Saturday, August 23, 2014

The End is Nigh: A Critical Sociological Examination of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

 Zombies, nuclear wastelands, hungry vampires, alien invaders, biblical plagues, raging illnesses concocted in labs, the desolation of protracted war, werewolves, or even unknown catastrophes that leave society irreparably destroyed; post-apocalyptic fiction has recently benefited from an explosion of interest. There are numerous novels, stories, and forms of digital media devoted to exploring a world where, in almost all cases, there is a significant depopulation of the earth. Against this backdrop of desolation and death, valiant survivors do their best to survive in a wasteland filled with harrowing dangers of both the human and non-human kind alike. The fascination with these types of stories is at an all time high, and the allure is understandable. In an attempt to explain the preoccupation and advent of the recent wave of post-apocalyptic fiction, one can argue that it is tied – from a sociological perspective - to French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s theories on Structural Functionalism. 
As mentioned earlier, the types and reasons for the fall of society in these novels are manifold. From the wildly popular dystopian world of Panem in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, to the Pulitzer Prize winning bleakness of Cormac McCarty’s The Road; from the shambling, always hungry zombies of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novels, to the snarling, vicious vampires of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain trilogy; we are fascinated by the end of the world. But how can we examine this fascination from a sociological perspective? There are three distinct ways in which we can better understand the appeal of a total breakdown of modern society.
The first is a longing for escape from our everyday, humdrum existence. In this case, the longing for a post-apocalyptic future is a reflection of Durkheim’s theories posited in The Division of Labor in Society. Organic Solidarity, as Durkheim explains, is a hallmark of a modern, complex, technological society, and leads to specialization of labor.  As a society grows too specialized, the specialization becomes “a source of disintegration (Applerouth, Edles, 94).  This dissatisfaction leads, in Durkheim’s view, to anomie.  It is the idea of anomie that is at the heart of the longing for escape. Anomie describes a lack of social norms or self-regulation. It leads to a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community.  It results in a fragmentation of social identity and the rejection of self-regulatory values. As Durkheim explained, while explaining the consequences of economic disasters in Suicide, A Study in Sociology, “…[Those affected by the disaster] are not adjusted to the condition forced on them, and its very prospect is intolerable; hence the suffering which detaches them from a reduced existence even before they’ve made a trial of it (Appelrouth, Edles 109).”
In other worlds, the fans of post-apocalyptic fiction are responding to the loss of individuality and personal self worth as a result of modernized society. As Paul Cantor explained, those members of society to whom an apocalypse most appeals to:

“…display an ambivalent attitude toward modernity in general, perhaps a general disillusionment with it, a sense that all technological progress upon which we pride ourselves has not made us happier and may, on the contrary, have made us miserable by depersonalizing our relationships and limiting our freedom “

A breakdown of society relieves people of their responsibilities and the things that should make our lives easier, causing distance between us.
            Another sociological perspective that may help explain the proliferation of, and interest in, apocalyptic novels can be found in Durkheim’s idea of normative behavior, and the self-regulation of social order upon individuals. In The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim explores this when he talks about criminality. He argues that it is a critical and essential function of society to perform crimes; that criminal behavior is, in fact, normal and only bound by the larger moral judgment and regulation of society. He writes, “…crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible (Appelrouth, Edles 91).
It is in this idea of normal behavior, and the morality of crime, that we find the allure of the apocalypse. The novels we’ve mentioned imagine a world where one is free from the normative expectations of their neighbors because they are dead, irradiated, or eaten by zombies. With the lack of the societal inhibitors on behavior – less the morality of societal expectations and community standards – one can find true freedom. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, the only law or moral is survival, and the constraints of society are secondary to this. The fiction of this genre appeals to a longing for lawlessness within us. We can kill, steal, and do things we might otherwise not do in a more regulated society. As Todd K. Platts observed, apocalyptic motifs, “serve as conduits of and for exploration of societal ideals, values, ideas, and ideological contradictions (551).”
            Finally, the apocalypse envisioned in, for instance, Max Brook’s novel, World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War, is a reflection of our fears in a post 9/11 world. The novel details the fall, and eventual resurrection of society after a zombie apocalypse. Durkheim’s pivotal work, Suicide, addressed the significant social changes that bring about a lack of moral regulation. Again, as Apelrouth explains, a lack of moral regulation in times of intense social and personal change leads to individuals feeling unanchored. Furthermore, “In this case, the pursuit of individual desires and goals can overtake moral concerns (101).”
The attacks of 9/11 heightened this sense of low moral regulation and caused fear. Literature is a reflection of the mood of society, and in this case, the fear takes the shape of a bad economy, fears of terrorism, and the further breakdown of society – as Durkheim posited.  As Aupers wrote, “Emile Durkheim in turn, lamented the increased power of a distant nation-state that undermined social cohesion and motivated feelings of anomie (28).” An apocalypse represents an opportunity to imagine a world where we are in charge of our own fates, and not subject to the whims and fear of larger, global threats.
            At their heart, the novels discussed here, and others of the same genre, are about the degradation of social structure and fall squarely into the structural functionalism of Emile Durkheim. The fascination with a modern world that loses its structure and collapses as a result of anomie and normlessness, as Durkheim defined them, are a fantasy rooted largely in response to a post 9/11 era. The allure of post-apocalyptic or dystopian literature is primarily about the fragmentation of social identity and the rejection of self-regulatory values. But, besides that, they appeal to the survivor in all of us, and are glimpses into a world where social theory entertainingly comingles with zombies, vampires, cannibalism, and nuclear winter.

 Sources Cited
Appelrouth, Scott A., and Edles, Laura Desfor. Classic and Contemporary Sociological Theory. Los Angeles: Sage Pine Forge, 2012. Print.

Auspers, Stef. “Trust No One: Modernization, Paranoia, and Conspiracy Culture.” European Journal of Communication. 27.1 (2012). 22-34. Print.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Apocalyptic Strain in Popular Culture: The American Nightmare Becomes the American Dream.” The Hedgehog Review. 15.2 (2013).  Web.

Platts, Todd K.  "Locating Zombies in the Sociological Popular Culture." Sociology Compass. 7.10 (2013): 547-560. Print.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dr. Jack Seward: The Old and New Personified in Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula'

A piece of literary analysis...

Published in 1897, at the end of the Victorian Age and on the cusp of the modern 20th century, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a story that is acutely aware of its place in time. The world of Stoker’s Dracula was both an example of, and at odds with, the distinctly Victorian sensibilities that were commonplace even a few years earlier. The cultural and definitively British way of life was undergoing a change that began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but was also being hastened out the door by a move towards more modern, secular, and scientific worldviews.
The unshakeable conviction that the British way of life -- both at home and in England’s far-flung colonies -- was undeniably right and good and God-given was butting up against the realities of an evolving world. Science was supplanting faith, and the works of Charles Darwin and other scientists were challenging the world order. Stoker saw and recognized this, and created characters that were archetypes of proper subjects of Queen Victoria in the age named after her. All of these characters were essential to the story, but none more so than Dr. Jack Seward. Jack Seward was an everyman who represented both the old and the new, and embodied the best of both. His interactions with the other characters showed this time and again.
As Quincey wrote early in the novel, when he learned that Art had won Lucy’s hand:

My Dear Art, --
We’ve told yarns by the camp-fire in the prairies; and dressed one another’s wounds after trying a landing at the Marquesas, and drunk health on the shore of Titicaca… there will be only one other, our old pal at the Korea, Jack Seward (62).

It is in this throwaway line that Stoker tells us much about the man Seward is. While Jack Seward represents the modern, staid, conservative English physician, he is simultaneously revealed as typical colonial adventurer of Victorian England. Much like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson, he is a man of letters and education, but one who’s dabbled in the violent and the adventuresome life of a British gentleman. He’s hunted, presumably on safari, in far flung corners of the empire and participated in conflicts and imperial skirmishes.
While Dr. Seward would seem to be a quiet, contemplative physician; Stoker left us further clues to the contrary. Quincey Morris is the personification of the rough and tumble American frontiersman who moves effortlessly, if a bit crassly, amongst his very English compatriots, and we learn through him that Dr. Seward is -- in fact -- an adventurer in his own right. After beginning their pursuit of Dracula and their race to beat his ship to Varna, Quincey remarks:

I understand the count comes from wolf country, and it may be that he shall get there before us. I propose that we add Winchesters to our armament. I have a kind of belief in Winchesters when there is any trouble of that sort around. Do you remember Art, when we had that pack after us in Tobolsk (282)?

Even though he is speaking to Art, it is implied that Quincey, Art, and Jack Seward have all spent some time together in dangerous situations, and this is confirmed when, later, Seward says, “I think I had better go with Quincey. We have been accustomed to hunt together and we two, well armed, will be a match for whatever may come along” (307).
            Stoker created a complex character in Seward and throughout the novel we get hints like this -- hints about a life that is much more than that of a simple doctor. He is the very modern man of science who embraces the newest technology and, rather than write out his journal, records it on phonograph. He studies the unique eccentricities of his zoophagous patient, Renfield, and is excited about a possibly new diagnosis of insanity. He relies on modern chemistry and chloral hydrate to sleep, and although he successfully runs his hospital and has the prestige that comes from it, he still attempts to woo Lucy and improve his station and fortunes by asking for her hand.
            At odds with this very modern man of the 1890’s, he is also comfortable with all things traditionally Victorian. He defers to Art as Lord Godalming; as is only proper given their different stations. While Seward is a doctor with a very respectable post at his hospital, Art is still nobility and is treated as such by Seward. When faced with a medical problem that he is at a loss to explain with modern treatments, he defers to his mentor, Dr. Van Helsing, who relies as much on myth and folklore as medical procedures like blood transfusions.  Van Helsing represents the old world and is juxtaposed against the new world that Seward embraces. And, although he is proud of his modernity, he also always acts like a proper British gentleman when it comes to the woman in the novel. To save Art’s feelings and Lucy’s honor, he conspires with Van Helsing to lie about having transfused Lucy and to also cover up the death of Lucy’s mother, respectively (137). He is always polite and respectful to Mina, and his treatment of her is both brotherly and paternal.
            At the climax of the novel, as the foursome of heroes converge on the gypsies carrying Dracula to his castle, the majority of the action focuses on Jonathon, who is driven by his need to avenge his beloved Mina, and Quincey, who strikes the killing blow to Dracula. Art and Seward are reduced to standing guard over the gypsies with their rifles. However, this course of action does not in any way change the importance of Jack Seward to the novel. While the wild American and the wronged husband strike the final deathblows, Jack Seward upholds the traditionally Victorian values the so perfectly personified throughout. While he is a man of science and seeming frailty, he is in fact anything but. Seward faced the danger bravely and with stereotypical British resolve. He followed the lead of the others, and proves critical in stopping the threat that was Dracula.
            Quincey and Art had spent time with him in dangerous situations – as evidenced by the hints peppered throughout the novel by Stoker – and they trusted him to be there as he had in the past. That trust in his backbone and strength, and the manner of man Seward was, was critical in their triumph of good over evil… and the redemption of Mina. By extension, Jack was a critical piece in saving Mina. Additionally, he was an exemplification of both traditional Victorian values, and the emerging cultural, scientific, and social changes that were on the horizon for England. 

Work Cited:
Stoker, Bram. Dracula: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Auerbach, Nina and Skal, David J.  New York.    W.W. Norton and Co. 1997. Print.