IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Elke SchwarzIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Elke Schwarz
Elke Schwarz is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at Queen Mary University London (QMUL) and Director of TheoryLab at QMUL’s School of Politics and International Relations. Her research focuses on the intersection of ethics, war, and technology, especially in connection with autonomous or intelligent military technologies and their impacts on contemporary warfare.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
My first thought was: Wow! That sounds extremely cool and timely! As I dove more deeply into the ethos and aims of the Centre, I thought that my interest in the nexus of apocalyptic narratives of transhumanism, and Silicon Valley more broadly, would find an ideal home at CAPAS. I have long had a fascination with how certain visions of technological salvation constitute both expressions of vulnerability and a pathway to power – for better or for worse. So, it was great to see that there was a place in the world for my project on the political power of the techno-apocalypse.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
That’s a tricky question to answer. As ever, the more you know about something, the less clear it becomes. The same applies as I wrap my head around this ‘container’ that is ‘apocalypse’ and its ‘post’. My understanding of the apocalypse is that it serves as a vehicle for existential anxieties and, relatedly perhaps, a mode to articulate political interests. The apocalypse has manifested many times, but will never happen. A full-scale, humanity eclipsing apocalypse is not something that can be experienced in any other way than as an idea or an anticipation. And within these ideas and anticipations, interests are always folded in. Apologies, this is getting a little convoluted, but it reflects my thinking on what the ‘idea’ of the apocalypse is, and it is still shifting as we move into an ever-more digitally saturated present.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
Contemporary apocalyptic narratives, in the technology world in particular, are filled with contradictory possibilities and impossibilities – a state that the early philosopher of technology, Günther Anders, referred to as one of “eschatological ambiguity” (eschatologische Vieldeutigkeit). In this project, I am interested in examining the structural parameters of current apocalyptic Artificial Intelligence (AI) narratives and asking: Who are the key actors involved in articulating these? In what ways do apocalyptic narratives around AI and posthumanism differ from their religious predecessors? In what ways do they mirror familiar accounts? And given that apocalyptic ideas always shape political practice, I examine the ‘eschatological ambiguities’ around AI further and ask how power circulates and is wielded through these narratives. Or, in short, what kind of power is produced through apocalyptic technology narratives and how?
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or
The project is a continuation of my work on political theory, technology, and ethics. In the past decade or so, my focus has been on military technologies, specifically military Artificial Intelligence and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), taking seriously how technologies shape our practices and modes of thought as much as we shape technologies. Here, the narratives that shape the ethos of Silicon Valley increasingly find their way into discussions about how military operations and thinking should be structured, and the argument one always encounters is that in order to stay competitive, to not fall behind, or indeed to not lose a great power war with Russia or China (which would be an apocalyptic scenario of sorts), one must invest increasing sums into digital technology, including LAWS. My work focuses on the logic of the technology permeating discourses and consequently practices, policies, and institutions, and that is something I am continuing in this project as well.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
Six months seems like a long time, but is really super short to tackle such big questions. However, I do hope I come away with a deeper understanding of how technology, eschatology, and politics are entwined – today and throughout history. I am also extremely excited to learn from my fellow Fellows. It is such a stimulating set of scholars from a variety of disciplines and I am excited about what can happen in this inter-disciplinary space. Already I have learned about asteroids, the problematic use of the term ‘feudalism’, the fascinating project of applied eschatology (it’s an art project), and more. The knowledge and connections that form in these interactions with others are incredibly valuable.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?
Any work on such large concepts as the Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse is by default subject to inter-disciplinary study and so the CAPAS Fellowship is an exciting opportunity to shed the shackles of disciplinary silos and consider one’s own contribution as a small piece to a very, very large puzzle. I look forward to the unexpected which will undoubtedly come out of this exchange with other Fellows from other disciplines. I look forward to having my views unsettled by approaches and perspectives that I had otherwise no access to. A bit like a great free jazz concert, when you never quite know what will happen but it will somehow be inspiring and productive.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
Well, to be very practical here … water, food, shelter. Obviously. But I assume that this is more of a prompt as to what makes life worth living, for me. And that is a good question: what is a liveable life? For this, good human relations, sunshine, and some creative nourishment are essential.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?
Perhaps surprisingly, I am not the greatest sci-fi fan and am always slightly reluctant to indulge in end-of-the-world fantasies in pop culture. However, one book which has moved me deeply is Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. It is such a devastating and also beautiful meditation on uncertainty, contingency, ends of worlds, and possibility. It also skewers consequentialism. I like that.