On Worldmaking and the (Post-)Apocalypse

Workshop report by Mia M. Bennett

On Tuesday, July 4, 2023 the Joint Workshop of the Heidelberg Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies (CAPAS) and the Joint Center for Advanced Studies “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective: A Dialogue with China” was held at CAPAS. To start off the sunny morning, Barbara Mittler (Worldmaking) & Robert Folger (CAPAS) introduced their respective centres and aims for the workshop, which was organized to create an opportunity for members of the two centres to get to know one another and discuss their research. 

Group Photo Workshop Worldmaking

After the introduction, the first of three panels kicked off. The opening session, chaired by CAPAS member Rolf Scheuermann, focused on the timely topic of “Catastrophic Diseases”. Chen Hao (Peking University/ Worldmaking Fellow) shared his presentation titled, “Non-human Animals in a Human Pandemic: Entangled Histories.” His wide-ranging talk considered the multispecies ecologies of the Covid-19 pandemic with attention to the interconnectivities between humans and non-human animals. While a part of collective memory of the pandemic prioritizes the human death toll, Chen reminded us of how other animals such as minks and deer also suffered, while reflecting on ways that wider ecologies can recover together. 

It was a rich workshop and I particularly liked how diverse and yet complementary the presentations were. It seems like a rare experience to learn about alien life forms and late nineteenth-century Chinese literature during the same event and not end up thinking that the organizers have lost their marbles. In the end, it all nicely came together under the “apocalyptic” umbrella of the CAPAS.

Matthias Schumann, Joint Center for Advanced Studies “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective: A Dialogue with China”

Next, Patricia Murrieta-Flores (Lancaster University/CAPAS Fellow) offered insights into previous epidemics that ravaged Central and South America following the arrival of Europeans in her talk called, “Mesoamerican Apocalypse: A Large Scale Analysis of the Indigenous Perspective on the Sixteenth- Century Epidemics of Colonial Mexico.” Integrating methods from the digital humanities, computer science and GIS, Murrieta-Flores painstakingly brought to life how diseases such as smallpox took a major toll on the millions of people living in colonial Mexico, centred on Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City). Taken together, the talks demonstrated how new encounters between species and peoples can have deadly consequences while reshaping the future of society and ecology in unexpected ways.

After a delightfully breezy lunch, the workshop participants reconvened for the second panel chaired by Worldmaking member Matthias Schumann. Taking place just a few days after CAPAS’ various events in recognition of World Asteroid Day, the panel focused on “Outer Space.” Richard Wilman (University of Durham/CAPAS Fellow) explored “Apocalyptic Cosmic Threats and Our Post-Apocalyptic Future in Space,” with attention to the risks presented by asteroids and what humans can attempt to do about them – whether that might be evacuating an area or lobbing a device across space towards the incoming impactor in an effort to disrupt its path. Next, Pan Shaw-yu (National Taiwan University/Worldmaking Fellow) brought the workshop backwards through time in her talk entitled, “Colonizing the Stars: Malthusian Theory of Population and Imperial Imagination in Late Qing Science Fiction.” While science fiction is often thought of as a Western, contemporary genre, Pan unpacked its history in Qing China and its intertwinement with imperial narratives. Books such as Xu Zhiyan’s 許指嚴 (1875-1923) Dian shijie 電世界 (Electrical world, 1909) and Lu Shi’e’s 陸士諤 (1878-1944) Xin yesou puyan 新野叟曝言 (New humble words of a rustic elder, 1909) revealed that in China, much as in the West, there were both fears of overpopulation and hopes of a technologically advanced, utopian future. The pairing of the two talks also spurred discussions around how China might perceive its own future in space. 

For me, this workshop is an unforgettable experience to gain intersecting perspectives on how science and technology are posited from humanistic viewpoints. Also, the presented topics of research show depth in their historical awareness, not only about historiographical studies but also a prospective vision to enlighten the future.

Meng Xia, Fellow, Joint Center for Advanced Studies “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective”

Finally, the third panel on “Observation and Narrative,” with Dr. Scheuermann again as chair, considered two new technologies that are changing how humans look at Earth from the community to planetary scale. Meng Xia (University of New South Wales/Worldmaking Fellow) gave a presentation entitled, “Drone in Covid Times: Urban Wasteland and Post-apocalyptic Revelation.” She considered how drone imagery of pandemic-ravaged cities contributed to the creation of transcultural memories, connecting people living in areas suddenly seen as “urban wastelands” from San Francisco to Shanghai. Next, Mia Bennett (University of Washington/CAPAS Fellow) shared her work on “Chinese Sociotechnical Imaginaries of Earth Observation: From Sight to Foresight.” With China as a case study, she explained how the view from space is heterogeneous and how cultures look at the Earth in different ways depending on national sociotechnical imaginaries. Together, the two talks prompted debate on how technology enables different gazes that shift how humans see and make sense of their place on Earth.

Following the three sessions, workshop participants enjoyed coffee and cake and continued their conversations at the intersection of worldmaking and world-ending. From the day’s discussions, it became clear that the supposed end of the world always reveals new beginnings, too. Exactly how those incipient futures will be shaped in China, across cultures and species, through fiction and photography, and in outer space, remains to be seen. 

Workshop Worldmaking 2023