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The “Apocalyptic Tone"

Interview with Directors Prof. Dr. Robert Folger and Prof. Dr. Thomas Meier

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The apocalypse is one of the most fundamental ideas in the history of human kind and a recurrent empirical experience. One of the most famous examples is John's Revelation in the Bible. Albrecht Dürer depicted the apocalypse of John in his painting "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1498).


How did everything start: what were the motivations, observations, and research questions… that led you to conceptualize a Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies?

 

Robert Folger (RF): I have been fascinated for years by the massive proliferation of apocalyptic and increasingly post-apocalyptic visions and scenarios in books, movies, TV series and art. Moreover, the “apocalyptic tone”, as Jacques Derrida has called it, in current pressing political issues, primarily in relation to climate change, but also smaller scale threats like terrorism, caught my attention. Even the debate around immigration in Germany was framed in terms of “Germany abolishes itself”. Talking about the end of the world, fearing it, hoping for a millennial salvation, have been a reality for most of human history, but the fervor of today’s debate, as well as the strangely morbid fascination we seem to have with the world’s end is a sign of our present. At the same time, my work on colonial Latin America, where indigenous peoples suffered extreme violence and hardship that brought them to the brink of extinction (in some cases beyond) showed me that the apocalypse is not a sort of collective fantasy but a human experience in the sense that catastrophic, traumatic change is framed in terms of an end of the world. What is particularly interesting, in the case of the Americas, is that their apocalypse, as a historical event and as a narrative, is a collusion of European and indigenous ideas of the end of the world. In other words: it is essentially transcultural. From these observations stems the basic premises: a) not to treat the apocalypse as an inconsequential periodically appearing fantasy of the “Western World”, which is the approach on most of the previous research undertaken on the topic, and b) to recognize the impact of apocalyptic thinking in our experiences and our reactions to radical, catastrophic change in the public debate, but also in the empirical sciences. An outcome of the latter premise is that the apocalypse is a topic that requires collaborative research which brings together a broad spectrum of disciplines from all over the world.

The initial concept for CAPAS was developed before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit the world; then came the year 2020. Did it bring with it new directions for the Centre?

 

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"Talking about the end of the world, fearing it, hoping for a millennial salvation, have been a reality for most of human history."
Prof. Dr. Robert Folger, Director of CAPAS and professor for Romance literature

RF: COVID-19 ties perfectly into the basic premises of the Centre, both in the sense that catastrophic events are a reality, and that ideas of the end of the world influence how we deal with these events. The topicality of the CAPAS research agenda is not something anyone can have wished for, but it is also an unforeseen chance to observe the unfolding of a post-apocalyptic scenario.

 

TM: An early draft of the application included “pandemics” as an apocalyptic scenario, but we dropped it for lack of space and, while Europe became aware of COVID-19, the application had already been handed in. During the interview in early August 2020 COVID-19 was certainly a great boost for our application demonstrating its immediate relevance.

Organisationally speaking, it was and continues to be a challenge to launch CAPAS during the COVID-19 pandemic as personal contacts are restricted and any contact still means an unclear risk. People at CAPAS, as elsewhere in society, are dealing differently with this situation, some are more open to risk, others are more hesitant and cautious (including myself). I would have preferred to give us more time and have a less disruptive start, but this was non-negotiable. We will still need some time to steer the Centre into smooth waters, but I am confident that now we are on the right course.

But let me take a step back: In terms of our concept the current pandemic highlights the relationality of any apocalypse. I assume that five centuries ago this pandemic would had gone unnoticed: A long period of incubation, rather diverse symptoms – if any – and a rather low lethality (compared to e.g., plague, cholera or epidemic typhus) would have obscured what we today perceive as a pandemic on the basis of the concept of a virus. It is definitely not my intention to play down the very severe individual harm and suffering brought on by the Coronavirus, but compared to pandemics of the past the current pandemic is very mild at the level of population. Nevertheless, it is publicly framed as an apocalypse, because it questions our Western way of living and our self-concept of being in control of nature. To me the current situation is a warning that apocalyptic talk means very different things at very different times, but is a rhetoric means to raise a heightened state of awareness and is an indicator that the one who speaks feels threatened by the actual situation. There is no threshold of an event's intensity which makes it an apocalyptic reality or not: it's all a matter of relational realities. This has, of course, consequences for the concepts concerning how to research apocalypses and how to deal with it socially and politically.

From your individual perspective and from the perspective of your discipline: what defines an apocalypse? What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

 

RF: For me an apocalypse is not simply a catastrophe, however radical and destructive it may be, but an event that means the end of a world (or a worldview) because it produces an insight, a revelation. A revelation that our life, our future, will be essentially different; that we “deserve” this radical change, because we are responsible for the destruction or because we want a better world. The notion of the apocalypse can be used to make sense of senseless destruction, bring about essential change, or cement the status quo. Moreover, it also has a heuristic potential: far from being just an idea disconnected from everyday life, it allows us to diagnose actual endings of worlds.

 

TM: If we ever agree on a catch all-definition of “apocalypse” then we definitely would have done something wrong. To me “apocalypse” is a discursive term (like for example “religion”), it means what people make it mean, it has no ontological substance. It is an empty signifier, which is filled or even stuffed contextually and relationally. But it would be a gross misunderstanding that such a discursivity of “apocalypse” is in contrast to something “real”, as creating “reality” (whatever this may be) is a function of discourse.

Acknowledging discursivity, we should ask who uses the term in what situation and under what conditions? Why and to what ends? Who gains and who loses something by the use of the term, what is its position and function in discourse? How is it imagined and what are the strategies and conditions of its validity?

What are some seminal theories/concepts/publications that the work of the centre is building on, working toward, and/or critically reflecting on?

 

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"The current COVID-19 pandemic highlights the relationality of any apocalypse."
Prof. Dr. Thomas Meier, Director of CAPAS and professor for pre- and early history

TM: Considering my answer to the previous question you won't be surprised that I don't believe in a canonical set of theories, concepts, or texts. Of course, there is a number of expressions which have deeply influenced the general idea of apocalypse starting from John's Book of Revelation and the hundreds of medieval comments and paintings elaborating the imaginary of this biblical apocalypse to Derrida's “apocalyptic tone” and the predilection of the cinema for dystopian ends and post-ends of the world. We should critically reflect these (and many more) utterances and take them seriously as they are the conditions of validity in the wider public.

But we should not confine ourselves to a medieval monastic study re-reading and commenting the texts of old. As a Käte Hamburger Centre we should head for producing our own ideas, which – in the best of cases – become seminal or even paradigmatic in the future. As a KHK we are competing for some of the best thinkers in the world and much more than reflecting on the texts of others we should discuss the ideas of our fellows to merge new concepts and theories which help us to build a humane, open and just world throughout the 21st century.

What questions do you hope the Centre will answer in its work? And where could potential new questions be uncovered?

 

RF: What does it mean when we speak about the end of the world? What are the consequences for our view of our present world and the plans we have for the future? The topic of the Apocalypse is astoundingly inspiring: I’m always amazed by the ideas that colleagues from other discipline produce when talking about the apocalypse. We also rely on and hope for the input from outside of academia, from creatives and, not the least, from groups outside “Western” hegemonic thought, such as indigenous activists.

 

TM: My PhD supervisor, who really was a kind of academic father to me and later became a friend, once said in a seminar that answers are closing doors while questions are opening doors. Hence, he much more appreciated a good question than a final answer. I sincerely hope we can ask such good questions!

Such good questions don't need to be uncovered; they exist everywhere. Often, they are right in front of us; so much so that we don't even see them. It's one of the academic deformations that we try to make easy things difficult and thus overlook the obvious, that we mask the simple and miss the surprising. We have to learn to look through children's eyes; not to take everything for granted, but ask “why”? This “why” in all its disruptive, denuding and anarchistic force is the start of a new, good question, and, inherently, the beginning of change.

Of course, asking “why” is only a start. But it is also an attitude towards the world. It is a mode of fundamental surprise about the world as it is, making one see that the state of things around us are neither natural nor granted. It is a mode of unconditional seriousness, of taking the world and all its utterances serious. And it is the mode of respectfully listening. Asking “why” paves the ground for imagining what could be different, for new ideas of new worlds, for realising that another world is possible. It is my hope that we will be able to sketch out informed pathways to such new, socially, environmentally and politically better worlds by asking the world, in which we assume to live: “Why?”

How is the work of the Centre structured? What is the work programme?

RF/TM: In accordance with the funding phases, the overall scientific design structure of the Centre is divided into three consecutive sections. In the first funding phase (2021-2025), the imaginarium of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic worlds as the subject of global transcultural and transversal processes will be developed. As a result, a hermeneutically sharpened and culturally, disciplinarily differentiated aspect of the (post-) apocalyptic will emerge, which is sensitive to the processes of exchange and hybridisation within and outside the sciences. Special attention will be paid to the Heidelberg regional focus points (South/East) Asia and the Americas. Based on the conceptual work of this first phase the second funding period (2025-2029) will concentrate on the differentiated analysis of central fields of the (Post-)Apocalyptic: first and foremost, apocalypses and post-apocalyptic worlds in the field of ecology (as system collapse), in the field of religion (as expectations of the end times) and in the field of the political (as disintegration of societies), to conclude with a synthesis in the final year: apocalypses and post-apocalyptic worlds as a socio-ecological, complex symbiosis. In the last period (2029-2033), the individual, societal, and global strategies of coping with apocalyptic scenarios (utopia, dystopia, affirmation, negation, and evasion) will be the focus: Imaginaries of life, survival and perishing in times of the apocalypse. In this way, the various scales of experience and action of the (post-)apocalyptic and their interferences come into focus.

At the same time, the current COVID-19 pandemic, which could not be foreseen at the time the proposal was submitted, shows how necessary it is to use the scope of the funding programme to be able to focus on the topicality of the subject. For this reason, the research programme is designed to be flexible in order to be able to both developments as well as to give the fellows the important freedom to develop their own perspectives and interests.

 

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The first funding phase of CAPAS will focus on the imaginarium of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic worlds as the subject of global transcultural and transversal processes. Current end-time scenarios, for example in the wake of climate change, demonstrate the timeliness of such imaginaries.


How will the work of the centre manifest itself over the following years?

 

RF: The Centre can invite approximately ten international fellows for a year to conduct collaborative work at CAPAS. The transdisciplinary work, the discussions among the fellows, and the publication output are the core of its work. For us, the dialogue with creatives and public outreach, here in Heidelberg but also internationally, are also essential. For instance, we organize a (post-)apocalyptic film series open to the public, we will participate in a panel at the New Now festival for digital art at the Zeche Zollverein in Essen this fall, etc. The plan is for CAPAS to evolve in academic terms by means of complementary project proposals, as well as through international corporations and networking within Heidelberg University.

Furthermore, the newly established double-blind, peer-reviewed and open access journal Apocalyptica, which is published by CAPAS via Heidelberg University Publishing, will be another way in which the centre attempts to reach a broad audience of global scholars delivering insightful research, as well as diverse perspectives, concerning the end of worlds.

CAPAS is one of only 2 transdisciplinary Käte Hamburger Centres. What are the conceptual ideas behind this trans-disciplinarity and what are your hopes/expectations for this approach?

 

RF: From the point of view of politics, this format is probably related to the precarious status of the humanities within the universities but also in the public eye. However, I am convinced that this format is far from an apology from the humanities, or an intent to shape a new form of humanities with greater societal acceptance and precisely because the pressing issues of our time demand the dialogue between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences. For science in general, including the humanities, this form of critical dialogue is a safeguard against the tendency to reduce academia to a kind of industry of “knowledge production”.

In our understanding, “transdisciplinary” also means going beyond the disciplines of academia and connecting with society, particularly with creatives, who are important (although endangered) and often more effective “influencers” than scientist and scholars.

 

TM: I have been working in interdisciplinary settings between the “two disciplinary cultures” for about two decades now and my own discipline, archaeology, has a standing in both worlds. Over the years I've lost high hopes in interdisciplinarity as the epistemologies of the disciplines are so fundamentally different that they are incompatible. Moreover, under the neo-liberal regime of New Public Management competition for resources between and inside the disciplines is so wolfish that working interdisciplinarily comes close to academic suicide. However, the academic tradition to territorialise the world into disciplinary, fenced, and strictly guarded dooryards is not a solution, but is part of the problems our world is currently facing. The actual academic regime of knowledge is definitely not a way forward for the 21st century.

A Käte Hamburger Centre provides the very rare opportunity to build an open academy of colleagues who can run the risk of ignoring disciplinary merits but are free to head for new ways of thinking and discourse beyond any disciplinary boundaries and limitations. My vision is not interdisciplinarity, but non-disciplinarity or even anti-disciplinarity.

The way forward to such a new academia is fundamental openness to other ways of thinking and it is based on unconditional respect. As philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer once said: “Wir müssen endlich wieder lernen, wie man ein Gespräch führt. […] Ein Gespräch setzt voraus, dass der andere Recht haben könnte.” I hope that CAPAS will become such a place, a place where people are listening rather than talking and where people are not giving presentations, but conducting conversations. The fluidity and discursivity of the term “apocalypse” might be a great benefit, a starting point for open conversation and for non-disciplinary debate.

CAPAS begun its work in April 2021. The first fellows are working here, the team has come together. What are your takeaways (answers, questions, ideas) from the first months of scientific discussion at the centre?

RF: We are in a phase of consolidation and, to a certain degree, exploration of the most effective formats to conduct collaborative research. We do this in difficult circumstances due to the pandemic. Although this is also an opportunity to work on non-presence formats of collaborative research, there is no substitute for on-site discussions.

I find it personally very interesting that the notion of the “spectre” emerged in several talks and discussion because the end of the world, and all that is lost and never will be, is most certainly haunting us. I also found the idea of faith as a central aspect to the apocalypse very inspiring. It is obvious that traditional ideas of the apocalypse are related to faith, but the notion is also interesting in its negation, that is, the lack of faith in our secular world as that which creates a fascination with the apocalypse and the revelation it promises.
 

No Planet B Copyright Wil C. Fry
"The end of the world, and all that is lost and never will be, is most certainly haunting us", says CAPAS-Director Robert Folger. Copyright: Wil C. Fry


TM: When I find myself in a new environment, I spend some time listening and looking and I am still in this mode of absorbing and observation; digesting ideas, theories, rationales, agendas, and performances, which swirl around like a flood wave. I try to be as open and unprejudiced as possible and consider what is said (and what is silenced) as intellectual gifts. It's a bit like familiarisation with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of unknown size and only a rough guess of how the final picture might look like. A few pieces already seem to fit together, but this is a first guess only. At the moment I enjoy associative, “wild” thinking and explorative questions as ways to structure the turbulent thunderstorm of jigsaw pieces. Yes, what I am actually doing is to develop an intellectual multi-dimensional space inside myself, which will allow me to relate the countless colourful pieces to each one another.

Although I expected a broad range of approaches, ways to think, as well as rationales, among the fellows as well as in the team, I am surprised at just how diverse the range is, and so far, we don't even have scientists on board.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?

 

RF: As a German, the most obvious answer should be: toilet paper, flower, and pasta, but I probably wouldn’t go for that. One of the most frequent post-apocalyptic scenarios is the “last man” trope. Try to be with the right kind of person when the end nears, and try to have a good time with him/her afterwards. There will probably be a lot of things to fix after the apocalypse: a supply of duct tape or cable ties would come in handy. I would definitely try and secure the greatest possible barrel of good Bourbon.

 

TM: I am in doubt as to whether I want to survive an apocalypse at all. In case I couldn't escape to survive I hope that the old world will be destroyed so entirely that nothing remains, can be fixed or repaired, but that there is tabula rasa to start something new. As I am not a friend of dystopian futures, my post-apocalypse is through and through utopian. What would I like to have with me in such a new world? Fundamental respect, love to this new world, and the three people most dear to me in my life.

Do you have recommendations for pop cultural items on (post-)apocalypses – whether it’s a book, a movie, a YouTube channel, a podcast or something else – one should definitely look at?

 

RF: The German Netflix series “Dark”: it is a great relief to have an endless series of apocalypses and depressing gloom turned, in a very convincing way, into a melancholy and poetic yet optimistic ending.

 

TM: Of course!! The famous CAPAS-souvenirs, e.g., miniature copies of the sword of the third horseman, a trumpet from Jericho, salt from Sodom, a fragment of the sixth seal, the sickle of pestilence, a pinch of nuclear fallout, a day of 1984, a good box of the Millennial Kingdom or a golden brick of Heavenly Jerusalem.

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Latest Revision: 2021-10-11
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