Eschatology and method

November 29, 2022 — Asher Wycoff

A couple weeks ago, I presented an extraordinarily messy paper at NPSA 2022 in Boston. I am following the example of my colleague Ashok Karra in posting the text of my presentation to my blog. Imagine, if you will, you are in a small hotel conference room at 8:30am on a Saturday, listening to me bark the next thousand words at you.

This paper is spun off from the literature review chapter of my dissertation, which concerns more narrowly the analogy of revolution as apocalypse in modern liberal thought. What I'm presenting today is an attempt to reframe some of my objections to the extant literature on apocalypse in political science and history, and to make a broader methodological intervention regarding how to conceptualize political apocalypticism and approach the study of it.

My core claim is that apocalypse entails not just an anticipation of total crisis, which of course it does, but that it also entails a totalizing account of world history. I think this makes intuitive sense. If you believe that the end of the world is impending, that this end is inescapable, chances are you have some argument for why. Why this catastrophe can't be averted; why it's happening in the first place; why this is the kind of world that is going to, or deserves to, end.

In the biblical apocalypses of Daniel and John, to start with the obvious examples, we get a sweeping account of the growth of tyranny and wickedness over every corner of the world. This is what will usher in total catastrophe and, subsequently, total redemption. A defining characteristic of these generic apocalypses is the hypostatization of the author's specific historical circumstance and perspective to a universal pronouncement regarding all humanity at all times. The author's moment is the decisive cosmic turning-point. In Daniel, this moment is the Maccabbean Revolt, and in Revelation, it's the siege of Jerusalem. In the proto-apocalypses of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and so on, the decisive moment is the Babylonian Exile. There's a fundamental gesture in the biblical apocalypses beyond the anticipation of total catastrophe or messianic intercession: it's the elevation of a specific, political crisis to a position of decisive significance in the ultimate trajectory of world history.

So apocalypse entails a history: an ambitious, comprehensive, universal history. It is an account and a judgment of world history from this external, prophetic standpoint. What this means for social scientists and historians is that studies of discrete apocalyptic discourses or movements—which I'm grouping under the heading of eschatology, or the "study of last things"—these studies are metahistorical: they are histories of histories. This is my proposal: we should think about the study of apocalyptic movements this way. To do this kind of eschatology is to embark on a study of a specific genre of historical narrative.

Most of the literature does not approach apocalypse this way. I think there are two prevailing approaches to apocalypse that understand the task of eschatology differently. The first of these approaches I call the "pathological," because it understands apocalypse as a social illness. The task of eschatology, in the pathological view, is to diagnose apocalypse's symptoms and identify its risk factors. The other approach I call the "critical," because it understands apocalypse as a form of social critique. The task of eschatology, in the critical view, is to mine apocalyptic discourse for conceptual tools, to find what is useful in apocalypse for the purpose of social critique.

I have frustrations with both. I'll start with the pathological view. We find this view in the work of, for instance, Norman Cohn, John Gray, and Suzanne Schneider's recent book on Islamic State, to name just a few. These authors all take on different case studies from different normative perspectives, but they share a basic descriptive argument. That is, apocalyptic discourse and movements stem from a misrecognition of social crisis. Some external, objective crisis happens—a famine, a war, a plague, what have you—and some group of people without a clear understanding of what's actually going on responds by saying, "Oh, I get it: this is the will of God, this is a judgment upon the corrupt world." In Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium, to use a canonical example, this takes the form of illiterate peasants being caught under the spell of a self-appointed prophet, who convinces them that this or that tangible, material crisis is actually a sign that the Kingdom of God is at hand. So you have this dynamic of real political or economic or other crisis displaced into the realm of apocalyptic phantasy.

I think this kind of pathological account understates the sophistication and deliberateness of apocalyptic discourse. It is at base a functionalist argument, that a certain kind of discourse or mode of politics automatically erupts as a maladaptive response to social strain. My problem is not with the proposal that there's a correlation between "objective" crisis and apocalyptic discourse. My problem is this notion, implicit or explicit depending on the author, that apocalypse is a misrecognition rather than a heuristic. We're missing something big, in the rhetorical and conceptual dimension, if we take apocalypse as little more than a reflex response to trauma or social disembedding.

On the other hand, the critical approach to apocalypse does understand it as heuristic, as a set of tropes and tools that can be brought to bear on a range of crises. But I argue in the paper that there's a basic tension between two elements of the critical view. There's a gesture toward totality on the one hand, which is really the key to apocalypse's rhetorical potency, and there's a methodological modesty on the other, an effort to selectively adopt eschatological concepts that can be put to use for criticism. Thomas Lynch's recent book, Apocalyptic Political Theology, is a good example of this. It offers some very robust, very careful readings of Hegel, Jacob Taubes, and Catherine Malabou, and it arrives at a conception of "plastic apocalypticism" oriented toward an "immanent critique" of our fallen world. There's a fundamental dissonance here: if you limit yourself to "immanent critique," you don't need apocalypse, which is a wholesale rejection and totalizing transformation. So my basic objection to the critical approach is that, to put it roughly, it tries to have it both ways. There's this gesture toward totality, this prophetic view from outside, with the language of apocalypse, which the selective, cautious nature of the method doesn't follow through on.

Now, I think it's OK not to follow through on the promise of apocalypse—I'd certainly prefer not to—but in that case, we need to be clear about what we're doing, which is approaching apocalypse as a genre of historical writing. My use of the term metahistory is in reference to the classic book of that title by Hayden White. White identifies a range of genres, "modes of emplotment," in nineteenth-century historical writing (the tragic, the Romantic, the comic, etc.), one of which is the apocalyptic. White declines to discuss the apocalyptic at any length, considering it fundamentally irrational and authoritarian: it appeals to divine authority rather than reason, and it forecloses the legitimacy of any alternative possibility. It forecloses the continued existence of the world! But I think the task of understanding apocalyptic discourses and movements may require us to give them a metahistorical treatment.

tags: diss