Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)
The fear of Civilization collapse is a thread that runs through much of the literature, cinema, and other media of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Whereas the Utopian moment is paradigmatically in the future, the Dystopic moment is paradigmatically in the past. Dark ages, political catastrophes, and apocalyptic ends haunt the modern. For the Western tradition, a key narrative is the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’, but this is far from being the only catastrophic trope within modern and late-modern cultures. Twentieth-century ends of the world have ranged from alien invasion and self-destruction through to the misuse of technology or spectacular technological failure, extenuated class conflict, or an apathetic decline into barbarity or moral degeneration, alongside religious conflagration, environmental and climatic change. The sheer inventiveness of the manifold ways in which the world may be brought to an end encourages us to understand the apocalyptic urge as a central element within contemporary societies.
This workshop aims to investigate how and why the apocalyptic urge manifests itself in modern societies. We propose a multi-disciplinary approach to challenge methodological conventions and allow a triangulation of the emerging narrative within diering critical traditions. To this end, we invite contributions from across the arts, humanities and social sciences that address those.
Why Civilizational Collapse?
Anyone who studies Roman history works in the shadow of civilizational collapse, be it the end of the Republic or the end of the Roman empire. The field of study centres on an absence, an ending of a world. But the ruins and ruination of Rome are not ‘distant’ from contemporary culture; they are continuously invoked and re-imagined. Further, although the ‘end’ dominates the historiography, there is little evidence that the prevalent decline (which in some accounts lasts seven centuries) was felt in such ‘final’ terms by contemporaries. The cultural import of ‘the End’ needs explanation. I suggest three characteristics.
a. Collapse is culturally pervasive: Jameson argues that the utopian urge can be seen in virtually all literary production, a view of what society could be and has not achieved. Conversely, one could argue that the dystopic is similarly present, a vision of the ‘bad’ that society could become.
b. Collapse is temporal: The moment of civilizational collapse is a moment which is beyond time, when time must have a stop (Walter Benjamin) and thus outside the normal historical sequences. After the revolution, time may recommence, but the gap is pervasive because it is not within a temporal structure.
c. Collapse is spatial: often located in the city, often seen from above, civilizational collapse is a feature of the mass society.
d. Collapse is psychological: there is exhilaration in catastrophe, when disciplinary structures come to an end, and there is also opportunity. Particular forms of masculinity take to the road and heroism (once more) becomes possible.
This leads to three issues which we might address
i. Is dystopia utopia’s evil twin?
ii. What is the chronological relationship of dystopia (present, past, and future)?
iii. Are dystopic visions inherently conservative?