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5 Things with Research Associate Michael Dunn, CAPAS

On Navigating the Ends of Worlds in October
Published onOct 31, 2023
5 Things with Research Associate Michael Dunn, CAPAS

The apocalypse with all of its heady historical baggage, and, more generally speaking, world endings are anything but empty signifiers, so its easy to see the appeal to apocalyptic sensibilities as they mean an insurmountable of things to a wide array of peoples and cultures. When we look at the world around us today this sense of doom and gloom continues to consume us in competing and continually cataclysmic ways. The conglomeration of crises that surround us – the comedown from the hottest summer ever on record, climate mitigation, nuclear colonialism, irreversible resource extraction, the ever accelerating war on animals, pandemics, and patriarchal policies that seek to appropriate queer people and women’s bodies and reproductive rights – sets, as Derrida (1984) would say, an apocalyptic tone that not only defies genres across a multitude of mediums but even defines the Zeitgeist of this mercurial moment of hedonistic modernity that we call here and now.

As such, its not only useful but increasingly important to rely on objects, things, and ontologies to give us comfort and help us navigate these seemingly ever-present apocalyptic times.

As the spooky season starts, the uncannily hot weather begins to fade, and the days draw ever darker and drearier yet oddly comforting in their seasonal stability (and a false sense of business as usual), it bears reminding ourselves of some of the darker aspects of diversion. Here are five of them.


After just welcoming my first – and most likely last – daughter into the world on Friday the 13th of October, I spent the weekend in a hospital bed next to my wife and newborn baby girl in utter awe at the overwhelming establishment of hospitals. Not only the building itself, a Foucauldian space outside of time with its mechanical ticks and tocks, beeps and boops, but the incredible people that work in them too. A ward filled with women, wonder, and wisdom and the intensely deep sense of empathy that such an environment breeds. After 9 months of caring for my wife as she suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum – chronic morning sickness which was never merely in the morning but 24/7 and spanning the long length of the entire pregnancy – we were told she would need a planned C-Section if we wanted to safely welcome our daughter in to the weird yet wonderful world.

No one can prepare for parenthood and pregnancy, and plans always tend to change despite all the organised diligence that happens in the lead up to ‘B-day,’ but this felt like the final unlucky obstacle to have to overcome. Nonetheless, despite scars that will always remain upon my wife’s wonderful body – as well as her long-term mental health – overcome we did. Watching her cut open and waiting in oversized, green scrubs in a brightly lit operating theatre was the longest and simultaneously shortest few hours of my life. I cannot begin to even imagine how it was for her. Without the sincere kindness of all the midwifes, surgeons, doctors, and nurses working on that ward, this individual and singular life event – an often fairly standard procedure – would have remained utterly impossible. Despite my daughter arriving on a historically unlucky day, a day we decided for precisely in spite of said superstition (and also because its obviously fairly awesome to have your daughter born on Friday the 13th just weeks before Halloween), we were lucky and now we have a healthy, happy daughter and my wife is as well as she can be with a long recovery ahead of her.

Despite their miraculous power to heal, hospitals are also deeply traumatic and they reflect the world we live in today. With this in mind, how does anybody recover from the complete destruction and death of hundreds of innocent lives within a hospital; for example as we saw this month, and continue to see, in Gaza? The same men behind decisions to drop bombs on civilians in hospitals are from the same cloth of men who stab 6-year old boys to death. There is, I think, an issue at the heart of masculinity that only love and empathy, often treated as unserious and unacademic concerns, can hope to possibly heal. As a scholar who tends to focus on the darker recesses of annihilation and ecocide, investing in the world and its broken and toxic condition are all I often have to hold on to; for me personally, the stakes have never been higher with a newborn now cradled upon my chest while I read daily of said struggles.


From children to ‘creatures,’ the soft purr of a cat sat happily in a warm lap, the wagging tail of a dog, are a sure and certain sign for so many of the domestic bliss that comes with a ‘home not a house’ philosophy. But what of the animals outside said category? At a time when only 4% of wild mammals remains by biomass, they bear thinking about. Mr. Brown, the befuddled father of an almost painfully prototypical nuclear family in Paddington (2014), finds his way to accepting other species when he declares at the height of the film’s cheesy yet heartwarming climax about the bear with British manners from ‘darkest Peru’:

It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world or that he’s a different species or that he has a worrying marmalade habit. We love Paddington and that makes him family.

Image source: Unsplash

Although a fun family film for children, Paddington, a seemingly odd citation, offers up analogies for multi species justice and looking beyond the immediate categories of the human to those that are not historically seen as such or, better said, purposefully removed from the category for the singular goal of domination. Many blockbusters including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, as well as numerous other pop-culture relics suggest, as Donna Haraway (2016) has, a way to make kin rather than creatures as well as a blueprint for empathy regardless of sentience. Where to start though with such a monumental task of breaking down the nature/culture divide? Radically rethinking our relationship to the wild world – while there is still any of it left – as well as the murderous and unsustainable industry of agriculture more broadly, would not only benefit these kin/companion species that so often give us comfort but also contribute to a long overdue attempt to curve carbon emissions. In short, not only cuddling cats but finding way to (forgive the pun) cut out the cow.

Books (That Wouldn’t Burn)

I recently had the pleasure of reading Mark Lawrence’s latest fantasy epic The Book That Wouldn’t Burn (2023). The book struck a chord beyond the base aesthetic instances often presented in other works branded by the algorithm of ‘Dark Academia.’ Lawrence offers his readers one of many worlds in which knowledge is the ultimate act of chaos and control; one that nonetheless mimics our current moment where the humanities play second fiddle to science. The lack of funding for the humanities serves to suggest that, as does Lawrence, many are “hungry for progress, not stories”(2023, 302). Not only did Lawrence’s hefty novel move me because I’m in charge of a departmental library, and collect and, more importantly perhaps, read countless books myself, but because we all collect objects; categorizing and compiling representations of creation and continuation in the form of physical objects and written words which extends past familial ends into the unknown.

Although these collections – our own personal Libraries of Alexandria – are becoming ever more ephemeral in the form of threads, tweets, posts, digital images and no longer dog eared documents, academic research – sometimes framed in physical, printed words upon a page – is, as well, ultimately often equally ephemeral. Or, at least, that’s how it feels. Although not wanting to entirely accept such a statement, and in so doing diminish our profession, I assume that, between many universities becoming neoliberal productivity machines, and the next journal article, chapter, edited collection, and conference, many of us find ourselves feeling this way; writing in the stolen, solitary moments between candle light, feline feeding, or baby crying. The Book That Wouldn’t Burn speaks to this ephemeral feeling as Lawrence imagines a plurality of worlds in which a biological machine (re)creates for its user a physical surrounding for whichever book that they hold in their hands at the time of entering. An actual worldbuilding that goes far beyond the possibilities of ‘mere’ imagination. Nevertheless, said machine, aptly entitled the Mechanism, stands as a warning to the techno-utopian totalitarianism of artificial intelligence and scientific fictions as climate solutions but also, more specifically, to all artists, readers, writers, and academics to sometimes see beyond the impact of our individual works of fiction. It bears remembering, nevertheless, as book bans are in full swing across the United States, and while it’s almost impossible for those in favour of book bans to even attempt to hide their hatred, stories involving LGBTQIA+ characters and lives lived have been unquestionably hit the hardest in the face of radically right-wing policies that masquerade as concerns for children’s safety. As Lawrence’s novel does, we should ask ourselves who has access to places of power and knowledge and who are the gatekeepers continually keeping the liminal at arms length?


Morning falls from a tree and asks for a name
Claim your ghost, know the wine for what it is

Claim Your Ghost - Iron & Wine

While carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, microplastics, and nuclear radiation are invisible to the human eye, their effects on the environment as well as the very food and drink that we consume certainly are becoming more and more visible. Not only is this shift seen in wet-bulb wastelands but also in more seemingly mundane products that also offer us comfort such as wine. As a long lived parable of survivalism, nowadays the classism of wine reflects all the problematic ‘isms’ of systematic climate change. And while natural wine making methods appear to reject the premise of intervention before and beyond the bottle – an important step away from monoculture crops – an enormous rise in English wineries suggests that the soil has surely begun to shift. Poland too is set to become a leading global wine producer by 2050 as many flagship varietals slowly disappear or themselves become exports. Fascinating as this culinary expansion is, it signals a scarier and taste tangible aspect of climate change as countries that were, historically speaking, not warm enough to foster the finesse needed to make wine wonderful become leading prize wining wine producers. However, as we are dealing with diversions, let us perhaps raise a toast with crocodile smiles in the scorching sun to the wine worlds that have opened up in the face of those unfortunately ending.

Westwell winery is a sustainable and biodiverse vineyard based in Kent, the so-called garden of England, where I grew up. Not only do they make wines with natural yeasts with a strict eye for waste, they also taste delightfully delicious; they represent the collision of fun and fine wine. Both their Ortega and Ortega Skin Contact represent just how fascinating the terroir of English soil has become as temperatures rise around the world.


As apocalyptic narratives continue to proliferate in popularity, it is not only in our books and movies that we find this overarching sense of competing world endings but also in the songs we sing and are sung. Beyond forms such as the novel that frame the/an apocalypse as an overachieving narrative event of competing intensity, world endings seem to pop up again and again like a scratched, repetitive groove in a record. From stadium filling pop-punk groups such as Fall Out Boy to underground indie acts, the message that things aren’t quite as they seem proliferates across the board.

Anxieties for the state of our toxic planet, as well as an equally important sense of mourning are explored almost unanimously by the endless amount of singers and songwriters producing music today. The latest album by Cut Worms, the moniker of Brooklyn-based Indie songwriter Max Clarke, on which he sadly sings:

I get so sick with rage at what’s bein’ done

It doesn’t help me to know I’m not the only one

Take it and Smile by Cut Worms

The words could easily be a love letter about a personal breakup or, equally, apathetic policy making and austerity in the face of the latest IPCC reports which suggest mitigation rather than the anticipation of actual action. And while Anand Wilder’s first solo outing equally offers insights into the intensity of COVID deaths at the height of the pandemic, Hart Island the site of one enormous mass grave, it could just as easily be about ever accelerating extreme weather events:

Doesn’t matter where you’re from

The worst is yet to come

Hart Island by Anand Wilder

The spectral voices of the Anthropocene appear not only in genres that tend to the (often self indulgent) sense of trauma and depression that inspires them, but, equally, artists like Hak Baker – who refuse the very concept of genre – have also begun to embrace apocalyptic tendencies as a progressive reframing of social injustices; albeit refuting and refusing the baggage that comes with the lexical choice and purposefully opting for ‘the end of the world’:

The end of the world is coming

There ain’t no after

The End of the World by Hak Baker

Endings as Navigation

Walking through a hospital ward, listening to music, reading books, drinking a glass of wine: we are constantly and continually reminded of endings. The very idea of the (post-)apocalypse follows us around like a lost and lonely lamb. However, as the apocalyptic seeps in to our distractions and diversions and reflects the state of the world its worth letting them in; for without mourning the crimes created by the loss of creatures, lifeworlds, cultures, and peoples, they remain irrevocably irreparable and unanswered.

— Michael Dunn, Research Associate at CAPAS. CAPAS is the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University.

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