IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Rick Weiss
What were your first thoughts, when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
I loved the idea of coming together with outstanding scholars to think about a single idea. That this single idea was “apocalypse” was particularly alluring, since it is a word and concept that appears in a huge variety of places, including popular media, public debates, and academic writing. Because of recent events – a global pandemic, war, the potential of cataclysmic climate change – it is an incredibly salient time to be reflecting on, discussing, and writing about apocalypse.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
I like to think about apocalypse cross-culturally, since people in diverse times and places have thought about the end of the world, often in very different ways. From my perspective, people use apocalyptic references to make arguments about the world, arguments that are meant to persuade others and to change behaviour. It is used in a wide range of contexts, but my interest in apocalypse lies in its political and social uses. Because of my background in religious studies, I think of apocalyptic narratives as a type of myth. By “myth” I do not mean that they are fictitious or simply wrong, but rather I highlight that these are authoritative stories that shape people’s behaviour and world views.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?
My specific research at CAPAS focusses on a South Indian Hindu community called “Ayya Vazhi”, a community consisting of marginalised castes. Their myths centre on apocalypse, and their practices and doctrines criticise the oppressive social and political structures of South India. In the 1840s, one of their early leaders wrote an apocalyptic narrative that describes the oppression faced by the community: severe taxation, social exclusion, labour exploitation, and violence. My research focusses on how this community uses this apocalyptic narrative to mobilize people in opposition to social and political oppression.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
My research work has focussed on the large number of Hindus who are marginal to established powers, with a particular interest in the deprivation and challenges they face. I examine their imaginative projects in contexts in which their traditions and livelihoods have been under threat, and the strategies that they deploy to assert power in challenging social and economic circumstances. In the case of Ayya Vazhi, apocalyptic thinking and acting has served as a strategy through which the group’s members challenge prevailing social and political power in South India.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
There is a real lack of study of apocalyptic thinking and practice in South Asia, so my research will bring to life an important mode of social assertion in the region that has been neglected to date. I expect, or at least hope, that my published results of this research will suggest a range of other productive topics of study in Hindu studies. Given that studies of apocalypse tend to focus on Western material, I hope that my perspective on Asia will also offer something new to existing scholarship on apocalypse.
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’ve been very impressed by the directors and fellows, as well as the staff team, here at CAPAS. People bring a vast range of experiences and expertise to the subject, and I have already learned a lot from our discussions. One of the most interesting challenges to me has been to think about the continuities between apocalyptic expressions in India and those that prevail in Western contexts today, especially contemporary ones such as climate change.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
This is a hard question, since much of what we now possess would probably be useless! I would hang on to my tent, sleeping bag, and Swiss Army Knife. That way I’m assured a warm place to sleep, and you never know when you might need a knife, a scissors, or a corkscrew.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
My favourite (post)apocalyptic film is the Matrix. Besides being a great movie, it is fascinating because humans inside the Matrix are entirely unaware of their apocalyptic circumstances.