How many times has the world ended?

"The virus is an attack on our modern understanding of feasibility"

Whether climate crisis, economic crisis or now Corona: At regular intervals apocalypticists proclaim the approaching end of the world. When and why are we humans particularly receptive to doomsday narratives?

The sociologist Stephan Moebius, member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), speaks in an interview about the dramatic rhetoric with regard to the coronavirus and why the fear of doom can also be a positive driving force for change.

Mr. Moebius, how did the idea come about that the world could end? And what semantic change has the term undergone?

Stephan Moebius: There are ideas of the end of the world in the entire cultural history known to us and in most of the cultural groups known to us. However, they can have different content, legitimacy and social functions depending on culture and religion. While the Apocalypse of the Old Testament, for example, still offered the possibility of a new beginning - apocalypse does not mean an absolute end - that is actually intended as a kind of transition stage or vision of redemption, modern doom scenarios often assume a relapse into unculture or final destruction and a final doom .

An example, please.

Moebius: One thinks, for example, of Oswald Spengler's historical-philosophical thesis on the fall of the West in 1918. Or on the final fall: This is not surprising because today the complete self-destruction of mankind, for example through nuclear weapons or climate change, has objectively moved into the realm of possibility.

There are notions of the end of the world in the entire cultural history known to us.

What drives people to proclaim the end of the world on a regular basis?

Moebius: Doomsday narratives are reactions and attempts to deal with situations and processes that are crisis-ridden or perceived as crisis-ridden, and to give them meaning. Pluralization and thus the loss of a binding collective meaning increasingly lead to “alternative” interpretations, which can also be notions of doom. Situations perceived as threatening, fears of the future, which at the same time express longing for change, for something new and for change, are processed differently.

Which people are more likely to fear the end of the world?

Moebius: It is sociologically interesting why some react with doom scenarios and others with more confidence in politics and science. Those who tend to react with end-of-the-world scenarios are those who experience themselves disadvantaged, not heard, powerless or not noticed in the present and in their future prospects.

Doomsday narratives are reaction and attempt to deal with crisis situations and to give them a meaning.

With regard to the corona crisis, there is talk of the "greatest threat since the war". Why this dramatic rhetoric?

Moebius: This rhetoric is not only due to the logic of the media, which usually tends to be dramatized. The dramatic thing about the corona crisis, what distinguishes it from previous wars, for example, is that it is so global in scope. And on the other hand: The attack here is not someone who has certain economic or political interests, but nature itself. Whereby sociology never starts from a pure nature-culture dichotomy, but always focuses on their interrelationship and penetration.

What does that mean with regard to Corona?

Moebius: In the case of Corona, you can see that very clearly. Because: The intervention of humans in nature was likely to have been decisive for this virus to develop and to be transmitted between animal species and then to humans.

In any case, the nature of the virus changes the semantics of the downfall again. While apocalypses often divided the world into the realm of good and evil, as Samuel Huntington did in his thesis on the clash of civilizations, the virus is by itself neither one nor the other.

While apocalypses often divided the world into the realm of good and evil, the virus itself is neither one nor the other.

In what way?

Moebius: The virus is bad for us, but it does not itself act according to these moral categories, it is indifferent, is actually "pointless" - and this pointlessness is even worse for us than if we were dealing with an opponent whom one Assign a sense of action and clear motives and interests and with which one could at least potentially communicate.

This indifference does not mean that it hits everyone equally hard, but that social inequalities are reproduced more intensely. Because: It hits the already disadvantaged hardest, who cannot retreat to the home office, who are already largely cut off from medical and psychological care or who are exposed to inhumane living conditions.

The virus is also an attack on our modern understanding of progress and feasibility, according to which we have everything under control.

To what extent does the virus also show our vulnerability as a society?

Moebius: The virus is also an attack on our modern understanding of progress and feasibility, according to which we have everything under control. It is this loss of technological controllability, of the self-evident nature of civilization and of meaning that gives rise to even more controllability, for example greater state surveillance and control practices, and which, on the other hand, brings out the wildest patterns of interpretation and conspiracy theories, but also a hypertrophied belief in science, everything at some point absolutely to manage.

Keyword climate crisis. Can the fear of ruin also be a positive driving force for change?

Moebius: Fears, experiences of loss and powerlessness are something that should be taken seriously. They have always been the driving force behind collective action. The signs of human self-destruction may be there. But that does not mean that we are now fatalistically indulging in a teleology of doom, but rather that we should look at how we can work on, cope with and prevent the crises.

And the role of science?

Moebius: Science plays a central role in this. Not only in connection with the articulation and research of crises, in the search for specific solutions, such as vaccines or climate-neutral technologies, but also in the social-scientific analysis and reflection of the different reactions to them. Science does not stand outside of social contexts. What changes is she experiencing now? Why does it get into functional and legitimation crises? How can it preserve its relative autonomy? Does it follow a traditional, omnipotent understanding of science and feasibility in its answers and reactions or does it try to take into account a historical reality that is not completely controllable?

 

AT A GLANCE

Stephan Moebius is Professor of Sociological Theory and History of Ideas at the University of Graz and has been a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) since 2019.