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Thread: Apocalypse as Metaphor for Adulthood

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    Apocalypse as Metaphor for Adulthood

    The apocalypse fantasy is satisfying for several reasons:

    1. The world goes to hell fully, not partially

    2. In the midst of destruction, humane feelings persist

    This is in contrast to reality.

    1. The world has already gone to hell. Starting with civilization. It's just that only certain populations experience it as hell.

    2. Going through the experience of losing your society degrades your humanity. It is possible to lose empathy. There's no neat, pat survival. Everything and everyone gets torn apart - physically and psychologically. Thinking of: systematic wartime rape, child soldiers, this article I once read about a displaced population that eventually just found others' suffering to be funny.

    And I've been thinking also about teenagers... On this forum we tend to be old souls, but for each of us, particularly if we grew up in a comfortable, supportive environment, at some point we had to come to the realization that the world we thought we knew is falling apart. (Some of us also eventually realize that, at the same time, it's constantly changing and developing anew.)

    So for a teenager, it really is as though one day you're living on Sesame Street and the next day the ice caps are melting and refugees are pouring over the borders and it's World War III.

    Adulthood means accepting the current consensus of The State of the World. Which right now is pretty pessimistic. I suppose that, in the past, religious fantasies of the apocalypse fulfilled a similar psychological need to grapple with reality. The experiences of a person's lifetime projected onto the lifetime of human society, because how we humans try to understand things is always in personal reference to ourselves.

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    Also I started to watch How I Live Now, which is so far looks like it will be entertaining, for a teenage apocalypse movie.

    But why is the editing so fast in all these movies. >_< Slow. It Down.

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    Mens bona regnum possidet ferrus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    Adulthood means accepting the current consensus of The State of the World. Which right now is pretty pessimistic. I suppose that, in the past, religious fantasies of the apocalypse fulfilled a similar psychological need to grapple with reality. The experiences of a person's lifetime projected onto the lifetime of human society, because how we humans try to understand things is always in personal reference to ourselves.
    I had never thought of it as such, but perhaps you are right. It is sort of a societal afterlife.

    But does society have an existential path like the individual? Is there any kind of meaning that can be saved from it? I'm not sure there is. And yet we are forced back into the same society that lacks meaning by the very conditions of our existence.
    Die Logik ist keine Lehre, sondern ein Spiegelbild der Welt. Die Logik ist transcendental. - Wittgenstein

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    When I saw this thread I thought you meant Zombie apocalypse for some reason, which I think would be a better metaphor for adulthood.

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    Senior Member Mike's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    particularly if we grew up in a comfortable, supportive environment, at some point we had to come to the realization that the world we thought we knew is falling apart. (Some of us also eventually realize that, at the same time, it's constantly changing and developing anew.)
    I "grew up in a comfortable, supportive environment" and continue to live in an environment that is relatively secure, particularly in contrast to parts of the world experiencing violent turmoil in recent years. From that perspective, I haven't come to the realization that the world we thought we knew is falling apart and I don't harbor an apocalyptical fantasy. Just seems like the beat of human evolution goes on. Despite the hellish conditions that too many in the world suffer, I'm cautiously optimistic. My sense is that the big trends are positive, with the proportions of the world's population living in poverty and dying in violent conflicts having declined over man's history. Declining populations in the more developed world and nuclear proliferation, particularly in the hands of those with a apocalyptical faith, do concern me. Still, I'm cautiously optimistic that the human race will continue on a generally net positive path of large scale societal evolution, albeit unevenly across the world and continuing to inflict great misery upon ourselves in significant instances. The human race survived Malthusian predictions of overpopulation and two World Wars and a superpower cold war. We'll continue to stumble our way through the future. I don't have any greater expectation to be disappointed. Guess that saves me from despair.

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by starla View Post
    When I saw this thread I thought you meant Zombie apocalypse for some reason, which I think would be a better metaphor for adulthood.
    Zombies are definitely included in the current apocalyptic craze.

    They function as a mask for socially degraded individuals. But instead of living in slums and/or forming raiding tribes and committing regular violent crimes, they're rampaging, so rather than the extremely difficult task of learning to handle and cope with our fellow human beings the fantasy is that they're effectively an invading enemy that must be exterminated.

    I'm not saying that this is a morally bad fantasy to have. I'm just saying that... it's a fantasy. It's like killing enemies in video games vs actually wanted to commit mass murder. If you're fantasizing about society going to shit it's a lot more satisfying to think about vs the likely reality.

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    Minister of Love Roger Mexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    The apocalypse fantasy is satisfying for several reasons:

    1. The world goes to hell fully, not partially

    2. In the midst of destruction, humane feelings persist

    This is in contrast to reality.

    1. The world has already gone to hell. Starting with civilization. It's just that only certain populations experience it as hell.

    2. Going through the experience of losing your society degrades your humanity. It is possible to lose empathy. There's no neat, pat survival. Everything and everyone gets torn apart - physically and psychologically. Thinking of: systematic wartime rape, child soldiers, this article I once read about a displaced population that eventually just found others' suffering to be funny.

    See, that's interesting to me because I would tend to argue that the apocalypse myth typically works in exactly the opposite way. (I read something about this on Cracked some time ago, so due credit there.)

    Watch the Mad Max movies, or Dawn of the Dead, and you see this world where most people seem to instantly shed all the psychological accoutrements of civilization even more quickly than they can destroy the physical accoutrements of civilization. Apparently, as soon as the lights go out and the toll booths on the roads are abandoned, we all turn into feral predators just itching to fit as much murder and cruelty into the remainder of our lives as we can.

    Or this happens to most of us to an extensive degree, anyway--of course the protagonists in these stories have to retain enough "humane feelings" to remain sympathetic to an audience from a "pre-apocalyptic" society, but in most cases even the protagonists lose a lot of that, commonly enough IMO that this should generally be interpreted as a deliberate and important part of the fantasy.

    I think part of the appeal of these sorts of fantasies comes from the conceit of a tabula rasa world--suddenly our socially constructed identities don't matter anymore, so you are free to become the person you would be if you were completely free from those constraints. (The same observation could apply to certain other common fictional conceits, like wilderness survival adventures.) However, looking at what usually becomes of the protagonists in these stories, it's hard not to reach the conclusion that most people's version of this fantasy involves a liberating release of certain qualities or desires that aren't exactly saintly. It's fun to watch Mad Max because he is a noble, heroic figure--substantially less of a craven psychopath than Lord Humongous, anyway--but he's able to be that kind of figure while still getting to have his fun with "a bit of the old ultraviolence."

    So I think it's important to acknowledge that dimension of the vicarious wish-fulfillment experience--wouldn't it be cool if you lived in the kind of world where, when you meet evil people, you can just kill them? You don't have to worry about all this namby-pamby civilized tripe of "police" and "trials" and "we need to figure out whether the guy actually did what you said he did before we punish him." Nope, these people are clearly just evil--no question about that--and what's better, you live in a world where it's totally in-bounds to just unilaterally give obviously evil people what's coming to them, nice and hard. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?

    (Same deal with the whole subgenre of vigilante-themed action movies, which are often very popular and sometimes praised for their art--you know, Straw Dogs or The Boondock Saints if you're kind of a snobby film nerd, Death Wish and Walking Tall if you're not. Hell, I suppose this even describes the basic premise of Batman.)

    Maybe that accounts for why the "zombie" version of this story has gotten so popular. You can just let loose on these things without any qualms at all--you're not even killing anybody because they're already dead, see? Fire away! This is fuckin' great!

    I think with the Romero zombie films, this was done very consciously and very much intended to be an important part of the point--surrounded by inhuman monsters, with the facade of civilization crumbling under the onslaught, the humans gradually reveal just how monstrous they have always been in and of themselves. In other cases, it's not presented this way--the reversion to a primal state characterized by more violent impulses, even for the "heroes", is either celebrated or just taken in stride so as not to fully acknowledge it.

    Still, I don't think it's exactly the most insightful thing that could be said about human nature--it doesn't really compute with an awareness that at some point a bunch of "primitive savages" who had never known of any other way to live decided to build civilizations in the first place. (If civilization is the only thing preventing our base nature as monsters from expressing itself--and we'd all just love so much for it to go away so we can get on with tearing the flesh off each other's bones--then where the hell did civilization come from?)

    The Cracked piece I read did a fairly good job of pointing out other such discrepancies that no one really seems to notice when consuming this sort of fiction. E.g. why does everyone seem to have spent years or decades just wandering around scavenging from the ruins of civilization--and these are always veritable treasure troves, like someone is restocking the ruins when they get depleted--and at what point are they supposed to realize that it would be much more efficient to just produce things and trade with each other? That, of course, would be more realistic (one presumes), but it would undermine the fantasy--a society of producers and traders would quickly realize how much they needed laws and social mores, but we don't watch these movies because we want to see a society with laws and social mores. (We can see that any time we want.) We want to see a society that consists almost entirely of pirates and thugs who specialize in feats of violent badassery, and because we want that to be believable, we pretend it's more believable to imagine a society where scavenging is somehow the only available form of economic activity. (Of course that may have been true 50,000 years ago when no one had thought of farming yet, but the people in these stories are supposed to be more or less incapable of progressing beyond a hunter-gatherer lifestyle despite living amidst the remains of a modern or sometimes even more futuristic civilization--why have they decided to keep using cars and guns even though we're supposed to believe they would regard the creation of a fucking Postal Service as unthinkably revolutionary?)

    The one franchise that I've ever experienced handling these issues in a reasonable way are the Fallout games--I mean, there, you're clearly running around in the middle of a postmodern "Dark Age", constantly fending off monsters (human and otherwise), but what you're really doing is playing politics as the rudimentary communities built by the survivors of the disaster grow, spread out, discover one another, and figure out how they're going to handle the complexities of cooperating with each other to rebuild something approximating the civilization that existed before. There are systems of government, trade networks, complex and shifting alliances between different societies, and all the rest to suggest that yes, humans fundamentally want to be civilized and have it in us to build civilization over and over again, even if we periodically have to start from scratch again to keep doing it.

    So, this may be a boringly conventional interpretation, but I think these narratives speak more to the allure of "never growing up" than to a process of wrestling with maturity and struggling to accept "the world as it is"--I mean, the basic starting point for anything in this category of fiction assumes that "the world as it is" just up and went kablooey and now there is no prevailing social order to adapt oneself to. In many or most cases, I think you could just posit that whatever civilization is assumed to have just gone kablooey is a metaphor for the Superego--in Freudian terms that would make perfect sense, since the Superego is a constant source of tension and no one ever really makes total and complete peace with it. We all like to turn it off sometimes, and "apocalypses" let us revel in imaginary worlds where we can turn it off permanently. (So, same thing Fight Club was exploring in a different way--"man, it annoys the shit out of me that there fashion trends and other codes of social etiquette I have to follow all the time, so I'm just gonna blow everything up to make those go away.")


    My 2 cents, anyway.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    No history, no exposition, no anecdote or argument changes the invariant: we are all human beings, and some humans are idiots.

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    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
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    This makes me think of Jericho, which also looked at societies forming... I suppose that's more of what I was thinking of, the hopeful ending - the herd has been culled and everything will get better - probably better than ever.

    So you have survival/shoot-em-up movies on the one hand (John Wayne, anyone?) and the remnants of society reforming on the other (When Worlds Collide would be an early example).

    I'm still holding onto my idea that the process of becoming more aware about the world imparts a sense of calamity out of proportion to what the calamity actually is. And maybe the terrifying thing about this day and age isn't so much that this is happening but What if it actually happens to me?? Any number of disaster movies - asteroids, ice caps, anything. Even Cloverfield - scrambling through ruined highrises in Manhattan.

    It's like riding a rollercoaster. It takes you through the fear but then delivers a safe ending. Training your brain to dismiss the fear.

    I'm not disagreeing with you, I'm just... thinking along a different path. Maybe a different subgenre. And probably (certainly) I'm really talking about myself - the types of disaster movies I watch (albeit rarely) and what they mean to me.

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    Minister of Love Roger Mexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    I'm still holding onto my idea that the process of becoming more aware about the world imparts a sense of calamity out of proportion to what the calamity actually is. And maybe the terrifying thing about this day and age isn't so much that this is happening but What if it actually happens to me?? Any number of disaster movies - asteroids, ice caps, anything. Even Cloverfield - scrambling through ruined highrises in Manhattan.
    This I agree with--most people try to shield their children from many of the more unsavory aspects of life until the child is seen as ready to process the information in a productive way, so as you age the holistic picture of the world you're able to have does tend to get more and more menacing, to the point where it does appear to be fairly common for people in the earliest stages of adulthood to be cynical about certain things and believe that the world is "messed up." I suppose the world does seem "all messed up" compared to the easier/safer version of it you started out with in childhood, and this can be a source of anxiety.

    I'm just not sure I'd peg "the apocalypse" as a conceit in fiction as a major or pre-eminent way of expressing this common experience, since basically any story designed to have a dramatic arc to it follows this progression in some way:

    It's like riding a rollercoaster. It takes you through the fear but then delivers a safe ending. Training your brain to dismiss the fear.
    At least any story that qualifies as a "comedy" in the ancient Greek sense. (Which is pretty much anything with a happy ending.) Even the opposite kind of story--"tragedy", where you see someone experience the worst possible outcome of a tough situation--is generally intended to convey some sort of moral or lesson about how to avoid the tragic outcome or avoid being in that kind of situation in the first place. (Ancient Greek tragedies typically revolve around someone being arrogant and suffering for it, as they served a religious purpose in affirming that Man's place is not to try to control what the Gods are supposed to decide for us.)

    So I think you're right--in that fiction that involves an apocalyptic premise or theme will fit into this structure just as well as any other kind of dramatic fiction. However, I think you could say the same even about relatively lighthearted fare such as slapstick comedies about people in awkward social situations--the basic moral is usually still along the lines of "see, that was difficult and perhaps scary in its own way, but the hero faced up to it and Did the Right Thing in the end, and everything turned out OK."

    It seems to be one of the basic functions of fiction in general--we like to reassure ourselves that people can prevail over adversity, so there's usually an undercurrent of that message in just about anything. (Even stories about people who don't prevail usually provide indications of what the person could have done that might have saved them.)

    I just think that there's often more than that message underlying any particular kind of fiction--people like to consume fantasies about prevailing over specific kinds of adversity, and that says a lot about the psychology of the audience, too. It reflects our sense of what our strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities are, and perhaps what we would like our strengths and weaknesses to be or not be.

    I think with "apocalypse" fantasies and similarly with less global "disaster" scenarios, the psychological button being pressed is our desire to believe that our most important strengths are ultimately the more primal ones--our ability to fashion sustenance and security out of whatever is there for us to work with--that would still be there for us with or without "society." The reassurance is the implied idea that we don't really have to stake our fate on the kinds of power or strength that are more contingent on successful manipulation of a particular set of social mechanisms--and thus I would surmise that this particular fantasy "ride" appeals especially to people who worry that those latter, socially contingent aspects of life are areas where they suffer from weaknesses or vulnerabilities.

    (Which might, of course, describe all of us to some extent--I mean, I could probably wax pedantic about how Modernity kind of compels us to develop a relationship with "Society" that is analogous to and replaces the kind of relationship our ancestors had with the weather, soil, and so forth, and the reams of literature produced by Modern people apparently testifying to the fact that many of us are substantially less than fully comfortable with the implications of that difference, on at least a subconscious level.)

    I would just tend to think that those kinds of anxieties--"what if it turns out that I'm no good at getting what I need from Society?"--are somewhat more characteristic of adolescence than adulthood. (But maybe that's what you meant--the process of maturing into adulthood.)

    Personally, I don't find the concept of society breaking down all that scary, at least not when presented as fiction--it doesn't trip my fear trigger nearly as much as stories where "Society" itself becomes the most pressing threat. E.g. 1984 and works in a similar vein (or really anything where the protagonist is trapped or confined by any kind of malevolent societal force; it doesn't have to be a full-on "dystopia")--those still creep me the fuck out, and I think more so as I get older. That may actually be because I know getting older has made me more reconciled to society and its demands on me, even the imperfect or unwelcome ones. I've gradually lost the mental "out" of thinking I could just solve that problem by rebelling against Society, thanks to "rebellion" as a conceptual conceit becoming less and less something that I see as a realistic option within a range of plausible human actions--thus it's only gotten more unnerving to subject myself to imagined scenarios where successful rebellion would seem to be the only route to a desirable ending.
    Quote Originally Posted by Ptah View Post
    No history, no exposition, no anecdote or argument changes the invariant: we are all human beings, and some humans are idiots.

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    Senior Member Sinny's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TeresaJ View Post
    The apocalypse fantasy is satisfying for several reasons:

    1. The world goes to hell fully, not partially

    2. In the midst of destruction, humane feelings persist

    This is in contrast to reality.

    1. The world has already gone to hell. Starting with civilization. It's just that only certain populations experience it as hell.

    2. Going through the experience of losing your society degrades your humanity. It is possible to lose empathy. There's no neat, pat survival. Everything and everyone gets torn apart - physically and psychologically. Thinking of: systematic wartime rape, child soldiers, this article I once read about a displaced population that eventually just found others' suffering to be funny.

    And I've been thinking also about teenagers... On this forum we tend to be old souls, but for each of us, particularly if we grew up in a comfortable, supportive environment, at some point we had to come to the realization that the world we thought we knew is falling apart. (Some of us also eventually realize that, at the same time, it's constantly changing and developing anew.)

    So for a teenager, it really is as though one day you're living on Sesame Street and the next day the ice caps are melting and refugees are pouring over the borders and it's World War III.

    Adulthood means accepting the current consensus of The State of the World. Which right now is pretty pessimistic. I suppose that, in the past, religious fantasies of the apocalypse fulfilled a similar psychological need to grapple with reality. The experiences of a person's lifetime projected onto the lifetime of human society, because how we humans try to understand things is always in personal reference to ourselves.
    That's precisely why I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kid growing up.. The apocalypse was a metaphor for adulthood, and the demons were a metaphor for the trials we face on our journey from adolescents into adulthood.

    "One need not destroy one's enemy. One need only destroy his willingness to engage"

    - Sun Tzu

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