Originally presented at the UC San Diego Literature Graduate Conference: “Return, Resistance, Resilience, and Recovery,” on April 6, 2019.
Whose Normal Is Normal?
Post-apocalyptic scenarios, as offered in classic and contemporary literature and film, typically present a predictable turn of events. Most narratives take the form of an invasion by external forces of various kinds—anything from extraterrestrial (H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, 1897) to technological (the Terminator series, 1984-2009) to supernatural beings (The Walking Dead, 2010); swift and significant environmental changes that lead to global disaster (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, 1993; Geostorm, 2017); or a sharp decline in human population—and ensuing crumbling of social infrastructure—due to a large-scale pandemic, war, or accident (Stephen King’s The Stand, 1994; the Mad Max series, 1979-2015). These narratives usually feature a breakdown of social structures and institutions, as interpreted through the common interests shared by dominant communities of the global West. The resulting stories are usually characterised by struggle and survival and a yearning and quest for return to the normative systems of the pre-apocalyptic world, or at least a new equilibrium built upon a semblance of the old world’s normativity. This, then, raises the question of who or what decides whose pre-apocalyptic normativity is being represented in this vision of a new world. How is this equilibrium represented for groups outside of the normative, with regards to their axes of power, need, and existence?
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), a post-apocalyptic novel of the pandemic kind, is one of those narratives that attempts to shy away from this focus on a struggle for return. Instead, it turns its lens to the life after and the new modes of existence being created. The novel exhibits all the trappings of a typical post-apocalyptic narrative. First, there is the apocalyptic event, which occurs in the form of a Georgia Flu, a global-sweeping deadly virus “like an avenging angel, unsurvivable, a microbe that reduced the population of the fallen world …” (St. John Mandel 60). Then, a shift from before to after, where the global population drops drastically within twenty years and major cities become sparse, any remnants of the old world now dilapidated. Most importantly, there is the third trapping: the consequences of the apocalypse on the social order of communities. Typically, the result is a “breakdown of civilization, the collapse of modern technologies, and the dispersal of a connected society into small groups of survivors” (Feldner 168). As Benjamin Kunkel explains in his 2008 article, “Dystopia and the End of Politics”:
In almost every case … large-scale social organization, including the state, has disappeared; the cumulative technological capability of century upon century has collapsed to the point that only agricultural knowhow, if that, is retained; and the global society we know has shattered into small tribal groups, separate families or couples, and helpless solitary individuals an examination of a new and developing social order, usually built on the ruins of those of the world past. (Kunkel 93-94)
The social order in Station Eleven is anarchical, as is true to the nature of most post-apocalyptic narratives. Station Eleven does eschew this focus on a return to normativity by focusing on a nomadic theatrical group called the Travelling Symphony, which moves from settlement to settlement, trying to keep artistic expression alive by performing Shakespeare. However, there remains a clear nostalgic yearning for the “normalcy” of the days before. This paper interrogates whose pre-apocalyptic normalcy gets to be yearned for in a post-apocalyptic world, the usually socioeconomically privileged gaze that defines what classifies as normal, and what events classify as apocalyptic. We examine the axes of power and normative lenses through which these terms are usually defined in post-apocalyptic narratives—especially narratives handed down via dominant groups. To explore this, this paper will draw notable facets of typical post-apocalyptic scenarios, with some specific presentations in Station Eleven, and compare them with existent scenarios experienced by socioeconomically underprivileged groups and their needs before and after such an event.
A Return to What?
Most post-apocalyptic narratives in literature and cinema are underpinned by the collective fears of the society or communities from which they emerge. For the dominant groups of the First World, these fears of a global cataclysm go as far back as the aftermath of World War I, which saw the birth of post-apocalyptic films like Thomas H. Ince’s Civilization (1916) and Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) (Tholas-Disset 2). Another more contemporary response of this kind can be observed in the literature produced in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, birthing pessimist post-apocalyptic narratives like the Silo series by Hugh Howey (2011 onwards) and Immobility by Brian Evenson (2013), with emphasis on the hopelessness felt in “three specific types of social situations: biological, religious, and heritage” (Hageman iv). The 2017 cinematic film Geostorm is a response to growing fears about drastic climate change in recent years and what might happen if humans tamper with the natural world for much longer.
While these narratives critique and address such fears through dire fictional cataclysmic events, little attention is usually paid to what should be termed such a cataclysm and from what perspective. A good way to interrogate this would be to examine the socioeconomics of the group controlling such a narrative. If one examines all of these fears under a microscope, one easily deduces that they all share a collective trait: a fear of the ensuing loss of socioeconomic status, usually by the dominant groups furthering such narratives, through the breakdown of the existent social contract that keeps that status in place. With such a disintegration of social cohesion, the usual axes of power destroyed, and the need to cooperate for collective good out of the way (Dartnell 20-22), socioeconomically privileged groups usually find that the structures employed to keep their status in check no longer exist, leading to the interpretation of such events as apocalyptic or world-altering.
Lewis Dartnell, in his 2014 book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, discusses the typical step-by-step fallout of an apocalypse in his first chapter, “The End of the World As We Know It” (19). First, there is the loss of physical resources and limited mobility. Immediate access to food, water, and other comforts is the first to go, and mobility becomes impaired as many people try to migrate to safe havens at the same time, usually without order. Technological losses usually occur next, with access to power and communication severely hindered. Law and social order finally disintegrate, and lethal force becomes the arbiter of new socioeconomic power. Groups will migrate towards where they can receive the best protection and healthcare. Large stretches of formerly habitable spaces will become abandoned and likely recolonized by flora and fauna, dangerous or otherwise. In time, even the earth may respond with natural shifts in the environment, which may alleviate or exacerbate the situation depending on the cause of the event. But a key question remains: Whose world ends up being significantly altered? Whose end of the world is it?
We must pay attention to the fact that this “typical” scenario does not quite take into account the living experiences of many global communities, most of them underrepresented in post-apocalyptic literature and cinema, in the consideration of this fallout. In fact, not only do many socioeconomically underprivileged groups already exist within some combination of this scenario, some have existed for long periods without degenerating into further aspects of this scenario. Groups like nationals of the global South, the global working poor, people of colour, the differently abled, and people outside of the gender binary have existed with limited access to food and water, physical and social mobility, and power and technology, without devolving into a post-apocalypse as portrayed in literature and cinema. Natural and man-made disasters and breakdowns in law and order have occurred for various reasons among several underprivileged groups, and these groups have continued to function alongside the rest of the world without framing the causative events as apocalyptic. In centering the needs of more privileged groups—mostly White, middle-to-upper class, within the gender binary, and with good access to infrastructure for transport and physical mobility—creators end up framing causative events as apocalyptic, which is reductive of the experiences of underprivileged groups existing in these exact situations. With no power except through private generators, no fire departments or police, no internet, and no adequate healthcare, it becomes reductive to frame a return to normative physical, social, and economic infrastructure as the catch-all desire of global populaces in the aftermath of a world-altering event, when things might not change much for many groups outside the normative.
Station Eleven commits this error at various points. In Chapter 6, which leads with the opener “An incomplete list,” the reader is taken through a list of things that no longer exist in this new after: “No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights … No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue”; “No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand”; “No more flight”; “No more fire departments, no more police”; “No more internet” (St. John Mandel 30-31). This places the loss of these markers of Western civilization at the baseline for the definition of abnormalcy. While a pandemic of the scale at which it occurs in Station Eleven will surely affect such communities, there will be no desire for a return to the world of airplanes, TV, internet, and fire departments for these groups. That world did not exist for them before and will not exist after. In fact, for most of these kinds of communities, there might even be little change in daily proceedings. For instance: While a global power and internet outage may spark apocalyptic-level havoc for dominant groups in North America, Eurasia, and Oceania where access to power is almost always guaranteed, communities in parts of Africa, South America, and the Middle East who exist despite little or no access to power and technology will experience little change in daily life.
The socioeconomics of the typical fallout of a global apocalyptic scenario can be examined under the microscope of American psychologist Clayton Alderfer’s ERG theory. The theory assumes that human needs and desires, at their core, include “obtaining [his] material existence needs, maintaining [his] interpersonal relatedness with significant other people, and seeking opportunities for [his] unique personal development and growth” (145). Groups higher up on the socioeconomic ladder usually have all three need groups met to a high degree, while those further down the socioeconomic ladder usually have less of all three needs met, or no needs met at all in one, two, or all three. If we consider the privileged, hegemonic groups’ fears of a world-altering event causing these needs of theirs to no longer be met, alongside the desire to return to a time when these needs were met, and compare them against those lower down the ladder who already lack in these needs groups, we can see how the desires of the latter will significantly differ in a post-apocalypse.
Existence needs are the first priorities in the event of a crash of civilization. Dartnell notes that during the buffer period after an apocalyptic event, before one begins to produce new things, one must scavenge from the old world first to survive long enough to begin to build a life in the new world (33). Protective shelter, water, and food stand out as basic firsts. Medicine and proper healthcare are strong seconds. Obtaining the right clothing—especially where there is a strong connection between clothing and survival in adverse temperatures—also becomes paramount.
Alderfer explains that existence needs require that “one person's gain is another's loss when resources are limited” (145). From a global perspective, one can already see this in play, since for some groups to be higher up on the socioeconomic ladder, others have to exist below. One might say this fall from grace for dominant groups is only termed apocalyptic because it brings the privileged to par with the formerly undermined. Seeking food and water, making one’s own clothing, and employing more natural methods to cure diseases (e.g. herbs) are likelier to be everyday experiences for groups lower on the socioeconomic ladder. In truth, survival, as typically portrayed in post-apocalyptic literature and film, is unlikely to ask much of such groups, and any yearning for a return to the old world is unlikely to tick the same boxes as groups higher up on the ladder, for whom these changes will be significantly world-altering.
Relatedness, as the next group of needs, points to “relationships with significant other people” (Alderfer 146). This could cover anything from family and friends to superiors, subordinates, and enemies. Their basic characteristic is that “satisfaction depends on a process of sharing or mutuality,” and the clear distinction from existence needs is the latter’s prohibition of mutuality (146). In the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, protection, especially by numbers; connection, either on an intimate level or a general need for communication; and the ensuing need for mobility and transport—these all take centre stage. The Travelling Symphony in Station Eleven is a good example of how relatedness needs manifest and are met in the post-apocalypse, with the symphony banding together for various reasons, from protection to mutual love for art. Various settlements throughout the book also demonstrate this desire for community, institution, and connection, especially in the form of a community developed at the Severn City Airport Terminal (St. John Mandel 231) and a new-world religion led by a man referred to as “The Prophet” (59).
Socioeconomically privileged groups in contemporary times usually have trouble-free access to means of communication, transport, and connection. Few members of these groups have had to confront the loss of the internet or other systems of long- or short-distance communication and connection in contemporary times, or being unable to move from one place to another, either due to denial by a higher power or lack of access to transport vehicles or networks. Underprivileged groups, however, experience this more often. Everything from fleeing zones of adversity on foot and seeking asylum in safer climes (the Central American migrant caravan’s attempts to cross the US-Mexico border is a recent example) to rural areas in parts of Africa without access to internet and phone connectivity. None of these events are so far presented as apocalyptic, and one wonders if this is because this happens to groups with a lower degree of relatedness needs currently being met. In the event of an apocalypse that necessitates travel on foot for thousands of miles for everyone, with no internet or mail or phone or other manner of contact, and with limited room for connection through interest, shared belief, or other affiliation, how much would change for these recent migrants from Central America, who have always known this kind of adversity? The answer is: definitely not as much as for those who have never envisaged such a situation. Neither will their minds be as fixated on a return to a world with internet and phones, or neighbourly barbecues and air travel, as those who have always had them.
The last need group, growth, is even more contentious within this context. Alderfer says this includes “all the needs which involve a person making creative or productive effects on himself and the environment” (146). In a post-apocalyptic scenario, this will include matters such as: rebuilding industry (e.g. making soap or glass or producing building materials like mortar and metal); generating and distributing power (electrical and mechanical), and the production and storage of fuel for this purpose; agriculture, art, and architecture; etc. Station Eleven places a lot of focus on the preservation of art, with the Travelling Symphony keeping Shakespeare performances alive. Another example of this is the Museum of Civilization, a “limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve,” built by a character called Clark in a Skymiles Lounge in the Severn City Airport (St. John Mandel 258).
If one compares Alderfer’s ERG model to Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers’s hierarchy of needs pyramid—from which the ERG model sprouted (Pichère “Extensions and Related Models”)—one can see that growth needs exist in the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid, under esteem and personal accomplishment (“The Five Levels of Need”). In Maslow’s theory, one has to first satisfy the lowest tiers of needs (physiological, security, and belonging, which translate to existence and relatedness needs) before moving on to the growth needs above.
Socioeconomically underprivileged groups primarily exist within the bottom tiers of Maslow’s pyramid, fixated on meeting the needs for existence and relatedness. There may be a desire for esteem and personal accomplishment, but for these communities, survival is a daily struggle that must be won, and growth needs are only thought of after these have been fulfilled. Groups higher up on the socioeconomic ladder, however, are more desirous of esteem and growth and even in the event of an apocalypse will yearn for their growth needs to be met still. An argument can be made that, for groups who are used to existing primarily for survival, a yearning for growth needs will always come second. The inhabitants of Aleppo in Syria, for instance, currently already live in a “post-apocalyptic world” as portrayed by dominant literature and film, and simply staying alive one day to the next may be enough for them. Yet, in Station Eleven, St. John Mandel presents this preservation of art, this yearning for growth needs, as a primary occupation for many groups.
Contrary to dominant post-apocalyptic literature and film, underprivileged groups are likelier to look forward, towards a future time when all they have ever known will change for the better and they can dare to look beyond basic existence and relatedness needs and push for growth. Privileged groups, however, are likelier to yearn more for a return to the old ways, to a time when they were more advantaged. Because the fall from grace will be long and hard for them, this yearning and desire will likelier be top-of-mind and come off stronger in the film and literature presenting these scenarios. If more thought is given to how dissimilar the needs and yearnings of disparate groups are with regards to the levels of advantage, access, and privilege occupied prior to an apocalyptic event, we could begin to see more nuanced interpretations of the desires of various peoples in post-apocalyptic literature and film.
One contemporary narrative that does this work is the Sixth World series by Rebecca Roanhorse, which starts with the novel Trail of Lightning. Though set in a near-future post-apocalyptic America where Dinétah has arisen as the epicentre of the Navajo Nation, the narrative keeps its gaze inward, treating the Dinétah experience as viewed through its own eyes and not from the perspective of normative groups. Even though resources like coffee become scarce after the world-altering event, Roanhorse stays true to how the Navajo Reservations operate and fare, apocalypse or not. Its politics and economy are navigated in the same manner as its contemporary would, and the yearning present is not for Dinétah to return to some past version of itself, but for it to grow and become a better version of its present. Proper justice cannot be done to the values of this whole text in this paper, but if there is one body of work that completely embodies the nuance called for in this paper, Roanhorse’s Sixth World series is it.
This paper’s engagement in this discourse is to call for a broader definition of the terms normal and apocalyptic in literary and cinematic narratives of the post-apocalypse, as well as to carefully consider the motives behind a desire for a return to the old world. A clear and nuanced understanding of the socioeconomic positionality of each group in focus—prior to an apocalyptic event and in the aftermath of it—becomes the best starting point for determining the desires of each group in focus, especially with regards to yearnings for the world before. The “post” in “post-apocalypse” will differ from one group to another depending on their history with socioeconomic privilege and advantage, and an intimate study of these groups will ensure that narratives like Station Eleven, which tend to assume catch-all desires for return to a world before, will become more specific in focus and diverse in approach.
Ultimately, this is truly a call for more diversity in post-apocalyptic narratives and for more representation of socioeconomically underprivileged groups in literature and film within this subgenre. But more importantly, a call for the acquisition and proliferation of narratives by creators within these groups, who possess a firm understanding of the nuances surrounding their socioeconomic situations. An increase in narratives about communities without access to resources to meet their existence, relatedness, and growth needs—pre- and post-apocalypse—will automatically lend themselves to more specificity and more nuanced definitions of normalcy and events presented as apocalyptic. It is the hope that this call to action be considered with prudence and that this paper be received as an important tool with which creators can fashion more representative narratives of the past, present, and futures of our diverse world.
Alderfer, Clayton P. “An Empirical Test of a New Theory of Human Needs.” Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance. Department of Administrative Sciences, Yale University, 1969. 142-175.
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Kunkel, Benjamin. “Dystopia and the End of Politics.” Dissent, vol. 55, no. 4, University of Pennsylvania Press, Fall 2008, 89–98.
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Pichère, Pierre, et al. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Gain Vital Insights Into How to Motivate People.” 50Minutes.com, 2015. EBSCOhost.
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