CONFERENCE TALK: It’s the End of the World, But Not As We Know It: Means, Ends, and Beginnings in the Ideology of Apocalypse
At the University of Westminster’s “The Apocalypse and Its Discontents” conference, I presented a paper interrogating the ideological contours of the apocalyptic imaginary and the possibilities of apocalyptic narrative as a mode of thinking the new and the unthought, rather than rehearsing well-worn conflicts and arguments in an imagined doomsday moment. Here’s the abstract:
Over the last decade, cultural production in much of the Western world seems to have reinforced Fredric Jameson’s assertion that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The proliferation of apocalyptic scenarios on global, national, and local scales suggests that, whatever the status of the widely declared end(s) of history, ends as such remain on our minds. The apocalypse has reemerged in recent years as a versatile rhetorical trope, deployed within both religious and secular discourses to buttress a host of arguments and causes, from the environmentalist warning of global warming thrillers to the pacifism of nuclear holocaust fictions, from the theistic traditionalism of rapture tales to the neo-Luddite anti-technology skepticism of much apocalyptic science fiction. Such fictions often operate under a dystopian logic, extrapolating to a future in which some present-day phenomenon has accelerated to the point of near-universal destruction, thereby warning us against allowing that phenomenon to continue unchecked. In subordinating end-of-the-world scenarios to argumentative content and existential threats to morality tales, however, these fictions would seem to sidestep the challenge of the new and confine themselves to predetermined ideological terrain–the end of the world, deployed as a means. If apocalyptic fictions are to have some generative and radical force, to open up a space for thinking our way out of ideological and material constraints, we might turn instead to apocalyptic scenarios that are not so neatly subsumed under a predetermined ideological project.
My paper thus examines two more ambiguous doomsday scenarios—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Alfonso Cuarón’s film of Children of Men—in hopes of finding a less regressive vision of the end of the world and interrogating the politics of apocalypse itself. These texts offer disaster scenarios of more mysterious provenance, and thus disaster scenarios that are less immediately reducible to straightforward moralizing or polemic. While ultimately each disaster produces a post-fall scenario ripe with discernible ideological content, I explore whether there is nonetheless a more free, enigmatic apocalyptic vision at play, and whether it offers any more of a “way out” than a more explicitly polemical version of apocalypse would. On the assumption that apocalypse is and will remain in the near future a major component of the Western (and especially American) collective imagination, I ask what these texts have to teach us about apocalypse as an access point to the new, the outside, the beyond, and the other metaphorical objects of progressive hope. Are imagined ends gateways to new and fruitful beginnings, or are they doomed to reinscribe the ideological limits and boundaries of past imaginings? In pressing this question, I seek to understand what apocalypse has to contribute to the imaginative force of futurity, and what, if anything, it can enable us to better understand about a global culture that has, since Little Boy and Fat Man if not World War I, been variously terrified by and obsessed with the end of the world.