Apocalypse and critique (Pitching the dissertation, redux)

August 06, 2022 — Asher Wycoff

I gravitated toward political eschatology in graduate school almost immediately, and over the past several years I've had people affirm that it's a relevant topic—referencing the election of Trump, the surge of "populism" across Europe and Latin America, increasingly dire climate forecasts, and the coronavirus pandemic. However, this enduring relevance of apocalypse is part of its limitation as a genre and a concept. A driving theme of my dissertation, accordingly, is that apocalyptic thinking is historically ubiquitous, and that wherever and whenever one looks, there is often a crisis that seems, to those proximately affected, all-encompassing and world-historical.

I worry about the tendency to treat apocalypse as some kind of silver bullet for critical theory. For one example, Andrew Culp, toward the end of his recent book A Guerrilla Guide to Refusal, cheekily paraphrases the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "the point is not to understand the world, but to destroy it." The problem is that an "inward rejection of the world," as Bloch called it a century ago, is only as valuable as its descriptive account of the world, and its normative case for this world's rejection. Apocalyptic rubrics are not inherently radical, and originally reactionary formulations (e.g., Schmitt's katechon) are not empty templates that can simply be picked up and plunked down onto whatever historical circumstances and political projects we please.

A defining characteristic of apocalypse as a genre (as in "the apocalypse of John") is the hypostatization of the author's particular historical circumstances and perspective to a universal pronouncement on all humanity at all times. The author's moment is a, the, cosmic turning-point. In the Biblical apocalypses, these moments are the Maccabbean Revolt (Daniel) and the siege of Jerusalem (Revelation); in the proto-apocalypses of the major prophets, it's the Exile and anticipated restoration. The fundamental gesture of apocalypse is not just the "rejection" or "refusal" of the world, but the elevation of an historically specific catastrophe to universal significance.

This is at once the promise and limitation of apocalypse: its aspirations to universality and totality. The turn toward theology generally and eschatology in particular as a tool for critical theory in the 1980s and '90s was broadly symptomatic of the end of the Cold War and academic Marxists finally losing hope in "this-worldly" alternatives. Derrida was correct in his observation that the enduring value of Marxism is its messianic impulse.

Yet there is a long-standing objection to eschatological critique which is fundamentally correct. By assuming the frame of a short-term, transitory emergency—a single, decisive moment of collapse—we privilege the event over the process, thereby depriving ourselves of conceptual resources to grapple with long-term, structural tendencies. Any literary apocalypse includes a totalizing account of all history up to the author's present and carries the implication that following an acute crisis, things will be qualitatively different. The risk is to forget the key Hegelian insight that negation is always partial, and each new moment contains all prior moments within it. The dialectic of continuity and rupture is a both/and, not an either/or.

So I end up emphasizing liberal interventions in eschatological discourses in order to counter the fetish of the event. The confluence of historical tendencies we retrospectively call "liberalism," and the various philosophers and statesmen we funnel into the "liberal tradition," are deeply embedded in and informed by eschatological discourses. This is because "ruptural" moments of war and revolution are the rule rather than the exception in modern European history. Taking this one step further, we may find ourselves compelled to reject perennially fashionable, formalistic critiques of liberalism as eschewing existential questions of theology and the common good in general.

tags: diss