The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

During a Facebook discussion in response to my post yesterday on The Road, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

I am never sure what to make of “post-apocalyptic porn.” On the one hand they seem to be thought experiments about the “State of Nature.” On the other, they seem to tend to express exaggerated exasperation with “civilization,” as if reinforcing the feeling that “nothing can be done.”

Maureen is right that a standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed.’ This is the fiction of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ alluded to in yesterday’s post; it is will be revealed once the civilizing layers of our civilization are removed and we revert back to the original ‘state of nature’. The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true. (This lesson may be imparted with varying degrees of sanctimony depending on the artist.)

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

Maureen’s second point illustrates the ways in which post-apocalyptic depictions may be read as making the claim that civilization’s  promises were always illusory; the changes and improvements it supposedly brought about were transient, contingent and ultimately fragile; the apocalypse destroys our civilization’s claims to have improved us; we remain just as uncivilized as we ever were. Because its hold on us is shown to be so tenuous, we feel serious doubt awaken within us about whether it’s a civilization worth saving in the first place. If its moral lessons weren’t permanent, if the order it created was only a temporary imposition. then what good is it anyway? How much commitment can it demand if its legacy is only a thin veneer of restrained behavior, a temporary cessation of an otherwise incessant hostility?

The post-apocalyptic genre is both forgiving and condemnatory in its views of humans and the world they make for themselves.

3 comments on “The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

  1. […] It is be too simplistic to suggest, as many are often tempted to when confronted with such portrayals of social degeneration in response to catastrophe, that these are occasions when “true human nature”, inevitably described as “selfish” and “cruel”, is on display. Instead, as I have argued before, […]

  2. […] Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios: […]

  3. Kat says:

    I don’t agree with the idea that works of a post-apocalyptic nature are intended to instill us with the moral argument that this is how things would be pre-law and society. I think the second point is infinitely more accurate and in fact the end of the first point indicates that when you say “So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown.” Because isn’t the point of post-apocalyptic literature and movies to show what humans would become in times of crisis and desperation?

    And in fact, even in today’s society (which is decidedly not post-apocalyptic) when laws are “removed” or altered, such as during a hostile takeover or extreme genocide, don’t people commit unspeakable acts in the hope that they can save themselves or someone they love? I think there is a thin veneer of civilization that exists in a lot of places for the sole purpose of convincing other places that everything is fine and outsiders need not bother themselves to dig deeper. Laws allow us to feel safe and have some modicum of control over our lives. If that is taken away then it becomes a “survival of the fittest” world but only in the sense that those who can adapt will remain alive, not that those who do whatever they want will thrive.

    This, however, is not the point of the post-apocalyptic works. Those are not designed to show us what we would be like without laws. They are written and performed to showcase how desperation can make even the most sane and civilized act in a way that perhaps goes against their nature, simply because they want to survive not because that’s who they really are deep down. Not to mention that you can never fully remove societal norms and structures, humans are social animals and we always look to a leader in times of crisis.

    Do you have a specific example in mind for the first point of the argument?

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