Scatological Eschatologies: The End is Nigh

“Survivalism isn’t about staying alive. It’s about choosing how you die,” writes Neil Strauss in Emergency (It Books, 2009). Strauss, who’s formerly written books with rock stars, porn stars, and pick-up artists, stepped up his game with this one. In the wake of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, Strauss had a bit of an epiphany. Acknowledging that if he was involved in a major catastrophe, he wouldn’t be much help — unless helping involved a working knowledge of rock and roll and its many trappings — Strauss set out to get himself prepared. From securing dual citizenship and caching supplies to living without electrical power and knowing the quickest escape route from harm’s way, Strauss trained and drilled until he was/is ready for just about anything. Strauss and Emergency go further than you or I probably will, but surviving the extreme means going to extremes.

Speaking of, having seen Zombieland (2009) a few times now, I keep meaning to finish The Zombie Survival Guide (Three Rivers Press, 2003). If the latter didn’t inform the former, something is wrong with the world of zombie-world end-time speculation. Barry Brummett (1991) writes that apocalyptic rhetors “claim special knowledge of a hidden order, to advise others to make great sacrifices on the basis of that knowledge, even to predict specific times and place for the end of the world.” Well, Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks, has the zombie-pocalypse covered in this easy to read guide to hiding from, running from, and straight-up killing zombies. There are rules (as there are in Zombieland), and you must follow them if you are to survive. The most telling? #5: “Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair,” and #4: “Blades don’t need reloading.” This book is your one-stop guide to all things zombie-survival.

Oh, and say what you want about Zombieland. That movie is an all-out riot (If the titles alone don’t make you squirm, cringe, and laugh out loud, you should probably check your pulse). It succeeds where Inglorious Basterds fails. It takes unrelenting violence against a group vilified by all (zombies in one case, Nazis in the other) and makes it feverishly fun and funny.

Anyway, I’ve never really considered myself that concerned with the end of the world, but it’s clearly hanging heavy in the mass-mind. Brummett (1991) also writes that the strategy of apocalyptic rhetoric is “to respond to a sense of chaos and anomie, whether acute or potential, with reassurances of a plan that is ordering history” (p. 87). Between the looming zombie-pocalypse, the impending whatever of December 21, 2012, and the global Dutch oven in which we’re cooking, there are certainly those who would have us believe that our doom is imminent. It’s best we be prepared.

P. S. Whatever you think of the movie, check out the soundtrack to Zombieland. It was scored by David Sardy (who also did the score to 21, produced a bunch of your favorite records, and was the main man behind the band Barkmarket).

[Illustration by royc.]

References:

Brooks, M. (2003). The zombie survival guide. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Brummett, B. (1991). Contemporary apocalyptic rhetoric. New York: Praeger.

Polone, G. (Producer), & Fleischer, R. (Writer/Director). (2009). Zombieland [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Strauss, N. (2009). Emergency: This book will save your life. New York: It Books.

Thinking Systems

In his epic, futurist tome The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler (1980) wrote that we need to “move from a Second Wave culture that [has] emphasized the study of things in isolation from one another to a Third Wave culture that emphasizes contexts, relationships, and wholes” (p. 300-301), what Herman Witkin calls “field dependence.” Taking the long view, considering the context, and how one thing influences another — these are all things we would do well to do at all times. General system theory as conceived by Ludwig von Bertalanffy provides a rich framework for just this type of thinking.

“A system,” writes Bertalanffy’s biographer Mark Davidson, “like a work of art, is a pattern rather than a pile. Like a piece of music, it’s an arrangement rather than an aggregate” (1983, p. 27). In other words, a system is an assemblage that is arranged to serve a purpose. Whereas Camus insisted that there were no ends, only means, Bertalanffy saw them as one and the same. The system is its own means and its own end.

Framing things as systems inherently simplifies them. Sometimes this is done by leaving certain aspects out, sometimes by artificially drawing boundaries around a “whole.” As Manuel De Landa puts it, this

point of view allows for the emergence of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, but only if specific historical processes — specific interactions between ‘lower scale entities’ — can be shown to have produced such wholes. Thus, in my view, institutional organizations like bureaucracies, banks, and stock markets acquire a life of their own from the interactions of individuals. From the interactions of those institutions, cities emerge, and from the interactions between cities, nation states emerge. Yet, in these bottom-up approaches, all the heterogeneity of real nation states can be pockets of minorities, the dialect differences, the local transience — unlike when history is modeled on totalities (concepts like ‘society’ or ‘culture’ or ‘the system’). In this latter situation, homogeneity has to be artificially injected into the model (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 71-72).

The main criticism of systems theory is its quasi-functionalist embrace of the needs of the system over those of the humans involved. Where one view seems to favor the system over all else (cf. Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavasky’s Risk and Culture; 1982), Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems (2008) shows how framing risks and problems in their context can help us understand and even control them better. Acknowledging the artificial nature of “closing off” systems for study, Meadows (2008) wrote, “The right boundary for thinking about a problem rarely coincides with the boundary of an academic discipline, or with a political boundary” (p. 98).

De Landa (1997) wraps it up eloquently, writing, “…[M]uch as sedimentary rocks, biological species, and social hierarchies are all stratified systems, so igneous rocks, ecosystems, and markets are self-consistent aggregates, the result of the coming together and interlocking of heterogeneous elements” (p. 66). We are — and we live in — a system of interacting systems. The better we understand them as such, the better off we will be.

References:

Bertalanffy, L. v. (1968). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Davidson, M. (1983). Uncommon sense: The life and thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

De Landa, M. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.

Douglas, M. & Wildavasky, A. (1982). Risk and culture. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Miller, P. D. (2007). ILLogical Progression. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for now: Interviews with friends and heroes (pp.). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam.

Witkin, H. A. & Goodenough, D. R. (1981). Cognitive styles: Essence and origins. New York: International Universities Press.

Black Metallic: Until the Light Takes Us

Described as “the most widely demonized and vilified music scene in rock history,” (O’Hehir, 2009), the Norwegian black metal scene of the late 80s and early 90s took Black Metal to new extremes. The bands and fans all wore head-to-toe black leather, wrist- and arm-bands and boots with spikes or nails, and black and white “corpse paint.” Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us (2009) tells the story of the scene in stark tones and up-close interviews.

Members of the bands Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, and Emperor provide more than a full cast of characters. The major players involved in the scene include Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a Eronymous) of Mayhem, Per Yngve Ohlin (a.k.a. Dead) of Mayhem, Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnackh) of Burzum and Mayhem, and Bärd Eithun (a.k.a. Faust) of Emperor, among several others. “Dead’s name was an ever-looming portent of his destiny” write Moynihan & Søderlind (2003, p. 58). Very much into self-mutilation, often on stage, Dead eventually shot himself in the head with a shotgun. His band-mate Euronymous found the body, took pictures, and reportedly took pieces of his skull and brains. One of the pictures ended up as the cover art for a live Mayhem record (Dawn of the Black Hearts; 1995), and Euronymous supposedly made stew out of Dead’s brains and necklaces out of his skull.

The sometime bass player for Mayhem and full-time one-man-band Burzum, Grishnackh, paranoid of an alleged plot by Euronymous to kill him, beat him to the punch: One late night in Oslo, Grishnackh stabbed Euronymous to death. Euronymous had been the figurehead of the Norwegian black metal scene. His record store in Oslo, Helvete, had served as a central meeting place for bands and fans, as well as a place to buy records and paraphernalia. It was darkly lit and Euronymous wanted it to be kept completely dark and to make customers use torches to see the records and their way around.

Underwhelmed by what he saw as posturing without action by Euronymous, Grishnackh allegedly set about burning down churches. Grishnackh’s philosophy is one of nationalism. He sees Christianity as colonialist, having moved into Norway and displaced the native Norse religion. His intentions did not keep the church burnings from being seen as “Satanically motivated” by the media. The heavy metal magazine Kerrang! ran a cover story that read, “Arson… Death… Satanic Ritual… The Ugly Truth about Black Metal” and the spread bore the quotation, “We are but slaves of the one with horns…” across the top of its pages (Moynihan & Søderlind, 2003, p. 100-101). “Copycat church attacks followed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, often accompanied with spray-painted pentacles and 666’s and so forth, and whatever had once been distinctive about the Norwegian scene just became, in Vikernes’ [Grishnackh] words, “a bunch of brain-dead, heavy-metal guys.”

The image of the black metal scene at large was one of darkness and evil. Hebdige (1979) writes, “In most cases, it is the subculture’s stylistic innovations which first attract the media’s attention. Subsequently deviant or ‘anti-social’ acts—vandalism, swearing, fighting, ‘animal behaviour’—are ‘discovered’ by the police, the judiciary, the press; and these acts are used to ‘explain’ the subculture’s original transgression of sartorial codes. In fact, either deviant behaviour or the identification of a distinctive uniform (or more typically a combination of the two) can provide the catalyst for a moral panic” (p. 93). The moral panic that followed the church burnings illustrates how easily such a scene is vilified and labeled “Satanic.” Subcultures are largely imagistic and operate on the level of surfaces: Never mind that half the members of the bands involved are or were serving prison terms for their actions. A movement as such quickly becomes regarded as exclusively stylistic. Attaching Satan to a movement that was largely nationalist in nature is a move that occurs on the surface of the phenomenon.

In order to get under the skin of this scene, filmmakers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell moved to Norway and hung-out with Darkthrone’s Fenriz, Hellhammer from Mayhem, Frost from Satyricon, the guys in Immortal, and visited Vikernes in prison, among others. Throughout the film, it is the stalwarts of the scene who tell the story. Aites and Ewell make no appearance. Their placement in situ gives the film an immediacy that many narrated documentaries lack. If you’re at all interested in the Norwegian Black Metal scene or the chaos thereof, this film is indispensable.

Until the Light Takes Us is currently making its way around the country. Keep your eyes open.

Here’s the official trailer [runtime: 2:07]:

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References

Aites, A. & Ewell, A. (Directors). (2009). Until the light takes us [Motion picture]. United States: Field Pictures.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. New York: Routledge.

Moynihan, M. & Søderlind, D. (2003). Lords of chaos: The bloody rise of the Satanic metalunderground. Los Angeles: Feral House.

O’Hehir, A. (2009, December 6). Sympathy for the devil worshipers: Until the light takes us movie review. Retrieved on December 7, 2009 from Salon.com.