Faculty Tackle “Allure of Dystopia” in Popular Culture

September 12, 2014

The idea that humans will undergo a day of reckoning has confronted every generation.

Whatever you call it, however you fancy it—supernova, divine intervention, or zombie pandemic—whether you believe the end of Earth will ever arrive, or has already, we can’t deny that tales of doomsday and dystopian societies have crept into all corners of pop culture—big screens to small, music to video games, books to blogs.

Experts explain that our growing interest in the end of the world exponentially increases with present-moment anxieties brought on by war, economic depression, and natural disasters. Some say we find comfort in observing people in unfortunate circumstances. Others say it gives people faith for the future.

Putting aside (with difficulty) our “Walking Dead” viewing plans, pausing our Netflix streaming of  “Armageddon,” and bookmarking our Kindles mid-Hunger Games read, we decided to dig further into the topic of dystopia and its magnetic pull on our communal psyche.

Convening a panel of distinguished Whittier faculty from disparate disciplines (see bios at right), we explored present society’s near obsession with the end of things--from how this theme is made manifest in their particular areas of study, why the sudden uptick in popular fascination, why it so strongly appeals to adolescents and teenagers, and how fictitious dystopias either help--or harm—us as a society.

Excerpted from a panel discussion with Whittier faculty members Rosemary Carbine (Religious Studies), Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez (Sociology), John Bak (Film), and Christina Scott (Psychology), and moderated by librarian Mike Garabedian (Wardman Library). 


MG: I think we’re all on the same page about what we mean when we invoke the category of what some scholars have called ‘secular apocalypse’: Though it manifests in different ways and in different media, the films and novels and comic books and video games we’re thinking about are structurally very similar: A cataclysmic disaster has happened, a lot of people (in some cases, all but one) have died, civilization has been wiped out more or less instantaneously, and the conflicts and narratives that obtain have to do with the survivors trying to make sense of and live in the new dispensation, the new order. So my first question: The ‘secular apocalypse’ has been around a long time (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man from 1826 is sometimes invoked as the very first example), but our social-cultural moment has definitely seen an uptick in popular fascination with the end of things. What are the reasons? If etymologically apocalypsis means ‘an uncovering,’ what is that is revealed by secular apocalypse? And at the risk of asking too much of a leading question, let me give you some food for thought: Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

CARBINE: Žižek’s quote suggests a turn to hope, where you imagine an alternative society, and then you work through either protest or social change movements in order to bring about that alternative society.  But that's hard to do. On the progressive side, there's too much hope placed in human effort, or there's too much investment in scientific progress or technology.  We end up priding ourselves on what we can accomplish on our own as human beings, but then we discover all the flaws in those movements, or those movements only bring about some change but not the entire vision of what they're seeking. On the flip side is the more conservative turn to apocalypticism – “rapture politics” – which doesn’t worry about changing the world because it’s going to end.  Expecting the rapture brought about by this cosmic battle between good and evil makes all present problems moot. 

MG: Well on that note, “dystopia” tends to be a pejorative term, and similarly, if one brings up apocalypse or post-apocalypse, obviously most people are going to say, "Oh, that's a dark notion." In some ways this is a personal question, and I want to rehabilitate my fascination with this genre because I love it -- I don't want it to be all doom and gloom! And so this leads to another question: Are dystopian and post-apocalyptic films and books necessarily anti-progressive? I wonder if dystopia and the ascendency of this genre has to necessarily be a negative thing?                          

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: In some ways it is negative. I'm thinking about the movies of the 1970s - Omega Man, Planet of the Apes. They creeped me out as a child. These movies are psychological workings through of dystopia and suggest that dystopia is not a deferred future—it's the present that we live in. Through books and movies, we deal with our present dystopia by projecting it into the future. It’s our way to begin to think about what’s wrong with us right now. The Hunger Games comes out of the author's looking at reality TV shows and seeing its logical progression—if it were to go here, then it would go here, and then we would be there.  That's what science fiction does so well—it offers an exploration of the now and gives us a little bit of critical distance to help us think through what we do next.

SCOTT: This genre also makes dealing with our present problems more manageable.  I'd like to point out that these books and movies are making money.  Let's start there.  But there's also this escapism: “I've got to pay my bills. I worry about global warming. My kid's got a project due tomorrow. How am I going to handle this?  It's too much. Oh, look, the world's ending!” These books and movies allow you to escape your own problems and your own reality for a brief moment in time.  You're watching people go through these extraordinary events and somehow or other they pull it together. Somehow. It's entertaining as heck, and then audiences go renewed back into their own problems.  That can't be overlooked, and I think that's part of the appeal.

CARBINE: What's fascinating is [the interest in] these Doomsday Prepper-type shows that explore what you would do to survive the dystopic.  If these imaginary scenarios, which are so fantastic, actually materialize, how then do you live?  There are whole conferences devoted to this topic where people go and buy gear, like a Comic-Con for Doomsday Preppers. They're organizing their whole lives around preparing for nuclear disasters or earthquakes, even a zombie apocalypse.

SCOTT: [To build on what Rosemary said], terror management theory, from a psychological perspective, says that you have your faith because it keeps you from freaking out about what will happen after you die.  But if you can say, "I'm prepared," then you don't need to panic.  Your terror is under control.

CARBINE: Right. But we know, for example, that there's no realistic faith in the 50s home bomb shelter or the nuclear air raids that students then had to do as little kids, crouching under a desk at the sounds of the sirens. If a nuclear bomb hits, being under a desk will not save you. You’re vaporized.

SCOTT: But it all traces back to this sense of controlling the moment.

CARBINE: Exactly. There were social justice movements dedicated to reclaiming public space during those air raids in New York City. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker volunteers said, "These bomb shelter strategies, these raids, this preparedness is dividing us from one another.  It's not helping us create community." They would occupy parks and risk being arrested because you were supposed to go indoors during these raids. And they refused, trying to create this alternative world amidst these scenarios of apocalypse that said we'll all be radically individualized.

MG: I want to talk a little bit about the people who are consuming post-apocalyptic and dystopian books and films today. Mary Manjikian and Elaine Pagels say that traditionally (e.g., with religious apocalyptic theorizing of the kinds that we see happening during the Black Death in the Middle Ages), it’s the ‘weak and disenfranchised’ and moreover the uneducated who are apocalyptic theorists, and we can understand why: Divinely-inflected/sanctioned apocalypse, especially as a kind of judgment, brings a kind of logic to disaster, and moreover, if you’re poor, apocalypse is attractive because it’s a leveler -- sure, everyone’s going to die, but you’re going to Heaven, while your landlord isn’t going to fare as well. How are the contemporary theorists/consumers of apocalypse, who live in way, way safer, more comfortable circumstances, similar? Different?

BAK: I'd say on a day-to-day basis that maybe we are safer, but an apocalypse can happen overnight.  That reality is with us, and it's been with us since the ‘50s. We're also at a time when the reality of our civilization’s impact on the planet is becoming far more apparent. If you read psychiatrist Carl Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he at first had an apocalyptic vision of the future. But then near the end of his life he rolled it back a bit and said something like, "Well, there are just some bad things that are going to happen, but I don't think it's the end."  Stories and movies are a way for us to test possible realities in the future and also to say, "These are awful things and they could happen, but if we work together there's still hope.”  And I think if you look at all these movies, most of the time there are survivors at the end.  There is a next chapter. 

SCOTT: I don’t know about you, but when I watch these movies, I just assume that I’m part of that 5% that survives at the end. We’re never part of the 95% that gets bumped off. You immediately drop yourself into these dystopian scenarios and say, “I’m one of the ones who made it through the contagion. I wouldn’t have gone to the mall that day. I would have kept my family indoors.” So when we talk about this “next chapter,” this utopia, it goes along with the psychological process of “I’ll emerge a better person. I’ll repurpose.”  I find that fascinating, and I think that’s something to say [about our sense of safety when we watch these dystopian movies.]

CARBINE: The reality is [though] that most of us are going to be in that 95 percent.

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: I would say, in fact, that we're not safer nowadays.  Economically, we know about the holes in our safety net. All the ways that finance has risen and manufacturing has declined, and all the jobs that have gone with it, so that job security and being able to be middle class with all those aspirations that are the American dream have—over the last 30-40 years—really started to fall apart for people, and there's increasing insecurity.  This dystopian present wasn't imagined in the late 60s and the go-go age of empire and the increasing prosperity for everyone.  I think people feel that, and so there's the escapism for sure, but then there's also the atomization of that response, which is "I'm closing in on myself.”  You're hunkering down in your own little space and trying to protect yourself against all the bad out there.  We end up in this kind of silo mentality.

SCOTT: We have to give some credit to the media.  We have texts, the television, Internet.  If something horrible happened 40 years ago, you had to get home and see it on the news.  Now, you instantly know because it's on your phone.

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: And it never stops.

SCOTT: And it never stops. And so there's always this barrage, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter or whatever you use.  Somebody's always picking this up and when things quiet down they bring it back up again.

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: In yesterday's paper, I read about what’s going on in Fukushima and the radiation coming at us from the ocean. Apparently it's going everywhere. Scientists are trying to get their voices heard above this din of social media, like "No, it's not going to happen.  It's okay.  You can swim in the water." But look at the way these scientists reacted to the meltdown—they didn't tell us a thing. So, yes, there’s paranoia. Yes, it's unscientific. But it's based on the reality that people don't tell us what's truly going on and then we find out after the fact.

CARBINE: The flip side is the 40 or 50 or so people who stayed behind at Fukushima to contain and to do that work. They're considered martyrs for the cause. They're held up like suffering servants for the state as they make the world safe [again] for those who had to evacuate.  There's this rhetoric of sort of martyrdom for the homeland that still gets sort of reiterated even during these end-times narratives.

MG: It seems too as if teens and young adults are the target audience, and largest demographic when we’re talking about who’s reading post-apocalyptic books and watching post-apocalyptic films. Do you think this genre is particularly appealing to young people, who perhaps more than any of us are subject to various forms of discipline and surveillance, whether we’re talking about parents, or the school, or the state? At bottom, is romancing the post-apocalypse a kind of fantastic or immature response -- an easy way out, to invoke Zizek again -- to real world issues and problems that young people are thinking about?

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: Young girls in particular. When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I asked, "What's a 12-year-old doing reading about these sacrificial games?"  It's so hard to just read it.  But it is very powerful for them, and my daughter is drawn to it in same the way that she's drawn to Holocaust literature, the way we are all fascinated by the logical extremes to which racial and nationalist thinking go.  I'm not exactly sure why my daughter is attracted to this. But I do get the Katniss emulation. The bow and arrow. The self-confidence. The compassion. The leadership. I think that's an interesting comment on new female characters coming up—and that's great for my kid.

SCOTT: I'm not sure if most 12-years-olds process beyond that. The Harry Potter series, for example—those books are deeply disturbing.  Yet my niece who is nine whizzed on through the books, and I'm wondering how much went over her head?  It has to be a huge chunk. These young readers are saying to themselves, "Oh, how cool.  These characters can fly. They have wands. They have magic spells. They're living in this really cool dormitory.” But I don't think they process Voldemort and Snape, characters with huge religious undertones. 

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: But that's true for a lot of great children’s literature.

SCOTT: Right, but with The Hunger Games, I can see the appeal is the strong female character and the fact that people are dying. Again, these young readers are not thinking, "I'd be the kid who dies.” They’re thinking, “I'm Katniss.  I don't die.”  

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: So are you worried about the disconnect between reality and fiction?

SCOTT: Yes, and it's the same with violence going over the heads of young audiences.  We don't want them desensitized. At the same time, we don't want them missing these things.  I wouldn't want kids terrified out of their tree, waking up with nightmares about Voldemort. Yet I wouldn’t want them to miss what this character represents and not get it.

CARBINE: So this generation is consuming The Hunger Games because Harry Potter was, despite all of its own disturbing plot line, portrayed in this sort of rosy glow.  So now they're consuming the foil to that story? Then by the same token, they are consuming it because now they're finally becoming aware at this age of their finitude and want to see what suffering with finitude actually looks like.  And it's displayed in the fantastic because this isn't actually what would happen to them, but helps them process their own mortality.

SCOTT: I think they're also maturing. The generation who loved Harry Potter are now teenagers and 20-somethings, so The Hunger Games is fulfilling—and escalating this kind of questioning.

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: This subconscious sense of their own demise is a good point. At about that age, you begin to realize there are people around you who die.

BAK: In terms of storytelling, there's always more power when it is a life-and-death situation, and when death is really real.  I'm thinking about four films – the original and three remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The first two films are profoundly psychological because—though humans are dying— everything looks the same, but everything's different.  An internal transformation is going on. Things are always changing on the inside—in the case of these films, to something totally different and repulsive—and yet things on the surface remain the same, which is very unsettling.  As you walk out of the movie theater, you look at other people and wonder if they might be pod people because in the first two films, the alien force mostly prevailed.  In the last remake, humans prevail and there is no unsettling feeling for viewers at the end—that remake didn’t do so well at the box office because it didn’t take viewers to another profoundly creepy realm.  The story got away from the psychological to one that was more stereotypically violent.  Violence played a major role in humans winning, and one of the characters says “a world without violence would be a world where human beings ceased to be human.”

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: True. That's another way to think about violence. Humans are, if anything, talented at creating violence. Is film a way to deal with violence?  Are kids internally processing the ongoing violence around them when they watch these films?

SCOTT: I do think so, maybe on a subconscious level.  Just look at today’s television shows. Many are very violent. It's almost like movies have to go up a notch to catch our attention.  But we know from research that teens and 20-somethings think they're invincible.  They have what we call the “Superman complex.”  It's, "Well, I'm not going to die because I did drugs.  I'm not going to die for driving too fast or driving drunk.  It's not going to happen to me.  I'd be smarter.”

CARBINE: So they're telling self-narratives to shape the identity into which they want to grow? In my own field of specialization—theological anthropology (religious understandings of the person)—human beings are fundamentally oriented to transcend themselves.  They are supposed to be oriented to a future horizon—whether you describe that religiously, developmentally, or sociologically. But if the future is now foreclosed, and we’re only worried about saving the people who are around us, and our self-narratives that say “I would never do this,” then we are stuck in this terror management situation and losing a sense of hope in our communal transcendence.  What happens to our understanding of connectedness to the broader society and our collective orientation to the future? I'm concerned about those kinds of cautionary moments in these films because they play on the politics of fear, and very often religion gets fused with that politics of fear in very, very unhelpful ways. 

MG: I think there’s a tendency by a whole lot of people to look at examples from these genres -- perhaps particularly if zombies are involved! -- as fantastic and therefore unworthy of serious discussion or consideration. Is there truth to this idea? If not, why is it important for us to pay some attention to these topics?

CARBINE: I don't have a great summative statement. I guess I would just say that I think some of the apocalypse genre has to do with maybe a little bit of what I was saying before, about rethinking our orientation to the future. What if there is no escape from this cycle of life and we just come back as these altered, transformed beings and we still have to work out our relationships with each other and still form governments and still, you know…

OVERMYER-VELAZQUEZ: If there's anything to be said, is that it's important to take pop culture seriously, that it's popular for a reason.  I think it behooves us to think about it carefully, and to keep these kinds of conversations alive, especially in a college or a university where it might—outside of an academic setting—seem like that they're not worthy of a discussion.  It's important just to understand where we are right now.

BAK: Science fiction can be eerie in the way that it predicts our future quite accurately.  If you look at things that Jules Verne wrote back in the late 19th century, so many things he wrote about came true, even something like the Internet. So science fiction, far from being just fantasy, might be more of a harbinger of where the human race is headed—maybe our collective human unconscious is trying to tell us something. And therefore taking it seriously is important. 

MG: I think on that note we’ve reached a good place to conclude! Thanks, everyone, for joining me today and proving, as Whittier professors regularly do, that important conversations can also be engaging and really fun. Come to think of it, I think a lot of the things we spoke about today might make for a perfect Whittier seminar or paired course -- and if so you can count on a certain post-apocalyptic librarian sitting in!