Histories of Violence: Apocalypse Now
By Brad EvansApril 5, 2021
Banner image: Chantal Meza, “Visceral Ecologies XIX”. Oil on Canvas. 50x40. 2020
BRAD EVANS: Let’s begin this conversation with the apocalypse, which is the focus for your latest book. That we live in apocalyptic times, with the long duress of its catastrophes and modes of redemption, seems pretty self-evident. Indeed, as you note in the book, the fact that dystopian fictions have been effectively moved into the realm of current affairs is more than revealing. But I’d like to ask what the term “apocalypse” actually means to you, and why does it deserve our attention right now?
SREĆKO HORVAT: In an age of hyper-inflation of the very term “Apocalypse,” I think it’s necessary to go back to the original Greek meaning of apokalýp(tein), with apo- (meaning the prefix “un-”) and kalyptein (meaning “to cover or conceal”). So in that sense I understand the Apocalypse first and foremost as the “unveiling” of something, unlike the prevailing contemporary usage of the term as if it means the “end of the world.” In the book, I go so far to say that we actually live not so much in apocalyptic but in post-apocalyptic times. The Apocalypse as “revelation” about the end of the world (as we know it) the already happened, or to be more precise, it was “unveiled.” One of the most recent ones was the pandemic, and just like every planetary event — take the plague and its role in the demise of feudalism or even the eruption of volcano Laki on Iceland which created the fertile ground for the French Revolution — this event revealed so much about our current capitalist world system, or the Capitalocene. What I’m interested in is to move back to the future, what if even this pandemic was just a footnote for what comes after this Apocalypse? Namely, Extinction. And what if, even if we are aware that we are living in the “End-Time,” we are not able to see it anymore?
Yes, we see it all the time, so many horrors all around the world, there is even a rather recent term “doomscrolling” that became quite popular during our current pandemic. But as everyone knows, the Apocalypse can become rather exhausting. You can find it sublime, enjoy gazing at a painting by J. M. W. Turner or Children of Men, but when you are already living in the painting with red skies due to wildfires or in dystopian UK that resembles Alfonso Cuarón’s prophetic masterpiece, how much more can you enjoy it? Then, you can respond to it, by compulsive activity, whether it’s by “doomscrolling” or washing hands. Or you can join the new commodification of the Apocalypse, from postapocalyptic tourism (Chernobyl or melting ice tours) to children’s toys (take Lego’s Apocalypseburg). Or you can build a bunker in New Zealand or construct escape plans to Mars. But in the end, you become blind toward the Apocalypse. Whenever you commodify something, whether it is love or the Apocalypse, you lose the ability to really understand it. This is why Günther Anders, a still neglected thinker who deeply influenced my last years of navigating through the Apocalypse, speaks of “apocalyptic blindness” (Apokalypse Blindheit), because what is at stake is simply too big to comprehend, it is not subliminal, but supraliminal, it goes beyond all known limits.
When thinking about the apocalypse in more biblical terms, we invariably have to deal directly with extreme violence. And yet what you suggest in the book is the veritable normalization of earlier modes of apocalyptic mindsets (notably once manifest through ideas of nuclear annihilation). What do you think is different about the violence(s) we encounter in these terrifying states of normality today?
Indeed, the Bible is a very violent book. But so are most of the major religious texts. Perhaps we could say that the whole history of humanity including arts — from the early cave paintings — is nothing else but an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe. There is this famous image from the letters of Pliny the Younger, the only historical eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, who said that he doesn’t know whether he should call it courage or folly but he “called for a volume of Livy and went on reading as if I had nothing else to do.” And as the teenage historian — he was only 17 at the time! — remained absorbed in his book, his uncle Pliny the Elder would die because of a large pyroclastic surge while attempting to rescue a friend and his family by ship from the eruption of the volcano that had previously destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Maybe the way out of our current catastrophe, is precisely to construct a heterotopia, maybe you could say his uncle was more courageous and actually tried to help someone, but if Pliny the Younger wasn’t absorbed in his books, perhaps we would have no historical account of Pompeii except its frescoes and the plaster citizens of that ancient city. And the fact that Pompeii is so “sublime” to anyone who visits it, is precisely a consequence of a major catastrophe. What is different today? It’s simple but frightening: after Extinction, there will be no one, not even the frescoes, to be witnessing about our current plight. There is no history — at least not in the human sense — after the collision of climate crisis and nuclear age. What worries me is not those who read books while the world is on fire, but the current hyper-normalization — there is so much violence and catastrophes around the world that we got used to it.
But then, again, you have another trend, which is the new return to religion or various conspiracy theories, even a sign in the skies can be a sign from Heavens. In his biography Inside the Third Reich (1969), Hitler’s architect Albert Speer recalls an interesting detail how, just a few days after he received a telegram by Stalin agreeing on the nonaggression pact, the Führer thought “he now stood so high as to be out of the reach of fate.” Then one evening on the terrace of the Berghof, Speer was together with Hitler marveling at a rare natural spectacle, the aurora borealis of the 23rd of August 1939, that could have been seen over the whole of Europe. This is how Speer recollects that event:
The last act of Götterdämmerung could not have been more effectively staged. The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: “Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won’t bring it off without violence.”
Just a few weeks later after he saw the Götterdämmerung, Germany would invade Poland and World War II would officially break out.
The aurora, these beautiful Northern Lights that inspire hundreds of thousands of tourists to travel to the Arctic circle, was a self-fulfilling Apocalypse. It was Hitler’s vision of the renewal of the world. So, either you consume the Apocalypse or turn it into the confirmation of your dark and totalitarian aspirations. What is happening today is a rapid “normalization” of extinction, and the problem is that things that are not “natural” start to appear as “natural.” That’s why I think critical pedagogy and critical theory, including the critique of ideology and semiotics, is so important today, not only to decipher the signs of the Apocalypse, but to navigate us through it — this was Plato’s definition of philosophy (navigation!) — and to build a world beyond the “new normal.”
What I found particularly striking about the book with the importance given to how we imagine apocalyptic times. I was especially drawn to the manner in which you deal with the eschatological as a new mobilizing force. While the right has continually fallen back upon theological motifs in order to impose its own moral order upon the world, what I also find distressing about the current moment is the evident shift in certain leftist discourses, which to my mind collapse the radical with the religious. What are your thoughts on this turn to a certain moral certitude, which demands our attention?
This is not particularly new, there was as Frank Kermode famously said always a “sense of an ending,” from the various millenialist movements in the Middle Ages or secularized forms of apocalypticism, take the influence Thomas Müntzer had on Karl Marx or Ernst Bloch. But again, what I find truly new, truly unprecedented, and here I am much closer to Günther Anders than to Kermode, is that we are not simply in times when everyone has a “sense of an ending” and everyone is simply waiting for a new Messiah to appear on horizon. Yes, plenty of false prophets will appear even in Capitol Hill, in all sorts of costumes and forms, and we might even have a Second Coming of a high-tech version of Hitler or nuclear annihilation, or simply a long decay and Apocalypse similar to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. And even if all these events can serve as “revelations” that will awaken us from narco-capitalism best exemplified in “doomscrolling,” it is becoming clear there is no Messiah to come. Unlike the optimistic “kingdom without Apocalypse,” present both in Judeo-Christian eschatology and various millenialist movements, now is the time to return to Günther Anders, in my view the most important philosopher for understanding our own century, who proclaimed that there is no kingdom to come. Only an “Apocalypse without kingdom.” After the collision of climate crisis and nuclear age, even if Mr. Musk goes to Mars, there won’t be anything left of humans except the radioactivity and changed geology of planet Earth. And perhaps the grave of Elon on the Red Planet. Most revolutionary movements were usually secularized versions of the Apocalypse with a “happy end.” But there is no happy end. Is it possible to rebel against extinction? Yes, of course, many are doing it, but unless you create some sort of real existing heterotopia or autonomy that would be interconnected beyond oceans and generations, it’s pointless. Happenings are not enough. The memento mori has to be reinvented, but at the same time, even if — and precisely because — Extinction is our only horizon, society has to be radically reinvented so that perhaps, one day, retroactively all this might become a false prophecy.
The image you conjure here also reminds me of the frontispiece to Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which is of such symbolic importance. Featuring the empty Catholic throne (sede vacante), what’s also being pointed out here was the providential nature of capitalism that’s bringing about planetary annihilation — its own sense of an ending. What then takes its place, as you suggest, is the proliferation of eschatologies but seemingly without the grand ideological and metaphysical claims of the 20th century. The attack on Capitol Hill was instructive in this regard. Not only was the sight of white supremacist failing to scale the pristine white walls such a tragic mimicry of the real plight suffered by those South of the border. The beamed images of the cosplay insurrectionists suggested we were really immersed in a theater of the absurd. However, while I am tempted to say this is a new chapter in the history of fascism, I am also reminded by Adorno’s point that Hitler (like Trump) was often ridiculed and never really taken seriously when he first assumed power. What do you think all this means for how we are to deal with the problem of fascism today?
If there is one lesson in history — and we know Hegel said the only lesson of history is that there is no lesson — it is the following one: proto-fascism should never be underestimated. Interesting that you mention Adorno. What I recently found out is that Günther Anders and Hannah Arendt, while they were still married in Berlin in 1932, had reading groups of Mein Kampf, while the rest of the left intelligentsia thought they were crazy to take seriously a “crazy” book. Anders later confessed: “It would have been easier to do a seminar on Hegel.” A year later, both Arendt and Anders are already in exile in Paris, a few years later — not married anymore — in the United States. Perhaps Lukács had the best description of the Frankfurt philosophers saying they remained trapped in a metaphorical Grand Hotel Abyss (Grand Hotel Abgrund). And so are many today. I find nothing more worrying but the kind of relief everyone felt when Trump was gone. But is he really gone? Or will Trumpism survive and thrive? What grand ideological claims could you hear at the Capitol Hill? None. It was a mixture of conspiracy theories and white supremacy, failed actors and people addicted to “likes” on social media. But, again, we shouldn’t go back to our own Grand Hotel Abyss and enjoy the so-called restoration of “normality.” It’s precisely this “normality” that brought Trump to power. And nice words about “unity” and “truth,” Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga won’t stop the proto-fascist restoration. In fact, it is the so called “normality” of neoliberalism, foreign interventions, and US exceptionalism which in the first place created the monsters. And the further you push toward an economy and society where only the rare few benefit, the further you create conditions of structural violence, the more you will foster the rise of fascism. Only this time, it won’t be powered by IBM and Henry Ford, but by Amazon, Palantir, Google, and Tesla. Our situation today is much more complex and dangerous because on the one hand, conspiracy theories are spreading much faster through social networks, and at the same time, monopoly capitalism is even more advanced, affecting everything from how cities operate, health care, transport, education, even personal relations and love. At the same time, the accumulation of profit precisely of these companies is based on extraction of human emotions (desire, anger, fear) and extraction of natural resources (like lithium). So, while Amazon will be delivering your newest vaccine by drones into a lockdown area and you will happily order contactless delivery of food, the monsters will be rising. But so, will resistance.
Turning to your book Poetry from the Future, what I felt was most pressing was the call to create a new political imagination. Certainly, in line with my own thinking, if my reading is correct you insist this must be open to the importance of art and poetics and as a form of thinking from the future that can disrupt the present. Why does the poetic matter so much to your political ideas on revolution? And how can we insist upon having a better conversation on the political importance of the arts today?
It’s crucial. You surely remember how the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen caused a scandal when he described the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center as the greatest work of art? Well, whether you agree with him or not, he definitely understood something about what makes some events planetary. 9/11 was 20 years ago and in the meantime, the aestheticization of politics acquired new forms. Wasn’t the storming of Capitol Hill — live-streamed through social media into all corners of the world — the first planetary performance act of the early 21st century? No wonder Q Shaman was a failed — or rather successful? — actor. You know Hitler was a failed painter (there is a timely movie about it with John Cusack called Max). But wasn’t he quite successful in his Götterdämmerung? Wasn’t Albert Speer’s “theory of ruins” a sinister Gesamtkunstwerk that was supposed to show the greatness of Hitler’s art? Or take Gabriele D’Annunzio, the creator of proto-fascism, who influenced Mussolini, who was a poet trying to realize his crazy dreams in occupied Rijeka.
Usually the aestheticization of politics, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, serves as a key ingredient for fascism. But art can also take other directions. You don’t have to end up like the Italian futurists. Look at the Russian futurists who were very critical of the fascist version of futurism. Or take the Yugoslav antifascist resistance, where avant-garde art, poetry, and theater went hand in hand with resistance, or later, during so-called “real existing socialism,” the so-called Black Wave in Yugoslav cinema which even from today’s perspective remains pretty subversive — just watch Dušan Makavejev or Želimir Žilnik. The crucial question today is how to translate the “Apocalypse,” namely the “revelation” about Extinction, into a language that can not only mobilize but radically reinvent the current composition of the world. You can often hear “listen to the scientist.” And, indeed, we need science more than ever. But I am afraid this is not enough. Even economy is considered a science. And you surely won’t listen to the IMF or neoliberal economics when you want to run a country in times of a pandemic or constantly faced by earthquakes or tsunamis.
There is also what you call the “void” in your book Ecce Humanitas — how do you deal with the void, how do you, as you put it, “stare into the void and return without becoming a monstrous adaptation of what was once defeated”? You can’t simply describe it with numbers or by graphs. How can we translate Extinction, this ultimate void, into something that can be not only understood by everyone in the world, those who live and those who might follow in our wake, but also dealt with? For instance, take radioactivity. All that nuclear waste that will be decaying for thousands of years even if there are no humans anymore. Or microplastics and all those face masks polluting the oceans. Perhaps it’s only through arts that we can understand such an abyss and truly confront it. No wonder, when so-called nuclear semiotics was born in order to reduce the likelihood of future interference in radioactive waste repositories, scientists called science fiction authors, artists, and architects in order to envision a message to a possible future visitor. There were some really crazy but visionary ideas there. Today, more than ever, we need both science and arts, but we also need a new planetary ethics, and indeed, a planetary liberation movement that is both transnational and intergenerational, a new world system treating air, water, technology, and vaccines as planetary commons. And it won’t be successful without arts. Because arts usually have the capability of being already in the future, drawing its inspiration from the future, even before that future arrives.
It may seem almost trite to say, but what you describe here is invariably about those who have the courage to speak truth to power. And how we learn from history about those who continue to speak truth to power without being seduced by power once the moment arrives to claim it. While artists do this with their own grammatical interventions of an aesthetic kind, I wonder how you see Julian Assange — who I know you have supported and campaigned for continuously — fitting into this whole drama?
Perhaps in some future history book Julian will be remembered as the most courageous publisher of the 21st century, but he still needs to be understood as one of the deepest thinkers of technology. You know, already 10 years ago Assange claimed that for instance Google’s influence on the choices and behavior of the totality of human beings translates into real power to influence the course of history. When Google Met Wikileaks can be read as a prophecy of Julian Assange that everyone should read. During my visits to the Ecuadorian Embassy, often we talked about the power of Silicon Valley, and I remember how back then, much before the current pandemic, Julian claimed they are all aiming at transport, not just Tesla but also Amazon, Apple, etc. Today, this is already true. At that time, he was already following the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, warning that we shouldn’t underestimate it. Today you can see clearly where did this end up, with QAnon taking over even the Capitol Hill. I will dare to say that Julian is in prison not only because he revealed US war crimes, but also because he is the really true dissident of the 21st century, and even the term dissident doesn’t make sense anymore in his case. As an Australian citizen imprisoned in UK and wanted for 175 years in prison in the United States, in relation to which country is he a dissident? I think the old category of “dissidents” doesn’t fit here, simply because he is an enemy for every state and perhaps even for the state as such, which is the concentration of power based on the reproduction of class interests that will always make sure to ensure the monopoly on violence, and now even emotions.
I would like to conclude by returning to an earlier work on the idea of radical love. Again, this is something that connects to my own interests; after all, it’s impossible to have a concept of the political without a concept of love. I am left to wonder, how do you now see this book in light of the global pandemic? Or how would you revise that text today given the types of responses we have seen to the virus?
While the question that interested me in The Radicality of Love was the relation between Love and Revolution, today it would, naturally, be Love and Revelation. I already am of the Apocalypse. Or to put it differently, while in The Radicality of Love I was mainly exploring the intersection of revolutionary ideas or the reinvention of love, from Alexandra Kollontai to the German communes (notably Kommune 1), what inspires me today is the reinvention of mutual aid, friendship, and love in times of catastrophe. And perhaps this is the true missing and crucial ingredient for any coming emancipatory revolution that doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes from the past or leave the space of desire to the alt-right and conspiracy movements, to various proto-fascists and Silicon Valley. There is a chapter in the book about “Love in the Age of Cold Intimacies” (a reference to Eva Illouz), Grindr and Tindr were just starting, and it was about the commodification of desire. Today, with the never-ending Zoomification of live and pre-programming of desire, this unfortunately looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m happy that Alfie Bown decided to dive deeper into this in his new book, which is a timely examination of capitalism and what he calls “the gamification of relationships.” Precisely today we can see how important libidinal economy is. Perhaps, what I would add today is a chapter on the years of the Weimar Republic, as it appears to me as the most succinct parallel to our times, not the 1930s as many point out, but the 1920s. Does it still make any sense to make parallels today? Well, let me risk it: it was a period that started after the end of World War I and the Spanish Flu, a period of massive unemployment, violence, frustration, fear, and anger, a period of the birth of narco-capitalism — as Norman Ohler showed in his stunning Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich — and an age of various conspiracy theories that were crucial for the birth of Nazism, as Eric Kurlander showed in his seminal book Hitler’s Monsters.
Today you have a similar mixture of various morbid symptoms that will either lead to a radical reinvention of sociability, or to something much worse than Hitler’s Monsters. Why worse? Because only those who are still not at the stage of using sophisticated technology will still do 20th-century concentration camps, others will do fully automated genocide. Only this time, the final solution does not consist in extinction of a particular race, it’s not even the extinction of humanity itself, it is extinction of other species and the total extinction of the biosphere itself. Now what is love in the “End Time”? Love is everything. Even from the viewpoint of evolution, it is the most radical leap in the universe.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.
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