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Although dire predictions about a looming apocalypse date back to the Romans, for more modern naysayers, it was after World War II that our obsession with the Endtimes really acquired legs...and began lurching out of the collective unconscious and into pop culture. Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave the world a terrible picture of what nuclear warfare entailed, while the Holocaust underscored the horrifying capacity humans have for violence. "We no longer necessarily imagine the type of positive future that was more prevalent in centuries past, for example, during the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution," says Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar, who explored these themes in her doctoral dissertation, "Fictions of Destruction: Post-1945 Narrative and Disaster in the Collective Imaginary." Surveying books, television, advertisements and movies, she found that "we use fictional narratives not only to emotionally cope with the possibility of impending doom, but even more importantly perhaps to work through the ethical and philosophical frameworks that were in many ways left shattered in the wake of WWII." The devastating events of the 20th century, "left [us] with this cultural fixation on fictionalizing our own death, very specifically mass-scale destruction."
Disaster fiction is certainly nothing new. What is new is the nature and scale of the disasters, both in the post-war period and more recently, since September 11, 2001. While these scenarios are often populated by a zombie horde, the undead, according to Vidergar, are not actually the point. "Zombies are important as a reflection of ourselves," she explains. "The ethical decisions that the survivors have to make under duress and the actions that follow those choices are very unlike anything they would have done in their normal state of life." Although the setting is comic-book'ish, they provide a safe place for addressing dilemmas that are anything but with questions like: What character would I be like? What would I be willing to do in order to survive? Survivalism has become a "dominant mode of self-reference" notes Vidergar about the growing legions of Doomsday Preppers and apocalyptic hoarders.
The secretly sunny underbelly of all this prepping is that it extends beyond just the immediate family to the survival of entire communities and humanity as a whole. Interestingly as we wrestle with the idea we might becoming extinct, this unthinkable notion seems to be freeing in its very bleakness, giving rise to thoughts of starting over and renewal. "I think that we still want to think that we would be a phoenix rising from the ashes, that we would do things differently – that we would rebuild and make the world a better place," adds Vidergar. "There is this glimmer of hope that I am really interested in. Even if as a society we have lost a lot of our belief in a positive future and instead have more of an idea of a disaster to come, we still think that we are survivors, we still want to believe that we would survive."
And assuming we do, what will the future be like? After all, if we're about to undertake an epic journey, it does help to know what to bring. Maybe a good place to start is this awesome morphing “Urban Security Suit” by Dutch designer Tim Smit. The streamlined neoprene exterior is strategically lined with body-molded kevlar, a must-have gas-mask at the ready.
Here is the podcast I recorded about this. Enjoy!
Music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott