‘The Golden Calf: Technology as Apocalypse’ by Karl Anton Wolf
Apocalyptic literature as an aspect of Judaic-Christian culture can be traced to the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and Revelations as the last book of the Christian Bible, although early sources indicate the influence of Zoroastrianism founded in ancient Persia that dates to the 6th century BCE and, perhaps, aspects of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion. Drawing on this and other ancient sources, apocalypticism became the worldview of early Judaism in the Hellenistic period during the Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE). Apocalypticism expresses an eschatological view that focuses on supernatural revelations about the intervention of God in human history as a transcendent, all-powerful force that involves Judgement Day, resurrection, and the salvation of the faithful in a new beginning in heaven reunited with God. While it takes a specific form in Judaeo-Christian culture, aspects of apocalypticism are common in other cultures and religions, although it is not universal. The apocalypse is a narrative about the end of history in a world governed by powerful forces that determine human destiny, transcending the present order to emancipate the faithful from suffering a form of political oppression as the Jews did with the conquest of the kingdom of Judah and Babylonian Captivity.
Western Industrial Capitalism/Zombie Culture
Post-World War II Western industrial culture since the 1960s has been increasingly depicted as ‘apocalyptic’ first during the atomic era, then in the proliferation of zombie culture and more recently during the 2023 wars in Ukraine and Israel. There is a constant stream of narratives, images and scientific reports that describe an impending doom as ‘the end’ or collapse of global society through war, ethnic cleansing, global warming, pandemic, or runaway robotic or AI technology. The apocalyptic genre foretells a set of cataclysmic events that take place at the end of the world. Characteristically, it takes the narrative form to describe a pessimistic view of the present where the final days are imminent and destructive of civilisation as we know it. Apocalyptic narratives have played a strong role in Western historical and philosophical thinking. The idea of the decline of the West has been around for centuries, buried deeply in Christian theology and historiography, surfacing in the modern period in the works of Gibbon, Hegel, Nietzsche and Spengler (Peters, 2021). There has been a remarkable acceleration in the West during the last couple of decades towards apocalypticism as a dominant worldview both in popular culture expressed in novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and movies like The Matrix and in new and existing religions, that have had the effect of normalising and trivialising apocalyptic events. Apocalypticism is rife in American culture through the growth of evangelical churches, millennial visions and an American fixation with the ‘end times’ that has become increasingly secularised in pop culture with the obsessions of alien encounters, zombie invasion, planetary destruction, natural calamities, robot wars and narratives of post-apocalyptic survival. As John Hay argues: ‘The idea of America has always encouraged apocalyptic visions.’ From the Puritans’ Second Coming and the genocidal apocalypses of Native American and Black slavery, to the mutually assured destruction in the Cold War, to the stream of apocalyptic violence of visual media, to the War of Terrorism and the end of history, America has created its own annihilation and posthuman salvation. At the same time, with the extraordinary birth of planetary consciousness in its ecological register, apocalyptic science fiction blends with politics, critical theory and political economy to prophesy and predict a new complexity and interconnectivity where world crises accumulate, overlap, cascade and reach the tipping point of irreversibility. In this complexity, astronomy, mathematics, ecology and global risk assessment pinpoint the problems of the Anthropocene and the possibilities of human extinction and survival. Apocalyptic studies as a new form of philosophy of education that links education, philosophy, politics and pedagogy to secular and scientific crises, focussing on major world crises to explore how apocalyptic discourses narratively frame ethical and environmental issues of survival of the planet and humanity. Apocalyptic narratives are central to environmental politics, with critics arguing that we are already living at the end of a habitable planet, and some suggesting we have passed the tipping point.
Aotearoa: ‘The Shaky, Windy Isles’
Aotearoa-New Zealand is also a young territory both geologically, climatically and culturally when compared to Australia. Geologically, it is part of the ‘Ring of Fire,’ a belt of active volcanoes, subducting tectonic plates and deep ocean trenches that fringes the Pacific Basin, where 75% of the world’s earthquakes take place. Aotearoa faces a steady stream of weak and moderate earthquakes, with multiple earthquakes every day and some 20,000+ every year, as well as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. We are all aware of the major earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2011, Lake Grassmere in 2013, Eketahuna in 2014, East Cape in 2016 and Kaikoura in 2016, and we worry about the ‘big one’ that will probably strike along the Wellington fault (the Hikurangi subduction zone) one day with what could be disastrous consequences. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) knows that all of Aotearoa is at risk and advises on how to reduce the impact of such events. As NIWA reports, ‘Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai was a little-known undersea South Pacific volcano with a long name. Within 24 hours, it was a global phenomenon – the site of the largest atmospheric explosion in almost 150 years.’ There are also multiple and cascading climate risks that face Aotearoa that demand adaptation climate change adaptation and resilience building for communities and businesses. As NIWA expresses it: ‘Understanding our variable and changing climate is critical for managing resources and reducing risks.’ 2023 was a record-breaking year for weather. NIWA meteorologist Ben Noll states: ‘Those living in Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay have dealt with a constant barrage of sub-tropical lows, atmospheric rivers and ex-tropical cyclones, which caused copious amounts of rainfall. It has been quite relentless,’ with rain events recording more than a year’s annual rainfall. It was wet and warm because of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) but also with climate change accounting for some 30% of variability. Cyclone Gabrielle unleashed torrential rain and record floods across Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti in the second week of February 2023, with devastating consequences for communities and agricultural land. The full impacts on local communities, housing, infrastructure, freshwater rivers and streams, marine life, the seabed and acidification of the ocean are yet to be fully researched. Cyclone Gabrielle has led to the reprioritisation of NIWA research in hazard risk assessment, extreme weather events, including storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. Every aspect of our environment is at risk of extreme events as we begin to realise that Aotearoa does not begin or end at our national borders and all aspects are susceptible to an apocalyptic narrative framing that highlights our environmental future. It might be argued that Aotearoa, as the ‘shaky little isles,’ as a group of islands in the South Pacific between continental Australia and the Antarctic, faces an uncertain future determined by processes and events not originating in Aotearoa.
British Colonialism and Cultural Catastrophe
These conclusions might be extended in another apocalyptic direction by discussing the British colonisation of Aotearoa with consequent effects on Māori as Indigenous people after first contact in 1769. Aotearoa was settled by different tribal groups 800-1000 years ago who live in different regions as iwi living in a close relationship to the land under rangatira. The impact of colonisation as catastrophic was experienced as the apocalyptic end of Māori culture as various tribes were pushed off their land during wars and confiscation. Christian colonial conquest by the British advanced a justification in the doctrine of cognitive and cultural superiority that led to extermination. By 1900, the Māori were seen to be a ‘dying race,’ and te reo Māori was regarded as a dead language (Peters & Marshall, 1988; Peters & Mika, 2015). Barnes & McCreanor (2019) record the historical trauma in the following words:
Colonisation has had profound negative consequences for the health, wellbeing and indeed the very existence of Māori populations in Aotearoa (Reid & Robson, 2007; Durie, 2012) and of Indigenous peoples worldwide (Durie, 2003b; Stephens et al., 2006; Anderson et al., 2016; Paradies, 2016). Māori sovereignty, arguably a natural entitlement ratified in He Whakaputanga in 1835 (Healy et al., 2012), has been under attack since before the ink was dry on te Tiriti o Waitangi, as a central practice of establishing the colonial order in Aotearoa (Belich, 1986; Walker, 1990). Through land alienation, economic impoverishment, mass settler immigration, warfare, cultural marginalisation, forced social change and multi-level hegemonic racism, Indigenous cultures, economies, populations and rights have been diminished and degraded over more than seven generations.
The effects of this historical trauma have been disastrous for Māori and the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific because of British colonisation and imperialism with widespread and ongoing effects.
Colonisation has affected Indigenous peoples at multiple levels, including health (mental/physical), social, spiritual, economic and cultural levels. Some scholars have argued that colonisation was ethnic and cultural genocide, resulting in devastating effects in both historical (Priest, Paradies, Stewart & Luke, 2011) and present-day contexts (Evans-Campbell, 2008; Paradies, 2016). These practices included war, widespread massacres, genocide, displacement, forced labour, forcible removal of children from their parents, residential schools, environmental destruction, unintentional spread of deadly diseases, assimilation and almost complete extermination of Indigenous social, cultural and spiritual practices (Evans-Campbell, 2008; Paradies, 2016).
The Apocalyptic Problematic in Western Philosophy
What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now, for necessity itself is at work here. This future speaks even now in a hundred signs; this destiny announces itself everywhere…. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)
In this remark and many other epigrammatical statements, Nietzsche, toward the end of his life, refers to an apocalyptic collapse of meaning and purpose in the West as the most destructive force in history and the greatest crisis facing humanity as the advent of nihilism representing ‘the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals’ that is also ‘a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength.’ His terse statement, ‘God is dead’ was, for Nietzsche, an expression of the triumph of the secularism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. The secularism of the apocalypse in history, philosophy and literature was the agenda for many of Europe’s intellectuals after Nietzsche’s death, including Martin Heidegger, who observed in ‘The Question of Being’ that nihilism in its hidden forms was already ‘the normal state of man.’
In his later work, Nietzsche was obsessed with the genealogy of values in human life and the foundational cultural values of the West, which he saw as expressions of the ascetic ideal. For Nietzsche, human life neither possesses nor lacks intrinsic value; value was rather a reflection of whoever was making the judgment or evaluation. Most were unaware that the highest philosophical values had dissolved under the influence of positivism. With the collapse of metaphysical foundations, only a vague and pervasive sense of purposelessness remained that one day might be replaced with a surrogate God such as nationalism and the values of the nation-state where ‘conquest of the earth would proceed under banners of universal brotherhood, democracy and socialism.’
As François Hartog observes:
the apocalypse may be understood as the conclusive end of history. This is a truncated or negative apocalypse, the overture to nothing. There will be no new world, or new humanity, over the horizon. Such apocalyptic visions, some more radical than others, were common currency at the time of the First World War. By the early 1920s, there was a widely shared sense of witnessing a collapse of civilisations, as Paul Valéry observes – a more gradual but ultimately unavoidable form of sinking. Today, these negative apocalypses have been replaced with the notion of ‘catastrophe.’ Now, the generic term ‘catastrophe’ deliberately mobilises a certain vocabulary, imagery, or schema borrowed from traditional apocalyptic narratives. Clearly, however, a catastrophe does not impinge upon another world nor another time. A catastrophe is an event, one that upsets our habitual patterns, suspending the ordinary experience of the passage of time. Afterward, the world keeps turning, taking another direction or returning to its everyday course, until next time.
Apocalyptic philosophy at its best draws our attention to how apocalypticism enters the West as a dominant worldview, and it attempts to unsettle it and decode it without repeating the worst fanaticisms and fundamentalisms in order precisely to cancel the inevitability and determinism that accompany ancient eschatologies. Apocalyptic thought takes a variety of secular forms in philosophy, history, politics and popular culture and is often used to frame narratives of impending destruction. The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is apocalyptic in the sense that in terms of European ideologies of communism, fascism and liberal capitalism, the world is seen as in need of revolution, destruction of the old society and the remaking anew of society in terms of utopian ideals.
Post-apocalyptic philosophy distinguishes itself by its release from history and the end of the world as coded by ancient eschatology and prophecies to explore the dynamics of being-together as an expression of a deep relationship with the local environment that serves as both refuge and a source of resilience, culture and value. As Hauke Riesch argues, ‘the apocalyptic narrative frames and provides meaning to contemporary, secular scientific crises focusing on nuclear war, general environmental and climate change.’ The ‘apocalyptic tradition shapes our interpretation, communication and response to contemporary global crises.’
My presentation to the PESA Conference 2023 develops the philosophy of being-together as environmental protection and community enhancement in an uncertain world prone to crisis and collapse by reference to the power of transformational pedagogies that foster a new ecological consciousness of the complex interplay of physical, biological, economic and political systems. Employing diverse intellectual resources, these pedagogies seek to analyse and understand intersecting systems – their overlap and collision – that have the power to shape the horizon within which human beings will determine their post-apocalyptic survival. I propose a philosophical reading of ‘being-together’ that emphasises community in terms of refuge, renewal and resilience, easing the transition to post-apocalyptic thinking and the philosophy of survival linked to an analysis of place, Indigenous thinking and the value of community.
Academic Retrospect: Aotearoa, Scotland, US, China
Looking back on 45 years of academic work in various universities located in NZ, Scotland, the US and China, I started with a critique of liberal philosophy of education, especially the London School and moved on to research and write on neoliberalism in relation to educational policy in NZ at the point when neoliberalism came to town with the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 and was applied to education in ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ in 1987 and universities in 1992 with the introduction of student loans. In essence, my philosophy and policy work in education was based on the critique of the liberal humanist subject. It also informed the fieldwork for ‘Te Reo o te Tai Tokerau,’ the evaluation of the introduction of Māori into secondary schools and the accent on the value of community. This was the centre of most of my policy-oriented work, while, philosophically, I wrote about Wittgenstein, and the French thinkers Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze who taught me how to apply Wittgenstein’s work and broaden the critique to neoliberal capitalism.
On arriving in Scotland in 2000, I started to think and write about the failure of multiculturalism in Europe and interculturalism as the chosen EU successor paradigm. In this period, I was drawn to accounts of human rights, especially for immigrants, the Bushes’ ‘War on Terrorism,’ and the concepts of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’ I realise that I was undergoing a self-transformation based on the critique of Enlightenment notions and the problems of ethnocentrism and ‘westernisation.’ I edited a book called Education, Globalisation and the State in the Age of Terrorism (2005, 2015) and transferred to the University of Illinois to study the Project of the New American Century and its intellectual origins, co-editing a book called Leo Strauss, Education and Political Thought (2011). Leo Strauss was the thinker who almost single-handedly constructed a conservative reading of American politics, importing Nietzsche and the problem of modernity to the US. My political transformation was inspired by Foucault, and I wrote and co-edited several books on him, including Governmentality Studies in Education (2009). I gravitated towards a philosophy of education that was critical of Western domination of the world, where international education served a normalising function. I wrote Citizenship, Human Rights and Identity: Prospects for a Cosmopolitan Order (2013), which was strongly influenced by Derrida’s ‘Tasks for the New Humanities,’ having had the good fortune to have met him in Auckland, New Zealand, giving a paper on his politics at which he was present (Trifonas & Peters, 2004; Trifonas & Peters, 2005).
In the seven years I spent at the University of Waikato, I wrote on the environmental philosophy of education, on the Anthropocene, citizen science and ‘education for ecological democracy’ (Peters, 2017; 2020). All through this period, I worked on environmental concerns, culminating in a couple of papers with Arjen Wals (Wals & Peters, 2017; Peters & Wals, 2016). In the period at the University, Tina Besley and I set up the Centre for Global Studies in Education and held several conferences, including Freire Global Legacy and the ‘Children in Crisis’ conference focusing on child poverty. After being away from NZ for 11 years, we were appalled that when we came back, there were over 250,000 children reportedly living in poverty. Our colleagues told us, ‘poverty is not an educational problem,’ and none turned up for the conference, even though it brought together most of the national agencies that had responsibility for dealing with the crisis.
During my years in China, I focused on the Chinese Dream (Peters, 2019) and also increasingly on the rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China after the ‘golden years’ before the UK’s departure from the EU. During this time and through the COVID-19 years, I wrote about international relations and its educational effects, especially in international education, pandemic education (Peters & Besley, 2021), and the digital transformation of education and the economy. Much of my research in the last five years has focused on the nature of complex problems, their interrelationships, overlapping and cascading nature and tipping points that I have referred to under the name of ‘apocalypse,’ beginning with a book called The Last Book on Postmodernism: Apocalyptic Thinking, Philosophy and Education in the Twenty-First Century (2011), followed this year by the publication of two related books Educational Philosophy and Post-Apocalyptic Thinking (2023) and Civilisational Collapse and Post-Apocalyptic Survival? Philosophical and Educational Responses to the Crisis (with Thomas Mieier, 2023), which will be the basis of my presentation at the PESA conference. In both recent books, I note, ‘The notion of the apocalypse has long been associated with religious or mystical beliefs, but in contemporary times, it has also been used as a metaphor to describe the collapse of modernity and the potential for a new beginning.’
Apocalyptic narratives structure a Western concept of history and historicity as strictly linear when tied to a conclusive end of human history and a rush toward catastrophe, predicted by astrophysics as a possible asteroid impact or the end of the sun a billion years hence. There is no universal history, but there is a history of the planet and an acceptance that apocalyptic thinking may also signal a new age or possible rebirth – resilience, restoration, rehabilitation — of the planet. The post-apocalyptic survival requires a new awareness of community and of working together rather than savage and crass individualism based on ego-politics. The new philosophy is interconnectivity and getting on with one’s neighbour, even if they hold opposing views. It points to the critical eco-regionalism that protects fresh water, the integrity of the food web, the fight against biodiversity loss, and the democratisation of sustainability goals and practices that harness the marriage between modern ecological science, Indigenous knowledge systems and eschatological narratives – although ‘saving the planet’ is also subject to ideological excesses. The problem is how to inspire hope and action without fear or anxiety.