One hundred years ago, on June 14th, Max Weber, then 56, died of pneumonia, possibly a victim of the “Spanish flu.” Little more than a year earlier he’d given his “Politics as a vocation” lecture (Hall 2019). As Marianne Weber recounted, in his last days her husband anxiously engaged with German politics and debated the attractive but daunting prospect of adopting orphans left by the suicide of his younger sister. Alternately energized by scholarly projects, exhausted by editing forthcoming publications, and worried about money matters, Weber pushed ahead with lectures until fever forced him to bed. Days later, death divested him of all plans and anxieties (Weber 1975: 685-98). Weber, who once called himself “unmusical” in matters of religion, embodied the Protestant ethic in its intensity and its neurotic possibilities.
Weber was only one among many millions who died in the wake of the 1918 pandemic, but he provides a talisman for considering the relationship between pandemics and culture, both because his dying days embodied a specific culture and because his approach to analyzing culture focused on the kinds of enactment of culture that his dying pandemic days embodied.
Weber’s approach to culture, social action, and organization gains theoretical coherence by identifying the temporal structurations of his concepts (Schutz 1967; Hall 2020). Applied empirically, this phenomenological weberian approach offers an alternative to sociological and historical analyses based in objectivism. It theorizes bureaucracy as centered in the diachronic time of clock and calendar; community, enacted in the collective synchronic here-and-now of ritualized communion; and competition and conflict as unfolding strategic temporality (Hall 2009). Such an approach is especially relevant to understanding historical epochs that Walter Benjamin (1968: 263) described as “shot through with chips of Messianic time.”
Even before the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, a hard-nosed empirical sociologist, Michael Hechter, observed, “This is the Apocalypse!” Truly. We have reached “the end of the world as we know it.” There will be no “return to normal,” only, if we are lucky, some “new normal.”
Social and religious researchers now understand that an apocalypse is “socially constructed,” and can be studied like other constructed social realities – bureaucracies, social movements, war, and so on. Paralleling the Edinburgh School’s “strong programme” in the sociology of science, a strong program in apocalypse studies concerns itself not just with “real” apocalypses but with the whole gamut of apocalyptic social phenomena.
As I wrote in my 2009 book, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity, the Apocalyptic is an overarching temporal structuration of the social in which many people at once orient action toward the “chips of Messianic time” that Benjamin invoked. To take stock of an apocalyptic event in cultural terms, we can identify how its temporal structuration connects cultural scripts with social action and organization in diverse spheres (Hall 2009).
In the CoronApocalypse, society all but shuts down. Streets empty except in hot spots of demonstrations, looting, and police riots. Orderly lines of cars form at Covid-19 testing locations and food distribution sites. The forces of nature gain ground: air quality improves globally, and wild animals appear in suburban neighborhoods. The sheer scale of developments makes 9/11 and the “Great Recession” look like mere social hiccups.
The CoronApocalypse has, in a matter of months, upended the life of virtually every person on the planet. The exception establishes the rule: at the isolated meditation center, participants seek transcendent ecstatic consciousness “outside” history, only experiencing the worldly trauma if they gear into the apocalyptic times beyond their own umwelten (Hall 2020: 208; “Did I miss anything?,” NYT 6/2/2020). For everyone else, taken-for-granted life in the here-and-now is transformed by: anxieties about death; new routines of self-discipline (practiced, disregarded, and policed); spatial shifts in the zones of action; boredom; emergent practices of mutual-aid; and immediate and virtually mediated transformations of intimacy and social intercourse.
Under the sign of modernity, Jürgen Habermas argued, the system colonizes the lifeworld. Its diachronic, clock-and-calendar routinization of things subordinates everyday life. Such systemically organized modern society is predicated on the assembly line, planning, projections, logistics, and in a general sense, making the future (Andersson 2018). Thus, the pandemic’s engulfing interruptions of the diachronic constitute its great apocalyptic break. In the heat of the pandemic, Mark Lilla claims that we can never really know the future (Sunday Review, NYT 5/24/20: 4-5). Modernism seemingly capitulates to apocalypse.
Yet modern societies have increased their capacities to undertake “rationalization of the Apocalypse.” The iconic pandemic example is the epidemiological effort to “flatten the curve” of contagion. This effort may or may not decrease the incidence of Covid-19, but it manages the epidemic so as to avoid shortages of intensive-care unit beds and ventilators. The example is telling. Yes, the diachronic is reasserted, but only through the transformation of old routines and the deployment of new ones. Action in strategic time becomes the basis for consolidating a transitional diachronic.
As for the collective synchronic here-and-now, its face-to-face ritual mechanisms sustain social solidarity in domains of religion, community, and nation (Hall 2009: 14-15). Yet pandemic policing restricts these potential hot spots of viral super-spreading. Death itself is robbed of the communion of collective mourning.
Then there are the pandemic’s mirrored temporal pre-apocalyptic and postapocalyptic cultural manifestations. Preppers, other-worldly sects, and survival groups are presumably having their day on the “other” side of the Apocalypse. And they are now joined by the affluent who have chosen to decamp from cities to their summer retreats, precipitating conflict with tourist-destination locals, some of whom regard their communities as engaged in quasi-pre-apocalyptic war with an invasion of infection-bearing zombies.
Meanwhile, in pre-apocalyptic hot zones, even ordinary people become survivalists – hording, sheltering in place, maintaining social distance, wearing masks, and taking up mutual aid. In the US, the culture wars inflect the Apocalypse: not wearing a mask symbolizes red-state male fortitude (NYT 6/2/2020). Massive demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis may precipitate broader insurrection, civil war, or social revolution, while strategically opportunistic looters and thieves use cell phones to coordinate their own strategic actions amidst the cover of chaos. A former CIA officer calls the turmoil “what happens in countries before a collapse” (Washington Post, 6/2/2020). Antifa versus Boogaloo movements rehearse an apocalyptic holy war. President Donald Trump fans the flames of confrontation with a photo-op walk that can only proceed by tear-gassing non-violent protesters, and letters to the editors of newspapers across the country compare Trump to Jim Jones, his “base” to Jones’s followers “drinking the Kool-Aid.” We are awash in manifestations of apocalyptic culture. Take your pick.
A version of this essay is to be published in summer, 2020, in Culture, the newsletter of the Culture section, American Sociological Association.
References Andersson, Jenny. 2018. The Future of the World. Futurology, Futurists and the Struggle for the Post Cold War Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Benjamin, Walter 1968 (1940). “Theses on the philosophy of history.” Pp. 253-64 in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. Hall, John R. 2009. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Polity, Cambridge. _____. 2019. Centennial performance of Max Weber, “Politics as a vocation,” abridged and updated, with audience questions. Santa Cruz, CA: Department of Sociology, University of California – Santa Cruz. YouTube: https://youtu.be/CyfwF90QI_E. _____. 2020 (1978). The Ways Out: Utopian Communal Groups in an Age of Babylon. Routledge Library Edition, with a new Foreword by the author. Routledge, New York. Weber, Marianne. 1975 (1926). Max Weber: A Biography (New York: John Wiley). Schutz, Alfred. 1967 (1932). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press.