Jessica Hurley and Dan Sinykin both published books about apocalypse in 2020: Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex (Minnesota) and American Literature and the Long Downturn: Neoliberal Apocalypse (Oxford), respectively. They have written about apocalypse together before as the coeditors of a special issue of ASAP/Journal titled “Apocalypse” (Fall 2018).
Dan Sinykin: Attuning myself to apocalypse has sensitized me to the possibility that the fabric of reality might unravel before my eyes, as it has and does now for so many. But it has also made me skeptical of the kind of change embodied by presidential succession, especially when that change takes as its charge the restoration of the status quo. I’m writing the morning after Joe Biden’s inauguration. His win is a defeat for Donald Trump; it is also a win for neoliberalism: for free trade and US imperialism and human capital over surging illiberal nationalism. America is back. Neoliberalism remains dominant.
Your book, Infrastructures of Apocalypse, pinpoints the encounter between continuity and rupture as at the core of apocalypse. Apocalypse, as you teach us, is as much a practice as it is a way of thinking. And to investigate the core of that practice, you begin with what you call “a simple but urgent question: what does apocalypse do for people whose futures are already impossibly threatened or foreclosed?”
Before I read your book, I answered this question with some cynicism. Apocalypse, it seemed to me, was a seductive response to feeling like one lacked political agency. Whether in the Book of Revelation or the works of James Baldwin, I saw writers responding to overwhelming empires by imagining their collapse, a fantasy that soothed despair and that could be powerfully poignant to read but that was, in effect, quietist. Much worse, I saw those with power, but who perceived themselves as persecuted, leverage apocalypse to shore up that power with novels like The Turner Diaries and Left Behind.
But then I read your book. As you demonstrate, the very infrastructure of the United States—its highways and cities and suburbs and pipelines and mines and the stories that keep this infrastructure in place—is a persistent source of structural racism and environmental injustice that forecloses the future of the dispossessed. You persuaded me of the liberatory force of apocalypse not only in the words of Baldwin but also Samuel Delany, Tony Kushner, and Leslie Marmon Silko. For them, you argue, apocalypse transfigures. How? These writers embrace the futurelessness promised by neoliberalism (“there is no alternative”), encoded in infrastructure and manifest in white suburbs, irradiated reservations, and the AIDS epidemic. By embracing futurelessness, they negate the continuity of settler colonialism, and that cracks open a space to reimagine life in the present, a space in which to survive—on one’s own terms. There is nothing utopian or final for you here in apocalypse or transfiguration. Your vision is modest but transformative.
Jessica Hurley: This is a wonderful reading of my book, and fitting since I suspect I’m going to be leaning more into my pessimist side for this forum! [Writer’s note: this did not hold.]
Reading your book clarified something for me that seems important here: that the success of neoliberalism is the end of the progress narrative that it would seem to require. Earlier forms of racial settler capitalism have mandated a dubiously secular teleology named progress: the idea that the future would be meaningfully different from the past (even if that difference was only experienced as positive by those who benefited from capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy). Neoliberalism, however, forecloses the idea that things will improve in the future; as you write in the book, “central to neoliberalism is its thesis, which it coercively enforces, that there is no alternative to free market capitalism. The finality of neoliberalism, its demotion of any other politics to impossibility, invites feelings of claustrophobia, impotence, and hopelessness—apocalyptic feelings.” The very idea of progress—which, as Anna Tsing notes, is as central to the political dreams of progressive politics as it is to the nineteenth-century political narratives with which we traditionally associate it—has been replaced in the neoliberal era, I would say, with the insufferable buzzword “innovation,” which denotes meaningless yet profitable variations on the same rather than any idea of actual development.
We find ourselves, then, in a strange double bind when it comes to neoliberal apocalypse, and I would be curious to know how you approach it. Apocalypse might be seen as a way to break out of the grinding continuity of the future imposed by neoliberalism (and, as you say, this is what I try to get at by redefining apocalypse as a lived experience of futurelessness that can have radical potential). But we might also see it as a choice between two equally disempowering apocalyptic narratives in which to invest one’s sense of reality. On the one hand there is the endless reproduction of the same after the End of History, which we could certainly see as apocalyptic in the millennial sense. On the other, as you write, there is the more traditionally apocalyptic “logic of linear time and imminent cataclysm” that is both immensely appealing for those trapped in the confines of the neoliberal present and paradoxically disempowering in that it writes historical change in advance. I wonder, then, how (if at all) this changes the experience of apocalypse of a form or the ways in which apocalypse is used?
One thing that we’ve written about together has been the multiplicity of apocalypse; that apocalypse signifies and has been (and is still) experienced differently across populations determined by race, indigeneity, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. For this forum, I’m wondering whether there’s something specific about “neoliberal apocalypse” that would differentiate it from how the form works in other times and places. You situate us as writing after the 2021 Inauguration, but what comes most immediately to my mind as our context is the advance of armed Christian white supremacists on the US Capitol on January 6. We’ve both written about the apocalypticism of white supremacy, me in my work on Ayn Rand and the perceived impact of nuclearization on white sovereignty, and you in your work on Charles Manson and the Turner Diaries and the perceived impact of economic scarcity on white sovereignty. What would it mean, though, to take this event as either an exemplar of or a turning point in a particular experience of neoliberal apocalypse? One thing that particularly interests me is the secularization of prophecy that was central to the attempted coup. Protestantism (and I feel fairly confident in saying evangelicalism) was obviously a shared background of many of the insurrectionists, but rather than the biblical prophecies of Hal Lindsey or Pat Robertson, this movement follows, with equal fervor, the prophecies of Q. Is this flexibility of authority something specific to our moment of neoliberal crisis? Something specific to a certain contemporary structure of whiteness? An indicator of a new form of apocalypticism emerging over the past year or two? I’m curious to hear what you think.
DS: Yes! Q. I love these questions you pose.
I have watched the rise of QAnon with great interest. Like Trump, it seemed at first more comical and quixotic than dangerous. Even now, I feel astonished when listening to journalists describe followers as people who believe that Donald Trump is the appointed savior to defeat an elite cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles. As the podcast Reply All reported, Q was at one point hacked and his password turned out to be Matlock—as in the cheesy Andy Griffith TV detective from the 90s. Q was later hacked again; it turned out the second time his password was, again, Matlock. But now we have Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley, 1/6, and millions of disaffected QAnon white supremacists lurking.
While those who believe in QAnon are rapt apocalypticists, for those of us watching, it’s difficult to remain attentive to the sheer inanity of the details: the parsing of images and texts for secret messages. They, like you and I (as literary critics), are inheritors of biblical hermeneutics, flipped ass over teakettle, in a funhouse mirror. We might call it, after Sianne Ngai, the stuplimity of evil. Ngai coined stuplimity—a neologism made of stupid and sublime—to get at the aesthetics of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, but it fits for Q. Like Stein and Beckett, QAnon believers collect “linguistic bits and scraps, discarded ‘cultural’ waste.” They induce in me both fascination and exhaustion; they are pointedly obtuse.
Insofar as I can sustain attention, I see just the flexibility of authority under white supremacist apocalypticism that you hint at. Such flexibility also helps me explain Trump’s appeal to white evangelicals. Trump inadvertently tapped into the dispensationalist narrative: the outside world is chaotic, decadent, and hostile; inexorable forces push us toward cataclysm; the arrival of a singular leader will restore order. This, too, is the logic of Q. And if I step back, if I defamiliarize evangelicalism for a minute, I can see that, set against the backdrop of secular America, someone who believes that at any moment millions among us might disappear into heaven and that the Antichrist will arrive to terrorize the rest doesn’t need to travel far, in their mind, to believe that we might already be dominated by Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
The insurrection, then, is exemplary, maybe a culmination of neoliberal apocalyptic thought of the white supremacist variety that runs through Charles Manson, The Turner Diaries, Left Behind, and Trump. I call it neoliberal apocalypse because it generates out of and against neoliberalism—at its root, as you note, is the perceived impact of economic scarcity on white sovereignty, hence antagonism toward global elites and the United Nations—but it is fundamentally illiberal.
Dispensationalism, though it nurtures white supremacy, is, compared to Q, passive. What is frightening about the mutation of the former—like the mutation of a virus where the new, more virulent variant exists alongside its original—is the violent insurrectionist quality of QAnon. It’s like Hal Lindsey and William Luther Pierce joined to spawn a unique movement.
QAnon attempted to induce the apocalypse—The Storm—through violent insurrection, cutting through the double bind of neoliberal apocalypse: the millennial continuity of neoliberalism or the quietest fantasy of apocalypse. They are activist apocalypticists. But this meant that when they entered the Capitol they expected divine intervention. When nothing happened, they were dumbfounded.
But I want to return to a question at the core of your book. Is there room still for apocalypticism from the left, from below, for liberation?
JH: The active/passive distinction that you draw here is really useful, especially in differentiating between the Left Behind model of dispensationalist affect and the new Q variant. One thing that’s always struck me about the Left Behind series is that its characters are, on the whole, very sad; it’s easy to describe Left Behind as a triumphalist narrative (as indeed it is at the macro scale), but the main characters spend a striking amount of time grieving the people they have lost—including people lost to the Rapture, an event that within the logic of the novels no one should mourn. Within the new ratcheting up of whiteness and masculinity (both defined through a rejection of negative affects like sadness, which are seen as too passive), however, this older mode of inhabiting the white dispensationalist apocalypse seems to have been rejected. Instead, both the things that might produce bad feelings and the feelings themselves are transformed into grotesque clown versions of themselves.
The epidemic of child abuse in this country, the enormous number of children who go hungry, the children caged at the border; these get disavowed and replaced by the “elite cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles,” and the sadness one feels when confronted with this reality is disavowed and replaced by the righteous anger and the lived sense of stuplimity that Q belief endows. Part of the flexibility of authority that defines Q and its apocalypticism is that Q always seems to imply that you should take things seriously and unseriously at the same time. Things like Pizzagate or the Capitol riot are both deadly serious and just a joke, trolling, LARPing a position to own the libs. It feels like neoliberalism and postmodernism have come together to produce a historically specific brand of apocalypticism in Q: one that is committed to rupture without content. In that sense, I suppose, Q would not, in fact, stand against neoliberalism at all; it would simply be neoliberalism’s creative destruction/innovation wing coming to the foreground against its post-millennial stasis wing.
If we turn from the real estate brokers and military middle managers of Q to the actual dispossessed, however, then I do believe that 2020 has shown the truth of a phenomenological claim that I tried to access through subaltern literature in my book: that the lived experience of futurelessness opens up space to disrupt the continuity of social reproduction. In mid-March of 2020, the uninterrupted flow of social reproduction, in which the present leads inevitably into a plausible future, was disrupted at the deepest level when the country went into lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus. This was not only a crisis of public health, but a crisis of temporal experience: the future that we had imagined was suspended; every future that might follow the present seemed intensely implausible; we literally did not know what was going to happen next. Actions that had previously seemed impossible (expanding paid unemployment; government-funded furlough schemes; housing the homeless) were suddenly happening all around us. The future—as a set of assumptions about continuity that determined what seemed possible or necessary in the present—was suspended and previously unthinkable possibilities in the present became thinkable (and, in some cases, actualities).
It is within this context, I want to suggest, that the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by Derek Chauvin assisted by J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao unfolded. The murder of Black and Native people in the United States by law enforcement and vigilantes is nothing new. If there is one social continuity that defines the United States, it is the empowerment of state agents (whether officially members of the police or not) to take the lives of Black and Native people without legal consequence. The idea that we could live without police has historically been one of the most implausible ideas outside of a relatively small, if tremendously committed, group of abolitionists. But last summer everything changed. The future had already become implausible, unpredictable, unknowable. If a plague could transform our entire social fabric, then why was abolishing—not just reforming, but abolishing—the police any less plausible? At a point when we could not imagine business continuing as usual, the demand for abolition became newly thinkable at a large scale in the present. Enormous uprisings transformed the public and political landscapes of the United States, not just in major cities but everywhere (my small suburban town of Fairfax, VA, mostly a wealthy centrist-to-liberal community, saw multiple protests against police violence across the space of several weeks). “It’s just not realistic” became an irrelevant counter. People were out protesting six feet apart, masked, in the midst of a global pandemic; who could say anymore what a realistic outcome might be? We were mid-apocalypse. The future was suspended. Anything could happen. Why not abolition?
The police are still here; the police are still armed; the police are still killing people; the police are still overfunded at the cost of every other element of public life including public health. The suspension of the future does not automatically produce liberatory outcomes within a linear, short-term cause-and-effect model. But it does, and did this summer, produce liberatory commitments. The obviousness, the it’s-just-like-that-ness of our social reality has been undone; it might have reasserted itself now, but that is not an experience that one forgets. The idea of abolition has become mainstream, one of the plausible options of what might happen in the future. And I truly believe that this would not have happened now—at this exact moment of time, in this way—without the apocalyptic suspension of the future created by the pandemic in March.
So yes: even amidst everything, the ongoing climate apocalypse, the massive social inequalities that have only been exacerbated in the last year, the intensification of neoliberalism in the atomization of the social response to the pandemic as well as in its economic outcomes, the white supremacist response to neoliberal disenfranchisement that ends up supporting neoliberalism even as it seeks to overthrow it, in all of this, I still see in the demands of abolition, in the turn to mutual aid, in the reenergized and reamplified political demands of the left, an apocalypse from below that allows us to reimagine the liberation of all beings. The abolitionist theorist and activist Angela Davis famously said that “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”1 Apocalypse in the sense of lived futurelessness activates that belief, places us firmly in the “as if” that Davis describes. Apocalypse as a genre is a pattern. But apocalypse as a lived experience, as the foreclosure of all imaginable futures, is something else, something more like the undoing of the pattern—as you said at the opening of this exchange. It is the experience of knowing “that the fabric of reality might unravel before [our] eyes” and indeed that it already has. The times have become deeply implausible. Why not abolition, then? Why not decolonization? Why not socialism? The future is suspended and we live as if, as if, as if.
DS: I am in awe of how you penetrate the fog of contemporaneity to discern the logics—affective, temporal, historical—of the events we are living through. You articulate those logics to show us how a more just collective life, impossible when seen from above, from the seats of power, cracks through from below in moments where futurelessness reigns. I see in my mind the image of trees growing out of what appears to be only rock.
In your book, you call this fidelity to fleeting flashes of a just life “the ethics of impossibility,” an ethics that orients us “toward those whom the collective future tends to exclude: the black, queer, Indigenous, disabled, and other subjects who are marked as futureless.” You conspire toward a world in which “impossibilities flourish.”
Rather than succumb to the temptation of imagining a just world as a world to come, as utopian, as the result of a salvific revolution, you resist closure. Closure is as tempting on the left as on the right. One popular leftist version comes down to us from Karl Marx through the Frankfurt School: Walter Benjamin’s messianism or Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch’s utopianism. One danger of such teleological politics, I think, is that it projects an impossibility that must forever remain impossible: it is oriented not toward a living justice so much as dead perfection. Forgive me for this: Taylor Swift, on her latest album, sings resistance to such closure in a personal romantic register: “I don’t need your / closure, your closure.” Verse 2 opens, “Don’t treat me like / some situation that needs to be handled.” The fantasy of closure denies the fact of human finitude, that nothing for us is finished until we’re dead. (For a utopian reading of Swift’s “closure,” read this.)
You implement your rejection of closure, of teleology, of stasis, of certainty in your very style of writing: “as if, as if, as if”—the tick, tick, tick of series. You deploy anaphora above and elsewhere to produce a feeling of building anticipation but you leave your reader hanging, your tick never resolves into a tock: you only lead us to further ticks. You are explicit about how you are rejecting the vision of apocalypse we’ve inherited from the Book of Revelation, one that ends in the Final Judgment and a New Jerusalem. You offer, in the coda to your book, a quantum alternative, where “the act of reading, in the quantum universe, does not so much complete the meaning of the text—as it does in more Newtonian narrative theories—as it changes the text itself.” As in reading, so in life.
Neoliberalism, as you mentioned earlier in our exchange, also rejects progress, teleology. But only because the end has arrived. Again, we find that neoliberalism and apocalypse are vying for hegemony, and too often it feels like they are the only options. What I find revelatory about your book is that you open for us a third way, a possible impossibility.
JH: “I see in my mind the image of trees growing out of what appears to be only rock.” I love this because it is precisely the experience that I’ve had when deeply immersed in the books that have shaped all my thinking about apocalypse: James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The question that I suspect lies at the heart of this forum—how do we live without a future?—is not a new one, although it is one that has been inequitably distributed. These texts are also not uncomplicated in their relationship to neoliberalism, as you point out several of them in your book. But they do stare unflinchingly down the barrel of futurelessness until that futurelessness starts to transfigure the lived experience of the present—a process in which, as you write in your book, “hopelessness transforms dialectically into hope.” Sitting with them, we start to see trees growing out of what appears to be only rock.
And oh, closure. It’s not that I don’t want it! Closure, redemption, left messianism; who could resist it? But sometimes time’s arrow is pointed directly at you; you are the one(s) being sacrificed to ensure the arrival of the predetermined future. At which point you have to seriously question your own desire to let the arrow fly.
The problem with teleology, of course, is that it lets so much go and leaves so much out. When you write that teleological politics, even on the left, “projects an impossibility that must forever remain impossible: it is oriented not toward a living justice so much as dead perfection,” I’m reminded of Catherine Keller’s distinction between the impossibility that she sees in Jacques Derrida—which must remain always impossible—and the impossibility that can actually orient political action and feeling. As she writes, “When big shifts do occur, the great exodoi, the collapse of an apartheid, a wall, impossibility suddenly yields to actuality. But does this not happen only by way of the actually possible? Does it happen without the enigmatic persistence of those who attend, but do not know, the possible? Who mind what may after the fact prove to have been possible to enact? In other words, might some fumble, some crack in the impossible itself, disclose some other kind of possibility?”
What I love about Keller’s book is its insistence on multiplicity not just at the level of there being multiple possible outcomes but far beyond that into multiplicity at the level of possibility itself: that there might be multiple kinds of possibility and impossibility, multiple kinds of time and relation, multiple kinds of everything. In her commitment to apophasis, Keller, like Taylor Swift in Ebury and Welsch’s reading, is radical in her demand for more, more than we can possibly imagine, more than we can know. My favorite Taylor Swift aesthetic has always been the one where she refuses to let anything go: the Taylor of “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” “The 1,” “Exile.” When Taylor refuses closure it’s awesome. It’s the demand that rings out at the end of Angels in America: “more life.” It’s Silko’s refusal to write a novel-sized novel. The desire for closure can only ever make us demand less, make us more likely to accept this particular end of history. To refuse the ending is to demand more.
From a lecture delivered at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (2014).↩