyptic exposes a primal encryption of culture, coding the operations of super-human intelligence (God or gods, transcended masters, aliens, time-travelers, spontaneous social order, or bacteria … any will do). A true calendar is revealed, in which semiotic exhaustion, or roll-over, precisely coincides with the end of a real epoch. Hyper-traditionalism thus exoticizes itself in the formulation: travel inwards far enough and you arrive at the outside. It thus provides the most radical challenge to the fundamental mantra of the contemporary human sciences – the (Saussurean) arbitrary nature of the sign.

An additional and essentially modern contribution to the apocalyptic is made by the arithmetic of the intrinsically unsustainable, as defined by Thomas Malthus (1768-1834) in his An Essay on the Principle of Population. The empirical foundations for an inevitable crisis are found in trends to exponential growth and their projected collision with a limit. Variants of such apocalyptic projection are found in Marxism, environmentalism, and Technological Singularity (Karl Marx, M. King Hubbert, and Ray Kurzweil).

Even from this brief survey, it becomes possible to outline certain core features of a model apocalypse: comprehensive, punctual, and climactic. In other words, a transition that cannot be contained by the pre-existing nature of time, occurring at an exact, cryptically anticipated moment, bringing the central historical process to its culmination. All of that is gathered together in Doomsday, and Doomsday is dead.
Note: Thanks to Mathieu Borysevicz and Sophie Huang of the MAB Society, whose December 10th, 2012, Minsheng Museum event, Just What is it about the end of the world that makes it so appealing? provided the opportunity to discuss the schematics of apocalypse.


Calendric Dominion

How hegemony still counts

Modernity and hegemony are Urban Future obsessions, which might (at least in part) excuse a link to this article in Britain’s Daily Mail, on the topic of Christianity, the calendar, and political correctness. It addresses itself to the international dominion of the Gregorian, Western Christian calendar, and the sensitivities of those who, whilst perhaps reconciled to the inevitability of counting in Jesus-years, remain determined to dis-evangelize the accompanying acronymics. More particularly, it focuses upon the BBC, and its attempt to sensitize on other people’s behalf (pass the popcorn).

The BBC’s religious and ethics department says the changes are necessary to avoid offending non-Christians.

It states: ‘As the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians.

In line with modern practice, BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era) are used as a religiously neutral alternative to BC/AD.’

But the move has angered Christians …

Cue Ann Widdecombe, the Catholic former Tory Minister, who said: ‘I think what the BBC is doing is offensive to Christians. They are discarding terms that have been around for centuries and are well understood by everyone.

‘What are they going to do next? Get rid of the entire calendar on the basis that it has its roots in Christianity?’

It’s an interesting question, and the attempt to hold it open, as provocatively as possible, might be the best reason to avoid glib, politically correct remedies to the ‘problem’, however that is understood. Anno Domini reminds us of dominion, which is a far better guideline into historical reality than kumbaya gestures towards a ‘Common Era’, as if hegemony had no content beyond togetherness. Since dominion has not been achieved primarily by impoliteness or insensitivity, politically correct multiculturalism is an irrelevant (and dishonest) response to it.

Regardless of whether Jesus is your Lord, or not, the Christian calendar dominates, or at least predominates, and the traditional acronymic accurately registers that fact. AD bitchez, as the commentators of Zerohedge might say.

It is an intriguing and ineluctable paradox of globalized modernity that its approximation to universality remains fundamentally structured by ethno-geographical peculiarities of a distinctly pre-modern type. The world was not integrated by togetherness, but by a succession of particular powers, with their characteristic traits, legacies, and parochialisms. For better or for worse, these peculiar features have been deeply installed in the governing order of the world. Their signs should be meticulously conserved and studied rather than clumsily effaced, because they are critical clues to the real nature of fate.

Without exception, calendars are treasure troves of intricately-sedimented ethno-historical information. They attempt to solve an ultimately insoluble problem, by arithmetically rationalizing irrational astronomical quantities, most obviously the incommensurable cycles of the terrestrial orbit (solar year), lunar orbit (month), and terrestrial rotation (day). No coherent arithmetical construct can ever reconcile these periods, and even a repulsively inelegant calendar can only do so to a tolerable margin or error. The consequent ramshackle compromise, typically deformed by a torturous series of adjustments, reshufflings, and intercalations, tells an elaborate story of fixed and variable cultural priorities, regime changes, legacy constraints, alien influences, conceptual capabilities, and observational refinements, further complicated by processes of drift, adoption, and innovation that ripple through numerical and linguistic signs.

The hegemonic (Gregorian) calendar, for instance, is a jagged time-crash of incommensurable periods, in which multiple varieties of disunity jostle together. Weeks don’t fit into solar and lunar months, or years, but cut through them quasi-randomly, so that days and dates slide drunkenly across each other. The length of the week is biblical, but the names of the days combine ancient astrology (Saturday-Monday) with the gods of Norse mythology (Tuesday-Friday). Although the Nordic-linguistic aspect of the week has not been strongly globalized, its Judaeo-numerical aspect has. The months are a ghastly mess, awkwardly mismatched with each other, with the lunar cycle, and with the succession of weeks, and testifying to the confused, erratic astro-politics of the Roman Empire in their linguistic mixture of deities (January, March, April?, May, June), festivals (February), emperors (July, August), and numbers (September-December). There is no need to excavate into this luxuriant dung-hill here, except to note that the ‘Christianity’ of the Western calendar rests upon chaos-rotted pagan and poly-numeric foundations.

What matters to the AD-BC (vs CE-BCE) debate is not the multitudinously-muttering inner disorder of the Western calendar, but its estimation of the years, or ‘era’. In this regard, it has clear competitors, and thus arouses definite resentments, since its closest cousins assert eras of their own. The era of the Hebrew calendar dates back to the tohu (chaos) of the year before creation, and records the years of the world (Latinized as Anno Mundi), to the present 5772 AM. The Islamic calendar, which begins from the Hejira of Mohammed, from Mecca to Medina, reached 1432 AH in AD 2011.

The Christian calendar, first systematized in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Runt), counts the first Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi as the birth year of Jesus Ben Joseph, a false messiah to the Jews, the Christ and Redeemer for the Christians, a prophet to the Moslems, the Nazarene oppressor to Satanists, and something else, or nothing much, to everybody else. Regardless of the accuracy of its chronology or tacit theology, however, this is the year count that has been globally inherited from the real process of modernity, and recognized as a world standard by the United Nations, among other international organizations.

Compared to the Abrahamic calendars, those of Asia’s demographic giants generally lacked tight doctrinal and didactic focus. India can usually be relied upon to inundate any topic whatsoever in delirious multiplicity, and the calendar is no exception. Bengali, Malayalam, and Tamil calendars are all widely used in their respective regions, the Indian National Calendar counts from AD 78 = 0, which, in ominous keeping with current events, places us in 1933, and the most widely accepted Hindu religious calendar total the years since the birth of Krishna, reaching 5112 in AD 2011.

The fabulous complexity of China’s traditional calendar makes it a paradise for nerds. Most commonly, it counts the years of each imperial reign, and is thus integrated by a literary narrative of dynastic history, rather than an arithmetical continuum. (The obstacle this presented to modernistic universalization is brutally obvious.) Alternatively, however, it groups historical time into sixty-year cycles, beginning from 2637 BC (which places us in the 28th year of cycle-78). Most Chinese today seem to have an extremely tenuous connection to this dimension of their calendrical heritage, which scarcely survives outside academic departments of ancient history, and in Daoist temples. Whilst the internal structure of the traditional year survives undamaged, as attested by the annual cycle of festivities, Chinese surrender to the Gregorian year count seems absolute.

Christian conservatives are surely right to argue that it is the year count – the number and the era – that matters. The acronyms are merely explanatory, and even essentially tautological. Once it has been decided that history is measured from and divided by the birth of Jesus, it is far too late to quibble over the attribution of dominance. AD bitchez. That argument is over.
(Coming next, in Part 2 – Counter-calendars)