IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Robert KirschIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Robert Kirsch
Robert Kirsch is a political theorist with an interdisciplinary lens. His work focuses on multiple vectors of citizenship in advanced industrial democracies, in particular theories of sovereignty, heterodox rationalities of political economy, and Frankfurt School critical theory in its “first generation” and their integration into American Institutionalism, particularly Veblen and Mumford
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
My co-author and I had just secured a contract for a manuscript on ‘doomsday prepping’ in the US, so when I saw the call I was really intrigued not only with how well it fit our specific project, but also the holistic interdisciplinary approach that CAPAS takes. Once we recovered from the shock that such a center for apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic studies exists, we very quickly applied!
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
From my perspective in political science an apocalypse is when collective action and public purpose become impossible; a total breakdown of the social order. In that sense, my perspective is that apocalypse is not a singular event, but a process of uneven development and unfolding that has disparate impacts in various places. For instance, in many parts of the world, climate change has already reached apocalyptic proportions; in other parts of the world technological fixes or ideological stubbornness has blunted the impacts – for now. In that way, the apocalypse and post-apocalypse can, at least in part, be understood as a question of infrastructure, both social and material about how to (re)organize what remains.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
I want to understand the phenomenon that my co-author and I have coined the term ‘bunkerization’ for in the United States. In other words, we look at how neoliberal rationalities of individual responsibility have taken the place of what was once the role of the state to facilitate collective action to achieve public goals of maintaining a certain kind of life. In the face of state failure, individuals are invited to consume survival goods (what is called ‘prepping’) in a shelf-stable hoard that builds up individual resilience to an uncertain future (of climate change, social unrest, financial collapse, etc.). We argue that this reconceives the everyday life of the home into a bunker mentality of surveillance, stockpiling, and fear as a new way of life. Our historical analysis tries to point the causal arrow in that direction; namely that the organizing logic of bunkerization caused by the managed state absence of neoliberal governance produces fear, distrust, and prepping, rather than reducing prepping behavior to an aberrant curiosity that has no broader social consequence.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography? What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
My career has been centered around questions of institutional development and change, and that institutional evolution is co-constitutive of individual behavior. In other words, they determine and influence each other. Because of this relationship, I am deeply skeptical of movements that ask individuals to ‘opt out’ of institutional embeddedness. First, I argue that this is functionally impossible for the overwhelming majority of people due to the vast technostructures that govern everyday life. Second, even if this provides a solution for the few who can, these are often not practicable at scale. Billionaires are buying private islands to ‘opt out’, but is this the model we want? Similarly, with ‘handicraft’ or ‘back to the land’ movements, my critical question is: what fate is consigned to those who cannot make it to the commune in the woods, and how are these plans essentially different than bunkerization? Personally and professionally, I hope that as a result of this research I can make a contribution that centers democratic governance and confronts the multivalent crises that we face in a way that does not have us retreating into bunkers.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS?
I am already very grateful for colleagues in the humanities here at CAPAS. My perspective tends to be a pretty narrow social science view focused on structural determinants and institutional change. I have already learned a lot about how to incorporate a humanities perspective from my colleagues that enriches the work I am doing. The interdisciplinary core of CAPAS hopefully leads us all to deepen our projects by incorporating our varied perspectives.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?
I’ll just refer to a book I read with some frequency: White Noise, by Don DeLillo. There is something in there for everyone’s apocalypse.