Humans had a lot of imagination in the past. Various ancient societies, from the Babylonian to the Judaic, used their visions of the future to produce myths and literature on the end of the world. To name but a few, it is worth recalling the Epic of Gilgamesh (2600-2500 BC) whose protagonist warrior Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, seeks the secret of life and to overcome the fear of death and discovering that only the pleasures of earthly life count; and the Book of Revelation (90-95 AC) written by St. John the Divine filled with both prophecies of destruction and a beatific vision of Judgement Day with the revelation of God’s promise of redemption from suffering. This book first introduced the word “apocalypse”, in Koine Greek apokalypsis, meaning “revelation”, as the author writes about the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and about the suffering leading to the end of the present age and the coming God’s Kingdom. The term “apocalypse” has therefore been more commonly used to talk about “the end of the world”. The period of History that had the highest expectations of it was probably the Middle Ages, as testified by the magnificent frescos of the time and feudal chronicles such as the Chronographia by Sigebert+ of Gembloux.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature tells fictitious stories set in periods just before the end of the world or of human kind and in times immediately after a catastrophe, focusing on journeys and survivor psychology. The reasons leading to the dramatic event change according to the fears and preoccupations of the historic periods, as in the Middle Ages it was a matter of religion and salvation in paradise, after the Second World War the causes were nuclear war, aliens, zombies or cybernetic invasions, climate change or environmental collapse. For more than fifty years those stories have been written and filmed in different variations and under new future perspective, Planet of the Apes (1963), 2001: A Space Odissey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), Matrix (1999), Melancholia (2011) are only a few examples of the genre. All of them are based on a common assumption or scenario in which confronting apocaplyptic or post-apocalyptic events leads human kind to question on its existence, on a background of sociopopolitical concerns or ethical obligations. We are all immeditaley returned to a sort of primitive state of nature in which all rules are suspended to ensure a more important objective: the survival of the species. As Ben Woodard notes in his contribution to the summer edition of e-flux journal (which presents a series of contribution on the theme of “apocalypses”) “Less World to Ourselves: A note of Post-apocalyptic Simplification”, all post-apocalyptic narrations are characterized by a form of simplicity that corresponds with the “removal of the political and ethical questions that collectively tax us, replacing them with more basic tribal concerns of us versus them”. Going back to the shared old assumption that all are equal when facing death, the majority of stories on the end of the world provide a same simple structure: human kind versus something else. However, in the past, apocalpytic and post-apocaplyptic fictional texts were based on tensions imagined from the current society as seen, for example, in stories based on technological progress or bacterial contamination, cosmic invasions or disasters, etc. Still, Woodard writes that “now it would seem that, more and more, they function according to that society’s own logic of individualistic fantasy enacted via the destruction of the world”, ending by saying that “the sheer number of post-apocalyptic tales leaves a strange message: give us more worlds that imagine less worlds, because there is too much world now.”
The loss of imagination and capacity to invent new worlds also worried Graeme McMillian from Time, which published an article in 2013 entitled “Where are our bright science-fiction futures?”. While watching the trailers of the sci-fi movies that were going to be released that summer, “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise and “After Earth” with Will Smith, McMillian could not help noticing a recurring tropes in both, and many other, films: “Congratulations!” the message seems to be, “The day has been saved, but we still killed out planet — call it a half-win?” From the early 20th century and to the end of the 70s, films such as Star Trek dealing with science-fiction issues presented an optimistic vision of the future believing in the ability of humanity “to overcome its worst impulses”. According to McMillian, pessimistic fascination and dystopias arose at the end of the Age of Aquarius with the disillusionment of a generation that had to deal with an unpopular war in Vietnam and civil right protests of women, homosexual, African Americans etc. resulting in having a darker vision of the future. McMillian concludes sadly that, “Science fiction is all about imagining the new and unimaginable, surely. If we can’t imagine a world that isn’t a mess because of what we’ve done, shouldn’t we try harder?”
Today, pessimism seems to have become the current value in our vision of possible scenarios, the concept of Anthropocene has become popular and a number of intellectuals and scientists are discussing on how to live with the the end of the world. The catastrophe is already here; we are experiencing it right now. And we have also lost our imagination; we do not know how to invent new worlds. Simply, there is no prediction or future-oriented thought because time has collapsed into a constant presentification. The past is in a process of slow oblivion, encountering archiving difficulties, hidden and generally related to individuals rather than being established and grown within a collective memory. And if the future does not exist, it is impossible to perceive, to feel, to consider it. How is it possible to go to the future without imagination, conscious of the ending process? A question on how to survive to the present should thus follow a simple question on our ability of imagining: are we still capable of inventing new worlds?
We may be destined to wait for a post-apocalyptic catharsis, outside of the Platonic cave.
As an exercise, choose how American is going to end on Slate.