Apocalypse – Greek for revelation – is the name given to the final book of the Christian bible. It is a highly symbolic end time narrative that predicts a cataclysmic final battle between the forces of good and evil. This apocalyptic story often has millennial dimensions, which have brought it to the fore at critical junctures of historic transition.
The apocalypse myth has a long lineage in a variety of historic cultures not just the Judeo-Christian world (Cohn 1993). As Eugen Weber has argued, “apocalypse long furnished the key to human history,” (Weber 1999:5) particularly in the Judeo-Christian west where until the 17th century “premonitory history” was history. Although, after the enlightenment turn to reason, this apocalyptic mindset began to “seep out of educated consciousness, it did so only partially and incompletely” (Weber 1999:3).
The apocalyptic is a theme that has been taken up widely across a range of disciplines including: theology (Keller 1996; McGinn 1998) history (Cohn 1970; Weber 1999) sociology (Robbins and Palmer 1997) literature (Kermode 1970; Ahearn 1996;) cinema studies (Sharrett 1993; Broderick 1999) and postmodern philosophy (Derrida 1993; Dellamora 1994; Pippin 1999).
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).
The events of September 11 have frequently been described in such a way, as ushering in a new and terrible era. But as Slavojov Zizek notes this is often an “empty gesture of saying something ‘deep’ without really knowing what we want to say (2002:46). And what of the “war on terror”? As Zizek comments, the problem is: at one level, on the homefront, we are not at war.
Such paradoxes also provide the key to how the two logics of the state of emergency relate to one another: today’s liberal-totalitarian emergency of the ‘war on terrorism’ and the authentic revolutionary state of emergency first articulated by St Paul in what he called the emergency of the ‘end of time’ approaching. The answer is clear: when a state institution proclaims a state of emergency, it does so by definition as part of a strategy to avoid the true state of emergency and return to the ‘normal course of things’. (Zizek 2002:107-8)
Writers as diverse as theologian Bernard McGinn (1996) and sociologist Philip Lamy (1997) both emphasise the sense making explanatory function that apocalyptic or millennial myths play.
The millennial myth is a symbolic form of belief that acts as a powerful metaphor for real human events. It provides a context in which to interpret current events and give meaning and direction to people’s lives. The myth is like a floating framework for explaining the “big picture” for both religious and secular millenarian movements and all manner of “intermediate groups”. (Lamy:97)
The revelatory catastrophe can be viewed as a hopeful dialectic or in less optimistic dualistic terms.
In a time of particular crisis, and in one way or another the post-September 11 world must be recognised as a time of crisis, the apocalyptic is easily mobilised, as fantasy, as mission, as diversion. The apocalyptic myth is apparent in President Bush’s evocation of a “crusade” against an “axis of evil” but the same myth can also be recognised, in Zizek’s broader sense of an “authentic revolutionary state of emergency,” in the sites of resistance to such crusades against difference.