The present is apocalyptic. Cataclysms are imminent. Some are already happening or have been underway for decades, even centuries. Yet apocalypse is less an event than a form and a practice, maybe the definitive form and characteristic practice of the present. Visions of the end shape experience, historical consciousness. Apocalypse, moreover, has a history of its own, and is embedded with a wide, often contradictory politics. What is at stake in imagining our world as ending, or as having ended? Why do we turn to this ancient form so urgently today?
This special issue of ASAP/Journal posits that our moment is not singular; there is no universal "we" whose apocalypse is shared. Rather, apocalypse mediates the unevenly distributed risks of the contemporary social, political, and geophysical world. Race, gender, sexuality, disability, indigeneity, citizenship, and class determine our vulnerability to cataclysmic violence, whether fast or slow. Contemporary artists take up apocalypse as a form for resisting or abetting such violence. The arts today stake claims to forestalling or accelerating apocalypse, which seems so far beyond their sphere of influence. Apocalypse, we propose, is never a locatable event but rather an imaginative practice that forms and deforms history for specific purposes: an aesthetic that does as much as it represents. Apocalyptic art may represent an imagined future, but it acts in and upon the present. Survivalist narratives like The Walking Dead generate a sensibility of imperiled masculine sovereignty, while Afrofuturist films like [End Page 451] Sun Ra's Space is the Place create the experience of future liberation in the present. Ashmina Ranjit's performance art enacts the threat of climate change through the construction of a dress of pins, and Naziha Mestaoui's virtual forests suggest possibilities for a reborn world embedded within cataclysm. At a moment when the use of apocalypse to structure the contemporary has only intensified, this special issue argues for the exigency of recognizing the plural temporalities and geographies of apocalypse in the post-1960 visual, media, literary, cinematic, and performing arts.
By disrupting the commonly held usage of apocalypse as indicating little more than bad teleology, we seek to destabilize apocalypse as a referent, to break it from its reified meaning in the academic mind, so that we might, as critics and artists, develop accounts that are adequate to our objects of study. Too often the diagnosis of an artwork as "apocalyptic" is taken as the endpoint of critical inquiry, with "apocalyptic" indexing nothing more than the exhaustion of hope and the failure of an artist's political project. A lack of conceptual equipment has made it difficult to see, for example, how James Baldwin, in his later works, broke from his earlier nationalism and adopted a critique of American exceptionalism articulated precisely in and through the apocalypticism for which his later work has been scorned. It has likewise made it difficult to appreciate the radical significance of Indra Sinha's positioning of the survivors of a fictionalized industrial disaster in Bhopal, India as "the people of the Apokalis" in Animal's People.1
Despite the ubiquity of apocalypse, canonical Anglo-American cultural theory tells us that concern about apocalypse is passé. For Frank Kermode, writing in 1968, apocalypse is no longer imminent but immanent: the anticipation of the real, worldly end has been supplanted by a more nebulous sense of an ending within the individual psyche.2 Fredric Jameson echoes Kermode in positing the end of a sense of apocalyptic urgency as the defining feature of postmodernity.3 Scholarly assessments of apocalypse in subsequent decades have persisted in seeing it as anachronistic, or as overcome.4 In the twenty-first century, apocalypse is commonly framed as good criticism's Bad Other, with contemporary environmental and social theorists expressing their scholarly commitment to "think[ing] in times of urgencies" through an opposition to what Donna Haraway has called "the self-indulgent and self-fulfilling myths of apocalypse."5 This long-standing scholarly consensus functions to contain and dismiss [End Page 452] apocalypse as a form that has little to offer the urgencies of the contemporary; meanwhile, many artists have elevated apocalypse as a form and a...