Wits Club, West Campus, University of the Witwatersrand Artist: Jacki McInnes
The End Times Colloquium is linked to the ‘Fictions of Threat’ collaboration between Uppsala University and the University of the Witwatersrand. The organizers of this collaboration, funded by STINT, have contributed extensively to the organizing and funding of this gathering.
The bulk of the colloquium funding is courtesy of a SPARC grant from the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand. This grant was very kindly supplemented by the University and Faculty Research Committees.
Finally, the School of Literature, Language and Media contributed substantially to the event, both in terms of funding and effort. In this regard, we would like to thank the administrators responsible, Antonette Gouws and Delia Rossouw, and the Head of School, Dr. Libby Meintjes.
Index of Participants
Presentations & Abstracts
Barendse, Joan-Mari – Afrikaans, Stellenbosch University
Boyden, Michael – American Literature, Uppsala University
Byron, Mark – English, University of Sydney
Curtis, Claire P. – Political Science, College of Charleston
de Kock, Leon – English, Stellenbosch University
de Villiers, Dawid W. – English, Stellenbosch University
Galetti, Dino – English/Philosophy, University of Johannesburg
Greenberg, Louis – Author
Hayes, Douglas – English, University of Sussex
Heffernan, Teresa – English, St. Mary’s University (Canada)
A retrospective: Hazardous Objects by Jacki McInnes
Screening: Night is Coming: a Threnody for the Victims of Marikana by Aryan Kaganof
Conclusion of colloquium (Michael Titlestad) – followed by drinks and a light supper 18:30-19:00
Ecological catastrophe in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy
Richard Alan Northover, Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, UNISA Lawrence Buell (1995) writes that “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal”. Concerning the environmental crisis, Cheryl Glotfelty (1996) writes that “[e]ither we change our ways or we face global catastrophe, destroying much beauty and exterminating countless fellow species in our headlong race to apocalypse”. Thus ecologists and eco-critics make use of apocalyptic and catastrophic language to warn humans of an impending ecological disaster, a warning which Margaret Atwood gives imaginative form in her MaddAddam trilogy. Yet the linear Biblical myths fit uncomfortably with the cyclical, biological and systems conceptual scheme of ecology. As with ecological discourse, the language in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is a perturbing mixture of scientific and religious (catastrophic) discourse, especially evident in the words, practices and rituals of the ecological-religious sect, the God’s Gardeners, who attempt to recreate Eden in their rooftop organic gardens. Whereas critics have engaged with the Garden of Eden, Flood and End of Times myths in their analyses of the MaddAddam trilogy, this paper will argue that the threatened ecological catastrophe is as much a result of the Fall from Eden (into technology) as it is the advent of civilization depicted in the myth of Cain and Abel. As opposed to critics who argue that the trilogy shows how humans need to be civilized, this paper will argue, following Jared Diamond and Erich Fromm, that the advent of civilization constituted a second Fall, the catastrophic consequences of which the scientist Crake tries to prevent by destroying humanity and engineering a peaceful species of vegetarian hominids, called the Crakers, to replace them. Since the technology of literacy accompanied civilization, and was partly responsible for the domination of nature and women, this paper will problematize Toby’s teaching the Crakers to read and write.
Genocidal fantasy or global catastrophe? “Ondergang van die Tweede Wêreld” (“End of the Second World”) by Eugène N. Marais (1933)
Andries Visagie, Afrikaans, Univerity of Pretoria In a recent article Stephen Gray (2013) dismisses “Ondergang van die Tweede Wêreld” (“End of the Second World”), a story by Eugène N. Marais (1871–1936) originally published in 1933, as a prediction of “a raging racial holocaust of hatred caused by terrifying societal breakdown” that is consequent more on Marais’s “addiction to grains of illegal substance than to truth”. Yet, the story is remarkable in its deployment of a wide-raging diversity including men and women, rural and urban populations, Afrikaners, Yiddish-speaking Jews, South African black people, a migrant from Portuguese East Africa and European scientists. Events are focused mainly on Pretoria but South Africa is also situated within the context of global environmental catastrophe. In this paper I propose that “End of the Second World” is more likely a critical reflection by Marais on the societal stratifications that existed in South Africa in the 1930’s. Furthermore, Marais’s biographer Leon Rousseau may be correct to suspect that Marais was inspired by Omega: The Last Days of the World(La fin du monde, 1893) by French science fiction writer Camille Flammarion who speculated in his well-known novel about the end of the world after a collision with a comet. Fictional catastrophe (the drying up of all water sources on earth as a result of unprecedented seismic activity) provides Marais with an opportunity to interrogate the hierarchies that marked South African society during the Great Depression. Marais presents the text as an edited version of partly degraded documents discovered in the Bushveld by a black man, Buffel, and subsequently restored in Hamburg by a white South African chemist, Dr S. de Kock. This framing device begs a second reflection on the fate of the world and its human survivors. Also, the “spectroperiscopic” vision mentioned by the narrator Willem deserves attention as a likely reading strategy proposed by Marais for his story.
Singing catastrophe: The Blind Filmmaker and his pictures
Carina Venter, Musicology, Oxford University I watch and listen to the films of guy debord
with my eyes tightly shut and my ears fine tuned
to the precision of his scalpel
slicing through the bullshit
of what we have become
The question posed to the creative artist and intellectual in a time of staggering tragedy is a perverse one: how to write, play, and dance the catastrophic. Catastrophe, we know, is a place-holder in language for a loss of which the magnitude defies description; a word, then, from which apprehension has fled. As a musicologist, I am intrigued by the less obvious associations of this word with music and theatre. Cata- is charged with kinetic force: down, away, against, towards, according to and thorough. It is a prefix that registers contradiction, opposition and conclusion. “Strophe” reaches back to the chorus in Greek theatre, denoting a singing quality as well as the to and fro turns of a round dance. The catastrophic thus meshes the world of the stage with a violent thrust against, away from or towards the fantastic; the playful tricks of round songs and dances with their own negativity or negation experienced as the tragic present.
It is this meaning of catastrophe as a violent splitting or distorting of what is and is not theatre that is clashed together in the film Night is Coming: a Threnody for the Victims of Marikana by Aryan Kaganof. The film is a series of sonic portraits of the South African landscape: a conference held in Stellenbosch entitled “Hearing Landscape Critically”, the bare human fact of poverty and the Marikana massacre. Kaganof’s work regards catastrophe as spectacular theatre drained of fiction, an intellectual, psychic and physical state which emerges also as the painful truth of post-empire, post-apartheid and post-Marikana South Africa.
Apocalypse whenever: catastrophe, privilege and indifference
Chris Thurman, English, University of the Witwatersrand Henrietta Rose-Innes’ short story “Poison” (from Homing, 2010) is set in the aftermath of a chemical explosion of cataclysmic proportions in contemporary Cape Town. The story’s protagonist and narrator, Lynn, is among the last to flee the city; she ends up alone at an abandoned highway petrol station. She sips Coke and eats crisps and waits passively – for a rescue team, for the will to try and escape, or for the (presumably) inevitable end. In this paper I will offer a reading of “Poison” that examines Lynn’s apparent indifference to her fate and considers what it may represent. The story provides us with some clues as to her lack of motivation, although she remains enigmatic. I wish to read her character metonymically and to ask: does she stand for a particular kind of response to impending or actual catastrophe? Is it a common response, arguably one that is analogous to (for instance) global responses to climate change and environmental degradation? Is it inflected by the privilege of whiteness? What might the race and class dynamics of an imagined post-apocalyptic community tell us about present social faultlines? In answering these questions I will draw on other examples of South African “end times” fiction.
Postapocalyptic fiction as a space for civic love
Claire P. Curtis, Political Science, College of Charleston In her recent work on love as a political emotion, Martha Nussbaum argues that we need to pay greater attention to works of art that can awaken love as a civic emotion. A civic love "carries people beyond suspicion and division to pursue common projects with heartfelt enthusiasm" (375). This paper analyzes a set of novels that find in the moments of starting over after apocalyptic crisis examples of better ways of living together that acknowledge the varieties of human frailty.
The prevalent emotion of postapocalyptic fiction would seem to be fear. Fear within the text and the inspired fear in the reader. In such accounts the primary motivation to create communal living is security. But fear need not, and importantly, is not the only emotion that motivates people to build community. Precisely because we expect fear from postapocalyptic fiction novels built on something other than fear matter.
Novels such as Octavia Butler's Parable series, Marge Piercy's He, She and It and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 all offer rich examples of communities built out of ruin that acknowledge, in Nussbaum's framework, the central place of love as a political emotion necessary for realizing justice. These novels act as examples of art that could inspire civic love in the reader and these novels also show characters experiencing and enacting their own moments of such civic love. Thus postapocalyptic fiction offers an ideal that works in two ways: to exemplify civic love in communities and to awaken the imagination of the reader to experience her own civic love.
Vanishing points; or, the timescapes of the contemporary American novel
David Watson, American Literature, Uppsala University In the early years of the 21st century, the resilience and sustainability of social and economic institutions are increasingly in doubt. In the hands of world-system theorists, the enlarged time scale of the longuedurée has functioned as a mechanism whereby to lay bare the fragility of contemporary economic and geopolitical arrangements. Immense timescapes like the anthropocene have drawn attention to the asymmetrical, corrosive relation between human history and longer environmental or geological timeframes. Haunted by thoughts of human extinction, object-oriented ontology or speculative realism has made pre- and posthuman timescapes central to contemporary philosophy. These dramatically expanded timescapes have foreground the evanescence of institutions, implicated human life in timeframes beyond its control or cognition, and have prepared the way for catastrophic imaginings.
In this paper, I track the emergence of similarly immense timescapes in such contemporary American novels as Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Lydia Millet’s Magnificence, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Amy Waldman’s The Submission. Within these novels, enlarged timescapes trigger melancholic, depressive affects as well as forecasts of catastrophes or extinction. But these timescapes provide a counterpoint to what these novels depict as the self-reflexive speculations of military and financial intuitions, speculations in which future contingencies are figured proleptically as actionable threats requiring preemptive action, or as risk-laden opportunities to be capitalized on. The temporal scale enlargements effected in these novels introduce the possibility of unmanageable futures that cannot be defended and insured against, or profited from, and that resist the self-reflexive workings of preemptive and speculative practices. The immense timescapes of these novels do more than draw our attention to the contingency and fragility of contemporary forms of life. By working with enlarged timeframes, these novels interrogate and dissent from military and financial assumptions concerning the management of contingencies and risks, and in doing so transform catastrophic forecasts into political acts.
Catastrophic turns: culture’s last men and anthropophagi
Dawid W de Villiers, English, Stellenbosch University In Walter Benjamin’s account of “the angel of history,” as Jacques Khalip has pointed out, the angel “‘sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage’ in contrast to the ‘chain of events’ we register” (615, emphasis added). Implicit here is the question of our narrativisation of the chaos of a constant “overturning,” a process which builds such a turn into the narrative chain itself, and uses it to appease our need for ends or dénouements. Starting with a cluster of poems centred around Byron’s “Darkness” (1816) – and keeping in mind the background of a late eighteenth-century rivalry between catastrophist and gradualist geologies, contemporary with an emerging Naturphilosophie still operative in Louis Agassiz’s claim (in 1842) that the “history of the Earth […] tells us that the object and term of creation is man” (qtd. in Palmer 53) – I would like to reflect upon some of the ways in which catastrophe has functioned culturally to mediate the displacement of the human being from central “plot” of natural history. The question, then, is how the imagined ends – in the sense of terminations – of humankind have served to help us think about its potential ends – in its other sense of aims or significances. By way of pursuing this question I propose to take a closer look at several examples of “the last man,” a figure who has returned in various guises and to various ends in the work not only of Byron and contemporaries like Thomas Hood and Mary Shelley, but also in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Olaf Stapledon, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Richard Routley and Francis Fukuyama, among others, not to mention a host of films and speculative fictions. A further aspect of this study involves reflecting upon the particular implications and valences of cannibalism as it emerges in several of the catastrophic scenarios presented in the texts under consideration.
On a philosophical logic of apocalypse
Dino Galetti, English/Philosophy, University of Johannesburg So far, it seems to me, the sense of “alterity” has been taken as understandable for, applicable to and generative of the sense of apocalypse. And rightly so, for it is certainly applicable in such cases. For example (referring to examples kindly given to me by Michael Titlestad, the organizer of this conference), that sense has been applied retrospectively to the alterity that threatened Afrikaner identity in South Africa. It might thus well describe every result of the apartheid years, insofar as that sense of alterity concretized an Afrikaner identity against its opposite. To be sure, insofar as “alterity” avoids opposition it could never quite produce a real and visible enemy – the apocalypse "never happened". Even so, that sense was applied after the shift to democracy, as the “haunting” and “radical instances of alterity” that continue to threaten Afrikaner ideology (Titlestad 2013). In novelistic form, Attridge applied that experience of alterity to J.M. Coetzee, then systematically developed the “experience” of “singularity” in writing and reading (1998, 2004). Yet, while I support that contribution, an experience of singularity as productive does not yet logically describe the sense of alterity as threat. To that end, I suggest, the overall concern of the conference is to examine the relations and effects of the sense of apocalypse upon the arts, history, politics, and we as human subjects. Any such project requires multiple grounds to convince nay-sayers to take it seriously. Yet, combining the above, it seems to me that the project could benefit from a philosophical underpinning for the sense of apocalypse and alterity – in the fashion I will explain. Notably, the terms “radical instances of alterity”, “haunting”, “experience” and “singularity” arise from phenomenology. The project could benefit from a logical basis for a phenomenology of alterity as the threat of apocalypse. This paper demonstrates the frame of such a philosophy. It begins from opportunities provided by a source of that tradition – Husserl – then considers Levinas, and Žižek’s critique of him, and proceeds to Meillassoux (2006 ff.). It then explains how a discovery of the early Deleuze (1969) could rigorously transmute the Husserlian logic, and applies a phenomenology of the phantasm that I have put forward elsewhere, to develop a shadow-phenomenology to each of these approaches… a singular phenomenology of threat. Such an underpinning could protect the project against accusations that it has not yet rigorously justified its place in contemporary philosophy, and develop a place for the study of apocalypse as a creative and defensible field itself.
‘Gray and Waiting’: terror’s face in Don DeLillo and Gerhard Richter
Douglas Hayes, English, University of Sussex In his 2002 New Yorker story “Baader-Meinhof,” Don DeLillo describes an unplanned encounter between an unnamed man and woman in an art gallery. Later, in her apartment, the woman asks the man to leave rather than have sex, and he does so, unwillingly. She is left with an unpleasant “double effect”: the contents of her room are now both themselves and “not the same,” somehow ruined by recent events.
The show the two people attended was German artist Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, made in 1988 and moved to MoMA in 2001, about a year before 9/11. October deploys a painting technique that blurrily reproduces images derived from found photographs: here, fifteen police pictures of the last days of the Baader-Meinhof gang. And as Alex Danchev observes of these austere but intimate monochromes, despite their portrayal of what most contemporary Germans would consider the “excrescence” of recent terrorism, Richter’s pictures are not without empathy, especially for the utopianism of the gang members.
In DeLillo’s 2007 Falling Man, another reference is made to Richter in the form of Martin, a German art dealer who has a relationship with Nina, the mother of one of the key protagonists. In the 70s, Martin was involved with leftist German terrorism, his memories of which, we are told, are “gray and waiting”: monochromatic yet potentially explosive, like October. In fact, the Nina/Martin dialogue in Falling Man, a novel we might consider generally as a trauma narrative about 9/11, stages a discussion about the legitimacy and causes of terror. A view of the attacks as a kind of autonomous affect – terror as contagion – is set against an account of their origins in history, economics, and power relations. But, as I argue in this paper, Richter’s images, sited in an odd double-space juxtaposing record and memory, and mass sensation with vulnerable individuality, exert a uncanny influence over this discussion. The paintings solicit a troubling identification from their viewer: one feels both to be the terrorist as abject subject, and the state as executioner. This unhappy consciousness, I suggest, resists and unworks the trauma models DeLillo presents elsewhere, suggesting a relation to 9/11 closer to the ambivalent double-effect the unnamed woman experiences in “Baader-Meinhof.”
An accidental ethics: millenarianism and apocalypse theory
James Sey, Fine Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg This paper interrogates the major theoretical discourses which currently shape, at least in public intellectual contexts, the idea of an ‘end time’ or a millenarian understanding of current events and ideas in public life. Many of these, such as the discourses around climate change, cyborgianism and posthumanity or geopolitical struggle, take the form of ‘apocalypse theory’. These are theoretical views in which the end of something – such as art, science or the human itself - is analyzed, or predicted, but an alternative epistemic or socio-cultural fabric is not yet in place to succeed it. I argue that the ‘ethics’ emerging from these discourses, in the sense of a relation of care and responsibility to that which is ending, accidentally takes the place of religious transcendentalism in a secular discourse. I argue too that an alternative type of apocalypse theory, that rooted in an aestheticization of events, offers a better way of productively shaping millenarian understanding beyond the ‘end of the end’.
Into Africa: the novel as modern martyr
Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Comparative Literature, Johns Hopkins Theories of the novel are often accounts of a failure to assuage the alienation of modern life. From Lukacs’ view of the form as the epic of a fragmented age, to Jameson’s “cognitive maps” of the dissonance between individual authenticity and systemic truth, the novel is seen as perennially forfeiting a capacity to represent historical totality and, thus, agency. The apotheosis of such dissonance in globalization suggests the possibility of an “end times” for literary periodicity: if we have indeed entered a stage of “total subsumption,” or the relation of all productivity to capital, then how can forms innovate or evolve? In this light, my paper argues that 1) the preoccupation of non-African writers with African revolutionary failure, easily seen as advancing an essentialist, exceptionalist, or “Afro-pessimist” ideology, in fact betrays a universal anxiety about the novel’s historical impotence, and 2) this impotence is specifically related to the novel’s difficulty in constructing effective martyrs. Using two works by global Anglophone writers about the Congo – V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River and Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist – in juxtaposition with Ngugi and Mugo’s anti-‐imperialist play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, I sketch two conflicting versions of African eschatology. Ngugi’s dispenses with character to construct a messianic totality that redeems that of the capitalist world-‐system, while Naipaul’s and Bennet’s revisit political failure to maintain a humanist vision of flawed individuality.
A South African zombie apocalypse: Lily Herne’s Mall Rats series
Joan-Mari Barendse, Afrikaans, Stellenbosch University Many critics point to the resurgence of zombie fiction after 2000 (see Dendle 2007; Murray 2013 and Strong 2013). In 2011, Lily Herne* published Deadlands, the first in her series of Mall Rats zombie novels. Deadlands wasfollowed byDeath of a Saint (2012) and Army of the Left (2014). The novels are set 10 years after the zombie apocalypse, referred to as the “War” by the characters, which took place during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The story revolves around Lele de la Fontein, a 17-year-old girl who gets caught up with the Mall Rats, a group of youths making a living from scavenging for and selling items from before the “War”. Like many works of zombie fiction, Herne’s novels can be read as commentary on global consumer-capitalism. In this paper I explore how the context of post-apartheid South Africa in Herne’s novels makes the zombie more than just a metaphor for the mindless consumer.
Comaroff and Comaroff (1999) link the zombie discourse in postcolonial South Africa to human trafficking and the trade in human body parts: “zombies bore testimony to a mounting confusion of people with things”. In Herne’s novels the Mall Rats are eventually kidnapped: their talent for retrieving goods from the “Deadlands” makes them a valuable commodity. According to Geschiere (1997), the witchcraft discourse in postcolonial Africa is easily incorporated in “the money economy, new power relations, and consumer goods associated with modernity”. Politics, power and witchcraft are intertwined in Herne’s novels on various levels. For instance, the society is ruled by the Guardians, a mysterious group that controls the zombies. Working with the Guardians is a pro-zombie cult, the Resurrectionists. In the novels, views on the time before the “War” of the Resurrectionists can also be said to represent social commentary – another aspect that I investigate in this paper.
* Pseudonym for Sarah Lotz and her daughter Savannah.
‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’: listening for the End Times in the contemporary American novel
John Masterson, English, Sussex University This paper will offer a contrapuntal consideration of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, exploring the ways in which their shared, if formally distinctive preoccupations with music might be read in relation to a post-9/11 fascination with imagining the end times. I will draw on a series of thinkers, ranging from Giorgio Agamben to Slavoj Zizek, by way of Edward Said, Frank Kermode and Greil Marcus, all of whom have variously attended to debates concerning the apocalyptic imagination, the contemporary and lateness, to provide a conceptual framework for my discussion. I argue that the concern with music, particularly punk, in these three novels corresponds with as well as writes against the grain of some of the central paradigms in what have now become canonised end times thinkers. Taking my inspiration from one of the characters in Egan’s text who proclaims ‘sure, everything’s ending ... but not yet’, I am particularly interested in the ways in which music provides a more than merely nostalgic counterweight to some of the solipsistic imaginings of the apocalypse that have come to dominate Anglo-American theoretical discourses in the post-9/11 period. By engaging with Marcus’ work on The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan in particular, I suggest that Franzen, Egan and Spiotta turn to musical performances as a way of registering the peculiar time signature of the historical present in relation to that of an all-too recent past. As such, their novels invite us to place the more schismatic tendencies of certain apocalyptic, catastrophic and/or end times discourses in much longer, darker and richer contexts.
Apocalypse now? Millenarianism in the novel Openball by Josef Haslinger
Kathleen Thorpe, German, University of the Witwatersrand
Published in 1995 the novel Opernball (Opera Ball) by the Austrian novelist and literary scholar Josef Haslinger can be viewed in retrospect as a disturbingly prophetic work invoking as it does, a dystopian view of an Austria given over to right wing radicalism. The upsurge of “terrorism” of various kinds, often fuelled by religious fundamentalism revives the notion of millenarianism which has surfaced from time to time in many cultures throughout the ages, in more recent history even in secular form in the vision of a violent end to the world in its present form and the emergence of a new and perfect world under the dominance of a messiah, “Führer” or group.
Haslinger’s novel depicts the formation, ideological foundation and activism of a millenarian group in a fictitious attack on the guests attending the famous Viennese Opera Ball, also calling to mind the existence of millenarian thinking though the ages. This paper proposes to highlight how millenarian thinking can be instrumentalized to promote right wing political aims.
From democratic ‘miracle’ to ‘endgame’: the revolution that never was
Leon de Kock, English, University of Stellenbosch This paper is a meditation on the discourse of crime in postapartheid SA, and it then settles into a discussion of two works of what I call detection in nonfiction mode: Kevin Bloom's Ways of Staying and Jonny Steinberg's Midlands. The paper ends with Steinberg's finale, what he calls 'endgame', and I both note this as apposite - contradicting most critical accounts, including my own, of postapartheid writing's break/rupture with earlier writing; and I also remark on the persistence of the apocalyptic trope, even in "post"-apartheid writing. My argument is that while a near-blind cycling of immemorial tropes continues rather than ceases in postapartheid writing, there is a major shift in voice and affect.
Between apocalypse and extinction: eschatology in Ezra Pound’s poetry
Mark Byron, English, University of Sydney Ezra Pound’s lifelong poetic project, The Cantos, aspired to comprise ‘the best that had been thought and read’ in history by way of citation, gloss, allusion and quotation of a formidable variety of sources. Although Pound intended his poem to perform a paideutic function as a repository for important ideas and their often-precarious textual transmission, his project was also aimed at the poetic representation of a paradiso terrestre, an ideal state of intellectual community at the end of history. Consequently, in a critical phase during the 1930s he was drawn to models of theological and political eschatology, not least those of the Confucian cosmos and Italian Fascism. This intensified interest was to have drastic consequences: Pound was arrested on charges of treason as detained in the US Army Detention Training Center outside of Pisa for his radio broadcasts during World War Two in Italy. During his incarceration Pound wrote much of The Pisan Cantos, in which pastoral observation is combined with political vituperation and nostalgic reminiscence. Pound also makes sustained reference to Johannes Scottus Eriugena, the ninth-century Hibernian-Carolingian theologian and poet who was condemned on account of disseminating heretical doctrines during his lifetime and then posthumously in the Averroist condemnations at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century.
Eriugena serves a critical function in Ezra Pound’s thinking on medieval theology and its formative role in his aesthetics. In particular, Eriugena’s masterwork, the Periphyseon or De Divisione Naturae, provides Pound with a totalising account of history in its exegetical model of the reditus (the return of creation to the godhead), an eschatology to accompany Pound’s other preferred model in the paradiso terrestre. Although there is minimal critical scholarship on Eriugena’s significance in Pound’s prose and poetry, this Carolingian thinker plays a crucial part in Pound’s development of an anti-Aquinian view of medieval theology, part of an obscured tradition that is in itself millennial, and which serves to overturn what Pound saw as conventional, retrograde religious and social eschatologies. Eriugena’s significance is evident in critical passages of The Cantos – particularly Canto 36, the ‘Donna mi prega’ canto, and The Pisan Cantos – as well as in Pound’s prose. Pound also drew up extensive notes for a book on Eriugena, to form a trilogy with his books on the Ta Hio or Great Learning and Mencius, but which never eventuated in publication. These notes throw additional light onto the crucial role Eriugena plays for Pound in his vision for the paradisal poet who speaks for and from the end of days.
‘A Shape … crouching within the shadow of a tomb’: Shelley’s qualified apocalypse in The Triumph of Life
Merle Williams, English, University of the Witwatersrand
Intimations of apocalypse are frequently woven into the vivid fabric of Romantic poetry. Anti-colonial revolutionary flames and widespread pestilence, accompanied by peals of thunder, roll through Blake’s America, a Prophecy (1791-93). Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819) opens with Anarchy, appropriately seated on a white horse, trampling devastation across an England fundamentally corrupted by unchecked violence, exclusionary laws and oppression of the poor. The Triumph of Life (1822), however, presents a different case, even though this unfinished fragment may in some sense be interpreted as a reorientation of the apocalyptic-messianic vision of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820). Here the subtly shifting narrative highlights the crisis confronting Europe in its submission to the spell of Enlightenment rationalism, with the attendant consequences of a coercive will to knowledge and an unbridled quest for power. Yet the poem carries within its multi-layered and ambiguous structure traces of a redemptive potentiality that at once ameliorates the disintegration of European society and becomes contaminated by it.
This paper will take its starting point from Paul de Man’s controversial examination of The Triumph of Life in terms of rhetorical erasure and disfigurement (see ‘Shelley Disfigured’, 1979), while also translating the notions of ‘disfiguring’ and ‘defacing’ into an ethical context suggested by the thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. Although this may seem an anachronistic strategy, both phenomenology and aspects of its critique through deconstruction have deep roots in the competing currents of idealism and empiricism that informed Shelley’s philosophical reading. Following this theoretical trajectory, Levinas’s commitment to ethics as ‘first philosophy’ – and particularly to the epiphany of ‘the face’ as entailing ineluctable responsibility for the Other – will be set in dialogue with the entropic collapse of European civilization once its value systems have become inherently distorted or bankrupt. Such concerns are reflected in cognate ways in Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821), which closely interrogates the concepts of ‘reason’, ‘imagination’ and a non-normative approach to morality through poetic exploration. If the political dimension is foregrounded, the seemingly irresistible advance of The Triumph’s sinister, proto-divine Shape in its crushing juggernaut may be measured against Immanuel Kant’s proposal to bring ‘perpetual peace’ to a war-torn Europe. However, Shelley’s relation to these pragmatic assumptions is more aptly illuminated through an alternative understanding of ‘justice’, however elusive, once again evolved in the cumulatively nuanced reflections of Levinas and Derrida.
Levinas’s construct of ‘the face’ is inseparably bound up with openness, hospitality and responsiveness to the ethical possibilities of engaged signification. This cluster of preoccupations points back to the language of The Triumph of Life, both in its violent performativity and its insidious figurative erasure. Yet Shelley’s text also constitutes a rich mythographic palimpsest that parodies received socio-religious doctrine in a multi-referential gesture, while carefully recuperating Socratic integrity, the spiritual wholeness of Jesus and imaginative energy. Apocalypse and ethical renewal uneasily shadow each other, as Shelley unwrites and rewrites Dante, Rousseau and Milton or heightens catastrophe by juxtaposing it to idealized pastoral fulfilment. As each sequence of images glides towards erasure, the process resumes in an enactment of apocalypse indefinitely deferred.
The status of The Triumph as a fragment intensifies such play with apocalyptic evocations. Its incompleteness may be deemed to underscore the irremediable triumph of the Shape in the car over his helpless victims, although the absence of a formal ending equally invites speculation on the potential for a messianic moment. Finally, the poem folds back into the resonances of its carefully cultivated inter-text, drawing out associations with Shelley’s earlier work and gaining security from a literary tradition that it paradoxically endorses through its accomplished projection of a catastrophic rupture.
Revolution and Catastrophism in Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”
Michael Boyden, American Literature, Uppsala University This paper addresses the problematic of end times and catastrophism by way of a close reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s well-known short-story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1832). The ambiguous coming-of-age narrative of the boy Robin, who arrives in Boston in search of his kinsman Major Molineux but ends up joining in the laughter of the crowd that has tarred and feathered the man, has traditionally been read as a prefiguration of the American Revolution and the contradictory legitimation of a new democratic social order (Shaw 1976). In these readings, the “kinship” of obedience and revolt in Hawthorne’s story reflects the author’s ambivalence towards the crowd at a time when the American political landscape was dramatically reconfigured by the nascent abolitionist and labor movements, the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the conservative reaction embodied by the Whig Party. My aim is not to dispute these readings but to resituate them in a broader, transnational framework that explicitly links Jacksonianism to the wave of revolutions in 1830s Europe (cf. Hobsbawm 1962). The behavior of the crowd leaders with their “outlandish attire,” who speak “in some language of which Robin knew nothing,” is normally read as a reference to the Boston Tea Party and the role of Masonry in the revolt. However, the reference to foreign languages in Hawthorne’s narrative may also be linked to the wave of revolutions that was transforming the map of Europe at this historical juncture. As historians have shown (Young 2000), the revolutions of 1830 led Americans to deradicalize their own revolutionary legacy by reimagining it as a “Tea Party” rather than a radical uprising. It has been argued that Hawthorne’s mature fiction of the 1840s was heavily influenced by his reading of Guizot and Lamartine, which shaped his worldview “in Burkean ways” (Reynolds 1988). In my paper, I argue that this Burkean spirit of catastrophism was already evident in Hawthorne’s tales of the 1830s. On a theoretical level, I will engage with recent appraisals and critiques of Hannah Arendt’s paradoxical observation, uttered in the midst of the Cold War, that it was “under the impact of the Revolution that the revolutionary spirit in America began to whither away” (Arendt 1963).
The time of hospitality
Mike Marais, English, Rhodes University My concern in this paper is with the temporal dimension of the differential process through which community constitutes itself. If community is premised on the sameness that is enabled by that which it excludes, and sees as a threat, then it must seek always to conserve itself and to render the future, which is hazardous in its uncertainty, calculable, predictable and determinable. In its search for stability and permanence, community must dominate time in such a way that it is overcome, that it withdraws from itself. Not to do so is to court catastrophe.
Arguably, though, we would view time less teleologically and programmatically, if we could relate differently to the difference on which community depends. A form of hospitality that is predicated on an acceptance of otherness – not only that of community’s outsiders, but also the “common strangeness” of its insiders – would alter the ways in which being-in-common is conceived, and would also change our experience of belonging. By the same token, such an accommodation could not but affect our experience of the temporality of the future. To accept otherness is necessarily to say yes to whatever may come, and therefore to live with exactly the kind of uncertainty and unpredictability that teleological conceptions of the future try to elide. If Jacques Derrida is correct in arguing that “There would be no future without chance”, hospitality is precisely that which enables and affirms the future.
After elaborating on the above understanding of hospitality – which has its roots in Samuel Beckett’s notion of interminable waiting and Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida’s thought on hospitality – my paper traces the ways in which some South African writing of the postapartheid period has engaged with the temporal dimension of community’s dependence on difference.
Moscow and the apocalypse: Dmitri Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033
Natalie Paoli, English, University of the Witwatersrand The dystopic and apocalyptic appear in Russian literature as early as the nineteenth century. The traditional Russian symbol of the apocalypse became the horse and the rider, which was later substituted by the train. The “iron horse” in Soviet history also became the symbol for the transportation and spread of Stalinism during the 1930s, and the metro station was seen as an ideological challenge to the West. The Moscow underground, therefore, was a great part of Soviet cultural discourse. This paper will examine the way in which, in the novel Metro 2033, Russian science-fiction author Dmitri Glukhovsky, appropriates the image of the Moscow metro and inverts the notion of the underground as a symbol of progress. In addition, another Soviet symbol of power and progress, that of the city of Moscow, becomes in the novel an image of loss and despair, of cultural apocalypse, as the city is now uninhabitable due to a nuclear war that had broken out. The survivors of the war were forced to create their homes in the metro to escape the radiation as well as the paranormal mutants, known as the “Dark Ones”. However, the underground is no sanctuary as separate factions are formed, which wage war on one another for total control of the metro. Artem, the novel’s protagonist, is driven to explore the surface because of the increasing dystopic nature of his home. Here he comes into contact with the feared mutants, the “Other”. Glukhovsky illustrates disillusionment and disaster when Artem discovers that it is in fact the people underground, his people, and not the “mutant others” that pose the threat to the continuation of humanity. Glukhovsky presents the reader with a topography of chaos as the novel culminates in yet another break-out of nuclear war at the novel’s conclusion.
The Longer Future
Nedine Moonsamy, English, University of the Witwatersrand You reach forward into the past, then pull your arms and the
boat back into the longer future
Anne Landsman, The Rowing Lesson: 241
This paper explores the growing awareness of historical contingency in contemporary South African literature. Much to the consternation of many cultural and literary theorists, the future-orientedness of the South African nation has imbued the national imaginary with a distinctly proleptic understanding of history. This means that the South African archive has consistently allied itself with the future to the detriment of the past. However, widespread representations of historical contingency in contemporary literary output is an expression of vulnerability in this regard – an indication that characters lack the confidence to read historical developments as a teleological and redemptive narrative. For some characters the disillusionment proves tragic, leading to an apocalyptic rendition of historical events. These characters are portrayed as merely reactionary, casting events in a deliberately dystopian light in order to justify their convictions about a future apocalypse. Other characters, however, explore comic renditions of the apocalypse. As described, the comic apocalypse uses historical contingency to account for human error as opposed to evil or guilt (Stephen O’Leary Arguing the Apocalypse). Hence, by uncovering the very contingency of their own pasts, these characters awaken to a historical modality that can accommodate both failure and progress. Ultimately, historical contingency allows for an ability to think in broad historical strokes and makes for a more mature and sustainable appreciation of history and its future.
Apocalypse now, never … or forever: Venter and Medalie on the everyday biopolitics of post-apartheid South Africa
Russ West-Pavlov, English, University of Tübingen/University of Pretoria
This paper reads in tandem two apparently quite different texts: Eben Venter's Trencherman and David Medalie's The Shadow Follows. It argues that their differences are so extreme that they in fact meet: the hyperbolic apocalypse of Venter's text is so extreme in its parodies of white fears of collapse that its real concerns are actually very close to Medalie's more muted view of living-on in post-apartheid South Africa. The paper suggests that both texts frame their respective hyperbolic and litotic accounts of life after apartheid with reference to topoi such as AIDS and migration, but also by subverting the rhetoric of apocalypse by close attention to a biopolitics (or necropolitics, in Mbembe's term) which, in its refusal to end, is a more frightening aspect of contemporary (South) African life than many of the spectres of white nightmares of terminal paroxysm.
Strange fruit: environmental justice in Tropic of Orange.
Ryan Palmer, American Literature, Uppsala University In Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita explores the gap between the textual history and lived experience of Los Angeles and reinscribes its position within the ‘master dialectic of sunshine and noir’ with the purpose of revising the political discourse on the city. The novel’s plot is driven by an orange which shifts the Tropic of Cancer northward, accelerating the environmental and migratory effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement in order to make the gradual process of disenfranchisement engendered by the arrangement immediately visible. I examine the role of the orange, as well as the cultural iconography of the automobile, and their metonymic connections to race, trade, and particularly environmentality in Los Angeles. I argue that by treating the freeway system as its own ecology Tropic of Orange introduces questions regarding homelessness under the rubric of environmental justice. My presentation will be an exposition of these concerns and connections, and I will argue that crucial to Tropic’s narrative structure and its presentation of socio-environmental issues are puns, metonymy, and the crosscut; devices that Yamashita reappropriates from noir film and literature. My presentation will address the topic ‘end times’ by the novel’s own representation of catastrophe as a Global South represented by Mexico meets the late capitalist North represented by the U.S.A.
The need for zero: the utopian impulse in Eben Venter’s Trencherman
Daniela Pitt, English, University of the Witwatersrand Robert Thornton, Professor of Anthropology, aptly comments that since the earliest recorded history of South Africa, the country has been characterised by its vision of what he refers to as a “rolling apocalypse”, by fears of calamity and catastrophism. Colonial domination, the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism, the abhorrence of apartheid, ecological wreckages, global economic isolation, quotidian fear – images that have been part of South Africa’s collective historical fabric so much so, that one may be magnetised to Afro-pessimism for a continent that has gone hopelessly adrift. Subconscious fear of an apocalyptic threat is manifest in the South African persona and resonates in many contemporary texts that are dark, unsettling in their scope and narrative. The fictions, metaphors for white guilt and anxiety, are not oracular but created imaginary spaces where the unimaginable plays out a bleak scenario.
My paper considers Frederic Jameson’s suggestion that the dystopian historical present potentially channels modes of representation that transport us from “our mental and ideological imprisonment” to a state of “utopian impulse” (in Archaeologies of the Future). Further, consideration will be given to Frank Kermode’s account of the restrictions of apocalyptic imaginary (in Sense of an Ending). Using this theoretical framework, I present a critical reading of Eben Venter’s Trencherman (2008, translated by Luke Stubbs from the Afrikaans Horrelpoot, 2006). My reading will be positioned from the viewpoint that even though Venter’s text, with its rich intertextual recasts from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, presents a dystopic, nihilistic vision of South Africa, ultimately it points to the necessity to erase the depravity of white colonial past. I conclude that the novel offers the space for a “utopian impulse” by suggesting that the hope for a new order rests on premise that the depravity of the old is forgotten completely to offer opportunity for a new existence, separate from and different to the former colonial masters. Ultimately in the face of the abyss of the dystopian, we reinvent the desire for a better, new world.
Psychoanalysis, catastrophe and the question of genocide
Sue van Zyl, Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand It is sometimes said that catastrophes outline, as it were in the negative, the field of events that threaten the very existence not just a particular way of life but of life itself. However, it is less often explicitly said that in doing so catastrophes, both actual or represented, simultaneously put human rationality and the many and varied forms of knowledge in which aspects of rationality are instantiated, to the most radical of tests. Against this background, this presentation will explore the question of what psychoanalysis, supposedly the most developed and trustworthy knowledge of what is least trustworthy in human beings, has or could contribute to an understanding of genocide.
The science of artificial intelligence, Thanatos, and the “the desert of the real”
Teresa Heffernan, English, St. Mary’s University (Canada) A number of contemporary films imagine an epic battle between humans and complex machines that ends badly for humans. By the end of Spielberg’s AI, for instance, humans have long since lost the war with robots and in the Wachowski brothers’ film the The Matrix (and in Second Renaissance, directed by Maeda,theprequel to The Matrix), humans have been enslaved by the artificial intelligence that they gave birth to. An increasing number of prominent scientists in the field are no more optimistic about the future of humans: Noel Sharkey has been vocal about the need, before it is too late, for an international and ethical agreement that would govern the use of autonomous robots on the battlefield. Geoffrey Hinton, who is a leader in neural networks, has also talked about the possibilities of robot uprisings and the scary future that awaits humans, given the massive military investment in robots that are designed to kill people. So too, The Centre for Existential Risk at Cambridge has identified AI as a potential threat for human existence. These conflicted scientists are reminiscent of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb and then lived to regret it: Oppenheimer lamented in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world ... a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing ... we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” Nevertheless there is a tone of inevitability about the future as if it is passively unfolding: Ray Kurzweil, who is much more optimistic about human/robot integration, talks about “predicting” the future as if the billions of dollars thrown at AI and robotics, largely funded by the military, is not about actively shaping this future. This paper considers why it is that science has been so co-opted by the death drive and how it is that science, which emerged as first a discrete and then a dominant way of understanding the world, has lost its connection to the questions of “why.” While scientific research is now obsessed with the “how” of robotics research and increasingly is in the service of profit and industry, this paper proposes that science needs fiction to interrupt this deadly course.
Why do we care about humanity?: reasons for abhorring the prospect of catastrophe
Thaddeus Metz, Humanities/Philosophy, University of Johannesburg From a bird’s-eye perspective, one can discern the following trend when it comes to philosophical reflection about death. For a long while among professional philosophers, debate centred on whether the evidence indicates that an individual is likely to outlive the death of his body, with most in the 20th century eventually settling on a negative answer. Then, from more or less the 1970s onward, debate turned to the question of whether it would be desirable for a person to outlive the death of his body forever, i.e., for him to be immortal. Although that issue remains contentious, a third stage in debate about death has arisen in the 21st century, namely, concerning that of the species. Few doubt that our species will at some point die out, and few contend that this would be a good thing. Instead, debate here has focused on the respects in which it would be a bad thing. Does it matter when humanity perishes? Are there better and worse ways for the species to go out of existence? How might the ending of the species affect the meaningfulness of an individual’s life?
That last question is roughly the subject of a recent book that is getting a lot of attention from Anglo-American philosophers, namely, Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, 2013). In this work, Scheffler has the reader imagine that humanity will perish either about a month after she dies as a result of an asteroid striking the earth, or after a while upon the race becoming incapable of procreating. Scheffler then asks the reader to reflect on how she would tend to appraise her individual life, upon knowing that humanity would soon die out.
Scheffler’s hypothesis is that most readers would find little left to live for, upon learning that humanity would come to an end soon after she were to die. In fact, he makes the bold claim that, upon reflecting on the thought experiment, we learn that the extinction of the human race matters more to us than our own extinction and those of whom we love. ‘(T)he fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people who we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities’ (45).
In my presentation, I will critically explore this claim, clarifying what it means for Scheffler and why he believes it, and providing reason to doubt his argument for it. In particular, I suspect that Scheffler’s defence of that claim evinces some incoherence. He says that we as individuals are keenly interested in the future existence of humanity mainly because we want to transcend our own mortality, which suggests that it is our own mortality, not that of humanity, that is of ultimate concern.
Scheffler’s claim might or might not be correct in the final analysis, but, if it is correct, I maintain that it probably is so for some reason other than the one he gives. I suspect that our reactions to the prospect of humanity’s demise are less self-regarding than Scheffler posits, and are instead more ‘impersonal’ and ‘disinterested’, even though keenly felt by most.
Competing Eschatologies in the Climate Change Debate: Global Warming, Nuclear Destruction, and the Spectacle of Disaster
Stephen D. O’Leary, Journalism and Communication, University of Southern California This essay attempts to tease out the implications and consequences of an analogy frequently used by analysts of current debates over global warming, who argue that in the twenty-first century, climate change occupies a position once held by nuclear war in the twentieth century, as the apocalyptic threat that dominates the contemporary imagination, defining and galvanizing our political battles. Both climate change and nuclear war present catastrophes that are ipso facto apocalyptic: global in scope, apparently imminent in time, and enacting a judgment or condemnation of humanity that betokens a spiritual crisis and threatens our continuing existence. However, few have extended this analogy beyond this basic comparison. By discovering common themes and strategies in the rhetoric of anti-nuclear activists (1948-1984) and environmental advocates focusing on global warming (1996-2014), I demonstrate that the analogy is not superficial, but actually helps to explain why and how climate activists have failed to galvanize the public on this issue. The environmental movement appears to be repeating mistakes made by the anti-nuclear movement sixty years ago. Attempting to avoid catastrophe by predicting catastrophe, they are being swept up into an apocalyptic mentality that has been defined as much by Hollywood films as by the ancient religious narrative. I will argue that while the “imagination of disaster” (Sontag, 1964) has powerful visual and emotional appeal, it is not the best tool for motivating people to action. Ultimately, we need to find a language for assessing public risk and agreeing on policies that does not depend on fear as primary motivator, a language that will address people as citizens who face choices, rather than as spectators anticipating the inevitable.
Apocalyptic Imaginaries, Utopian Desires: Bloch, Benjamin, and the Politics of Time
Annika Thiem, Philosophy, Villanova Spinoza opens his Theological-Political Treatise by observing that polities are haunted by the problem that people tend to fluctuate—often rather violently—between hope and fear. In his Ethics, he elaborates how both fear and hope are fickle temporal and temporalizing affects. Both drain agency from the present, eviscerating more stable affects of perseverance and courage as the fire of exuberant hope burns too fast and morphs into the apathy of disappointment or paralyzing fear. In turn fear, especially in the face of an apocalyptic catastrophe, narrows the space for a politics of egalitarian debate and solidarity oriented toward building alternative institutions and practices. If we take Spinoza’s lead, we might conclude that struggles over the constitution and life of the polity and political agency imply also always imply struggles over what the shared sense of time and history will be.
In this presentation, I will specifically turn to Weimar Germany as a moment and place of such struggles over competing philosophies of history in the shadows of the aftermath of a Europe in shambles after WWI. As political factions were clashing, often violently, in the streets of most major German cities, the public framing of political time and history ranged from predictions of an impending catastrophic collapse of all order, ardent desires to reconstitute a lost golden age, nationalist futurist dreams (turning into nightmares over the decades that were to follow), staunch faith in the progress of reason as the fundamental principle driving history underneath all temporary upheaval, and revolutionary desires for inter- and transnational communist and socialist polities. My project is not primarily historical in its orientation; rather I am interested in a political theoretical engagement with the political valence of philosophies of history that becomes possible against this specific backdrop. The paper will explore the work of Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch in order to develop a critique of catastrophism on the one hand and on the other hand a recovery of urgency and a “weak” or “fractured” utopianism as tools for political thought and practice.
First I will turn to Benjamin’s critique of framing the present through the lens of a catastrophe that threatens to destroy the status quo as well as his critique of understanding history through a narrative of inevitable progress. Second I will attend to Benjamin’s retrieval of "the present as endangered" as a heuristic that sees the catastrophe not in the threat to the status quo, but in the complacent affirmation of and investments in the status quo and its persistence. Third, I will turn to Bloch’s retrieval of a weak utopian thought forged out of surviving remnants of alternative temporal and historical practices, in order to explore the possibilities of a politics of radical memory against the politics of catastrophism.