The theme of the apocalyptic has fascinated me for a long time. A society's dreams about apocalypse, its conceptualizations and portrayals of it, reveal much about its underlying anxieties. Images of apocalypse are so prevalent that it's almost a crime not to study it in depth.
In order to fruitfully study the apocalypse, I think, we must develop a theory of a minor eschatology. What do I mean by this? Simply that the kind of apocalypse portrayed in the Book of Revelation, the Qu'ran, and other sources does not exhaust the fund of a society's eschatological concepts. Eschatologies are not necessarily images of a literal End of the World, a rapture. They can also be comparatively insignificant events that nevertheless display a particular set of characteristics:
1. They are stories about discrete, conceptually bounded, chronologically limited events.
2. They are stories that posit a discontinuity or rupture in the steady flow of historical development, whether on a society-wide level or a more narrow scale.
3. They are stories which reveal a conceptualization of power relationships, which reveal hidden limits and parameters for possible political and discursive change.
Here are some dimensions of eschatological imagery, notes for a taxonomy:
1. Eschatology as cleansing, purification, purging, sweeping away.
Authoritarian version: The "nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure" motif in disaster films. Simon de Montfort's "Slay them all. God will know his own." The Romans salting the soil of Carthage. Vietnam: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." What authoritarian eschatologies of this type have in common is a desperate attempt to shore up the borders of identity against a hidden and internal threat. It is an annihilation of the content of identity to preserve the form of a clear distinction between self and Other.
Radical version: The night of August 21, 1789 (the abrupt cancellation of the structure of feudal privilege). The first component of the generalized image of revolution. The anarcho-syndicalists' mythic, capitalism-destroying general strike. The radical version of this type of eschatology is an explicit denial of empirical political philosophy: it imagines that existing power relationships can be acted upon externally, dissolved abruptly. The fantasy consists in imagining discontinuity as somehow outside of the genealogy of politics, as an exception to the immanent nature of power.
2. Eschatology as the construction of the new upon the ruins of the old.
Authoritarian version: The "City upon a Hill" version of manifest destiny discourse. The post-apocalyptic desert film ("Mad Max," etc). The 2002-3 version of the plan for Iraq reconstruction. The Nazi dream of a post-Holocaust Reich. What these have in common is the assumption (by no means unique to authoritarians) that power relationships can be reconstructed without a historicized taint. In this conception, the historicity of existing power in society is the reason for its deviation from the abstract concept of the Good--this has been best articulated by Strauss. "Authoritarian" is not the same as "conservative": Edmund Burke, a wise man, would have no truck with this. The second example, the post-apocalyptic film, is particularly interesting, because of the parallel discourses of "despotic warlords" and "a rough brand of frontier justice."
Radical version: The French Revolution after the King's death. The Reformation millenarians in Muenster. Lenin and the tram-ticket version of the new society. What the radical versions have in common is very similar to the authoritarians: the assumption that existing power relationships can be annulled and a new world created--a new world without power and exploitation at all. We have not been able to justifiably think this way since Foucault, which is probably for the best. But many still cling to this idea. That has led to, and will lead to, more corpses than any other factor in human history.
3. Eschatology as effect.
Authoritarian version: Transgression leading to annihilation. Appeasement of Hitler leading to World War II. Jewish contamination necessitating the mystic racial purification of the Germans. The authoritarian causal discourse of apocalypse reveals the fundamental priorities of the systems of power, the site where they feel most threatened. The deployment of eschatological discourse of this type is a shock to the structure, which serves to turn a site of weakness into the site of greatest strength: as long as sin is accepted as ever-present, an authoritarian religious system is threatened, but once a fervor of purification is unleashed through the use of this eschatology, sin serves as a means of reinforcing the system.
Radical version: Global warming/peak oil: exponential growth leading to imminent societal collapse and chaos. The "last man," liberal ideology leading to the final effacement of the individual. Nuclear holocaust as the apotheosis of ideological state structures. This version owes as much to stories of sin as it does to stories of liberation. It represents a fantasy that there is an identifiable and terminable sequence or genealogy to our moral collapse--anything is better than this, and "things can't go on like this." It owes much to the authoritarian version of eschatology as purification, disclaiming moral responsibility for the putative utter nullification of power relationships while implicitly advocating it as the only solution.
4. Eschatology as cause.
Authoritarian version: The theocratic state, preparing for the apocalypse by controlling the Holy Land. The Sumerian myth of the king as supreme leader who alone can negotiate with the gods to prevent a great flood. Heaven's Gate, Jonestown. The threat of the apocalypse serves in the authoritarian version to consolidate power relationships and tighten coercive structures. It also leads to the abandonment of non-essential legitimizing (and hegemonic) discourses; power no longer needs weaker consensual bonds if stronger arguments of "unity in the face of external threat" can find acceptance.
Radical version: Survivalism. Jesus' call: "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Millenarianism and the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The Cultural Revolution. The radical version of eschatology as cause uses the threat of apocalypse to sever ties to established power relationships and societal structures, to promote a radical individualism. The immediacy of the threat implies a need for pragmatic action to avoid contamination by doomed and corrupted power.
This taxonomy is incomplete, of course, but it serves as an outline. The distinction radical/authoritarian is oversimplified, but finding its traces teaches us a very important lesson: a radical eschatology is usually, in the last analysis, not different from the authoritarian one. It involves a greater degree of fantasy, and it leads to a firmer and more tragic reconstitution of power relationships.
The only hint of promise I can see in an eschatological politics (the only answer to parliamentarianism) is in the radical version of eschatology as cause. Perhaps it is a willful blindness. On the other hand, I subscribe ideologically to the radical story of eschatology as effect, though I understand its delusion, its futility, its questionable morality; it is an unconscious and unavoidable hope.