Everywhere we look we seem to be surrounded by signs and portents that humanity is making a transition from one era of its history to another.
Just a few years ago, you may recall, the scholar Francis Fukiyama grabbed a good deal of attention with his thesis that we had finally reached the end of history, a secular version of Christian apocalyptic narratives, with the Kingdom of Capitalism standing in for the Kingdom of God.
While it is unlikely that the end of the world is truly at hand, the apocalyptic mood is quite real, and needs to be accounted for. One way to start is to understand that mood not as prophecy, but as the expression of a collective wish.
The end of the world is anticipated as much with relief as with terror. In popular fantasies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Kevin Costner’s movie The Postman, the apocalypse is exhilarating as well as dreadful. Why would that be the case?
What does it say about Western Culture™ as a culture that we have come to take such pleasure in imagining our own annihilation, over and over in such varied and compelling forms? An answer might be found in our contradictory feelings about social and political change. On the one hand there is a deep and profound desire for substantive change, a belief that a radical transformation of our culture is necessary to prevent a worldwide apocalypse.
Yet on the other hand, there is an equally profound cynicism regarding the actual prospects for change. We live steeped in a sense of despair, fearing that any changes we actually try to implement will only servive to make things worse.
Fantasies of the apocalypse arise as a ‘solution’ to this contradiction. If change is necessary, but we do not trust ourselves to bring it about, then we console ourselves with the hope that someone or something else will intervene to provide it for us. In other words, apocalyptic fantasies are displaced ways of imagining social revolution.
Such fantasies are ultimately cynical about human nature because they deny to human beings the possibility of being the positive agents of their own transformation.
As in the Christian apocalyptic narrative, human beings are seen as imperfect and tainted, unable to save themselves, and requiring the intervention of a supernatural force.
That force could be God or the aliens, as in the case of UFO cultists – but the common thread is that we are unable to save ourselves.
However, as bad subjects, we wish to remind everyone that, as Marx wrote long ago, human beings are free to make their own history, even if we cannot make it just as we please, because we must make it under conditions not of our own choosing.
We are stuck with the past, but the future remains as much a realm of freedom as of necessity. If we abandon faith in our capacity, as individuals and as a species, to become better than what we have been, then we seal our doom as surely as any providential deity could do for us.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the end of the world as we know it is also the opportunity to create a new world unlike any we have known before. But that means taking responsibility for our collective future, and recognizing our collective power to transform the world – a power which we currently contemplate in an alienated form in fantasies in which transformation comes, but from outside, and not through our own efforts.
Printed originally in Bad Subjects. Email: Joe Sartelle