Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End

Klee_Fermata - 1927
Paul Klee, Fermata (1927).

“This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too. Premonition of the last but one but one. All grows dim. […] I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.”[1]

With these words from Molloy, Samuel Beckett evokes a curious sense of temporality. The end has already come, yet never seems to arrive; the world appears in its final dying form, but it is only the first of an endless precession of death masks. The end of time doubles back on itself, replaying its last moments like the skipping of a record player.

What appears in Beckett’s novel as a narrative at the limits of the sensible is perhaps no longer so rare an experience. Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom, as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end.”[2] To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as a simple fact of the human era.

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on Baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time will also be compared with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the Messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. Having examined the temporalities of natural history, mechanical time, and Messianic fulfilment as they are drawn by Benjamin, the final part of this essay returns to the present predicament of the Anthropocene and the possibility of reading this new epoch according to Benjamin’s typology of temporalities. If, as per Benjamin, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide.

I: The Triumph of Vegetation is Total

The subject of Benjamin’s 1925 habilitation thesis is the trauerspiel, which may be best defined as an obscure genre of Baroque drama originating from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Germany. The trauerspiel has its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, although the most famous of these—Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Calderón’s La vida es sueño—are marked by their transcendence of the trauerspiel form, which in Germany remained an esoteric, even stagnant, genre without a claim to greatness. The term trauerspiel is variably translated into English as ‘Baroque tragedy’ or ‘German tragic drama,’ although both of these translations risk assimilating the trauerspiel to tragedy proper. Unlike tragedy in its classical sense, the trauerspiel lacks a historical dimension, in which its heroes attain the immortality of a fulfilled fate. As Benjamin writes:

“In tragedy the hero dies because no one can live in fulfilled time. He dies of immortality. Death is an ironic immortality; that is the origin of tragic irony. […] Death in the trauerspiel is not based on the extreme determinacy that individual time confers on the action. It is not conclusion; without the certitude of a higher life and without irony […] the time of the trauerspiel is not fulfilled, yet it is finite. It is nonindividual, but without historical generality.”[3]

The plot of the tragedy sustains itself on the interplay between fate and character, and the eventual fulfilment of both in the hero’s fulfilment of his destiny. His death is his gateway to greatness, and therefore a paradoxical kind of immortality as the heroic forefather of a city, a culture, or a faith. As we shall see, the trauerspiel lacks access to an immortal or historic register because it admits neither a permanence to worldly affairs nor a transcendence from the world of creation.

Yet in its lack of historical consciousness, the trauerspiel is in every respect a reflection of its historical context. Emerging from a Europe ravaged by the wars of religion, culminating in the prolonged bloodshed of the Thirty Years War, the trauerspiel was a narrative form which expressed the hideous violence of the age. For the heroes of the trauerspiel there is no immortality following great deeds, much less any redemption conferred from on high for the victors of the bloody squabbles that take centre stage.

Translated literally, the trauerspiel is a ‘mourning play’ or even a ‘funeral pageant’—terms which better express the melancholic disposition of the genre. It is the prevalence of mourning which informs the trauerspiel’s unique relation to time and history, which it conceives under the symbol of the ruin: a marker of humanity’s passing, where historical triumph is recognised in decay, and nature reasserts itself over the greatest of human achievements. As a measure of decay, the time of the trauerspiel is marked by its transience and the sinking of historical time into the timelessness of non-human nature. “With decay, and with it alone, historical occurrence shrinks and withdraws into the setting.”[4] Its narrative, and the prevailing symbol of the ruin, provide a model for a conception of history that is inevitably fated for decline. The ruin figures the failure of history to achieve any ends beyond inescapable death.

If the trauerspiel occupies a curious position in relation to historical time, this relation is only complicated by its conception of nature and the natural world. As Benjamin writes, “what has the last word in the flight from the world that is characteristic of the Baroque is not the antithesis of history and nature but total secularization of the historical in the state of creation.”[5] This is not an opposition between history and nature, but the total submergence of the former within the latter, silencing historical consciousness in favour of a melancholic rumination upon the cruel whims of nature. Human history is caught within the much wider movement of nature itself, and inevitably cycles downwards from glory to desolation. It is this turn from history to nature which marks the barrier between classical tragedy and the trauerspiel; as Fredric Jameson suggests, “tragedy brings history into being by emerging from legend, by overcoming myth; Trauerspiel is condemned to a history without transcendence, which it can only think my means of natural categories, cycles, organisms, the seasons, the eternal return.”[6] This nature appears “not in the bud and blossom but in the overripeness and decay of its creations. Nature looms before them as eternal transience.”[7] Nature in this sense is not merely the non-human world or the earthly basis for human affairs, but a force external to history which constantly intervenes to dash the dreams of historical permanence.

Although preoccupied with death, the trauerspiel is not an apocalyptic vision of the end of history, because there is no end to speak of. Eternal transience destroys all sense of permanence, but it also precludes any fundamental change to the state of the world. It is in this interminability of natural history that the time of the trauerspiel shows in diabolical face. The eternity of nature’s dominion is experienced as the endless torment of perdition. In the trauerspiel’s bloody dramas the most boastful of nature’s creations are the most overripe, and the most accomplished are the ones most ready for decay. Something abyssal is recognised at the heart of humanity, god’s fallen children who cannot be anything but the imperfect mirrors of a creation lacking all transcendence. The subsumption of history within nature begets a theory of human nature: a bloody turmoil, a lust for power, and a war of all against all. History does not end, because it can come to no lasting conclusion; it eddies in the vastness of nature but does not entirely subside. “History finds expression not as [a] process of an eternal life but as [a] process of incessant decline.”[8] The narrative of the trauerspiel realises a melancholy negation of historical consciousness, which retains the historical interest in disputes of power while simultaneously undercutting the lasting achievements of those historic struggles.

II: Eternity on the Clock

The time of the trauerspiel stands in contrast, but not necessarily in opposition, to the time of industrial capitalism, which possesses its own interminable cycles and myths of inevitability. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin calls the latter of these temporalities “homogeneous, empty time,” because its units are purely formal, interchangeable, and emptied of specific historical content.[9] This is the temporality of the clock, by which time is regimented according to the strictures of the factory and the office, divided into abstract units of time, and measured according to their pace and intensity in purely quantitative terms.[10] Within this form of time, we are caught in a “sequence of events” which pass rhythmically “like the beads of a rosary.”[11] Like a rosary this form of time is not only broken into uniform and discreet units, but at a larger scale assumes a cyclical organisation. At the scale of society as a whole, mechanical time describes the capitalist processes of production, circulation, and accumulation—great circuits of capital which everyone from the most destitute worker to the wealthiest capitalist. The motion of the clock whirs ever onwards, and in its cycles it amasses heaped moments of abstract time.[12]

This organisation of time brings with it a corresponding vision of history as the sum of all homogeneous, empty moments. Benjamin calls this “universal history,” the method of which is additive; “it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time.”[13] The result of this quantitative accumulation of time is the vision of ‘progress’ as something inevitable, as the simple amassment of cultural and social wealth. With each circuit of the clockface, as the story of progress goes, the moments pile up, and history advances one step forward in a world necessarily enriched by each moment elapsed. But this narrative of progress is also an empty one, because it cannot attain historical fulfilment in its endless task; the curve of history bends upwards, but infinitely, and without content to give meaning to its quantitative acceleration. If the concept of progress once played a critical role as a demand, or as a declaration of the right of all people to partake in the growing wealth of society, “in the course of the nineteenth century, as the bourgeoisie consolidated its positions of power, the concept of progress would increasingly have forfeited the critical functions it originally possessed.” No longer the fruit of political struggle, progress became naturalised as an innate feature of history itself: an automatic and unthinking movement in which are all unknowingly swept along.[14]

As the naturalisation of decline, the trauerspiel’s symbol of the ruin functions as an inverted image of progress (which naturalises the gradual rise of prosperity). In the former, humanity is fated by nature to toil and struggle for no lasting gain, while in the latter the bounty of future generations is assured by the natural shape of history itself. That these two forms of time carry contradictory visions of history does not mean that they cannot be made complementary to one another. Although the fortunes of history may rise or fall, the upward curve of mechanical time may be fitted neatly into the eternal recourse of the time of the trauerspiel—as one segment of the great circle which encompasses times of prosperity and destitution alike. Likewise, the circular motion of time in the trauerspiel has its counterpart in the circulating components of mechanical time, which pass through many repetitions on their way upward. It is little wonder then that Benjamin describes progress and the eternal return as complementary, if indissoluble, opposites which mirror back to one another their most hidden traits:

“The belief in progress—in an infinite perfectibility understood as an infinite ethical task—and the representation of eternal return are complementary. They are the indissoluble antinomies in the face of which the dialectical conception of historical time must be developed. In this conception, the idea of eternal return appears precisely as that ‘shallow rationalism’ which the belief in progress is accused of being, while faith in progress seems no less to belong to the mythic mode of thought than does the idea of eternal return.”[15]

In the theses of 1940, it was mechanical time and its myth of progress which predominated the European intellectual and political scenes. Conversely, the melancholy and boredom which Benjamin discovers in the culture of the nineteenth century appear as oases of eternity amidst the tumult of a ‘progressive’ century. Regardless of which predominates, both progress and the eternal return function as partial views of history, which cannot sustain a historical consciousness unencumbered by myth. For Benjamin, the dialectical conception of history emerges out of the antinomy of these two forms, rejecting the panacea of universal history and the resignation of the eternal return, and discovering a natural history which undoes both mythic modes of thought.[16] The trauerspiel and its universal narrative of decay may for this reason be regarded as an abortive theory of history, springing from an ahistorical formation of time. Whereas the myth of progress sooths the complaints of capitalist society’s periodic crises with the promise of future prosperity, the trauerspiel carries the concept of crisis to the heart of nature and justifies all that follows as the preterition of a doomed world.

III: Redemption and Death

While the time of the trauerspiel possesses a hidden complicity with mechanical time and an ambiguous relation to historical time, its structure could not be more opposed to the most famous and perplexing of Benjamin’s temporal forms: Messianic time. In the theses of 1940, Benjamin delineates the relation of Messianic time to homogeneous, empty time, to which it is not so much opposed as it is situated within and against. The structure of Messianic time, for Benjamin, is not indefinitely extended into the past and future like mechanical time or historical time but is condensed into a single moment or event. As early as 1916, Benjamin would write of Messianic time a collective mode of “fulfilled historical time” that instantiates the idea of history in a moment of truth.[17] Fulfilment in this sense, and the attendant concept of redemption, is a relation between events already past and those which bring their promise to fruition. As Fredric Jameson suggests, events in the past “demand completion by events in the future; their redemption is not a personal one, not a bodily resurrection, but a reenactment that brings them to realization and fulfillment.”[18]

By 1940 this idea would only become more urgent and politically charged, when Benjamin uses it to chart out the goals of a renewed historical materialism, which must search for those seeds of Messianic fulfilment in the homogeneous grains of mechanical time:

“He [the historical materialist] takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled [aufheben]; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.”[19]

This is all to say that Messianic time occupies a position both within and without the mechanical sequence of events. The seed of the Messianic event lies hidden within the course of homogeneous, empty time, but when its time comes it is blasted out of that continuum, so that it may bring to fruition its own temporality. If mechanical time is formally alike to the beads of a rosary, which are homogeneous in appearance, Messianic time is what seizes a hold of a singular bead and suffuses it with the mystery of divinity. Messianic content fills the empty form of time.

For Benjamin, this Messianic time is also the time of the revolutionary event, the year zero, when the old regime is overthrown and the new order composed: “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.”[20] Each revolutionary movement brings to fulfilment those that preceded it: the French revolutionaries reenacted the Roman Republic; the Communist movement fulfilled the promise of the peasant revolts; Spartacus marched through the streets of Berlin—history is not so much repeated as it is seized from its grave and given new life. The revolutionary, the historical materialist, and the Messianic movement act “to interrupt the course of the world.”[21] The inevitable motion of universal history is put on hold, caught by surprise by the irruption of a revolutionary event unassimilable to the linear course of homogenous, empty time.

In contrast to the fulfilled time of the Messianic, the time of the trauerspiel is left absolutely unfulfilled. Its moments are not alike to the beads of a rosary, which, although homogeneous in form, are the vessels of revelation. Rather, the law which governs the time of the trauerspiel is not homogeneity or fulfilment but repetition, which summons up each moment in time as a mere reflection of another, which in turn is only the mirror image of another yet further removed. Eternity makes itself visible in every moment of time by way of the mise-en-abîme of repetition:

“The law of a higher life prevails in the restricted space of earthly existence, and all things play until death puts an end to the game, so as to continue, in another world, the greater repetition of the same game. It is this repetition on which the law of the trauerspiel is founded. Its events are allegorical schemata, symbolic mirror images of a different game. We are transported into that game by death.”[22]

This ‘higher life’ which governs the world of the trauerspiel appears not in transcendence but in immanence, as the law which governs nature from within its eternally returning cycles of fruition and decay. Whereas Messianic time sees each moment as the potential gateway of redemption, the trauerspiel’s “profane exposition of history” envisages it “as the Passion of the world—meaningful only in the stations of its decline.”[23]

Although preoccupied with the death of all things, the trauerspiel is not only unfulfilled but also lacking in eschatological potency. It does not mark the end of history in redemption, but the failure of that redemption to take place. This refusal to contemplate the end of time is partially attributed by Benjamin to the theological situation of the Counter-Reformation, in which “the hierarchical tendency of the Middle Ages resumes its authority in a world that was denied immediate access to the beyond.”[24] This closing up of theological horizons was expressed positively in the pomp and ideology of the Baroque’s golden age, but by necessity also enclosed a negative force to ward off all challenges to this glorified order:

“And one of these necessities, consequent upon the collapse of all eschatology, is the attempt to find consolation in the renunciation of a state of grace in reversion to the bare creaturely condition. […] The German trauerspiel wholly buries itself in the desolation of the earthly estate. Such redemption as it knows will lie more in the depths of these vicissitudes themselves than in the fulfillment of a divine plan of salvation.”[25]

Order reigns on earth! An order which is guaranteed in aeternum by the sword and cross. Worldly transience has this as its political lesson: nothing can change—nothing can be allowed to change—and all things must bend to this eternal kingdom of tyrants and slaves or else be condemned to the grave. Salvation is precluded by the revocation of grace, once more placing the trauerspiel in contradistinction with the Messianic, which is motivated by the unpredictability of the event and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Just as the time of the trauerspiel and mechanical time differ in their relation to the future (the former foreseeing a cyclical regression and the latter projecting a linear increase), the forms of time found in the trauerspiel and in the Messianic event are incompatible because they posit fundamentally different relations to the past. Messianic time is the redemption of the dead, whereas the trauerspiel is the final forgetting of the lost. The Messianic is a reenactment or a revitalisation of the unfulfilled past, which blooms like an ancient seed finally placed in fertile soil. We may recall Benjamin’s famous proclamation: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”[26]  In contrast, the trauerspiel seeks to bury the past ever deeper, to make each event only a spectral repetition in an eternal return of the same. The fruition of Messianic time means crossing the river Styx to retrieve what would be lost forever, while the trauerspiel bathes in the waters of Lethe, hoping to return to the paradisical timelessness of pre-history.

But this is not to condemn the trauerspiel out of hand as a misjudged or even false vision of the world, because for all its regressive tendencies it remains a genuine expression of historical failure. Ultimately, Benjamin’s Messianism hinges precisely on its unpredictability, its seizure of a moment which flashes up in a moment of danger, which for this reason cannot be accounted for or even counted on in advance.[27] As Peter Osborne writes, Benjamin’s Messianism is:

“consistent with materialism insofar as it depends upon the impossibility, not the imminence, of a willed redemption. Only if the Messianic remains exterior to history can it provide the perspective of a completed whole (without the predetermination of teleological end), from which the present may appear in its essential transience, as radically incomplete.”[28]

The Messianic fulfilment of history is not assured, and its formulation risks affirming its opposite: that history will remain forever trapped in its incomplete state of transience. The time of the trauerspiel is in this respect the infernal double of Messianic time because it affirms the impossible exteriority of all salvation. Its world is Gnostic, presided over by an evil god who prevents access to the fullness of another world.[29] The subservience of historical time to nature’s eternity precludes all escape from the former. The ouroboros tightens its grip, keeping history pinned to the earth and foreclosing any possibility of the “tiger’s leap” into the Messianic event.[30] Seen through the eyes of eternity, to quote Osborne once more, “the anticipation of historical death, the death of the species, is the material meaning of Messianic exteriority.”[31]

 IV: An Epoch of Ruins

In summary, we may envisage in Benjamin’s work a system of plural temporalities which stretches beyond the temporal dyad described in his 1940 theses. Homogeneous, empty time (or mechanical time; clock time) presents one kind of closure to historical time by shackling it to a mythic notion of progress. This mechanical form of time remains unfulfilled because it is a purely formal organisation of time, but it nonetheless sequesters within it the explosive charge of genuine historical consciousness. This historical consciousness finds its fulfilment in the moment of revolution, when a unit of homogeneous, empty time is blasted from the continuum and resurrected by the hands and minds of the living. This is the intrusion of Messianic time into the dreary motions of a ‘universal’ history without end, and the establishment of a truly universal history as the history of salvation. Alongside historical, mechanical, and Messianic time stands the time of the trauerspiel, which encloses all within the desolate expanse of nature’s eternal return. As a ruin in the making, history is put in retrograde motion, falling from grace into perdition. Without the storehouse of historical memory to seize a hold of, Messianic time is defused; its salvation deferred until an end of days which will take an eternity to arrive.

But where does this damned, earthly time of the mourning play find its expression today? If this melancholy resignation to the vicissitudes of nature came to the fore of German drama during the social crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I argue that similar attitudes toward history and formulations of time are also near at hand for many who today see climate change as the augur of a new, posthuman age. As we have seen, the time of the trauerspiel has four key traits:

(1) It is, first and foremost, a time which is historically unfulfilled: a litany of lost causes; (2) it is a spectral time in which history is understood under the symbol of the ruin; (3) it naturalises eternal transience as the order of the world at large; (4) its drama is one of earthly creation without hope of messianic redemption.[32]

Now it remains to be shown that the grand narrative of the Anthropocene possesses parallel traits to those of the trauerspiel narrative, allowing it to be understand as both an anti-historical narrative of naturalised decline and as a symptom of the world-shattering catastrophe which it purports to describe.

As in the narrative of the trauerspiel, the concept of the Anthropocene carries with it a sense of time which twists back on itself, carrying the catastrophe which it marks far into the unimaginably distant future and into the primordial past. As Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro write, although the Anthropocene is an epoch “in the geological sense of the word,” it also “points toward the end of epochality as such, insofar as our species is concerned.”

“For it is certain that, although it began with us, it will end without us: the Anthropocene will only give way to a new geological epoch long after we have disappeared from the face of the Earth. [It is] a present ‘without a view,’ a passive present, the inert bearer of a geophysical karma which it is entirely beyond our reach to cancel.”[33]

The Anthropocene, from this perspective, is not only a description of a new era, but an injunction to think of the present time in a resigned fashion. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s invocation of ‘karma’ is no anomaly. Among the proclamations upon the changed circumstances of history there is no shortage of statements on the moral meaning of those changes. The discovery that we have entered not only a new era of history but a new geological epoch has brought with it a chiliastic fervour, spoken in, for example, Roy Scranton’s manifesto for “learning to die in the Anthropocene” and Patricia MacCormack’s argument that “the only solution for climate change is letting the human race become extinct.”[34]

It is little wonder that the trauerspiel has not gone unnoticed by some theorists of the Anthropocene. As the editors of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Anthropocene Project write, “the Trauerspiel plays on in the Anthropocene, for ‘the catastrophe here is in the form of the age itself, meaning our entire civilization, and its requisite way of life, is already a ruin.’”[35] The Anthropocene is rendered as a trauerspiel drama for the entire globe:

“A return to the earthly conditions of man, the name of a fated history, the passing away of Renaissance humanism, humans above all, for a general ideology of the creaturely, an immanent intermingling between rocks, trees, angels, and tyrants.”[36]

A rosy picture, but one we will not be fated to see with our own eyes. What at first sounds like an eschatological vision of paradise returned to earth belies the infernal heart of the trauerspiel. In its shock at the unrepresentable catastrophe which lies before it, the trauerspiel finds solace in a catastrophic conception of nature itself. In the eternal stretch of natural time, we are already dead; a fate we must contemplate in melancholic resignation. In Anthropocene theory, too, there is a recognition of shock, a desperate need to make sense of a world which no longer conforms to the myth of progress—and the answer these theorists provide is a new, earthly myth. At precisely the moment that the planetary reign of Anthropos is declared it is disavowed, and the eternal transience of nature’s dominion is reaffirmed.

If the Anthropocene contradicts the narrative of historical progress by naturalising decline in the place of ascent, this is not to say that it has no relation to the mechanical time from which the momentum of progress springs. In fact, the time of the Anthropocene depends just as much upon a homogeneous, empty construction of time as does the myth of progress. But whereas the universal history of progress sees a timeline stretching indefinitely upward into the heavens, the Anthropocene envisages a timeline which infinitely curves back upon itself across millennia. As Claire Colebrook writes, conceptualising the Anthropocene means envisaging a world without us which is already present, virtually, at this moment:

“The positing of an anthropocene era (or the idea that the human species will have marked the planet to such a degree that we will be discernible as a geological strata) deploys the idea of human imaging—the way we have already read an inhuman past in the earth’s layers—but does this by imagining a world in which humans will be extinct.”[37]

This construction of time is no less uniform than its progressive counterpart, but whereas the latter takes the clock as its model the Anthropocene measures itself on a cosmic scale. In the place of the seconds, minutes, and hours of the clockface, the Anthropocene’s homogeneous, empty units are geological layers—trace remnants which we imagine ourselves as in advance. Chronological time is distended across an inhuman expanse of time, projecting forward a future in which we must necessarily meet our demise—a future which is then brought back to the present as the lesson that our fates are already sealed: sic transit gloria mundi. Just as mechanical time and its universal history of progress work to negate true historical consciousness by turning our gaze from the sacrificed dead to an imagined future paradise, so too does this vision beget an ahistorical image of eternity: which seals up the past and future alike in forgotten aeons.

In its retreat from historical time, the concept of the Anthropocene is opened to a mythic sensibility, which discovers in the inhuman void of extinction a hard-faced divinity staring back. Isabelle Stengers has made much of James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis,’ taking seriously the theory’s personification of an impersonal planetary system. For Stengers, Gaia is a strange kind of god, who announces the end of days but does not preside over the casting of judgment or distribution of redemption:

“Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects.”[38]

Mirroring the demiurgic divinity of the trauerspiel, this is a ‘transcendence’ which does not, in fact, transcend, but remains mired within the world it governs without recourse to a world beyond. This curiously non-transcendent divinity also finds its spokesperson in Bruno Latour, in his lectures on natural theology, who proclaims the coming rule of Gaia over a terrestrial world of “immanence freed from immanentization.”[39] Whereas for Stengers the inauguration of a new mythology for the era of climate change stops short of a definite political project, for Latour the intrusion of Gaia means a return to the bellum omnium contra omnes of Hobbes, the ‘earthly’ politics of Schmitt, and the repudiation of the modern world proclaimed by Voegelin.[40] For this mystified faction of Gaia, the world as we know it is damned, and all that remains to be done is to make a choice of future barbarisms. An apocalypse is proclaimed, but redemption is postponed, as myth reasserts itself over a humanity with neither a history nor a future.

Even apart from these more explicit attempts to formulate a mythology for the era of ecocide, the Anthropocene has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny for its ahistorical qualities. One cogent expression of this critique has been given by Andreas Malm, who writes that the main paradox of the Anthropocene narrative is that, within it:

 “Climate change is denaturalised in one moment—relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities—only to be renaturalised in the next, when derived from an innate human trait. Not nature, but human nature—this is the Anthropocene displacement.”[41]

For Malm the core problematic of the Anthropocene is a sleight of hand, which displaces the culpability of industrial capitalist society onto a wider complicity of ‘human nature,’ presumably including the masses of humans today and in the past who did little to fuel the climate crisis. Seen through the lens of the trauerspiel and Benjamin’s typology of temporal forms, we can see how this act of legerdemain extends into the heart of the Anthropocene concept. As the proclamation of the first human epoch, the Anthropocene naturalises the present state of humanity and its crises as symptoms of human nature specifically and nature itself in general.

Against this naturalisation of history it is necessary to historicise nature; to understand the recursive, or dare we say dialectical, feedback loop between history and nature, and the way in which both are composed in a mutually dependent natural history. The merely natural processes of the world—from weather, to digestion and respiration, to the architecture and fashion we take for granted as part of our living environment—are, Benjamin insists, only those things of which we remain unconscious, allowing them to slip into the subterranean zones of dream and myth. To the dreaming collective, these phenomena “stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges.”[42] This is the meaning of historicised nature: the emergence of unconscious forces into the light of day, transforming their motions from the vicissitudes of chance or fate into the known causes of a totality in which nature and history are inextricably linked. The failure to recognise the historical component of this system is to lose this foothold, and to conceive nature as an unconscious and seemingly inalterable force that slowly engulfs history in its myths.

As in the trauerspiel narrative, we find in Anthropocene theory a recognition of historical crisis which precludes a consciousness of history itself. Rather, crisis is naturalised and made the founding myth for a melancholic model of history. According to this narrative, we are the doomed creatures of a monstrous world, residing in the ruins of a geological epoch which will stretch far beyond the life of our species. But even though extinction is at hand, the end is nowhere in sight as we drift further into an anti-apocalypse; an event which mutes revelation and casts its transient shroud across our collective horizons. That is, until we can grasp the historical as well as the natural genesis of the present conjuncture—to understand that the present epoch is not the consequence of an eternal order but the work of human hands; hands which, if conscious of the work they do, can just as well halt what they set in motion.


[1] Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Everyman Library, 1997), 4.

[2] Claire Colebrook, The Death of the PostHuman (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 40.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 262; 264.

[4] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 190.

[5] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 81.

[6] Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files (London: Verso, 2020), 68.

[7] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 190.

[8] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 188.

[9] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 261.

[10] Jonathan Martineau, Time, Capitalism, and Alienation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 38.

[11] Benjamin, Illuminations, 263.

[12] “The pages of Marx’s Capital are filled with terrifying examples of the tyranny of the clock over workers’ lives. In pre-capitalist societies, time bore qualitative significance, but, with the advance of the process of industrialization, this gradually gave way to the dominance of clock time alone.” Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso 2016) 91.

[13] Benjamin, Illuminations, 262.

[14] Within the bourgeois ideology of the nineteenth century, the discoveries of the natural sciences played a significant part in justifying the inevitability of progress: “In this process, the doctrine of natural selection had a decisive role to play: it popularized the notion that progress was automatic. The extension of the concept of progress to the whole of human activity was furthered as a result.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), N11a,1.

[15] Benjamin, Arcades Project, D10a,5.

[16] This is the conception of natural history which Adorno would find so compelling in Benjamin’s work. As Susan Buck-Morss writes of this Benjaminian inflection to Adorno’s thought: “Whenever theory posited ‘nature’ or ‘history’ as an ontological first principle, [the] double character of the concepts was lost, and with it the potential for critical negativity: either social conditions were affirmed as ‘natural’ without regard for their historical becoming, or the actual historical process was affirmed as essential.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 54.

[17] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 262. This formulation is constructed alongside the concept of “tragic time,” which is the individual mode of fulfilled time.

[18] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 232.

[19] Benjamin, Illuminations, 263. See also, Agamben, who uses the Greek kairos and chronos in the place of Messianic and mechanical time, respectively: “What do we have when we have Kairos? […] Kairos (which would be translated banally as ‘occasion’) does not have another time at its disposal; in other words, what we take hold of when we seize kairos is not another time, but a contracted and abridged chronos […] kairos is nothing more than seized chronos. The pearl embedded in the ring of chance is only a small portion of chronos, a time remaining [restante].” Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 68-9.

[20] Benjamin, Illuminations, 261.

[21] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume IV, 1938-1940, eds. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 170.

[22] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 264.

[23] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 174.

[24] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 66.

[25] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 67-8.

[26] Benjamin, Illuminations, 255.

[27] “Great prophecy seems to have been omitted, and Benjamin never formulates the idea of strong messianism as such.” Jameson, Benjamin Files, 240.

[28] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time (London: Verso, 1995), 147.

[29] See also Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 248 on the “Gnostic-Manichean doctrine” which presides over the material world of the trauerspiel.

[30] Benjamin, Illuminations, 261.

[31] Osborne, Politics of Time, 177.

[32] Corresponding to these traits of the trauerspiel are the following elements of the concept of the Anthropocene, which is: (1) a mournful time of historical failure; (2) an imagining of human ruin and extinction; (3) a naturalisation of this decline in a geological epoch; (4) and by these means a retreat from any possibility of redemption for human history.

[33] Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 5.

[34] See: Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2015) and Patricia MacCormack, The Ahuman Manifesto (London: Bloomsbury, 2020). The exact formulation does not appear in MacCormack’s book, but an advertisement for the book released online.

[35] Katrin Klingan, Christoph Rosol, Bernd M. Schererm, and Ashkan Sepahvand, eds., Textures of the Anthropocene: Manual (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 34.

[36] Klingan, Rosol, Schererm, and Sepahvand, Textures of the Anthropocene, 29-30.

[37] Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman, 28.

[38] Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, trans. Andrew Goffey (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 47.

[39] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 212.

[40] Latour, Facing Gaia, 149-50; 242-5. That the liberals of the Anthropocene academy consider Latour’s arch-conservativism a welcome addition to their canon of ‘re-enchanting the world’ stands without comment as evidence for their lack of political seriousness.

[41] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016), 270.

[42] Benjamin, Arcades Project, K1,5.

2 thoughts on “Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End”

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