The End of History 2:
Stagnant Boogaloo (Synder Cut)

Last month I wrote about the strange reception Capitalist Realism gets in the present, especially when readers see how scathing Mark was about his students. But those who take umbrage at this are, in my experience, either too young to remember 2009 or suffer from Noughties Amnesia.

Noughties Amnesia is real. Not only is it real, but it is also prevalent. I feel like I have only recently begun to wrestle with my own amnesia, focussing hard on the specific cultural products of that era and the specific Noughties conditions that gave rise to them. In so doing, I’ve realised just how reluctant others are to consider the cultural influence of 2002-2009 on our present.

When we look back on music from this time, 9/11 casts a long shadow. When I look back on music I liked during that decade, for instance, there feels like a clear “hauntological” line drawn in the sand around 2002 — the year of The Disintegration Loops, Geogaddi, House Arrest. Before then, we had Kid A, Drukqs, The Glow Pt. 2, CLOUDDEAD, Verpertine, Confield, Voodoo, Deltron 3030. We still had a future. Then, in 2003 and 2004, we saw the first Animal Collective albums, Joanna Newsom arrived on the scene, and so did Kanye with “Through the Wire”. Lightning Bolt released Wonderful Rainbow. Neopsychedelia and freak folk emerge as a sort of resilient flipside to an otherwise dark new era. By mid-decade, we’re achieved optimal balance — Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead rubs shoulders with Scott Walker’s The Drift and the first Burial record. Kode9 and the Spaceape made what I think is the defining album of that era, Memories of the Future, whilst Joanna Newsom, Beck, LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective continued to go from strength to post-hippie strength.

Maybe there’s little insight in pointing out that there were both happy and sad albums released over the course of that decade, but there is something specific to the Noughties about these developments. There is a certain resonance between these various sonic extremes that paint the decade as a way of coming to terms with some pretty difficult stuff. 9/11, yes, but also a lot more than that — the death of rave, the end of the counterculture, a pop-modernist sensibility wrestling with a growing sense of the “post-“. If we want to understand where we’re at now, or at least where we’ve just been in the 2010s, surely these are the cultural products we need to be turning to and thinking about more deeply.

But what I’ve noticed very recently is that we’re not that keen on doing that. We tend to skip over the Noughties altogether as a misstep, instead reaching for far-flung examples from the twentieth century in order to speak to the present.

This was something that I noticed pop up in response to my recent tweet about Zack Synder’s 300 and his more recent extended “cuts”. 300 is a film I’ve thought a lot about recently. I think it was responsible for triggering some of the initial questions that would grow into the accelerationist blogosphere. In particular, there is Steven Shaviro’s critique of Žižek’s reading of the film (which first appeared in Lacanian Ink and then, later, in his book In Defense of Lost Causes). Žižek defends the film as a nod to a kind of Marxist-Leninist militancy that isn’t just fantastical propaganda for the right but could be utilised by the left. He draws on Badiou to give his argument a foundation. “We need a popular disciple”, Badiou says, and he would later be vindicated when Occupy failed to organise properly and change the world. Shaviro takes up this question and relates it to various post-Ccru problematics, regarding affirmation and negativity in relation to contemporary politics, and relates this to “the new” and the question of “what is to be done?” Alex Williams and Benjamin Noys soon put an even finer point on these questions.

To my mind, then, 300 is so utterly of its time. It raised some very specific questions about the moment it was released. It also had considerable cultural influence — it gave rise to one of the first memes; it was heralded as a huge technical achievement given how it was made; it was the peak of Hollywood’s (retrospectively reactionary) Frank Miller fever. It is a 2000s movie if ever there was one.

And yet, when tweeting about how Snyder’s influence has continued into the present — in which he’s still making very reactionary superhero movies but from the newly fetishised position of an editorial auteur — his 2000s example was repeatedly deferred. Two challenges over 300‘s influence came from the 1970s and the 1990s respectively. “What is new about 300?” someone suggested. “What about Dirty Harry?” “What about Fight Club?” suggested someone else. 300 is just another example in a long line of reactionary Hollywood blockbusters. There’s nothing special about it. In fact, you could argue that Dirty Harry is a better precursor to our current reactionary moment than 300 is.

I appreciate this argument but I disagree. There is always something special about it. The issue here — again, much like in last month’s conversations around “anti-hauntology” — is that our failure to consider what has changed is part of the problem. Yes, 300 and Dirty Harry are two reactionary movies, but Dirty Harry, released in 1971, is far closer in time to Nixon’s 1972 election victory than Trump’s. Nixon and Trump obviously share many similarities — we might even say Trump is little more than a Nixon reboot — but in leaping over 300 to reach for Dirty Harry as a reference, we also leap over any potential analysis of what has changed between now and then. Though they might have appeared in orbit of two similar presidencies, Dirty Harry and 300 couldn’t be more different as far as films go. And that’s interesting to me. It should not be a question of how this line of reaction has continued but rather how it has come to be repeated. If we want to be good little Deleuzians here — and I think many readers of this blog do — surely we must remain attentive to what is different and what is a repetition? When we reach mindlessly into our more culturally accepted histories, we remove the possibility of such an analysis.

That is, in part, why I’m being such a stickler for recent history at the moment. It is on this shorter timeline, where the 21st century is considered on its own terms rather than on the terms of the 20th century, that I think real cultural analysis can be extracted. All the more reason to consider the start of Synder’s career to its current developments. Have the politics of his film’s changed much? I don’t think so. He continues to produce postmodern Homeric epics. But whereas, as Žižek points out, 300 is a claustrophobic little movie — “shot in a warehouse in Montreal, with the entire background and many persons and objects digitally constructed … the artificial (digital) nature of the background creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, as if the story does not take place in ‘real’ reality with its endless open horizons, but in a ‘closed world,’ a kind of relief-world of closed space” — his more recent and more expansive films suggest a very different world is emerging.

This is to say that the fact Synder has kept his politics but now produces four-hour epics with largely the same digital process echoes an ideological development that far outstretches Nixon’s short-lived second term. It suggests a further reboot, where the end of neoliberalism’s capacity to innovate starts to resemble its beginnings — like a new Star Wars movie, attempting to hit all the same notes as the first Seventies outing, albeit with all the contemporary aesthetic preferences. But the fact it is a reboot is unimportant. It is far more pressing that we consider what has changed — that is, what is it that is different, which can be smuggled into the status quo with ease, precisely because it is attached to something already familiar — and, in the process, make it more legible. As such, our current feelings of stagnation might feel like the perpetual current of the Long Nineties but I don’t think that is the case. We only see continuity when we ourselves stand still. But there is change and we should pay more attenion to it.

The End of History 2: Stagnant Boogalo (Synder Cut) might have all the hallmarks of the first stagnation but, if we’re not careful, we’ll find this one to be far longer and more oppressive in its dominance.

Remember the Noughties. That’s where the real lessons lie. That’s where all the best lines of flight lie buried.

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