The Art of the Post-Apocalyptic

En migrerad post från en liten engelsk blogg jag hade ett tag.

In the last few weeks I have directed some of my reading and thinking to the post-apocalyptic, for several reasons. I believe that the subject merits some analysis and I also think that it is a strong zeitgeist-element. In fact, our fascination with the post-apocalyptic is one of the strongest signs in the semiotics of our time, I think. We are not focused on the apocalypse as such, but at what comes after, the great big, grey swath of time that extends beyond the end. And our interest in the post-apocalyptic is becoming stronger and stronger. Just look at this Google Insights-graph over searches:

The rise of the post-apocalyptic

The perhaps most fascinating thing is the way this permeates modern art and culture in different ways (entertainment is the main category for the post-apocalyptic, the graph tells us, ironically — but the more interesting take away is that lots of the searches are categorized as “lifestyle”…) Think of all the zombie movies set in a world after the End, or of the many novels that take place in a world that has collapsed. Not only fantastic art like The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, but also niche-literature like World War Z. Or think of Nine Inch Nails wonderful theme-album Year Zero. All works that hover near the apocalypse, but tend to push through, and end up in the post-apocalyptic.

Does a road actually lead anywhere after the apocalypse?

I think the genre as such presents an artist with a number of really hard challenges. How do you build narrative and meaning after having started your book with what is essentially the End? Well, McCarthy, of course, finds a way (by simply refusing to accept that as a given fact and asking the question rather than acting on the premise that post-apocalyptic narrative needs new formats). What I find truly disturbing and disappointing, though, is the number of writers who basically cheat by forming new civilizations. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a great read, but not properly post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was just that, a passage, not an End.


What is it, then, in our time that pushes the post-apocalyptic to the fore? We are the children of nuclear deterrence, and we never got our apocalypse – shouldn’t we be amazed and thoroughly sick of focusing on Ends? The environmental debate and climate challenges in some of its formats bring it back, but overall there seems to be more optimism about the future today than thirty years ago.

Of course, you could argue that it is optimistic to think that there will be a “post-” when the apocalypse hits. But that is not it. And I do not think that this is all tanathos in disguise, either (I am not freudian enough to believe in that). I think the root of our fascination for the post-apocalyptic comes from a secret desire for simplicity and for values. Life in the post-apocalyptic world turns out to be about values. The Entzauberung is gone, and the world has been re-enchanted and opened up to values again. Humans are no longer reduced to resources, through technology’s Gestell. Our longing for the post-apocalyptic is a longing for the return of moral value.

Ultimately, the post-apocalyptic genre, then, is conservative.

Addendum 2010-09-26

It occured to me when reading through this post, that this is exactly what the last song on Nine Inch Nails’ post-apocalyptic Year Zero illustrates, it is a quiet fear of digital nihilism, the lyrics a master piece of ambivalence between nihilistic despair and religious belief:

Shame on us/Doomed from the start/May God have mercy/On our dirty little hearts/Shame on us/For all we’ve done/And all we ever were/Just zeros and ones

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