Subtract Civilization: Survival Narratives and Masculine Ideals

Curator's Note

It’s no surprise that apocalypse stories fit the industrial logic of blockbusters. Hollywood screenwriter Damon Lindelof said recently, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” While apocalyptic dramas make for great cinematic spectacle, they reliably trade on survival narratives, a form produced elsewhere on smaller budgets. Along with summer’s apocalyptic survival movies, there is also a spate of survival-centered reality TV. How are films like After Earth and Oblivion related to shows like Dual Survival, Extreme Survival Alaska, or Man Woman Wild? Well, what is After Earth but a high concept (father & son) jungle-chase survival narrative? Discovery’s Dual Survival also centers on two intrepid fellows negotiating various (less novel) survival scenarios.

Les Stroud (Survivorman) suggests that "a decade of cataclysmic events" explains the (survival) genre's recent success. Environmental panic. Or, in an economic moment when many viewers are less empowered to achieve adequate “marketplace” masculinity (wealth/status), do masculine primitive ideals offer a kind of ideological antidote? From a belief that (over)civilization may obscure the “natural,” original, or "true" human, attenuating survival instincts which -in the final analysis –are all one really needs? Whether it’s the fate of the species or just one hero, big screen or small, don't survival narratives (by design) serve up demonstrations of certain masculine ideals such as bravery, self-sacrifice, physical prowess, and survival skills? When civilization is threatened, left behind, or otherwise subtracted, men (and infrequently women, like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games) get to show the stuff that really matters, often being symbolically re-born.

Zizek might say of Oblivion, as he did Children of Men, that it offers a “diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism-–of a society without history.” Human civilization/history is certainly buried in Oblivion, literally, with its submerged landmarks, but also personally, in Jack Harper’s (Tech-49’s) subconscious. Jack’s survival, and humanity’s promise for re-birth, is configured through a spatial and symbolic narrative tension between the falsity of his high-tech, synthetic existence, and the secret nature retreat on earth where he re-collects fragments of civilization, and himself. Between the sanitized sky-dwelling, un-rooted from earth, and the wilderness shanty where he feels most human (and talks to fish). In the end, Jack must self-sacrifice to save the world –but only a false self, the product of a de-humanizing civilization. Oblivion reminds us that "civilization" and its "others" are flexible constructs. 


It's interesting how the survival narrative and getting-back-to-basics trope thrives during times when new technology--really, new gadgets--are inescapable. The need to escape not just a post 9/11, economically (dep)recessed US society, but a post-smartphone, post-social media, post-Internet one too. The contradiction of immersing oneself in a narrative in which technology has lead to ruin, and standing in line overnight to buy an iPhone. Cultural ambivalence once again!

Thanks for your comment, Beth. Your point makes me think about how Jack's character is a technological product, a copy or iteration, which brings to mind Foucault's idea of technologies of the self --of identity through consumption. We become defined in and through consumption, technological extensions, etc. which clearly we have some deep seated ambivalence about, and have for a long time, but it continues to escalate... maybe in proportion to the increasing seamlessness of our (fluid) interfaces with technologies. The idea that too much technology (i.e. a condition of over-civilization?) diminishes or undermines the category of "human"... even though that's a flexible construct too, and is continuously adapted to suit change, progress, etc. Still, in the apocalyptic imaginary (and sci-fi genre in general), the category of nature/the natural becomes the symbolic means by which we register those anxieties about (over)technological-self-involvements...

Matthew I think this is fascinating - both the initial thoughts you share around how these (hugely budgeted and hugely high tech) block busters, along with their small-screen counterparts, can show us stories of needing to somehow stand as human in spite of (or even against) technology, and then the thoughts in Beth's comment about how this can become an even more successful story-telling model in a time of such high consumption of technology (and/or gadgetry). I'm reminded of the executives who pay tens of thousands of dollars to be dropped into the wilderness with a bottle of water and a guide, for "leadership training". That fluidity in gadget interface that you mention, along with the constant internet access ubiquitous in much of the country, does sometimes make it seem like getting unplugged is a task monumental and heroic ... Not totally what you were writing about, but certainly what it made me think about. Lovely piece, thanks Matthew.

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