Monday, January 30, 2012

Apocalypse Now

 Maureen McHugh's 2011 collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse, is a devastating window onto the conditions of bare life--the reduction of self to homo sacer, humans evacuated of any rights until only their bare corporeality remains to be regulated by the State (Agamben 1998).   Each of the stories takes up the question of the apocalyptic, but not from the Hollywood perspective--there are no bombs, tsunami, alien invasions.  Instead, McHugh explores everyday life in the wake of disaster.  And, little by little, we're led from this novum to the realization that we are, in fact, living after the apocalypse: in the wake of successive catastrophes of capitalism, greed and environmental degradation.

This is certainly the case with the second story in the collection, "Special Economics".  In a post-bird flu pandemic China, workers are in short supply, and Jieling makes her way from the provinces to Shenzhen to find her fortune in a factory.  The foreign bio-tech factory where she eventually finds work, though, isn't just interested in exploiting microorganisms--it also wants to exercise total control over workers.

Jieling said, "I though the government was supposed to help workers.  If we get caught, we'll be fined, and we'll be deeper in debt."  [ . . .]

 "Debt?" Mr. Wei said.
"To the company," she said.  "We are all in debt.  The company hires us and says they are going to pay us, but then they charge us for our food and out cloths and our dorm, and it always costs more than we earn." (58)

References to bird flu pandemics aside, there is little here that isn't simply based in today's news.  Recent scandals involving workers in factories contracting with Apple have underscored the exploitation and coercion of capitalism in the age of globalization.
What's makes McHugh's work a fine piece of anthropological science fiction is this attitude towards apocalypse.  "After the Apocalypse" is not about endings, nor even closure.  Instead, it directs us back in time to the apocalypses we're living right now.  That is, the apocalyptic thinking McHugh develops here is a way of interpreting the present and reflecting on the powerful inequalities, structural violence and exploitation in such a way as to unearth the apocalypse of bare life today.  Here, apocalypse is not so much an event as a temporality that moves according to its own progressive calculus of exploitation.

In the final story in the collection, "After the Apocalypse," Jane and her daughter Franny are refugees in an economically broken United States, gradually losing pieces of their middle-class life as they trudge towards Canada.  But, as McHugh reminds us, "Things didn't exactly all go at once" (171).  The "apocalypse" here is a gradual process of loss and displacement that (formally) starts with a dirty bomb explosion and gradually deepens through power outages and an exodus of refugees.  But, with Jane, the apocalypse starts much earlier, in her own experiences with family and boyfriends: the ways she's used people and the ways she's been used.  Her eventual abandonment of her daughter is thee culmination of that apocalypse:

She stays out of sight in the morning, crouched among the equipment in the back of the pickup truck.  The soldiers hand out MREs.  Ted, one of the contractors, smuggles her one.

She things of Franny.  Nate will keep an eye on her.  Jane was only a year older than Franny when she lit out for California the first time.  For a second she pictures Franny's face as the convoy pulls out.

Then she doesn't think of Franny.

She doesn't know where she is going.  She is in motion.  (188)
That is, the "dirty bomb" apocalypse directs us back along a thread to the apocalypse of middle-class desire, the engine that set in motion growth of the suburban sprawl, with all of its pathological alienations. 

In other words, McHugh's collection conjures an apocalypse that leads us back into social critique, but also forward to social alternatives.  It's the consciousness of living the apocalypse that leads many of McHugh's protagonists to critique the status quo, as in the story "Honeymoon".  Having survived a drug trial gone horribly awry and collected her money as a human guinea pig, Kayla goes with her friends to Cancun on vacation.  But it's not enough to soothe her disgust with an economic system that keeps her in a perpetual condition of bare life.

I overheard two girls talking.  They were thin and blond, and it was clear that they had never worked in McDonald's in their lives.  The one was saying to the other, "I don't know if I want to come back here anymore."

The other one asked where she wanted to go instead, and they talked about Hawaii or Miami or something.

I hated them.  I don't know why; they were probably nice enough.  But I just hated them.  I thought, I almost died to get here.  (145-46)
 That visceral disgust is a first step in social change; these are the conditions for the organic intellectual.    

This is a compelling vision for anthropological science fiction.  Developing a hermeneutics of the apocalypse means drawing genealogies of exploitation, markov chains of power, that extend back into history and forward into a murky, dystopian future.  In the tradition of anthropology, McHugh develops a way of seeing that is grounded both in critique and in an understanding of everyday life.