On the World After the End of the World

All profound life is heavy with the impossible.
— Georges Bataille

The title of this paper is a line taken from Derrida’s response to Paul Celan on death and the end of the world. Much like this line, the response offered here is one that raises more questions than offers answers. Indeed, the end of the world is a difficult concept, and one which will only begin to be considered here. This paper is written in response to Alenka Zupančič's seminar, “Back to the Future of the End” presented at The European Graduate School in June 2022, and will further explore the when of apocalypse, its relation to the Real, and what it reveals about life as we know it and our relations to the world(s)-at-large.

Apocalypse is etymologically apokalupsis, meaning to reveal or uncover something that was previously unknown, which poses an interesting contradiction between what the term means with how the term is used. That is, as a referent for the possibility of a catastrophic future, death, or quite literally, the end of the world. However, apocalyptic theories tend to fit within one of three timeframes. More commonly, the apocalypse is thought to occur at the end of the world. Another formulation is that the apocalypse has already occurred at the beginning of the world. Lastly, it has been suggested that the apocalypse is not in the future, but it is here, and we are living within it even now.

Traditionally, the apocalypse at the end of the world, and as the end of the world, is something we’re awaiting, something that is ‘to come’, and most likely when it is least expected as that which we do not see coming. A key text for this seminar, Maurice Blanchot’s “The Apocalypse is Disappointing,” was written in 1964 during the Cold War when the threat of atomic terror made present the possibility of destroying the entire world.1 Blanchot’s argument in this text was that the threat of the bomb made appear for the first time the possibility of the “whole” of the world, which could all be lost in an instant with the press of a button. Thus for Blanchot, the apocalypse — albeit disappointing — was something to come. Similarly, the work of Georges Bataille makes it possible to think extinction; that is, to encounter disaster and not survive. Not only is he a friend of Blanchot’s, his writings on the negative also took place during and in the aftermath of war. Interestingly, for Bataille, annihilation is foremost a self-annihilation, an internal apocalypse beyond politics, history, and time, a theory developed in his text Inner Experience.2 I can’t help but be reminded here of Catherine Malabou’s work on plasticity, which also implies an ability to destroy oneself.

Mladen Dolar, on the contrary, makes a case for an apocalypse at the beginning of thought, proposing that we “consider not the apocalypse that stands as the impending catastrophe at the end, but rather the universal ruin that conditions and frames the beginning, inaugurating thought and being [emphasis added].” He goes on to suggest that “thought is the survivor of the nuclear disaster, its heir, its legacy, its inscription… It survives the apocalypse that conditioned its possibility.”3 Dolar’s proposition is also resonant with the originary trauma of the Fall, followed just a few chapters later with the Flood narrative. These early catastrophes permanently changed the course of the world in the Hebrew Scriptures and have continued to have an effect on the world today. In this light, the apocalypse can be understood from a Freudian perspective as something like a primitive trauma, one that is outside experience, but that to which we never stop referring. To be clear, while this trauma was never experienced directly, it is a condition of our experience and will continue to frame and inform the course of our lives. Going a step further, this is a conception of the end that, from a Hegelian perspective, is a catastrophe that has always-already happened.

Another take on the when of the apocalypse is the reality that perhaps we’re already living it. This is the position of Jean Baudrillard, who published a text in the early 90’s titled The Illusion of the End, which was then an early response to the anxiety and anticipation of the Y2K. Similarly, Zupančič taking leap from Blanchot, suggests that we are in a very different time, one which is not determined by a fear of what may happen if the bomb is detonated, but rather, that the button has already been pressed. In this sense, the apocalypse is not something we’re awaiting, but something we’re already part of. Unlike Blanchot’s text or other theories of the apocalypse resulting in an instant annihilation, the apocalypse of the here and now is one that takes time — even a long time —such that new worlds are constructed. Significantly, what Zupančič makes clear is that it is possible to live with the apocalypse.4

A less traditional take on the end of the world, although not necessarily apocalyptic: for Jacques Derrida the end of the world is linked to the death of the other. That is, the end of the world is the end of a very particular world, following the death of a loved one, after which the world as we have known it is quite literally not the same. At the same time, what is the end of the world is, in fact, the origin or beginning of an entirely new world, which is the world without the other. He writes: 

For each time, and each time singularly, each time irreplaceably, each time infinitely, death is nothing less than an end of the world. Not only one end among others, the end of someone or of something in the world, the end of a life or of a living being. Death puts an end neither to someone in the world nor to one world among others. Death marks each time, each time in defiance of arithmetic, the absolute end of the one and only world, of that which each opens as a one and only world, the end of the unique world, the end of the totality of what is or can be presented as the origin of the world for any unique living being, be it human or not.5

There is something very cyclical about the destruction and construction of Derrida’s worlds here. Taking a leap from Derrida, perhaps the end of the world is not the total and final obliteration of earth itself, but rather, the end of the world as we have known it as well as the beginning of the world that is to come.

In psychoanalysis, the Real itself is a sort of catastrophe, coined by Lacan to give a name to this kind of impossible, anonymous, inexpressible and non-symbolizable nature that presents itself in the form of trauma. Zupančič dedicates an entire book to the elucidation of this concept, Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan, wherein she writes: “According to Lacan, the Real is impossible, and the fact that ‘it happens (to us)’ does not refute its basic ‘impossibility’: the Real happens to us (we encounter it) as impossible, as ‘the impossible thing’ that turns our symbolic universe upside down and leads to the reconfiguration of this universe.”6 In daily life, anxiety is as close as we get to the Real. For psychoanalysis, anxiety is not something to get rid of as a symptom to be cured; rather, it is to be worked with and used. However, as Zupančič mentioned time and again throughout this seminar, we would quite literally rather die than allow ourselves to be scared by what is coming.7 To encounter the Real is frightening in itself, but the very anticipation of such an encounter makes it all the more unbearable.

In the Western world, we’ll do everything in our power to not have such an encounter. Look at the borders we’ve closed, the walls we’ve built, the human beings we’ve allowed to drown in treacherous waters — we in our lifeguard tower, as the only chance of survival and hope for a better life. When it comes to disasters and the possibility of a catastrophic future, they become part of our reality as if it were nothing. This is the Freudian notion of disavowal which is formulated well by Octave Mannoni with the phrase “I know well, but all the same…”8 This disavowal of the apocalypse brings with it the question of responsibility. As Judith Butler writes, “It is a sense of responsibility that emerges, it seems, from the structure of the world itself, from the fact that we are responsible for one another even though we cannot hold ourselves personally responsible for creating the conditions and instruments of harm.”9 On the one hand, there is the apocalypse that we do not see coming. And on the other, there is the apocalypse we’ve had a direct hand in creating — the disavowed apocalypse, apt to historical amnesia: that which we see coming, but act as if we don’t. Climate change is just one of such disavowed apocalypse(s). Genocide is another that has fallen prey to historical amnesia.

Often, when something tragic happens, it makes us rethink the world we live in. We see this in times of war, amidst the wreckage of a natural disaster, after a mass shooting, when we come face-to-face with the realities of climate change, or more presently, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In such times, we come to realize that we are all vulnerable. Blanchot writes of disaster as that which “exceeds me to such a degree that it disindividualizes me.”10 Such is the liminality that brings forth communitas. However, what became clear in the more recent COVID-19 pandemic, is that while we are all indeed vulnerable, we are still differentially exposed to harm. For instance, with COVID came the emergence of the so-called ‘essential workers’ of the working class, exposing another gap in society. 

Perhaps this is a stretch, but I am curious here about Bataille's hole in relation to Blanchot’s whole of the world. For Bataille, the black hole is a blind spot at the limit of man and thought. In this instance, the hole is a wound in the fabric of the whole of society. As Bataille writes, “Existence in the end discloses the blind spot of understanding [emphasis added]…”11 I want to extend this to refer to the holes in the whole of society revealed in times of catastrophe. Another connection with regard to the limit of thought and man, is Dolar’s remarks: “That thought touches upon being, intersects with it, that it interrupts being (this is Hegel’s wonderful formulation, thought is interruption of being, Unterbrechung des Seins, so that neither thought nor being ‘exist’ independent of this interruption, a break).”12 This notion that ‘thought is the interruption of being’ tied to Dolar’s aforementioned proposal of the apocalypse at the beginning of thought and of its survival, as that which frames thought and being, also has me thinking on whether a better formulation of apocalypse might be that of an interruption, as opposed to an end. This of course needs further exploration than time will presently allow. 

Returning to the etymology of apocalypse, perhaps what it can teach us is that the signs we should be looking for, or the questions we should be asking is not a question of when the apocalypse has occurred or will occur, or whether we’re living in it right now; but rather, the question of what — what does the apocalypse reveal or unveil about life as we know it and the world-at-large? A reimagining of the apocalypse inspired by negative psychoanalysis would be less to do with the concept of cure, of moving on, and more to do with living with. There seems to be a certain relationship between the apocalypse with mourning and melancholia, as well as memory, whether by remembering or forgetting. Julian Barnes, in a text published after the loss of his wife asks, “what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination of both?”13 To pose this question differently, we might ask what is ‘success’ in an apocalypse? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Taking as a point of departure Derrida’s notion of survivor, one who remains in the world after the death of the other, perhaps ‘success’ in apocalypse has something to do with survival. Hegel makes a similar suggestion: “But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”14 Thus we must approach the apocalypse as a survivant, as one who is continuing to survive, all the while learning how to live with it.

Julia Kristeva, who, having lived through three wars in her lifetime ranging from World War II, the Cold War, and the health war that is the pandemic, considering herself to be a survivor, now approaches and loves people as “survivants [those who continue to live].”15 For Derrida, we are implicated by the other from the start: “One of the two will have been doomed, from the beginning, to carry alone, in himself, both the dialogue, which he must pursue beyond the interruption, and the memory of the first interruption” — what he calls a cogito of adieu.16 The survivor is assigned to carry his own world and the world of the other having passed. We are, after all, made up of enigmatic traces of the other.17 To link this further with the work of Judith Butler, who has emphasized time and again how complexly bound we are to one another, it could be suggested that we are assigned to carry our own world and the worlds of others even prior to death. In a recent piece for a forthcoming book, Butler is less convinced that we share a singular world — a world in common — but instead suggests that we have many overlapping worlds.18 Quoting Achille Mbembe, Butler emphasizes that the political imperative of our time, and especially applicable in a time of apocalypse, is to “reconstruct the world in common.”19 Conditions of catastrophe are precarious, but what of the ungrievable in times of apocalypse, those for whom the only future is already an impossible future? Part of our role as survivants is stepping in, taking responsibility for, and world-carrying on behalf of “the part of those who have no part.”20 

To conclude, the world after the end of the world is a world rife with traces of the world that came before. Thus, perhaps the apocalypse can only truly be experienced retroactively. A question that continues to surface and will be explored beyond the scope of this paper: what does it look like to construct a more livable world(s) in a world without a conceivable future, a world that for some, is already an impossible future, but one that simultaneously, is a world without end? ‍

1. Maurice Blanchot, “The Apocalypse is Disappointing” in Friendship (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
2. Andrew Hussey, “Fanatics of the Apocalypse: Traces of the End in Bataille and Debord,” Space and Culture 1, no. 2 (August 1997): 85. https://doi.org/10.1177/120633120000100203.
3. Mladen Dolar, “Si fractus illabatur orbis,” (lecture, Villanova University, April 2013).
4. Alenka Zupančič, “Back to the Future of the End,” (seminar, The European Graduate School, June 17, 2022).
5. Jacques Derrida, “Rams: Uninterrupted Dialogue — Between Two Infinities, the Poem,” in Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 140.
6. Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan (New York: Verso, 2000), 235.
7. Zupančič, “Back to the Future of the End.”
8. Octave Mannoni, “I Know Well, But All the Same,” in Perversion and the Social Relation, ed. Molly Ann Rothenberg, Dennis Foster, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 68.
9. Judith Butler, “A Livable Life? An Inhabitable World? Scheler on the Tragic,” in Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology 5, no. 2 (2022), 17. https://journals.oregondigital.org/index.php/pjcp/article/view/4921/5041.
10. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 21.
11. Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (New York: SUNY Press, 1988),111.
12. Mladen Dolar, “Interview with Mladen Dolar: Dialectic at a Standstill? Hegel at the Times of Covid,” interview by Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda, Crisis and Critique 7, no. 3 (2020): 497. 
13. Julian Barnes, Levels of Life (New York: Random House, 2013), 113.
14. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), 19.
15. Julia Kristeva, “The Day After,” interview by Paule-Henriette Lévy in L’Arche, no. 681 (May/June 2020): 26. http://www.kristeva.fr/the-day-after.html.
16. Derrida, “Rams: Uninterrupted Dialogue — Between Two Infinities, the Poem,” 140.
17. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 42.
18. Butler, “A Livable Life? An Inhabitable World? Scheler on the Tragic,” 8.
19. Achille Mbembe, “Thoughts on the Planetary: An Interview with Achille Mbembe,” interview by Sindre Bangstad and Torbjørn Tumyr Nilsen, New Frame. https://www.newframe.com/thoughts-on-the- planetary-an-interview-with-achille-mbembe/. quoted in Judith Butler, “A Livable Life? An Inhabitable World? Scheler on the Tragic,” in Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology 5, no. 2 (2022), 10.
20. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. by Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), quoted in Judith Butler, “A Livable Life? An Inhabitable World? Scheler on the Tragic,” in Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology 5, no. 2 (2022), 9.