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Apocalyptic Fortifications

CAPAS Working Group: Summer Semester 2023

Published onJul 04, 2023
Apocalyptic Fortifications

Members of the group: 

 Mia Bennett

Christine Cornea

Michael Dunn

Robert Folger

Teresa Heffernan

Robert Kirsch 

Felicitas Loest

Theresa Meerwarth

Laura Mendoza 

Florian Mussgnug 

Emily Ray

Jenny Stümer


 *This is the group’s end of year presentation. Although this is not a complete account of the discussions we had, it is a way to reflect on some of the main aspects and discussion points we raised throughout the semester.


Fortifying Sovereignty: Jenny Stümer

Our way into discussing the apocalypse this semester was organized along vectors of fortification. In many ways these discussions built on and furthered previous thinking on space and temporality that have emerged at CAPAS. This semester, however, we focused on the details of affective attunements to apocalyptic anticipation and crisis acceleration through specific orientations towards spatial and temporal enclosures.

In one way, the various fortifications we have considered have offered a lens into unpacking the peculiar conditions of the techno-modern present in the context of what Alenka Zupančič (2017: 16), among others, has called, “the apocalyptic mood in recent times.” On the other hand, in discussing processes of fortification, we have also come to learn about investments in and emerging attachments to apocalypse as an epistemic orientation grounded in the violent past (“the end of the world has already happened”) and conservative futurities (“the end of the world will happen, unless…”). What is at stake in these dynamics, however, is the unsettling tussle between a sense of control and the threat of total exposure – or the twists and toils of an inherently incoherent sense of ‘self’ and ‘world’ caught up in a web of possible endings that are themselves a means of politics, culture, and experience– and which are shaped by what we might identify as a clinging on to precarious forms of sovereignty, precisely in the moment when sovereignty itself is exposed to be mere fantasy in a world that seems fragile beyond repair.

Of course, sovereignty as concept or an idea, ideal, aesthetic, identity claim, and political force emerges as a sense of control over a situation or territory and then extends into different ideological consolidations that shape the World as an onto-epistemological imperial project. As such sovereignty saturates the liberal colonial nation state and the various subjectivities it hosts (and excludes). And it is extended (and withdrawn) through the attribution of various forms of micro-sovereignties that are simultaneously desired, feared and increasingly failed, a tension which in turn produces various forms and practices of fortification and exposure. If sovereignty operates as a fantasy, without which modern politics is unthinkable, it needs to be repackaged in this way over and over. To say this does not imply that sovereignty is empty or does not bear severe material consequences. On the contrary, to point out the fantasmatic status of sovereignty in a crisis-ridden world is a way of intimating that it operates as an inexhaustible structure that, like the colonial liberal state it anxiously holds together, needs to be compulsively renewed over and over again. In this sense, sovereignty operates as a powerful affect – or sense of agency – an apocalyptic repetition that inspires all kinds of material defenses which are variously escalating existing forms of violence, depending on how severely and deeply the threats they promise to hold off are felt.

Fortifications then have a symbolic and performative function in the staging of sovereignty, particularly in the face of apocalyptic anticipation. As such, they do not actually prevent, avoid or slow down the various ‘ends’ they prefigure, but more generally work to produce and accelerate the world ending scenarios that justify the World’s existence. In the sense that Kyle Whyte (2021) talks about emerging forms of ‘crisis epistemology’ whereby the assumption that a particular crisis is new, unprecedented urgent, and definitely apocalyptic leads to actions that escalate, incrementally but incessantly, the very structures that have brought about these crises in the first place, apocalyptic fortifications seek to bolster hegemonic temporal, spatial and affective regimes against the possibility of their upending. Apocalypse in this regard provides the background, frame and methodology through which sovereign power is negotiated and fantasmatically fortified. As such apocalypse is tied to various infrastructures of modernity, precisely because apocalypse as future horizon provides the footing for a biopolitical present that dramatizes the fantasy of sovereignty as a spatial and temporal enclosure.   

In the following we will unpack these dynamics through the examples of the basement, the bunker, the bubble, and the body and work through different thematic trajectories of affect and anticipation, permeability and closure, as well as acceleration and apocalypse. Our sense is that this leads to a discussion about the possibilities of rethinking politics and the question of non-sovereignty (and we would like to pose this as such) as a move away from the spatial and temporal enclosures encrusting an apocalyptic modernity.


Basement: Mia Bennett

Many people, particularly children, are scared of basements. In these dark, damp, underground spaces, people stash things they would prefer to keep out of sight. At the same time, basements provide the structural foundations for the things above: life, family, a house, a home. In Ursula LeGuin’s (1973) short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, a fetid basement under one of the city’s ‘beautiful public buildings’ is fundamental to the society’s functioning – or, more precisely, thriving. The people of Omelas, ‘a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time’ (p. 2) live happily and freely. Yet they all know their above-ground urban joy is only made possible by suffering below. Contained within the basement is a tortured, speechless child covered in sores. While hidden from regular view, the child is an open secret. Some of Omelas’ citizens have seen the child, while ‘others are content merely to know it is there’ (p. 4). Any gesture of kindness toward the unwanted human, no matter how big or small, would destroy the happiness of all those outside.

            This is the social contract tacitly struck by the people of Omelas. The revelation of the child in the basement – inserted by Leguin towards the end, as a shocking plot twist – symbolizes the skeleton in the closet of so many picture-perfect societies. In laying bare the ugliness of utopia, LeGuin’s short story – part sci-fi, part philosophy – connects directly with Ahmed (2001). In her seminal article, ‘The organisation of hate’, the scholar exposes how hate stories often have at their core ‘a subject that is under threat by imagined others whose proximity threatens, not only to take something away from the subject (jobs, security, wealth and so on), but to take the place of the subject. In other words, the presence of this other is imagined as a threat to the object of love’ (p. 346). Basements, which hide away the hated, form both the underbelly and foundation of many societies. Internal bonds among an in-group are tightened by severing those with the despised ‘others.’ The undesired and unloved are stored in the prisons of Rikers Island, Guantanamo Bay, and Diego Garcia; in derelict housing estates; under freeways, and in countless other metaphorical basements of modern societies.

            The thing about basements, though, is that its contents are not meant to be destroyed nor discarded. They are meant to be safeguarded, kept for a future time when they might be needed – even if their purpose remains unclear. In some cases, the basement’s contents are vital to post-apocalyptic life: Luke (2021: 56) describes preppers whose objectives are ‘to accumulate complete stocks to supply their own stores of ecological services, which then are stacked high in the basement’. Whether storing food or a wounded child, the basement comforts those above it. They feel secure in their lofty positions by knowing that something sits downstairs. Without the underworld, there can be no world. To destroy the basement would mean bringing about the end of the world. It would mean giving in to living in the present, without a guarantee of the perpetuation of current conditions. It would mean, to return to LeGuin, walking away to the unknown.


Bunkers: Robert E. Kirsch

Our discussion of bunkers was centered around a selection from Joseph Masco’s The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making. Masco situates the bunker as an extreme technology that seeks to fortify the extreme violence of the status quo in everyday life. The ability to think of everyday life in terms other than extremes becomes difficult: “In such a world, which relies on a highly developed social commitment to normalizing extremes to secure profit and knowledge, reflexive critique becomes… fraught.” (Masco, 180). Bunkers thus fortify the existing order and its normalization of violence in everyday life against the “productive shock” of an apocalyptic event (180). This seems paradoxical but it maps on to the insight that fortifications are spaces that are oriented toward apocalypse, and while they putatively try to avert such an absolute ending (or however we wish to conceptualize an apocalyptic event), bunkers thus represent a spatial arrangement that accelerates toward that end by intensifying and spatializing the extreme violence of the existing order into a tidy backyard package.

            Bunkering is, therefore, emblematic of the violence of the status quo as well as an attachment to a continuation of the status quo. Consider the example of the “Gaither Report,” a 1957 Congressional report in the U.S. that made the case for people to build their own fallout shelters during the Cold War. This kind of “rational planning” does not “eliminate the possibility of collective death but rather, through self-mystification, to install its possibility ever deeper into an expert state system” (188). The self-mystification can be easily cast as the image of the backyard sovereign, the bunkerizing subject who is able to reproduce the state a few meters underground and can fortify for the survival of the extreme biopolitical project of normalized violence of things such as “war, boom-and-bust capitalism, [and] environmental ruin” (Masco, 180). Indeed, the Gaither Report solidified this ideological commitment by noting that bunkering would signal in the enemy a: “belief in our readiness to use, if necessary, our strategic retaliatory power” where “survivors could pull through and remake a way of life” (“Gaither Report,” 655-656). It further concretizes Masco’s argument about the “expert state system” by noting that: “...the benefits that can derive from an intelligent and coordinated [bunker] program are realizable only in the context of a superior over-all organization, charged with the responsibility for the total job and with the authority and means to get this job done” (657). The fantasy of backyard sovereign falls apart in the face of the total sovereignty of Leviathan.

            Two levels of fortification become visible here. The first is the individual, affective level of the backyard sovereign, with fantasies of recreating the Leviathan and the enclosures of the liberal project in the fallout shelter. The second is at the level of statecraft, insisting on the instrumental reason of “globalized, economized, technologized modernity,” and using the fortifications of forestalling the apocalypse as “a set of compensations for those events, desires, and biological facts that disrupt specific calculations of progress/profit” (Masco, 188). These two levels interact with each other at the level of “affective as well as technological support, merging complex social and technological processes that become fused in perceptions of global risk” (188). Here is where Masco justifies his use of apocalypse as a “productive shock” that can induce critical reflexivity about different ways of organizing life - fortification insists on the status quo and a foreclosing of that productive shock.


Bubbles: Florian Mussgnug

The cultural relations between fears of incarceration and recuperative fantasies of spherical self-enclosure are complex. We discussed some of these nuances and cultural-historical inflections in the second meeting of our group, which was focused on Jean Baudrillard’s short essay, “The Boy in the Bubble (1993)”. In this eerily prescient intervention, the French philosopher describes vacuum-sealed dwelling as a “prefigurement of the future”, in which all cultural worlds are structured immunologically, in the sense that each world interprets every difference within itself as a possible foreign invasion. 

Our collaborative analysis of apocalyptic fortification provided us with the conceptual basis for a critique of Baudrillard’s radical vision. Drawing from Elizabeth Povinelli’s theory of autological subjectivity, we argue that  all spaces of immunity are also, by necessity, spaces of community, in so far as their structure reflected the mutual interdependence of autological subject and genealogical society as a temporally situated manifestation of biopower. The imposition of spherical, immunological self-sameness, for Povinelli, is a historically gesture of biopolitical violence, which syncopates the flow of time and thereby constructs (and expels) alterity both in the past (indigeneity) and in the future (the migrant). This gesture of violence, which Povinelli names “the governance of the prior”, is both constitutive and structural. Through its endless repetition, the social matrix of spherical self-enclosure achieves hegemonic power. In other words, the violent exclusion of the other, for Povinelli, is both an “ancestral catastrophe” and a  practice that must be perpetually revisited and re-enacted. Without  re-iteration, the bounded atmospheric interiority of the bubble would either dispel or be transformed into a lifeless space of definitive, suffocating enclosure. In response to Baudrillard’s (post)apocalyptic musings about future states of perfect immunological enclosure, Povinell’s work reminds us that, from a diachronic perspective, no bubble can ever achieve complete atmospheric immunity: a bubble is only a bubble for a limited period of time, between two time-knots. 


Bodies: Robert Folger

In a historical perspective, “Western” modernity is predicated upon the fortification of the body. The premodern body was porous and permeated by the world; it formed a compound with a soul that was individual (as the subject of salvation) and collective, through its creation in the image of God and its final apocalyptic destiny in God. With the Cartesian split between res cogitans and res extensa, the mind becomes opposed to a world that can be manipulated and dominated; at the same time, the body becomes the fortress of the mind, a material protection against material destruction. This Cartesian split affects the creation of a “natural environment,” and outside of the self, marked by the boundaries of the body and subject to instrumental reason. Thus, the fortified body makes the fantasy of individual sovereignty possible, and, at the same time it becomes the basis for social contract theories and the delegation of sovereignty to the Leviathan. This suspension of individual sovereignty is ideologically framed by the need to preserve the fortified body from violence. Moreover, the preservation of the body-fortress requires acts of prepping: the construction of borders and fortifications as a territorial basis of sovereignty, but also the prepping (and fortification) of the body made possible by a biopolitical framework and interpellative apparatuses.

Of course, the fortified body is of phantasmatic nature: the completeness of the body and its delimitation through the contours of the body is a phantasy, a fetish, that manifests and reveals and, at the same time, hides or suppresses the foundational lack and the material embeddedness of the subject in the world. The phantasmatic nature of the fortified body implies a form of hauntology. Specters of the past (or pasts) and of futures haunt the fortified and bunkerized subject and threaten its illusion of linear and never-ending temporality: the permeable body of the past and the disintegrating body of the future have to be banned or exorcized to maintain the phantasy of sovereignty.

The fortified body in fortifications (bunkers) acts out the fantasy of sovereignty by guaranteeing or, at least, imagining the preservation of the body. It is the ultimate fantasy of individual sovereignty over the world, based not only on the opposition of subject/body and world, but the independence from the world, expressed in the fantasy of individual survival in apocalypse. Apocalyptic bunkerization is a secularization of the Christian dogma, of judgment, and of resurrection in the flesh.

Today’s transhumanist projects and fantasies can be seen as trans-formations of the fortified body (a technologically more advanced fortress-body) and its sovereignty. The fortified and bunkerized subject becomes its own katechon.


Conclusion: Emily Ray  

We were guided by fortifications and how they intersect with sovereignty and modernity. As such, we considered how fortification is a part of a fantasy of sovereignty that no one should achieve. Absolute sovereignty would entail having an impermeable boundary around your personal world, which if achieved would end in death. Permeability upsets modern notions of sovereignty because it exposes sovereignty as a fantasy. Bodies are highly permeable, even as that runs against the fantasies of sealed and discrete individuals who must learn to live with one another. Heavily fortified spaces like bunkers are permeable, they require regular circulation of waste and air. The child in the closet punctures a hole in the idyll of Omelas, fortified against unhappy conditions by the child’s suffering. Even the modern narrative of civilizational progress is challenged by its own permeability: The narrative leaves a trail of violence, struggles to contain its multitudinous stories and its inherently regressive ideological orientation. 

Fortifications are penetrable and fantastical, they require constant vigilance to restore a sense of security from whatever is considered a threat. Fortifications are conservative actions and objects: They endeavor to conserve something which does not exist but that some people wish existed, like a past of white families living happily and harmoniously in racial purity. Fortifications try to fortify not just the fantasy itself but the imagined enemies of the fantasy. To keep with the white ethnostate example, imagined enemies would be migrants, people of color, Jews, and feminists looking to destabilize the order and pollute what is behind the fortification. 

While fortifications are meant to halt or slow a crisis, we suggest that fortifications accelerate the conditions of crisis. Fortifications are generated within the ideological frames that have yielded the various crises at hand, fortifications are the shadow image of the perfectable state. In order to achieve that state, the boundaries must be identified and defended through bubbles, border walls, bodily barriers, and bunkers. Fortifications accelerate the crisis by intensifying the tensions between the fantasy of self-contained subjects and the rest of the world. These defenses work to reinforce an untenable idea of self-sealing, whether on the personal level or of the nation state. In creating spheres of safety, fortifications and those who try to live within them become less concerned about connection and more concerned about incursions and threats. We can contrast the images of the Titan submersible with its billionaire passengers, fully enclosed in an economically exclusive and self-contained underwater bunker, impermeable until it wasn’t, against the photographs of the sinking ship of migrants off the coast of Greece, hundreds exposed to the upper decks, to the drowned lower decks, the vessel itself impossibly permeable, with water, air, and bodies in a deadly commingle. These images highlight the tension between the fortification as a deathtrap and the uneven exposure of a politics of permeability. In thinking about fortifications, what can it tell us about building a new world out of one that is accelerating towards its own demise? 

Fortifications reiterate the old politics that move us towards catastrophe. What is an open politics, a collective exposure that is not mediated along racial, class, and gendered lines, along ability and health, along the power axes of colonizer and colonized? Who gets to be part of the political, who is exposed and how? Judith Butler (2020) in an essay on vulnerability makes clear that sharing a condition of vulnerability is not the basis of politics, but it does do important work: “I cannot live without living together with some set of people, and it is invariable that the potential for destruction dwells precisely in that necessary relationship. That one group cannot live without living together with another such group means that one’s own life is already in some sense the life of the other.” We can think about open politics in terms of solidarity, which does not require a theory of the individual as sovereign, it does not require fortifying against penetrability and permeability, and instead recognizes the futility of such organizational modes. What kind of politics helps us face apocalyptic conditions? 



Ahmed, S. (2001). The Organisation of hate. Law and Critique, 12, 345-365.

Baudrillard, J. (2005). The boy in the bubble, in E. Garnet (Ed.) Impulse Archaeology. University of Toronto Press.

Butler, J. (2020). Judith Butler on Rethinking Vulenrability, Violence, Resistance. Verso, 6 March.

Le Guin, U. K. (1973). The ones who walk away from Omelas.

Luke, T. W. (2021). Beyond Prepper Culture as Right-wing Extremism: Selling Preparedness to Everyday Consumers as How to Survive the End of the World on a Budget. Fast Capitalism, 18(1).

Masco, J. (2021). The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making. Duke University Press.

Security Resources Panel of the Science Advisory Committee. (1976). Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age (the “Gaither Report” of 1957). U.S. Government Printing Office.

Whyte, K. P. (2021) Against Crisis Epistemology. In Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies, edited by A. Moreton-Robinson, L. Tuhiwai-Smith, C. Andersen, and S. Larkin, 52-64. London: Routledge.

Zupančič,  A. (2017-18) The Apocalypse is (Still) Disappointing. Journal of the Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique 10 & 11: 16-30.


Working group reading list:

Ahmed, S. (2001). The organisation of hate. Law and Critique, 12, 345-365.

Baudrillard, J. (1993). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Verso. (Ch. on ‘Prophylaxis and Virulence’) 

Baudrillard, J. (2005). The boy in the bubble, in E. Garnet (Ed.) Impulse Archaeology. University of Toronto Press.

Kaplan, A. (1998). Manifest domesticity. American Literature, 70(3), 581-606.

Kaplan, E. A. (2015). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. Rutgers University Press. (Ch. 2)

Lavin, C. (2013). Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics. University of Minnesota Press.

Le Guin, U. K. (1973). The ones who walk away from Omelas.

Luke, T. W. (2021). Beyond Prepper Culture as Right-wing Extremism: Selling Preparedness to Everyday Consumers as How to Survive the End of the World on a Budget. Fast Capitalism, 18(1).

Masco, J. (2020). The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making. Duke University Press. (Section 2: Bunkers and Psyches)

Nichols, J., & Wingo, D. (2011). Take Shelter [film]. Sony Pictures Classics.

Povinelli, E. A. (2020). Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Duke University Press. (Intro, Ch. 5, Conclusion)

Timofeeva, O. (2014). The End of the World, From Apocalypse to the End of History and Back. E-flux Journal, 56.


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