Post-Apocalyptic Dreams

total melt down mutants end times now

The always interesting Chris Nakashima-Brown at No Fear of the Future posted a link to an interesting Reason article about Science-Fiction as a playground for political ideas. But I found his subsequent discussion more interesting, especially since it touches on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the post he says:

“[…] the persistence of post-apocalyptic scenarios (as well as many disaster movies) expresses a latent yearning for the destruction of the state apparatus and the abolition of private property. At a deeper psychological level, […] the idea of roaming a depopulated earth rummaging for useful artifacts articulates the extent of our individual alienation in a thoroughly commodified society.”

No Fear of the Future

I think Chris is correct. I would add that the apocalyptic imagination is symptomatic of an inability to imagine a society different from ours. The Slavoj Zizek quote: “it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system,” is particularly apt. The future event horizon is so saturated by commodities, markets and debt (think about it, every 30 year mortgage is a financial spore which ensures that capitalism keeps blooming in our future) that it becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine a future that is different from the present. It becomes easy to think that some kind of Apocalyptic Event (AE) maybe our only way out.

But, much of this is tied to the continued survival of the capitalist system. Recent events, such as the financial crisis, put that survival in some doubt (I’m not counting out capitalism just yet though). Add to that the boundless optimism sparked by Obama’s victory and all of a sudden you have a license to imagine a different future. I wonder what kind of Science-Fictions the current situation will spawn? Will the apocalyptic imagination be as prevalent? After all, an Apocalyptic Event (real or imagined) is often prerequisite for the dream of Utopia.

6 Replies to “Post-Apocalyptic Dreams”

  1. after reading Cormac McCarthy’s the Road I felt like it was sort of a punishment for me and anyone else who has happily been fantasizing about the end of the world instead of just changing the world.

  2. HA! I haven’t read The Road yet, but it’s on my to-read list. It probably goes without saying that life post civilization meltdown for most people would likely be nasty, brutish and short. Still, I think it’s important to fantasize about the potential liberating effects. Otherwise fear of the apocalypse can be used to justify present injustices (it’s not so bad… not as bad as the end of the world would be) and prevent potential changes for the better.

  3. OH, I was going to mention the Road! I had a similar reaction to Brett’s. My fantasy that I could survive a post-apocalyptic event was dashed with that book. I am pretty sure I couldn’t survive past my first serious asthma attack much less the death of my wife and son. I read “The World Without US” right around the same time as “The Road” and think those are good companion books for each other.
    Tom, you make a great point about the liberating effect of a do-over/re-boot scenario and not succumbing to fear to gloss over present injustice, but I think changes towards a better future are being made. The changes are just more gradual and are done over more time than I would prefer. My pragmatism usually wins over my impatience.
    Nice post!

  4. Tom! Thanks for the kind words. The feed back is much appreciated as I try to flesh out my thoughts on the subject for this essay I am trying to work on. I shared the view that The Road was the most bleak portrayal of the profound alienation I am talking about, and was relieved when half-way through it seemed to slip into unintentional self-parody — what I called “the first literary realist zombie novel.”
    I absolutely concur with your comment about the inability to imagine a different world. I have been struggling with that idea a lot — the death of utopian visions after the fall of state socialism. Do you think we can concoct a new vision in the smudged margins of comics and pulp fiction?
    I’m afraid when it comes to optimism about imminent real change in Washington, despite my relatively high opinion of Obama as a rare politician with some bona fide intellectual integrity, I’m afraid I’m with Zizek (in the New Yorker profile you link) in comparing the choice between Democrat and Republican to the choice “between Equal and Sweet’n Low, or between Letterman and Leno.”
    — Chris

  5. Tom, I’ve been enjoying checking your blog out from time to time. This post struck me because just this morning I was looking around on line for a Michael Stipe interview I heard on the radio a while back. I’m not particularly an REM fan but he said something interesting to the effect that he has a recurring dreamworld, a post-apocalyptic landscape that informs a lot of his lyrics and which he finds traces of in other artists’ work. I’ve been thinking about some of this imagery in my own dreams (increased in intensity this last week because of the events in Mumbai) and the political/Marxist angle of your post and its comments offer a fruitful lens through which to consider this stuff… for one thing, it’s a more appealing explanation for the way we seem to share these nightmare visions (tho Stipe’s is apparently relatively benign–and I think I know what he means: a banal dystopia) than some Jungian or spiritual connection.
    here’s a snippet of an interview I found, followed by the link, if anyone’s interested:
    “It’s a post-apocalyptic future, but it’s not frightening. It’s not scary. I think a lot of people probably inhabit that same universe. I look at other writers or filmmakers particularly– a handful of photographers, but a lot of filmmakers who do science fiction work or what have you– seem to inhabit that same dream world, so I don’t feel that alone.”

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