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Surviving in the Postapocalyptic Landscape

The recovery of Detroit, and, by extension, that of all deindustrialized and declining cities, is a hope set against the fear of a downward spiral of progress that often manifests as apocalyptic catastrophe. Yet even apocalyptic collapse is not necessarily regarded as the end of everything but as another possible beginning. Indeed, the notion of new beginnings is integral to the structure of most apocalyptic narratives throughout the centuries. In post-World War II sci-fi thrillers, and more recent zombie and disaster films and television shows, such new starts are central to postapocalyptic scenarios that depend upon imagining survivors and their adventures, no matter how hostile or devastated the environment in which they find themselves may be. Such films help to domesticate the anxiety of decline while the pictured or implied evils that result in these postapocalyptic fantasies are always firmly rooted in the problems of the present.

Nuclear Fear and Sci-Fi Thrillers

In “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay about postwar sci-fi thrillers, she observed that “the freakish, the ugly, and the predatory all converge—and provide a fantasy target for righteous bellicosity to discharge itself, and for the aesthetic enjoyment of suffering and disaster.”1 Sontag identifies here the key elements of disaster films: the horrifying and frightening, the legitimation of unrestrained violence, and the ability to enjoy it all at an aesthetic remove. She regarded sci-fi films as normalizing and neutralizing that which is psychologically unbearable, thereby “inuring” us to it, which might be another way of saying that disaster films are a way of containing and controlling our cultural anxieties, although the terrors of disaster can never be entirely normalized, nor are we ever completely desensitized to the fears that haunt our era. Indeed, the greater the fears, the more rapidly the imagery meant to domesticate those fears multiplies; crucially, the imagery is always anchored in the real. One of the pleasures of these films, as Sontag points out, is the imagined ability to survive a planetary catastrophe, to fantasize starting all over again in a ravaged environment with a small group of people.

The anxieties regarding global catastrophe have shifted in the last fifty years. In the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear fear followed the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and spawned a sci-fi cast of alien invaders, mutants, and monsters. Today, zombie thrillers and postapocalyptic narratives have largely replaced them with the living dead, and address contemporary anxieties about viral pandemics, migrant populations, global warming, ecological destruction, and struggles for limited resources as well as the explosive growth of social inequality. The convergence of the freakish and the predatory with righteous violence and aesthetic enjoyment endures. A key difference, however, between contemporary zombie films and postwar sci-fi thrillers is that scientists and the military, who usually collaborated to save the day at the end of sci-fi movies, are malevolent, impotent, or nonexistent in most contemporary zombie movies. In half a century, public confidence in the beneficent promise of science, technology, and the global cooperation of the military and the state has drastically eroded.

The primary continuity between sci-fi thrillers provoked by nuclear fear and recent zombie and disaster films is the collective imagination of catastrophe and the apocalyptic threat of total social breakdown. There is an important difference, however. Engaging the anxiety of global decline, the postapocalyptic landscapes found in zombie and disaster films are dominated by the iconic landscapes of the abandoned and decaying city, for which Detroit serves as a global metaphor. But first let us briefly examine the imagery and effects of nuclear fear, which have never left public discourse and continue to infuse the contemporary imagination of ruin imagery.

Anxiety about humanist progress, national catastrophe, and urban ruination has served as modernism’s dark underbelly for at least two centuries. It burst into full flower in the United States first with Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast about Martians landing, which caused a nationwide panic, and then, in a more sustained way, when the U.S. government deliberately conjured a vision of national nuclear destruction following World War II as a prelude to ramping up the security apparatus of the state. From the late 1940s and 1950s onward, the Cold War state went to great lengths to invent an American landscape of future nuclear ruin. Test programs called for actively imagined national nuclear warfare and forced schoolchildren to hunker down under their desks and families to huddle in bomb shelters. These tactics were combined with large-scale response exercises such as the evacuation of cities, all as part of the psychological reprogramming of the American public by the government to justify new security and surveillance measures.2

By the mid-1950s the ostensible threat level reached absurd heights of alarmism. As anthropologist Joseph Masco observes: “It became a civic obligation to collectively imagine, and at times theatrically enact through ‘civil defense,’ the physical destruction of the nation-state.”3 The fomenting of national fear that characterizes the post-9/11 “war on terror” rhetoric and the enactment of draconian security measures in response to this fear was prefigured by the Cold War logics of nuclear fear and the security state built in response to it. The visions of nuclear war and nuclear ruins promoted by the state more than fifty years ago, writes Masco, “installed an idea of an American community under total and unending threat, creating the terms for a new kind of nation-building which demanded an unprecedented level of militarism in everyday life as a minimum basis for ‘security.’ ”4

In response to the events of 9/11, George W. Bush (and his lieutenants, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell) mobilized the nation by deploying the reliable Cold War rhetoric of nuclear fear, even though this was not an actual threat. On October 7, 2002, when Bush addressed the nation to justify a preemptive war against Iraq, although it was unconnected to the attacks of 9/11, he invoked a nuclear threat by conjuring a mushroom cloud, the unmistakable visual icon of nuclear destruction: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”5 Despite the different nature of the attack on the World Trade Center, that site was dubbed “Ground Zero,” just like the detonation site in Hiroshima, thus figuring the collapse of the Twin Towers in terms of the nuclear destruction of a city and mapping the former onto the latter.

The mentality of the security state continues apace under the Obama administration with the unprecedented scope of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance and the massive invasion of privacy, as revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Fear is increasingly instrumentalized by the state for control of the population through ever stronger security measures, including spying and wiretapping, in which the government seizes enormous quantities of phone records and electronic data while cracking down on press freedom and trampling on constitutional rights—even as it claims the opposite in Orwellian newspeak. Both the Guardian and the Washington Post published accounts in June 2013 about the ability of NSA technicians in the United States to comb through vast troves of audio, video, photos, e-mails, and documents from industries such as Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Face- book, Yahoo, Skype, and Apple, using data-mining tools such as Boundless Informant to assemble individual profiles—and they have been secretly doing so for years.

Despite the government’s mobilization of nuclear fear after 9/11 by invoking the mushroom cloud, this iconic image of nuclear war is highly deceptive and conveys little sense of the actual destructive effects of atomic bombs on human populations. As Kyo Maclear argues, the mushroom cloud became a powerful and memorable Cold War symbol both because it was “a technocratic vision” that could be seen as “the culmination of scientific progress” and because it elided all human presence and the destructive effects of the bomb. Producing an image of what might be called the “technological sublime,” precisely by keeping its effects at an abstract distance, the mushroom cloud became the only image to represent the dropping of the A-bomb, obscuring the human cost and scale of wreckage. The U.S. government actively censored other images of the war, which were concealed from the public until 1980, when pictures of the irradiated body were first made public.6 As late as 1994 a controversy arose at the Smithsonian Institute over a proposed exhibition of the refurbished B-29 bomber Enola Gay that was to discuss the use of the atomic bomb and display artifacts that demonstrated its destructive power. The original concept for the exhibition was abandoned after a veterans’ group successfully lobbied for the removal of all items and references to the effects of the bombs.7

By occluding any view of trauma and its destructive effects, such distancing and image repression makes witnessing impossible and has racist overtones to boot.8 Like the abstract photos taken from the eye of “smart bombs” during the U.S. bombing of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, which made tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths invisible, and the absence of the impoverished black population in most Detroit ruin imagery, erasing the human is a strategy meant to quell dissent, cultivate complacency, and garner support for dominant political policy.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to censor fear and trepidation, which finds its own formats for expression.9 Sci-fi thrillers about biological mutation and battles with aliens became enormously popular in the post-World War II period, functioning as ways of coming to terms with nuclear trauma, the terror of radiation, and the fear of mass incineration. Between 1948 and 1962 Hollywood released more than five hundred science-fiction features.10 As vehicles for the experience of the technological sublime, they attempted to tame the horror of planetary crises and make them enjoyable. The most classic film of the genre is Godzilla, which was made not in Hollywood but in Japan by director Inoshiro Honda in 1954, a film that has been remade several times recently. It tells the story of a giant Jurassic monster roused from the murky depths of Bikini Atoll by nuclear testing, and culminates with Godzilla rampaging indiscriminately through Tokyo, wreaking death and destruction while pleasurably terrifying audiences everywhere.11

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