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The End of the World: From Apocalypse to the End of History and Back


Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don’t tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my “faithful slave,” as you call yourself!
—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Both the history of the present and psychoanalysis teach us that at the beginning there was a traumatic event, or a series of traumatic events, to which our experience never stops referring. There is something missing, however, in this post-traumatic approach. There is some insufficiency here. What do historians say where collective traumas such as wars, the Holocaust, or genocide are concerned? Normally, they express their belief that these traumas can be worked out, that the function of memory is to shed light on these events, to make us aware and conscious of them, and thus to prevent their repetition in the future. In its turn, psychoanalysis, at least in its obvious, clinical form, addresses an individual traumatic experience, which declares itself through a series of symptoms, and which can potentially be cured. This is of course a simplification, but I just want to be clear that there is something these scientific practices have in common—namely, a certain idea of the present, which can be cured, and of the future, which by this remedy can be saved. In both cases, however, a reference to the traumatic past is necessary—without this, recovery or redemption is impossible.

I propose, instead of trauma, to talk about catastrophe. The difference between the two is that one cannot really recover after a catastrophe, as one normally recovers after a trauma. Catastrophe is meta-traumatic. It happens absolutely: at the beginning there is—there was—always already the end. Catastrophe defines the borders of a collective and the true sense of what we call history. By catastrophe I mean, of course, what people do to other people or to nature, and what nature or gods do to people: wars, genocide, bomb explosions, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, but also certain legendary events, like the expulsion of humans from Paradise, the Flood, and of course, the Apocalypse. Above all, I am thinking about the catastrophe of one’s own existence, this apocalypse of the now—the irredeemable nature of a single present moment. You cannot change anything; the worst is what just happened: your beloved just died, your child just died, a giraffe in the zoo just died, god died, too, you yourself just died or woke up in your bed in the body of an uncanny insect, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa.

As opposed to what is usually said, catastrophe’s time is not in the future, but in the present, which we can only grasp as the past, because it flows, just as the waters of the Flood: time itself is catastrophic. Catastrophe is what already happened, no matter how long ago—it happened in prehistory, or it’s happening right now, although people are still expecting some bigger, ultimate catastrophe in the future, as if the previous ones did not really count. I want to make this point as clear as possible. Our collective imagination, overwhelmed by all kinds of pictures and scenarios of a future final collapse—be it another world war, Armageddon, an alien invasion, an epidemic or a pandemic, a zombie virus, a robot uprising, an ecological or natural catastrophe—is nothing but projections of this past-present. We project onto the future what we cannot endure as something which already occurred, or which is happening now. We still believe that the worst is yet to come—it is a perspective, but not a reality, and therefore our reality is still not that bad. A fear of the future and anxiety about some indefinite event (“we will all die”) is easier to suffer than a certain, irreparable, and irreversible horror that has just happened (“we are all already dead”).

Read the full article here.