Picture this—the apocalypse is over.
It took years for the world to even remotely resemble what it used to be, but just a while ago you were prepared for the possibility that the world would never emerge from that catastrophe. The news tells you that the economy is picking up. Your neighbourhood is quiet but the pedestrians walk down the street without fear. You get to go back to work next week. All is well and back to normal.
Life is good, but is it the same? Can it be the same? The apocalypse left its mark; the remnants of the end times are everywhere you look. It’s in the way people are more wary, in how society stays on its toes. You’re not sure if this is a good change, and if what is destroyed should ever be recovered. You suppose that humanity is more prepared for disaster now than you ever remember being before the apocalypse hit, but you still feel nostalgic for that past world. The old world, where you were ignorant but blissful, where you expected to live out the rest of your life like any other person, mundane but at peace, where ‘the end’ was never something you really thought about and every day of your life would go on in an endless cycle.
Alas, the old world has departed, never to return, and the new world has arrived to stay. What is your next step? Where do you go from here? Do you build this new world with the materials left behind by the old, or do you construct something completely novel?
Indeed, for many apocalyptic texts in popular culture, these are the very scenarios that are presented in a post-apocalyptic environment. Ordinarily, as Berger (1994) opines, an apocalypse can be seen as ‘a catastrophe that resembles what is imagined as the final ending, that can be interpreted as a kind of eschaton, as an end of something, a way of life or thinking’ (p. 10). It suggests a complete annihilation of the world as its inhabitants know it, rendering the post-apocalyptic world a hellscape. However, the variety of portrayals of the eschaton present in apocalyptic literature show that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to humanity’s understanding and interpretations of the apocalypse.
Austin Ho explores this motif of destruction in the traditional apocalypses of religion and mythology in his article, The Necessity of Apocalyptic Destruction: Hope and Renewal in the Book of Revelation and Völuspá. However, in contrast to the often dystopian outlook of contemporary texts, he finds that traditional apocalypses seem to be encoded with a message of hope; retaining the hyperbolic scale of widespread destruction, yet not quite pronouncing the end times with the same finality as apocalyptic narratives today do. Austin argues in this article that the promise of hope and the insistence on destruction in the Book of Revelation and Völuspá are not contradictory, but coexist—with destruction employed as the very vehicle for a sanguine covenant of renewal.
This implies the continuity of the old world within the new. As Berger (1994) observes,
The study of post-apocalypse is primarily a study of what disappears and what remains, and of how the remainder has been transformed. And it is a study of the ideological and psychological forces that direct the apocalyptic fissions and fusions.(pp. 17–18)
While the physical world may no longer resemble the past, apocalyptic narratives suggest that social norms and structures will endure the erosive forces of the eschaton.
Jessica Wu’s Segmenting, Segregating and Separating: The Persistence of Social Borders Through Time in Cloud Atlas draws direct parallels between two chapters of the novel Cloud Atlas: ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’. The central message Cloud Atlas attempts to convey: that people and the structures of their societies persist throughout time in both pre-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic contexts, is often overlooked. The novel defies the assumption of finality that most apocalyptic texts adopt, demonstrating the connection of peoples and structures across the landscape of devastation in its portrayal of new and old worlds. This article demonstrates the high degrees of similarity in social structures of pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic societies, and how their mechanisms of social othering have persisted through time.
Similarly, Jason Lee’s Affluence in a Post-Apocalyptic World: The Power of Wealth as Social Structures in Snowpiercer and Train to Busan explores the persisting importance of wealth in societies beyond the apocalypse. While most societies function well under existing social structures, such as capitalism, the two films featured in the study posit that in the event of an apocalypse, humanity’s best chance at survival ultimately lies in abolishing these divisive social structures. Both films offer two differing perspectives on how apocalypses influence power dynamics between the rich and underprivileged. Still, they ultimately argue that the maintenance of divisive social structures in a post-apocalyptic world will only bring about more harm than good, hence highlighting the need for a reset in societal norms.
Ultimately, whether the post-apocalyptic landscape adopts a pessimistic stance of destruction and doom, or a hopeful stance of rebuilding and recovery, both stances in fact coexist to pave a way towards a new world.
Muhammad Asy’raf investigates the creation of this new world in One Man’s Trash is Another Robot’s Treasure: Exploring Garbage as a Symbol of Hope for the Recovery of a Post-Apocalyptic World in WALL-E, where he explores the contrasting portrayal of garbage in WALL-E as more than just a destructive element, but also as a beacon of hope for the recovery of earth’s environment to what it was pre-apocalypse. Asy’raf argues that garbage portrays a coexistence between the optimism portrayed by the film of post-apocalyptic recovery, and the pessimistic view of futility and hopelessness because both sentiments ultimately chart a common direction towards creating different versions of a new world to progress from the post-apocalyptic landscape.
Collectively, these articles explore the various possible interpretations of a world reborn, illustrating the diverse ways which humanity has taken to approaching the apocalypse. By analysing these texts, we aim to further understand how the perceptions of society and humanity towards the apocalypse have changed over time and what the factors driving these changes are. In reflecting on humanity’s different modes of thought, we hope that this issue will be a lens through which you can view the apocalypse as a transformative event, building a distinct new world on the foundations of the old.
Berger, J. A. (1994). After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse [Doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. https://www.proquest.com/docview/304128290