Opinion articles

Reimagining (Human) Nature in the Apocalypse: Negotiating Agency through Posthumanism in Mockingjay

by Rachel Eng

The revolution: Resolution of the political apocalypse?

Initially, The Hunger Games novel trilogy appears to be at the forefront of an anti-humanist movement in post-apocalyptic fiction. The dystopian authoritarian regime depicted seems to signal a form of political apocalypse in itself, alluding to several common anti-humanist concerns: the death of freedom and equality of rights, and the myth of attaining peace without war. Throughout the trilogy, the rebels become increasingly convinced that countering state violence with bloodshed of their own is necessary for attaining peace and ending violations of human rights, compared to a pacifist approach. Proletarian revolution against the state’s structural violence and material subordination, as well as the consequent violence of revolution (through war atrocities committed by both the state and the rebels) thus generates a political apocalypse that is distinct from the post-apocalyptic setting of ecological desolation. In the conclusion of Mockingjay, the third and final installment of the trilogy, the political apocalypse is depicted as imminent and recursive, due to mankind’s innate tendency towards avarice and self-destruction — predetermined characteristics of human nature that direct individual human actions and override individual human agency. This globally immanent threat of self-annihilation evinces anti-humanist beliefs about humanity’s downward spiral of morality and finite existence. 

However, Mockingjay’s conclusion is not overtly anti-humanist like the rest of the trilogy. Upon closer examination, it seems more ambivalent in incorporating both humanism and the aforementioned antihumanism. Katniss’ cynicism about humanity’s depravity does not diminish her agency in reclaiming power through memorialisation of loved ones lost to violence and in destabilising the immanent authoritarian regime of incoming President Coin. As such, Mockingjay’s resolution is not devoid of notions of humanist progress, because it addresses both mankind’s capacity for self-destruction and for self-renewal. How do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory elements of antihumanism and humanism, especially when Mockingjay appears to elude the anti-humanist fictional conventions of cynicism about human morality and about infinite progress?

I argue that Mockingjay’s conclusion defies the anti-humanist conventions of post-apocalyptic fiction, because it allows us to understand the nexus between humanism and antihumanism, which is posthumanism.

Traditionally, antihumanism and humanism have shared a disjunctive space in narratives due to their conflicting views on human morality (optimism/cynicism) and the finity/infinity of human existence. In Mockingjay, human agency at the individual scale (in ameliorating the political apocalypse) is contingent upon anti-humanist fatalism about mankind’s moral deterioration (due to seemingly superorganic forces of human nature that seem to work beyond the human scale). Katniss’ acknowledgement that the apocalypse is imminent and recursive due to mankind’s predisposition towards self-destruction empowers her to mitigate the apocalypse through memorialisation and political resistance, which also demonstrates mankind’s capacity for self-renewal. Katniss’ empowerment is also enhanced by her liminal identity as adolescent and as the cross-species Mockingjay, which mirrors the post-dualistic imperative in posthumanism to move beyond limiting dichotomies of child-adult and pawn-revolutionary. Hence, posthumanism in Mockingjay entails blurring the boundaries between human and nonhuman agencies to reveal their interdependence in mitigating the political apocalypse.

When examining the intersection between anti-humanism and humanism in Mockingjay, we must understand why they have traditionally been seen as oppositional in post-apocalyptic fiction. Firstly, anti-humanism involves existential angst about moral deterioration, arising from how violence and self-annihilation is encoded into the human condition. This form of predeterminism implies that individual human actors have no agency against the forces of human nature, which is beyond human control. Human nature is thus seen as superorganic and even nonhuman, with its semiotics reflecting the binary of human/nature in which nature is the Other. In contrast, humanism presumes a ‘sense of humanity’ — ‘the capacity of humans to be “humane”’ and to experience empathy, which seems diametrically opposed to the cynicism of human nature espoused by anti-humanists. In anthropocentrism that espouses human primacy, human free will also reigns supreme and dominant over various forces of nature, including the transcendence of human limits, which diminishes the nonhuman agency that antihumanism amplifies. 

To understand Mockingjay’s extraordinarily wary yet hopeful anti-war message, I will provide a conceptual framework for understanding agency through posthumanism. In response to anti-humanist criticism, humanism has reconfigured its human-centric roots into a new paradigm, namely posthumanism. Posthumanism challenges the dichotomies set up by humanism via post-dualism, blurring the boundaries of human/nature and suggesting that both are ‘part of the posthumanist self’. As such, agency is ‘distributed, porous, and relational, existing not in subjects but in assemblages’. Within Barad’s framework of ‘agential realism’, agency does not involve the unidirectional exertion of influence of one entity over another, but exists as ‘intra-action’ by premising the existence of ‘entangled materialities’ upon their interconnectedness. Applied to posthumanist fiction, ‘human survival is [thus] contingent on an acknowledgement of the interdependence of the human and the nonhuman’. Furthermore, this reconceptualisation of agency that decentres the human does not exonerate mankind of responsibility, because posthumanism does not ‘dissolve humans as identifiable agents and thereby absolve them of the crises that mark the Anthropocene’. There remains an ‘underlying hope’ to ‘reshape the self and its interests’ through posthumanism.

Firstly, Mockingjay illustrates how predetermined depravity is inherent in human nature, via the distinctively imminent and recursive political apocalypse. Peace is seen as volatile and transient due to mankind’s innate tendency towards avarice and self-destruction. President Coin, as the de facto leader of the rebels, is deliberately not heroised but rather painted more morally ambiguous in her orchestration of her rise to power over all of Panem through the rebellion. She already reflects the notion of inherent human greed in the semantics of her name. Her power-hungry nature is even acknowledged by the usurped President Snow, who claims that ‘she was intending to take my place right from the beginning’. As the rebels make inroads into conquering the Capitol, we see glimpses of her nascent authoritarian regime where she intends to reproduce state violence through holding another Hunger Games involving the Capitol’s children, and cruelly sacrificing the rebels’ own medics to annihilate Snow’s human shield of children. The portrayal of Coin’s violent means to an end suggests that power handover in the regime will not entail a resolution of the political apocalypse, but perpetuate the same systems of oppression and ‘totalitarian terror’, rendering the apocalypse cyclical.

President Coin, the leader of the Rebels yet disturbingly similar to President Snow in their authoritarian regimes

More broadly, the belief that self-destruction is encoded into the human condition is espoused by Gamemaker and war strategist Plutarch Heavensbee: “Collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”. He expresses cynicism about permanent political stability even in Panem’s newfound democracy, attributing the impermanent nature of peace to political amnesia and self-annihilation as a predetermined event. Altogether, Mockingjay’s conclusion seems to suggest the impossibility of permanent amelioration of chaos and disorder in the external apocalyptic world, namely the politicised stage of Panem. The imminent threat of self-destruction amplifies the sense of moral deterioration and the finity of human existence. Hence, nonhuman agency is articulated through the predetermined forces of human nature, which direct human actions towards violence and self-annihilation. Human actors, particularly Snow and Coin, are vectors through which nonhuman agency is manifested.

In response to these nonhuman forces, Katniss recuperates some human agency, initially through political resistance against authoritarianism and its associated state violence, and later through the memorialisation of those lost to the violence. Immediately following her revelation of Coin’s involvement in the bombing that maimed her and killed her sister, Prim, Katniss publicly assassinates Coin in vengeance, thereby symbolically ending the nascent return into the political apocalypse (induced by the depravity of human nature) for the time being. Ironically, murdering Coin (the vessel through which superorganic self-destructiveness is conveyed) highlights Katniss’ own alignment with predetermined violence that is incompatible with the ‘humanity’ of humanism. Nevertheless, even while condemning the use of ‘direct violence’ by both sides in the war, Mockingjay seems to allow for a ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ by drawing focus to the ‘human cost’ of violence in determining its necessity. Katniss also resists the clear dichotomy of community-centred freedom fighter (as typical of humanist fiction) and power-hungry dictator using violence to tyrannise, instead toppling Coin’s regime for her personal agenda of avenging Prim’s death, exercising her agency in relation only to her loved ones. 

Katniss assassinating President Coin

As the dust settles in Panem, Katniss seems to be able to reconcile humanity’s inherent nonhuman inclination towards self-annihilation and mankind’s capacity for self-renewal, via memorialisation of loved ones lost to the violence of the authoritarian regime and of revolution. She and Peeta embark on a project of creating a book, within which they enshrine photos, paintings and paraphernalia, ‘saving evidence of the existence of those lost to violence’ and humanising the otherwise faceless and eventually forgotten death toll. The memory book becomes ‘the place where we recorded those things you cannot trust to memory’, protecting against the political amnesia mentioned by Plutarch and guarding against self-destruction by serving as ‘lessons against future war’. In the epilogue, looking upon her children who play in the meadow that doubles as a ‘graveyard’ after the firebombing of District Twelve, Katniss ‘mourns the inherent transience of their innocent state’ as she anticipates their eventual awakening to the horrors of the adult world. However, the epilogue deviates from the cynicism of anti-humanist endings, because it is this very disillusionment with the recursive nature of the political apocalypse that allows Katniss to regain a sense of purpose in anti-war advocacy. Her agency is recuperated through ‘everyday peace’, the ‘ongoing negotiation with war memory and trauma and with anxiety about the future’. Peeta echoes this, confident that they can explain the imminence of political dystopia and violence to their children, ‘to make them understand in a way that will make them braver’. Plutarch espouses similar sentiments, since it would be incomplete to look at his cynicism about a predetermined self-destruction without also acknowledging his sceptical hope: “Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss. The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.”. The mitigation of a relapse into the political apocalypse then seems to be contingent on education about the value of life, through the memory book. This memorialisation allows for the recuperation of human agency in the face of nonhuman energies that attempt to predetermine mankind’s fate.

Katniss looking on at Peeta and their child in the meadow

Lastly, most crucial to understanding this ambivalent agency is Katniss’ own liminal and post-dualistic identity as an adolescent and as the Mockingjay. The lack of resolution in the external apocalyptic world ‘keeps precisely with both her experiences of violence and trauma, and perhaps more positively, her experiences of power and agency’, unlike the anti-humanist notion of nonhuman supremacy. Mockingjay seems to reinterpret the bildungsroman format typical of young adult literature by disrupting the linear transition from child to adult: her catalytic role in the revolution contests the hegemony of adult society and the structural violence they impose upon the Districts’ children through the Hunger Games. Her identity as the titular Mockingjay (a hybrid bird that crossbred between state-sanctioned genetically-modified jabberjays and wild mockingbirds) also blurs the binary between political pawn and autonomous agent. These liminal identities allow Katniss to embark on a journey of transition, movement and growth. The young adult fiction genre therefore renders her a post-dualistic figure with the capacity for evolution and transformation, based on an ‘enmeshment’ of human and nonhuman agencies. To read Mockingjay through posthumanism is to trace Katniss’ ‘perpetual becoming’, and thus understand that posthumanism is ‘as much posthumanist as it is posthumanist’.

In conclusion, Mockingjay moves beyond limiting dichotomies to reflect that anti-humanist cynicism about moral deterioration and mankind’s finite existence, and humanist agency are not mutually exclusive. Rather, recuperation of humanist agency in mitigating the political apocalypse can be contingent upon the very nonhuman forces that induce the apocalypse via predeterminism. As a dystopian young adult novel whose adolescent protagonist is a liminal figure, Mockingjay is remarkably posthumanist in its post-dualism that reconciles human and nonhuman agencies. Hence, Mockingjay reinterprets the post-apocalyptic genre, with its anti-humanist conventions, disrupting our understanding of human nature and its consequences on the finity/infinity of human existence.


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