- Ends and Means: Theorizing Apocalypse in the 1990’s
The apocalypse would be the definitive catastrophe. Not only final and complete, but absolutely clarifying. Out of the confusing mass of the world, it would unmistakably separate good from evil and true from false, and expel forever those latter terms. It would literally obliterate them — expel them from memory; inflict on them what the Book of Revelations calls the “second death” or, as Slovoj Zizek calls it, “absolute death.”1 Evil and falsehood would be purged. It would be as if they had never existed. The revelation, then, the unveiling unhidden by the apocalypse would be the definitive distinguishing of good from evil, or godly from ungodly — all made possible, of course, by a violent cataclysm that shatters every surface.
This is the standard apocalyptic scenario, portrayed in texts from Revelations to Steven King’s The Stand. But sometimes, especially in the last century or so, there have been complications. It may be that when the seals are broken and absolute evil identified and isolated, the Blessed will look across the abyss and see themselves. Melville’s Indian Hater story (in The Confidence Man), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment provide revelations of this sort — “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Enlightenment is indistinguishable from barbarism. Moral distinctions themselves compose the surface that is shattered, and under that surface is a universal murderous chaos. This shift in apocalyptic sensibilities exemplifies the cataclysmic transition into modernity — the sense, in Marx’s phrase, that “all that is solid melts into air.”2
If the anti-religious apocalypse of the doppelganger is the apocalypse of modernity, the apocalypse of the postmodern is that of Baudrillardian simulation. In Baudrillard, the catastrophe is the end of the whole apocalyptic hermeneutic itself. There can be no unveiling because there is nothing under the surface: there is only surface; the map has replaced the terrain. Commodification is universal, and no longer even under the interpretive control of notions of the “fetish.” What, after all, would there be for the commodity to disguise? Not only “God,” but also “labor relations” or “material conditions” would be without revelatory value.
These visions of the end as they appear in fiction, in social movements — and even in social theory — emerge out of a wide range of social and historical contexts. Apocalyptic thought has long been, and continues to be, a political weapon for the dispossessed.3 But it has also been, for a century or so, a form of playful despair among intellectuals. Great power politics for forty years after the Second World War were devoted to making apocalypse possible, then simultaneously threatening and preventing it. And apocalyptic representations in American popular culture have channelled widespread anxieties over nuclear cataclysm and general social breakdown into viscerally compelling — we might even say addictive — forms of entertainment. Fear of apocalypse — of that merging of clarity and oblivion — itself merges with fascination and desire for such a definitive, and perhaps even ecstatic, catastrophe. And this desire for an end to the world must then be considered in relation to the apocalypticist’s attitude toward his own particular society and toward the “world” in general. What degree of hatred for the world — for world as world: the site of procreation and mortality and economics, and the site as well of language and representation — is necessary to generate the wish to end it entirely? Where does this hatred come from? All in all, what historical and psychological alignments can bring about such bizarre, but frighteningly common, imaginings?
These are some of the questions a study of apocalyptic movements or representations should try to answer. In this review I will discuss three important recent attempts at describing and theorizing some of the ways the world is imagined to end.