The Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies (CAPAS) at Heidelberg University focuses on the effects of catastrophes and end-time scenarios on societies, individuals, and environments. Thereby, CAPAS employs a transdisciplinary research approach toward the production of a differentiated description of radical changes and breakdowns in the past and present. Furthermore, the Centre aims to explore, understand and challenge the reactions to apocalyptic scenarios as well as post-apocalyptic visions of the time after the catastrophe taking into account their respective historical and cultural contexts.
By focusing on social mechanisms and coping strategies of crises through the prism of the apocalypse, CAPAS provides applied knowledge about successful and failed responses to existential threats and their consequences. On this basis, the Centre contributes to topical debates on potential ecological and social breakdown. CAPAS thus sees itself as a platform for reflection on perceived doom that helps to strengthen societal and political resilience to end-of-life scenarios of all kinds and to anticipate social risks.
The myth of the end of the world is a real success story. Even in the Bible, gloomy images of the imminent doomsday can be found. The Revelation of John, better known as the Apocalypse of John, prophesies the extinction of all life. Current end-time scenarios, for example in the wake of climate change or the COVID-19 crisis, demonstrate the timeliness of such imaginaries up to this very day. Humanity without a future is a motif that has been handed down across epochs and cultures. CAPAS therefore understands apocalypses not only as one of the most fundamental ideas in the history of humankind, but also as a recurring and empirically grounded experience of human history.
APOCALYPSE AS REVELATION
Apocalypses are characterized by radical changes in living conditions, which lead to fundamental reforms in how we live. The underlying word apokalypsis in Greek means “unveiling, revelation”. The apocalyptic doom of a world reveals the true meaning and destiny of this world. In an apocalypse, the destructive forces that we can observe in the real world take the shape of an auto-destruction already inherent in its foundations. Hence, an apocalypse is not a catastrophe which befalls us via external forces thus leading to general, senseless destruction. Rather, the apocalyptic ending of a world reveals that this world was doomed from the start. Thus, the apocalypse as a figure of thought also has a diagnostic function: it enables a critical view of the world, nature, and man's place in it, as well as the challenges that arise in the face of systemic collapse and possible future scenarios.
LIFE GOES ON
An apocalypse does not mean the absolute end of all things, humans, or of nature. Rather, it is the beginning of a utopian or dystopian post-apocalyptic world that reconstitutes itself after the preceding doom. This notion of apocalypse explains, but is not limited to, the apocalypses and post-apocalypses derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition: Any ending of a world which implies a more or less radical change in the conditions of living can be experienced as an apocalyptic revelation that shapes the future. Analyses of reactions to and imaginaries of the consequences of catastrophes as post-apocalyptic scenarios are an essential part of the CAPAS research programme.
The end of the world as a figure of thought and experience is not limited to global dimensions – as in the case of global warming or COVID-19 – or even to cosmic extents, such as the collapse of the universe. An apocalypse can also unfold on smaller scales: regionally, socially, or even individually as in the case of a serious illness. It can be all-encompassing or it can be experienced in particular fields, such as ecology, economy or religion. CAPAS aims to provide a differentiated description of systemic change in societies, individuals, and their respective environments; taking into account these various dimensions.
We can empirically observe a potentially catastrophic change, yet its cultural framing and the cultural shaping of experience requires a hermeneutic approach. Thus, in addition to empirically based natural and social sciences, CAPAS uses the potential of interpretive humanistic approaches to comprehensively reconstruct and analyse conceptions and experiences of apocalypses and post-apocalyptic worlds. Thereby, the humanities allow us to investigate and challenge possible future scenarios that are beyond the predictive capacity of purely empirical sciences.
Since end-time scenarios and their consequences frequently have global dimensions, and since apocalyptic imaginaries are characterized by strong transcultural processes, our research builds on the intellectual resources of the international scientific community. Therefore, CAPAS appoints fellows from all over the world and collaborates with innovative research centres and universities worldwide.