"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The World Is Coming to an End AGAIN!

As members of a storytelling species, we create narratives to make sense of our lives. Our individual lives have arbitrary beginnings and inevitable endings, and we have very little control over either. Narratives -- the powerful ones that shape entire cultures and civilizations -- permit the illusion of control by giving structure and meaning to time, which nonetheless persists in unfolding relentlessly, as individual lives come and go.

There's nothing particularly new about the most recent set of predictions -- that the Rapture will occur on May 21st and that the world, along with those of us unbelievers "left behind," will be engulfed in flames on October 21st. Even some Christian fundamentalists are disputing this latest prediction by, in their words, "false prophet" Harold Camping. Just click on their website here and scroll down to see a list of over 200 such predictions in their "Library of Date Setters for the End of the World" going all the way back to 44 A.D.

If you are disinclined towards fundamentalism altogether, it's easy to ridicule the believers, but their fanatic attachment to a "real" end that aligns with the literalism of their faith says something more generally about a human need for such narratives. Frank Kermode (one of my favorite "old school" literary critics), writes in The Sense of an Ending,
it makes little difference -- though it makes some -- whether you believe the age of the world to be six thousand years or five thousand million years, whether you think time will have a stop or that the world is eternal; there is still a need to speak humanly of  life's importance in relation to it -- a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end.
In a frequently quoted passage, Kermode likens the narrative shape of an individual life to the literary shapes that poets create:
Men, like poets, rush into the middest, in medias res,* when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus,* and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.
As a result, narratives of the Apocalypse become a recursively self-generating cultural phenomenon, re-imagined time and again as each new prediction is disconfirmed. And thus what we see with this most recent prediction is but further evidence that
eschatology is stretched over the whole of history, the End is present at every moment.
How is this possible? Even as the End is always falsified, always disconfirmed, confidence that "this time" the "real" End has come persists with each new prediction:
It is a disconfirmation followed by a consonance; the interest of having our expectations falsified is obviously related to our wish to reach the discovery or recognition by an unexpected and instructive route.
It's a strange -- and I think, on the part of believers, involuntary --psychological investment in what Kermode calls peripeteia, a reversal of circumstances, which here become a way of "re-enacting the familiar dialogue between credulity and skepticism."

These persistently recurrent predictions of Apocalypse, in other words, give people a way to impose structure, purpose, and meaning on their lives as they pass through each new test of their faith.

It's what Kermode calls a "naive apocalypticism," really, and might only become dangerous if its followers had access to some weapon of mass destruction that would give them the power to make their predictions come true.

*    *    *    *    *  
Personally, as a Buddhist-sympathizing atheist, I'd put more stock in the rapturous experiences nature provides in the ordinary course of our earthly existence -- there are plenty of narratives of those experiences, too:
Alice Sitting on a Shroom Via
*"in mediis rebus - in the midst of things; in medias res - into the heart of the matter."


  1. "disconfiormed?" (extra i)

    Rapture: Go straight to heaven. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

    Also, don't bother what happens to your kids.

  2. No, it is actually "disconfirmed." IOW, instead of predictions being confirmed by coming to pass in reality, they are "disconfirmed" when they turn out to be false. Hey, it's Kermode's word. Don't blame me. We lit people get to make up words when it suits our purposes.

  3. OK, it's actually an extra "o", not an extra "i". "disconfi O rmed".

    The heck is that?

  4. I'm in Firefox and can't see the god-damned screen, and you're still stuck on Wednesday's topic. The blog hath moved on. Chill out.