- Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World, and: Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End
The arbitrary chronometer approaches its second millennial turn, but to what end? We have already been and will for the next four years continue to be greeted by messages in many genres beginning, “As the millennium approaches,” and we may increasingly choose to respond as if so many Jehovah’s Witnesses were outside and refuse to answer the door. But such refusal will thereby avoid questions that continue to [End Page 925] have significance in an age characterized both by actual catastrophes and by representations of catastrophe. These questions concern not so much if and when the world will actually end (though military, economic, and ecological risks make this question relevant as well), as why, through what historical determinants and contingencies, has a fascination with violent and revelatory endings emerged so often and with such power? The two books under review, both edited by distinguished scholars, together provide a thorough and sophisticated introduction to the current state of theorizing on apocalyptic thinking.
Malcolm Bull, author of Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream, has brought together essays by many of the best known writers on apocalyptic topics: Norman Cohn, Frank Kermode, Bernard McGinn, Marjorie Reeves, and Edward Said, among others. The picture that emerges shows not only the extraordinary persistence and variety of apocalyptic thinking and desire in European culture but also its close though shifting connections with political power. It is a mistake, most of these writers argue, to regard apocalypticism as merely marginal; belief in an imminent, or immanent, end to the world “as we know it” is, rather, central not only to medieval but also, in less obvious forms, to post-Enlightenment political ideologies.
Most of the contributors cover ground that is familiar to those who have read their books. Even to these readers, however, and especially to new readers, these essays are useful summaries of the most important research in the field. Of special interest, of course, to readers of this journal are the essays on more recent apocalyptic thinking by Kermode, Said, Elinor Shaffer, Krishan Kumar, and Christopher Norris. Shaffer’s essay on romantic apocalypse makes the familiar point that political apocalypse becomes internalized as poetic apocalypse but goes on to make a more perceptive point that in much romantic poetry (particularly Wordsworth) the apocalypse becomes identified as an irretrievable moment not in the future but in the past—that the apocalyptic imagination becomes (though she does not use the term) postapocalyptic. Frank Kermode’s essay shows, unfortunately, how little his thinking has developed since his enormously important book The Sense of an Ending. For Kermode, apocalyptic thinking still boils down essentially to the “existential” anxiety each person feels regarding his own death. In an era marked by genocides and the legitimate fears of destructive and dehumanizing technologies, such an emphasis [End Page 926] on the individual relation to death is surely inadequate to confront the apocalyptic impulses of modernity and the postmodern. Christopher Norris provides an insightful and much needed beginning to an analysis of the apocalyptic rhetorics used by poststructuralist theorists, with particular attention to Derrida. Norris is right to stress the “double gesture” implicit in Derrida’s apocalyptic language: that it is impossible simply to eradicate (apocalyptically) inherited humanist terminologies; and yet that language works (apocalyptically) so as to shatter its intentions and misdirect its messages. It would be helpful, however, if Norris would also discuss Derrida’s writings on ghosts and specters, in which historical “apocalypses” (especially the Holocaust) enter his texts in more or less disguised forms. The volume ends with Edward Said’s eloquent presentation of Theodor Adorno’s writings on Beethoven’s late compositions and on the trope of “lateness” in general as a “coming after and surviving beyond what is generally acceptable”—that is, as a style appropriate to catastrophe. As with Norris’s reading of Derrida...