Post-apocalypse is an oxymoronic term. What can happen after the end of the world? Nothing, one might argue. The end is the end. But the phrase “post-apocalypse” has taken on its own life. The mass appeal of movies and novels that focus on a rugged group of adolescents who survive some cataclysm demonstrates, in part, that thinking about a time after the end of the world is not only for conspiratorial cranks, hermits, and science-fiction authors.
In After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, an academic work from1999, James Berger makes the compelling case that the idea of “post-apocalypse” is a helpful way to frame how people in contemporary societies think about historical events and, more broadly, engage with history.
Berger is an intrepid scholar who’s willing to brave the wastelands of not only post-apocalyptic thinking but also post-structuralist literary criticism. He suggests that recognizing the habits of language and history can help lead us toward reconciliation of long-standing social traumas.
“This book in not about apocalypse or apocalyptic thinking or millennialism,” he writes,
It is about aftermaths and remainders, about how to imagine what happens after an event conceived of as final. It is more concerned with history than with prophecy. But historical events are often portrayed apocalyptically — as absolute breaks with the past, as catastrophes bearing some enormous or ultimate meaning: the Holocaust, for example, or Hiroshima, or American slavery, the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the war in Vietnam, and the social conflicts of the 1960s. This book seeks to understand the apocalyptic representations of historical catastrophes, how writing about history constructs scenarios ‘after the end,’ in which the ending, paradoxically, both does and does not take place.
By calling out representation in the book’s subtitle, Berger signals the parallel subject of his inquiry. In all the modes of representing ideas—through text or image, in speech or story, with meaning or without—Berger shows how “apocalyptic” events obliterate language, history, and even consciousness. And yet, something survives. In the process of this destruction, some survivors try to tell their story through post-apocalyptic testimony, others to delete its memory with utopian repression, and even more to recover from suffering while civilization returns again and again to the wounds of its particular social trauma.
THE POST-APOCALYPSE AS SOCIAL TRAUMA
What is “social trauma?” To better parse that phrase let’s take it back to the granddaddy of big cigars and bad feelings, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
Berger charts Freud’s changing thinking about trauma in After the End, and he calls out a couple of relevant points as it was first theorized. Initially, Freud thought that “an overpowering event, unacceptable to consciousness, can be forgotten and yet return in the form of somatic symptoms or compulsive repetitive behaviors.” Later, the psychoanalyst tried to expand his work into the sociological realm, theorizing a way “that would account for the historical development of entire cultures.” In other words, he tried to map the symptoms that he noticed in individuals onto whole cultures. Berger elaborates:
In this way, each national catastrophe invokes and transforms memories of other catastrophes, so that history becomes a complex entanglement of crimes inflicted and suffered, with each catastrophe understood—that is, misunderstood—in the context of repressed memories of previous ones.
What he (and Freud) are claiming is that when something really, really nasty and revelatory happens to a large group of people, such as a country or a religious group, the whole group suffers symptoms that relive the original trauma or bury the memory of the unresolved event. That’s not to say, importantly, that every individual experiences these symptoms, but rather that the social group does in toto. These symptoms are noticeable in the art, historiography, social movements, and many other outputs that come to define the group. The culture lives through the end of the world and survives to suffer after it, somehow. Social trauma as post-apocalypse.
While there’s a long tradition of apocalypses that didn’t live up to their prophecies, numerous catastrophes litter our history books. As noted, often those tragedies have repercussions that don’t go away—such as the enduring, violent legacy of chattel slavery in the United States. Often, societies ignore those lingering symptoms.
UTOPIAN REPRESSION AKA RONALD REAGAN’S PRETTY MOUTH
America is back, a giant, powerful in its renewed spirit, its growing economy, powerful in its ability to defend itself and secure the peace, and powerful in its ability to build a new future. And you know something? That’s not debatable.—Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, in 1984
Thus spake the silver-tongued Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail. He describes an America of Edenic harmony, communal virility, and capitalistic promise—truly a modern utopia.
“America is perfect and has always been perfect,” Berger writes, describing this special perspective enjoyed by many residents and Presidents of the United States. The notion, if we’re being generous, is a tad idealistic. If we’re being realistic, it’s preposterous. Americans have a track record of genocide, snobbishness, warmongering, human trafficking, and bad taste in lager. But what Berger is getting at is that this utopian repression is a symptom of an American populace haunted by trauma. As he would describe it, the repressed social trauma manifests in a widespread and wide-eyed imagining of how the world is, was, and will be.
He points to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan administration as one of the high water marks of American utopian repression. Of course we know that at that time the United States was far from perfect. On the edge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the precipice of social unrest with domestic racial tensions, America was slouching toward Bethlehem, as is our violent fashion. Let’s look to the conclusion of a speech Reagan gave in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Americans may have lost the comfort and courage of Dr. King’s presence, but we’ve not really lost him. Every time a black woman casts a ballot, Martin King is there. Every time a black man is hired for a good job, Dr. King is there. Every time a black child receives a sound education, Dr. King is there. Every time a black person is elected to public office, Dr. King is there. Every time black and white Americans work side by side for a better future, Dr. King is there.
The centuries-long catastrophic trauma of racism and slavery in the United States is obfuscated by the candy-coated nostalgic memory of Dr. King. By repeating the phrase, “Dr. King is there,” Reagan rhetorically implies that King is not dead but instead omnipresent and helping maintain our newly achieved utopia of racial unity. (Wait, how and why did Dr. King die again? Probably irrelevant…) Not only did Dr. King survive, so did the dream of racial justice, and neither will ever die. Instead, they are always working “side by side for a better future.” It could never and will never happen here again, so let’s not talk about this anymore.
In the same way, individual psychological patients avoid discussing incidents of personal trauma rather than working through them, whole societies can avoid topics of great social trauma through a shared experience of utopian repression. But, like individual pain, social trauma has a way of bubbling to the surface. Five years after Reagan’s speech about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Los Angeles exploded in violence during the riots following Rodney King’s brutal mistreatment at the hands of the city’s police.
POST-APOCALYPTIC TESTIMONY AND THE WORKING-THROUGH OF SOCIAL TRAUMA
Ronald Reagan didn’t witness the Holocaust first hand, but he did give an infamous speech in Bitburg, Germany, which provides interesting clues to how the former President imagines the world after the Holocaust. There, he narrated the story of an unlikely meal during World War II when small bands of Axis and Ally infantrymen met face to face and broke bread in a temporary peace. They were “battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home,” he said. Later in the speech, his rhetoric tries to pivot the focus of American ire for Germany to the Soviet Union by erasing the connective tissue between Hitler’s National Socialist government and individual Germans. The Nazi soldiers, in Reagan’s retelling, are just boys the same as any ol’ G.I. By emphasizing a utopian message of common humanity among enemies, he is trying to gain support for a new geopolitical strategy that undeniably contradicts the notion of America as a utopian nation. The politics of national advantage and self-interest layered into his Bitburg speech show Reagan remained an undeniably unreliable narrator when talking about catastrophic events. In his defense, most people are unreliable narrators when providing post-apocalyptic testimony following horrible events.
One of the most memorable chapters of After the End concerns this testimony. Berger chooses the Holocaust as his contextual backdrop for this idea, but it seems germane to other apocalypses past or impending. Berger separates witnesses of catastrophe into three categories who give different qualities of post-apocalyptic testimony. Each person, depending on their category, has a different kind of narrative that they can tell.
The first kind of witness was actually there. Consider this person a survivor of the social trauma or, more accurately, a survivor of the event that triggered the social trauma. For example, a famous author to survive the Nazi concentration camps and share his experiences was Elie Wiesel, who wrote a harrowing account called Night. “In both the memoirs and diaries,” Berger says of these witnesses, “the primary motive is to tell the world of the massive and barely credible suffering and injustice that the writer and his community have experienced.”
The next category of witnesses is of those who were not at the triggering apocalyptic event, but who interact with the survivors of it. This may be the children or grandchildren of survivors or even contemporaries who see the first tier of witness re-entering society. Their post-apocalyptic testimony “responds to the presence of survivors and their ongoing testimonies.” Examples of these include attempts to historicize, fictionalize, or otherwise understand the experiences of the survivors from the point of view of those who could not have known what being at the revelatory event was like.
Finally, the third category is those who try to make sense of events that defy rational understanding but are restricted access to witnesses whose testimony has the authority of experience (meaning the first category). This could happen for a number of reasons, but it was quite relevant to Berger and his contemporaries because, at the time of publication of After the End, many Holocaust survivors were dying of old age. “It is at this point,” he writes, “that the need for the survivors’ testimonies has become felt most acutely, precisely at the time when the first generation has begun to age and die. The third generation . . . takes place after the end of the possibility of testimony and witness, and this impossibility gives rise to the myriad and problematic forms that these representations have taken.”
In their own unique ways these “problematic forms”—for a perfect example, try the novel Eve’s Tattoo by Emily Prager—confuse history for nostalgia, suffering for sentimentality, or prophecy for posterity. Despite their individual hangups, one theme connects all instances of this kind of post-apocalyptic testimony: the wound of devastating social trauma has not been healed.
The new, post-apocalyptic world is a world of traces and symptoms pointing back toward the event. The event cannot be grasped or recovered, yet cannot be escaped.—James Berger, After the End
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Derrida, Jacques. Cinders, 1991.
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Morrison, Toni. Beloved, 1987.
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