Remediating the apocalypse

A Symphony of Symbols

Feminist theologian and biblical scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who has written extensively about the Book of Revelation, advocates a rhetorical-literary view of the work. She maintains that it is best viewed as a “symphony of symbols” (1991:31) or a set of “tensive multivalent symbols” (1991:30) rather than as a set of predictive omens. Its compositional structure is “not encyclopedic but dramatic” (1991:32).

Schussler Fiorenza also argues that it is a work that is deeply political, rooted in the concrete political situation of its readers and the pre-existing mythological literature of Jewish and Greco-Roman apocalyptic literature.

As a Christian seer, the author gives not simply moral injunctions and prescriptive admonitions, but he constructs a symbolic universe and 'plausibility structure.' He does so in order to speak to the experience and predicament of Christians of his own time who are a powerless minority vis-à-vis the dominant majority power of their own culture. Therefore he employs socio-economic language and political-mythological imagery. (1991:32)

Much of the book's rhetorical power lies in its unique combination of strong persuasive/inspirational elements and equally strong calls to action/resistance. As Schussler Fiorenza puts it, Revelation is dependent on the intertextual relations of speaker, audience, subject matter and “rhetorical situation.” Its symbolic universe invites “imaginative participation” (1998:187). She continues:

The strength of its persuasion for action lies not in the theological reasoning or historical argument of Revelation but in the “evocative power” of its symbols as well as in its hortatory, imaginative, emotional language and dramatic movement, which engage the hearer (reader) by eliciting reactions, emotions, convictions and identifications. (1998:187)

US President George Bush's rhetorical strategies in defining the war on terror may be seen as similar attempts to persuade through the mobilisation of evocative, symbolically charged language. Just as the author of Revelation drew on the apocalyptic mythologies of his day, so Bush draws on the biblical resources of Western culture.

In his definition of the war on terror as a fight between good and evil, in his definition of himself as a destined leader and in his marking of the post September 11 world as a special/new time, he is creating a “symbolic universe” that draws heavily on the “plausibility structure” established in the Christian tradition.

For some this produces a distant resonance in which they hear general echoes of widely propogated Western cultural categories, for others the specific ring of the book of Revelation is loud and clear. Whatever Bush may himself believe, his actions and his rhetoric give hope to many who believe in a complex end-time scenario centered around the war-torn Middle East.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006