Care & Violence in the Apocalypse: Understanding Uncoverings

Care and violence are two words often viewed as diametrically opposed. A polarized binary often with moral attributions. When I first approached this paper, I was still thinking within this framework. Violence, the performance of waste that it is, is bad and conversely, care must be good. Having talked some of these thoughts out loud though, it became glaringly obvious that this binary, like most any binary, is not going to be able to contain the multitudes of complex situations that these ideological ultimatum frameworks claim to be universally suited to. Working within the binary makes one’s self an arbitrator who must judge situations one way or another, to declare it to be care or violence. Strangely enough, it was thinking about the realms of post-apocalyptic fiction that got me more interested in arbitrating and evaluating these shades of gray. 

Apocalypses find their origins in violence, usually. They are seen as cataclysmic, violent events, and the post-apocalyptic new worlds that exist following their tumultuous point of origin are generally portrayed as more violent than the ones that came before it. Even if not more violent per se, post-apocalyptic worlds and stories often uncover these tensions, emotions, and capabilities for violence; there is a claim that these violent instincts are being released simply because now they can be. Take for instance the discussion of straggler torture in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, or the hundreds of “raiders” that players are meant to gun down without hesitation in video games like the Fallout franchise. The torture and humiliation inflicted on the stragglers by some Connecticut sweepers is contextualized as a productive outlet for one’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder); it was considered “occupational therapy” (Whitehead 102). These stories demonstrate that the worst capabilities of humanity are being made manifest because the pre-apocalyptic society is no longer containing them. Beyond the immense physical violence that apocalypses usually entail, the diasporic nature of these events is likewise emphasized, adding another layer of emotional violence and strain as people are separated from loved ones, support networks, and their geographical homes. However, the best post-apocalyptic stories do more than dwell in the realm of Hobbesian fanfiction, they demonstrate the physical and emotional resilience of humanity as well as emphasizing the importance of “caring” in a violent world. 

Post-apocalyptic survival is a prime example of the interconnected nature of care and violence. The recently released HBO show, The Last of Us, is a post-apocalyptic work that demonstrates the complex morality that arises with the focus on survival, it demonstrates the necessity of violence in survival, and shows how care can be contextualized through relationship prisms. Joel and Ellie, our protagonists, develop a chemistry and dynamic through their travels across a post-apocalyptic America together. On this journey they encounter Infected, zombie-analogous beings, their fellow humans, as well as environmental and medical factors that threaten their lives and require violence. As the audience, we see Joel and Ellie’s relationship progress, informed by their shared traumatic encounters as well as their wealth of interactions telling jokes, talking about the world before and each other’s lives, they begin caring more about each other and find kinship and family in this post-apocalyptic world that has previously taken theirs away. Both Ellie and Joel use violence to defend themselves and each other from a dangerous world. They do so in the name of care. Self-defense and self-preservation loom large in post-apocalyptic media and The Last of Us highlights how self-defense extends beyond ourselves and covers those we care about, our communities, and friends. 

In fact, while apocalyptic worlds are often viewed as materially and categorically worse than our own, etymologically these worlds may be more alike than they seem. The word “apocalypse” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “revelation”; breaking it down further into its two components, apo and kalyptein, an apocalypse can be understood as an “uncovering of what’s concealed”. The best post-apocalyptic media reflects this notion, often factoring in the violence that existed prior to the cataclysmic uncovering and tempering the dagger that “things were better before” with evidence that all was not well prior to the apocalypse. Ultimately, post-apocalyptic media encourages us to care in the face of cataclysmic violence, to do what we can (within reason) to survive and protect the ones we love, and to consider and stop the violence we inflict upon each other and our world, the apocalyptic pressure that will build up and demand release. 

Examining the role that both “memory” and “forgetting” play in post-apocalyptic media is fascinating for this very reason. Nostalgic notions of returning a world to its prior state clash with the realistic acknowledgments of past faults as well as the knowledge that the world can’t return, but can move forward. The Fallout series has a brilliant name for this rose-tinted nostalgia: “old world blues”. Numerous characters, factions, and groups in the Fallout universe hope to restore “the old world” (with all the ambiguity that exists within this term). The games do a lot of work in showing the horrid conditions of life before the nuclear war and demonstrate the role corporations, individuals, and institutions played in creating the post-apocalyptic landscapes the games take place in. The pre-apocalyptic faults and pressures are both remembered and forgotten in the Fallout games, revealing yet another binary which upon closer inspection contains multitudes. Understanding an apocalypse as an “uncovering”, there is nothing added to create them; it is the violent release of pre-existing pressures that can no longer be held in. In many cases, post-apocalyptic media is examining how we exert the violence of the apocalypse on ourselves by ignoring the apocalypse’s origin and likely contributing to the origin.

However, apocalypses are perhaps most famous for expressing that humanity is not alone in our ability to remember and forget. Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” is perhaps the most famous example of this in speculative fiction, and  portrays nature’s reclamation of the post-apocalyptic Martian landscape; it’s featured in The Martian Chronicles. This natural process, of the land remembering itself, is juxtaposed by the humming routines of the mindless mechanized drones who continue carrying out their programmed tasks. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One adds to this discussion when considering the role that stragglers play within the world. Not ravenous and relentless like their skel peers which they physically resemble, the stragglers and their appearance of memory is of much interest to many characters in the story. I say “appearance of memory” because it is unclear what semblance of memories these stragglers possess, only that they do possess something– some inkling to travel to a certain location or strike a certain stance– Whitehead writes: “The general theory contended that stragglers haunted what they knew (Whitehead 64)”. Another section describes the stragglers as “trapped in a snapshot of their lives” (101), trapped within a memory.  However, this position of being trapped is not universally assigned to them, the actions of the Fortune Teller, particularly the curl of her smile and the biting of Gary demonstrate that stragglers are not static, fixed, and trapped (284). Like the land remembering its shape, stragglers too possess memory even if in ways that can not be wholly understood. 

To look at a more metaphorical apocalypse, Shakespeare’s The Tempest offers a look at the interconnected nature of care and violence, particularly whilst examining the relationship between Prospero and Miranda. Not quite the world-wide uncovering we expect from a  traditional apocalypse, the lives in exile of Prospero and Miranda may still be understood as a personal apocalypse. Driven from their home in the court of Milan, Prospero and Miranda were pushed out by factional pressures and familial betrayal. Years of Prospero neglecting his stewardly duties in favor of his arcane studies created this tumultuous pressure; its apocalyptic uncovering occurred when Antonio, Prospero’s brother, usurped the throne of Milan and forced Prospero and Miranda into exile (Act I Scene II). Circling back to something said before, here we again see the diasporic nature of apocalypses. One could argue that in addition to shirking his duties as Duke, Prospero likewise demonstrated a lack of care for Miranda, repeatedly rebuking her for supposedly not listening, gaslighting and isolating her, and keeping her from the greater world. And yet Prospero is also positioned as the caring, protecting father who would do anything to keep Miranda safe in this dangerous post-betrayal world. 

In addition to literary works exploring apocalypses, these “uncoverings” cannot help but be contextualized in our own world. Much like how hurricanes and other cataclysms are used as literary devices to “wipe the slate clean”, apocalypses follow a similar form. This rhetoric likewise forms around real cataclysmic events like Hurricane Katrina and it’s hard to argue against the perception of Katrina as an apocalypse. The dreadful devastation and loss of life were not just apocalyptic in-scale, but in the sense of a true apocalypse, Katrina uncovered the many corrupt, inefficient, problematic, and unacceptable pressures and systems that exacerbated and caused the apocalypse. Whether we recognize it or not, our world is a post-apocalyptic one; epidemics, disasters, wars and genocides all dramatically alter our status-quos revealing the pressures that give rise to the tempestuous apocalypse in the first place. Centering the idea that apocalypses are real, have happened, and will continue happening is important as it reminds us that the “apocalypse”, often thought of as the end of the world, is in actuality a liminal transitional period. Understanding too that addressing and alleviating these pressures before the apocalypse can prevent them or their scale. 

This brings me to perhaps one of the most positive portrayals of a post-apocalyptic world, the world of Ooo in the cartoon series Adventure Time. By the time of the events of the main story, the world is removed from the apocalypse by a whole millennium. New societies and people populate the world, humans become fewer in number, but the world just keeps on turning. The series’ final episode even ends on this note, foreshadowing a nigh-apocalyptic event that seemingly eliminated characters that we knew, but not the world of Ooo itself. Music plays a large role in the show and it is somewhat fitting how the communal group number “Time Adventure” stops the apocalypse by uniting the previously aggrieved and conflicting groups through the powers of memory and harmony. In my mind, this is still an apocalypse, just one with a different revelation than we are used to. In this apocalypse harmony is what is revealed. To borrow a phrase from the song, apocalypses “will happen, happening, happened”; apocalypses, like care and violence, reject a simplistic moral reckoning that reduces the factors and pressures of, and responses to, the apocalypse into a simple genre-savvy box.  Apocalypses demonstrate the capacity for both care and violence, even and especially in times of severe stress and duress. And most of all apocalypses highlight our capacity to move forward, in some form or another, and to confront these pressures before they are thrust forth through traumatic events.

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