The Human Condition in the Apocalypse

What makes us human?

This question is one that has plagued generations of scholars, the answer of which is an elusive ambition sought by various disciplines; arts and sciences alike. Potentially, this obsession with the meaning of being “human” stems from our deep-rooted obsession with the concept of self – from our external mien to the internal psychological construct and frame of mind, as well as the socio-political dynamics of Mankind on both a micro and macro scale. The complexities of the unconscious mind predates conscious awareness and self-scrutiny. The subconscious mind often conceals from its conscious counterpart the wealth of one’s sentiments, urges, motivations, beliefs and heuristics; information that even our deepest inquisitions and advanced technologies cannot fully comprehend. So, where do we begin in our understanding of this established mystery?

In our issue, we hope to demonstrate how the unorthodox, dystopic landscape of an apocalypse creates the perfect conditions for a large-scale social experiment – one that would amplify and isolate the most intimate, bare, and organic form of one’s human sentience and narratives.

“[Our cultural obsession with the apocalypse] …The stories we see emerging in popular media begin with human distress and move through a period of struggle with some kind of transformation resulting in a new end condition” (Holba & Hart, 2009, p. viii). This draws parallels to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition as she explains aspects of our social reality and experiences and how it elucidates the essential truths of the human race.

“The human condition comprehends more than the condition under which life has been given to man. Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence.  The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.” (Arendt, 1958, p. 9)

Ergo, by analysing some of these popular texts within the apocalyptic culture, and its portrayal and representations of humanity’s complex responses under such extreme environments, we hope to spotlight the different rhetorical tropes — both the “good” and the “bad”, that makes us who we are. 

From a specially curated list of novels, movies and animations…

Eila Trenel’s Appearance and Acceptance: How the Human Face brings about Social Acceptance in Alita: Battle Angel analyses the importance of the human face as providing a commonality that unites otherwise disparate societal groups. Beyond this, the human face is argued to be directly related to an individual’s sense of self-identity, and the conservation of the former allows the individual to remain entirely “human”, regardless of how “inhuman” the individual chooses to become. 

Beyond this exploration of the internal state of “humanity” of each individual, the next essay will dive into understanding the individuality of humans as emphasised by an apocalyptic scenario.

Ashley Low’s Knowledge and Deviance: How the Individuals’ Rationalization of Knowledge Prompts Different Responses in The Giver explores the idea of deviance in a “perfect” society like that in The Giver, specifically in a triad of characters, and aims to show how an individual’s unique rationalization of the same information can prompt them to response in significantly different ways.

While the apocalypse certainly gives rise to the emphasis of a person’s individuality, the same concept can be applied on a larger scale – much like how different characters can react differently to new knowledge, so can different societies as a whole.

Ellie Zhang’s Identities and Extremism: How Changing Landscapes and Realities Foster Radicalisation in Attack on Titan, we dive into a more insidious form of response and choice, involving a compulsion towards radicalisation and corruption, that elicits a darker path for humanity and how the unique changes in the apocalyptic landscapes, and the characters’ self-conceptuation, and social orientation interacts with their intrinsic heuristics and elemental human needs, to promote a more fanatical, antagonistic, and vilified transformation. 

Finally, despite how a society as a whole can react to new information gained in an apocalypse, ultimately it is in human nature to be corrupted by mass amounts of power. 

Matthew Elmer Ken’s Power and Morality: How Power Instability Corrupts the Line of Morality in Altered Carbon examines the corruptive nature of power that is facilitated through the accumulation of affluence among the super rich in Altered Carbon. The exacerbated social class difference (amplified through immortality in Altered Carbon) enables the super rich to obtain so much power which consequently corrupts and erodes their line of morality.

All in all, our issue will explore how human traits and the human condition is enhanced in an apocalypse, on both an individual scale and a societal one – the former seen in the examples of the communal belief in the importance of being “human” and the discrete reactions unique to each individual, and the latter demonstrated in how different societies can react as a whole to new information and how humanity is consistently corrupted by the temptation of tremendous power.

As such, though this article does not provide an answer to the age-old question of what makes us human, we hope that it has successfully provided a starting point for readers to go on this scholarly journey of the answer.

Happy reading!

Eila Trenel, Ashley Low, Ellie Zhang, and Matthew Elmer Ken


Holba, A. M. & Hart, K. R. (2009). Introduction. In A. M. Holba & K. R. Hart (Eds.), Media and the apocalypse (pp. vii-xiv). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Arendt, . (1958). The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Special thanks to Professor Yew Kong Leong for his constant and patient guidance throughout this module, without whom we would not have been able to write our articles.