And just like that we approach the end of the year, and here I am writing my last blog as an OpenThinker. (I thought about including a joke about reverting back to being a “Closed Thinker” now that it is done, but I won’t subject you to such a groan-inducing attempt at humour…) However, for those of you who have enjoyed following along with my apocalyptic musings, I have some good news! In January I’ll be launching my own blog website, in which I will continue sharing my reflections upon all things dystopian and (post-)apocalyptic. If you’d like to continue with me along this calamitous ride, keep an eye on my Twitter: @_MCameron_. For today, I thought I could wrap up my sojourn as an OpenThinker with a return to the topic of my first OpenThink blog post, as I have been mulling once again over the strange phenomenon that is our fascination with disaster.
The other day I was invited to lead a discussion on the figure of the “Last Man” for Halifax Humanities. (A big shout-out to Dr. William Barker for kindly inviting me!) It was a great experience, as everyone was friendly and conversational and showed great enthusiasm for the topic. As our time was nearing its end, I threw to the group the same question I asked myself in my March blog: why do we humans center so many of our narratives around scenes of cataclysm and tales of disaster? Why do so many of us gravitate toward stories that depict the end of the world?
The conversation then revolved around two responses to the question. One member suggested that dystopian literature might be a form of “problem solving,” a medium through which we might imagine nightmarish future scenarios for the sake of working through them, thus preparing ourselves should similar scenarios arise in real life. (Interestingly, while typing this up I stumbled upon this very same argument being made in a recent CBC article.) Another member then suggested a less optimistic possibility, hypothesizing that our fixation on such disastrous images might be the result of a “flaw of our brains,” a neurological tendency to dwell on the negative at the expense of the positive—the proverbial “glass half empty” mode of thinking. Collectively, we came to the decision that both possibilities might be true simultaneously: it is possible that human beings have a natural tendency to imagine challenging scenarios for the sake of problem solving, but such a tendency might also take over and inadvertently work against its initial evolutionary function. Simply put, “the imagination of disaster,” to quote the title of Susan Sontag’s famous essay, might be a means-to-an-end that we all too often take as an end-in-itself.
I really want to believe that the first of the two possibilities is at least more correct than the second; however, such a belief struggles to explain the strange fact that our dystopian problem solving exercises don’t seem to be solving any of our problems. Despite the seemingly unending torrent, published year after year after year, of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books, movies, shows, video games, etcetera, etcetera, still the climate crisis gets worse, dangerous political populism increasingly becomes mainstream, economic disparity continues to widen, the greed of rich countries threatens to perpetuate the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook pitches the creation a real-life version of The Matrix as a bold new step for human togetherness while billionaires flee to space…
Phew, ok, back it up and take a breath. That got a little too dark for a second there, and I’d rather not end my time as an OpenThinker on such a pessimistic note. It might not seem like it given my writing thus far, but I am an optimist at heart—perhaps I have to be, to study the material that I do. But neither optimism nor pessimism can be a satisfactory stance on its own: one needs, I think, a mix of both with heavy dashes of realism and imagination.
For their final blogs, 2020’s OpenThinkers took up the question “What do we owe each other?” Coincidentally, I inadvertently ended my first blog with an answer: “we have a responsibility to help those for whom such [dystopian] worlds—whether through war, poverty, genocide, climate change, etcetera—are sadly far too real.” I didn’t have much to say at the time regarding how we should help, and I don’t have the room to say much here either. But to speak generally by returning to the terms of my discussion above, I feel it important that we approach the media we consume with an eye toward its potential for “problem solving.” Humanity has been blessed with brains of incredible imaginative capability, and it would be a shame to squander such capability in scenes of disaster for no greater purpose than entertainment. So perhaps I’ve been asking the wrong question. The “why” is irrelevant: we’re fascinated by disaster, that’s a given. The real question comes after—How do we mobilize the dystopian products of our imaginations toward the achievement of utopian ends?