We obsess over the founding of cities and the destruction of empires. How can we come to terms with the end?
The atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Once upon a time, on the corner of Laval and Pins in Montreal’s Plateau, I told a nice little story to my then-four-year-old niece, Pari. She stared back at me when I finished and asked, “And then what happened?”
“Well, nothing happened,” I answered, her equal in innocence. “That’s the end.”
We surprised each other with our temporalities. She expected the story to continue because the world doesn’t just stop in that way. Like time, like her life thus far, the world and its stories just keep on going, uninterrupted, without intimations of death. Events succeed one another like beads on a string of “ands,” and children have little sense of what exactly makes for an ending. This is perhaps why their books require a statement like “The End,” in letters big and bold on the final page.
Aside from the ultimate brackets of birth and death, all of our other beginnings and endings are conventions, artificial breaks in the current of time. They are times within Time, a set of brackets that construct and then fulfill our desire to reset the clock, to turn Time into our kind of time, into the same kind of unfolding that is our own lives. We are born and later we die and we know we are only what’s in between. A series of colons, through which other beginnings and endings flow.
Once upon a time::::::::::::::::the end.
Perhaps we should take a moment here, a bracket out of linear time, to commemorate the little dot (“ . ”) appearing at the end of the previous sentence, as it appears at the end of most written sentences. For a sign that shoulders so much, it’s so humble, so unassuming. Nowhere is this much power, this much authority and responsibility, concentrated in such a tiny bit of matter. Nothing can halt a run-on sentence like a full stop. Really, it should have a red cape and big muscles bulging out of blue tights, as it pushes back against the runaway train of language, bringing it to a screeching halt before it falls off the cliff edge.
I met an artist once with a name out of a musical, Melanie McLain, who subverted the closed power of full stops in a whimsical work of art. McLain specializes in the meeting point of razor and page. For example, she uses a blade to cut all the words out of books, one by one, leaving behind not just holes where the words were, which is its own kind of void, but also the blank spaces of the page that had previously contoured the words. This way, you are aware of the space of the book; you see its unworded landscape. For her work on the full stop, McLain handed out razors to dozens of people and asked them to cut out a space around the final period at the end of a book. Around the little dot, people cut out swirling areas of blankness, each person with their own idea of how much clearing, how much space, they needed. And that is all she exhibited: the final dot and the space people had cut out around it. The period, always assigned the task of signaling the finitude of our language, of our sentences and meanings, was suddenly freed of its burden. Instead of marking, or even being, the end, the period became the centre around which space could expand. Blank space. The full stop transformed into the expanding universe.
But this may not be a reversal. In so far as so many of our utterances disappear into a void, we might imagine the full stop as the black hole into which they fall, the dense gravity that sucks up our sentences. In McLain’s work, the period was revealed in its essential function.
Punctuation, in fact, is one of the key conventions by which we make beginnings and endings stick. At some point in his writing life, the great poet from North Carolina, A.R. Ammons, ceased using full stops altogether. His last epic book-length poems start without a capital letter and move through their progressions page by page without a single use of the little dot we call the period, even at the very end. The convention he chooses instead is the colon: the double dot: it transforms the way everything is read, felt, said: the sentence or phrase does not end, though it does not not end either: the colon is open-ended, allowing you to move back and forth through the little opening, the eye of the needle between the two dots: the colon is a portal: and it makes sense: you need to be able to go back and forth, since every phrase modifies the one before and the one after it: rather than reflecting the easy and closed temporality of living (or rather dying) beings, the colon helps us see the apposition that is the essence of language, of meaning itself: apposition implies accretion, growth: in medical terminology, colon refers to the growth of a cell wall by the deposition of new particles: and like accretion and growth, once you get going with it, it’s hard to stop:
If writers believed that their stories could have no end, we’d have no stories at all, or at least none that would be recognizable to us. The artist and musician Pat Place created an overwhelming archive of stills from the ends of movies in which what is declared is just that: “The End,” in big, stylized letters, much like in children’s storybooks. She printed and displayed hundreds of these movie endings in one space, and what emerged from the endless repetition of the iconicized words was not a reflection on the conventions of storytelling, but on the apocalyptic concerns of our age—the sense that The End is inevitable and always looming.
Place’s repetition of “The End” transcends its own referent and spins out into metaphysical angst because we feel finite. That’s just why we need the concept of an ending. Without it, it would be impossible, too big and pointless, for anyone to start a story or a project—you’d die before you finished. Even Ammons had to stop at some point, to fit himself between the front and back covers of a Norton imprint.
Still, my niece Pari, whose name means “fairy” or “angel,” had a point: a good story is a story that does not end, because that which does not end cannot end badly. That’s Pari’s Axiom. It is also the axiom of salvation religions. Eternity is the only possible salvation because it proclaims the end of the end, time without full stops. In the eternal, tragedy is neutralized. Tragedy repeated is no tragedy. It becomes farce, as Marx knew. By the third, fourth and the billionth repetition, tragedy turns into a ritual gag.
In other words, there are different kinds of endings. The end of a project, such as a building or a novel, indicates a conclusion, a finished product. We can also talk about the end of a project not in terms of its completion, but in terms of its demise. We generally start things with the hope that they will end in the first sense, not in the second sense—they should conclude but not collapse. You don’t want to imagine the destruction of a building just as you finish it. For one thing, who would sign on? Buildings are meant to last; in some cases, even to be immortal. That’s how, six thousand years later, we know about the pharaohs.
This distinction regarding endings is entangled in a distinction about beginnings. While all projects and stories are begun in order to be concluded, temples, cities, religions and cultural groups are not begun like this at all—they are founded. To found something, you dismiss the past, scrub out the accretion of dead cells and open up the future. To be motivated enough to found something, you must be able to ignore the inevitable destruction of all things animate and inanimate. You get rid of time altogether. “Of His kingdom, there shall be no end,” says Luke. Matthew and John and all saints repeat some version of that.
There’s a parable in the Koran in which a man’s orchard and garden flourish thanks to a running stream. Giddy with this abundance at harvest time, the owner goes to his neighbour and boasts, “I am richer than you, and my clan is mightier.” Then he surveys his land and says, “Surely this will never perish! Nor do I believe that the Hour of Doom will ever come.” Soon his orchards are destroyed, whereas his pious neighbour’s thrive. God knows that true power is a claim on eternity, and He doesn’t like competition, especially from grandiose date farmers. “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the last,” says the Lord of St. John the Divine.
Rome called itself the eternal empire and the Americans have the “founding fathers,” who put down their vision of the lasting future on a paper titled the Declaration of Independence. America was “founded.” It admits of no ending. It has imagined itself outside of time, outside history. “We have it in our power to begin the world anew,” Thomas Paine wrote, sounding like a child, before moving back to the Old World.
But there’s another twist. The initial founding always proves insufficient, in the same way that the first line of cocaine proves insufficient. The exhilaration of that founding demands more of the same, so it is transformed into a relentless consumption of new beginnings. Perpetual rebirth is America’s redemptive promise and its main addiction—getting second chances, being born again, changing identities, keeping hope alive, dreaming the Dream.
To “found,” you must be able to trade in the invisible. The writer Ivan Illich reminds us that, in classical times, founders of cities were called to their task and their particular patch of earth by a dream. They’d have a dream one starry night, the dream would be interpreted and the man would set off to found a city, a lineage, an empire. Once the place was reached and a tent pitched, a seer was called upon to look into the city’s future, understand its signs and designate its orientation in a mixture of urban planning and classical-world feng shui. The seer peered into symbols and interpreted the best place for roads and houses of worship. But his most crucial task, prior to the planning, was to peer forward into time to make sure he would not detect, in the invisible markings in the sky, a cataclysmic disaster. In other words, the most important role of the seer was to not see. He was there to explicitly not see the end, to look into the future and declare that, literally, no end was in sight—to close off catastrophe (which, etymologically, means the reversal of expectations) and extend destiny cleanly. Only then could the city be founded.
Gods, empires and civilizations, like children, cannot envision endings, and with good reason. If you’re a god or an empire, at the very moment you or your followers catch a glimpse of the end, things begin to fall toward it. If you intimate an ending, it’s already too late for certain things. How could a builder envision the end of their own project, see its destruction writ large in the history of the future, and continue to believe in it? On some level, this applies to all work. Go out and toil, citizen, for tomorrow it will all be rubble. Work into the night, stockbroker, for tomorrow all your big numbers will be worth nothing. If you feel as if it’s all collapsing around you, you either give up or you emigrate to somewhere with a future—that is, somewhere that has no end in sight. Even the apocalyptic types, those who twitch with anticipation of their messiah, envision the end of time only in order to inaugurate the arrival of eternity, the founding of the eternal kingdom. They want the end of all ends.
Ammons saw it as clear as the Carolina sky of his childhood: “not a single temple has been raised to the fact that what is raised falls.” Yet history’s only real lesson is that civilizations crumble. The wannabe empire that engaged this lesson concretely was Nazi Germany. Based on a mixture of romanticism, imperial hubris and practical engineering concerns, Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite young architect, popularized a theory of Ruin Value. If, as the Nazis hoped, the Third Reich were to last a thousand years, buildings erected in the 1930s would inevitably decay by then. That was just being realistic. Speer’s innovation was to suggest that buildings must be constructed with their ruins in mind, with materials, patterns and structures that, in ruins, would end up looking equally impressive and edifying. This is not surprising, of course, since Nazism was always a self-consciously aesthetic project.
The English Romantics helped start the trend of glorifying ruins, building all sorts of public spaces around broken columns and chipped statues, much of which was in fact newly sculpted. But Speer’s project took this beyond the romantic innocence of valuing the present through the past. “By using special materials,” Speer writes, “we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.”
To speak of a period of decay seemed, as Speer says in his memoirs, blasphemous to Hitler’s acolytes. Yet Hitler himself, so enthralled by Babylon, Egypt and Rome, immediately cottoned to the idea. Speer prepared a drawing of the Zeppelin Field as it might look hundreds of years hence, cracked and overgrown with ivy, but handsome in the way of ruins. Since they did not withstand decay well, steel girders, iron reinforcements and concrete were to be avoided. Ruin Value runs contrary to almost every culture’s impulse, which is to erase this fact, this vision of the ruined future—to delete all knowledge of its own inevitable end, censor visions of its crumbling temples, turn its Ground Zeros into verdant parks and vibrant business offices. In the end, no true Ruin Value buildings got built, and the real ruins left in the wake of Nazism looked far different than Speer’s drawings.
Before it comes, the end first gains an image. It is made visible. And when it is given that image, the door begins to creak shut on the future.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the dominant image of the end was the mushroom cloud. (For those living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was, of course, more than an image.) The bomb also gave us the first concrete visualization of a global, human end. Up to that point, all images of the end of time had been figurative—the four horsemen, Bosch and his surreal debauchery of hybrid creatures, even paradisiacal images with their rivers and nymphs all contained people more or less like us. Events that took place after the end of time, outside of history, were imaginable, but only imaginable and not visible. The mushroom cloud—what an innocent name we gave it—was visible and non-figurative. It worked as an image of a reality, but it was also a total abstraction. Nothing would come after it, and yet it was not outside of time. Time would keep on going without us, without anyone there to feel it ticking. The end, finally, had a real, non-allegorical face. The bomb was the first true image of nothingness.
Besides cargo cults, no one has obsessed about the end times more than Americans after the bomb. The anthropologist Joseph Masco documents the intensive testing and civil-defence programs that turned the US into the most-nuked country in the world and created a citizenship disciplined around the bomb, ready to respond to its threats and fears, and willing to use it when necessary. In effect, the civil-defence program trained every citizen to prepare for life as a victim of nuclear holocaust:
From 1953 to 1961, the yearly centerpiece of the civil-defense program was a simulated nuclear attack on the United States directed by federal authorities. Cities were designated as victims of nuclear warfare, allowing civic leaders and politicians to lead theatrical evacuations of the city for television cameras. In 1955, for example, the ‘Operation Alert’ scenario involved 60 cities hit by a variety of atomic and hydrogen bombs, producing over 8 million instant deaths and another 8 million radiation victims over the coming weeks. It imagined 25 million homeless and fallout covering some 63,000 square miles of the United States. Each year Americans acted out their own incineration in this manner.
After the bomb, it was no longer a millenarian exoticism to imagine, even live, the end of the world, to contemplate “one’s own home and city devastated, on ﬁre, and in ruins; it was a formidable public ritual—a core act of governance, technoscientiﬁc practice, and democratic participation.”
The ubiquity of fall-out shelters, day-after scenarios and survivalist movements in the seventies and eighties were all reactions to that end-time vision. The historians seem to agree: Millennialism may have had a strong past in the US, but after the bomb, apocalyptic Christianity got a major boost. End-time types seized the opportunity. They used the mushroom cloud in their leaflets. Nuclear Armageddon was the sign of the end, the harbinger of the Lord’s reign of justice. Hal Lindsey’s Countdown to Armageddon stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks. The mushroom cloud not only made the Christian right popular, it made it political. That one image was crucial to this success because it said, “The end is nigh, for it hath been glimpsed with a camera.” America emerged as a gigantic cargo cult in perpetual rehearsal behind the curtain of a mushroom cloud.
For most of the West today, and especially for Americans, September 11, 2001, has become the twenty-first century’s image of the end, returned to every year since. The first anniversary, before the Iraq War, saw ninety hours of national network broadcast in the US. Minutes of silence, hours of grief. The nation mourned and grieved publicly and collectively, through the usual channels of the media. They lined up a host of experts, people who specialize in our psyches and measure our behaviours, to tell us what we already knew. From the New York Times to the New York Post, from Harper’s to USA Today, we were told that Americans are now forced to deal with the unpleasant fact of mortality. But the rude intrusion of death isn’t the only reason that Americans obsessively watch hours upon hours of footage of the collapsing towers.
What they stare at when they look at the footage is exactly what the bombers wanted them to stare at: not the individual end of one person or 2,977 people, but of the empire itself. Those who carried out the attacks were technically expert, but more than anything they were expert symbolic thinkers. Paradoxically, while claiming literalism, fundamentalists have always thought symbolically. For more than a decade they had obsessed over the Twin Towers, which for an entire generation seemed like the most concrete, indestructible symbol of American power. Not just one tower piercing the sky but two—as American as XXL.
The towers symbolized the mightiest country in the world. “Into this neutral air,” wrote Auden from New York, on September 1, 1939, “Where blind skyscrapers use/ Their full height to proclaim/ The strength of Collective Man…” But it was the strength of the American Man proclaimed in those blind towers, America as the sole economic, military and cultural power. Everybody else was playing catch-up. Civilizational leaders see themselves as the spearhead in the trajectory of the human species, the very tip in the wedge of time we call history. Being right there at the front of the current, one feels a sense of historical inevitability. The American name for these sentiments is Manifest Destiny, but every empire from the Egyptians to the Chinese to the British has had it and depended on it. It’s what got the pyramids built. And Persepolis, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Taj Mahal and New York City, too.
Seeing what took place—the towers burning, breaking, people dropping down like insects—was akin to watching eternity crumble. How can something immovable and inevitable go up in a few columns of smoke? Until 9/10, this was meant to last. In other words, what rankled under all that, like waves surfacing from an underwater detonation, was the realization that, at some point in the big picture, America—and all its beginnings—will come to an end. Worse, after it’s gone, time and the future will keep on going. At that moment, America’s self-image as a nation outside history, able to enter it and step out at will, was shattered in the mirror of destiny. Glued to the television, the smoke billowing, the dust blowing and the cathedral-like ruins of the towers jutting out of the earth, we were all staring at a sort of Rome, the archeological debris of a historical future.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, time started to tick over America’s head. All policy, all governance is now conducted through that ticking. The tradition of the American Dream demanded forgetting as its main condition, as the condition of starting over, of the brazen imperative to leave behind the past with its tyrannical determination of destiny. This has been reversed. The whole enterprise of 9/11 memorialization, as well as the politics of terror, have issued from bumper-sticker remembrance: “We will not forget.”
The duality of this new position is captured in Ground Zero itself. On the one hand, it contains a recently opened memorial built around the gaping hole left by the collapse of the towers; that is, it is built around a ruin, though it’s not called that. On the other hand, that hole in the ground will also be surrounded by the tallest new towers on the island, which reach once again for the skies.
After a hiatus in the late eighties and nineties, end-time scenarios are on the rise again. Images of Armageddon are proliferating. The New Ageism of the 2012 Mayan apocalypse should not occlude the fact that it has become popular in the company of other end-time scenarios: financial collapse, asteroid collisions, Shiite messiahs, Christian rapture, tsunamis and nuclear meltdown, peak oil, global warming, oil spills, radiation cycles, the death of the sun, the heat death of the universe, the cold death of the universe.
By contrast, there is no clean image of the future. True, there are all sorts of futures out there—the future of the markets with their shorts and puts, the near-future of the road crew trying to get the highway done on schedule, the hanging-sword future of mortgage payments, the rhythmical future of the paycheck, the next appointment of all those with iPhones, the deadline of the writer—but none of them feels any more or less significant than the future of the hipster on his cell phone, saying, “Yeah, I’m right around the corner, I’ll be there in less than a second. Here I am. I’m waving, I’m waving. Can you see me?”
The future only exists in cultural expectations, and the expectations of the twentieth century were eternal progress and truth and equality. That future did not arrive as expected. So instead of a promise, the future is now a threat. This is the dilemma today: Can we open up a future beyond ruin? Can we imagine the long term, or are we stuck with the hedge-fund genius and his “short,” the neoliberals and their gutting of stable structures, stuck with the tweet and the next fashion cycle and the next app and the next set of little beginnings to punctuate our way into oblivion? Were the seers to throw their runes now, they would see nothing that calls for a founding.
Occupy and the Quebec student strike and other current protest movements have been faulted for not having a grand vision of the future. That is not their problem; it’s their lesson. There is no such future to be envisioned right now. But why focus on doomsday when we still have the meantime? The meantime is in-between time, the time of waiting, adjustments, uncertainty, action without a clear, universal end goal. Not quite the present nor yet the future, it’s the time before another future emerges. Or better yet, the meantime may be its own time, demanding its own ways of being, resisting big promises, finding a way out of the zero-sum imperatives of growth, productivity and expansion that have shown us the future as ruination. The meantime is the experimental time embraced by those protest movements, and the appropriate punctuation for it is not the definitive . nor the loving : but the active ...