Apocalyptic Orientations: (Un-)Learning to Approach the End of the World

The Otolith Group: “Sovereign Sisters” (2014). Computer animation transferred to black and white HD video 3:47 min loop, installation with purified water. Courtesy of The Otolith Group, LUX, London and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge.
The Otolith Group: “Sovereign Sisters” (2014). Courtesy of The Otolith Group, LUX, and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

The apocalypse emerges as an intensity that gains meaning and urgency in the maelstrom of perceived crises and looming catastrophes, releasing energies that make it possible to reshape the world. But how do we disengage from what seems to hold the world together and yet so obviously (for most) does not work? Jenny Stümer gets to the bottom of this question and searches for answers.


What if we viewed apocalypse not simply as a mythical event that might befall us in the near or far future, but as a lived reality that has been happening and is happening all along? What if we looked at the end of the world as a form of political orientation that points us to experience or some kind of apocalyptic phenomenology, rather than simply unfolding a frame for describing the sheer scale of interspersing catastrophes today? What if apocalypse actually put the ‘world’ into question and what if this opened up new vistas for how politics is arranged or dissociated from a series of attachments to a problematic and increasingly violent status quo?

Cultural theorist Sara Ahmed (2006) repeatedly asks, “what does it mean to be oriented? How do we begin to know or feel where we are, or even where we are going?”. She explains that “direction excludes things for us before we even get there,” precisely because “depending on which way one turns, different worlds might come into view”. What Ahmed is intuiting, is that being in the world is a means of situatedness, of feeling out the parameters of one’s own direction, of finding anchor points and of coming up against the world in un/certain ways that may close down or open possibilities through the propensities of crisis. As Ahmed puts it, some worlds “are oriented towards some bodies more than others.” The question of orientation in the context of world-breaking and world-making is thus pivotal in considering the various shifts and tensions that are pertaining the negotiation of power, catastrophe, and change today.

Whose world is to be saved?

In a time of multiple intersecting crises (climate change, nuclear violence, structural inequality, ongoing warfare, capitalist exploitation, and colonial continuities, etc.) philosophers, such as Alenka Zupančič have long proclaimed “the ‘apocalyptic mood’ in recent times”. However, Zupančič reminds us that the apocalypse as a framework to contemplate the present politically often serves as a means of ideological consolidation. The looming end either encourages broad efforts to prevent it (we have to do whatever it takes to survive and thereby protect an unsustainable status quo) or it reinstates just how much is needed to change, in the sense that only a cataclysmic event of apocalyptic proportions could bring about any real transformation to our current troubles. Zupančič reads both of these “orientations in thinking” as symptoms of a collective impotence to intervene in the structural conditions of existence, pointing to a present that feels bereft of its future and inadequate in dealing with a complex past.

In this context Kyle Powys Whyte (2021) warns about emerging forms of ‘crisis epistemology’ whereby the assumption that a particular emergency is new, unprecedented, urgent (or apocalyptic) might lead to actions that disadvantage disenfranchised communities once more – thereby escalating, slowly but incessantly, the very structures that brought about the current crises in the first place. Solutions to climate emergency that end up excluding marginalized communities through massive concrete structures, barbed wire, drones, and fences in the effort to protect the fossil fueled lifestyles of hegemonic power, for example, reinstate the problematic questions of whose world is ending and whose world is to be saved, escalating the tensions of apocalyptic politics. The question is then: Does apocalyptic thinking, in this sense, have to be avoided? Does it deprive a crisis-ridden world of political drive and creativity? Or, does the apocalypse itself hold a particular kind of politics that benefits from the current changes precisely because they produce a counter-image to hegemonic ideals of “life,” “community,” and “world” altogether?

Coming at this from a desire to confront the current parameters of the political, apocalypse, it turns out, also productively puts into question the very premise of a normative “world,” largely shaped by all kinds of differential vulnerabilities and power distributions that are paramount in understanding the many conundrums of the historical present. The growing sense that the end of the World, the end of Time, and the end of Man may all be crucial in challenging this hegemonic project positions apocalyptic scenarios not only as a distant prospect to be averted at all cost, but locates them as present, ongoing, and lived experiences that carry specific political orientations. Viewed through this lens, apocalypse is somewhat normalized into what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls a “crisis ordinary,” which is both slow and instantaneous and which tracks modes of death and survival from different vectors of privilege or belonging to/in the world. As Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2016) put it, “a world may also fade away little by little,” suggesting that the present is a modality of intersecting forces and histories which circulate and form the ordinary as a zone of catastrophic convergence and thereby allow us to understand something about how worlds are formed and how people cope.

Living in the impasse

Lauren Berlant (2011) speaks at length about living in the impasse as a way to theorize this kind of dis/orientation or what it feels like to be in the middle of a major shift. To Berlant, the impasse negotiates a form of hyper-awareness to potential threats with an acute sense of exhaustion that stems from a constant management of what is frightening and overwhelming. At the same time this impasse suggests a means of ongoing transformation. The analysis cultivates a particular mode of pessimistic sensibility that senses the political viability of abandoned futures on the one hand and critically examines optimistic investments in the ‘good life’ on the other. It thereby resonates with what Matthias Thaler (2024) has recently called “eco-miserabilism” to name a particular kind of apocalyptic negativity, which, to him, nevertheless transcends defeatism and fatalism in favor of “an affective politics for a highly fraught and uncertain future”.

Both approaches are useful in thinking about the apocalypse not simply as a spectacular event that is either progressive or conservative, but as a form of endurance that is tethered to specific attempts at navigating crisis, rupture, and upheaval. Many people continue to live within the apocalypse. They persist, endure, and remain, despite the presence of the end. Though never using the term, Berlant’s apocalypse is thus unexceptional to history and consciousness. It might rather be understood as a “process embedded in the ordinary,” (2011) often reproducing an ”alternative life alongside threat and breakdown” (2022). For Thaler such apocalyptic orientations go yet much further, enabling a certain “trust in the prospect of an open future” (2024) and discarding conventional templates for inhabiting the world. In each case, apocalypse emerges as a world-making intensity that gains valence and urgency in the vortex of felt crises and approaching disaster. Where apocalypse works as a kind of affective orientation that provides insights into the ways in which the self-sustaining investments in a specific world’s continuity are increasingly coming apart, the apocalyptic impasse reveals itself as a moment of flailing and as mode of transition that is worth paying attention to, precisely because, as Berlant (2011) says, it makes us see “what is halting, stuttering, and aching about being in the middle of detaching from a waning fantasy of the good life”.

Ultimately such thinking envisions a particular and affective orientation towards the negative that is helpful in theorizing apocalypse. It mediates a present that is scrambling for concepts about how to march through a major shift where continuity is no longer an option, yet no other path is obviously laid out. “Who can bear to lose the world,” asks Berlant (2011) and “what happens when the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it and vice versa?” How do we detach from what seems to be holding the world together and yet is so clearly not working (for most)?

Material worlds become political worlds

In her final book, Berlant (2022) writes about the politics of “being in life without wanting the world,” which mark a way of addressing a “sense of the unendurable that is endured” precisely in the moment that “the world recedes as an object/scene for desire”. This apocalyptic orientation invites potential transformation by describing a kind of worldlessness as the scene for life, which, to Berlant, is not about giving up but about “giving out” and thereby marks a form of world-making.

If this reeks of ambivalence, this may precisely be the point. As Oxana Timofeeva (2014) puts it, “we look to the future and for the future; we have visions of future catastrophe, and these visions prevent us from grasping the catastrophe of the real, or the real catastrophe, which just happens.” To her “it will not get worse; it’s already worse.” What is required then is neither hope nor optimism, nor yet another investment in affirmative politics. What is required instead is a new orientation that reconfigures the present as a collective loss of ‘the future’ or what Sara Ahmed (2006) calls moments of disorientation that provoke new directions, precisely because “it is in this mode of disorientation that we might begin to wonder: What does it mean to be oriented?”.

Read through this affective trajectories of world-breaking and world-making, Ahmed’s sense of orientation can ultimately point to an apocalyptic phenomenology that posits the end of the/a world as a critical concept of revelation or Offenbarung: of opening things out. Lauren Berlant may not provide a lot of detail on the passage between giving out and producing this kind of change. Similarly, eco-miserabilists offer a pathway “for a new affective politics,” but lack, as Thaler (2024) puts it, “affirmative images of where we should be heading”.

However, material worlds become political worlds that situate bodies in specific ways as they circulate forces, intensities, and affects that animate and spawn the lived realities of individuals, groups, and nations. As Kathy Stewart (2011) explains, it is by the work of attunement to this kind of worlding that “spaces of all kinds become inhabited,” not as part of an already foreclosed, inevitable, or doomed world or future, but as lived affects with tempos, sensory knowledges, orientations, habits, etc. In this sense, apocalyptic orientations may invoke all kinds of ways to imagine, conceive of, remember, or desire the world. The question remains, in the words of sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin (2019), “whether it’s the kind of world that needs to go.”

Editor’s note: The bibliography of the article is listed here.

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