In the Eschaton

Center Research Theme for 2017–18

Icon of St John the Theologian, in the Cave of the Apocalypse, Patmos

For 2017-18, scholars from the humanities, arts, and sciences will join the Center for 21st Century Studies (C21) in addressing the theme, In the Eschaton.

The world has been coming to an end for close to two millennia. Ever since being proposed by John of Patmos, the apocalypse has been considered by many to be imminent in the Western world. The eschaton—the period within which the end of the world emerges—has been reworked, reused, and reimagined as a way of making sense of the present. Though it emerges from a variety of sources and for diverse reasons, it always tells a powerful story: everything we think is true and real is about to disappear, replaced entirely by a new world.

Eschatology plays an important role in American history as well, as a number of the most powerful religious traditions in the United States have held the end to be imminent, and have promulgated long-lasting organizations based around this principle. This ironic trajectory demands attention to the odd temporality of the eschaton: it always exists in the future, but its demands always focus on the present. What aspects of the contemporary must be avoided or provoked? This is true of the desacralized forms of global disaster as well: nuclear war, viral pandemic, asteroid strike, climate collapse. In each case, scientific knowledge is presented as the solution to an emergent event, a possible solution to an unknowable future.

Scholarly attention to eschatology has been interdisciplinary but fragmented. While obviously central to chiliastic religions, theologians tend to give it short shrift. But unlike most theological concepts, eschatology appears increasingly in contemporary life. A common science fiction trope, it has been a central event in novels from Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, and Colson Whitehead. Philosophical concepts such as the “end of history” depend upon it. European theorists including Paolo Virno place it at the center of language. Artists have provided a rich set of images to represent the unimaginable. Ecological theorists focus on collapse, disappearance, and extinction. What are the modes of writing and representation which best illuminate the interiorities of the eschaton? And what world, precisely, is ending in the eschaton: that of civilization, the human species, the literal earth, or even the death of one particular consciousness?

We are also interested in alternatives to the eschaton. Non-linear assumptions of time, whether they emerge from non-European cultures or from philosophical traditions, may still envision a radical break (e.g., Mayan circular periodicity) or an escape (e.g., immanence) without the teleological purposefulness of eschatology. What do temporal modes which are not eschatological evoke, avoid, and contain? What is the gendered nature of the eschatology? What role does gender play in its promulgation and what is its relationship to sexuality? What is gained or lost in conceptual alternatives?

Scholars from the humanities, the arts, the sciences and the entire academic community will take on the theme, “In the Eschaton,” from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. We are especially interested in work that integrates theoretical and empirical perspectives in order to make sense of the eschaton as:

  • a temporal event, one placed always in a position of futurity
  • a limit to meaning, one which promises to end all division
  • an uncoding of language, one which emerges from words but overcomes their limitations
  • a fundament of promise, one in which all wills are coordinated
  • a vanquishing of space, one where geographic space is subsumed
  • a totalization of the sublime, one which exceeds all human capacities
  • a destruction of instrumentalization, one which collapses ends and means

Image: Icon of St John the Theologian, in the Cave of the Apocalypse, Patmos. Flickr user simonjenkins. CC BY-SA 2.0.