IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Tommy Lynch
What were your first thoughts, when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
Since I first started working on this topic during my PhD, we’ve seen the rise of ISIS, the election of Trump, the European refugee crisis, Brexit, the pandemic and, in the background, a spreading awareness of the scale of climate change. There are lots of crises! In this context, apocalypticism is often invoked to demand action; in order to avoid the apocalypse, we must curb emissions or obey lockdown measures.
The call for applications made room for projects that are not focused on solutions but understand the nature of apocalypticism. I am interested in apocalypticism as a theoretical orientation. What does it mean to think about, or even desire, the end of the world? These are unnerving questions and often I feel that they have to be smuggled in! The call for applications clearly welcomed these kinds of theoretical investigations.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
I am more interested in apocalypticism than ‘the’ apocalypse. Apocalypticism, as a theoretical orientation, tries to think against the world. Most of my work is an attempt to think through the implications of an enigmatic statement made by Jacob Taubes in his lectures on the Apostle Paul. Taubes gave these lectures here in Heidelberg as he was dying of cancer. During the lectures he says: ‘I can imagine as an apocalyptic let it go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.’ I have taken this passage as my starting point—what does it mean to persistently disinvest from the world as it is?
Of course, this sense of apocalypticism depends on how we define ‘the world’. I understand ‘the world’ as the inescapable set of relations, both social and material, that determine the possibilities available to living things. This world is contingent (other worlds were possible), but not arbitrary. It is also hegemonic, but not homogenous. There are different ways of experiencing the world, but the world itself is inescapable (though perhaps there are pockets of respite from the world). This point is most clear in terms of the environment. There are a variety of ways of relating to a river (economic, political, religious, philosophical, ecological, etc.) but if that river is polluted those perspectives change how we view the pollution rather than the state of being polluted itself. This world is what should be challenged.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve? Which questions is it addressing and with which methods?
I have two main goals for my time in Heidelberg. First, is to think about the use of apocalyptic discourse during the pandemic. For all the tragedy and suffering that the pandemic continues to cause, I am not sure that it is really apocalyptic. What has changed? The distribution of suffering follows familiar economic, geographic, and racial patterns. The past year has seen the very richest get richer while many people dramatically reconfigure their daily lives for the sake of continuing to be productive at work. People whose lives were already characterized by precarity, such as those working in the gig economy, added the threat of serious illness to the risks of their labour. Describing the pandemic in apocalyptic terms serves to justify responses to the pandemic which have reaffirmed this world. Without minimizing the many forms of loss experienced by people, what is striking is how little the world itself has changed.
My second goal is to investigate the way that apocalypticism creates the possibility of new forms of community or relationality. Disinvesting from the world is an arduous project and I am curious about the ways that this work opens up new kinds of relationships.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
I wrote a book on apocalypticism entitled Apocalyptic Political Theology: Hegel, Taubes, and Malabou. One of the key themes of the book is the parallel between Catherine Malabou’s concept of plasticity and Taubes’s definition of apocalypticism. For Malabou, plasticity names the capacity of giving and receiving form, as well as an explosive potential. This understanding of plasticity is very close to Taubes’s definition of apocalypticism as ‘a form destroying and forming power’. The book is an exploration of how destruction, revelation, and novelty are intertwined.
One of the ways I develop these ideas is by investigating the ‘apocalyptic’ elements of queer theory and recent engagements with race. I use scare quotes because I want to be cautious about conscripting this work into a political theological category. Still, there is something provocative about the various ways that Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam and Frank B. Wilderson III describe an opposition to the world or attempt to reconfigure the politics of the future. In writing the book, I was aware that I had only scratched the surface of an extensive body of literature and this Fellowship is an opportunity to go further in my engagement with these ideas.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
The writing I am doing while at CAPAS will be the foundation for a book on apocalyptic ethics. My work on the pandemic demonstrates the stubbornness of the world; it is not going to end easily! In the face of this stubbornness, how does one build communities of refusal? And is it possible for the end of the world to be separated from hopes for redemption? One of my key questions is whether or not apocalypticism requires some form of final salvation. I want to avoid narratives that somehow justify suffering, a pattern Hegel identifies when he describes the philosophy of history as theodicy.
On a more personal level, it is an incredible privilege to be able to live in Heidelberg. After a year of spending almost all my time at home, being in a new city is exciting. I was born in Frankfurt but left when I was very young, so it is interesting to have the opportunity to explore the area.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
I am already benefiting from conversations that cross disciplinary and cultural lines. I have been studying apocalypticism for over a decade now, but my conversations are usually with colleagues in philosophy, religious studies, critical theory, and occasionally politics. Working at CAPAS is interesting because it forces me to go back to foundational claims. I may think it is possible to speak coherently about ‘the’ world, but that may not be true for everyone. The diverse disciplinary perspectives also illuminate dimensions of my project that I might otherwise miss.
Really thinking about the end of the world is terrifying and difficult. I think that we are sometimes numbed by the proliferation of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in pop culture. One of the things I have always admired about the work of Octavia Butler is the way that she forces her readers to confront the vulnerability and suffering, as well as the potentials, that result from the end of the world. Working through these challenges in a more communal setting is not only interesting and productive but helps sustain projects that can sometimes feel overwhelming.
What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
I am tempted to answer the question very practically and say water, food, and shelter! At the beginning of the pandemic, I obsessively watched old episodes of a reality TV show called Alone. The show’s premise is that individuals are dropped off in remote locations with limited supplies and they have to see how long they can survive on their own (all while they film their daily lives—they’re really alone!). People who made it through the initial stage of setting up shelter, finding water and locating food found that the biggest challenge was being alone. For all of its tackiness, the show winds up being a documentary about debilitating loneliness. My survivalist answer is probably right but leaves out the need for connections to other people. The centrality of relationships is also a theme of Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Both books show you that survival only gets you so far.
Do you have recommendations for pop cultural items on (post-)apocalypses one should definitely look at?
Butler’s books (mentioned above) are a great exploration of a not-too-distant dystopian world. I am also a big fan of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. It is usually described as utopian, but I think it can also be read as a post-apocalyptic novel. ‘Post-apocalyptic’ is frequently taken to entail living in the remains of a destroyed society. Piercy describes a future society separated from our own by some undefined cataclysmic event. Whatever the nature of that event, it enabled future humans to move past our understandings of gender, race, sex, power and economics. There are lots of other examples of exciting recent fiction focusing on apocalypticism and post-apocalypticism including Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation trilogy, Omar El Akkad’s American War. There is too much to read!
While in Heidelberg I am also working my way through a series of post-apocalyptic films. I am particularly interested in a theme I have found running from W.E.B. Du Bois’s short story ‘The Comet’ through to films such as The World, the Flesh and the Devil or Z for Zachariah. The films follow Du Bois in exploring race in the post-apocalypse. They describe a situation in which a white woman and a black man think they are the only two people left after an apocalyptic event. The question is whether or not racism has survived the apocalypse as well. It is interesting to see this same premise explored over the course of a century.