The Apocalypse Will Only Be Televised

I am posting a review of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) by John Hall.  It is scheduled appear in The Sociological Review later this summer.

Aaron attempts to account for taste.

John R. Hall’s Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity is an ambitious work that interprets major historical movements and events from the standpoint of eschatological expectation.  The book performs the vital service of reminding us that the yearning for apocalyptic redemption serves both as a crucial motive for those undertaking world-transforming projects and as the medium through which persons caught up in momentous events understood their significance.  Hall traces the category of the apocalyptic back to its earliest known manifestations, in the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, and then devotes a section of his study to points of historical transition at which the narrative of apocalypse undergoes a significant mutation.  In examining apocalypticism in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the secular revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the contemporary era of globalization, Hall reveals the stubborn persistence of the apocalyptic tropes of destruction and rebirth in the history of West.  His study forcefully makes the case that the narrative of apocalypse stands solidly in the mainstream of Western civilization, and raises the question of whether it is possible to understand historical experience apart from the categories it provides.

The sections of Hall’s book that are dedicated to the Crusades and the sectarian movements of the Middle Ages will no doubt call to mind Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).  Hall’s study builds on Cohn’s work, especially in his discussion of the Crusades, but unlike Cohn, Hall lays his emphasis on the fate of the apocalyptic within the forms of belief that gained official legitimacy within European society, rather than on its expressions on the sectarian fringes.  Thus, Hall’s account of the Reformation accords greater weight to the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin to regiment and rationalize apocalyptic energies by channeling them into institutionalized forms acceptable to worldly rulers than on Thomas Müntzer’s dramatic and doomed attempt to create a messianic kingdom on the earth.  But as Hall observes, the subjection of life to the rational discipline of work and the displacement of sacred time by the objective time of the clock and calendar do not trigger the waning of the apocalyptic and the sacred violence it incites, but rather displaces this violence into the practice of secular politics.  Thus, the Jacobins are revealed to be fundamentalist zealots wielding a violence that has an indelibly “sacred” character for the sake of establishing the “quasi-religious utopia” of the republic of virtue (111).  Hall’s discussion of the apocalyptic element in modern radical politics proves to be quite refreshing and salutary.  He goes beyond the analysis of Soviet and Chinese communism, the religious dimensions of which have long been established by earlier scholars, to consider the exercise of sacred violence in anti-colonial struggles, including black liberation, Zionism, Palestinian resistance, as well as the Taiping rebellion and the American Indian Ghost Dance movement.

The conceptual maneuver that reveals the essentially religious character of political institutions and ideological movements which are understood to be secular is a gesture that readers of the work of Denis de Rougemont, Eric Voegelin, and John Milbank are bound to find familiar.  Most academic readers will find the absence of polemic in Hall’s study to be one of its principal merits, as his thesis regarding the ubiquity of the apocalyptic in the history of West does not come weighted with the anti-liberal and anti-secular baggage that mars for many the insights of the aforementioned thinkers.  In Hall’s book one does not find sweeping attacks on modernity and its cult of self-fashioning, nor calls to revive orthodox forms of Christianity, nor a defense of a platonic conception of philosophy as the only form of thought that can resist sectarian delirium.  Hall’s disinterestedness and evenhandedness, as well as his attentiveness to the irreducibly heterogeneous and hybrid nature of radical politics, serve him well in tracking the manner in which the apocalyptic has infiltrated the dominant narratives of secular politics.  But these virtues do not work to his advantage in confronting the crises of the global present.

Hall provides an excellent overview of the emergence of militant Islam, identifying the points of linkage between al-Qaida and the earlier generation of radical thinkers who redefined jihad for the modern, postcolonial age, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.  Though he makes a convincing case for regarding al-Qaida’s struggle against liberal modernity as apocalyptic in its scale, Hall chooses to map this conflict in a disappointingly schematic way, as a face-off between the “Empire of Modernity” (a term borrowed from Martin Coward), with its techniques of surveillance and modes of governmentality, and apocalypse itself.  The key task is for the Empire of Modernity to continue a policing strategy against apocalyptic extremists while preventing the escalation of its violence onto an apocalyptic scale, which would only work to the benefit of al-Qaida and other militant groups.  Hall would update George Kennan’s theory of containment for an age of borderless religious warfare, as he singles out overreaction and excessive force on one’s own side as the leading hazard in a lengthy and uncertain struggle on multiple fronts.  The only way to avoid apocalyptic calamities is to “undermine the plausibility structures of apocalypse” (197).

Hall studiously avoids falling into the trap of materialist reductionism when it comes to the religious struggles of the past, i.e. he is able to regard their partisans in the manner in which they regarded themselves, rather than exposing their clashes over doctrine as disguised battles over wealth, political and economic status, etc.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his analysis of the contemporary crisis. Hall opposes the apocalyptic temporality of crisis and judgment with the category of diachronic time, which corresponds to the everyday continuity that fosters economic activity.  The project of modernity unfolds in a diachronic conception of time, yet Hall does not explore the possibility that apocalyptic calamity might actually arrive through this mode of temporal experience.  For one could argue that the very attachment to affluence among people living in capitalist democracy undermines their ability to engage in large-scale collective action, which would invariably disrupt the routines and practices making possible the pursuit and accumulation of wealth.  The more their existence is immersed within the patterns of the diachronic, the more difficult it becomes for them to act collectively to avoid catastrophe.

One sees evidence of such incapacity in the way in which the US has chosen to conduct its so-called war on terror.  Although the US has resorted to excessive and inhuman measures against those suspected of terrorism, such as the inmates held at Guantanamo, this brutality has coexisted with a strange half-heartedness in how the US has engaged in a struggle against an ostensibly dire enemy.  Although neo-conservatives have declared the struggle against militant Islam to be no less significant that the fight against Bolshevism and fascism, the US has from the outset acquiesced to rigid economic constraints in waging war.  Thus, it has not sent troops in adequate numbers to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, because it is too politically costly to revive the draft or to displace, however temporarily, economic growth from its position as the highest national priority.  Even the most ardent supporters of the war in Iraq never called for significant changes to life at the home front for the sake of gaining victory in a lengthy and protected conflict, even though they are quick to characterize the enemy as fanatics seeking nothing less than the total destruction of the way of life Americans hold dear.  The Iraqis have suffered the devastating brunt of these unyielding limitations, as the speedy victory gave way to the disintegration of state security through inter-ethnic strife as well as a bloody insurgency, which have claimed the lives of between 106,000 to 116,000 Iraqi civilians, according to, or over 654,965, according to Lancet.

It is the juxtaposition between the characterization of Islamist militants as an enemy seeking to inflict catastrophic destruction and the state of consumerist inertia intensified by this enmity that constitutes the representative apocalyptic of our time.  For our satiety rules out the possibility of reciprocity between enemies and delegates the duty of sustaining an untenable status quo to those who benefit from it the least.  In this respect it is telling that Hall chooses a rather dated nightmare to illustrate the danger of the dissolution of the public sphere: the stifling conformity of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  It would be more fruitful to look instead to the novels of Michel Houellebecq and J. G. Ballard, who track the pathologies bred by radical individualism and consumerist satisfaction.  In their narratives, apocalypse erupts from the combustion triggered by the collision of incommensurable ways of life – sex tourism and radical Islam – while a new generation of Stalins and Hitlers arise from the torpor of shopping malls and resort communities.  As these novelists demonstrate, our problem is that the apocalypse will only be televised, at least until the power runs out.

Work cited:

John Hall, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.


4 responses

    1. Yes, he does mention Girard in a couple of key instances, the first in reference to the Crusades, and the second having to do with Girard’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation as describing cataclysmic events caused by human beings, rather than as acts of divine punishment, as in the link you provided.

      Here is a passage that follows the second reference to Girard: “In this view, we must steel ourselves to the coming of much worse along apocalyptic lines, or find some fundamental alternative to the ritualized religio-political construction of the Other that feeds sacred violence. The challenge for the Empire of Modernity thus is whether it is possible to contain the apocalyptic, or to eliminate the conditions that spawn it in the first place… Monotheistic religions once aspired to universal sanctification of the social, but that possibility has become eclipsed by global religious pluralism. Unless the sacred is effectively redirected away from theologies centered on the end of history, until the Empire and its Others – whatever their future configurations – no longer offer bases for mutual opposition, if and when some new global sacred – perhaps some sort of postreligious religion – displaces the present global religious pluralism, only then will people have witnessed the last apocalypse.”

      Me, I’m not so sure. I think the political and economic factors are more important, and more apocalyptic, than religious conflict.

      1. Girard would state that our economic and political lives are really religious in nature.

  1. Gordie, I do not necessarily disagree with Girard, as I think it is crucial to acknowledge the religious dimensions of politics and economics. I’m speaking more in the sense that I do not think it is accurate to describe the conflict between radical Islam and the West as a struggle between Islam and Christianity. It is a conflict in which the religious beliefs of one side are immensely important, but in which religious convictions of the other side are subordinate to economic and geopolitical objectives. The religious aspect for the West (or for the East, for that matter) is not a fundamental element in the conflict, except at a decisive remove, inasmuch as Christianity has learned to reconcile itself to secularism and pluralism.

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