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Western Apocalypticism. On the Genealogy of the End in European Culture

From a cultural studies perspective, the field of research of the interdisciplinary project Western Apocalypticism seems immense. Especially in the modern constellation of science, art and media the topic "apocalypse" in terms of end-of-the-world-augury and end-time-symbolism is often represented as far detached from its exegetical historical context. As a narrative element frequently used within the new media it is manifestly appropriated in correlation to all contemporary scientific fields. Alongside their staging in mass media, current political crises, environmental phenomena and social changes as signs of downfall scenarios are being exclusively assigned to adequate scientific strands. Studies such as sociology, ethnology, ecology, and astronomy each exhibit their own constructions of end-time-concepts founded on scientific data and truth claims  – the "climate apocalypse" being the incisive current example.

Modern reception of apocalypse in this respect is characterised by a reduction of possible interpretations, a fact caused by the transition from traditional writings and pictures, to be interpreted hermeneutically, to the use of the apocalypse as a handy motif. Whereas from a historical perspective in times of direct representation there was a widened, complex spectrum of allegorical, metaphorical and moral interpretations, current constructions appear to be focused and distinct, emphasizing the moral aspect and individual lifestyle.

It is the aim of our interdisciplinary research study (the team consists of two historians, two specialists in German language studies and one specialist in media studies, all with various additional focal areas) to analyse these contemporary dispositions. We will investigate the discursive and medial processes of such appropriations as well as methods of power inherent in apocalyptic discourse and their ideologic legitimation – intersection points of specific political, theological, social, and cultural discourses produced by apocalyptic signs, thereby mapping neuralgic points in social processes. More specifically, some questions would be: At which points in time, at which programmatic dates are apocalyptic discourses initiated? How does the explication and interpretation of an apocalyptic sign allow assumptions about the kind of power constellations in formation at a particular time? How can this help us analyse the narrations a society makes use of in order to construe identity and generate an Other, a foreignness, an opposing image by mechanics of distinction?

The initial point of our work is based on five particular strands which include a wide array of sources and media from various eras from late antiquity to the modern age, e.g. exegetical texts, chronicles, pamphlets, sermons, woodcarvings, astronomical writings, novels, films, electronic media. Thus we avoid acting on the assumption of a constant, time-spanning narration of the apocalypse and a continuous exegetical reception of this motive. On the basis of analysis in the fields of literary science and linguistics, applying discourse and media theories as well as cultural-historical and art-historical approaches, the selective usage and formation of apocalyptic narrations will be deconstructed in terms of contemporary circumstances. Besides, it is the aim to focus on the construction of communities as well as on certain archetypes of integration and dissociation and their communication before the background of apocalypse.

The interdisciplinary project also concentrates on a task-spanning appraisal of certain apocalyptic motives, of their transformation, their renewal and selection. One of the main questions will be to what extent apocalyptic elements point to a contemporary discourse, to a meta level, and, conversely, how a political, religious discourse is integrated and dealt with in an apocalyptic narrative. When and under which circumstances, in connection with what occasions does an apocalyptic narrative change, under which political, social etc. circumstances is a specific symbolism revived and how is it adapted to the particular contemporary context? Resuming this also poses the question to what extent an apocalyptic narration influences the perception of a society and how apocalyptic motives in turn expand into the social discourse.

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