The term “apocalypse” is often used simply as shorthand for the catastrophic end of the world. But we think its widespread use in contemporary contexts of crisis opens opportunities for a deeper look at the webs of meaning such language encodes.
Christian apocalyptic narratives are inspired by centuries of interpretations and reimaginings of the book of Revelation, most often focused on the global battle between good and evil—the ecological dimensions of the story receding into the background. Until recently, many of us had forgotten the ecological dimensions of the story’s cataclysm. Catherine Keller’s forthcoming Facing Apocalypse provides an in-depth analysis of the book of Revelation, unpacking its symbolic registers to illuminate its patterns of resonance not just with political tribulations but with contemporary climate catastrophe, driven by neoliberal economics.
The apocalyptic tone Mayra Rivera accesses through Caribbean thought gives voice to the outrage at the systemic and global effects of colonialism and extractive capitalism—and it also attends to the local sadness that draws on an intimate connection to the land.
Mayra Rivera: Climate change and the projections of the end of the world that issue from it have imparted an apocalyptic mood to contemporary cultural production. Artists and writers appeal to and recreate ancient and modern apocalyptic visions. Reporters and scholars seem increasingly comfortable overlaying descriptions of ecological disasters with apocalyptic imagery. A preliminary search of Factiva Global News Monitoring registers an exponential increase in the use of the term “apocalypse” between 1993 and 2019. A similar search for the phrase “climate apocalypse” registers a dramatic increase in the past two years.
The issues discussed under “climate apocalypse” vary widely, but they suggest a broader cultural shift regarding the very notion of “apocalypse.” Indeed, we find in mainstream venues like the New Yorker apocalyptic headlines like this one, published in September 2019: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”
Of course, this is not the first time that mainstream US culture has imagined the end; these fears were widespread through the interwar years and the Cold War. But there are substantial differences between the threat of nuclear apocalypse and climate catastrophe. Climate predictions are tied to phenomena accessible to ordinary perception. Floods, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, draughts—some of us are experiencing them, others might anticipate them. Each event confirms our fears and stirs visions of what is yet to come.
I had never been fond of apocalyptic genres, Christian or secular. If I have now turned from “poetics of the flesh” to “poetics of the end” it is partly because after the devastating passage of Hurricane María over Puerto Rico, apocalyptic imagery became oddly compelling—not as prediction of what would come, but as an available idiom for expressing what had already happened, what had been happening.
Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. It left most of the island without electricity for up to a year. There were significant shortages of food and water. Thousands of people lost their lives. This catastrophe laid bare the truly devastating effects of neoliberalism in geographic regions especially vulnerable to climate change.
The disaster in Puerto Rico is not exceptional. As climate scientists have long predicted, extreme weather phenomena have become more common around the world. They are piling up as I write this. But I do not want to rush toward equivalences. Instead, I would like to ponder the significance of apocalypse as inflected by the situation in Puerto Rico. There are personal reasons for this, of course, as Puerto Rico is not only the place of my birth but also a place to which I have strong affective and familial bonds and responsibilities. There are also theoretical reasons. As Willie Jennings has argued, colonialism entailed the formation of subjects who understood themselves as unencumbered by any ties to place. We have inherited this habit of thought, along with its flattened vision of our constitutive relations to the material world. Examining ecological threats from the perspective of a particular island reveals significant tensions at the heart of discourses about climate change—between the planetary scale of the expected catastrophe and the particularities of their effects in different regions.
Five hundred years of colonial history in which Puerto Rico has been a laboratory of economic and social experiments has materialized in soil and sea, as well as in our flesh. The material reconfiguration of the island began with the conquest of the Americas, which transformed the island into a source for real or imagined riches. The United States acquisition of the island in 1898 responded to both economic and strategic interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, providing control of resources, markets, and cheap labor. Puerto Rico became a territory, a term that, as Édouard Glissant explains, implies a claim to “entitlement to the possession of the land.” A pattern of control over land and capitalist production was firmly established in the early years of colonialism. Accumulation of capital based on dispossession has been not a side effect but part of the colonial design for Puerto Rico.
A recent antecedent to the present crisis was the elimination, in 1993, of federal tax incentives for chemical and pharmaceutical companies in Puerto Rico. The economy collapsed and was followed by desperate attempts of attracting financial investments and by over borrowing. Because the debt could not be paid, Congress approved the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), tasked with reducing the government’s budget. Puerto Rico was now trapped in broad-reaching austerity measures.
The legacy of PROMESA will forever be linked to the extraordinary destruction brought about by Hurricane María. The combination of neoliberalism and climate change produced deadly effects. Yarimar Bonilla documents “how debt crisis . . . paved the way for infrastructural vulnerability and social abandonment long before Hurricane María.” This did not prevent neoliberalism to continue flourishing in the island after the hurricane, when investors saw new opportunities for remaking the island as a paradise tax-free financial freedom.
For Puerto Rico, María represented a continuation of old patterns, but also a portent of future danger.
The Global Climate Change Index ranked Puerto Rico number one, as the country most affected by climate change between 1999 and 2018. Climate change has a different temporality in the Caribbean. “Since 2010, the average sea levels around the island have increased at a rate 10 times faster than the historical rate,” causing visible coastal erosion. Smaller islands in the archipelago are now completely submerged. Social, political, and economic vulnerability intertwine with Puerto Rico’s distinct geography, making it all too easy to imagine its end.
After María, the term “apocalypse” was used to describe the devastation as an unimaginable catastrophe. Titles like “An American Apocalypse in Puerto Rico” were typical. “I remember going into Rio Piedras . . . and feeling the silence,” Eduardo Lalo writes, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane María. “It was not because there weren’t people around: in fact, there were. But there were no birds, and it’s the most uncanny feeling you can have, because that’s the sound of death. Everything was dying.” The sense of an ending.
Yet many local writers and scholars described the devastation using the Greek sense of “apokalypsis,” that is, revelation. This is a revelation not of future events, but rather of realities hidden from view: the material consequences of a long-term history of political and economic dispossession. Christopher Gregory observes that “the idea that Hurricane María lifted a ‘veil’ covering Puerto Rican reality was repeated in both local and international media.” Bonilla adds an element of violence to that image: “Since Hurricane María, I have been trying to think and write about how this storm ripped the veil off Puerto Rico’s colonial status, as much for those observing from afar who had perhaps never stopped to contemplate Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States, as well as for local residents who were forced into an affective reckoning with the kinds of structural violence they had been enduring for decades. . . . My focus is thus not on what Hurricane María has caused, but on what it has revealed.” Implicit in these appeals to “revelation” is the denunciation of those who allowed it to happen—those who have destroyed their world.
Judgement about slow violence intermingles with mourning. Referring to the aftermath of María, Lalo writes, “The real object of the literary world is the unnamable. You could put into words all the government’s irresponsibility and its corruption. And people do that every day. But you cannot use words to capture pain, especially collective pain. Our pain is not only a personal but also a historical pain.” Such pain seeks to be expressed—not captured—and demands acknowledgment.
Scholars, poets, and artists have sought to convey or evoke the lasting significance of the events. Poet Raquel Salas Rivera’s While They Sleep expresses the fracture of meaning that accompanies catastrophe through form, in a book of poetry in which words interrupt each other and images take over the discursive space. In most pages the text is placed on opposite corners of the page. Some are in English, some in Spanish. Most are short, as if written by someone in a rush to find water or gas. Yet in the very first page there is no rushing, but repetition of the number 4645—the number of deaths related to the hurricane—filling the page. The book begins by demanding that we count the dead. It marks the time for mourning.
“Colonialism,” just one word at the top right of the page, is enough to name what is all too clear for those who understand most of Salas Rivera’s references. Catastrophe already happened, is still happening; it has been “under the bed.” There are also brief mentions of (white) terrorism, citizenship, and the infamous moment when the president of the United States “threw paper towels into the crowd as a humanitarian gesture.” But the power of the work is in the counterpoint between the visible signs of social and ecological catastrophe and the everyday struggles to live in it—the tears, the hunger, the lines—between the familiar and the bizarre. “[N]o es una vida normal” appears across the page from an image of unremarkable gallons of drinking water. On another page, “the hospital has been shut down because of the stench of corpses” appears above, “finalmente llegó hasta tu tío” below. The phrases are scattered through the pages, as the debris left by the hurricane or the disrupted progression of life in its aftermath. “Esto es como the walking dead,” she writes, and indeed that captures the atmosphere of the work as a whole—a blurring of the boundary between the living and the dead, dying and surviving. She refers most directly—across the same page—to those who died in the storm, those “we may not find,” and also to the hauntings of previous catastrophes. The temporalities are also called into question: “trauma as in everyday,” “trauma/as in centuries.” These phrases are scattered in the work.
About a third into the book Salas Rivera writes, “no existe un mundo poshuracán” [a post-hurricane world does not exist], even though the work continues, reflecting on quotidian concerns like love, travel, mud. The book insists on naming its truth. But the end of what? To talk about the end of the world in this context is to demand the acknowledgement of events that reveal the faults in the foundations of our world and to honor the expression of this complex historical pain. “Mourning as an active form of rage.”
Ecological work entails more than revelation, judgement, and mourning. And there is crucial work on decolonial ecologies by scholars, artists, and community organizers, whose work I cannot discuss in this short piece. Here I simply wanted to bring attention to the role that talk of the end might play in our world. We can bring together the denunciation characteristic of decolonial thought with the genres of lament. The continuing importance of apocalyptic genres—in creative works and in scholarly writing—reside in their ability to perform disruptions to the current situation. These disruptions can take very different forms. In a decolonial key, apocalyptic genres seek to reveal the destructive forces at work in the world as it is—forces that operate slowly until we find ourselves on the brink of a catastrophic event—or many. They include calls to “break with the reigning social, political, and economic structures that produce disasters.” Yet, a “poetics of the end” may also be intimate and subdued. It can express lament at what we already lost, at all we cannot save. To describe such losses as the end of a world is to refuse abstracting “the world” from the sociomaterial bonds that constitute us as humans, the relations that weave the dynamic texture of each fragile world.
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Catherine Keller: I can do little more than pause and meditate upon the end of your reflection, that is: “to describe such losses as the end of a world is to refuse abstracting ‘the world’ from the sociomaterial bonds that constitute us as humans, the relations that weave the dynamic texture of each fragile world.” To acknowledge cataclysmic collective loss as apocalyptic is accordingly not to announce The End of The World but the end of a world. The difference of the indefinite article carries outsized significance. The end of a world implies a multiplicity of worlds, and so of endings. It marks the fragility of a world, the indefiniteness of its boundaries. So it resists the abstraction that would homogenize The world, its lives, and their bodied interdependence. Your reading of apocalypse as performative disruption exposes, indeed reveals, the radical weave of socioecological relations that materialize a world and each of its worldlings.
The abstraction of “the world” from its constituent relations readily aligns with the global economics that abstracts its calculations from the wellbeing of people and planet. The abstraction—prime instance of Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”—obscures the differential relations of responsibility for the actual destruction of actual worlds.1 Such as the social and ecological viability of Puerto Rico. So the creative works you curate reveal that which the economic abstractions systemically re-veil. My two books on apocalypse consider the relation of the global economy to social depredation and to fossil fuel extraction, yet not of apocalypse to abstraction. For the lethal versions of the apocalypse seemed all too concretely literal.
That literalism carries the force of the fundamentalist Christian reading of the Book of Revelation, whereby over and over again, The End of The World has been announced, failed to happen, been recalculated, and announced again—in what I called an “apocalypse habit.” The concurrent neoliberal economism, purely secular, indeed value-free but for the value of the buck, seems alien to the religious imaginary of the end of the world. And yet the past half century of United States history has witnessed wave after wave of collusion between religious and political conservatisms, and with them the hegemony of the neoliberal economy. With its carbon fueled motorcade to The End.
Climate catastrophe has, however, been smugly denied by the same anti-science fundamentalism that hails the imminent totality of The End. In other words, an unregulated global capitalism remains intimately entangled with a Christian nationalism: hence William Connolly’s “capitalist-evangelical resonance machine.” He traces an affect of ressentiment joining the neoliberal elite’s sense of entitlement with the working class white evangelical sense of disentitlement. The economic abstraction from any common good, any just distribution of the rewards of labor, has combined all too effectually with the religious right’s anticipation of eternal reward—which comes only after The End of The World. Why bother with the nonwhite masses, let alone nonhuman beings? What matters the breadth of humanity or the future of the earth? So the secular spiral of destruction emitted by the neoliberal model synchs with the fundamentalist apocalypse.
Apocalypse refracts multiple contradictions. The end-time Christianity working can be seen mirrored in its opposite, a sense of hip hopelessness trickling through the left. So the importance of your Puerto Rican arts of a dissident, a detotalized, apocalypse becomes ever clearer. We are in a period when responsible commentators, not just doom-saying hyperbolists, will increasingly speak apocalypse—concerning climate change and all the issues of geography immigration, economics, food, extinction knotted in it: “insect Armageddon,” “climate apocalypse”. . .
Might it be of secular value to note that the Bible itself touts no “End of the World”? In the scriptural narratives there are catastrophes and collapses of worlds: Noah’s flood, Israel’s repeated devastation by colonizing empires, the prophetic visions of civilizational and ecological collapse—including that of the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John. And they yield not The End. At that terminus of the New Testament, the civilization of global empire and its natural environment collapse. But the ultimate vision of the New Jerusalem signals not creation’s end. Literally, “she” comes “down to earth” as the sparkling new city of justice and care—amidst multiple nations and with “water free for all to drink” (as significant in Western Asia then as now).
Revealing that the Greek apokalypsis means unveiling—a disclosure, not a closure—is not going to disarm the weaponized Christian right. (At the moment that specific weaponization evokes images of the armed January 6 mob, Jesus Saves signs abounding.) And John’s Apocalypse is no pacifist Gospel. The ancient text is supercharged with “divine violence”—in Walter Benjamin’s sense of violence against violence—directed against the empire. So in working on the political theology that operates subliminally across secular economic and political registers we might notice the theopolitics of the ancient Apocalypse: the global empire of the Beast and Dragon is in the text coded as Rome (encrypted so as not to expose the diasporic Jewish communities who received John’s letter to persecution). Rome, like several empires before, had colonized Israel’s known world. Rome’s violence in John’s lifetime verged on world-destroying (e.g., Nero’s massacre of Christians in Rome; the destruction of the temple and of tens of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem). My point is that the Book of Revelation prophesies not the destruction of “the world” but of the colonial empire that defined its concrete world. So your use of Puerto Rico, which remains formally a colony, is apocalyptically precise: the ancient Apocalypse discloses the imperial world order of colonialism as evil itself.
Your apocalypse discloses the conjunction of the colonial-political and the neocolonial-economic with the ecological. What hooked me into the apocalypse again, after a quarter century, was a flashback (grimly Bergmanesque) to the opening of the seventh seal: in which, after a mournful silence, the death of a third of the life of the seas is foreseen, and the toxification of a third of the seas, and the burning of a third of the forests…Not punishment, not divinely caused, but consequence of imperial evil. And it would get worse. This ancient intuition into the spiral of violence is no prediction of facts on a timeline. Prophecy isn’t prediction. It dreams metaphors—the metaforce—of a pattern so deeply entrenched we haven’t progressed out of it. We are now speeding toward destruction of far more than one third.2
The forms and forces of colonial power prove shape-shiftingly resilient. John foresees utopia, after downfall. But the colonial power knows how to play at utopia, too. I note in Facing Apocalypse imaginative US exploitation of the post-María devastation: taking advantage of the real estate bargains, a cryptocurrency utopia is “coming down” to San Juan—as Puertopia. As Naomi Klein writes, “Puerto Rico finds itself locked in a battle of utopias.” She juxtaposes the solar-paneled organic communities linked through Hurricane María to the post-catastrophe, gated, capitalist Aynrandian bitcoin paradise for outside millionaires. When later told Puertopia translates “eternal boy playground,” the entrepreneur dropped the name. The project plays on. So does the revelatory art: see for instance the video, The Insufferable Whiteness of Being. Yet this cryptopia is an example of a version of neoliberalism rather than of direct colonial force. And the climate crisis that María instantiated is driven, like neoliberalism, by fossil fuels. So how does the archaic apocalyptic exposé of empire pertain?
Quite graphically, as it turns out. But here comes an exegesis obstructed less by the religious right than by my feminist left. In a climactic scene appears “a woman sitting on a scarlet beast” (Revelation17:3). She is revealingly clothed in the luxury products of antiquity: “in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold and jewels and pearls.” Those goods, in a list of twenty-nine items that ends with “slaves,” are identified as the content of the marine trade of the empire (Rev. 18:11-13). The metaforce of Roman global trade is encoded as “Whore of Babylon.” And she is shown in visionary, or voyeuristic, detail, tipsily riding and f**king the Beast, both of them “drunk on the blood” of the global victims “of their fornications.” Behold the voracious union of colonialism (not yet neocolonialism) and global trade (not yet neoliberalism)!
When I wrote Apocalypse Now and Then, my feminist condemnation of the misogyny of representing lascivious greed as “whore” blinded me to the force of John’s critique. The sexism is real, but in context it is not the point. In this millennium’s reading I wanted that point taken: the coupling of empire and economy defines Revelation’s core vision of evil.
Then what happens? The beast turns on her, strips and eats her. And civilization collapses. Facing Apocalypse reads in that mythography of trauma the profound tension between political/national and economic/global powers. And it reads the reverb of that ancient nightmare in a neocolonial regimen that suppresses the contradictions between the nation state and its unconstrained, omniseductive global economy. Those contradictions were not lessened even under a regime with a forthrightly anti-globalist agenda, expressly opposed not just to immigration, the UN, religious pluralism, and of course environmentalism, but also transnational capitalism. Or so those representatives of the religious right who triumphantly declared Trumpocalypse proudly reveal. At this angle, the original Apocalypse “unveils” a dangerously ongoing global interplay of empire with economics, climaxing in unfathomable human and environmental destruction.
Hear how the imperial porn queen describes herself: “. . . I will never see grief” (Rev. 18:7b). And across John’s letter echoes the alternative: the voice of an eagle whom we first hear after the seventh seal has opened, crying out in lament at the losses, human and nonhuman: “ouai, ouai, ouai, to the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 8:13).
So this brings me back to the end of your reflection. You note that a “poetics of the end” does not only disrupt the reigning structures, does not only interrupt the deceptive abstractions: “it can express lament at what we already lost, at all we cannot save.”
And what then? After the loss of a world—no more world?
Another voice from the past, not so far past as John, echoes in your words:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save—Adrienne Rich
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary
Power, reconstitute the world.
A. N. Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” is used systematically to interpret global capitalism in John B. Cobb, Jr. and Herman E. Daly’s For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, The Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Beacon, 1994).↩
See my just released Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances (Orbis, 2021).↩