I (heart) Apocalypse

Skip to the End, Please

As promised recently, some thoughts on the end, specifically our strange love for it. First, to deflect in advance any objections tossed from the ivory tower, I'm using the word apocalypse in its current colloquial sense. I am contributing to the infuriating decay of language, thus preserving your ability to come off as quite clever at parties with your superior knowledge of scripture and etymology. You can thank me later.

So why do we lust after the apocalypse? There are numerous endgame projections in the apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic, settings that seem a staple of contemporary culture. To name a few: global warming and/or subsequent cooling, asteroid or comet impact, biological agent, death of the sun, massive solar flare, virus from monkeys, zombies, nuclear war, unfriendly aliens, robots, dragons, or perhaps even an anarcho-facist revolution led by Brad Pitt. It would not be fair to say that these ideas simply reflect the preoccupations of our age, at least not so superficially as to be a mirror of widespread anxiety.

We watch the world ending for the sake of entertainment; we read about a shattered future on the bus or plane. There is something visceral that stirs in us ever so slightly a the thought of wiping everything away. This is not fear so much as excitement, the thrill of crisis, anticipation of adrenaline. But how can you possibly be drawn to something that entails your own utter eradication? I would venture that it may have something to do with the impossibility of conceiving of utter eradication, of thinking about nothing. Every experience of the apocalypse consumed through print and film implies a spectator, narrative, someone to tell the tale, a participant, a survivor. Our secret delight at the potential for drastic upheaval hinges on our presumed survival of the even itself. This does not have to be borne out by the characters of the work in question. Indeed there are a great number of important distinctions to be made between the myriad apocalyptic works. What unites them though is this common thread of observation; even a film about an entirely empty future would still imply survival of some kind.

To love the end is to flirt with dissolution. A key part of any apocalyptic setting is typically the liberating element of the collapse of law and order. Boundaries, both physical and conventional, break down. Their irrelevance is the sudden outcome of their loss of foundation, a vague philosophy of time that becomes implausible at its end. We can revel in the material satisfaction of looting abandoned shops, loving freely and urgently, driving without speed limits. In this regard, the apocalypse holds the same appeal as the popular television series Entourage.

Obviously, the end of life as we know it poses some challenges. The danger accompanying this dissolution, often manifest in the horrific potential of humans set loose upon each other as well as in zombie-form, can often outweigh these libertarian fantasies. This in turn, however, is matched by the heightened nobility of survival, the seeming power of the state of crisis to offer a more redeeming sort of heroism. All aspects of survival take one heroic qualities; all acts of righteousness become more pure, all sacrifices elevated. Individual acts are bestowed with meaning in a way very different from the everyday.

The source of this new heroic reality is to be found in the a second common thread that unites most apocalyptic narratives. The pop apocalypse is first and foremost an assertion of a certain understanding of the nature of reality. In these cases it is most strongly a reflection of an understanding of the universe as pure contingency, the humming bounce of random particles, the survival of a demographically scattered group. The sense that the end of days is some kind of judgement is heavily diluted by this acceptance of reality as flux. Instead, there is merely a hushed suggestion that the cataclysm, often seemingly our fault, reflects the hubris of presuming that we are entitled to survive. This is no great burden for the survivor.

In surviving there is the inevitably assumption of worth in spite of chaos, an assertion of reality that is made with gritted teeth, overflowing with meaning. It is this real-ness of the apocalypse that we enjoy vicariously, the fabric of our everyday lives seeming drab and worn in comparison. Perhaps this should be cause for alarm. But who knows? Maybe it is better for everyone to fixate on the apocalypse, rather than on what we'll do when it doesn't happen.