IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Florian Mussgnug
Florian Mussgnug is Professor of Comparative Literature and Italian Studies and Vice Dean International for Arts and Humanities at University College London. He has published widely on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century literature in Italian, English and German, with a particular focus on the environmental humanities, creative critical practice, and narratives of risk, crisis, and care. He is co-director of UCL Anthropocene, a multidisciplinary research hub which brings together specialists from the social sciences, arts and humanities, life sciences, and environmental and health sciences.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
How brilliant! I could not believe my eyes. I have been interested in cultural representations of apocalypse for more than twenty years and I know that this topic can trigger strong emotions, from enthusiastic curiosity to ineradicable scepticism. But never in my wildest dreams would I have hoped to find a high-powered scholarly and creative community like CAPAS. When I saw the call, it seemed too good to be true. Once I’d picked myself up off the floor, I started writing my application.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you? (from your
individual perspective; from the perspective of your discipline)
Apocalypse has a reputation problem. In contemporary debates, it is often associated with reactionary worldviews: ethnonationalists, evangelical fundamentalists, tech tycoons, apologists of white male power, and so on. For these groups, events cohere as part of a familiar, universal, apocalyptic script. Actual or perceived opponents are agents of evil. Expectations of social collapse inspire fantasies of cataclysmic violence or hubristic dreams of interstellar world-making.
For me, apocalypse has a different meaning. I am interested in cultural forms and political projects that challenge the imaginative frameworks of anthropocentrism. My research also focuses on experiences of cultural diversity and exchange that run counter to Eurocentric, teleological narratives of the modern emergence of the global. In both contexts, apocalypse acquires a positive meaning that resists far-right appropriation. Christian eschatology, in its earliest forms, was an act of discursive resistance against Empire: a gesture of radical hope. This important fact might be eclipsed in social media by toxic fantasies of apocalyptic mastery. But it has never been forgotten, especially in the Global South and among the world’s most vulnerable human communities. Besides, it would be wrong to identify apocalypse only with Christian ideas of end time. Beyond this dominant tradition, we find numerous alternative ways of conceiving the end(s) of world(s): narratives that can serve – and have always served – as an inspiration for critical and creative practice. As a scholar of world literature, I see it as my role to give greater visibility to this wealth of diverse imaginations and literary and artistic traditions.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?
I am interested in literary narratives that describe apocalypse not as an unspeakable end-to-come but as a dynamic marker of the fundamental unpredictability of post-holocenic societies and ecologies. My project is situated at the intersection of two disciplinary fields: world literature and the environmental humanities. I argue that the planetary environmental catastrophe demands new forms of linguistic and conceptual inventiveness. We need new cultural forms that can express and relate different scales and points of view, beyond what is revealed by immediate human perception. Take global heating, for example. Extreme temperatures today are the result of human actions in the past, whose devastating consequences are only becoming clearer over time. Similarly, climate action today must be directed towards the future, when the catastrophic impact of our lives will be more acutely felt, but when the chances for organized, collective resistance will have dwindled. My project focuses on such experiences of counterintuitive scale, and on novels that function as diachronic, speculative maps: descriptions of counterfactual pasts, uncertain presents and catastrophic futures. I wish to show how these texts can revitalize and reformulate the bonds between constellations that are frequently cast as disconnected and incompatible totalities: past, present and future, the global and the local, human and nonhuman nature.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
My fellowship project builds on my work, since 2000, on literary narratives of global catastrophe and existential risk. I am interested in apocalypse fiction and climate fiction as genres of world literature. My work also focuses on planetary thinking and the cultural meaning of potentially catastrophic global interconnection of technologies, exchanges, and movements. In recent years, I have sought to expand the transdisciplinary scope of these inquiries. At University College London, I am the co-director of a multidisciplinary research hub, UCL Anthropocene, which brings together specialists from the social sciences, arts and humanities, life sciences and environmental and health sciences.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results (personally, career wise or for the state of research)?
I see CAPAS as an ideal home for inclusive, politically transformative and internationally networked, transdisciplinary research. My thinking has been enormously enriched by my conversations with the CAPAS core team and with the other Research Fellows. Every day, we experience the positive value of cross-disciplinary dialogue. I am impressed by the Centre’s bold vision for impactful, future-oriented research that affirms the importance of the arts and humanities, seeks to tackle global challenges, and aims to strengthen communities in times of escalating global risk and threat. I also find myself getting more and more addicted to the weekly meetings of our reading group. I will miss these lively, challenging discussions, which have inspired me to re-think my own research from completely new angles.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
Not three, but four. And not things, but people. In a planetary emergency, I would definitely need my three children, Hannah, Thomas, Emil, and their mother, Simona. Without them, I would not last long. In a post-apocalyptic world. Or in this one.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse – whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music – what can you recommend?
(Post)apocalyptic fiction is not famous for its sense of irony. So I am always intrigued and impressed by novels with a self-conscious, humorous twist. For example, the protagonists of Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant post-apocalyptic satire, The Arrest (2020), are two estranged childhood friends who once worked together on the script for a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. And Ling Ma’s smart, counterfactual zombie novel, Severance (2018), has a wonderful scene in which a group of survivors discuss their shared passion for zombie fiction.