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What is the plural of Apocalypse? An essay on the ends of time

Matthew Carey
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’apocalypse au pluriel


Visions of the (absolute) apocalypse proper to late modernity, which typically envisage the definitive destruction of all of humanity, are often presented as radically different to earlier versions of the apocalypse, which saw the end of the world as a prelude to the Renaissance of a new one. Arguing against such representations of a Great Divide, I propose instead two interrelated theses: first, that the end of a world is always the end of the world for those whose world is set to disappear; and second, that any apocalypse, however absolute it may be, always admits the possibility of a world to come. This introduction explores the role of temporalities of the end, the denaturalization of the world, and Heimatlösigkeit as key aspects of contemporary apocalyptic imaginaries.

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1When I was three and a half, my mother joined a peace camp near Upper Heyford airbase in Oxfordshire. Shortly afterwards, she and my future step-father moved to a squat in the town of Witney. I have two memories of the squat: the square-quilted pink eiderdown that I slept under and a poster bearing the symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a British organisation founded in 1957 by Bertrand Russell, among others. My mother used to sit me down and explain to me that we would almost certainly perish in the forthcoming nuclear holocaust. Everything would perish. It mattered that I knew, that I grew up with my eyes wide open.

2When I was nine, she and my step-father bought a converted coach and became New-Age travellers. They left Oxfordshire for Dorset, where my father had been living for the previous three years. The first winter was hard: everything froze, we had to walk for miles to collect water, and my step-father was often absent. He was trafficking drugs from Amsterdam. The following year, my mother followed him to Amsterdam with my half-brother and half-sister, and they moved onto a travellers’ site called Gevleweg. Nine months later, my sister and I joined them for the summer. My step-father worked as a dealer from the caravan next-door to the one we lived in, and one evening he went out to meet a potential supplier. They went out clubbing and my step-father returned at dawn with a haunted look on his face.

3According to my step-father (who has always had a marked tendency to build castles in the air), the supplier, a major ecstasy producer, had suggested that he manage the man’s Amsterdam business. This was a golden opportunity to escape years of grinding poverty, but my step-father looked the man in the eyes and saw not a wholesome business partner, but the Devil himself, sent to tempt us. In two days, we liquidated our stocks of cannabis, bought a clapped-out old car, and fled across Europe with the Devil at our heels. When we got to England, my sister and I went to our father’s, whilst my mother and step-father moved back into the bus. Later they told me that when they unpacked the car, they had found a book of “black magic” given to them by a “White Russian prince” in Amsterdam. They had tried to throw it away in Amsterdam, but it had accompanied us anyway. Shaken by Satan’s sedulousness, they built a massive bonfire on which to burn the book, but burn it would not, and in the heart of the flames it kept flicking open to the same page. They claimed, often, that they had needed three litres of paraffin to reduce it to ashes.

4Thus began a long period of spiritual awakening, It was clear that dark forces were at work in the world, but unclear which they were. Or how to combat them. My parents responded by cobbling together a vaguely evangelical faith largely inspired by two occult books written by the anthroposophist Trevor Ravenscroft: The Spear of Destiny (1972) and The Mark of the Beast (1995). Little by little, thanks in part to a literal (and so heretical) reading of the Book of Revelation, my mother in particular became convinced that End Times were coming. It was the early 1990s; we knew that Herod the Great had died in 4 BC, but that he was alive when the Messiah was born; we thus knew that Christ had been born a few years earlier than is generally accepted; and finally we knew that the Antichrist was coming 2000 years after his birth. We only had a year or two before the Apocalypse rained down upon us. My mother predicted the end of the world every year until I was fourteen, when we left the bus to move into a council house. For the first couple of years, when I was 10 and 11, I found her Cassandrism hard to resist. The idea was so grandiose, the symbolism so powerful, and the belief that one belonged to a tiny elect who would be saved was so heady. When I turned 12, however, I decided that it was nonsense and with all the ardour of adolescence I began fervently to read the Bible, in order to prove to my parents that it was absurd and convince them that they were wrong. Of course I never succeeded, but a few years later, in 1998, after an equally fervent reading of the scientific literature, I came to the conclusion that we were nearing environmental collapse. I stopped taking aeroplanes for ten years. I could see no way to avoid the catastrophe, but I didn’t want to contribute to it.

  • 1 Timothy Morton (2013) proposed the idea of the “hyperobject” to account for phenomena whose distri (...)

5On might say that my childhood, my youth and my adult life have all been structured around the insistent refrain of the apocalypse. But though this refrain resounded particularly strongly in the mad waltz of my immediate family, we were not alone in hearing it. On the contrary, a melody for the end of time is the background music for the last 100 years of modernity, during which an awareness of the possibility of our extinction as a species has assumed a larger and larger profile in both popular and academic culture. In the wake of Hiroshima, in 1945, the world had to face the possibility of nuclear holocaust that so exercised my mother; to this was swiftly added a string of other possible means of technological self-annihilation: think of Eric Drexler’s “grey goo”, produced when self-replicating robots consume the entirety of earth’s biomass in their exponential drive to reproduce themselves; or of Vernor Vinge’s “technological singularity”, when artificial super-intelligence qualitatively surpasses the sum total of human knowledge and so emancipates itself from us, leading to a new, post-human era; or far more prosaically, of the slow catastrophe of the “hyperobject” 1 that is climate change, another self-replicating product of our technological prowess. The proclamation of these technological disasters has been accompanied by a spiritual and religious effervescence manifest in the multiplication of predictions of the end of the world: from Christian neo-millenarianism around the year 2000, to the “Mayan Apocalypse” in 2012, by way of ISIS’s Islamic Armageddon in the city of Dabiq, Syria. Literary and cinematic production reflects these deep-rooted societal trends: witness the hordes of zombies that invade our screens, the asteroids that careen into earth, and the proliferation of post-apocalyptic spaces in science fiction; not to mention the vast academic output describing and analysing it (Berger 1999; Manjikian 2012). It can scarcely have escaped anyone’s notice that as the hands of the Doomsday Clock creep ever closer to midnight, the Apocalypse and eschatological thought occupy more and more cultural and conceptual space. The quiet melody for the end of time has swollen to a concerto that races accelerando and crescendo to our shared finale.

  • 2 See Aubin-Boltanski & Gauthier (2014), who offer a mesmerisingly detailed account of both the vari (...)
  • 3 For a vastly more detailed analysis of the relationship between the angel of the Apocalypse and An (...)

6It would be easy to attribute the contemporary fascination with cataclysmic imagery to the recurring, and all too human, tendency to dwell on our inevitable end. The history of the great monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism is marked by repeated outbursts of millenarianism. These have typically coincided with moments of major geopolitical, climatic, epidemic or calendarial tension, and remain visible, like a palimpsest, in the contemporary imaginaries of the apocalypse that they continue to shape and structure.2 For many scholars, however, the current situation cannot be understood as a mere variation on a recurrent and perhaps universal historical theme. It is qualitatively different. This idea is given most vigorous expression in the pioneering work of the German philosopher, Günther Anders. For Anders, Hiroshima is an event that propels humanity into a new era, marked by a new “metaphysical status” (2007: 13). The moment humanity realizes that we dispose of the pure technical capacity to eliminate ourselves at a stroke, our relationship to time itself undergoes a radical reformulation: we move from an idea of the “end of time” (Zeitende) to one of “endtimes” (Endzeit). In his reflection on the production of finality, The End of All Things, Kant notes that “in the Apocalypse (10:5-6): ‘An angel lifts his hand up to heaven and swears by the one who lives from eternity to eternity who has created heaven, etc.: that henceforth time shall be no more.’” (1996: 226). For Anders, Hiroshima is the angel that abolishes times and ushers in this Endzeit in which “the future has already ended”:3

“For if the mankind of to-day is killed, then that which has been, dies with it; and the mankind to come too. The mankind which has been because, where there is no one who remembers, there will be nothing left to remember; and the mankind to come, because where there is no to-day, no to-morrow can become a to-day. The door in front of us bears the inscription: 'Nothing will have been'; and from within: 'Time was an episode'. Not, however, as our ancestors had hoped, an episode between two eternities; but one between two nothingnesses” (Anders 2007: 11)

7In other words, humanity is faced, for the first time, with the possibility of its absolute non-being – a non-being which there will soon be no one, human or otherwise, to witness. Anders calls this a “naked Apocalypse”, or an “Apocalypse without Kingdom”, where the end of the world is no longer followed by the eternal ‘kingdom’ of God. Seen from this perspective, the multiplication of new forms of eschatological thought can be seen as a doomed attempt to think through the technically unimaginable event that is the end of all possible worlds. And atomic modernity is, by the same token, unique because of the “Promethean gap” produced at the point where the technical capabilities of homo faber definitively outstripped his capacity to imagine the world and to imagine history. Humanity is obsolete; we are living in the “delay”.

8Anders is perhaps the most radical and the most nihilist of the great theorists of the end, but this opposition between relative and absolute apocalypses is common to many of them. In his posthumous magnum opus, The End of the World (2002), analysed by GIORDANA CHARUTY in this special issue, the Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino argues that “the end of the world can be approached from two distinct angles: as a historically-determined cultural representation or as a permanent anthropological risk. He adds that “the end of the world is thus part of human cultural history; it is the end of the world qua lived experience of the end of any possible world that constitutes the radical risk”. In both cases, contemporary apocalyptics are marked by a double rupture with all previous apocalyptics: whereas the apocalypse used to represent the end of one world, but also the beginning of another, the nature of the contemporary apocalypse, which implies total annihilation, ushers in a new era in which we come to anticipate the end of any possible world. Contemporary humanity, in this perspective, stands in a qualitatively different relationship to a qualitatively different end than people of any previous epoch.

Two theses

9It is in opposition to this notion (that the awareness of our mortality as a species has produced a radical rupture in our metaphysical status) that the present special issue is constructed, offering in its stead two interrelated theses:

  • That the end of a world is always the end of the world for those who suffer or conceive of it;

  • That any end of the world, however total it may be, always leaves open the possibility of a world to come.

10The second of these theses, which comes across in most of the contributions that follow, opens up for rich and varied forms of ethnographic analysis, but its proof is fairly straightforward and technical: to suppose, as does Günther Anders, that the nuclear apocalypse excludes any possibility that a future being might bear witness to the “episode” of our existence, is to confuse the limits of human consciousness with the limits of all consciousness. There is always an afterwards, always some trace of life potentially capable of bearing witness to our own; the fact that this consciousness might be radically different from ours does not suffice to say, with Anders, “après nous, le néant”. In the words of Paul Celan, written in the wake of the Holocaust, “Es sind noch Lieder zu singen/Jenseits der Menschen” (“there are still song to be sung/Beyond mankind”). For Anders, humanity qua species is the definiens of the one world and, by extension, of the notion of apocalypse: for an apocalypse to be naked or absolute, it must necessarily take humanity in its entirety as its object.

11This definitional prerogative accorded to humanity, and which we see as clearly in the work of de Martino as in that of Anders, also underpins the distinction rejected in our first thesis between the end of a particular cultural world and the end of the world: whereas the former implies the disappearance of a part of humanity or its material or symbolic production, the latter paradoxically implies not the destruction of our planet, but of all its human inhabitants. For both de Martino and Anders, humanity is the privileged object of the apocalypse: humanity equals the world and it is the destruction of humanity that allows the Apocalypse to reach its fully-developed form. As we shall see, however, this humanity is in fact only definitional of a specific cultural world (that of the Enlightenment); in other contexts, the world that the Apocalypse imperils is defined in other terms. Humanity, then, is but one possible object of the Apocalypse as it is here defined: as the cultural elaboration of a discourse concerning the annihilation of a particular moral community understood as a meaningful totality, viz. as a world. Our choice of the word “Apocalypse” (which literally means “revelation”, as in the Book of Revelations that ends the New Testament) over the far more straightforward “end of the world” is intended precisely to call into question this equivalence between world and humanity that seems almost to go without saying in modern thought.

  • 4 For a fuller discussion of this process, see Klose & Thulin 2016.

12We can, then, readily agree with Anders that the advent of the Nuclear Era marks the irrevocable instant when, for the first time since the idea of humanity (understood as unitary and indivisible) had imposed itself as the primary community of reference in the majority of Western thought,4 we disposed of the capacity to simply eliminate ourselves. It does not, however, follow that this constitutes a radical change in people’s actual experience of an impending end of the world (what the psychologists call Weltuntergangserlebnis) or in the sociological definition of the object Apocalypse. What is the fundamental difference between Günther Anders, prophet of the atomic destruction of mankind, and Davi Kopenawa, struggling against the The Falling Sky that threatens his people, the Yanomami, whose ethnonym means “human beings”, as opposed to yaro (game), yai (nameless or invisible creatures) and nape (enemies, strangers, non-Indians)? Let us listen to Lévi-Strauss: “We know, in fact, that the concept of humanity as covering all forms of the human species, irrespective of race or civilisation, came into being very late in history and is by no means widespread […] So far as great sections of the human species have been concerned, however, and for tens of thousands of years, there seems to have been no hint of any such idea. Humanity is confined to the borders of the tribe, the linguistic group, or even in some instances, to the village” (1952: 12). If we follow Lévi-Strauss and dismiss the false equivalence between humanity and world, then there is quite simply no difference between the two cases: the destruction of the Yanomami’s world would be, for them, the destruction of the world, full stop, just as for Günther Anders the destruction of humanity equates to the end of the world, full stop. Even when people do explicitly consider the possibility of a post-apocalypse, it is, as we shall see, so distant from our current world, so baffling and so uncertain, that it hardly calls into question the absoluteness of the world that preceded it.

  • 5 For Locke, men agree to participate in civil society in order to protect their “natural rights” (1 (...)
  • 6 This approach is epitomised by the following quotation, which is perhaps the purest apologia for t (...)
  • 7 Indeed, the transformation of humanity (“mankind”) into an object of knowledge was one of the gran (...)

13It follows that however terrible and however moving Günther Anders’ analyses may be, they cannot serve as the basis for a universal theory of the apocalypse. Rather, they must be seen for what they are: a poignant and very precise ethnographic description of late modernity’s Weltuntergangserlebnis. During the Enlightenment, Mankind finally knocked God from His pedestal, depriving Him of His preeminent role in the definition of society. The object of politics was no longer the realization of God’s plan on earth. Instead, it aimed to design a system adapted to the demands of human nature (e.g. in the liberal thought of Locke)5 or to “discipline” humans in order to create a perfect society that both embodies the general will of mankind and preserves some form of individual freedom (Socialist or Rousseauan thought).6 At the same time, as Alasdair Macintyre (1981) makes clear, the Ten Commandants were giving way to a form of morality predicated on an idea of human nature, culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and Humanity was becoming, for the first time, a distinct object of scientific thought…7

14In a context where humanity is simultaneously the atom of thought and the ultimate instance of identification, the sudden possibility of its technical annihilation introduces a radical metaphysical rupture. In other cultural contexts, however, or other less explicitly humanist traditions of thought, the apocalypse can take a different object (i.e. one other than humanity) and still be just as “naked” and just as absolute. This is clear in the aforementioned case of the Yanomami, for whom the totalising unit of reference is not humanity qua species, but the Yanomami qua people. It can also be discerned in some offshoots of German or English romanticism, such as modern environmentalism or animal rights movements. So whereas Kant sees the individual as realizing his humanity through reason, for the Romantics, man’s vocation can only be accomplished through the particular community to which he belongs (Schlegel 1801) and in communion with the natural environment of which it is part. This idea that man is inseparable from his environment reaches its literal apotheosis in the concept of Gaïa put forward by James Lovelock (1979) and later taken up by Bruno Latour (2015): here, the community threated by apocalypse, and with which they identify, is not humanity in its Enlightenment sense, but that formed by the symbiosis of humanity and nature represented by the image of the earth goddess Gaïa. In the same way, the animal rights movements that culminate in Peter Singer’s (1975) antispeciesism – which refuses human beings any moral distinction and thus extends the moral community of reference beyond humanity – has its roots in the English romanticism of the early 19th century and its glorification of the animal kingdom (cf. Perkins 2007). And finally, if we return to the apocalyptic triptych that marked the beginning of this introduction, as well as my own youth, we see a distinct evolution of the moral community threatened by destruction.

15Thus, the first apocalypse presented to me by my mother, the nuclear Holocaust, belongs to the classic schema of Enlightenment humanism. My mother, at the time still an atheist and inspired by the universalist spirit of the peace movement, feared an apocalypse that would sweep away the moral community with whom she ultimately identified: humanity. Later, at the time of her conversion, she shifted to a quite different apocalypse: the Christian version, wherein the seven seals are opened, the seven trumpets of the angels sound (eliminating a third of trees, a third of men, a third of creatures which were in the sea, and even a third of the sun and moon), the seven signs are revealed, whereat the ten-horned beast leaves his mark on the foreheads of the damned, and finally the seven cups of God’s wrath pour forth, spilling fire and darkness. What is destroyed, in this vision, is not humanity, but a fraction of God’s creation (a third of all life) and, above all, the entirety of human creation – what Augustine would later refer to as the City of Man. This City of Man is the moral community with which my mother ultimately identified, and so also the “world” which her new apocalypse took as its object. Finally, the environmental apocalypse that caught my attention at the age of 17 threatens neither humanity as a species (which will doubtless survive 4 or even 6 degrees of warming), nor the City of Man, but instead the infrastructure of civilization and, as in the Book of Revelation, large parts of the living world – e.g. polar bears or shellfish, future victims of ocean acidification. Which of these two apocalypsable objects (infrastructure or animals) most concerns the individual activist reflects her moral community of reference, and so the world she fears will be destroyed in the coming conflagration. My personal concern is not for the polar bears, but what the French call terroirs (another idea born of the Romantic movement); those subtle, millennial admixtures of human savoir-faire and the environment. I have been working for fifteen years in the astonishingly green valleys of the Moroccan High Atlas, a terroir carved out of the desert by centuries of irrigation. It takes hundreds of years for a walnut orchard to reach maturity and it takes two years of drought to destroy the world that depends on it.

16What this comparison underlines is that ideas of the apocalypse are always bound up with a particular moral community, understood (for the purposes of its annihilation) as a necessarily total social and conceptual whole, be it humanity, the Yanomami, the City of Man, or Gaïa. Each apocalypse targets a different social object and it is this relationship between a moral community (or a social object) and an apocalypse which serves as the starting point for this special issue. In so doing, it builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Deborah Danowski’s recent work on the Ends of the World (2016). They too recognize that “the ‘world’ whose end is imagined […] might refer to the totality of the terrestrian (sic) biosphere; to the cosmos as a ‘whole’ […]; to Reality in its metaphysical sense […]; but it might also denote human socionatural Umwelt or, more narrowly, some way of life seen as the only one worthy of true human beings” (2016: 29). They are, however, less interested in the contours of the world to be destroyed than in the relationship between this world and a certain idea of humanity or of a “‘we’ that includes the (syntactic or pragmatic) subject of the discourse on the end”; they go on to add that “the problem of the end of the world is therefore always formulated as a split or divergence resulting from the disappearance of one of the poles of the duality between the World and its Inhabitant, the being whose world it is” (op cit.: 28). In the perspective developed in this special issue, there is no reason to distinguish between humanity and world. In certain contexts, as I have said, humanity is the world; in others, it is scarcely a unit of reference. By stressing the relationship between world and its inhabitant they introduce an artificial distinction between the two, and simultaneously obscure the immense variety of worlds threatened with destruction.

17The articles in this special issue thus analyse the contours of the moral community or “world” targeted by the apocalypse, as well as its relationship to the world-to-come, thus illustrating the second of our two theses: that every end of the world leaves open the possibility of another. For now, I shall simply highlight some of the key notions that emerge from and structure the different contributions: ruins; temporalities of the end; Heimatlosigkeit and denaturalisation.

The archeology of the future: ruins

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away (Shelley, 1818)

18One way of identifying the moral communities embedded in these apocalypsable worlds is to focus not on what we stand to lose in the present, but on the ways in which we imagine the future ruins of the post-apocalypse – the backwards glance of our successors. ALAIN MUSSET shows how the Renaissance taste for ancient ruins, which reaches its apogee in the work of Piranesi, gradually transforms, over the course of the 19th century, into a contemplation of the ruins to come, “bringing together the individual figure of the memento mori and the collective death that awaits all civilisations”. The Londonian architect John Soane, inspired by Piranesi, even went so far as to design his buildings, imagining them first as ruins, and only then as functioning constructions. As Musset notes, “the imaginary of ruins expresses itself […] in the mournful contemplation of those fallen cities that once embodied their era”. It was initially Paris, and also London, that caught the attention of these whilom apocalypticians, but Paris does not in fact look like a modern city; rather its aesthetic is essentially a reprise of Roman ruins. The moral community with which they identified, and whose loss they feared, is a European civilization understood as stretching back to Antiquity, one composed in the longue durée. It is only in the early 20th century, when the imaginary of ruins crosses the Atlantic to settle upon the extraordinary architecture of New York that modernity finally slips the shackles of classicism. Here, it is above all the Chrysler Building, the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building that people project as future ruins, emblems all three of the rampant capitalism that reconfigures the New World to be lost.

19In her online article, Laetitia Ogorzelec-Guinchard, addresses the same question (what will remain of “us”?) from a different angle, comparing the projects developed by the French and American Atomic Energy Agencies to prevent future generations from disturbing nuclear waste sites. What might still be comprehensible for human beings ten thousand years from now? In other words, what unites us across the centuries? What makes us an “us”? Dismissing linguistic or symbolic messages as too arbitrary, too dependent upon cultural codes, American scientists looked for a more “natural” register, capable of resisting the passage of time. And they ultimately found it in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a painting deemed to embody, regardless of context, human suffering and horror. They thus placed their faith in the immutability of human nature to protect our future selves from this apocalyptic danger. French experts, meanwhile, disregarded human nature and trusted instead in cultural continuity, printing warnings to be placed at the sites and commemorated in political and cultural institutions, and relying on the possibility of trans-temporal semantic continuity. These two propositions demonstrate how the same (nuclear) apocalypse can evoke moral communities built upon quite different premises.

Temporalities of the end

20The nuclear question also inevitably raises the issue of temporalities of the apocalypse. This is clear in the piece by Ogorzelec; it is also evident in Sophie Houdart and Mélanie Pavy’s contribution, which explores the social fabric of post-Fukushima Japan. The authors shift back and forth between the longue durée of atomic time and the daily existence of the inhabitants of Tôwa, teasing out the temporal paradox proper to all visions of the apocalypse: how to imagine an event that simultaneously appeals to eternity and so abolishes time and is situated in an imminent future? For my mother, remember, the end of the world was always next year. Houdart and Pavy show how the inhabitants of Tôwa seek refuge from the bewildering temporalities of atomic half-lives (of anything up to 10,000 years) in an “attention to detail […] simple, manual activities [… and] bricolage on a human scale”. As a result, it is “hard for them to hold onto the idea that the texture of the territory has changed”, irrevocably. The human mind, it seems, quails when faced with the parallax scrolling of two incommensurable temporalities, as the foreground moves incomprehensibly faster than the almost static backdrop.

21This perhaps explains the terrifying short-termism of the political and economic structures of liberal capitalism in an era which reeks of the end of the world. This short-termism is not, however, without its opponents, including the members of the informal network of ecologists discussed by Jean Chamel. Chamel highlights the contrast between philosophers like François Hartog, Michaël Foessel and Hicham-Stéphane Afeissa (2014), who all follow Anders in concluding that modern apocalypses are “without Kingdom”, “leave no space for hope”, and no longer offer “any consolation”, and the ecologists themselves. These latter have no hope for civilization, but they nonetheless hold onto the idea of a possible afterwards in their “New Age ecospirituality”, which curiously enough has its roots in the small town of Totnes, not 50 miles from where I grew up. Chamel also takes note of the emic contrast between catabolic collapse (the slow societal and environmental catastrophe that is already underway) and catastrophic collapse (which foresees the sudden implosion of the infrastructure of civilization. He uses this to show how “different interpretations of […] the imminent [apocalypse] can generate radically different imaginaries.

22Finally, another temporal paradox is evident in the two texts that explore Native American ideas of the end of the world. As the Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross has remarked, “starting especially with the reservation period but actually going back to the time of first contact with Europeans, American Indians have seen the end of their worlds” (2003 129); they now live in a post-apocalyptic reality. Isabelle Yaya’s introduction to Cristobal Molina’s text examines the eschatological effects of the post-apocalypse for 16th century Inca. The collapse of their world, as well as the extermination of up to 90% of the population, seems to have created a fertile climate for imagining another apocalypse. This apocalypse to come would sweep away the previous one and, for the Inca it took the form of a “dancing illness” (taki unquy), that eerily presaged the Ghost Dance of the Pine Ridge Lakota some three hundred years later. Lucas Bessire describes a comparable phenomenon in his article on the Totobiegosode of Paraguay, who consider that their world came to an end at the moment of “first contact”, some thirty years ago. They decided to abandon all of their pre-contact social practices, including myths, healing techniques and ritual chants. Instead, they turned to a Christian apocalypse supposed to occur in the very near present – what Bessire calls “apocalyptic futurism”. The author notes that this new apocalyptic horizon allows the Totobiegosode to reinvent a form of humanity to replace that swept away by the bulldozers, or eapajocacade: “attackers of the world”. His article underscores, in terrible and magisterial fashion, the first of the two theses outlined above: that the end of a world is always the end of the world. Here, the apocalypse that has already happened acts as a watershed in the understanding of humanity itself, creating a horizon of incomprehension on either side, and crying out for a new apocalypse to redeem the past and a people orphaned of their world.

Heimatlosigkeit and denaturalisation

23This idea of the loss of the world is, obviously enough, inherent to all ideas of the apocalypse, but it is also critical to stress the sense of loss of homeland and home (Heimatverlust) that very often accompanies and shapes the apocalyptic imaginary. Indeed, this is the starting point for Ernesto de Martino’s work on cultural apocalypses. His book begins with a case of schizophrenic delirium in a Bernese peasant, who was convinced that since he had uprooted a few bushes, the world was out of kilter and falling apart. The man insisted that “men are no longer in their place”, “men are no longer […] at home” (die Menschen sind nicht mehr zu Hause), and that things would only fall back into place when “I am back home” (wenn ich wieder daheim bin) (2016 : 86). De Martino interprets this experience of a world falling apart as a schism between the patient’s Dasein (“being there”) and Mitsein (“being with”), such that:

“House and home are far away, I know not where they are

  • 8 The German term Heimatlosigkeit also means “rootlessness”, in the anti-Semitic sense of “rootless (...)

The sick-man has lost his homeland: Heimatlosigkeit8.

The strangeness of the world is a loss of homeland.” (ibid. : 96)

24This sense of loss of home(land) in the broadest sense of Heimat, appears time and again in representations of the end of the world. We catch glimpses of it in Alain Musset’s future ruins or in the condemned world of the Totobiegosode, and it stands in plain view in Stine Krøijer’s piece (accompanied by Mike Kollöfel’s photographs), which reveals the destruction brought about by open-cast mining in the Hambach forest and surrounding area. The inhabitants of the villages swallowed up by the largest excavation in Europe’s explain that they have “lost [their] Heimat”. And for the environmental activists struggling against the clear-cutting of the old-growth forest, the destruction of the landscape acts as a synecdoche for the ongoing environmental apocalypse. The lost home(land) of a United India, Pakistan and Bangladesh also underlies the millenarian visions of Vaidik Santan Dal, discussed by Raphaël Voix in his online article.

25Hugo Reinert’s description of the mass slaughter of Sami reindeer imposed by the Norwegian government offers a more complex vision of the relationship to the Heimat. He shows how the government brandishes the threat of environmental collapse caused by overgrazing and irreversible damage to the tundra to argue for the necessity of a vast cull. The Sami’s response is to insist that large herd size is a necessary adaptation to the chronic insecurity of life in the unpredictable Arctic tundra. One herder expresses himself in the following terms: “If the authorities do cut the number of animals by half, and we then get a bad year [uår], we might be left with no reindeer at all. That would be an eternal catastrophe”. Here, we see a clash between two competing catastrophes, which appeal to two distinct apocalypsable worlds: on the one hand, the fragile “equilibrium ecology” of the tundra that the government is trying to protect from the Sami; and on the other, a way of life and a lifeworld that the Sami are trying to protect from the government. But beneath this conflict, lies a question, one of sovereignty: whose Heimat is the tundra? And so who risks losing it?

26This dispute over the Heimat also raises the critical issue of distancing or alienation from the moral community represented by an apocalypsable world. For as soon as one objectifies the Heimat or the moral community that is threatened with destruction, then it ceases to go without saying. It is denaturalised and distanced. This process is discernible in Élise Haddad’s discussion of shifting representations of the Apocalypse across the Middle Ages. These representations initially offered an idealised vision of the political system. Later, the theodical question of the place of evil in the world acquires a degree of visibility, and is allotted a “demarcated space” within such compositions. Finally, malign forces become the central object of representations of the society that will suffer the apocalypse. Little by little, as society is increasingly represented as a potential object of the apocalypse, it is denaturalised. The objectification of the world that occurs in the process of its depiction means that it no longer goes without saying. The world qua object of representation can also, of course, lose its taken-for-grantedness as a result of processes external to the process of representation. This is evident in the images of Gog and Magog formerly produced by Ethiopian debtera mystics, and analysed by Jacques Mercier. Their waning spiritual authority and social recognition finally put an end to their representations of the apocalypse. The end of the debteras’ world denaturalises their productions to such an extent that they lose their capacity to represent.

27One cannot speak of denaturalisation without touching upon defamiliarisation. The society which we comfortably inhabit as a Heim or as a Heimat, never really calling it into question, suddenly becomes uncanny, unfamiliar or strange. And estrangement is precisely the object of Emmanuel Grimaud’s introduction to the work of Vernor Vinge on the singularity. Grimaud describes the moment when human intelligence is definitively distanced by its artificial successor as a “critical threshold of incomprehensibility”: it would be as futile for a post-Singularity being to explain its world to us as it would be for us to explain ours to a goldfish (the end of a world, one might say, is always the end of the world…). But the unfamiliarity of the world to come also bleeds back into the world we fear losing. Apocalyptic ideas are thus vectors of estrangement. This term is the standard translation of the Russian word ostranenie, coined by Viktor Schlovsky to define the difference between poetry and prose: whereas prose aims to describe the real without drawing attention to itself, by fading into the background, poetry makes use of language to defamiliarise the world.

28I would like to end on this idea. As we have seen, apocalypses always invoke the worlds or the moral communities that they condemn to destruction. It is always at the very moment that we raise the possibility of a world’s annihilation that we become aware of its contours, or even its existence. The poetic force of the apocalypse is thus inevitably twofold: poetic in the original sense of poïésis (creation), in that it calls into being the world it threatens to destroy; and poetic in the sense of estrangement, in that it defamiliarises these worlds to such an extent that it becomes hard to dwell in them. Ultimately, by evoking the possibility of their annihilation, the apocalyptic imaginary makes these worlds fit to be destroyed: it repeats, just as Cato did for Carthage, until the idea of their destruction becomes banal: delendus mundus est.

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1 Timothy Morton (2013) proposed the idea of the “hyperobject” to account for phenomena whose distribution across time and space is so vast that they transcend spatio-temporal specificity and thus are not directly accessible to human consciousness.

2 See Aubin-Boltanski & Gauthier (2014), who offer a mesmerisingly detailed account of both the variety and continuity of monotheistic apocalypses.

3 For a vastly more detailed analysis of the relationship between the angel of the Apocalypse and Anders’ work, see Monjou (2016).

4 For a fuller discussion of this process, see Klose & Thulin 2016.

5 For Locke, men agree to participate in civil society in order to protect their “natural rights” (1690). As a good Christian, he considered that these rights had been arrogated to man by God, his creator, but we nonetheless see, in this process, the beginnings of a broader societal shift from divine plan to human nature.

6 This approach is epitomised by the following quotation, which is perhaps the purest apologia for totalitarianism ever formulated: “He who believes himself capable of forming a people must also, so to speak, feel capable of changing human nature. He must […] in some sense mutilate man’s constitution so as to strengthen it; he must replace the physical and independent existence we have all received from nature with a partial and moral one” (Rousseau, 1964: 13).

7 Indeed, the transformation of humanity (“mankind”) into an object of knowledge was one of the grand themes of the Enlightenment (cf. Laidlaw 2014: 57). Rousseau, once more, complains towards the end of his Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among men (1964 [1754]) that science is interested in nature, rather than in Man and his nature, and he proceeds to argue for the creation of major scientific bodies that prefigure our own ethnographic institutions.

8 The German term Heimatlosigkeit also means “rootlessness”, in the anti-Semitic sense of “rootless cosmopolitans” (heimatlose or wurzellose Kosmopoliten; or Безродные космополиты, in the original Russian of Stalin). De Martino is using the term in a quite different way, simply to describe people who have lost their (sense of) home.

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Matthew Carey, « What is the plural of Apocalypse? An essay on the ends of time », Terrain [En ligne], 71 | avril 2019, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2019, consulté le 13 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.18606

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Matthew Carey

University of Copenhagen, department of anthropology

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