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  • "Master Metaphor"Environmental Apocalypse and the Settler States of Emergency
  • April Anson (bio)

On October 27, 2016, Ammon Bundy and other members of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (CCF) were acquitted of all charges stemming from their armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. While at Malheur, CCF's occupiers declared the rule of law unconstitutional, a state-of-emergency summons supported by right-wing militia groups invoking apocalyptic fears of white genocide.1 In contrast, on the same day of the acquittal verdict and with the visual drama of an apocalyptic dystopian film, a militarized police force arrested 141 water protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota—an area secured by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and by the state of emergency that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council declared in August 2016.2 Though many decried the unequal consequences of each occupation, the disparity was not an isolated occurrence, nor is it limited to rural or reservation boundaries. Rather, its incongruence continues a racialized distinction fundamental to the state of emergency itself. The state of emergency's implicit inequality is entrenched in apocalyptic appeals that rely on its logic, reinforcing the ongoing emergency of settler colonial capitalism even when they aim to disturb it.

The uses and abuses of apocalyptic rhetoric are, by now, regularly acknowledged. Narratives of apocalypse too often overwhelm, immobilize, and instill a sense of futility. However, these criticisms frequently fail to consider the diverse and even divergent aspects of the literary mode. Rather than asking whether to apocalypse or not, this essay investigates by what means and to what ends. Placing the emergent subfield of catastrophe studies into conversation with political theory, this [End Page 60] essay parses the apocalyptic for problematic pivots around an emergency event. In a comparison of the 2016–17 Malheur occupation and the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock, this essay finds that apocalyptic stories of single disastrous moments shelter the settler state of emergency, protecting the logic of the settler colonial capitalism's continuous creation of and dependence upon the emergency event.

This comparison clarifies the master metaphor lurking in the apocalyptic state of emergency—the ways apocalyptic emergency appeals reinforce the exclusionary violence and ecological devastation they so often seek to diagnose and disrupt. Ultimately, I suggest the exigency of an event-versus-structure distinction in apocalyptic environmental storytelling. Following Indigenous and Black feminist futurisms' invocations of apocalypse, which indict the structure of the settler state(s) of emergency, I suggest that stories that both summon and see beyond the structures of settler colonial capitalism's past, present, and future ends of worlds constitute a state of emergence for an antiracist politics of storytelling in the context of climate change.3

Emergency Now

In the chaos of changing climates, the racialized extinction imperatives of the state of emergency become even more literally, and literarily, evident. The disparities attending the state of emergency are frequently implied in the literary mode of apocalypse as it habitually links to crisis, catastrophe, and environmental disaster. From the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning "something revealed or uncovered," the apocalyptic mode of storytelling is often associated with a Judeo-Christian tradition that narrates revelation and judgment day, the promise of the end of the world and a new beginning for a particular people. This genealogy of apocalypse tellingly traces the same colonial and capitalist epistemologies associated with the anthropocentric Western literary tradition that Amitav Ghosh recently credited with the lead role in "our" tragic failure in the face of global climate chaos.4 Though Ghosh diagnoses this as a universal epistemological deficit he deems The Great Derangement, the insufficiency is more precisely placed within the story of catastrophe that is, according to René Girard, a formula bound to the martial logics of Western politics.5 In truth, while the apocalypse can refer to an immense variety of storytelling traditions, in the one specific to Western [End Page 61] literature, apocalypse remains exceptionally consistent with the racialized realities of the state of emergency.

Fictional appeals to the apocalypse that rely on a state-of-emergency logic are wedded to the exceptionalism of the white settler state. The state of emergency is more often than not...


Additional Information

pp. 60-81
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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