Peripatetic. Orientation. Discourse.
For Mark Fisher, the end of the world was a slow and absurd collapse of meaning making. Maybe history didn’t end, but reality did. Austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism are ending now much like they do in the dystopia he describes in Children of Men: “There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart.” Post-capitalism was once posited through ends: apocalypses, dystopias, wastes. Building up a new world after blowing apart its literal structures. But no more. Since colonizing the world, capitalism has come to occupy “the horizons of the thinkable.” So if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, how can we ask for a better ending?
While the end of all things in the Anthropocene is slow and suffocating, defined more by stillness than entropy, our fiction neatly confines the apocalypse to moments and chapters. If it’s a symptom of neoliberalism that we fail to think in or of systems, then these movies similarly convince us that so long as we can go to the theaters to see hellscape dystopias, we’re okay. Whereas the post apocalypse was once the site of radical alternatives to status quo, “the disasters they depicted acting as narrative pretext for the emergence of different ways of living,” these stories are now subsumed by the hegemonic systems of today.
The post-apocalypse has always been delimited by our collective imaginations. Heather Smith describes the ethnocentricity of the preeminent 20th century dystopia, the nuclear wasteland, as a relocation of an entire culture’s guilt: “America, it seemed, worked through the issue of having bombed Japan by generating an endless number of stories where America was the bombed, not the bomber.” Consider Pat Frank’s seminal nuclear apocalypse, Alas, Babylon. The author locates the globe’s mutually assured destruction within the individual, a young pilot that strikes a third world country’s infrastructure. Though, he’s as much to blame as Florence, a gossiping unmarried woman that Frank insists you remember is fat. Frank’s cautionary tale fails to indict anyone in particular, instead filtering out undesirables judged by the authors own religious morality. In this brave new world, disabled people are too reliant on the excesses of post-War America, all too frail and elderly to survive more than a week. While he criticizes the emerging consumer culture of the 50s, Frank does so with the Catholic-tinged noblesse oblige of his painfully obvious self-insert. The gruff, alcoholic veteran is able to grow into himself and lead the fictitious central Florida community – by virtue of the resources on the property his family took from Indigenous people and with the aid of the family of Black servants that never stopped living off the land.
Frank’s novel is not an imagination of the world after capitalism, but a romanticization of the preindustrial. Since salvation from alienation in a post-apocalyptic America is consistently tied up in some form of Christian morality, it makes sense that an author operating within capitalist realism could only point back, unaware of how the system has eroded the icons of their faith. This, what Smith calls “post-apocalyptic dream America,” is the original American fiction, envisioned by the Puritans that settled what they considered the promised land of their own post-apocalypse. And it persists today in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. The state is politically re-centered in the global as sci-fi re-centers us in the solar.
Alternatives to capitalism have been relocated further into the future, a sub-genre we could call the post-post apocalypse. The post-post apocalypse is, understandably, a recurring setting in the works of Japanese creators, though American’s have a particular fondness for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, whose work, to borrow again from Smith, “displays no affection for civilization.” This lineage is, I believe, a part of the nostalgia inspired by America’s preeminent post-post apocalypse – Adventure Time.
From the bug-filled forests of the Toxic Jungle to the quiet paddies of Hateno Village to the bustling streets of the Candy Kingdom, new ways of life are consistently explored in the genre. Grace Lee describes Adventure Time’s post-post apocalypse as “a future where life as we know it has ended. But, of course, that isn’t to say that life has ended.” Remnants of Ooo’s past are scattered about, indicating civilization – and capitalism – once occupied the same land. In “Dark Purple,” a soda company’s kidnapped, mutant labor force is described as “weird, ancient ways” while in “Ocarina” Jake gives a lesson on colonialism in the distant past before trading the functionally obsolete deed to the tree house for an ocarina without any holes in it.
As much as it is about the extraordinary ways in which people live their normal lives, Adventure Time is comprised of endings. Cycles still end in death and decay, apocalypses still beset the world (and Mars) and break-ups still hurt. The ultimate expression of Adventure Time’s thematic use of endings comes from the shows very own ending, which philosophizes about . . . endings. “Time Adventure” is both a lullaby that keeps the cosmic forces of discord at bay and a poetic rumination on the lives that continue past the inevitable end of our spoken words (at least until capitalists demand epilogue comics.)
The post-post apocalypse is, to me, thematically autumnal. Beyond this cycle we find ourselves in the ending of another. Post-post apocalyptic worlds are always presented in some ending of sorts: Ooo faces apocalyptic threats until the story itself ends, the Toxic Jungle inches closer to the Valley of Wind, the “aimless spirits of monsters slain in the name of the light return to flesh.” Beyond the myopic dystopias and repeated apocalypses of our time, the post-post apocalypse promises us it will happen, happening happened.
Autumn Wright is an essayist. They do criticism on games and other media. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.