There is a problem at the heart of postapocalyptic history, whose sampling is ubiquitous in the literary imaginary. One can ask, to set the stage, about the status of time(s) after the apocalypse. Until that final moment of the apocalypse, everything is an acceleration of a crisis narrative. If there were a true apocalypse, in its complete eschatological sense, there would be no human time after it. The open present would be transformed into the changeless present. The true postapocalyptic is the utopian. Postapocalyptic fiction that is non-utopian, should truly be called apocalyptic fiction, unless one is looking forward to destruction as a utopian exercise.
Yet the literary inscription of the postapocalyptic future, once we dissociate it from its etymological root, is just as much about space as about time. It is space that has after all been destroyed, and the planetary archive no longer exists in a form that is datable. History is the child born in the menage-a-trois of progress, time and the European empire. It records things in time, encodes them as narratives of progress in movement, and its ethos is that of the imperial archive to which everything must conform and to which everything must belong too. History produces by making space appear in time or turning time into space; the loss of time is the loss of the indices through which space has any meaning. (Agnew 1998) To write postapocalyptic historical fiction then is to reinvigorate the imperial machinery, or, failing to do so, mourn the loss of meaning.
Three Past Futures
In the first: At the edge of the Empire, at the colonial outpost, lies the soft place of the desert. Soft, that is, but for the existence of the undecipherable that belongs to a time but not to a known time, that points to a civilization but does not belong to a civilization, of an uncertain age that could be a past or a future, or perhaps is the past and the future. The schizophrenic magistrate is bewitched as much by his own fetishistic archeological fascination with the wooden slips with their symbols as by the girl who is the outsider to his ordered, enclosed, bounded world. The barbarian is unaware of this past history, and is thus a sign of things to come, of nomadic chaos on a post-apocalyptic wasteland, of degeneration, decline and ultimately dissolution into non-meaning. The past melts into the future as the Empire falls.
In the second: The adventure is no more. Álvaro de Campos rues the loss of his identity with the loss of the imperial adventure. The present seems a lost cause because greatness lies in the past. He takes recourse to opium, seeking an East that is more to the east than the East. A further, future Empire.
In the third: The fin-de-siecle time traveler from the imperial heartland whistles Land of the Leal inside the ruined museum and library of the far future, indulges in ironic self-praise over his inventiveness, and shouts "Eureka!", the emblematic cry of discovery for his re-discovery. The lone conquistador of time, champion of the oppressed, armed with a mace and a matchbox, reflects on his seventeen papers on physical optics in the Philosophical Transactions standing at the edge of the archive, which now lies at his feet with its print long vanished, but on which the traveler will imprint Eureka forever. Even death can be colonized with knowledge.
Postapocalypse of the Empire
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the brief novel about the brutality of empire by J. M. Coetzee is perhaps not consciously a future history. Written in the final decade of apartheid, the novel however is a prophecy of the end of empire. For apartheid South Africa was the endpoint of empire: its physical division of humanity into civilized selves and barbarian others had been the essence of the global colonial imaginary. There are two clearly marked spaces here, the town at the edge of the Empire, and the ruins outside them. The wooden slips the magistrate finds at the ruins offer the magistrate both a glimpse into the past and the future to which he belongs: the past as the past of a lost empire or civilization, and the future as the forthcoming death the empire he belongs to. Coetzee echoes Cavafy's poem: as long as one can present this duality of space, an inside (civilization) and an outside (barbarian), the empire remains secure (Cavafy 15). The logic of the empire is binary (Hardt and Negri, 128): based on the constant construction of others that may be scapegoated for the problems within the empire.
The empire of which the magistrate is a guardian is split between the people within the town and the nomads outside its walls, but the slips are an outside to even this binary. What fascinates the magistrate in those slips is the undecipherability of the language. The postapocalyptic is made real only by its atemporality, aknowability, and undecipherability. The magistrate cannot decipher them because these belong to a time that is altogether outside any imperial time, outside the logic of empire. Yet, because of his discovery of these slips, he inscribes them with imaginary histories, trying to understand these as the ruins of some previous empire. He collects them obsessively, because he believes that what exists in them may offer a clue to his own eventual fate (23). All his efforts, of archaeology and history are but means to stave off the inevitable decline of his own benevolent despotism. It is only when the inquisition turns inward and the magistrate himself becomes a victim of imperial fantasies, that is, when he becomes the enemy of the empire that he begins to understand the meaning of the slips. To adapt Michel Foucault's adage about power for imperial power, every individual is an enemy of the empire; the question is when one's burden overwhelms one's pleasure. The slips are simply voices that the empire will be written and rewritten over and again (150), and history, being nothing but imperial longings, will always be lost in the postapocalypse. Like the floor of the mysterious car in Dukic's Wristcutters (2006), into which everything disappears but ourselves, the apocalyptic here is not outopia, that is, it is not a non-place, it is the place within the everyday that is the bearer of forgotten violence. Because of this proximity, even after his torture the magistrate cannot escape the fascination of meaning-making.1
Postapocalypse of the Self
When Fernando Pessoa published "Opiary" in the magazine Orpheu in 1915, the heteronym Álvaro de Campos had just been born (Pessoa xxxvi). "Opiary" is the quintessential modernist artefact, full of self-conscious presentation of ennui. The poem is an interior monologue describing the poet persona's state of unease aboard a ship. Once again, there is duality in space, the ship, motile in its appearance representing trade, progress, even some form of social and emotional life, but hollow and mechanized in actuality, an impersonal, sepulchral container that represents the poet's gradual distintegration into non-being in the course of the poem. The apocalypse here is the apocalypse of "Western Civilization", the awareness of things falling apart, and expressed as that thread of degeneration that runs through so much of modernist poetry and early 20th century philosophy (Pick 1989), but it is experienced through the poet persona: the poet's life is a metaphor for a disintegrating Europe. On board this ship on the Suez Canal - at a time of the first Suez offensive (1915) - the different nationalities of Europe mix as if united against a common enemy, yet this too is set against the war raging internally in Europe as the poet knows well. The struggle is the struggle for the East or the Orient: the scramble for Africa, the struggle for the British Empire in India, and struggle for China post the Boxer rebellion. The poet's only recourse is to opium - the pharmakon - the poison and the medicine marking European violence against the East, especially China. When the East offers no further adventure - when it has been consumed by imperial ambition, there remains no East further to the East, but a return to the war torn West (cf. Freud 1991). For the poet, the East begins as a cure for the fragmentation of the West, but it does not do so because the 'East' too is finite, a space just like any other and not an unbounded space of imperial adventurism or of the spiritual rejuvenation. There is no East as Campos wants to see it, and no arcane knowledge to be found there because even the East's burden of spiritual knowledge is an imperialist myth born of the same orientalism. All Europe went into the making of Campos, but Campos is no Kurtz. He cannot become a "mandarin" or an Indian, because to identify them as such is also to know them as nationalist imaginaries. True cosmopolitanism is joyous homelessness, it even defies poetic construction. But unable to partake in that joyousness, the persona of Campos remains unfulfilled and continues to weave poetry of longing and loss in self-indulgence.2
Postapocalypse of the Archive
What if one traces one's steps back not from the archive and its incompleteness but the archive in ruins? In H. G. Wells's 1895 novel, there emerges an ironic critique of knowledge in its avatar of progress at the expense of the social and the human. The arguments of incompleteness, fragmentariness, disease and so forth, which are now commonplace in their assumption that the archive tends to completeness but always fails to do so, are deficient in their metaphorical value, for they assume that for Cusanus' polygon the circle is indeed the goal and impossibility. Yet the value of the archive stems not from its completeness, or even its claims to completeness, but rather its ability as a designation to integrate, shape and restructure access to historical information by making data available and visible. The archive is posthuman in the ambition to surpass human (even species) mortality through a record of the valuable for whatever may come after us, as well as deeply human in the assumption of what constitutes the valuable and worthy of being historical, the record we wish to keep of us as a species. Aggregation, preservation and expansion of data is not inherently connected to progress of the species, but always remains on its outside as an epiphenomenon of the lived experience. The archive is always after, even in self-archiving.
Where Wells's time traveller stands looking at the pages, so does the magistrate of Coetzee's novel: the traces remain but the inscriptions are lost, like the slips for the magistrate. In this far future, the extremes of social division, which are just as much of class as of race, have split humanity into two species. The scientific project of modernity, whose goal was to ensure progress, has itself led to degeneration and decline. Britannia is dead. Yet, oddly enough, what the traveller feels in the company of these empty pages is the waste of labour rather than of faith in progress: that is, the futility of attempts to stave off degeneration through the scientific project, rather than the project itself. It is after all science that rescues him and allows him to return to his own time. What he initiates in his adventure is the process of reinscription; the history lesson fails to produce any lasting change for his imperialist mission. In his ingenuity and his manners, Wells's time traveller is closer to the cannibalistic tough Morlocks who run the empire of the future than he is to the herbivorous consumptive Eloi. Unsurprisingly, his first olfactory sensation after the return to his own time is "good wholesome meat." (205) In the 1895 of Wells, the Empire lives on.
In this reflection piece, I try to describe how imperial history is produced in three different postapocalyptic narratives. I argue that since true postapocalyptic narratives are impossible, the postapocalyptic is constantly brought back into the fold of imperial systems of meaning making that makes history possible. In the hauntology of Pessoa's Alvaro da Campos, one finds the voice of European modernism as it dealt with its orientalist leanings set against a collapsing internal crisis of Europe in WWI. For Wells's hero, whose time travel device is an unprecedented technological invention, the fissure between technological development and social development requires the resuscitation of rational, scientific ways of knowing in order to promote a vision of progress even when these things have lost any meaning or purpose. For Coetzee's magistrate at the moribund imperial outpost, archaeological fragments of a lost civilization makes possible the knowledge of his own vanishing world order in an allegory of South Africa. In all three, there is no real postapocalypse but the collapse of a certain way of looking and inscribing meaning which is called historical, in which the passage between the past, the present and the future make sense: because the real crisis is the one which is always with us as time travellers, and not in an elsewhen.
1. "It seems right that, as a gesture to the people who inhabited the ruins in the desert, we too ought to set down a record of settlement to be left for posterity buried under the walls of our town; and to write such a history no one would seem to be better fitted than our last magistrate." (Coetzee, 205)
2. "Álvaro de Campos, after a normal high school education, was sent to Scotland to study engineering, first mechanical and then naval. During some holidays he made a voyage to the Orient, which gave rise to his poem "Opiary." An uncle who was a priest from the Beira region taught him Latin. How do I write in the names of these three [Reis, Caeiro, Campos]?... Campos, when I feel a sudden impulse to write and don't know what." (Pessoa, 5)
Agnew, John. Geopolitics. London and NY: Routledge, 1998.
Cavafy, C. P. "Waiting for the Barbarians."The Collected Poems. Trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou. NY: OUP, 2007. 15.
Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1999 
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Pessoa, Fernando. A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems. Ed. and Trans. Richard Zenith. NY: Penguin, 2006.
Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine: An Invention. NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1895.