Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then, Apocalypse Forever

On June 28, 1914, the world ended.

On July 14, 1789, the world ended.

On January 31, 1649, the world ended.

On Easter Sunday, 1536, the world ended.

In times of revolution and drastic change, worlds end in a lot of ways. Whether that world is nineteenth century Europe, Old Regime France, Britain's monarchy or the world of Catholic England, it seemed to the people at those times that the world was indeed coming to an end.

Worlds, however, do not end in such great, cataclysmic moments. If we go by the meaning of the word, "apocalypse," which is the ancient Greek for "the lifting of the veil," we see that this seemingly revolutionary process is actually a lot more gradual than the big shocks of history that everyone remembers. What really happens is a "soft" form of apocalypse, a notion that worlds end at a slow pace and also that these changes have within them visions of the end of ends, of the "capital A" apocalypse.

Before that, though, a quick bash of teleology. All apocalyptic visions have a definite sense of teleology about them. Teleology is, broadly, the study of time, but of specific interest here is the teleological view of history. This view holds that history, all of human history through time, is driving at some goal. All human action, thought, effort, society, politics and culture are headed for…something.

What is that something? Well, that all depends on who you ask. Enlightenment philosophers like Condorcet and Kant said that the humankind was perfectible and that time led to this ultimate perfection of the species. Hegel said that the "end of history" was represented in the enlightened despotism of the Prussian state. Marx argued that the end of time is marked by the emergence, through revolutionary stages, of a stateless communist society. Francis Fukuyama, who got his Hegel second-hand, argued that it was in fact liberal democracy that typified the "end of history and the last man."

One important similarity between these views is their non-cyclical view of time. Time, for all these guys, has a beginning, middle and an end. Moreover, in these teleological views, it always seems that time has been leading to the particular moment in which the author was writing. In other words, and rather conveniently, the end times seem to be the present day or at least just around the teleological corner. To most teleological views, we seem to be at the tipping point, that we are (with apologies to Barry McGuire) on the eve of destruction.

Is this true? It might be. It might not be. What is certain is that it shows every age's predisposition to think that it is more important than it really is, to "privilege the present," as the historians (me included) might say. This is an interesting, yet misconceived, notion of history.

This also raises the question of human agency vis-à-vis the apocalypse, or to put it plainly, what role humans have to play in prophecies of the end. In lots of views, and Christianity is just one, humans have a very limited, proscribed role. In short, they cannot stop the end, but they can make sure they are on the winning team, such as it is. There is, therefore, inherent in these views little role for humans to play apart from as pawns in a much, much bigger game. Being aligned with the forces of "good," the "saved" rather than the "damned" stands at the core of the allure of eschatological ideas. Just believe and everything will be fine.

If there is any active role for humans to play in the end of days, it is usually a negative one. Whether by apostasy or polluting or building a nuclear arsenal or drinking at work or peeing in the pool, humans can't seem to hold off the apocalypse. In fact, they seem really good at bringing it closer to happening.

In this idea is arguably the great power of apocalyptic visions – their great rhetorical force. Want to argue that something is really, really, really bad? Say it will end the world. In fact, if someone says that something will end the world, start asking questions. If they are a "true believer," this exchange might prove scary and terribly amusing all at once.

Finally, let's assume for now that the world does indeed end, that an apocalypse/end of time sort of event will happen at some point. In a lot of apocalyptic visions, that is it. The world and everything in it ends. Forever. "Poof" and it's gone. In these formulations, there is no tomorrow, no world reborn anew. Incidentally, this is usually the end in scenarios where humans play a more active role in the proceedings.

In other apocalyptic visions, however, something does survive. The world is "perfected," however that might be defined. It is a time and a place where the "believers" are in control at last. Since this is the case in these notions, this new world and its inhabitants are a very specific group doing very specific things. In other words, it is less like the U.N. General Assembly, more like an Osmond Family variety show.

This presents another worrisome thing about apocalyptic visions and what comes after. Be wary of anyone who promises you heaven on earth. If you happen to believe in a particular vision of heaven, fine. Just don't expect to get it here. Humankind is just too troublesome of a lot for anything like this to get very far. Oh, and when this heaven on earth doesn't work out, the level of cognitive dissonance often leads to periods of extreme violence. So, look out for that.

In closing, what can be definitively said about visions of the apocalypse and the aftermath? There seem to be five broad facets of most of these notions:

  1. A teleological view of history.
  2. Lack of human agency.
  3. Powerful rhetoric.
  4. Specific, exclusive view of the aftermath.
  5. Interesting viewpoint through which society, politics and culture can be considered.

What exactly is meant by a "soft" apocalypse, in view of this? It means that the world that we know and perceive, the world that we structure and that structures us, will end and will change. The past is a foreign country and our present may seem as remote and unfamiliar, even in our own lifetimes.

Ultimately, then, the apocalypse is what you make it.

Words to Ponder, What is Economics Edition

"Economics is not about prices and money. Economics is about how to get the most out of life. To get the most out of life, you have to pay attention to costs and benefits. Everything has a price. Living life without taking account of the costs of what you do - the financial costs and the human costs, the costs you can measure and the costs you can only guess at - leaving those costs out of the picture is the sure way to lead a meaningless life."

--Russell Roberts, The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 124.