Apocalyptic Signs: how we improvise the search for meaning in disaster


During the last week, daily news of the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath has generated fear and a frenzy of analysis. Even though the scale and context is very different immediate references to September 11 2001 proliferated. One witness told the BBC it felt “like new York all over again” another witness described the aftermath to USA Today as “like a scene from 9/11”.

September 11 has become an archetype for contemporary apocalypse and concepts from apocalyptic studies can help us make sense of some of the news and the way it is being processed.

The apocalyptic is a world view found in all religions but in the West one which draws its ideas from the opaque last book of the bible: The Book Of Revelation. This book predicts the end of the world in a series of cryptic visions of wars, plagues, disasters, multi headed beasts and cruel torture that ultimately ushers in a new millennium – a thousand year reign of peace. When disaster strikes apocalyptic thinking creeps in. It has become a deeply embedded Western template for constructing contemporary events. In the words of feminist theologian Catherine Keller many groups from politicians to the news media are in the grip of an “apocalypse habit”.

Rhetorical use of calamity

Scholars have long argued that catastrophic events seed development of apocalyptic fervour. They have looked to the prevalence of social or natural catastrophic events or psychological dissatisfaction among apocalyptic groups to explain how a prevailing anomie or break down of social meaning interacts with a compelling event to produce an apocalyptic mindset. However in arguing for a rhetorical view of the apocalypse Stephen O’Leary argues that sociological or psychological explanations are not complete explanations of either specific or general outbreaks of apocalyptic fervour. He suggests that the persuasive force of apocalyptic argument is often the key facilitating factor:

“Even if we allow that events such as earthquakes, wars, and depressions are experienced as disasters by virtually everyone, not every event of this kind is accompanied by an increase in apocalyptic conversion. Some occurrences, on the other hand, are viewed as disasters because a rhetor succeeds in persuading an audience with this definition; and only rhetoric can turn any disaster, real or perceived, into a sign of the imminent end…The issue is not whether audiences are predisposed by such experiences to accept apocalyptic arguments, but how apocalypse contextualizes disasters as a ”rhetorical use of calamity.”

Although large sections of the media have quickly claimed this as an apocalyptic event screaming headlines of Terror, what has been notable in the response to the Boston Bombings is the restraint with which President Obama has framed the bombings: pleading with Americans to avoid a rush to judgment. Obama did engage with a “rhetorical use of calamity” but he chose to focus on the millennial – hopeful – aspects of the apocalyptic drama not the cataclysmic. He used the catastrophic events to assert that in the response to disaster Americans have “seen the character of our country once more.” In this way he reclaimed the apocalyptic as “revelation” of hope rather than calamity. This is in sharp contrast to President Bush’s post September 11 rhetoric of “an axis of evil” and an apocalyptic delineation of enemies: if you are not with us you are against us.

Semiotic promiscuity

Because the apocalyptic tradition emerges out of a series of cryptic visionary texts a key mark of the “apocalypse habit” is scouring “the signs of the times,” for “wars and rumours of wars” (Matt 26:6) that might confirm the pattern of the end times.

Richard Landes says that for those “who enter apocalyptic time everything quickens” and they become “semiotically aroused”, they seek patterns and meaning in both big and small events. Christopher Partridge calls this tendency to latch onto news and other events and view them through the apocalyptic frame: “semiotic promiscuity”. Albert Baumgarten argues that apocalyptic movements deploy what he terms a “spiritual radar” in this process:

“A spiritual radar goes on to seek confirmation of the millennial message in a variety of contexts, including events of the age, both good and bad (sometimes even good and bad at the very same time), chronological reckonings of different sorts and Biblical interpretation. This search proceeds by triangulation: as many different independent lines of argument as possible are developed to confirm the conclusion that the end is in fact near.”

As Jesse Walker has pointed out this mentality has clearly been on view in the media in the last week. Immediately after the bombings commentators were seeking clues: did this mesh with Al-Qaeda’s tactics, did the date – Patriot’s Day – indicate a homegrown right wing plot. The scanning of CCTV footage and other digital images by both the FBI and ameuter sleuths and the foraging on suspects social networking sites became a particularly contemporary versions of this apocalyptic “semiotic arousal”. But as one moderator of the crowdsourcing site Reddit acknowledged the frantic search for signs and tips can lead to “witch hunts” such as the targeting of missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi.

Improvisational millennialism

Michael Barkun points out that many of the contemporary millennial or apocalyptic groups do not fit the standard typology of either religious or secular. Some movements engage in what he calls “improvisational millennialism:” they draw from a variety of disparate sources such as Revelation, Nostradamus, “New Age” spirituality and right wing politics.

“The appeal of these collages lies in their claim to provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world. The variety of their elements implies that the belief system can explain a comparably wide range of phenomena, from spiritual to the scientific and the political. The combinations also suggest that apparent contradictions can be resolved, and that an underlying unity transcends outward differences.”

The emerging picture of Tsarnaev brothers does not suggest a clear ideological picture. Yes there are extremist videos on Tamerlan’s YouTube channel, but there is rap, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones on Dzhokhar’s Twitter account. The New York Times says they had feet in two worlds but the reality is like most contemporary multimedia literate youth their feet, their eyes and their hearts were dancing fast across many screens, drawn into many worlds.

It is very likely that they were improvising anger – drawing signs from many sources and a range of ideologies – just as we have been trying to improvise hope and meaning as we confront disaster and tragedy. This does not make either their anger or our hope any less real or troubling.


Why America is still in the grip of torture

Jessica Chastain play's Zero Dark Thirty's obsessive CIA hero.

Jessica Chastain play’s Zero Dark Thirty’s obsessive CIA hero.

Last week the LA premier of Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was picketed by hood wearing activists protesting its depiction of torture. In Washington, outside the Whitehouse, Codepink, the feminist peace group, were protesting the announcement that John Brennan, a former CIA analyst said to have supported the Bush torture and rendition programs had been nominated to be the Director of Central Intelligence.

Four years after George Bush left the Whitehouse and just as President Obama is about to be inaugurated for his second term. The issue of torture is still a raw wound in the American psyche.

Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, is an Oscars contender for best film but it has been causing controversy even before production began. It begins with graphic torture scenes and its critics say it leaves the impression that information extracted from prisoners under torture was critical in locating the al Qaida leader. Three US senators, Diane Feinstein chair of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Carl Lewin chair of the Armed Services committee and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, found this implication so disturbing they have sent a letter of protest to Sony, the picture’s producers. Naomi Kline went so far as to call Bigelow a Leni Riefenstahl apologist for torture.

The Senators wrote that their staff had reviewed 6 million pages of intelligence material in the course of a recent review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and it “is factually inaccurate” for the film to “imply that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden”.

The senators are fulsome in their condemnation of torture:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.

The senator’s language about “going back to these dark times” seems to echo president Obama’s justification for not prosecuting Bush era crimes by stating that he believes the nation needs “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

It is striking that in spite of her condemnation of torture Senator Feinstein took quite a different view of Brennan’s nomination, releasing a statement saying:

Clearly, Mr. Brennan has the qualifications and expertise to be the next CIA Director.  He has longstanding knowledge of the operations of this critical agency and also the strength to see that it follows the law.  I believe he will be a strong and positive director.

When it was rumored that Obama would nominate Brennan for the CIA job four years ago, at the start of his first term, Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration because of his apparent support of Bush era torture policies. As a number of commentators have pointed out (here and here ) that four years on this does not seem to be an insurmountable hurdle. Polls suggest that more Americans now support torture as a valid policy in the fight against terrorism than they did four years ago.

It is tempting to argue that that is because the American public have become inoculated to the horrors of torture through its recurrent use in TV series like 24 or movies like Bigelow’s. That argument is an easy out. The more serious reason is that Obama has failed to hold anyone to account for the Bush torture and rendition policies. Even cases of brutal detainee deaths have been dismissed.  It is not just left wing activists who are calling these Bush era policies “war crimes.” In 2008 Major General Antonio Taguba who headed the inquiry into Abu Ghraib wrote:

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Both Bigelow’s film and Brennan’s nomination have become lightening rods for controversy and protest because as Senator Feinstein and her colleagues wrote in their letter of protest:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience.

This stain will not disappear. Perhaps Obama is right that no good purpose will be served by prosecutions but perhaps he should learn from other countries who have initiated strong process of national reconciliation and accountability. In a 2009 conference presentation Paul van Zyl the former executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested that America needed a similar process in the post-Bush era. It was briefly reported but is not an idea that gained traction.

There have been a series of reports and investigations such as the investigation into the CIA’s practices that Feinstein’s committee has overseen but the report has not been made public. Reports of the details of the Bush torture program have leaked out gradually through the hard work of journalists and activists rather than in a cohesive transparent process that is designed to come to terms with such a fundamental breach of national values.

Just as the Australian federal government has finally decided that only a full Royal Commission can address the national horror around child abuse only a national US commission of inquiry can hope to lay to rest the ongoing American and international horror around state sponsored torture.


Incestuous Amplification

The wisdom from political commentators last night seemed to be that Rumsfeld would be given a reprieve in spite of the election results. The history of the Bush regime shows heel digging as a common response to critique. But maybe the decider has just had enough this time. He admitted to reporters today that he lied when asked about Rumie last week because it was the only way to get them to go onto the next question in pre-election week. No one has made much of this admission – it seems that it is suddenly acceptable for the president to lie to reporters when it is politically expedient.

The rules of the political-media game used to be that you could obfiscate and avoid but never lie. But Bush seems quite happy to admit to this lie and expects everyone to understand its necessity.

Lying in politics takes different forms it is not often presented as blatantly as this. One of its forms is what John Stauber calls “incestuous amplification” – the repetition and reinforcement of political spin by a tight cadre of players. WMD is the prime example. But a lot of the talk during Rumsfeld’s resignation today is similar, even people like McCain who have had huge disagreements with him over war strategy felt the need to compliment him.

Rumsfeld himself, of course, praised the President:

“The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war– the first war of the 21st century. ” Rumsfeld said. “it is not well-known, It was not well-understood. It is complex for people to comprehend, and I know with certainty that over time the contributions you’ve made will be recorded by history”

The first draft of such history is already being written and as we all know is no where near as complimentary. I am currently reading Woodward’s State of Denial and “dysfunctional” – the word that everyone is using – does not even cover the half of it. Rumsfeld comes across as a deeply neurotic control freak and George – I go with my gut – Bush as something like the Moousketeer-in-chief.

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Treasonable journalism

There has been quite bit written about Pulitzers for Treason by right wing columnists in the US, following the Times‘ award for breaking the story about the NSA domestic wiretaps. But MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman got a shock when all of the reader responses to a recent column were anti-Times. Here’s some of the comments:

“Your last piece on the Pulitzers includes this gem: ‘If anything, the Pulitzer vindicates the (New York) Times as a hard-hitting and public-spirited news operation.’ No, it simply shows them to be law-breaking cowards (yes disclosing this program by using the sources they used is a violation of the law). How you can conclude that an award handed to a MSM (or “mainstream media”) outlet by a totally MSM-stacked committee shows anything other than the completely out of touch nature of the MSM is beyond comprehension!”

“You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong!” another reader named Steve Dansker wrote.

“First off, the Pulitzer is a popularity contest among those that constitute the Board. Look at the orgs these folks come from: most Awards seem to go to folks on the same papers (or is it just my imagination?).”

He added: “Get real: the ‘breaking of the NSA story’ was not a ‘break’ at all. It was in fact a traitorous act. The authors couldn’t have given more of a damn who it hurt or KILLED! They just wanted to (1) blacken the eye of a Republican Administration, and (2) get some notoriety. Do you really think this story would have been written if Gore had won? I think not!”

These comments don’t just attest to a fractious blue/red America, they highlight serious trouble facing the media. Surveys have for a long time shown that consumers have an uneasy alliance with media they read/watch. Many seem to believe that journalists are in the same category as used-car salesman when it comes to trustworthiness.

But these comments about the Pulitzers show something very disturbing about the current media environment. I think the last comment is most telling. It comes from a particularly skewed fantasy about journalism.

As a journalist I know that a big newspaper would have published the wiretap story no matter who it concerned because it is such a shattering story. I know nothing about the personal politics of the Times reporters who broke the story but as professional journalists no matter what their colors they would have been aware of the enormity of the story. In the end – and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the ideology of the big story, over rides all others for journalists.

But maybe this is not so different to Watergate when, at least initially, Nixon’s supporters were dismissive of what they perceived as biased liberal press attacks. But if the ideas expressed by Friedman’s readers are widespread this does not bode well at a time when the whole relationship between journalism, government, their sources, their respective privileges and responsibilities is under deep scrutiny.

News, Community Service and TV drama

Monday’s episode of 24 began with a casually dressed Kiefer Sutherland and a message for viewers:

“Hi. My name is Kiefer Sutherland. And I play counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer on Fox’s ‘24’. I would like to take a moment to talk to you about something that I think is very important. Now while terrorism is obviously one of the most critical challenges facing our nation and the world, it is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching 24, please, bear that in mind.”

The episode continued the story line of an American Muslim sleeper cell who had been planning a massive attack on the nation’s nuclear power plants for years. One of the focuses of the episode was the attempt by one of the lead terrorists to find and kill his fifteen year old son who had begun to have cold feet. He says to his distraught wife: “We can allow nothing to interfere with what we have worked for. We will have time to mourn later.”

The episode was as usual punctuated with ads for the news, which concerned terrorism. This connection to wold events was firmly made with the extended “news break” that was shown at the end of the program. The lead items included: the arrest of one of the London bombers and discussion of his statements that the second attacks were only meant to scare, this was disputed by a legal expert who speculated that this was only a ploy to establish a good story for court. This was followed without a break about the case of a local muslim Qantas baggage handler who was being tried for terrorist links, he was shown handcuffed and in arabic garb. Next we were told that PM JH had contested the assertion of those on trial for the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that the attack was payback for Australian involvement with Iraq.

Where as 24 presents its transitions between the simultaneous events being narrated with breakout frames and multiple screens, the news coverage of these three events was presented with a continuous stream of images and voice over and only verbal transitions such as: “In London/In a sydney court/in Indonesia”. One of the effects of this breathless presentation is to collapse the events into a single narrative and the narrative is not about possible motivations or the events themselves it is about the overarching story line of “Muslim Terrorists”.

The news then segued into another program: Threat Matrix, also about an elite counter-terrorism unit and in one of the early ad breaks Kiefer Sutherland was again urging us not to stereotype Muslims.

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24 Season 4

Jack Audrey Heller Driscoll

The synergy between news and entertainment was apparent in the Australian premiere of season 4 of 24 tonight.

The first episode begins with a train bombed and derailed by terrorists, then, cross to the first ad break: a news update which leads with the latest on the London subway bombing.

The double episode ended with the usual promo for next week with the announcer urging us to tune in to see “what lengths the terrorists will go to”. After the credits Seven led into an extended news update which included footage of London’s mayor Ken Livingston catching a train and a “back-to-work-we-wont-let-them-win” theme.

The dialectic between the visceral build up of tension produced by the “live” structure of 24 and its hero’s inevitable triumph is mirrored in the contrasting message of terror and hope embodied in a grim-faced Livingston boarding a train. Although 24 plays the traditional hero myth it also re-wrote the rules of this serial genre by allowing the death of key figures such as Jack’s wife in series one. We know that Jack will win but we can no longer be sure at what cost.

Similarly the news is constantly telling us that “we” will win even though we can no longer be sure “what lengths the terrorists will go to”.

Other news included John Howard’s denial that Britain was preparing a withdrawal from Iraq which would necessitate Australia sending more troops but a confirmation that Australia would be sending further troops to Afghanistan. This reminder of the nexus between Australian, British and US military operations highlighted the “reality” of the 24 terrorists claim that this was an “us” (muslim) against “you” (western nations) battle.

In this new world the best we can do is get up and get back on the train. Just like Livingston. Just like Jack.

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The Governator

One of the fascinating sessions in the Superheroes conference was the keynote by Louise Krasniewicz about the Arnie factor (check out her Arnie hypertext project). Titled “True Lies Superhero: Do we really want our icons to come to life?” it rehearsed many of the themes from her great book Why Arnold Matters?

She made the point that even the serious media was obsessed with merging the movie characters Arnold has played, his movie star persona and his emergence as a politician in coverage of his campaign in the Californian recall election. They did this by relying on easy recourse to “Governator” imagery and commentary. This is still the case, as she showed with a recent clip from a California daily on the governor’s falling poll ratings. After 12 months in office this story – which has nothing to do with movie star Arnold – is still illustrated by a Terminator still.

An article in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald showed this very clearly and even imposes the action man figure into local NSW politics.

What can NSW learn from Arnold Schwarzenegger? When it comes to energy it may be a fair bit. After booting out the Democrat governor Gray Davis for taking California’s energy system to near collapse, The Governator stormed in and has begun the essential rebuilding of the state’s electricity system….With the focus and vigour of his most famous screen character, Schwarzenegger recently made public a 10-point plan for a modern 21st century energy system. Some in the old guard urged him to focus only on supply oriented alternatives for keeping the lights on in the country’s biggest state. However, his plan relies on a combination of new and old, of supply and demand.

The story is actually about the success of sophisticated multiple rate devices which encourage consumers to use cheaper energy during off peak periods but what is fascinating about the piece is the portrayal of governor Schwarzenegger as an action hero: it’s all about his kinesthetic body: he “booted out” Gray Davis then he “stormed in” and started “rebuilding”. The inescapable paradox of this language comes in the next sentence which explicitly references “the focus and vigour of his most famous screen character”. What was the result of this Terminator like vigour: a ten point plan, which is not an action response but a typical bureaucratic response. So while we are treated to an image of the heroic Schwarzenegger doing something new this action sequence masks his actual response which is typically cautious and orderly.

The other fascinating thing is that this op-ed piece is written by someone who has an interesting pedigree herself: “Cathy Zoi is group executive director of Bayard Capital, a private investment group. She was previously chief executive of the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority and chief of staff of Environmental Policy in the Clinton White House.” The Bayard group is now running a trial of the metering devices in NSW. So while this is situated as an op-ed piece on policy options from a former government policy advisor it is essentially using the Arnie factor as a celebrity endorsement for a scheme her company hopes to convince the NSW government to take-up.

Both Zoi’s position with the group and Bayard’s involvement in NSW are mentioned in the article and the connection is there to be made by careful readers. But like the contradiction between the imagery of the governator and the reality of his political actions, the blur between Zoi as policy wonk and policy salesperson are also blurred by this kind of journalism

Bush on good and evil

Howard Kurtz has an interview with Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer about his memoir Taking the Heat. Mostly a critique of the “liberal media” but one interesting insider insight on Bush:

“Taking Heat” makes clear that Fleischer is a true believer who got a thrill from such things as playing catch with the president on the South Lawn. The book does contain one hint of disagreement with the boss, though, when Fleischer, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, told the president during a limo ride that the issue of terrorism “was more complicated than ‘good versus evil.’ ”

“If this isn’t good versus evil, what is?” Bush replied, adding that Ronald Reagan didn’t go to Berlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to take a few bricks out of that wall.

“The president has a morally declarative speaking style that makes millions of people nervous,” Fleischer says. “It also makes millions of people inspired.”

Although this is clearly reflective of the Bush approach, another comment in the interview also rings very true and shows this dichotomising approach is reinforced by the theatrical adversariality of contemporary press/politics relations:

Pressed about his penchant for robotic spin, Fleischer says both he and White House reporters have become performers since the White House began allowing the daily sessions to be televised: “The modern-day briefing room has lost a lot of its value. The press is playing its aggressive role and the press secretary is playing a defensive role. The press focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything wrong?’ and the press secretary, myself included, focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything good?’ “


I have just come across Snow the seventh novel from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in the NYT list of 10 top books for 2004. According to Margaret Attwood who reviewed it for the NYT:

Although it’s set in the 1990’s and was begun before Sept. 11, ”Snow” is eerily prescient, both in its analyses of fundamentalist attitudes and in the nature of the repression and rage and conspiracies and violence it depicts.

Like Pamuk’s other novels, ”Snow” is an in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul. It’s the story of Ka, a gloomy but appealing poet who hasn’t written anything in years. But Ka is not his own narrator: by the time of the telling he has been assassinated, and his tale is pieced together by an ”old friend” of his who just happens to be named Orhan.

I must follow up on this because I have been looking for a series of non-American texts that might form a counterpoint to my analysis of mainstream American blockbusters. Interestingly Attwood situates Pamuk in a genre she calls the “Male Labyrinth Novel” and places him in the company of DeLillo and Auster who I have also been looking at.

The twists of fate, the plots that double back on themselves, the trickiness, the mysteries that recede as they’re approached, the bleak cities, the night prowling, the sense of identity loss, the protagonist in exile — these are vintage Pamuk, but they’re also part of the modern literary landscape. A case could be made for a genre called the Male Labyrinth Novel, which would trace its ancestry through De Quincey and Dostoyevsky and Conrad, and would include Kafka, Borges, Garcia Marquez, DeLillo and Auster, with the Hammett-and-Chandler noir thriller thrown in for good measure.

Attwood also suggests that narrative is an essential element to Pamuk’s novelising:

If Ka were to run true to the form of Pamuk’s previous novels, he might take refuge in stories. Stories, Pamuk has hinted, create the world we perceive: instead of ”I think, therefore I am,” a Pamuk character might say, ”I am because I narrate.” It’s the Scheherazade position, in spades. But poor murdered Ka is no novelist: it’s up to ”Orhan” to act as his Horatio.