catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 9 :: 2013.04.26 — 2013.05.09


Midnight Oil’s progress apocalypse

In the typical alt-punk-pub-rock form they made their own, Midnight Oil, fronted by Peter Garrett, growled out a tirade and vision of angst.  One of Australia’s great rock bands was performing a “guerrilla action” on a truck flatbed during the lunch hour rush.  In front of the Exxon Sixth Avenue headquarters in New York on May 30, 1990, they were belting out “Progress,” their much-loved anthem (you can see the performance around the 25-minute mark here ).


Decrying a “Manhattanization” of our cities, the loss of jobs through advancing technology, blaming “third world infanticide” on hamburger meals “filled up with pesticide” or the belligerency of political leaders with “eyes on the firmament, hands on the armaments,” the Oils (as they are affectionately known by their fans), ground out a memorable performance.  With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, this particular song pounds into you the idea that, “Some say that’s progress / I say that’s cruel.”  The New York Times reviewer of the day wasn’t quite persuaded, calling it a “derivative and not quite convincing” performance.  Looking back over footage more than twenty years later, this performance, in front of Exxon HQ, caused me to reflect on how we as people of faith can respond to potentially destructive ideas of progress.


Reading through the lyrics of this song I was struck by the apocalyptic nature of the vision of progress represented here.  With descriptions such as, “Heads full of arguments, and words for our monuments / I won’t deny it, can we survive?” and, “A tree that can grow no longer, a beach that has got no sand,” we are left very clearly with a vision of linear progress leading to ultimate destruction.  Given the context and the other songs delivered at that particular performance, the band is quite clearly hinting at an ecological end, one of Marcus O’Donnell’s five possible post-war apocalypses faced by the Western world in the 20th century.       

The Oils’ 1990 protest is one that pushes us as people (of faith or no faith) to push back against an idea of progress that creates for us a way of life that I will describe as a “progress apocalypse.”  They present for us in their contemporary rock-style poetry a language of protest, a vision of what could be if we continue along in current patterns.  This band’s language is one of warning as they create, in the words of Derrida, a “fabulously textual” apocalyptic scene.  On the streets of a global commercial hub (Babylon), the Oils equate Exxon with the “anti-Christ” in their “fabula" of prophetic warning.  Derrida argues that apocalyptic visions, whether they are of the “spectacular” or “survivalist” sort, all depend on “structures of information and communication, structures of language, including non-vocalizable language, structures of codes and graphic decoding” (in the words of S. Brent Plate and Tod Linafelt).  The Oils’ progress apocalypse depends not only on the structures of language, images and information, but in reality, exists only within such structures.  As Garrett would snarl, “You may be safe in your hemisphere / But there’s so much junk in the stratosphere … Can we survive?”  Yet, because the progress apocalypse is of a fabulously textual nature, that ensures that it, like every other potential apocalypse, becomes survivable.  The catastrophe is not the end of the world but rather the end of a world.  According to Ben Varnum, Our survival depends on how well we hear the voices of those around us “when our way of making sense of the world breaks down — when we’re unsettled — we’re seeing at least seeing…more clearly” that we are unable to see everything.

So given we can’t see everything, what are we to do?  Again, Derrida can help us.  He talks about the topoi that are the essential parts of the human condition as presented in scriptures, philosophies and novels.  They are pure concepts like trust, care, tolerance, joy, love and happiness that survive in our practice of the topoi.  That is, as “human beings situated…in the topoi [of hospitality, love, justice]…we are bound to ‘reinscribe’ the pure into everyday life,” according to Lars Lovlie.   

Going back to Genesis can help us to reinscribe what is “good” back into everyday life.  In the creation story we read that God’s creation is blessed and contains an inbuilt energy that empowers the creation from the very beginning.  So, for people of faith, the idea of linear progress is both contradictory and complementary. 

Creation was never meant to be static and unchanging. It is dynamic and alive, but humanity was placed in the middle of it and given a divine responsibility to do something with it — to work in harmony with God to rule over such a magnificent creation. So when Adam and Eve first eat the fruit they are saying that they do not wish to work with God in creation and they unsettle the creation that is “good.” 

But all stories which are mythically textual try to hold together competing opposites and see what can be created.  Marcus O’Donnell writes, “The proliferation of apocalyptic myths are in fact trying to reveal something.…[one which] is uniquely associated with the utopian.”   Midnight Oil is no exception.  Hidden within their cataclysmic vision, they ask us to “open your eyes if you dare / Carry us on to the crossroads, come to your senses and care.”  Unlike Robert Johnson’s crossroads experience though, as people who hold faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we do not simply focus on salvation for the next life by removing the consequences of Adam and Eve’s actions. His crucifixion causes us to better establish Jesus’ authority in how we understand his redemptive intention over all of creation: his death and resurrection as a redemptive act is for the trees and bees, lion and lamb, just as much as it is for humanity. 

Derrida’s topoi of the Christian faith would be to unsettle that which is not “good” in our world and ask those around us to stand together as a community, in faith, to build, because as we do, we see the image of God.  In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in To Heal a Fractured World, we “may be no more than an image, a faint reflection, of God himself, but we are no less.”  Consequently, the place of faith in protest, Sacks argues is an “impassioned, sustained desire to bring heaven down to earth.”

That’s what Midnight Oil is doing.  They stand in the street and unsettle us.  They remind us, twenty or more years later, that values underpin us, that we are unable to see everything clearly.  That within the fabulous textual narrative of the progress apocalypse sits a narrative of un-settlement or destabilization of our current cultural topoi.  It is possible to say “yes to a real life ambition, say yes to our hopes and our plans” to be able to “get the beast off our land.”  We can do more than survive; we can see the image of God in the other and relearn how we can stand together as a community and redemptively build.

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