Monthly Archives: August 2014



Melanie Gilligan

March 12, 2012 / Melanie Gilligan presents a talk that explores the potential agency of affect within a capitalist system in crisis. These are ideas that underpin her new work The Common Sense. In this science fiction, the invention of a new technology that allows people to feel each other’s emotion results in a worldwide revolution against economic inequality.


ctt_Congo-Basin 1251px-River_Congo.svg

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novel with a strong vectorial component. The steamboat pushes the narrative further down Congo river, in order to find the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader gone berserk.

The mysterious realm of exuberant nature plays an important part on captain Charles Marlow’s journey. Marlow is confronted with manifold voices, strange and unsettling noises, thick fog, smoke, subtle vibrations in the air; ephemeral, but insisting forces penetrating every cell. The border between his rational mind and the invasive spirit of the vast unknown territories begins to overlap; Marlow gets into a pensive-synaesthesic way of listening to the beautiful, but hostile environment.

Under Marlow’s guidance, we glide in and out of the Ur-forrest-force; a twilight zone of unknown extent. Conrad glimpses into a non-modern, primal environment, he offers insights into a world beyond materiality, a world where spirits, enigmatic entities rule. In this place, opposites like the rational/irrational are suspended.

Here I don’t want to re-tell the novel’s plot or think about colonial dimensions, but focus on some haunting passages that come with the advanced stage of the journey. Conrad describes intense moments where the baffling jungle scenery seems to shift into abstraction. There is a sense of animation in the writing, of masks hiding layers of truths. Phantasmagorical appearances haunt the surroundings, the graspable and the spirit level blend together.

Worth noting with regards to Heart of Darkness, an essay by Dieter Roelstraete on where he explores 10 ephemeral, floating concepts: 1. The Evanescent, 2. The Oceanic, 3. The Vertiginous, 4. The Olympian, 5. The Reticular, 6. The Inflationary, 7. The Atmospheric, 8. The Nebulous, 9. The Faustian and 10. The Meteorological, The Ironic, and the Abysmal.

Roelstraete ends with ‘And so we arrive at our final destination, namely Grand Hotel Irony, just down the road from Grand Hotel Abyss—and how very unsurprising that it should be bathing in the late-afternoon glow of “self-aware lucidities,” which perhaps begs one question above all: whence our fear of the light?’


Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (my underlining):

It was as unreal as everything else – as the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work.

p. 28

This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see – you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…”

p. 32

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.


We were wanderers on prehistoric earth, that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.

The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. (…) we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of the first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.

The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

pp. 44-45

A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise.

p. 49

The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind.

pp. 49-50

I saw vague forms of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete, evanescent.

p. 57

I made a strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. It didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

p. 59

A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard – him – it – this voice – other voices – all of them were so little more than voices – and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices – voices – even the girl herself – now – ”

p. 60

The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! – breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. (…)

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz (…)

p. 62

This was the unbounded power of eloquence – of words – of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method.

p. 63

His face was like the autumn sky, overcast one moment and bright the next.

p. 67

The consciousness of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quiet – as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the hill – made me uneasy.

The woods were unmoved, like a mask – heavy, like the closed door of a prison – they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence.

p. 73

It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.

The stretcher shook as the bearers staggered forward again, and almost at the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration.

p. 77

And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

p. 78

She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.

p. 79

I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone – and to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that experience.

p. 83

This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow – this wandering and tormented thing.

p. 86

The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time.

p. 88

…and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal.

It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing.

p. 92

Update (Oct 2014):

Thomas Ligotti write about Heart of Darkness in his ‘Conspiracy against the Human Race’:

In Heart of Darkness (1902), for example, he pulls at the collar of psychological realism, plying his genius for nuance and stealing up to the very border of supernaturalism. By proceeding thus, Conrad impresses upon his audience the consciousness of a horror that goes beyond the human and takes in all of being. (p. 207)

But Kurtz is not just a bestial headman managing a trading post in Africa. His whole meaning as a character is much more than that. What the brutally atavistic Kurtz signifies to Marlow surpasses the ‘wickedness of men’ and deposits the steamboat captain on the threshold of an occult truth about the underpinnings of the only reality he has ever known – the anchoring fictions of civilization. (p. 208-209)

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad did not cede ‘the horror’ a local habitation and a name (example: The Creature from the Black Lagoon), but artfully suggested a malignity conjoining the latent turpitude of human beings with that active in being itself.



John Knight_MIT Press

John Knight, October Files 16 (edited by André Rottmann), MIT Press 2014


The recently published book with critical essays on John Knight is the 16th in the ongoing October Files series published by MIT Press (which includes titles on James Coleman, Dan Graham and Louise Lawler).

John Knight’s body of work is surrounded by an almost mythical atmosphere. He is a thinker with surgical precision when it comes to placing the work in a wider institutional and geopolitical frame. JK (John Knight): My interest, however, is to participate in the larger cultural critical discourse and not some rarefied site of my own construction (p. 119). He is, first and foremost, an intellectual and makes work only when approached by an art type institution. Therefore the resulting objects and installations have to be seen less as artefacts in a historical and sculptural lineage, than as results of intense thought processes responding to specific sites. Thus Knight creates his own precise contexts. The individual works are unique in the sense that they cannot readily be connected to other artistic positions. A pronounced aversion to art history distinguishes his position from artist friends such as Michael Asher. JK: I have never shared, to the same degree of interest or depth of understanding, a project that is initiated from within an arthistorical perspective (p. 120). Knight does not want to fit into a narrowly outlined arthistorical corset; rather he tends to refer to a sociopolitic located outside the micropolitical boundaries of the art world (p. 121). But why, then, would he produce work only when asked by an artinstitutional body? JK: I step in, in order to receive the opportunities to function. For whatever sociopolitical reasons, this subculture seems to be the most compatible for the formulation of a base of operation (p. 122).

JK: I would say that the shift from image to a signaletic sign induces the symbolic loss of life (p.85). One of Knight’s base concerns and struggles lies in the thinking around corporate power and violence expressed through design (such as corporate logotypes). I use ‘struggles’ as Knight seems to care deeply about these issues in non-cynical ways. Is Knight a leftist type, a Marxist of sorts? Knight raises issues that could entail long excursions into Marx, but Marx is only mentioned in Birgit Pelzer’s footnotes, never by Knight himself. Knight writes a narrative of the logotype as a symbol that stands for the corporate omnivore, a movement that started decades (centuries?) ago and developed into an all-consuming force. Knight himself, in his meticulous, strategic project planning and critical sharpness has all the ingredients to run the perfect company or military corps – which he does, in a way, with a rigueur unmatched since Colonel Kurtz. What is JK’s family background? Was his father or mother a CEO or a teacher? Biography is not what matters most, but in JK’s case it would be interesting to know out of what ‘ideological’ environment he developed and started to operate the way he does ever since. Also because his art makes complex, geopolitical, objective (in the sense of non-personal) statements, but they are made by a quite unique individual with a private, intimate and personal history. From where did the conceptual and intuitive decisions that make JK’s art develop? Jay Sanders: Can you say a bit about your tactics of exposing the dominating effects of design and its instrumentation of power? JK: (…) the conscious hybridization of subjects or constellations of dominant subjects just might be one way to open up the possibility for the likeness of a counterspectacle as a tactic of recuperation – exaggerated and hyper-designed sites of agitation that attempt to insist on the utility rather than the autonomy of work (p.73). Here is a moment, where Knight introduces a non-personal position with a specific, subjective charge. Refreshingly, it’s not a clear leftist tactic.

I would say that the shift from image to a signaletic sign induces the symbolic loss of life. Why, then, repeat the sign, insist on it, rather than proposing something entirely different? Knight exorcises and exhausts the sign through repetition and alteration of meaning, hinting at alternatives enshrined in different types of signs. Knight as a shaman dancing in the corporate never-land?

How is violence and hegemonic power veiled by corporate design strategies? How can they be unlocked? There is a partial demand for the restoration of individual privacy and the making transparent of corporate and political actions. Yet persons like Assange and Snowden, hacktivists who in real life fight against mass surveillance and against the secrecy of corporate and state information, often come across like dangling puppets. Snowden, ironically enough, ended up in Russia, not exactly the nr. one country for free speech. Snowden in Moscow, Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. There is a strangeness in these two cases, as if they were both looking and striving for enclosed physical space for themselves.

putin    There is something in my eye… oh it’s a Snow…flake

The work of john Knight addresses the veiled but coercive violence of an order characterised by symbolic constraint by making certain invisible conjunctions tangible (Birgit Pelzer, p. 98). There may lie Knight’s labour, in the unraveling of underlying powerstructures of our current world dominated by mulitnational corporations. In Knight’s work, the corporate, repressed, hidden violence emerges not freed, is not completely dismantled or unraveled, but concealed anew. A double repression of sorts. Alberro: For viewers looking at the building from the outside, it is at once a greeting that can barely be deciphered, and a welcome that is hollow. In order to fully appreciate the specificity and inherent doubleness of Bienvenido… (p. 144). Buchloh: (…) it’s not a position of pure negation, it’s a position that intricately engages with the condition of cultural production and with the concept of the response that you provide to those conditions, namely, corporate cultural demands for pure utility. JK: (…) the need for a position of resistance, which I think resides in the inversion of the order of need, which can allow an artist the opportunity to touch upon subjects of consumption and exchange, and the design strategies that sustain their presumed purpose within the culture industry, without reverting to the role of a cultural custodian (p. 131). Inherent doubleness: a spiralling down of meaning. 

What is JK aspiring to? Alexander Alberro: (…) the sign (JK) is employed to point emphatically to something else (p. 142). Knight’s tactics, negations point towards an ‘Other’, a parallel vision, the artist’s very own sparks of hope. Maybe John Knight lives to see these sparks of his making.

For Knight, each new project is an opportunity to challenge existing structures. Ready on call, like a secret agent or a contract killer, Knight delivers. The shows and projects are executed knifelike with absolute precision and intellectual rigueur. Unlike collectives with a sociopolitical activist attitude, Knight works alone. As mentioned before, he does not work out of a straight leftist position like, let’s say, the Danish artist group Superflex. Knight is politically more ambiguous, a loner type with a curious mind, removed from constraints, sitting in a – somehow – designed chair tinkering deeply over the next project at hand. Competitive, JK is an executioner of projects that do have sociopolitical conscience (among other special topics, successfully tapping into white men’s disturbed unconscious).

Inherent doubleness: doubleness of intent, too?

Yet a certain political fuzziness might be Knight’s strong card. Isabelle Graw notes the reason that your work doesn’t figure on (a list of so-called ‘political’ artists) could be that it doesn’t fit into a general desire for thematically reductivist, so-called political works, works that are supposedly ‘dealing with’ a certain subject matter (p. 126). Knight found his niche, not completely apolitical, but not narrowly positioned either. From there he operates in his own ronin trickster style. His work does point to multifaceted issues concerning our world. Knight has strong allies. From early on, a tight group of critics followed and continued to follow his trajectory. The focus and clarity of the critical engagement shines bright throughout the book. A certain conceptual coherence is crucial for JK. There is an intellectual thread that links his series and individual projects. In this regard, one can imagine Knight being a bit of a control freak that tightly controls not only his output, but also what is being published on his work.

Heretic intermezzo: Why are the October Files authors so sure that Knight’s negation tactics are that watertight as they proclaim, when his political stance is near impossible to grasp? Whatever that stance might be, could it be that his work is so ambiguous, so ironic and complex, that it may even be able to fool the critics? Knight might elevate ambiguity to a new level (some sort of Knightian Meta-Ambiguity). Knight’s critical castle has been erected, and the October essay do shed a lot of light on Knight. The castle is exclusive (musings). He is not Andrea Fraser’s L’1%, but its 0.001%. A spy who came in from the cold. Yet what about (ironic or not) subliminal demonstrations of an awareness of elevating an artistic position into such an exclusive position? There is a seriousness underlying all essays and interviews, and I doubt that seriousness is a good match for Knight’s ironies (more on irony later). There is no breathing in a vacuum. Also, Knight does influence legions of young and smart Städelschüler and other ambitious artists who will be sucked into the global art market. Knight does influence belief systems and artistic strategies. Because of his relative outsider (and deep-insider) position, he is very attractive, a confirmed negator of market tactics. In short, there are elements that are not alluded to in the October Files book, and maybe they lay outside its critical reach. Are there really no artists in Knight’s vicinity? Even if Dutch design collective Metahaven does not share many connection points, they surely do think hard about economical and geopolitical representation under advanced capitalism. An essay on Knight’s entanglement in, and his impact on the art world could be an interesting addition. Knight as a light house-castle and aggregator, his position as an intellectual-conceptual force in a global idea sharing network economy etc.  I guess if no company will adopt Knight’s tactics, he somehow does deserve the title of a master of negation.

Knight notes that product design, interior design, and installation design are all deeply implicated in capitalist ideology. It’s the primary lexicon for substantiating neoliberalism. It’s the off-the-shelf language of hegemony (p. 123). Design can implicate corporate propaganda, but it also can help to find solutions for better organising life on earth. Spacecrafts to explore radically different planets are all about design. Design means, to a large degree, progress. What Knight might be alluding to is the darker, more sinister side design can have, for example when design is used by corporations as a propaganda tool in order to hide ecological, financial or other wrongdoings. For logotypes, well-intended NGOs or other non-evil institutions have their own logotype. Logotypes have simply become signatures in a diversified global market place. The logotype is only one small design aspect of bad companies. Of course the logo design can be used as an artistic strategy to point at what is behind the logo. But the logo is only a first door to enter a whole series of secretive, often highly complicated and semi-legal corporate structures where dubious tricks and strategies to gain market shares and more profit are puzzled out. Knight might allude to such ‘evil’ processes, but not sure if insisting on the logotype helps to dismantle evil corporate intelligence. The courageous strategies employed by artist ‘reality hacking’ duo The Yes Man might be more helpful in pointing towards corporate wrongdoings than Knight’s fuzzy rambling against neoliberalists. Melanie Gilligan researched the vocabulary common in the financial marketplace in order to turn it against itself, thus revealing its underlying absurd irrationality (Gilligan is mentioned by André Rottmann in footnote 40, p. 197: For a more thorough discussion of the relation between finance capital and artistic production see Melanie Gilligan, ‘Derivate Days: Notes on Art, Finance and the Unproductive Forces,’ in Texte zur Kunst 69 (March 2008): 146-153).

John Knight_Worldebt_Afghanistan   John Knight_Worldebt_Aruba     John Knight_Worldebt_Install 3  John Knight_Worldebt_Installation 6  John Knight_Worldebt_Installation 5     John Knight, Worldebt at Richard Telles Fine Arts, Los Angeles, Sept-Oct 2009.

The brilliant Worldebt series (1994) of credit cards. Buchloh notes that The credit card project from Worldebt (…) clearly interrelate different geopolitical systems or expanded notions of geopolitical distribution, and construct at an early moment a sense of the inescapability of culture as being suspended within globalized forms of conflict and interest and exchanges way before the whole talk of globalization became an issue in cultural practices (p. 124). The world wide monetary system can be seen as a modern day slavery system, which Worldebt conveys perfectly. JK: Global crises exacerbated by the World Bank and IMF policies (p. 126). Deleuze: Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt. (cited by André Rottmann in footnote 41, p. 197).

John Knight_Potrait    John Knight

Knight’s play can be found bouncing somewhere between resignation and emancipation. The play exhibits shades of irony. Knight’s favoured weapon of resistance is a vocabulary of irony. Irony can open up spaces for thought and possible alternatives. The notion of irony, or irony itself, comes up at several instances throughout the book (p. 44, 103, 108-109, 115, 124, 129-130, 136, 140, 182, 186, 192). But JK proceeds in a spirit of irony, questioning art’s symbolic stakes, allegiances, and economic purposes. As an immemorial strategy, irony is to be found in a certain tone of John Knight’s work. Irony is necessary when it is not enough to reply on a logical level, in moments when it does not suffice to refute claims with rational arguments and when dialectical objections run aground. What is called for then is a ruse, dissimulation, multilayered language, that splitting that makes you look like trespassing onto the field of the other, in order to reveal inconsistency. Irony, as we know, was one of the resources of the Socratic methods to meet the argumentative excellence of the Sophists (Birgit Pelzer, p. 103 and footnote 31, p. 115). Irony saves Knight. Yet what exactly makes the work ironic? I would wish to read more on ‘John Knight and the Ironic’, also about irony as a form of control. Who of the handful of critics or Institutional Critique-type PHD students will write the essay? Being around Knight can feel exclusive. Who is aloud to use irony? When? John Knight – the Ironist with an Iron Fist.

JK’s irony: A melancholic variant could come from the tension between the relative simplicity of his installative proposals and the endless complexities that radiate from the associative fields the work opens itself up to. John Knight’s work is minimal, surgical, well thought-through artistic gestures. As soon as the wider range of implications is discovered, the reception receives a powerful twist. Irony thus accompanies the gestures and unfolds its charge gradually rather than as explosive one-liners. The hidden, unseen part conceals the ironic potential; it has to be sensed before it can reveal itself.

Mimic that, multinationals.

JK the logo – The most individual and supposedly unique feature of the artist becomes incorporated in an anonymous design, whereas the audience’s demand for the innermost revelation of an authentic and individual aesthetic truth receives its response in the language of public and collective mythology (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, p.34). In the creation of his brand, Knight has completely mastered/transcended capitalist ideology. He speaks to us from the beyond of ideology, from his very own JK realm and territory. The artist’s objects, ironically conscious, inherit an exclusive status, achieved by successfully integrating its negations. The essays in October Files are proof.

There is more to say about John Knight. It makes the work’s reception rich.

Vortex Ghost Engine: Science Fiction and Finance Capitalism Part 2 – Ed Halter

Earlier I wrote about a potential link between large-scale destruction in recent SF films and aspects of toxic finance institutes. I discovered a similar text by Ed Halter (founder and director of Light Industry, New York) that appeared online

Halter notes that “there is a deep irony that these warnings are packaged within the most expensive movies in existence, products of the same turbo-capitalism that has pushed us past the point of no return. Today, the financial future of Hollywood depends upon producing unwieldy, overbudgeted spectacles that are too big to fail, their successes propped up by the dark arts of marketing and publicity. Desperate to entertain at any aesthetic cost, these films are structured around a pointedly twenty-first century temporality: crisis time (…)”. 

While I mostly wrote about spectacular CGI destruction scenes, Halter ends with an interesting observation: “In response to widespread systemic breakdown, new forms of total control will emerge. In so many of this year’s (2013) end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster (…)”. The fictional societies facing major threats adapt and mimic the lethality and militaristic focus of their hostile counterpart. He adds, “this shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.” 

It seems that in these films, humanity has taken up a fight. Outside of film, has humanity taken up a bizarre fight against itself?


Here is the text by Ed Halter:

CATASTROPHE HAS LONG BEEN a staple of cinema, from the extravagant pageants of ancient warfare first seen in silent Italian epics through Cold War sci-fi allegories of nuclear armageddon to the 1990s golden age of Hollywood blockbusters, in which the techniques of the action film joined forces with the new powers of computer-generated imaging to offer hyperreal battles against aliens, dinosaurs, tornadoes, and asteroids. But 2013 feels like it gave us more visions of the apocalypse than any year prior. After EarthOblivionElysiumWorld War ZPacific Rim, and Ender’s Game all served up illustrations of the end of the world as we know it, their stories taking place before, after, or during. This tendency could even be found in no fewer than three comedies released this year: This is the EndThe World’s End, and It’s a Disaster. Indeed, it was hard to find a science fiction or fantasy film that didn’t try to picture widespread devastation of one sort or another; the latest Star Trek reboot, otherwise a loving pastiche of retro-optimism, succumbed to this imperative by showing a future San Francisco crushed by the impact of a massive spaceship.

This eschatological efflorescence is yet another way cinema continues to compete with small-screen media. Post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-tsunami, post–Great Recession, post-Fukushima, post-Sandy, we’re more familiar than ever with the documentation of chaos and its long aftermath, and so Hollywood must up the ante. More insidiously, the boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times“Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction authorKim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.

At the movies, Elysium connected these possible outcomes most clearly, picturing a scenario in which the despoiled Earth is left to the suffering poor while the superrich live in an orbital gated community with the benefits of miraculous medical technology. Though Oblivion and After Earth posit the eviction of humanity from its home planet thanks to alien attacks, these too have moments of mourning for a lost world, whether via Tom Cruise top-gunning his aircraft through the canyons of a buried Manhattan, orJaden Smith ogling massive herds of bison and sky-darkening flocks of birds, replenished after a thousand years of human exile. Recent cinema, then, has modified its obligation to escapism, helping us imagine scenarios of survival through the apocalypse, rather than giving us hope of victory over its inevitable arrival.

At the same time, there is a deep irony that these warnings are packaged within the most expensive movies in existence, products of the same turbo-capitalism that has pushed us past the point of no return. Today, the financial future of Hollywood depends upon producing unwieldy, overbudgeted spectacles that are too big to fail, their successes propped up by the dark arts of marketing and publicity. Desperate to entertain at any aesthetic cost, these films are structured around a pointedly twenty-first century temporality: crisis time, an essentially reactive time, the exhilaration of responding to disastrous events as they unfold, whether outsmarting zombies in World War Z, maneuvering through the void inGravity, or playing the life-or-death contests of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games: Catching Fire. These are cynical films at heart, allowing us to fantasize about negotiating survival within a failing system rather than letting us hope to replace it with something better. Their anxieties mirror the just-in-time logic of networked economies, in which a typical day of work consists of the management of multiple crises, thrown onto the laps of multitaskers thanks to the unfettered spread of instant connectivity.

It seems inevitable to invoke Susan Sontag here, whose 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” set the tone for all future considerations of science-fiction cinema. Atomic-era films such as Mothra or This Island Earth, she wrote, “are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.” But a far less well-known fragment from Sontag is even more apropos to our current situation. In her diaries of August 1975, Sontag proposed that “a new style will emerge in the last decade of this century, with the ascendancy of the ecological crisis—and possibility of eco-fascism.” Here, she refers specifically to an architectural style, but her words resonate beyond this, suggesting that in response to widespread systemic breakdown, new forms of total control will emerge. In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of ElysiumAfter Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.