The Immanent Apocalypse: Humanity and the Ends of the World

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For several millennia, many thinkers in the Western tradition took for granted that the transcendent being that had created the world would one day intervene from outside to end it. This dissertation takes as its point of departure the relatively recent notion that human beings could themselves create the capacity to end the world within the world—unleashing an entirely immanent apocalypse. This study examines the theoretical challenges that the arrival of anthropogenic existential risk poses for several longstanding cornerstones of Western political thought, paying particular attention to how questions concerning humankind as a whole came to be reconceived between the 1950s and the 1980s. At its core, the dissertation asks: What changes when earthly human existence ceases to be a necessary prerequisite for politics and instead becomes a contingent outcome of politics? The first chapter offers a history of how humankind as a whole first came to be understood as humanly killable. Here it argues that it was the catastrophe of the First World War that first convinced a generation that human beings might someday acquire the ability to destroy themselves without remainder, and the advent of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s that first convinced them that this day had arrived. Here I contrast three different political approaches that contemporaries developed to cope with the immanentization of the apocalypse using existing political categories: (1) siding with the philosopher Bertrand Russell in arguing that human freedom must be sacrificed for the preservation of bare biological existence, (2) siding with existentialist Karl Jaspers in declaring that mere biological survival must be risked in the defense of human freedom, or (3) joining the vast majority in conspicuously ignoring these dilemmas entirely. The second chapter compares the previously overlooked role that the immanentization of the apocalypse played in shaping the political thinking of Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault between the 1950s and the 1970s. Here I illustrate how both traversed parallel but opposite paths: Arendt beginning by addressing the hydrogen bomb and discovering the role that the ‘human life process’ had come to play in modern politics; Foucault beginning with the study of ‘biopolitics’ and encountering an insuperable hurdle in the form of what he called “the atomic power to kill life itself.” The third chapter traces how the fallout scare of the 1950s helped to catalyze the scientific developments that would begin to constitute the Earth System as a new object of knowledge over the course of three subsequent decades and, in so doing, transform the context in which anthropogenic existential risks are understood. Here the dissertation engages with the political thought of essayist Jonathan Schell, making the case that Schell stands out as both one of the few people to build on Arendt’s apocalyptic innovations and one of the premier political theorists of human extinction. The chapter demonstrates how Schell’s 1982 study The Fate of the Earth takes shape as one of the first political inquiries to approach the immanent apocalypse as a primarily ecological concern in the context of the newly discovered Earth System. It further follows how Schell’s close encounter with the nascent Earth System provides him with new resources for reconsidering the political place of sovereignty, natality, and love—theoretical innovations that carry direct relevance for those seeking to make sense of the cascade of mounting ecological crises that define today’s ‘Anthropocene.’

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370 pages


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Anthropocene; Biopolitics; Existential Risk; Jonathan Schell; Nuclear Weapons; Political Theory


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Frank, Jason

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Markell, Patchen
Livingston, Alexander
Frank, Jill

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Ph. D., Government

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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