Abstracts

Basit Kareem Iqbal

“Justice Now: Apocalyptic Sovereignty and the Durative Present of Shari‘a”

The late Norman O. Brown proposed that Islam offers a distinct and deeply challenging articulation of justice and the present. Islam’s call for prophetic justice in the present refuses the Pauline solution to the time that remains: without the katechon or the evental force of the resurrection dividing history, Islam insists that God’s rule is here and now. By Brown’s account, Islam “considers the present an illusion that cannot last and claims to be recalling those addressed to a hidden reality, already revealed”. Bound to the secondary literature available to him, however, Brown recoursed to the tired trope of the Sunni enclosure of interpretation. This presentation expands his initial insight with reference to the enduring—indeed apocalyptic—sovereignty of the prophetic law in Islam. Elizabeth Povinelli has recently articulated how strictly grammatical figurations get absorbed into other late liberal discourses to “deflect moral sense and practical reason from the durative present”. With reference to moments in the history of Islamic legal theory that seek to think the beginning and end of the Shari‘a, this presentation sketches an alternative “tense” of Islamic juridical theology and the space it opens for politics in the durative present. For as the architects of the Islamic theologico-juridical apparatus grappled with the originary problem of law, they secured its sovereignty by generating a fold between justice and law. And in this promise of apocalyptic justice in the present, they engaged a politics that did not look to future deliverance or fulfillment. Complementing recent work on the “apocalyptic tones of Islam in secular time”, this presentation diverges from tendentious accounts that too-hastily fold Islamic apocalypse into political violence.

Joan Braune

Erich Fromm’s “Prophetic Messianic” Critique of Apocalypse

The paper argues that the contemporary debate on apocalypse has been lacking in two respects: (1) The contribution of Critical Theorist and humanist Marxist Erich Fromm has not been adequately highlighted, and (2) we cannot understand the implications of apocalyptic thinking for contemporary political and social movements without examining the widespread discourse of apocalypse and messianic longing in Weimar Germany. These two claims are connected since it is Erich Fromm who best helps us to understand the tensions between prophetic and apocalyptic messianic aspirations in Weimar Germany and, more importantly, their implications for radical politics today. The paper lays out Fromm’s distinction between two types of messianic expectation: “prophetic messianism” (which he supports) and “apocalyptic or catastrophic messianism” (which he rejects). Although Fromm’s defense of the prophetic and his critique of the catastrophic are found primarily in his 1960s works, in these works he is returning to themes of Weimar culture that he had earlier addressed in his book for the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, The Dogma of Christ (1931). A thinly veiled, allegorical critique of contemporary political and intellectual movements, Dogma of Christ critiques a rising “Gnosticism” that looks to mystical, transcendent forces for social change. The paper concludes with a call to embrace the return to the “prophetic-messianic” spirit as exemplified by Occupy Wall Street and other recent rebirths of utopian aspiration.

Anna Ezekial

 “Apocalypse as Metamorphosis and Vulnerable Agency in Karoline von Günderrode”

This paper argues that a vision of apocalypse as metamorphosis developed by the early German Romantic Karoline von Günderrode provides a unique contribution to post-Kantian discourse on the nature of the self, its relationship to others, and its ability to shape its own destiny. Günderrode was influenced by philosophical figures including Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Novalis, and her work provides a significant contribution to the romantic philosophical project and post-Kantian thought that has unfortunately been almost completely overlooked. In this paper, I argue that Günderrode’s description of apocalyptic transformation redresses hidden gendered assumptions in the Kantian sublime and, in so doing, suggests a different model of agency to the one presented by Kant. Günderrode uses a notion of metamorphosis to avoid, on the one hand, overemphasis on consciousness and agency and, on the other, accepting determinism and self-annihilation. After briefly following an argument by Christine Battersby to outline problems of exclusion and concealed gender-specificity with the Kantian sublime, I use the works “Once I Lived Sweet Life” and “An Apocalyptic Fragment” to show how Günderrode reconfigures the relationships of the individual to things greater than her and beyond her power, including nature and time, to give an alternative to the Kantian sublime. For Günderrode, overwhelming physical forces cannot be transcended by the individual, but the engulfing of the individual by what is greater than itself results, not in the annihilation of the individual as such, but in its development and transformation. This model has implications for freedom and agency that contrast with the form of agency as autonomy that is found in Kant. I use Günderrode’s play “Hildgund” to show how this emerges in her work as the possibility of individual action from a position of vulnerability, permeability and transience.

Chris Bundock

William Blake’s Virtual History: Prophecy and the Impossible

In the 1790s, Reinhart Koselleck argues, there is a widening gap between what he calls the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation,” marking “the start of a future that had never yet existed”—a future that cannot be anticipated, one that outstrips the conditioning of its past and present. Hence the symptom exposed by James Chandler’s argument that this is also “the period when the normative status of the period becomes a central and self-conscious aspect of historical reflection.” Precisely when history is in danger of losing its continuity, consciousness begins defensively to reflect on itself as especially historical. In light of this, two questions come into the foreground: First, how effective is this response at reassuring the subject, through a basically prophetic gesture, that she will know how to live into the future? Second, what is the cost of rescuing the subject from anxiety concerning the future by making his uncertainty (into) history? For William Blake—one of the most well-known visionaries of a time James Franks described as infected with “prophecy-mania”—the narcotic of knowledge that would sedate the anxious historical subject must, in a rather Bataillean move, be rejected. Hence, Blake’s affirmative efforts to forge a kind of virtual history irreducible to depotentiated fact, hostile to the defensiveness of typical historicism, and always dangerously available to radical revolution take shape as an insistence on history’s impossibility. Through a reading of Blake’s strange concept of history in his 1809 Descriptive Catalogue, this paper aims ultimately to consider how his prophetic thought might help to address the contemporary impasse of the imagination, one that results in the curious fact that, as Fredric Jameson puts it, today “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

John Van Haudt

“On the Logic of Going Nowhere: Capitalist Realism and the Critical Use of Utopia”

This paper argues that a certain critical use of utopia is an important for philosophy to address what Mark Fisher describes as “capitalist realism”: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Against this sort of realism, often endorsed against explicitly “utopian” thinking, I advocate a version of the critical use of utopia advanced by Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek. Following Žižek’s structural analysis of ideology, I argue that ideology (usually considered the pernicious feature of utopian thinking) is better understood as belief-functional rather than as error-theoretical (a species of poorly formed beliefs or beliefs that lack the appropriate truth-makers). By attending to this belief-functional dimension of ideology, we can see the critical use of utopia as directing us toward the features left out by the specific belief-functions employed by the various constructions of the utopian imagination. Finally, I argue that this critical use of utopia has a role to play for philosophy as well. Tracing features of our putatively “post-ideological” situation back to a specific set of belief-functions found in capitalist realism, I argue that the corrective to these belief-functions can be found, not in the utopian sense of the “good place” or optima res publica, but in its refusal. The Lacanian solution here is apt: when faced with two bad alternatives, sometimes the best way forward is precisely to choose the worst of the two, thus short-circuiting the logic of the choice. In this case, the refusal to go anywhere but here—to go “no-where” (u-topia)—might provide the best way forward against the belief-functions of capitalist realism.

Maxwell Tremblay

“A Sublime Apocalypse: On Myth and Mystification in Sorel”

Political thinking on human action in history tends to fetishize either the ‘law-like’ historical processes that determine that action or the ‘ex nihilo’ character of the human will that gives rise to it; further, readers of Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence tend to view his appropriation of apocalyptic myth as falling into either of these two camps.  Broadly, I want to claim that each of these tendencies mystifies a certain element of human action at the expense of adequately understanding the ways in which, as Marx puts it in his Eighteenth Brumaire, humans “make their own history, but…[not] as they please….”  Further, I hope to show that Sorel uses the mythic form of the catastrophic proletarian general strike to navigate precisely this problem.   To do so, I begin by rehearsing Sorel’s argument for the necessity of the general strike’s apocalyptic character.  He makes this claim in opposition to piecemeal state-centered reformism and the reduction of the transition out of capitalism to scientistic planning.  The general strike, then, must be totalizing, disruptive and irreducible to knowledge – in a word, apocalyptic.  Sorel repeatedly calls this thought ‘sublime’; however, I want to go further and suggest a structural comparison with Kant’s account of the sublime.  In Kant, the attempt to cognize an idea disruptive to our faculties in fact reactivates those same faculties of thought.  By extension, I want to claim that for Sorel this disruptive idea is meant to reactivate the proletariat’s faculties of action, to reorient the class back towards itself and its own capacity for self-determination.  Thus, the idea of apocalyptic myth in Sorel becomes important not for its own sake, but to the extent that it can contribute to demystifying the human role in political or historical activity.

Dan Boscov-Ellen

 Après Moi le Déluge: Marx and Ecological Crisis

In this paper, I consider whether invocation of the ecological crisis must always function in a reactionary fashion. While it is clear that the crisis may be exploited to further de-politicize ecology, it is also the case that this exploitation is always unstable, and that continued inaction on this issue will quickly make the kind of egalitarian social policies that the left champions increasingly unattainable. I aim to show that ecological crisis does circumscribe the field of political possibility in certain ways, but that it also opens up new avenues for politicization. In order to show this, I turn to the writings of Karl Marx himself, who explicitly laid out the anti-ecological characteristics of capitalism – its inherent tendency toward ecological crises – while at the same time demonstrating the problems inherent in the dichotomy between society and nature that underwrites the problematic environmentalist discourses of which Cindi Katz and others are rightly critical. I argue that as the first, and perhaps the only, thinker to have developed a conception of our relation to the rest of “nature” adequate to our present predicament, Marx points us toward a properly political ecology, whereby our anthropogenic apocalypse is de-naturalized and re-politicized.

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