Journal #98 - Tony Wood - Intrusions: Or, The Golden Age Is Not in Us
Journal #98
March 2019
Journal #98 - February 2019

Intrusions: Or, The Golden Age Is Not in Us

Still from the 1979 movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.

1.

What if this world contained another one? One subgenre of speculative fiction features an uncanny realm in which everyday reality has ominously, irrevocably broken down. At first glance, everything in that other space seems similar to the world we know, but it soon becomes clear that something is wrong: the sun and moon aren’t where they should be, the laws of physics are warped, people themselves seem to change. For the time being, the danger is contained within a limited sphere of its own. But since no one in these stories understands how or why this zone of exception managed to insert itself into their world in the first place, they also can’t be sure it won’t spill over, spreading across the rest of the planet. It could be a benign oddity, but it could also be an apocalypse in a nutshell, which some kind of transgression or mistake or accidental incantation might suddenly crack open.

These scenarios all bear what Mark Fisher has described as “the marker of the weird,” representing as they do “the irruption into this world of something from outside.”1 In this subgenre, as in other kinds of speculative writing, contemporary fears are interwoven with alarms about unfamiliar disasters to come; worries about alien invasion mix with guilty recognition of our existing faults. At the same time, these fictions stage a more specific epistemological crisis: as Fisher puts it, the arrival of the weird acts as “a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously deployed are now obsolete.”2 But is there another bedrock to these stories—a material(ist) basis on which to read them? Drawing on three examples from very different times and places—Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, written the US in the 1970s; Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, filmed in the USSR in the same decade; and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, published in the US in the 2010s—I want to sketch out here some connections between fantasies of otherworldly intrusion and broader, systemic forms of malaise within the societies that produced them.

2.

The skies of Bellona, a fictional city in the heart of America, are shrouded in smoke. No one knows why, but random fires smolder in the shells of abandoned houses, only to flare lethally into infernos that swallow entire neighborhoods. It seems as if we are in the aftermath of a vast industrial accident, or trapped in an alien experiment—or both, or neither. Many of Bellona’s citizens have fled, but plenty have stayed—including its long-marginalized African-American population—and new residents and visitors keep arriving, such as the nameless central protagonist of Dhalgren, an amnesiac wanderer and would-be poet known only as the Kid. The city’s remaining authority figures are cloistered in their suburbs, and though the local press mogul still prints his newspaper, it’s not much use when it comes to keeping track of events (he assigns the day, month, and even year of each issue according to his own obscure whims, and in total disregard for the calendar). The real power in Bellona seems to belong to the Scorpions, a cluster of leather-clad gangs who wear strange devices that project neon-bright images of animals around their heads, like dazzling carnival masks. They raid shops and houses, rob the occasional remaining resident, or shake down a hippie colony for food. Sometimes they fight amongst themselves, but mostly they sit around, drink, talk, and fuck.

Bellona is in some ways only a slightly exaggerated version of the 1970s American bourgeois nightmare of urban decay: a burning city, half emptied and turned into a playground for gangs, countercultural freaks, and wandering poets. It’s a dystopia for the white middle class, represented in the novel by the Richards family, who struggle so hard amid the chaos to maintain all the structures and rituals of a certain vision of postwar American normality—the nuclear family, the male breadwinner, dinner parties with Jell-O for dessert—that they soon come to seem like the most outlandish thing in the book. Yet the very darkening of the bourgeois horizon seems also to represent an unprecedented margin of freedom for everyone else. The main character spends much of the novel writing jagged, expressionistic verse, while others make music, or indulge in weird projects such as slyly shifting all the street signs around; one character decides never to wear clothes again; everyone has a lot of sex, in pairs or in groups.

Although not everyone is experiencing Bellona’s strange emergency in the same way, it’s clear that the social contract as a whole has not disintegrated. There is much violence and tension, but there are also collective bonds of solidarity being formed; this isn’t a Mad Max–type postapocalypse with all-out Hobbesian warfare. Something else has broken down in Bellona, something abstract but also familiar and pervasive. Quite simply, the whole phenomenon of consumption that underpins capitalist society has been paralyzed. There is no longer any need to purchase anything, and no need to work to earn the money to do so; there are no wages, no debt—in short, no meaningful relationship between human needs and the flow of capital. This is, to be sure, far from a utopian breakthrough into postcapitalism: on the contrary, it’s taken an incomprehensible disaster, wreathed in fire and brimstone, to carve out this brief respite from the whirl of commodities. But there is a sense, in much of the novel, that this unmooring of life from its capitalist foundations is even more unsettling for Bellona’s better-off residents than the disruption of the physical world: it’s as if they could handle the moon and stars being out of alignment, if only the usual round of transactions—working for a salary, paying for things with money—could be resumed.

Dhalgren seems in many ways to collapse together, in exaggerated and fantastical form, two of the Western postwar order’s biggest crises: the youth and worker rebellions of 1968, and the steady decline of industry from the mid-1970s onwards. Bellona is both Paris and Detroit, experiencing their two crises as a single, otherworldly shock rather than an unfolding sequence of historical developments. The combination is not just a matter of setting or atmosphere, though. It expresses precisely the import of Delany’s dystopia, which is to imagine the crumbling of the Western postwar settlement—not the end of the world, but the end of a world owned and run by a particular set of people.

Although the science-fiction anomaly that is responsible for Bellona’s condition seems far-fetched, contemporary analogues for the ruined city are everywhere: from the militarized favelas of Rio to New Orleans after Katrina. These are, of course, only the most extreme variants of urban breakdown, which has all along been fully compatible with, or even instrumental to, the pursuit of profit. But what if the chain of consumption were somehow simply to snap or be replaced, not just in one or two disaster zones but everywhere? Would we all then find ourselves in some version of Bellona, each navigating our own way between disparate dangers and newfound freedoms?

3.

The Zone—the eerie, silent realm at the heart of Tarkovsky’s Stalker—is at first glance entirely different from Bellona.3 For one thing, it is almost empty of human life, except for the three individuals journeying to its center. For another, its violence remains implicit, submerged within the uncanny landscape rather than apt to break out among any unruly residents. And while Bellona may be a damaged place, it’s still recognizably a city; the Zone, by contrast, is a series of waterlogged fragments, ruins strewn here and there with traces of a former human presence—pieces of photographs, syringes, coins—like a shattered archive of some lost civilization. What has happened seems to be a dismantling so thorough as to make the fact that people ever lived here the inexplicable part.

Yet the film shares with Dhalgren the core conceit of a delimited, uncanny area where reality has been replicated and at the same time modified, in inscrutable and possibly threatening ways. No one says so explicitly, but it seems that the Zone was created by the arrival or intrusion of an alien object or will. The Stalker, the main character leading the travelers through the Zone, certainly attributes a consciousness to it, insisting that the landscape itself is mercurial and treacherous. The three characters’ destination is a room at the center of the Zone, rumored to have the miraculous power of seeing what one most deeply desires and making it real. This can be a punishment as much as a gift: the Stalker tells the others the story of Porcupine, who made it to the Room and back and acquired a fortune, but soon thereafter committed suicide. It is darkly implied that those who enter the Room are being weighed in some kind of moral scales.

On one level, Tarkovsky’s film is a kind of secularized Grail narrative, in which characters who are little more than abstractions—the Stalker, the Writer, the Scientist—journey in search of a lost purpose or meaning to their lives, seeking something that will shock them out of their cynicism or help them rediscover their vocations. Of course, this kind of anguish was more or less a constant among the Soviet intelligentsia. But the film seems to dramatize a more specific existential uncertainty that set in during the long stagnation of the Brezhnev era—a particularly late-Soviet version of moral drift. Stalker was made in the depths of state socialism’s 1970s systemic slowdown, as the factories and steel mills built during the USSR’s forced-march industrialization of the 1930s began to age, and overall economic growth began to stall. It’s little wonder, then, that the predominant feeling in the film is one of stasis, captured in the many long, still shots of silent, unpeopled spaces, of pools of reflecting water, of abandoned rooms and buildings, of meadows in which nothing is happening, could ever happen.

If Dhalgren shows us the crumbling of consumption in a capitalist society, Stalker portrays the collapse of the whole mechanism of production in a state-socialist one—symmetrical disintegrations that reflect the respective priorities of the rival Cold War systems. The collapse in Stalker goes beyond industrial production, which was the raison d’être for the Soviet planned economy as a whole—represented in the film by rusting equipment, warehouses that now store nothing but wind-sculpted sand—extending to the production of knowledge and meaning, the exhaustion of which is portrayed by the Writer and the Scientist. When all the machinery of the state-socialist system begins to seize up, what rationale or guiding principle can sustain people from one day to the next, let alone in decades to come? This is a moral crisis, to be sure—but a systemic, rather than an individual or personal one.

Stalker might strike some viewers now as prophetic, its forbidding Zone an anticipation of Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone—as if it depicts the aftermath of that 1986 disaster in advance. But like Bellona, the Zone is not the product of an accident. Both are the fictionalized figures of a different kind of misfortune: an estrangement from reality, an incursion from elsewhere that tells us, whether we choose to recognize it or not, that a world-historical reckoning is on its way.

4.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy also suggests a settling of accounts. The series revolves around a mysterious Area X—both its effects on those who enter it, and the potential threat it poses to those outside it. Annihilation, the first volume, recounts the fate of a four-person expedition sent into the strange zone, which has apparently been cut off from the rest of the world for decades now. As in Stalker, these individuals are shorn of names, abstracted into a profession or skill set—the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, the psychologist—but their different personalities begin to emerge as we watch them respond to their strange new environment.

At first, the landscape of Area X seems to be a lusher, wilder version of the world we know, so long emptied of humans that Nature has moved back in and run riot. But it is unmistakably dangerous: the four women on the team are the twelfth set of humans to be sent into Area X, and we know that some of the previous expeditions met grisly ends, either committing mass suicide or blasting each other away with bullets. One expedition, the eleventh, made it back—but its members had been reduced to silent husks, and soon they all died of cancer. Area X, though, is not another deserted, Chernobyl-type exclusion zone, quietly administering lethal doses of radiation or psychosis. This expedition immediately comes across unmistakable signs of a nonhuman will or agency, in the form of a spiraling underground structure which they tentatively, tensely begin to explore.

The biologist makes some other troubling observations: for example, there is something different about the animals she sees in Area X—something unexpectedly searching in their expressions, perhaps even something human. Is this, in fact, what happened to the previous expeditions? Have they metamorphosed, Ovid-style, into birds and deer and rocks? The reader comes to suspect that those who enter Area X get absorbed into the biome for recycling as new flora and fauna, that they are cloned or reconfigured according to some alien design and sent out into the world again.

Several different fever dreams are present in the Southern Reach trilogy—alien invasion, medical experiments gone wrong, survivalist stories, human–animal metamorphic crossovers, ecological disaster—but the place where they all converge is this nightmare of unwanted transformation. In Area X, the boundaries of the human have broken down; that is, the normal chain of replication of the species has been interrupted and diverted along an unknown set of paths, with seemingly random and capricious results—a deer with a human face, a tentacled monster writing stream-of-consciousness poetry on a wall. In other words, where Dhalgren dramatizes the collapse of consumption and Stalker shows production at a standstill, in VanderMeer’s trilogy it is reproduction that has ceased to function. The fact that the latest expedition is all-female, and that the previous large all-male one has bitten the dust, becomes significant. Southern Reach itself, the shadowy human institution that sends in these expeditions, comes to seem culpably complicit in this process, as if the organization knows a lot more than it lets on; as if it, too, is watching and waiting for the results of the experiment to feed through. In the trilogy’s second and third parts, Authority and Acceptance, the effects of Area X begin to seep back into the organization’s headquarters, in a kind of existential blowback; the intrusion has breached its boundaries.

It is fitting that a fiction with these underlying concerns should appear at a time of increasing alarm over the cost of humankind’s scientific advances—the sequencing of the genome, genetically modified crops—and over the unfolding catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change. For as we advance ever deeper into the Anthropocene, there would seem to be legitimate moral grounds for questioning the logical sequence of human reproduction. It’s not obvious, and perhaps never was, that the relentless succession of one generation by another should be preferable to whatever accidents and mutations chance or an outside, alien will might choose to inflict. Why, in other words, should we assume humankind has any right to decide whether it gets perpetuated—and if it does, in what form? Why should the future mean more of the same?

5.

In a way, reproduction is also at the core of the dystopias in Dhalgren and Stalker, since consumption and production are likewise geared to the maintenance and continuation of the human world, to the stable and steady replacement of humans by their chosen successors. The intrusions at the heart of all three fictions throw that line out of joint, bend or break it so that whatever rules drive human activity in the present come to seem redundant. Normal service in these weird zones has not just been suspended, but abolished.

That abolition itself throws into question not only the succession of generations, but also some of the key assumptions that have governed humankind’s actions for centuries. Towards the end of Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss describes human striving as being driven by a faith in the possibility of a better future: “What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again.” He approvingly quotes Rousseau on the location of that better future: “The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind us, is in us.”4 The discovery that progress is a mirage, and that belief in a better future is itself a kind of blind superstition, leads to the obvious conclusion that time itself has never been on anyone’s side—and from there, perhaps, to the impossible fantasy of halting history itself, of stepping outside time into a uchronia that confounds the very idea of narrating it.

Yet behind this meta-historical Angst lies a more primal anxiety. The best figure I can find for it in these three works is the Stalker’s child. For most of the film, it’s possible to imagine that all the powers attributed to the Zone may be a purely psychological phenomenon—that the Zone itself exists only in the minds of the humans surrounding it, and that there is no actual alien presence or intrusion, no danger at all. But then, in the film’s final shot, we see the Stalker’s young daughter, her head leaning against a wooden table, looking at a glass of water that is resting on the table’s surface. She stares at it, seemingly without any particular interest or emotion; a few snowflakes fall and swirl in the air. Then the glass moves. This child, it seems, has kinetic powers, perhaps bestowed upon her by the Zone itself or exposure to its radiation. Either way, she is not like her parents, not like previous generations of humans: she has a gift and affliction of her own, which she will no doubt use in the world she will inherit.

This figure of the powerful mutant child is familiar from legions of comic books and superhero films, from Superman to X-Men. But in Stalker it has a more ominous valence, condensing a double terror that is at once banal and all-pervading. On the one hand, she expresses the fear that what comes after us will be people so fundamentally different from us that they might as well be from another planet—and that they will be just as hostile and dangerous to us as alien invaders would be. On the other hand, there is the fear that, despite their fundamental alienness to us, despite their future rejection of our being and matter as unsuitable or unworthy, they and the world to come will also be our responsibility, our fault.

×

Tony Wood lives in New York and writes about Latin America and Russia. He is the author of Russia without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War (2018), and is currently working on a PhD about the Latin American radical left in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Notes - Intrusions: Or, The Golden Age Is Not in Us
1

Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater Books, 2016), 20. Thanks to Elvia Wilk for drawing my attention to this text, which helped clarify some key terms and concepts.

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2

Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 13.

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3

Tarkovsky’s film is loosely based on the Strugatsky brothers’ 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. Even though film and prose fiction are such distinct forms, I discuss the film rather than the novel because Stalker shares with my other examples a concentrated focus on a single intrusion (whereas Roadside Picnic features half a dozen, and unfolds in several different locations across the globe).

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4

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Pocket Books, 1977), 448.

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Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater Books, 2016), 20. Thanks to Elvia Wilk for drawing my attention to this text, which helped clarify some key terms and concepts.

Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 13.

Tarkovsky’s film is loosely based on the Strugatsky brothers’ 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. Even though film and prose fiction are such distinct forms, I discuss the film rather than the novel because Stalker shares with my other examples a concentrated focus on a single intrusion (whereas Roadside Picnic features half a dozen, and unfolds in several different locations across the globe).

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Pocket Books, 1977), 448.

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