Surviving Apocalypse

Surviving Apocalypse June 2, 2016

Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson want to help readers learn How to Survive the Apocalypse that seems to be looming. They see signs of apocalyptic agitation everywhere in popular culture—in Battlestar Galactica, a technological apocalypse in the film Her, a zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead, the dread of the onset of winter in the Westeros of Game of Thrones.

Their entire analysis is guided by Charles Taylor’s analysis of the secular, and especially of the “malaise” of the secular age. Taylor identifies three—the individualism that sets individuals adrift from the moorings of meaning that were once provided by tradition and authority; the triumph of instrumentalism that reduces everything to “raw materials or instruments for the projects of self-desire” (27); the paradox that expanding choice can lead to a loss of freedom, a “paralysis, in which we’re unable to commit to a choice because so many are available to us” (29).

In a secular age, apocalyptic is a purely immanent affair. We’re at fault for bringing the world to an end; the possibility of divine judgment is ruled out from the beginning. And, on the other side, we’re responsible for solving the problems we have created. We can’t hope for a deus ex machina to save us from our machines. The best we can do is apply more technical ingenuity—which is rather the thing that got us into the mess in the first place. Through it all, the one reliable meaning is that there’s no meaning.

Like Taylor, Joustra and Wilkinson believe that there are pluses and minuses to the secular age of modernity. They don’t take a resolutely anti-modern stance. And, again like Taylor, they recognize that there are choices to be made. We’re not locked into responding to the secular and the malaises it produces in one way. The future is not determined; things are always up in the air. As they write, “Our systems, our practices, are powerful; they do shape us, form us, in profound and important ways. But the possibility of dissent, and of reformation, remains. A counterpoint will always exist, especially in a Secular age when necessarily diverse ‘moral horizons’ will produce many ‘multiple modernities’” (139).

In this context, the disturbing visions analyzed by the authors may be taken as signs of hope. Pop culture may not be capable of offering resolution to our malaises, but their dire visions of our present and future provide insight into the dilemmas and limits of secularity. The sheer existence of zombies is a sign that there is more in heaven and earth and under the earth that we dream of. As it has often been, apocalyptic might itself be an act of resistance.

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