A Sense of Apocalypse

Technology, Textuality, Identity

by Marcin Mazurek (Author)
©2014 Monographs 138 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 40


Reaching into the depths of the collective unconscious, A Sense of Apocalypse explores and re-interprets one of the West’s primordial fears, namely that of the apocalyptic closure of both cultural praxis and individual experience. Yet, in contrast to popular connotations of the term, apocalypse is viewed here in terms of a transitional narrative locating the subject at the intersection of technological determinism, pop-cultural imagination, postmodern urbanism and digital textuality. All these form the components of a new post-apocalyptic landscape, which not only produces a new identity informed by dissolving post-Enlightenment paradigms, but also conjures up hints at a large number of existential possibilities triggered by late-capitalist technologies and their cultural consequences.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The Argument
  • Chapter One: From Pre-Apocalyptic Tropes to Post-Apocalyptic Metaphors
  • 1. Representing the Non-Representable
  • 2. Domesticating the Threat
  • 3. 9/11
  • 4. Theorising the End
  • 5. Science Fiction, Technology, Identity
  • Chapter Two: The Violence of Revelation
  • 1. Violence
  • 2. Revelation
  • 3. Theory of Apocalypse vs. Apocalypse of Theory
  • Chapter Three: Technology Unbound
  • 1. Technology and the Social
  • 2. From the Industrial to the Postindustrial
  • 3. Visions and Identities
  • 4. Maps and Territories
  • Chapter Four: Textual Spaces and Spatial Textualities
  • 1. The Ontology of Terminal Space
  • 2. Hypertext: Poststructuralist Theory into Terminal Practice
  • 3. Cityscapes and Cyber-Realms
  • Chapter Five: Identity and Its Discontents
  • 1. Posthumanism Revisited: Identity on the Move
  • 2. Posthumanist into Posthuman
  • 3. Snow Crash: Split Presence and Translucent Bodies
  • 4. Terminal Identity as the Third
  • Conclusion: Apocalypse and the Postmodern
  • Bibliography
  • Books
  • Films
  • Series Index

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The Argument

Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

— Morpheus, The Matrix 1

The overall assumption underlying this book is that of a multi-layered paradigmatic change in our thinking of technology, the subject, the relationship between the two, and the ways in which this relationship is represented. The paradigm shift in question, though largely coinciding with numerous postmodern and poststructuralist postulates, is primarily concerned with the impact that postindustrial technologies exert upon experience and, by extension, upon the process of identity formation. This process, combining cultural theory with cultural praxis, is considered here against the background of representational and discursive practices it provokes and informs.

Both elements, the rampant development of electronic technologies and the theoretical reconfiguration of the subject’s premises, not only narrow the distance between theory and practice but, first of all, force us to redefine and re-interpret a large number of discursive claims regarding those ideas which play a formative role in the process of identity construction. This is because one of the most distinctive tones of the discourse in question, borne out of a peculiar clash of postmodern theory with visual and textual representations, is the pervasive sense of distrust towards traditional modes of depicting such cornerstones of identity as space, body, locale, relationship with nature, reliability of the sign and, last but definitely not least, the status of the real.

The conviction of technology’s fundamental influence is supported by the belief that contemporary technologies, particularly those of electronic origin, long ago ceased to function as mere tools whose sole purpose is to facilitate human daily operations. Instead, they have become the very core of both present and future systems, “allowing for the existence of the social as such.” 2 Not only did those technologies’ ubiquity alter and expand traditional modes of communication, social relationships and modes of exercising political power, but it also significantly reduced the gap between the born and the produced. The traditional dichotomy of human vs. technological has been vividly challenged and in many cases rendered non-existent. Whether ← 9 | 10 → we adopt Marshall McLuhan’s enthusiastic view that current technological capabilities serve as “the extensions of man,” 3 or, on the contrary, conform to the voices of anxiety announcing the decay and weakening of human control, it seems inevitable that
“[t]echnology and the human are no longer so dichotomous.” 4 As J. G. Ballard famously put it: “[s]cience and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.” 5

Seen from this angle, technology becomes the subject’s new natural environment, dramatically restructuring human cognitive horizon. This restructurisation involves, to use Mark Hansen’s term, a process of technesis, or “putting-into-discourse of technology.” 6 As he explains, “[v]iewed in this manner, technologies generate new types of human (or posthuman) embodiment that should lead us to question the privilege we grant thought in determining what constitutes identity and agency.” 7 In other words, technology plays a fundamental role in the process of identity formation through a direct influence upon the subject’s cognitive apparatus, thus questioning the legitimacy of the opposition between the human and the technological.

Yet, if the new subject is to emerge or be constructed successfully, the old one must be erased effectively. And this is where the metaphorically understood notion of apocalypse, supported by textual and representational strategies of the science fiction discourse, comes into play. SF’s main preoccupation has always been a paradigmatic shift, whether spatio-temporal or philosophical. As Scott Bukatman maintains:
“[s]cience fiction was always predicated upon continuous, perceptible change [...]. In its most radical aspect [it] narrates the dissolution of the most fundamental structures of human existence.” 8

It is precisely this radical gesture of dissolving “the most fundamental structures” which justifies the applicability of apocalypse as an operational metaphor. A powerful signifier, apocalypse remains double-coded; it denotes violent decomposition of the old and at the same time reveals the emergence of the new. The concept’s inherent incompleteness, coupled with its narrative potential (further discussed in chapter one) implicitly problematises the legitimacy of any “fundamental structures” and, as a result, locates apocalypse in the context of transitional narratives, highlighting its inevitable presence at all moments of paradigmatic change. ← 10 | 11 →

Technological fantasies, though often trivialising the issue of paradigm switch due to commercial requirements, vividly narrate numerous aspects and consequences of technologically-stimulated evolution. Those consequences’ complexity, combined with the newly emerging technological contours of experience, provide the foundation of both the “end” of the pre-electronic subject, and the subsequent “birth” of a new one—approached and defined against the background of a digital horizon.

Still, the scope of technologically motivated changes goes far beyond the already-mentioned stability of social and economic systems. Not so long ago, to determine a citizen’s position solely within the techno-cybernetic system of a postindustrial state seemed only a remote possibility, both futuristic and somewhat threatening. Today, such an operation is considered an unsophisticated daily routine, as the great majority of people living in the Western world are defined through their social security numbers, credit card numbers, various ID numbers, etc. This cyber-bureaucratic environment does not even try to conceal its invasive aspirations: on top of all those numbers is one’s mobile phone PIN—Personal Identity (!) Number—an indispensable secret and private password guaranteeing participation in advanced systems of wireless communication.

Hansen’s remark has been quoted above also due to its strict interdependence with the Cartesian framework of reference. The critique of “the privilege we grant thought in determining what constitutes identity” clearly points to the oft-quoted and oft-contested Cartesian formula equating thinking, or more precisely, reasoning, with being. For a number of contemporary techno-critics, this standpoint remains provocative for at least two reasons. First of all, Descartes’ prescription implicitly conveys a neat vision of reality nicely cut up in binary oppositions and hence easily analysable by the rational mind equipped with an appropriate method of investigation. Secondly, Descartes’ dictum contains a strong conviction about human superiority, independence and control over the mechanical. At stake is a worldview depicting technology in merely practical and functional terms and thus depriving it of any kind of feedback-loop power. The relationship between the human and the mechanical is one-directional; the human is in no way to be influenced, let alone determined, by the machine. It is the man (rather than the woman) who establishes the framework of machine operation, not the other way round, and to think otherwise, Descartes suggests, is ridiculous. In his Discourse on the Method he illustrates this unquestioned human superiority through the analysis of a then-hypothetical situation of man-like machines trying to pass themselves off as humans. Machines of that sort, argues Descartes, even if they looked exactly like human beings, would nevertheless be immediately identified by their lack of reasoning and communicative abilities, qualities which even “the dullest of men” possess. Writes Descartes:

[these machines] could never use words, or put together other signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed ← 11 | 12 → that it utters words, and even utters words which correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs […]. But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.9


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
posthumanism science fiction cyberpunk postmodernism Descartes, Rene popular cinema
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 138 pp., 1 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Marcin Mazurek (Author)

Marcin Mazurek is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Cultures and Literatures at the University of Silesia (Poland). His research focuses on postmodern theory, culture-technology relationship and visual culture. He is the author of a number of articles in the above-mentioned fields.


Title: A Sense of Apocalypse