Stories from the End of the World (Gen Ed 1001)





How can and should we live at the end of the world as we know it?


Aesthetics & Culture icon with text

Giovanni Bazzana

Humans seem to have always imagined the end of their world order. It appears that, without the “sense of an ending”, not only artistic production, but also individual and social lives cannot be made coherent and effective. Fantasizing about the apocalypse is something that many people in the US and almost everywhere else in the world used to do on a daily basis either by watching their favorite shows on TV, by playing videogames, or by listening to political speeches. Of course, in 2020 all this has become not only fictional anymore due to the tragedies and disruptions brought about in our daily life by the Covid-19 pandemic: we truly live in a post-apocalyptic world. But it is worth remembering that many experienced such a condition even before 2020 and we can learn from their reflections and imaginations how to live the apocalypse.    

This course will start from these observations to ask why imagining the end is so pervasive in contemporary cultures, what ethical choices are put in front of us “at the end of the world as we know it”, and how we can analyze critically where apocalyptic images are coming from and how they are used in contemporary conversations.

Imaginations of the end have their roots in a literary genre that is often called “apocalyptic” and has been alive and productive since antiquity. The course will look at this historical trajectory, but most of the work will be focused on contemporary cultural products, such as movies, short stories, songs, art, comic books, videogames, and so on. The products of writers, filmmakers, and artists will be analyzed and observed as thought experiments and “revelations” about the incoming end and its aftermath. Much of this work will be carried out in collaboration with the Harvard Art Museum and through the participation of writers and artists as guest lecturers and interviewees.  

Thus, students will be asked to observe how thinking about a catastrophic future is actually a means to reflect about the present, by identifying whether humans are doing something wrong, whether they have any chance to correct their mistakes, or what strategies can be deployed to face with resilience the aftermath of the end. In this perspective, for instance, God, aliens, or meteorites are metaphors representing our powerlessness, while sins, zombies, or climate change are wake up calls for humankind. “Prophets of doom” can be channels of liberating and progressive energy, but can also become instruments to set up for destruction people who look and act differently. Apocalyptic scenarios almost always distinguish humankind in the two opposed camps of those who are saved and those who are condemned, but in more modern apocalypses the Enemy (like the biblical Antichrist) looks more and more undistinguishable from our own selves.

Ultimately, the course will ask you to reflect about your own fantasy of the end and write (or photograph, or sing) it.


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