This forum conversation is the first time that Courtney and Todne, both ethnographers of American religion, have met, so to speak. Their conversation began with a set of reflections authored by Courtney about the 2019 burning of Notre Dame, which moves elementally and conceptually from scenes of ash, air, and atmosphere. Todne, whose current work explores Black church burning, extended the aerial and atmospheric themes Courtney established to discuss Christian apocalyptic worldviews, social and interpretive contexts, and anti-Blackness. Their reflections are arranged as a collection of scenes that combine theory, art, ethnography, and lived experience. Together, they discuss monumentality, slow violence, and sightlines of neoliberalism and apocalypse; the affective and interpretive challenges of neoliberal and apocalyptic deliberation; the overlapping moral economy of neoliberalism and apocalypse; and an experiential and intertextual archive documenting the coalescence of anti-Blackness, neoliberalism, and apocalypse. In taking up apocalypse and neoliberalism, they consider the big destructive events or scenes associated with the end times with more subtle infrastructural degradations, moral shifts from government to citizen, deregulation and decentralization. In short, they move from specter to mundanities, from thinking of apocalypse as cataclysm to framing it as a set of processes like neoliberalism itself.
Todne Thomas: For me, the apocalypse has associations with a cataclysmic Christian end of all time. Nonetheless, ethnographic conversations, everyday interactions inside and outside of faith communities, and my conversations with you, Courtney, have multiplied my understanding of apocalypse. Collectively, these scenes illustrate the sky falling—literally and conceptually—in scenes of monumental destruction and derivative deliberation. These scenes are filled with rich imagery that transport us, ask tough questions of us, and inspire us to take affective stock of what we know and what we’ll do with that knowledge.
Courtney Bender: Todne, you’re referring to a piece I sent you when we started thinking about this exchange—you’ll recall that I said that I didn’t have anything interesting to say about neoliberalism, though of course it is an unavoidable condition of our world and thus we are all in some way saying something in and to and about it! Pairing neoliberalism with apocalypse, which you keep reminding me is not about “the end” but about “unveiling,” and then thinking about the way that the sky falls, brings my attention to the distinctions we make between the monumental and the slow churn apocalypse. The sky falling might indicate a shift in the atmosphere, or otherwise a shift in the horizon. It can be about a sensible change in what we breathe and how it smells and tastes, or in the way we see. Your comments also help me make sense of Jane Guyer’s observations that neoliberal futures are either prophetically distant or here-and-now, leaving two containers for living that leave little room for what W. E. B. DuBois called the “great near“—a horizon made visible by other tools and imaginative speculation.
At one point in our discussions you used the word “precipitate” to suggest a number of different ways that our questions form within heavy atmospheres. “Precipitate” also shifts my attention from what can be seen and is visible to various kinds of sky-conditions—including those that fog or cloud our vision, and challenge our faith in the ability of “scenes” to serve their illustrative purposes. Yet at the same time, you and me, Todne, we’re obviously not able to move away from setting scenes, showing images, trying to make things visible for ourselves. Perhaps we need to unpack a little more how the ambient apocalypse, the hovering sense of unveiling, prods us to read differently the scenes and images that capture our attention as “signs of the times.”
What do you think about “signs” and “signs of the times”?
TT: This is a great question, Courtney. By “signs” and “signs of the times,” I am referring to the kinds of contemporary touchstones that capture our attention and our use of these phenomena in our search for interpretive benchmarks amidst the elemental ephemera of a neoliberal apocalypticism. I think this is why amidst the “precipitate/precipitation” of the moment—the threat of falling sky, the smell of rain before the deluge—we still rely on scenes and imagery. Beyond the lightning flash, we are engaged in a modest search for frames and meaning.
CB: A search for frames that offer meaning, and that make sense within and among the countless events that can be condensed into signs within our ambient apocalyptic. That question certainly hovers over these paragraphs about the Notre Dame fire that I shared with you when we started talking about this conversation:
Most people in Paris smelled the cathedral’s frame-forest burning before they saw the flames, or before they heard the news reports. Fire is impossible to hide. Acrid smells move with the wind. A fire of this size blankets whole neighborhoods in ash. The ash from this fire was composed primarily of two kinds of materials: wood from thousands of ancient trees felled nearly a millennium ago, and lead. The smell and the residue of a fire lingers: bits of ash resting immobile for days in the corners where a sidewalk meets a wall, or in the crook of a tree branch, are activated again and again by a gust or a breeze.
In the weeks after the fire of Notre Dame de Paris environmentalists raised concerns about lead fumes and poisoned air. But city officials were united in reassuring Parisians that the air of the city was clean to breathe. Yes, the fire was a tragedy with consequences that would linger for many decades—how it will be rebuilt, who will pay for it, and how. But that said, it was also conclusively an event that was over. The fire was out, the danger was past. It would not extend in time—or into the lungs of Parisians. It is difficult not to think about the various questions about bodies and breath that were fended off in public statements about the clean air. Who among the gathered could not feel, or smell, that the fire was still present, insofar as it had redistributed the cathedral’s body as ash throughout the city? That the people of the city were in their very breathing becoming fused with the cathedral’s body—and were doing so in a way that only a fire could have made possible. These were not mere marks on the forehead. Every breath was (for how long?) an unavoidable and nearly unthinkable experience: take this body. This body of wood and lead. How could the city officials say that this suffering body of the church, “our lady,” was also harming those who loved her and mourned her? They could not bring any more attention to this strange but present translation of the body, could they? What might have happened if they had?
TT: I’m compelled to think about another suffering body in another context—an African American church burning in 2015. In my more recent ethnographic collaboration with the members of the College Hill Seventh-day Adventist community in Knoxville, Tennessee, who weathered an arson, I am learning about another Christian eschatology. This framework emphasizes God’s judgment, the Fall of Babylon, and the damnation of those with the mark of the beast. Adventists understand themselves to be particularly prone to end-times persecution and depict the forces of evil to be more diffuse and institutional in contrast to the singularity of the Antichrist. For College Hill Adventists, the burning of their church over five years ago constituted such “a sign of times.” But signs host a multitude of meanings and associations. Does the arson signal “the end of earth history”? Adventist persecution, or anti-Blackness? Or is it a senselessness adjudicated by a silent shake of the head?
This church burning is different than the one you outline above. More likely it occurs under the dark of night, without the same mode of witness or collective rush to save. We see here the difference between monumentality and slow violence. Slow violence according to Rob Nixon speaks to process—modes of violence beyond the event and the kinds of representational strategies needed to render contexts of decline and danger to evoke the same sense of gravitas as the spectacle. In doing this work on Black church arson I have learned that the sighs and exhales of aftermaths also require our attention and narrative care. This will also be the case in the lived and representational aftermath of burning churches, the pandemic, the Trump years, and so many other occurrences.
CB: I’ve been thinking about Tough Enough, a recent book by Deborah Nelson about unsentimentality, variously presented in the writing practices of six twentieth-century women: Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Here are a few lines from the introduction:
For these women, unsentimentality is not a cure or even a palliative to the suffering that consumes our headlines and newsfeeds. It offers a troubled and troubling encounter with the shared world that produces such suffering. Facing facts in the terms laid out here does not mean simply knowing them, which is why the aesthetic component of this project is so important. If facts alone could lead us to the promised land. . . then we already live in a paradise of facts. The problem is not that we do not know what is happening but that we cannot bear to be changed by that knowledge. The women I discuss in the following pages all insist that we should be changed, however much we give up in the process.
As much as I like Nelson’s readings, I am frustrated by this introductory sentiment, for reasons that you are helping me to frame, Todne. Contra Nelson, we are living in an atmosphere that heightens our attention to the ways that we are really not sure about what is happening and how we are being changed. Although we know that we are. These examples and stories of fires, ashes, and aftermaths present us with experiences and atmospheres that expose the ways that our critical world operates instead as if the air were clear and clean. When Nelson says “we live in a paradise of facts. . . the problem is not that we do not know what is happening,” I say, “Really?” What kind of claim—hope, or hubris—is that? It’s not just Nelson, of course. I just think that the expectation or announcement that we live with that kind of clarity enables the sense that there is a possibility of choosing certain kinds of futures. In that “insistence” that we should change there is also a presumption that we can refuse to be changed. But, can the atmosphere be refused? What if the facts are not things to see (easily) but are flowing through our bodies, and getting stuck within them?
I would like to talk more with others about this, and that’s why I’ve enjoyed our conversations, Todne. When I previously raised questions like these—at an after-conference dinner or drinks (but who remembers those times?)—I was told not to be such a downer, such a pessimist. We’ve now had a full year (almost) without those kinds of dinners, so perhaps I now have a bit more perspective on what I was so clumsily asking. Do we have the tools we need to figure out how things are seeming a bit out of whack? Are our normal ways of doing our work going to help us out, collectively? What else do we need to be thinking about or doing? This sounds all rather anodyne when I write it out.
TT: Perhaps this is a call or recognition of epistemological humility?
CB: Ha! Or maybe just a call for more openness and trust? Not long ago one of my friends quipped that a recently retired colleague had once told her that her “pessimism was a sign of bad upbringing.” When she said that, I realized that I’ve been asking other people whom I respect how things matter now. To insist maybe that the shifts in the atmosphere I’m sensing—that we’re talking about Todne—cannot just be my imagination. I’m asking these questions also because I am having a hard time answering these questions. I’m listening for answers.
But as I do, I also wonder whether I have any purchase on invoking the “we” and “our” when I ask about the future. It is not my place, certainly, to presume that my concerns about the future should be others’ also. But I do worry that there are too many private ideas about the future—or rather, that ideas of the future that are small, that work in the small bore, that offer up for our imagination notions of remnants and the saved and damned, operate too freely. Is there more than one atmosphere? Everyone in the aftermath of the fire in central Paris was breathing the same air, after all.
. . . But I also know that’s not true. The slow-violence air-disasters of the world’s cities tell us that the air is segregated and hierarchized. Every day people in the same city breathe different air and have different futures. The stomach churns. . .
TT: Your reference to “privatized ideas about the future” evoked for me one of the major effects of neoliberalism—the privatization of public services and infrastructural concerns, and, in some instances, the increasing influence of private interests over the governance. I’m left wondering to what extent ideas about the future are privatized? Certainly, I think about Protestantism and its mediation of an interior subjectivity. That interiority is a kind of privacy. Perhaps ideas about the future are deeply interior and private for some—the divine revelation experienced by the prophet (e.g., John of Patmos). But I wonder to what extent ideas about the future are too heavily associated with elites—are the intellectual eschatologies of our day the reserve of the scholar, the theoretician, the social scientist, the historian, the epidemiologist, the climate scientist, similar to the way they were attributed to a select prophetic class associated with the authorship of biblical texts, or the oracle, diviner?
I think about a WhatsApp group of friends that I’m a part of, composed of an earth scientist, a climate physicist, and myself, an anthropologist. Each of us shares news, which is increasingly mediated by capitalist entities, which we read through the lens of our most deeply held concerns and our expertise. We air the questions that haunt us. What is happening in relation to the pandemic in the places where we’re from (Italy, Los Angeles, and Tennessee)? Is there a new wave irrupting? How does the pandemic exacerbate preexisting processes of violence, inequality, erasure, infrastructural decline, and natural devastation? What about the increasing severity of storms during hurricane season, the comorbidities and epidemiological habits of our relatives, food insecurity for undocumented workers, the threat of fascism, and the asphyxiations of anti-Blackness? How do the dangers of economization, devolution, and responsibilization—the extension of market rationalities and logic into nonmarket zones of life and the increasing assumption of state functions and social outcomes by citizens—manifest in this particular moment?
We share information, news reports about the severity of the epidemic, the election, books about fascism like Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. by Arundhati Roy, M: Il Figlio Del Secolo by Antonio Scurati, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. We’re an unlikely trio—an African American, Taiwanese American, and Italian—the kind made possible by the haphazard sociality mediated by the university and perhaps the end-times context itself. We often joke that we resemble the constituency of the Earthseed community discussed by Octavia Butler and remark that our friend who brought us together was a ringer for Lauren Olamina in her commitment to preparedness and willingness to face difficult truths. Perhaps we are an Earthseed community, of a sort, a contemplative pod at least.
For me, the group has felt like a resource center, therapeutic small group, and safe haven for the end of the world—at least this end-times episode. I’m reminded of your reflections here, Courtney, on what it means to be “the unhappy guest, the grumpy pessimist.” The group allows us to air our concerns in spaces where relatives, colleagues, and friends might find our eschatologies inconvenient or distasteful. It is where we read the tea leaves of the moment through the lens of our specializations, worries, and lived experiences. And I wonder if this is also a privatized space of sorts—one mediated by our advanced educational attainments, social media platform, and that is inward looking if not interior. Perhaps this is why I’m compelled to air some of the threads of our conversation here. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if what we are and what do is a social form that is replicated over and over again—the reorganization of social relationships to meet the times. Perhaps we are less private than we are interior like a cell, but we are indeed small. And waiting on the sky to fall limits your vision. That is why we need each other.
And your reflection here propels me to ask in turn if we are enacting a neoliberal inter/subjectivity—the limitations and generational conditioning that you so nicely illustrate—or an apocalyptic communitas. Or rather, does an attention, or even an awareness of neoliberalism, foster apocalyptic thinking, and specifically a kind of apocalyptic thinking that makes cataclysm seem inevitable and therefore preempts the utility of collective action? That we consign ourselves to be witnesses rather than to do our part to repair the breach. Does apocalypse, as we use it, become a temporal preoccupation and political complacency? The students who take “Religion and Neoliberalism” at Harvard Divinity School, where I teach, are people who tend to be very invested in social change. After we discuss the history, infrastructures, processes, and implications of neoliberalization, as well as the ethical, moral, and religious formations by which it is imagined, justified, practiced, and contested, they ask, and rightly so: now what? What difficult questions need to be asked? Like—what might it mean to acknowledge that the futures we’ve labored toward are being disassembled before our very eyes? To perhaps leave space for inconvenient revelations like one you pen. “The problem is not that we do not know what is happening but that we cannot bear to be changed by that knowledge.”
I end the course with a discussion of imagination, but perhaps more of a discussion of collection action is called for. Structured, collective dream exercises. Maybe as students, teachers, writers, and earth inhabitants we should actively be trying to replace our apocalypse and its attending grammars to resist the associations of fatalism and inevitability that apocalypse evokes.
CB: And it really is the case, isn’t it, that we need such exercises? Since we (academics) tend to slip into familiar critical grammars that cordon off those questions that (to repeat myself) seem like bad manners. I am struck by how difficult it is even to get to the point where a different view of the future can be accepted as the condition of inquiry about the future. The patterns of critique, honed and skillfully deployed, collectively embraced, don’t let us get there. The world of American critique is supported by and demands optimism . . . or is supported by a hope for, or expectation of, some kind of clarity that is just out of reach. A claim for clear, fresh air, and for salvation of this world, not the end.
TT: Your observation about the moral axis of “the saved and the damned” holds resonance for thinking about what neoliberal apocalypse entails. Initially, reading about this axis transported me to a fieldwork context in the Atlanta metropolitan area and my attendance of a Rapture House with the Afro-Caribbean and African American evangelicals with whom I had collaborated in the area. Saved Christians were taken up into the air during a Rapture event, and the apostates or unbelievers left behind were left to fend for themselves in a violent, torturous world ruled by the Antichrist. But this moral axis of salvation and damnation can be extended, right? I remember reading a piece about the increasing interest in constructing doomsday bunkers in New Zealand on the part of elites, an interest that was estimated to only increase in light of how the country effectively handled the pandemic. How might we imagine futures beyond notions of remnants, salvation, and damnation, those with the moral and material resources to escape the end of time—whether by burrowing into the ground or ascending into the air?
Might this be a lens that contemplates an apocalypse of the commons, that accounts for modes of slow violence—what Nixon names “a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all”—that might not get the interpretive weight as being signs of the times but are consigned to the ether?
CB: Truth be told, I wasn’t really thinking about Christianity at all when I wrote that, but as you’ve rightly picked up, I was thinking about how so many people who talk about “the end” (that is, end of culture, Anthropocene, nation, humanity, etc.) keep in place a loophole where despite whatever apocalyptic conflagration they predict, nonetheless “they” will survive (even if in a changed way). It’s the loophole that bugs me—or as you will put it, an “escape hatch.” It is the escape hatch that makes visions of the future “private” and “small.” And it is those ideas of the future that I worry about. Keeping that “special” private escape hatch imaginatively in play buffers us from confronting demands for doing things now, joining with others now, and asking each other how we are going to live morally, ethically, within the space where the sky is falling. It’s hard to move beyond fatalism and inevitability if the escape hatch/loophole remains in play.
TT: You write that the air has been seen and understood as a clear “bearer of the open,” “clean sightlines and a lightness of being, an openness to possibility and to truth.” In the wake of the Notre Dame Cathedral burning you observe,“. . . the people of the city were in their very breathing becoming fused with the cathedral’s body—and were doing so in a way that only a fire could have made possible.” You also write of air beyond the fall of a monument. “When the air changes, so will our metaphors, our bodies and our idea about what they can do, what we can do. How we are connected and how we are not.” And also of atmosphere, “I think that we are living in an atmosphere—and that it is smelling and seeming and feeling different, but that we are really not sure about what is happening. It is invisible, though present.”
And your discussion of air, and its different implications—”people in the same city breathe different air, have different futures. The stomach churns”—makes me think of Christina Sharpe and her discussion of the weather and climate of anti-Blackness, when she describes “antiblackness is pervasive as climate.” Perhaps anti-Blackness is a living, breathing apocalypse, or rather, a suffocating one. And I’m thinking of the places that air the reports of that weather and climate; the recursive bindings of journals and chapbooks.
On 1/14/20, I wrote a poetic fragment encircled in a hand-drawn cloud:
Initially, I met these six words with incredulity, a snort followed by self-interrogation, “What was I on?” Almost a year later I have something more solid. Apocalypse is a mundanity of anti-Blackness. Anti-Blackness is a part of the air we all breathe, an ever-falling sky threatening to flatten some of us. How much of our atmosphere is populated by exhales that are sighs signifying Black stillhereness? Do the exhales of Black expiration even rise at all? Rather than a fragment, my poem told a whole story. It also gathered other apocalyptic discourse to it like the poem “Photo of a Girl, 1995: Training Day” by Faylita Hicks.
We are—all of us—prepared
for the apocalypse,
for the inevitability of chaos.
We are—all of us—a war
Of our own now, a panic etched
into the soft metals of our backs,
lining the hollow barrels of our legs.
We are—all of us—shades of kerosene.
Armed. Aimed. Ready.
I am—now—a weapon
Prepared to distract & destroy
your comfort for my survival.
It is now—second nature—to unveil
& persevere in this body.
A former student and philosopher recommended the album Spilligion by the group Spillage Village to me this summer. Since then, the chorus from “End of Daze” has been a common refrain for me.
It’s the end of days, end of times
My, oh my
Up in a blaze, you can’t hide (can’t hide)
Why oh why?
All the kids afraid, momma cries
God packed his bags and said, “Bye-bye.”
God packed her bags and said, “Bye-bye.”
Why, why, why?
Perhaps these excerpts are a part of an ever-expanding laterality, a survival archive that marks the quotidian quality of apocalypse apprehended militantly, contemplatively, soulfully by Black people who have had to find a way to stay ahead of the times whether they be designated neoliberal, a foretold ending, or both.
All of these excerpts express that an end is nigh. And, for those who identity or are identified as Black, no escape hatch is in sight. Whether it is a pocketing of the apocalypse or an acknowledgement of “the inevitability of [a] chaos . . . [from which] you can’t hide,” there is a collective call to witness.
The air—which is conditioned by a climate of anti-Blackness—holds no rapture destination nor an escape hatch. The call to witness, though littered with questions (why, why, why?), is not a call for surrender. And is there a lesson in this? The end of the world may instill a lack of surprise, readiness, fear, and cries, but eyes are trained to see what may come after. Will the end of this world entail a better one for us to walk in? And perhaps a harder question: Could we all suspend our gaze and investment in the future to attend to the work of inhabiting our present moment?