Well, That Was Climactic: Apocalyptic Literature Across the Ends of History
In 1989, writing about the end of the Cold War, historian Francis Fukuyama suggested that history – understood as a series of conflicts between opposing ideologies – was drawing to an end:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Thirteen years later, however, Fukuyama identified a less triumphalist eschatology – another type of historical “end” - in the development of biotechnology and transhumanism; he suggested that the potential for modification of “human nature” posed an existential threat to the continuing existence of the species as such.
These are, of course, only two of many possible conceptions of the end of human history, and they occupy two rather extreme poles relative to the vast field of possibilities which has been and continues to be staked out relative to it.
In this class, we will read fictional texts written since the beginning of the Cold War that portray a variety of “ends of history” - some apocalyptic, some hopeful, some ambiguous – and pair them with nonfictional contextualizing sources with the goal of investigating a few of the many ways in which our conceptions of this topic have varied (and possibly evolved) in response to and conjunction with shifting political, technological, and social conditions.
Note: This will be a reading- and writing-intensive class. Students should expect to do 50+ pages of reading per day, often of fairly dense material. As this is a W class, students will do at least 15 pages of graded writing, most probably in the form of two 7-8 page essays.
Trigger warning: Much of the material we will be reading and discussing in this class (as might be expected, given that we'll be talking about various ways in which human history might come to an end) will be dealing with intense and possibly triggering material, including graphic violence and sexuality and intersections of the two. Students will not have to write about these topics, but should be prepared to talk about them in class in a straightforward manner.
A Canticle for Liebowitz – Walter W. Miller (1960)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Scorch Atlas – Blake Butler (2012)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (1978)
The Children of Men – P.D. James (1992)
Course Packet – essays and short stories