Friday, 28 August 2015

Apocalyptic Sentiments: A Reading of 'Filming the Doomsday Clock'

As it has been a while, I thought that this entry would be a return to poetry. By a while, I also mean that it has been some time since I last engaged with poetry critically, and have felt a mighty need to return to it. This year, I have been fortunate enough to be able to study Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy in great detail, but focusing on something both more succinct and more modern makes for a refreshing change of pace. 

This entry's poem was written by Mary Jo Bang, a poet whose work I am reading for the first time as I prepare to write this analysis. As with most of my poetry analyses, the aim is to focus on the text itself and to present some of the connections/allusions which come to mind whilst I am reading it, rather than to provide a heavily analytic discussion. I almost chose to write on An Autopsy of an Era, but instead have chosen Filming the Doomsday Clock. It goes as follows:

Filming the Doomsday Clock
We were told that the cloud cover was a blanket
about to settle into the shape of the present
which, if we wanted to imagine it
as a person, would undoubtedly look startled—
as after a verbal berating
or in advance of a light pistol-whipping.
The camera came and went, came and went,
like a masked man trying to light a too-damp fuse.
The crew was acting like a litter of mimics
trying to make a killing.
Anything to fill the vacuum of time.
The wind whirred and tracked the clouds.
The credits, we were told, would take the form
of a semi-scrawl, urban-sprawl, graffiti-style
typography. The soundtrack would include
instrumental versions of "Try a Little Tenderness."
Our handler, who was walking backward
in order to maintain constant eye contact with us,
nearly stumbled over a girl in a sheath and pearls
who was misting a shelf of hothouse flowers.
While the two apologized to each other,
we stood and watched the fine spray settle
over the leaves and drip onto the floor.
On the way out, we passed a door
with a small window reinforced with wired glass
through which we could see a nurse
positioning a patient on a table. We swore
afterward we'd heard her say, "Lie perfectly still
and look only inward." A clock chimed and
as the others were audibly counting backwards
from five to zero, I thought I heard someone say,
"Now let go of this morbid attachment to things."

First, the title. Already we have a fatalism introduced into the mix. From the outset, we are led into thinking of the end of things. The doomsday clock, for any who are unfamiliar is a conceptual clock-face which represents the proximity of the current situation to widespread global disaster (either in the form of irrevocable climate change, nuclear disaster or some other irreversible event), We also have the word "Filming" which situates us further within contemporary society and introduces connotations of modern technology and modern media culture.

This association with modern media, particularly media in the form of large news corporations is reinforced with the first line. The line itself is formulated as a recording of an address. The plural subject, the "We" that is set up as the first perspective of the poem, is passive in that it is being told, rather than doing the telling. That they are passively receiving a message is an allusion to the passivity with which the modern mass, the "We", interact with massive news corporations. 

The first line contains a further allusion, this time perhaps to climate change, one of the major contenders amongst those things which might make the doomsday clock strike midnight. The mention of a meteorological phenomenon 'cloud cover' opens the poem with this environmental connection, but that the clouds are specifically mentioned as 'cover' furthers the potential commentary on mass media culture, subtly introducing the idea of the media as an impediment to the truth.

Moving on to the second line; that the the clouds are about to 'settle into the shape of the present' is likely indicative of the volatile nature of things. As one can imagine, a doomsday setting (of course, the poem is implying that we are already approaching, of not already part of, this setting) is a time of upheaval and chaos as the structures under which life is lived begin to collapse. Yet, the phrasing is not simply indicating that things are chaotic and that they will settle, but that they will take 'the shape of the present', which places us at the end of the process. The outcome of this settling is now. 

We then move on to a few lines of overt personification. The present is transformed into a 'startled' person, but only, as it says, if 'we wanted to imagine it/as a person'. Carrying on the media reading of the poem, which I seem to have become rather entrenched in, we could take this as the distorting effect the relaying of a narrative can have about the truth of events. Yet this distortion is not a complete removal of reality. It is not an warped understanding, but it is very much changed. Events, whilst shaped by people, are not literally the people themselves (though philosophically there might be a discussion to be had here), yet here the events are being transformed not into people but into a single individual. That this individual is displaying an emotion, fear, makes them all the more real. Furthermore, the description of the fear as akin to that pertaining to 'a verbal berating' (notably a social punishment) or 'in advance of a light pistol-whipping' (the act of using a firearm as a physical weapon, notably here it is only 'light') does serve to provide a character of the 'present'. We are being told something by this metaphor, rather than nothing, but what we are being told has been transformed and changed so much from what it is to what we hear of it being, through this fictionalised media, that it is incredibly different. Like so much of mass media, we can hear grains of truth, but never the whole story. 

Needless to say, I had plenty of media-critical cartoons to chose from...many of which were produced by that very media...curious...
Image shared by gogomrbrown
Moving onwards, we have a continued representation of the media, this time signified by a camera. It 'came and went' multiple times, which perhaps suggests the dogged determination to find something worthy of coverage, a sentiment reinforced by the idea of trying to light a 'fuse'. What is sought by this media coverage, is something which is quite literally explosive. Anything less is a disappointment. Thus, this caricature of the media is as an agent of catastrophe, existing to stir up the public and cause controlled frenzy.

This is further reinforced by the later line 'trying to make a killing'. The media cares less for truth and accurate reporting than it does for financial gain and cash flow. Truly, we have a negative (though not inaccurate) depiction of the media in this and the preceding line: 'the crew was acting like a litter of mimics'. Many criticisms of modern media aim at the conformist approaches it presents, the way in which is transforms us into mindless sheep which follow blindly the ideals and orders pumped directly into our heads. This is reflected here, with this depiction. The media itself is the rabble, yet we still passively receive the message.

A continuation of the idea that the media exist to cause (oops, I meant to say expose) scandals which in turn whip up the public into frenzy, is found in the line 'Anything to fill the vacuum of time'. Here we have presented a comment on modern conditions. Of people sitting idly, twiddling their thumbs until the time has come to tweet and share the latest media frenzy. Time is empty without these incidents, there is nothing beyond this worthy of comment or effort, only the maelstrom of commentary. 

We have a momentary movement to something beyond human control, the wind, and it is depicted as tracking the clouds. Returning to this image of the clouds as a mask for the truth, as that which is eventually going to settle and reveal what is truly happening, yet still partially obscuring it, maintains the media criticism, while at once taking a step back to acknowledge a force far beyond their control. In this sense, it puts the enemy, the media, that which is being so heavily criticised here, in its place. It is a human controlled force, and a powerful one, but it is vastly exceeded by the wind, which is so formative in the clouds which were the first object of our obsession.

Now we have 'the credits' another herald of the end. This time, however, this end point is not to be brought about through the natural forces already mentioned (the clouds and the wind itself) but instead through human forces: societal unrest. For these credits are a 'scrawl', it's 'typography' brought about in the form of 'urban' 'graffiti'. Reminiscent of modern media's hatred of delinquency (and tendency to demonise the lower classes), these lines are a rather beautiful way of capturing the nihilistic tendencies of the modern media, whilst also displaying plainly the way in which they always have another who can be blamed. After all, it could never be our fault.

Like any article of mass media, one must consider the musical side of things, and this is clear in the mention of a 'soundtrack'. The choice of 'Try a Little Tenderness' has a very clear role. The title of the song is intended to invoke a message of compassion, but not only is the media sharing another's message, that is to say Otis Redding's, (which indicates a lack of commitment to this message, as they do not augment it with their own contribution or display any level of engagement beyond 'sharing' it) but they represent this song without its lyrics. It is 'instrumental', lacking its central message, its compassion, its sweetness. The media is lulling us with its proclaimed kindness and compassion, whilst actually using this only as a cover to their own insidiousness, present in the poem as the manipulative way in which they tweak and change minor things to distort reality. 

Image by Carol Simpson, hosted on

'Our handler' is the next figure introduced, and this reaffirms the poem's comment on modernity, more specifically focusing on the herd-mentality often spotted amongst the public of the western world. Once again, we are plural, the 'handler' is ours, not mine, and thus we are constituted as a group. This, coupled with the fact that we are again in the passive, and our handler is in the active reaffirms this image of the great herd. Without the handler, we would be lost, yet they are also lost, for they are 'walking backwards'. This line furthers the criticism of the media, which seeks (if not overtly claims) to lead us forward, yet often it does so blindly, blundering and spewing mixed or warped messages.

And the reason this media figure walks backwards? 'eye contact'. Constant communication, pandering, wanting to foster connection which enables them to render us more pliable. Often, news corporations seek to tell us what we want to hear, or at least what they think we want to hear.

We then have the collision between the handler and the girl. To me, this episode is indicative of a minor news story, which rises to the top of the mainstream media (often due to it being a proverbial 'slow news days') and which dominates at the expense of what might be termed, rightly so, more pressing matters. The two collide and then there is a length apology. The girl is 'misting a shelf of hothouse flowers', a domestic task relatively unworthy of attention, much like many of these kinds of news story. We have a hint of the natural, tying us back to the wind and the clouds through not only the mention of the plant, but the act of misting, which could be representative of the way in which these kinds of story tend to be made to seem relevant, whereas in truth they have little place amidst the apparently similar news items. That 'we stood and watched the fine spray settle' without our attention immediately ignoring the incident to focus on the doomsday clock and the apocalyptic situation is reminiscent of the way in which we prefer to watch the viral cat video rather than reading articles concerning the latest breach of human rights.

We become distracted by minutia and this is a calculated phenomenon, someone benefits from this.

The next few lines concern the episode of spying, another activity which the media has been known to engage in. Further, we pry into the private interaction between a nurse (a position which is often criticised by the modern media) and her patient. There is a controlled, invasive feeling to these lines, for we watch through a 'window' which has been 'reinforced with wired glass'. Every precaution has been taken to keep us out, yet we look in.

Her speech is indirectly reported, given to us through what we would have said later. This maps how the media is always reporting on that which has already been said and, since the nature of events are that they unfold constantly, without control and we do not know when something notable is going to happen, we are thus unable to properly prepare and therefore the media report upon that which has already happened. Most of this reporting are completed events, which cannot be fully verified. Certain details are presented which can never be confirmed, only assumed through hearsay.

The suggestion 'only look inward' is an encouragement that we ignore outward circumstances and instead focus on the contents of our thought. I considered the possibility that this could be a more overt tie to a mental health topic, but have not developed this thought further. Regardless, there is the possibility of a suggestion of such a topic. The nurse seems to be guiding people away from the circumstances of the counting clock, which we can assume is leading to the end of the world, รก la the title of the poem.

This countdown begins and we have the only mention of a clock in the poem, before the final line. 'Now let go of this morbid attachment to things'. We could take this line in several ways. It could be a comment on consumer culture, which is in many ways responsible for climate change, one of the possible doomsday scenarios. 'morbid' certainly encourages us to think that this attachment has led to death, as the cause of the apocalypse has. It could be an invocation of Buddhist philosophy. It could be an instruction, a hollow message or a wholesome one. Is it an empty message proclaimed by the media sources, or the hint of a personal voice only coming in at the end of the poem. I suppose this would be determined by the speaker, who is not mentioned, though we know that they are in the singular, it is not a collective voice. To me, the last line is something of a mystery, with too many avenues for me to fully capture here.

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So that concludes me reading of Filming the Doomsday Clock. Thank you for reading.

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