Dr Timothy Peters
School of Law and Criminology, University of the Sunshine Coast
What is law’s role in holding back the end of the world? The demands placed on legal theory today include the need to reconceive legal responsibility in the epoch of the Anthropocene, to reconceptualized legal action in light of nonhuman agency and to incorporate alternative approaches to law as means to resist the ongoing global instability (Phillippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, 2019). Positioning these claims for legal theory alongside the demands placed upon law to respond to global crises—environmental, humanitarian, technological—is seemingly to call upon law to hold back the end of the world. That is, it is to conceive law as operating in a ‘katechontic’ fashion (to use St Paul’s term from 2 Thessalonians for the restraining of the ‘lawless one’ whose unleashing will prefigure the second coming of Christ and the advent of the Kingdom of God). The figure of the katechon, at least as a political metaphor for the state, is central to the recent interest in the debates over Political Theology arising out of the infamous work of Carl Schmitt (Schmitt, 2006; Esposito, 2015; Heron, 2016). In this paper I wish to think through the demands placed upon law as both salvific and katechontic through a critical reading of the most significant Hollywood ‘double-feature’ of recent years: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). In these films, the mega-band of superheroes are brought together to counter the plans of the mad-God Thanos. In Infinity War, Thanos’s mission, whilst terrible, is depicted explicitly in economic terms: over-population is the crux of all evil requiring the random (and therefore ‘just’) elimination of half of all populations in order to restore economic and ecological balance to the universe. In Endgame, whilst environmental recovery seems to be occurring, Thanos determines that his mission was a failure. Instead, he should destroy the entire universe, replacing it with a more ‘grateful’ one overflowing with life and prosperity. In these films, the role of the title characters, the Avengers, is about attempting to prevent Thanos’s initial mission (which they fail to), restore those that were lost and prevent Thano’s second mission (which they achieve). These forms of prevention and restoration reflect that which is also demanded of the law—prevention of future calamity or, if this fails, seeking a way of restoring a past position. The law is thus katechontic in being called upon to hold back that which might destroy it—but in doing so, it paradoxically is holding back the possibility of redemption. Preventing Thanos’s vision of the future stops a world-wide apocalypse but also prevents the possibility of a ‘new world.’ That the solution engaged in by the Avengers is temporal—literally travelling through time to collect the ‘infinity stones’, which Thanos had used to fulfil his mission—is significant as it points to the way in which the idea of the katechon itself evokes a particular understanding of time and its end. Yet, as has recently been argued by a number of scholars engaged with the work of Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, rather than being a vestige of an eschatological vision of times past, it is only when immanent temporality takes precedence over the possibility of the ‘end of time’, that the idea of the katechon itself comes into its own (Prozorov, 2012; Heron, 2016). That is, the katechon involves a suspension of the eschatological which makes secular law and politics possible. In renouncing the end of time and of eternity, what is produced is the need for a figure which, whilst deploying potential evil means to do so, will be able to hold back a greater evil. It is prescient, then, that our speculative imaginary has become obsessed with the apocalyptic in an era where secular law and politics is grounded in its very suspension.
Dr Timothy D Peters is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the USC Law School, University of the Sunshine Coast, an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Law Futures Centre, Griffith University and President of the Law, Literature and the Humanities Association of Australasia. His research has two major focuses, examining: the intersections of legal theory, theology and popular culture; and critical theories of the corporation and corporate law from the perspective of political and economic theologies. Tim has been a Managing Editor of the Griffith Law Review (2012-2017) and Secretary of both the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia (2009-2016) and Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand (2006-2016). He is currently an editorial board member of the Griffith Law Review, the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law and Springer’s new book series on ‘Law and Visual Jurisprudence’.