This is How the World Ends: How our apocalyptic fixations may be affecting our culture.

I must get something off of my chest and in print before I spiral into another six month non-productive, contemplative state. It wasn’t until I recently finished the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins that I allowed myself time again to examine the state of affairs in fantasy fiction. What I found is entirely solipsistic, but I think you will find that this is the point. The way things are now, my personal library is full of dystopian fiction, and I’m not entirely sure if this is a reflection of my own bias, or if this is a genuine trend which pervades our culture. It was a strange feeling as I surveyed the cracked bindings and the dog-eared flaps of books ranging from H.G. Wells to Orwell and Vonnegut, and every McCarthy and Suzanne Collins between. I’m not even counting the fact that nearly every single religious book that I own, save the Talmud – five different variations of the Bible, the Qur’an, Book of Mormon, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mahabharata – describe an apocalypse scenario.

Am I reading more of these types of novels because of my own subjective tastes, or are my tastes reflecting what is more common in the market nowadays? Even my movie library is full of apocalyptic fixation. I have several movies on the zombie apocalypse, among others like Children of Men, Mad Max, Artificial Intelligence, The Matrix, Terminator, and Sunshine, etcetera ad infinitum. I guess I’m not sure if I am stuck in this sort of arrested development of taste, or if this is a culturally lateral thing which has snatched our collective imagination.

It wasn’t long ago I had a trio of Jehovah’s witnesses coming to my door handing out pamphlets which depicted the entire Earth aflame, explaining that the end was a certainty, and that the only thing we can do at this point is make ourselves right spiritually before we all cook. It was disturbing, I’ll admit. While we were discussing this terrible event ahead of us, I became aware that they didn’t really seem to have any hope for the future of Earthly things, nor did they give any thought for what happens to the human species beyond their own lifetime. The way I took it was that since the world is going to end anyway, there really is no point planning any sort of future. All movements toward advancing the human condition are futile, because there is nothing left for us except some plague, asteroid, nuclear war, imperial servitude, or revolution, rinse and repeat.

I can’t help worrying about our seemingly growing fascination with the end of things. Part of me wonders if our obsession with the end of the world is not just an obsession with our own mortality by proxy – how we will personally face our end by either going down swinging an ax into a horde of zombies as they pull us down into the deep dark, or shivering to death in an abandoned tube-station somewhere, frightened and alone. Because even if the world doesn’t end in some spectacular fashion, it will certainly end sooner or later for each one of us on a personal level.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these visions aren’t sometimes beautiful or even necessary; I’m more or less saying that if we are not careful, we may bring about the least desirable future, because we may accept some apocalyptic end of civilization as an inevitability with which we can do nothing about except prepare for it accordingly.

 My current state of worry circles back to another dystopian book that I read some years ago by Dan Simmons called Olympos, which first introduced me to Marcel Proust and his Search For Lost Time, volume III, The Guarmantes Way, as he wrote:

People of taste tell us that Renior is a great 18th century painter. But in so saying, they forget the element of Time, and that it took a great deal of time, even at the height of the nineteenth century, for Renior to be hailed as a great artist. To succeed thus in gaining recognition, the original painter, or the original writer proceeds on the lines of the oculist. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always pleasant. When it is at an end the practitioner says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we formerly saw, because they are Reniors, those Reniors we persistently refused to see as women. The carriages, too, are Reniors, and the water, and the sky; we feel tempted to go for a walk in the forest which is identical with the one which when we first saw looked like anything in the world except a forest, like for instance a tapestry of innumerable hues but lacking precisely the hues peculiar to a forest. Such is the new and perishable universe which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe is precipitated by a new painter or writer of original talent.”

At first glance, this is a very inspiring premise. The idea is that we create our own reality – that we create Reniors anew, first through cerebration and then through conceptualization, and then finally through material construction. The Golden Gate bridge, for example, existed in Irving Morrow’s mind long before it was actually constructed in this thing we share which we call reality. Now apply this concept to the pyramids, Mayan temples, telescopes, vaccines, the light-bulb, weapons and castles.

 The artists and visionaries create our world with original content, through the power of their imagination alone, and more often than not their imaginations select certain dreams out of necessity, and our dreams are reinforced by theirs, which inspire the dreams of others, and suddenly we’re in this strange paradigm of creating this new universe together, which will naturally influence the universes that our progeny will create until the end of time. I know what you’re thinking: what solipsistic and metaphysical bullshit? I’m not talking about the strange metaphysical hijacking of quantum mechanics that we have all grown tired of.

We know that we create our own reality; the process is called culture. The Complexity Theory shows us how things emerge. You can even study market patterns through Fibonacci waves, which indicate with averages how the application of a system of patterns produce other strong complex systems – this is simply the contrivance of market movement through our expectations alone.

 Anthropology is like this, in fact, because it is a field of research which is in the business of learning how cultural artifacts offer themselves as explanations for their own realities. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the International Space Station, Hubble telescope, and the flint rocks before them, our world comes from a ruse of imagination, and it ends up perpetually real and influential within the formation of newer and stranger worlds. Archaeology has thoroughly chronicled this process within the past few hundred years. This process even happens in microcosms throughout our media, music, art, technology, fashion and speech as it constantly emerges before our eyes. Inspiring at first glance, indeed. But these dystopian/apocalyptic obsessions may become a substructure of our hopes and dreams, if not a potentially unfortunate assumption.

What is it about this future that we have come to accept? This future when civilization is gone, and the survivors are picking clean the fossils of what could have been? Will we in fact create our reality from the dream of our obsession? Will we one day allow the end to happen, because we have gotten to the point where such a dream is not only certain, but is also a prophecy? What happened to our positive visions of the future? Where have those dreams gone? And since we have dreamt this other future, will those hopeful dreams ever return? What happens when the “what if” of apocalypse becomes generative, or the beautiful visions of our future cease to become generative? What if this manifested destiny takes on a flavor that we realize is blatantly unpalatable?

Having read and seen so many of these types of dystopian and apocalyptic stories, I know that nearly every single tale usually reveals some lesson or other: If we don’t adopt nuclear non-proliferation, we’ll destroy each other; If we don’t work together in order to elevate ourselves above our various dimensions of difference, then we will perish; Since this planet is an island in the cosmos, we are all in this together, and until we realize that we are vulnerable to plagues, asteroids, dictators and hostile aliens; If we don’t uphold constitutionally democratic principles and ideologies, we will eventually succumb to imperialism and slavery. You get the idea. These stories only ever serve as a cautionary tale for what could be, and I believe that is what they were always intended to be. But I think we’re allowing them to become more than that. I worry that we will forget how we can just as easily dream of a distant future without war, poverty, disease, greed, violence and victimization. Personally, I would like to see more of those kinds of stories. The irony isn’t lost to me that it finally took a beautiful book like The Hunger Games to help me realize it.

 

 

Shane Lindemoen is an American author, journalist, and an occasional literary critic; he is also the National Affairs Editor of Secret Laboratory. Shane is a self-described “poor white boy from the east side who happens to read about politics and stuff.” He has a sci-fi novel set for an 8/13/13 release called Artifact, published by Boxfire Press. Visit Shane at www.shanelindemoen.org.

E-mail Shane at shanelindemoen@secretlaboratory.org.

  2 comments for “This is How the World Ends: How our apocalyptic fixations may be affecting our culture.

  1. April 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    While I share some of your concerns with regards to the possibility of our species driving ourselves into one of the horrid scenarios mentioned within your article (a brilliantly constructed piece, by the way), I can only offer at this time a relatively cynical explanation, at this time, for anyone noticing the heavily apocalyptic theme in their book/movie/game libraries; this particular theme is commercially successful right now, so it’s going to be rather pervasive. In the publishing industry, a traditional trope is ‘go where the money’s flowing’. This can be applied to any entertainment business model. The only thing that religious texts have in terms of an advantage over the other places where apocalyptic themes are creeping up is that they chimed in on the whole ‘end of the world’ scene first.

    Anyhow, cheers, sir, and well put on your article. Hope to see more from you soon.

  2. July 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Thanks for the compliments. But that’s bit circular, isn’t it? Is the theme prevalent because it’s commercially successful, or is it commercially successful because it’s prevalent? When did this fascination become something that people are certain will happen? This is all rhetorical, you don’t have to answer. And I guess I was more or less wondering if this was a new thing, or something that has been a part of our culture since time immemorial. Now, we might see how our current obsessions with dystopia and apocalypse have simply become contemporary expressions of those old superstitious stories of revelation, ragnorak and chaos. I guess what I’m trying to say is that those types of stories might not be as useful at this point in time, as those hopeful, positive stories of a future that we have the capacity to create.

Leave your comment here. We welcome your input!