"In the early 1970s the disaster film enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, beginning with breakthrough hits such as the Poseidon AdventureTowering InfernoEarthquake and Airport, and re-emerged in the 1990s in a computer-enhanced form. These depictions of the complete destruction of the familiar, and of our collective punishment for technocratic hubris, provided ample escapist fantasy. But the disaster film never allowed the annihilation to be complete; the cataclysmic always allowed a kind of redemption, in which confrontations with death culminated in a new beginning. We could then discard the very history that lurked as the most troubling undercurrent of rationalist expansion in the service of modernity, free to begin anew. Our debt to the past was now paid as a final penance on the way to social utopia. From the ashes of disaster liberal-capitalist democracy could reinvent itself as the utopia it promised but never delivered. The very real social inequalities and economic challenges to American capitalism (the deep recession of the early 1990s and urban unrest that struck American cities) echoed the situation the late 1960s and early 70s. We could forget the Los Angeles riots because the city was a now a smoking crater, with the survivors banded together around the American flag that now operated as a collective symbol of redemption and forgetting.

While these films sublimate and reconfigure the anxieties of western democratic capitalism, they are prefigured, in the 1970s and 90s, by films that concern themselves directly with the construction of subjectivity within an apocalyptically amoral society. This social catastrophe reaffirms and reconstitutes what might be considered a traditional retro-subject in jeopardy. The signature vehicles for such stars as John Wayne and Bruce Willis insistently assert this re-emergence of the modern anti-hero. Moments of crisis are used to reveal our need for such ‘real men’, whose alienation from society is marked by their reflection of the harsh realities that lie beneath the safety of social order. But Hollywood fantasy is not the only location for realising this return. Shortly after September 11th, the mythical ‘real men’ that were our working-class heroes were heralded as the new model for the masculine, the trend celebrated even in the sober pages of The New York Times. The traditional masculinity of men who spoke with actions and not words assured us that our rugged individualism could again double for our national identity. This mythology provided comfort, and gave us permission to ride the globe like cowboys searching for the ultimate villains of our consumerist polity.

— extracted from ”Notes on the Subject Without Qualities: From the Cowboy Flaneur to Mr Smith" by Walead Beshty, in Afterall No. 8, Autumn/Winter 2003.

Photographs by Geert Goiris, Gregory Halpern, Bryan Schutmaat and Curran Hatleberg.


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