no apocalypse, not now: performing at the edge of the world

Ariel Efraim Ashbel

10.6.20 / Text
In his contribution to A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, artist Ariel Efraim Ashbel comments on the notion of apocalypse vis-à-vis colonialism and its racist conceits.

PROLOGUE: The Turning Point

In 1967, Nina Simone is the raucous voice of the American civil rights movement. A relatively unknown song from that year shows why. In the two minutes of “Turning Point,” Simone—whom I consider the most important artist of the 20th century, no runners up—pinpoints the moment of the making of a racist. It’s a subtle situation, vicious in its mundaneness: the narrator, a young white girl in first grade, is learning from her mother that her new brown friend can’t come over for a playdate. We don’t hear the explanation she hears, just her confirmation; the slow, sad reckoning expressed brilliantly in three words, broken by long pauses: “oh . . . I . . . see.” Her mother helped her see, made her understand. We can only imagine, and we probably should, what power spoke to this little girl in the voice of her mother, the only voice she knows how to trust. This is not the fierce position of “Mississippi Goddam” assuring that “you’re all gonna die and die like flies,” or the beautiful affirmation that the whole world is filled with “young, gifted and black” youth, ready to flourish in a brighter tomorrow; yet the violence is immense, almost unbearable, as it encapsulates quietly the horror of polite white supremacy.

The doing of racism is, according to another giant—Toni Morrison—the moment that defines modernity. It’s not a problem of a certain ethnic/sexual/national/able/religious group; it’s everyone’s problem, as the system that enabled slavery not only subjected certain people to violence, exploitation, and death, it shattered the entire world: “Slavery broke the world in half. . . . It broke Europe. . . . It made them slave masters, it made them crazy.” This craze of the colonial predicament enabled and still enables the goods, labor, and ideas that define Europe. What made this world is a perpetual apocalypse.

Science fiction pioneer Ursula K. Le Guin says, “to find a world, maybe you have to have lost one. Maybe you have to be lost.” Rather than seeing clearly, she prefers “a foggy coast” as a productive site for art making. The following speculations honor this idea, navigating a logic of subtraction, of letting go—from “know” to “now” to “no”—hoping that by getting lost in a conflicting array of impulses, references, and quotes, something new can emerge.


To see is to know. We’ve always coupled vision and knowledge, and since the Enlightenment (even the name of that moment implies this link, as metaphorical light is shed on the dark corners of our minds), a culture of “scientifetishism” took this notion to another level, rigorously utilizing the totality of technological innovation, colonial expansion, and their wild bastard child: modern capitalism.

We see, we know, we conquer, we trade, we destroy. Describing the all-encompassing, all-consuming ambition to see/know, Bruno Latour attacks the idea of the globe, “a platonic obsession [with the] dream of total and complete knowledge.” Furthermore, “he who looks at the earth as a globe always sees himself as a god.”

Let’s stay with this God for a few thoughts. God speaks through objects transforming, through a manipulation of matter, a distortion of physical law. The gap between man and God is an unfixable tear, the bridging of which happens only temporarily, at the fleeting grace of a miraculous syntax of objects (a bush, a stick, a rock) and natural phenomena (floods, earthquakes, fires). This language of the physical world can be seen as a way of constructing knowledge oriented toward sensual articulation, one that mixes ethics and ontology and taps into not only our “rational” mind but also our sense of belief. When we Jews thank God for the wine we drink, the prayer is “blessed you our lord, who created the fruit of the vine”; for the bread, we say “blessed you who brings bread from the earth.” Thanking God is making us accountable for, or at least aware of, the material chain of events that brought these goods to us, that made our well-being possible.

God also sneaks into this discussion through the work of Jacques Derrida (from whom I stole the title of my steirischer herbst ’19 show and this text). In his essay “Des Tours de Babel” (1985), Derrida writes: “In seeking to ‘make a name for themselves,’ the Semites want to make the world see reason.” The punishment for these sins, unified rationality and attempting to make a name (when reading the Bible, one is not allowed to pronounce the name of God; instead you say “hashem”— literally “the name”), is the necessity of translation. By rupturing the idea of one language for all, God “interrupts the colonial violence or the linguistic imperialism” of that idea. The debt of translation, the impossible and necessary task of seeking the other is expressed in the very name of this biblical tale: “Babel” comes from a Hebrew verb which means “to confuse” or “to mix up.” Such would be the Babelian performance.

Morrison was also interested in that Babelian performance. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech she wondered about the promise of Babel. Suspicious of a heaven based on sameness, where no one understands other languages, views, and narratives, she preferred heaven as life, all complications included.

Both Morrison and Le Guin are interested in making this world their world, our world. Instead of deeming this world tainted, and running around the galaxy looking for a new one to trash (a popular meta-narrative in postapocalyptic sci-fi), they’d advocate staying here with the trouble and making it livable. If we agree to a complicated and demanding engagement with otherness, the capacity to be accountable for a horrifying past won’t hinder the ability to speculate a future.


The apocalyptic trajectory introduces a specific concept of time, familiar and disturbing: from explosion to annihilation, big bangs to black holes, violent cosmogonies to fundamentalist rupture, where the dead rise up and the new Jerusalem descends. Apocalyptic literature is characterized by bringing together genesis and revelation: the end is also an archaic beginning, an uncanny reboot. Just think of any of Roland Emmerich’s delightful disaster films. Western imagination, says political theorist Eva Horn, evolved through romanticism to make “humankind look back upon itself after its end. It is a gaze in the future perfect, a future that will have been.” We dread our extinction but can’t help longing for it. However, as “climate knows no event,” she goes on, our current crisis is unfortunately an event-free apocalypse. The annihilation we’re accelerating toward doesn’t behave like we want it to, no catharsis, no Independence Day speech.

In this perpetual anxious anticipation, one of our strategies to find solace is the idea of progress, especially its techno-scientific performance that takes center stage at the time of the Enlightenment. The double standard of this era—it was “enlightening” for some but very dark for others—receives its fullest manifestation as Europeans start to desperately teach themselves how to build ships (and honestly, wouldn’t you? It’s so cold and nothing grows here) and “explore” other continents. Their fascination with, and fear of, the new world that’s looming across the ocean went well with the fact that “people died everywhere the Europeans went,” as author Sven Lindqvist reminds us. Following the logic of progress, dialectically wishing to defy while affirming the apocalyptic narration, the European’s geographic travel was imagined as a sort of time travel as well. A good example is Lindqvist’s object of inquiry, the writer Joseph Conrad. In the seminal Heart of Darkness (1899) describing his journey on the Congo River, Conrad writes: “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” This twilight zone, these foggy coasts, threaten who you are, “till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known.” This lostness, unlike the blissful potentiality Le Guin sees in it, harbors danger; the journey is constantly overseen by an “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Obviously, the people who inhabit the “prehistoric earth” of the colony are “prehistoric” men, unintelligible in their blackness.

In defense of Conrad, he wasn’t a maverick racist but merely reiterating popular views of his time (trying to be critical of the colonial regime, he distanced himself by a few layers of story-within-a-story, and even hints at some point that “the worst of it” was “this suspicion of their not being inhuman.”) In 1853, Charles Dickens went so far as to argue that ”the noble savage” is “something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.” And these two examples are just the tip of a horror variety show of scientific racism fueled by Darwinist ideas, the rise of anthropology and the popularization of exhibiting non-Europeans in freak shows, circuses, and zoos. To dive into this toxic history would require more than this discussion allows. What we can take from it at this point is to understand that considering the apocalypse a future catastrophe, either with or without an event, is a very white perspective. For other groups—indigenous people in the Americas, Jews in mid-20th-century Europe, and people in pre-colonized Africa—the apocalypse already happened. Horn’s “future perfect” is our past.

Morrison offers a brilliant take on black subjecthood and its relation to modernity. She reminds us that displacement, abandonment, and alienation—the symptoms of the industrial age, explored by modernist artists—were actual lived experiences of the displaced, abandoned, and alienated bodies of Africans slaves, abducted by alien ships and trafficked across the Atlantic. The strategies of survival, specifically those practiced by black women, to withstand these horrors are, according to Morrison, what “made the truly modern person.”

The category of “human,” therefore, goes through different mutations in accordance with how we assess the beginning and end of “now.” The epitome of this is probably the fact we’re supposedly in the “Anthropocene,” a term literally linking “man” and “time,” that Latour deems “post-natural, post-human and post-epistemological!”


Performance, both in its artistic and linguistic sense, can help us to imagine the next step in navigating this post-epistemological moment. Bringing together bodies and ideas, exposing bodies of ideas, and celebrating the myriad of ways in which ideas are embodied, it presents an opportunity to address the urgent need to say no to this world, to what and how we know. We can then activate new procedures, pointing at an “ethico-onto-epistem-ology,” as philosopher of science Karen Barad defines it. Following Donna Haraway, Barad offers a letting go of the logic of reflection in favor of a “diffractive methodology . . ., a critical practice for making a difference in the world.” Only through a practice of engagement, one that spans beyond the dichotomy of nature/culture, can we redefine knowledge-making and read more justly the entangled net of intra-actions that make who we are.

Two other performative ventures into the redoing of knowledge in favor of an ethico-ontological position come from the postwar philosopher, poet and critic Édouard Glissant, and the contemporary philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva. According to Glissant, “the theory of difference is invaluable.” Speaking of difference, the postcolonial discourse that once provided a path away from reductive, racist thought, isn’t enough anymore. What we’re now looking for is a language of accountability and imagination, a radical departure Da Silva would define as “one that does not stop at the critique . . . of sameness and difference.”

Glissant’s articulations move away from enlightened, universal transparency toward an ethics of opacity, “that which cannot be reduced.” When opacities meet, a gesture of letting go must be performed. Rather than trying to grasp what the other is, what they feel or think, one should forget about finding the truth. Opacities, unlike scientific “natures,” “can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.” Glissant offers that we focus on the texture of this social weave rather than on the nature of its components. If we follow this route, “thought of self and thought of other . . . become obsolete in their duality.”

Da Silva takes Glissant’s “poetics of relation” a few steps further, with her proposal for a black feminist “Poethics.” Poethics: ethics not only as hard science, but also as poetry, or rather, poetry as politics, and imagination as a discursive practice, a game of converging possibilities as a site for rethinking the political. The black feminist poet must aspire “beyond the horizon of thought . . . framed by the tools of universal reason” as these tools “cannot but yield violence.” Beyond the constraints of reason lies the end of the world as we know it, and so it follows that the only way to access black feminist poethics is to “put an end to the world of time where racial dialectic makes sense.”

What lies in this yonder, once we “un-organize, un-form, un-think the world,” is the idea of the plenum. In the plenum, which Da Silva describes as a space for a “play of expression,” meanings intertwine and disintegrate, and possibilities remain exposed. This constant doing/undoing is a never-ending movement, a flux of images diffracting through each other, forming new mutations. “Crucially, in both their theories of poetic relations, Glissant and Da Silva follow the history of philosophy, but they do so in an engaged, performative way: rather than speaking of abstractions, they address living bodies. Insisting on an opaque “horizon of becoming,” thingness can resist any “attempt to reduce what exists – anyone and everything – to the register of the object, the other, and the commodity.” That’s the goal of an ethico-onto-epistem-ology in times of crisis.

Develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz was an extraordinary person: a scientist, publicist, philosopher, a believer, one of Israel’s first public intellectuals; an orthodox Jew who survived the Holocaust and lived in Jerusalem until his death in 1994. In 1967 (same year as Nina Simone’s “Turning Point”), after the Six-Day War, Leibowitz was the first to publicly condemn the illegal annexation of the territories by Israel in the aftermath of the war, and was the first to say, “OK, we won, good for us, now GET OUT.” What can we make of this seemingly paradoxical figure, on one hand speaking the woke truth we liberals want to hear, but on the other hand representing in his lifestyle an approach utterly foreign to “us”? His fierce argument against the Israeli occupation didn’t stem from the postwar idea of “human” rights, but from a concern for the spiritual standing in the world of the Jewish people. In Leibowitz’s conception: we shouldn’t rule over the Palestinians not because they deserve self-determination, but because WE are not allowed to be oppressors; and because us Jews were persecuted so professionally throughout our history, we have a moral commitment to never abuse any other group. Leibowitz famously said of the violence of the Israel Defense Forces that “every innocent life taken by the Israeli army is a stain which will never be removed from the soul of the Jewish people.” He also loved to quarrel with religious Zionist settlers, and with the swag of a battle rapper would rhetorically crush them, to the delight of an anxious yet entertained audience. Once on TV, he got into a fight with a prominent settler leader, when the latter claimed that the Jewish people have a God-given right to hold the occupied lands. Leibowitz’s answer was loud and clear: no people have no right on no land. God alone has the right to hold, to own, to know. If you don’t get this, you’re not a real Jew, and, quite frankly, an idiot.

Both Leibowitz and Derrida position God as a ruler for ethics exactly because of his otherness, because he is utter externality, total negation. God stands in between man and his wish for domination, for universality, and for transparency. God can be an answer against the maladies of enlightenment, modernity, and humanism—God not as a judge we fear, but as the unattainable horizon of becoming.

However, I can’t finish in such a mystic tone, or as Dr. Simone (she insisted on the title) would say, “so embarrassingly soft.” So here’s an ending note featuring God’s bootleg creations—demons, golems, magic—in a segment by Gershom Scholem, a Kabbalah scholar and one of the founding fathers of Israeli academia. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot is the first in Israel to build computers and dabble in AI, a field believed by many to be paving the way to our inevitable extinction at the hands of a superior biotechnological race. Scholem has this to say:

All my days I have been complaining that the Weizmann Institute has not mobilized the funds to build up the Institute for Experimental Demonology and Magic, which I have for so long proposed to establish there. They preferred what they call Applied Mathematics and its sinister possibilities to my more direct magical approach. Little did they know . . . what they were letting themselves in for. So I resign myself and say to the Golem and its creator: develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world. Shalom.

Works cited
(in order of appearance):

⁕  “Turning Point,” Nina Simone, lyrics by Martha Holmes, from the album Silk & Soul, RCA Victor, 1967.
⁕  “Living Memory: A Meeting with Toni Morrison,” Paul Gilroy, in Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993).
⁕  “World Making,” Ursula K. Le Guin, in Dancing at the Edge of the World (New York: Grove Press, 1989).

⁕  Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017).
⁕  “Des Tours de Babel,” Jacques Derrida, in Difference in Translation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Pres, 1985).
⁕  Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison,, December 7, 1993,

⁕  The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age, Eva Horn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
⁕  Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist (New York: The New Press, 1992).
⁕  Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1902).
⁕  “The Noble Savage,” Charles Dickens (1853).

⁕  Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, Michael Taussig (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
⁕  Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Karen Barad (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
⁕  “For Opacity,” Édouard Glissant, in Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1990).
⁕  “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” Denise Ferreira da Silva, in The Black Scholar – Journal of Black Studies and Research 44, no. 2 (2014).

⁕  “The Golem of Prague and the Golem of Rehovot,” Gershom Scholem, in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971).

Ariel Efraim Ashbel (1982, Tel Aviv, Israel) is an artist working with performance. His shows are visual spectacles that weave together a wide array of historical, political, theoretical, and pop culture references. Through composing and sampling, he collaborates with friends to create interdisciplinary work at the intersection of theater, dance, music, and installation. He shows regularly at HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin), as well as institutions and festivals, including Theater Kampnagel (Hamburg), Forum Freies Theater (Düsseldorf), Spielart (Munich), Impulse Theater Festival (North Rhine-Westphalia), Performa (New York City), the Venice Biennale, and more. Ashbel lives in Berlin.

Ariel Efraim Ashbel, “no apocalypse, not now: performing at the edge of the world“ in A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss, eds. Ekaterina Degot and David Riff (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, May 2020), pp. 95–103.

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