The End of the World as We Know It


Discussed in this essay: The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 272 pages.

Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, by Ben Ehrenreich. Counterpoint, 2020. 336 pages.

Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex, by Jessica Hurley. University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 301 pages.

IT’S HARD to escape the apocalypse these days. Temperatures are rising. The far right is resurgent around the world. A pandemic has killed millions and intensified local and global divisions between rich and poor. The feelings attending such events—unbounded anxiety, fear of the world’s collapse, a pervading sense of total doom—are often characterized as apocalyptic.

But apocalypse is not just a predicted event or a structure of feeling—it is also a written form concerned with the possibility of redemption through destruction. Jewish writers founded one prominent apocalyptic tradition in the first and second centuries BCE, in the Books of Baruch and Daniel and the Dead Sea Scrolls, before the form’s canonization in the Book of Revelation. These texts, unlike earlier prophetic literature, shifted responsibility for salvation from the Jewish people to God: After centuries of prophets pleading with their people to be good, apocalypticists decided it was time for God to smite all vicious empires and bring history abruptly to an end.

This longed-for smiting did not come, and instead, a Christian narrative of apocalypse fueled the creation and perpetuation, many centuries later, of a new empire. Columbus and the Puritans believed the settlement of the New World would hurry Christ’s return, and apocalypse has remained central to the American story: In the mid-19th century, apocalyptic revivalism led to the founding of distinctly American offshoots of Christianity (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh-day Adventists). Apocalypse surged again at the end of the 1960s, as white evangelicals, anxious about what they saw as white decline and the rise of globalism, popularized dispensationalism—a quirky way of reading the Bible that involved scouring it for news of the end times—and taught their children to expect the rapture at any moment. 

In a time and place permeated by Christian apocalyptic narratives that find a self-fulfilling prophecy in the devastation all around us, what other kinds of stories might we tell that reckon with our unavoidable sense of doom? Three books published last year—The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert, Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, and Infrastructures of Apocalypse by Jessica Hurley—attempt to wrest an inchoate apocalypticism from our collective environment, asking us to change how we live. Both Gabbert and Ehrenreich’s books attend to the allure of apocalypse, exploring what it might offer in contrast with another foundational American narrative of salvation, the myth of perpetual progress. Their inquiries are limited, however, by a persistent problem with apocalyptic frameworks of liberation, which tend to strip us of agency and can thus make us into fatalists and quietists. Hurley (who, full disclosure, is a colleague and sometime collaborator) finds a different model of apocalypse in the literary works of the dispossessed, which offer a vision of survival achieved not by awaiting inevitable intervention, but by facing the futurelessness that is already here.

Poet and critic Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory—a collection of essays about the magnetism of disasters, the endless bad news, compassion fatigue—begins with a conversion narrative, as she describes her metamorphosis from evangelist of progress to apocalypticist. In an early essay about her attraction to cataclysms, she writes, “Progress changes the parameters of possibility. This is something we strive for—to innovate past the event horizon of what we can imagine.” Here she relents to the cozy tug of neoliberalism’s language of progress—“parameters,” “strive,” “innovate”—but she ultimately determines that this paradigm leads us astray: We forget our limits as humans, the unavoidable imperfection of information, the inevitability of error. She introduces the idea of a progress trap—“a development that looks at first like a clear advancement but in time proves to actually deoptimize the system”—and posits that civilization itself might be one. Our belief in our own perfectibility has set us on an inescapable trajectory toward collective catastrophe.

Having renounced her faith in progress, Gabbert obsesses over disasters: The first part of her book is a series of meditations on past, possible, and unfolding catastrophes, including Hiroshima, the Chernobyl meltdown, 9/11, pandemics, the threat of a devastating earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, and climate change. She looks for patterns, explanations for these little apocalypses. Conventionally, she finds, we point to human hubris, which “allows us to blame past versions of ourselves, past paradigms, for faulty thinking that we’ve since overcome,” a move that lets us cling to the idea of progress: “to believe that better technology, better engineering will save us.” 

Gabbert seems to write to persuade acolytes of progress to escape its false hope. But her efforts, admirable though they may be, rely on proffering banalities as if they were newfound scraps of wisdom. Thinking about climate change, she concludes: “I wonder if humanity is not ‘too big to fail,’ but too big not to.” Considering whether Trump is evil, she cites an unspecified novel in which “one character reminded another that a ‘revolution’ is simply a turn of the wheel; it doesn’t break the power structure, it just changes who is on top.” This reliance on cliché is a symptom of the exhaustion of our paradigms: Follow progress and apocalypse to their logical ends, and you wind up speaking recycled language, arriving nowhere new. By the book’s end, Gabbert reports staying home from protests, feeling bored by disasters and tempted by fatalism. Traipsing toward apocalypse, it appears, has led her to the mild comfort of the status quo.

Like The Unreality of Memory, Desert Notebooks, by the journalist Ben Ehrenreich, attempts to “dismantle our delusions” about the idea of progress. The book interweaves an account of a year spent wandering the wilderness around the Mojave Desert, worrying about Trump, with meditations on ancient epics and Native American history and writing. He searches for the philosophical source of the devastation wrought by US imperialism, which he believes might be healed if we can identify it, abandon it, and embrace alternative models. 

Ehrenreich’s quixotic diary is closely in conversation with the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which conceives of history not as the progressive unfolding of enlightenment imagined by his predecessor G.W.F. Hegel, but as a single ongoing catastrophe. Ehrenreich adopts Benjamin’s understanding of time under capitalism as the homogeneous and empty temporality of clocks—a steady, unending tick, tick, tick. This metronome of progress is a form of time that favors continuity, plodding forward without interruption or delay. Benjamin argued that we need to shatter this experience of time and replace it with the time of the messiah or the revolution, in which each moment trembles with the possibility of redemption. To reconceive time after Benjamin’s model, Ehrenreich turns to Native American and ancient Greek writings. He embraces the apocalypticism he finds there, which foregrounds the perpetual imminence of rupture—a reminder that, as Ehrenreich writes, “apocalypse is always with us,” a testament to “the fragile web of life.” He immerses himself in their worlds, coming closer, in his view, to messianic time. At the end of the book, he imagines “what we call civilization,” in all its “brutal, gleaming, plasticized absurdity,” fading like a dream upon waking.

Ehrenreich’s emphasis on Native alternatives to progress is salutary. But he valorizes these models without engaging with them critically. As a result, his admiration sometimes slips into sanctimonious affection for the ethnic Other, which correlates with arch, self-abasing expressions of white guilt: He confesses the complicity of his blue eyes; he describes the biological warfare of the early genocides of the Americas as “a good trick, really.” These mirrored gestures of praise and cynical self-castigation ultimately serve as ways to evade the basic questions of agency and salvation at the heart of his book—problems he inherits from Benjamin, who never overcame them. The philosopher’s apocalyptic messianism seductively promises that any day now we might take hold of the past’s failed revolutions and see them through, remaking the world in the light of redemption. But, because the fantasy of salvation is inextricably bound up with messianism—that is, with the arrival of some transcendent rupture—how can we avoid slipping into fatalism? And how can such a framework, even if it claims to divest itself of divinity, facilitate the inevitably interminable work of reproducing human community, rather than keep us simply dreaming of a post-historical paradise? These questions stand in the way of apocalyptic thinking’s triumph over the insufficiency of progress, and despite his searching efforts, Ehrenreich—like Gabbert—fails to see the dead end toward which he’s driving. Their attempts leave me wondering: How can we find transformation latent in the now, a way out of neoliberal forms of life, without immediately experiencing them in the light of utopia?

In her book Infrastructures of Apocalypse, scholar Jessica Hurley searches for a way. In this work of literary criticism, Hurley considers writers, largely working in a decolonial tradition, who have imagined forms of escape without salvation. Like Ehrenreich, Hurley turns to Benjamin’s messianism to think about the limits of progress, but unlike him, she gently rejects the philosopher’s “triumphal” theory of redeemed time. She sees a different vision in the work of writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Samuel Delany, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Tony Kushner, who imagine unlivable futures—and in so doing, make the present livable.

Hurley devotes an early chapter to James Baldwin, who first became famous for demanding the fulfillment of the promise of an egalitarian America in his 1963 book The Fire Next Time. But Hurley demonstrates that only five years later, in his fourth novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, he rejected this earlier position, imagining the nation burning in a nuclear holocaust that comes first for non-white people. He no longer believed the country could escape its self-destructive racial capitalism; as Hurley characterizes his stance, he saw that in America, “there is no future for Blackness.” By facing such futurelessness head on, Baldwin interrupts inherited narratives: not only the myth of progress, but also the myth of apocalyptic redemption. Envisioning a different sort of apocalypse—one in which the future is already foreclosed and no redemption is forthcoming—he conjures the possibility of living without attachment to an inevitably disappointing national mythos or a utopia ever in the distance. He can live, broken and finite, today. Hurley calls this narrative embrace of futurelessness transfiguration: not the canonical image of Jesus radiant in glory, but rather a reorientation that is “resolutely non-utopian, repetitive, maybe even boring or aesthetically disappointing”—a shearing away of the rote cant of human capital so that in its place the dispossessed might begin, in Baldwin’s words, “to create the principles on which a new world will be built.” Acknowledging the catastrophe of the future makes it possible to face today, enabling “a commitment to create a world in which all those destroyed things—including, sooner or later, ourselves—can be treasured.” Hurley claims “apocalypse” as the name for this transfigured life. (Whether transfiguration and apocalypse can shed their sacred skins is a question Hurley leaves unanswered.)

Hurley’s goal is at once modest and profound, to theorize “futurelessness not as an obliteration of possibility but as a place to stand, a place where we might yet construct a world in which to live.” To construct such a standpoint requires acknowledging the contingency of our time so that we can refuse this world’s exigencies toward profit and growth, and create communities oriented toward flourishing without waiting on God or revolution to arrive. This isn’t apocalypse as it’s been practiced for millennia. Apocalypse—in its traditional form—has become too easy, second nature, a way to think without thinking. It’s a trap. We are flies in its fly bottle, buzzing and banging ourselves against its translucent walls, unable to get free—and we won’t until we crawl slowly through the narrow neck and back into the open air.

Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Emory University, the author of American Literature and the Long Downturn: Neoliberal Apocalypse (Oxford UP, 2020).

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