On Getting Up and Going to Work– Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

This is a guest post by Alana M. Vincent, Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy, Religion, and Imagination, University of Chester.

On 18 June 2015, I woke up and went to work.

On 3 November 2016, I woke up and went to work.

On 28 October 2018, I woke up and went to work.

On 2 June 2020—the morning I started writing this, the morning after an American President of dubious legitimacy threatened to deploy the United States military against my family and friends—I woke up, and I went to work.

This isn’t complacency, exactly. I have spent the past four years struggling, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the fact that, while I’m waking up and going to work, the world is ending all around me. It’s not that I don’t see it happening. And it’s not one of those obnoxious neoliberal hero narratives where I think that waking up and going to work is the one thing that I can do to keep the world from ending because my work is that important. It’s really just that I don’t know what else to do.

What do you do when all your nightmares come to life? When everything you have been taught to fear comes true? When it turns out that the battles you grew up thinking had been won for you are not only still being fought, but actually lost, by you? When this all happens and yet you find yourself still standing, still drawing breath, still capable of getting up in the morning and going to work? How do you live past that moment? How do you live into the possibilities that living past that moment creates?

Tommy Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology speaks directly into this gap that I’ve been struggling to navigate around, with eloquence and with urgency. For Lynch, the apocalypse is not a metaphor. Although the “world” which is ending is carefully defined, it is not a given; its contingency is the starting point from which Lynch begins his interrogation of political theology.

The end of the world isn’t new. Ojibwe author and cultural critic David Treuer titled the first part of his 2019 book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present “Narrating the Apocalypse”. It covers the history of Indigenous American nations from 10,000 BCE up to 1890—the end of the treaty period and the closing of the frontier in the United States.[1] Treuer’s point—and the point of other thinkers of Indigenous resurgence—is that there is an after; the end of the world sets the stage for what comes next. That’s an important point, and one to return to. But the other important thing that I learned from Treuer, and want to bring with me to my consideration of Lynch’s book, is that the end of the world is not evenly distributed.

But what is the world, that its ending can be so unevenly distributed? My own starting point for this question is in Arendt, who reads the world as a site of and constructed by negotiation centred on commonality. This world is fragile, but in Arendt’s own work the fragility of the world is itself a commonality—every person’s world as fragile as their neighbours’, ever person bearing roughly equal responsibility for the maintenance of the world (up to the point that commonality is eroded and the world crumbles). This account is not without value as an explanation for the political upheavals we are now living through. But even though Arendt’s account of the world includes individual choices that are constrained by the effects of other individuals who choose (see chapters 33 and 34 of The Human Condition),  she doesn’t dwell on the experience of constraint or the idea that some individuals may choose more, and more freely, than others. Her optimism, reflected in her refusal to think seriously about the limitations of the world, limits the usefulness of her account of the world.

By contrast, Lynch’s account of the world is an order of antagonistic relationships structured by nature, capital, gender, and race. The antagonistic structure of the world accounts for the unevenness with which it is experienced: the end of the world that Treuer narrates was experienced by the colonising forces responsible for its end as an expansion of their own world. And it is these relational antagonisms that Lynch, leaning heavily on Frank B. Wilderson III, sees as being undone, by the end of the world, which he suggests ought therefore to be welcomed, or at least not resisted. Not all apocalypses are bad; sometimes the end of the world means the overturning of the unjust structures that up to that point have been the foundations of the world.

The end of the world is not evenly distributed, and so the relationship we form to it depends on our relationship to the world-as-it-is; the more comfortable we have been in our world, the more distressed we are likely to be by its ending. Lynch writes, and I read, from positions of relative comfort: we can recognise the fundamental flaws in the world as it is, and are not immune to its injustices, but for the most part such injustices are experienced as obstacles that can, and therefore ought to, be overcome. The end of the world itself may be experienced as simply another obstacle to be overcome. We may have become so accustomed to overcoming that to name the end of the world as the end of the world appears to be a personal failing—a lack of resilience, a tendency towards melodrama.

 

The thinkers with whom Lynch primarily engages—Hegel, Taubes, and Malabou—write from similar positions of relative comfort. Taubes is not an exception here (and nor is Arendt); the particular tragedy of their generation of German Jews was that they occupied positions of such comfort that the end of their world came as a particularly unpleasant surprise, even for those who could see it coming, even for those who survived it. They were capable of being surprised, as Hannah Arendt later explained, not by the actions of their enemies but by their friends. I do not think it is incidental that the thought of Taubes is the key lens through which Lynch approaches Hegel and Malabou; he is the one whose experience of the world most closely aligns with the experience that Lynch is writing into. By centring Tabues, Lynch is able to destabilise “the Hegel of teleological history and absolute knowledge” (Lynch 37), transforming Hegelian thought into the foundation from which he—in conversation with Taubes, Malabou, and others—can begin to think through the end of the world.

Lynch’s choice of thinking companions who experience the world on more or less the same terms, and its ending at more or less the same speed, leads him to a more conciliatory posture than I am comfortable with. The ultimate outcome of Lynch’s thought is the “knight of apocalyptic pessimism”, who

…votes, but realizes that the institutions  maintained by voting are also instruments of oppression (better a little less oppression while awaiting the end). She seeks ecological justice, but with the full knowledge that such justice is inconceivable so long as there is a humanity conceives as relating to an othered nature. She refuses patriarchy, all the while knowing that this gesture occurs within a patriarchal world (Lynch 140).

The knight of apocalyptic pessimism understands that the world is ending and understands that “the world” which is ending is structured by injustice such that its ending ought not be resisted. But in spite of this, she takes no steps to hasten its end, nor to divest from the world-as-it-is, nor even to imagine the possible shape of a world to come. The outcome for which Lynch argues, in the end, is no action but an inner recognition which “changes nothing and it changes everything” (Lynch 140). Any doubts about the theological content of the book can be securely laid to rest by the overwhelming Protestantism of this conclusion. Lynch admits that this is unsatisfactory—”but so is the world” (ibid.) While I am sympathetic to the tension that he attempts to hold here, I cannot help but note that even Arendt’s problematically optimistic account of the world asks more of the individuals who constitute it. To say that the outcomes of action are unpredictable and therefore dangerous is not to say that we should therefore not act—or that we should not act in a manner that reflects our experience of the world as crumbling all around us. We may well keep on getting up and going to work, as I have done, as Lynch has argued for. But at the very, very least we should be changing our vision of what we work for—and that change will require a set of conversation partners whose experiences are less comfortably aligned with our own.

[1] The history and legal status of First Nations in Canada is very different, even though many of the same nations exist on both sides of the border.

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