Apocalypse 2013

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth...1000 years after the cataclysm

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth…1000 years after the cataclysm

 

The last few years have begun with predictions of the Apocalypse hanging over us.

2011 was supposed to bring the Rapture with US preacher Harold Camping first saying it would come in May then readjusting his sights to October. Last year, of course, brought us the Mayan Apocalypse, which passed with lots of parties but no lasting fireworks just before Christmas.

With solar activity expected to reach a cyclical peak in 2013 this year was shaping up as another big year for apocalyptic fears however NASA have recently downgraded their predictions for solar storms. So does this mean that we can have a year off apocalyptic frenzies?

Probably not.

A look at Hollywood’s release list for this year tells us that 2013 will be anything but apocalypse free.

Diabolo Cody’s remake of the Sam Rami classic The Evil Dead continues the zombie explosion of recent years while Brad Pitt also gets to run from a zombie apocalypse and go all out to protect his family in World War Z

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Tom Cruise, Will and Jaden Smith and Guillermo Toro all have post-apocalyptic blockbusters scheduled and this year we even get apocalyptic comedy. The Shaun of the Dead team are back with Worlds End where five mates unite for a pub crawl that could literally end all pub crawls.

Closer to home the National Geographic Channel’s new season of Doomsday Preppers begins this week. Their episode guide promises stories of a tornado-fearing farmer building an underground Noah’s Ark for his animals and a family man preparing for a nuclear-powered terrorist attack. The series brings us weekly stories from the survivalist movement who are going all out to prepare for the worst.

When Doomsday Prepper’s first season launched last year it fitted the 2012 zeitgeist but the new season has a more eerie resonance with the widely reported news that the Sandy Hook school shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was a prepper.

As J. M Berger pointed out in Foreign Policy it is far too easy to blame either his mother’s enthusiasm for guns or her survivalist beliefs for the horrific events in Newtown. However survivalist doomsday beliefs have been associated with a number of other terrorist and shooting deaths. Berger points out that there is very little research about the mental state of preppers. However he believes “anecdotal observations” point to a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population. He adds:

The nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister “chemtrails” to the Illuminati (or both and then some). World ending, conspiratorial beliefs are easy to dismiss as symptoms of possible mental illness but sociologists, psychologists, theologians and literary scholars who have studied apocalyptic narratives and beliefs are more inclined to speak of them as a form of sense making. We do after all live in a nerve wrecking unstable world where in fact preparation for disaster is anything but crazy.

Apocalypse is the Greek name of the last book of the Christian Bible and colloquially it has come to mean a world-ending catastrophe because of that book’s fiery visions of plaques, famines, earthquakes, wars and global slaughter. But the word is Greek for “revelation” or “unveiling”. The proliferation of apocalyptic myths are in fact trying to tell us something, trying to reveal something. And their message is just as much about a possible golden future as it is about a gloomy end. The apocalyptic myth is uniquely associated with the utopian: they are two sides of the one coin. The bible’s Book of Revelation is filled with horrible world-ending visions but it ends with the promise of 1000 years of peace.

Even Hollywood’s slate of apocalyptic disaster films aren’t as black and white as they seem. Western Australian academic Mick Broderick has suggested that rather than analyse these films, which undoubtedly celebrate a dazzling array of cataclysmic moments, under the rubric of the “aesthetics of disaster,” as Sontag famously did, they ought more rightly be seen as being primarily about survival.

The apocalyptic myth, which seems to exist in one form or another in all cultures, is doing what all classic myth does. It is trying to hold in tension two opposite possibilities and imagine what might emerge.

American writer Rebecca Solnit might be described as an archetypal apocalyptic writer. She first came to fame with a book that contrasted the disaster impregnated landscape of the Nevada nuclear test site and the paradisiacal Yosemite National Park. In her latest book A Paradise Built in Hell she has written about how communities come together and surprise with their resourcefulness in times of disaster. Just before Christmas last year Solnit issued a call to arms claiming 2013 was “Year Zero” for the planet. Like other activists Solnit is concerned that we are reaching a tipping point in the ongoing environmental crisis, perhaps a point of no return. But Solnit like a true apocalypticist uses this grave fact to point towards a revelation:

The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.

She spends the rest of her article outlining the proliferation of creative grassroots responses to climate change rather than the standard list of worsening indicators.

Theologian Catherine Keller calls this attitude “counter-apocalyptic”. It is not ignoring the disaster to come nor is it merely anti-apocalyptic, which runs the risk of buying into easy black and white posturing of its own. It is a posture of hope that stands firmly in the swirl of apocalyptic omens predicting bad endings and dreams a future. A future that Solnit reminds us is only built through imagination, hope and hard work.

A shorter version of this was published in The Conversation

 

The continuing politics of torture

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

The ex-VP is constructing a narrative around torture that makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

In his latest New York Review of Books article Mark Danner makes the key point: “When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing.” Which is not to say that he believes that torture is still occurring but that the politics of torture is still at the heart of US politics and the ongoing construction of the symbolic war on terror:

Torture, as the former vice-president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland. For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president, as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this. For if torture really was a necessary evil in what Mr. Cheney calls the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business” of “keeping the country safe,” then it follows that its abolition at the hands of the Obama administration will put the country once more at risk. It was Barack Obama, after all, who on his first full day as president issued a series of historic executive orders that closed the “black site” secret prisons and halted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been practiced there, and that provided that the offshore prison at Guantánamo would be closed within a year.

In moving instantly to do these things Obama identified himself as the “anti-torture president” no less than George W. Bush had become the “torture president”—as the former vice-president, a deeply unpopular politician who has seized the role of a kind of dark spokesman for the national id, was quick to point out.

In an interview about the release of the ICRC report on torture, which Danner and the NYRB have made available for the first time, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, whose book Journey to the Dark Side documented many of the stories in the report, makes a similar point to Danner. The Obama administration cannot get away with a neutral position:

It seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as “witch hunts” and said we’re not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they’re going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they’re trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They’ve come out critical, they’ve said “we’re fixing this, it was wrong,” and they have started to fix it — I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they’re trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don’t think that’s going to work because they’re going to have a choice here. They’re at a fork in the road, where either they’re going to open things up, or they’re going to have to cover things up. There’s not a real neutral position to be there. And that’s what I think they’re beginning to realize.

Both Mayer and Danner make the same point that Cheney’s recent posturing about torture is pragmatic politics setting up a potential blame game if another attack occurs on Obama’s watch. As Danner puts it:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling. …Cheney’s politics of fear—and the vice-president is unique only in his willingness to enunciate the matter so aggressively—is drawn from the past but built for the future, a possibly post-apocalyptic future, when Americans, gazing at the ruins left by another attack on their country, will wonder what could have been done but wasn’t. It relies on a carefully constructed narrative of what was done during the last half-dozen years, of all the disasters that could have happened but did not, and why they did not, and it makes unflinching political use of the powers of secrecy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0rlY8k26aA&w=340&h=285]

Danner points out that there are others in the same administration, with access to the same reports, that dispute Cheney’s view:

We know a great deal about the Bush administration’s policy of torture but we need to know more. We need to know, from an investigation that will study all the evidence, classified at however high a level of secrecy, and that will speak to the nation with a credible bipartisan voice, whether the use of torture really did produce information that, in the words of the former vice-president, was “absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US.” We already have substantial reason to doubt these claims, for example the words of Lawrence Wilkerson, who, as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell, had access to intelligence of the highest classification:

“It has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

The work of mourning and September 11

Began reading a very thoughtful article by Adi Drori-Avraham on September 11 this passage in particular struck me:

The photographic image, with its indexical power, its unflinching persistence to freeze time, to capture, to arrest, defies any attempt to deny or forget. As an authentic representation of events, the image not only testifies that an event really happened but also guarantees that it never ceases to happen. ‘When the picture is painful’, writes Ronald Barthes inCamera Lucida, ‘nothing in it can transform grief into mourning’ (1993, p. 90).

I was surprised over the last week, watching a number of the 9/11 5 year anniversary TV specials, how potent those endlessly repeated images remain. Because of this research I am in the zone of the event all the time so I was a little shocked when my reaction to the towers falling was so visceral. You know exactly what’s coming, that crumbling fall is animated for mere seconds but I still found it awesome and terrible. Continuously transforming and continuously untransformed.

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Images of the papal passion

Similar to the images of Terri Schiavo, the circulation of images of Pope John Paul, who has been described as “increasingly frail” for years now, are stimulating a range of mythic possibilities from conspiratorial narratives of the propped-up puppet to sanctifying stories of the ecstatic martyr. This extraordinary set of images from his appearance at the easter ceremonies was published in the Telegraph.

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Interestingly for a story so focused on the visual it begins: “The Pope struggled hard to find his voice to address pilgrims assembled in Rome yesterday for the traditional Easter Mass.” This pope, who has used his papacy as a bully-pulpit, now finally reduced to silence still some how turns this very silence into a perverse vocalisation of courage.

Is he yawning? Is he in pain? Is he angry and out of control? It appears from the report that in the final frame he is not hitting himself in frustration but merely making the sign of the cross. But what are we seeing here? Through the eyes of the faithful there is another story:

“Oh no!” said Maria Romero, from Peru, as the Pope’s aide took away the microphone. “The poor man can’t speak,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

However it is not just the eyes of the faithful who are constructing these images in this way. According to the Telegraph report, Italian state television called yesterday’s appearance the “most moving and poignant of his pontificate”. We are we embroiled here not just in the pope’s private passion play but in an on going story of western culture that is reified and retold by a range of institutions: journalistic, medical, political and religious.

These images of the distressed pope are not really new we can take other images from much earlier in his pontificate in which his devotional posture creates an other worldly sense of ecstatic martyred pain. This is very clear in an image from the PBS series on “the millennial pope” where his prayerfully contorted faith is propped against his ceremonial cross.

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These images are stock images of our christian culture but it is fascinating to see them played out in such a widely diverse and mediated way.

Conspiracy and the apocalyptic

My current reading has largely been in search of some explanatory theories that can drive my overall understanding of the apocalyptic.

Three theoretical constructs that may prove useful come from studies of conspiracy theory.

Improvisational Millenialism. Michael Barkun (2003) points out that many contemporary millennial or apocalyptic movements do not fit the standard typology of religious or secular. Today’s movements instead may draw from Revelation, Nostradamus, New Age and right wing politics.

The appeal of these collages lies in their claim to provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world. The variety of their elements implies that the belief system can explain a comparably wide range of phenomena, from spiritual to the scientific and the political. The combinations also suggest that apparent contradictions can be resolved, and that an underlying unity transcends outward differences. (2003:19)

Barkun also points out that such a belief system can only flourish if two preconditions are met: the availability of a wide range of potential material and sufficiently weakened authority structures.

Stigmatized Knowledge Claims. Barkun’s other contribution is the notion that an essential source for such improvisational belief systems is a what he calls “stigmatised knowledge claims” (2003:26). This category includes rejected (ancient wisdoms), superseded (astrology) rejected (ufos) and most importantly suppressed knowledge. The key to understanding this is that often stigmatisation is taken as “evidence” for truth. This relates to what Barkun calls the “cultic milieu:” “a world of persons, organisations, social interactions and channels of communications that makes the cultic milieu a genuine subculture rather than a mere intellectual or religious phenomenon.” (2003:25). Often stigmatised knowledge comes with its own pseudo-scientific explanatory and supposedly empirical framework.

Agency panic. Timothy Melley in his investigation of conspiracy and paranoia comes up with the term “agency panic” to explain “a broad cultural phenomenon, a pervasive set of anxieties about the way technologies, social organisations and communication systems may have reduced human autonomy and uniqueness.”

The culture of paranoia and conspiracy may be understood as a result of liberal individualism’s continuing popularity despite its inability to account from social regulation. Agency panic dramatizes precisely this paradox. It begins in a discovery of social controls that cannot be reconciled with the liberal view of individuals as wholly autonomous and rational entities. For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama or panic. (2004:14)

Melley goes onto point out that this works itself out in a conflict between a sociological and a psychological orientation.

What is striking about such accounts is the way their vision of the social order, and specifically of a dense communicative network, generates a rhetoric of lost individuality and autonomy. It is as if the perspective required by sociological description so diminishes individuals that they seem incapable of social influence. The result is often anxiety or dread. (2000:31)

Liberal Christians Challenge ‘Values Vote’

The Washington Post reports the results of a poll commissioned by a group of Liberal Christians which challenges the notion that "values" equal abortion and same-sex marriage.

Battling the notion that "values voters" swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation’s most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism" and 31 percent said it was "poverty and economic justice." Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage….

The nationwide telephone poll of 10,689 voters was conducted by Zogby International for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats. It had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage

The poll found that 42 percent of voters cited the war in Iraq as the "moral issue" that most influenced their choice of candidates, while 13 percent cited abortion and 9 percent same-sex marriage. Asked to name the greatest threat to marriage, 31 percent said "infidelity," 25 percent cited "rising financial burdens" and 22 percent named same-sex marriage

Acting as spokesperson for the group Jim Wallis called for a "conversation" about abortion:

"One of the things a few of us are talking about is a reassessment of how the Democrats deal with an issue like abortion — could there be a more moderate ground, where even if they retained their pro-choice stance, they talked about uniting pro-choice people together to actually do something about the abortion rate?" said Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners.

If the Democratic Party were to "welcome pro-life Democrats, Catholics and evangelicals and have a serious conversation with them" about ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, facilitate adoptions and improve conditions for low-income women, it would "work wonders"
among centrist evangelicals and Catholics, Wallis said.

This notion of a "conversation" and the adoption of non-confrontational, non-judgemental constructive ways of engaging the "left" and the "right" is gaining currency in many commentaries on the net (check Barlow and Mumamusings). It is an obvious strategy and Wallis’ suggestion that it begin somewhere in the middle is a good one. But this startegy of localised conversations must also move firmly into the public arena and the public agenda. So much of our conversation today is mediated by the divisive frames produced by the media. If the grassroots conversations are to flourish then we must begin to move the media rhetoric that stresses the religious right’s all encompassing power.

This "power" is rhetorically created by the media, currenlty in awe of the success of the "Rove strategy," but it is also confirmed by the rigid boisterism of the myth of the Apocalypse of Empire which inflects the language, action and beliefs of the religious right.

The emergence of vibrant organised groups on the left, like MoveOn and Wallis’ liberal christian coalition, is one of the signs of hope to emerge from this election. Through a smart combination of grass roots and broader public sphere activism they have begun the slow incremental process of transforming the public terms in which politics, values and spirituality are conceived. Although their tactics need to avoid the "all or nothing" aspects of the Apocalypse of Resistance this is the alternate myth that in a sense guides their work.

Unfortunately if this does become a collision of two completely apocalyptic world views dialogue becomes impossible.

Wallis and other speakers noted the diversity of christian voting blocks. This is one step towards breaking through the binary opposition between the hard right and hard left that is currently set up as "common sense".

They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including "progressive evangelicals," "resurgent mainline Protestants" and "socially conservative African Americans," that could be attracted by biblically based "prophetic" appeals to make peace, fight poverty and spread social justice.

This kind of conversation and public activism from the left is also needed in Australia as the abortion debate seems to be taking on increasingly fractious terms here. At least there is a sense that the conversation has begun in America and their are leaders like Wallis attempting to bring people together, in Australia the broad church of the left is still very much in the wilderness.

Cold War Presidential narratives

Two articles in the latest edition of Foreign Policy make essentially the same point: in spite of the rhetoric of the post-September 11 brave new world, the Bush administration is essentially driven by a cold war agenda and more importantly, cold war strategy. This is obviously a point that has been made before but it is made well in these articles. Firstly editor Moisés Naím:

Disappointments in Iraq also dealt a blow to a worldview that, for all its references to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an epochal event, still hearkens back to the Cold War. Consider the two primary responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: Instead of concentrating all energies and resources to fight the strange, stealthy, and stateless network that perpetrated the attacks, the United States launched military assaults against two nation-states. First, it rightly attacked Afghanistan, a country whose government had been the subject of a friendly takeover by such networks. The second was Iraq, a country with a standing army and a dictator evocative of the Cold War era. Iraq offered a target more suited to the mindset of U.S. leaders and military capabilities than the more complicated terrorist networks operating inside powerful states, including the United States itself.

In other words, facing the prospect of waging a new kind of war against a new kind of opponent, the Bush administration chose instead to fight a familiar enemy whose face and address it knew. Yet U.S. troops quickly found themselves fighting not enemy soldiers but what Pentagon lawyers now call “unlawful combatants”—fighters with nationalities as fuzzy as they are irrelevant to determining their leaders, their chains of command, their loyalty, and their lethal willingness to die for their cause.

So much for the certitudes and heroic assumptions about how the United States should deal with the world, as outlined in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice may have claimed that “September 11 clarified the threats you face in the post-Cold War era.” But while September 11 might have clarified post-Cold War threats, revelations about high-level decision making regarding the war on Iraq suggest that the Cold War instincts that shaped U.S. national security strategy survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. Let’s now hope that they find their final resting place under the rubble of Iraq.

In a much longer piece Melvyn P. Leffler argues that “as controversial as George W. Bush’s policies have been, they are not as radical a departure from his predecessors as both critics and supporters proclaim. Instead, the real weaknesses of the president’s foreign policy lie in its contradictions.” He looks at Bush “innovations” such as preemption and argues that “the preemptive and unilateral use of U.S. military power was widely perceived as necessary prior to Bush’s election, even by those possessing internationalist inclinations. What Bush did after September 11 was translate an option into a national doctrine.”

Leffler’s argument is slightly different to Naim’s although their conclusions are the same. He argues that post September 11 Bush and co moved from a realist model of foreign policy that was about competitive peer states to a rhetorically driven model that ultimately fell back on cold war strategy.

In times of crisis, U.S. political leaders have long asserted values and ideals to evoke public support for the mobilization of power. But this shift in language was more than mere rhetoric. The terrorist attacks against New York and Washington transformed the Bush administration’s sense of danger and impelled offensive strategies. Prior to September 11, the neocons in the administration paid scant attention to terrorism. The emphasis was on preventing the rise of peer competitors, such as China or a resurgent Russia, that could one day challenge U.S. dominance. And though the Bush team plotted regime change in Iraq, they had not committed to a full-scale invasion and nation-building project. September 11 “produced an acute sense of our vulnerability,” said Rice. “The coalition did not act in Iraq,” explained Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light—through the prism of our experience on 9/11.” Having failed to foresee and prevent a terrorist attack prior to September 11, the administration’s threshold for risk was dramatically lowered, its temptation to use force considerably heightened.

This conflation of both cold war rhetoric and strategy in response to present dangers is seen, Leffler believes, in the rhetorical production of Bush as Reagan’s heir:

Bush and his advisors love to identify themselves with Reagan. Bush, like Reagan, says Rumsfeld, “has not shied from calling evil by its name….” Nor has he been shy about “declaring his intention to defeat its latest incarnation—terrorism.” Moral clarity and military power, Bush believes, emboldened Reagan and enabled him to wrest the initiative from the Kremlin, liberate Eastern Europe, and win the Cold War.

However Leffler, professor of American history at the University of Virginia and a specialist in cold war history, sees this equation differently. He notes that in spite of media and neo-con hype most scholars do not agree that Reagan’s arms buildup and rhetorical pronouncements brought victory in the Cold War.

In fact, the most thoughtful accounts of Reagan’s diplomacy stress that what really mattered was his surprising ability to change course, envision a world without nuclear arms, and deal realistically with a new Soviet leader. And most accounts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s diplomacy suggest that he was motivated by a desire to reform Communism, reshape Soviet society, and revive its economy, rather than intimidated by U.S. military power. Gorbachev was inspired not by U.S. democratic capitalism but by European social democracy, not by the self-referential ideological fervor of U.S. neoconservatives, but by the careful, thoughtful, tedious work of human rights activists and other nongovernmental organizations.

Bush and his advisors seek to construct a narrative about the end of the Cold War that exalts moral clarity and glorifies the utility of military power. Moral clarity doubtless helps a democratic, pluralistic society like the United States reconcile its differences and conduct policy. Military power, properly configured and effectively deployed, chastens and deters adversaries. But this mindset can lead to arrogance and abuse of power. To be effective, moral clarity and military power must be harnessed to a careful calculation of interest and a shrewd understanding of the adversary. Only when ends are reconciled with means can moral clarity and military power add up to a winning strategy.

In terms of my project what is interesting about all this is the constant interaction between:

– cold war rhetoric
– war on terror rhetoric
– narratives of Bush as leader
– narratives of Reagan as leader

Although these articles do not mention it explicitly the religious/apocalyptic underpinnings of these narratives are critical to their production. But I find it interesting to look at it, as these writers do, purely in political terms for a change. I am beginning to identify three interlocking yet distinct narratives which need tracing:

– the political apocalypse
– the religious apocalypse
– the popular culture apocalypse

These narratives leak into each other constantly but are none the less uniquely identifiable. The political apocalypse of Paul Wolfowitz is different from the religious apocalypse of Jerry Falwell and they are both different from the pop culture apocalypses of X-files fans and Kennedy assassination aficionados. Part of my project is to identify both the unique elements of each of these variations and then to also analyse their interactions as a “meta myth”.

This comes back to my notion of myth as a set of interconnected narrative nodes.

Typology of Revelation

Finished off a first close reading of Revelation this weekend. I wanted to get a feel for it before I go off and look at the commentaries. First impressions:

Sense of Time

The prologue clear states that “the Time is close” (1:3) an assertion that bookends the narrative and is repeated again in the final chapter: “Do not keep the prophecies in this book a secret because the time is close” (22:10).

This sense of time related to the things that are to “take place” is also contrasted against an eternal sense of time: “I am the Alpha and Omega says the Lord God, who is, who was and who is to come”(1:8). Again this assertion is bookended by the final chapter: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13)

Catastrophe and Victory

This dialectic sense of time: the things impending meets the things impending is matched by a similar dialectic throughout of prophecies of catastrophe and doom matched by prophecies of victory.

Endurance

The book is in a sense a prison hallucination and thus has the marks of both brutalisation and escapist fantasy.

The author introduces himself: “I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom and all you endure, I was on Patmos (a prison island) for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus”(1:9)

This notion of endurance is a key motif and is matched by the promise of ultimate victory.

Empire

The language of an empire at war that builds alliances, colanises, invades and destroys is key to the symbolic structure of the book

The city

Babylon and Jerusalem represent key geographies of sin and innocence in both cases the materiality of these places is a key aspect of the representation of the gathering of the “evil” and the gathering of the “holy”. These symbolic cities must be recognised as two models of governance or civility and as two communal or peer authority structures.

Other key themes

Repent/resist
Justice of God’s retribution
deceit/idolatry as key sins

The dialectic catastrophe/victory structure of the vision, the call to resistance and endurance and the call to reject the demands of empire makes for a radical message but this same radical core can also obviously induce a sense of overly righteous fatality.

Defining the apocalyptic

Anastasia asked in a recent comment whether I have a definition of the apocalyptic.

Well I suppose the answer is yes and no. Essential to my approach is the notion of myth as a broad, living, fluid cluster of ideas and emotional colors. So to “define” the apocalyptic myth is to tie it down in a way that is counter-intuitive. What I am working toward is a “typology” that points towards how this cluster of ideas and emotional colors is currently being expressed. In my proposal I write in part:

Berger (2000:388) has argued that the twentieth century has been “thoroughly marked, perhaps even defined by, apocalyptic impulses, fears representations and events.” He outlines four principle areas of post war apocalyptic representation: “The first is nuclear war, the second is the Holocaust, the third is the apocalypses of liberation (feminist, African American, postcolonial) and the fourth is what is loosely called ‘postmodernity’.” (390). To these could be added a fifth significant area: the ecological crisis (Buell 2003).

For Berger and for other theorists of the apocalypse, these events are not merely catastrophic they are in some way revelatory. In nuclear narratives “accident and telos are intertwined” (390). For many writers and artists the holocaust “has come to occupy a central place in late twentieth century European and American moral consciousness…[it] is portrayed as the revelatory, traumatic, apocalyptic fulcrum of the twentieth century” (391); and much postmodern fiction is driven by “some revelatory catastrophe whose traumatic force reshapes all that preceded it and all that follows” (392).

This notions that the apocalyptic includes “impulses, fears representations and events” and involves both catastrophe and revelation are key to the way I am currently trying to understand the apocalyptic.

In my article on “The Apocalypse of George Bush” I note three aspects of Bush’s religious rhetoric, which I argue highlight an underlying apocalyptic worldview and link them to three themes in Revelation.

Firstly and most obviously Bush has defined the current “war on terrorism” as a battle between “good” and “evil”.Secondly he believes we are living in unprecedented times that call for fundamentally new responses. Thirdly he believes he has been chosen by God to lead.

These three themes, which can be traced across many of Bush’s public statements, find symbolic resonance in key themes of the biblical book of Revelation. It narrates the calling of prophets and leaders, a cataclysmic battle between the good “Lamb” and the evil “beast” and the saving of a remnant after a time of cataclysm and tribulation. Much of this symbolic battle is expressed in sociopolitical language of empires at war.

One of my initial tasks for the thesis is to further develop this typology of the apocalypse. One of the starting points will definitely be a close reading of Revelation as the source book for much of our contemporary Western view of the apocalyptic.

However one idea that has been occurring to me lately is that the overarching topic for my thesis is perhaps not the apocalyptic so much as the eschatalogical. Although other elements of end times philosophy/theology – such as the utopic – is inherent in any consideration of the apocalyptic perhaps I need to foreground some of this through a broader general interpretive framework.

When prophecy fails

Interesting discussion over at Crooked Timber on apocalyptic christianity and the response to failed prophecy. John Quiggin got the ball rolling with this question:

Revelations-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation?

There are a number of sub questions in this:

What happens when prophecy fails?
How does the meaning making system of apocalyptic belief work?
What is the relationship between belief and empirical evidence?

I think the first thing to understand is that “apocalyptic Christianity” is much more than a belief in specific apocalyptic events. As I noted in my post yesterday it also includes what Cynthia Burack has called a “politics of desert”. It is a resistance theology that constantly constructs and reconstructs oppositions, that comes from a place of such certainty that the “signs of the times” become a fluid collage that reinforce that central resistance identity.

Some of the posts in response to John mention When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. Festinger proposed that adherents basically redouble their efforts when prophecies fail as a way of resolving their experience of cognitive dissonance. Post-Festinger scholarship has tended to agree with Festinger’s conclusion that adherents work hard in a post-failure moment but most scholars disagree with his specific conclusions about how this works.

In Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone has gathered fourteen articles that dialogue with Festinger’s conclusions. For a strange but interesting review of this collection go here. (Haven’t read this but have it on order from Amazon)

In his article on failed prophecy in the Lubavitch movement Simon Dein gives a good summary of some of the arguments in this literature. His reference to Melton ( Melton, J. G. 1985. Spiritualization and reaffirmation: What really happens when prophecy fails. American Studies 26(2):82.) supports my contention that apocalyptic belief cannot be limited to the predictive, but must be seen as a more general belief system:

Melton (1985) points out a number of problems with the thesis…[one] problem involves Festinger’s assertion that millennial groups are organized around the prediction of prospective events. This is seen by Melton as a one-dimensional view of millenarianism which neglects the presence of a complex cosmology. Indeed, prediction often springs from a broad context of belief and disconfirmation provides a “test” which generally strengthens a group. Third, the problem was noted of the researcher’s standard for logic not necessarily being consistent with the internal definitions of the group studied.

John Quiggin’s post also had a reference to Hall Lindsay as an example of apocalyptic christianity. As Stephen O’Leary has shown in Arguing the Apocalypse, the fascinating thing about Lindsay is that although his work is littered with prophetic readings of current events he avoids any major predictions of end events. Instead he produces a dispersed apocalypse that calls for a continuing sense of readiness.

O’Leary shows that between his first book The Late Great Planet Earth and his 80s sequel Countdown to Armageddon Lindsey updated his theology to show a role for America and “a ray of hope” that led to the more activist new right politics of the eighties. This is epitomised by Jerry Falwell’s telling comment that Christians are called “to occupy until he comes.” This is a phase he still uses today. In a September 2004 interview: Falwell: Evangelicals ‘Energized’ for Bush he sets his beliefs out very clearly:

NM: We hear a lot these days that many Christians believe that, based on current events, perhaps Christ’s second coming is near. What do you tell people who ask you about that?

JF: Well, Scripture is clear on that. No man knows the day or hour of His second coming.

It is my feeling, and has been for the 52 years I’ve been a Christian, that we’re to live every day as though the Lord were returning today…but we’re to plan and work as though we had another 100 years, with the next generation in mind.

The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord’s return – and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there’s nothing we can do about them. That isn’t true. We’re told to occupy until He comes. We’re told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And we’re given clear instructions about raising our children up in the nurture and admonition of Christ.

Falwell’s theology reflects the fundamental change in premillenial beliefs from the widely believed but failed predictive prophecies of William Miller in the 1840s, which led to what is known as “the great disappointment“, to the current “dispensational premillenialists” of today that believe we are in the end times but won’t hazard a guess at the day or the hour.

Falwell’s beliefs seem to show a gradual merging of elements of the premillenial and the postmillenial belief systems but that’s another story for another posting….

(For a reasonably good but abbreviated precis of O’Leary on the Millerites and Hall Lindsey go here)