, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 293-313

Apocalyptic Argument and the Anticipation of Catastrophe: the Prediction of Risk and the Risks of Prediction

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Abstract

This essay proposes to extend the model of apocalyptic argument developedin my recent book Arguing the Apocalypse (O‘Leary, 1994) beyond the study ofreligious discourse, by applying this model to the debate over awell-publicized earthquake prediction that caused a widespread panic in theAmerican midwest in December, 1990. The first section of the essay willsummarize the essential elements of apocalyptic argument as I have earlierdefined them; the second section will apply the model to the case of the NewMadrid, Missouri, earthquake prediction, in order to demonstrate thatcertain patterns of reasoning characteristic of religious apocalyptic arepresent in the discourse over an anticipated local disaster. My ultimatepurpose is to show that predictions of global and local catastrophe mayserve as extreme cases that will illuminate the dynamics of predictiveargument in general. Thus my argument will seek to undercut Daniel Bell‘sdistinction between prophecy and prediction (Bell, 1973) by establishingthat these discourses share identifiable formal and substantivecharacteristics, and depend for their rhetorical effect on anxiety, hope,far, and excitement as modes of temporal anticipation.