This is an exciting year for the Humanities on the Edge speaker series, as it is celebrating its 10th year. The second of this year’s speakers was Dr. Claire Colebrook, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English, Philosophy, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University. Her research interests include contemporary literature, theory and cultural studies, visual culture, and the works of Gilles Deleuze. Dr. Colebrook gave a talk entitled “What would you do (and who would you kill) in order to save the world?: Post-Apocalyptic Cinema and Extinction.” The timing of this talk, which took place on October 31 st at the Sheldon Museum of Art, was particularly appropriate, since Halloween is the perfect time to think about zombie movies and the end of the world.
Dr. Colebrook began by highlighting the question in the title of her talk “What would you do (and who would you kill) in order to save the world?” She pointed out that this question can have multiple meanings. One meaning is that depicted in post-apocalyptic cinema. It assumes that there is some enemy that needs to be defeated or killed in order for us to save the world. Dr. Colebrook focused on unpacking other meanings of the question throughout the rest of her talk. She argued that this is a question we should be asking ourselves every day: What would you do (and who would you kill) in order to save the world?
The first section of the talk focused on the politics of extinction. Dr. Colebrook used as an example the 2013 Cormac McCarthy film The Counselor. She pointed out that this film and others like it suggest that we are all just one step away from barbarism, and that they portray Mexico (or Africa) as the end of the world. However, we need to rethink these kinds of tropes, and consider that perhaps the “center of civility” is in fact the “center of barbarism” or the end of the world, and what is consider to be the end of the world (Mexico, in the example of the film) is in fact a possible new world. The politics of extinction imposes on us a particular way of thinking about the end of the world, so that ultimately, saving the world in the way that it encourages us to do is actually the end of the world.
The second section focuses on the question of “what is unthinkable?” For instance, climate change is unthinkable in a way, and this is wrapped up with post-apocalyptic cinema. In post- apocalyptic films, it is the destruction of the first world – New York, L.A., London – that is depicted as the end of the world, while other parts of the world such as the Middle East are considered expendable and are quickly wiped out. However, at the end of the film there is always some kind of redemption in which the world has been saved, and in which a remnant of humanity still remains. Dr. Colebrook mentioned the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and argued that it follows the same logic as post-apocalyptic cinema, in that the focus is on saving humanity as such, in a technological and intellectual sense. Post-apocalyptic cinema is profoundly majoritarian. We can regretfully watch many other worlds end, as long as our world survives. However, we have trouble thinking that there could be another world than the one we have here and now. This kind of inability to think another world precludes the possibility of many new worlds. Dr. Colebrook criticized the commonly quoted phrase: “It’s easier to
imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Actually, she says, the end of capitalism is exactly what most post-apocalyptic films portray. In these films, the end of the present capitalist world is the end of the world.
In post-apocalyptic cinema, the humanity that needs to be saved is the one that is connected to the world. Humanity without this global, cinematic conception of the world is unthinkable to us. Technology plays a large part in this. For instance, we can turn on the TV and see what is going on all over the world. Dr. Colebrook asks us to consider what the cost of the media (most of which is cinematic, including books) is to us and to the world. She asks, “How much of our survival requires that we do not think?” We are so firmly entrenched in this cinematic conception of the world that it can be difficult to think of the costs.
Dr. Colebrook began the third section by asking again: What would you do (and who would you kill) in order to save the world? She cites the philosopher Christine Korsgaard’s recent book on animals, which claims that “no life has an absolute value.” Our values are tethered to human life. In other words, we value what is important to us, which is how one can argue that a human life is more important than an animal life. Dr. Colebrook argues that this tethering of value has something essentially cinematic about it. She argues that most Western literature and culture since about the 18 th century has been cinematic, in that all value is tethered to a particular point of view – that of the main character. Post-apocalyptic cinema works in this same way. All value is tethered to a particular point of view, and that one viewpoint is what must be saved in order to save the world, while anything opposing that must be destroyed. She notes that this all has very serious political and racial implications. The point of view of the narrative is the one that has value. For instance, films often depict a central control room where a few people observe scenes of mass destruction and attempt to manage what is to be saved. This leads to the belief that loss of the media is the loss of the world.
Dr. Colebrook next turned to the example of zombie films. Zombification is “the extreme loss of world,” and zombies are mere life. She emphasizes that simply existing with no sense of the world, as zombies do, is portrayed as the end of the world. Zombie movies depict the horror of the prospect of losing the world. She considered several examples, including the 2007 film I Am Legend, and the 2019 film Us. In these kinds of films the emphasis is on saving one’s own kind. The zombies, who are without world, must be destroyed. Those who view are opposed to those who merely exist. However, Dr. Colebrook also asked: Why is it obvious to kill the zombies? Ultimately, it is because they are the Other. “We kill what is not us in order to save the world.” Dr. Colebrook leaves us with the suggestion that a kind of reversal is necessary. Perhaps the things we kill in order to save the world are actually other possible worlds.