Lyotard defined postmodernism as the conscious rejection of metanarrative, that is, of any overarching story by which history and culture can be understood. Modernism was and is marked by the conviction that history follows a general trend of progress- social, technological, artistic, and so on. There may be temporary setbacks to this progress, but these are merely aberrations, delays to an otherwise inexorable process.
Postmodern thinkers in all fields have argued that there are no inexorable processes, no universal stories within which all historical and cultural phenomena can be situated. They have attempted to step outside of metanarrative, or at least to radically criticize those narratives in which they find themselves.
This shift has influenced not only how our culture interprets the past but how it anticipates the future. In the early twentieth century, the modernist narrative of progress manifested itself in depictions of the future that were overwhelmingly optimistic. Early science-fiction’s images of shining cities and silver spaceships, while fanciful, reflected the very real expectation that the future would be, if not perfect, at least better than the present.
Beginning in the sixties, and not coincidentally concurrent with the advent of postmodernism, this unified vision began to fragment. Throughout the seventies and eighties, we were presented with an array of possible futures, from glistening dystopias to postnuclear wastelands to the weathered futures of Aliens and Bladerunner. Even the Star Trek franchise, long a bastion of futurist utopianism, began to reveal darker corners of its universe. As the modernist metanarrative began to lose its grip on the popular imagination, speculation regarding the future diverged in many directions.
Over the past decades, however, a new unity has begun to emerge: that of global apocalypse. A quick look at depictions of the future over the last twenty years reveals an overwhelming trend toward post-apocalyptic scenarios. Even more so than during the Cold War, this has become the dominant vision of the future. And indeed, we would do well to distinguish this new breed of Armageddon from the nuclear fears of the mid-twentieth century. A nuclear war would be a doom entirely of our own doing; it entails nothing more than our technology doing exactly what it was designed to do, and there is a certain grim modernism in that. By contrast, the global collapses of contemporary fiction stem from any number of causes, but these causes are almost always out of our control. Our consumption overtaxes the ecosphere beyond repair; the bioengineered virus escapes from the lab; the zombies resist any attempt to contain them. We as a species are rendered impotent. Nuclear apocalypse would constitute a sort of success on the part of our technological prowess, but the new apocalypticism imagines a fundamental failure thereof.
The recognition of this trend is requires no great insight, nor is such thought unique to our time and place. However, its emergence as a metanarrative marks the new apocalypticism as uniquely relevant. The idea of an impending collapse is now less a subject of speculation than an assumption upon which our art, politics, technology, and pop-culture are increasingly grounded. Accurate or not, it is the story that we are telling.
This being the case, what do we do with it? The overall reaction thusfar has been either to gaze forward in horror or resignation, or to block out the future by rendering the present as bright and loud as possible. Neither of these courses are acceptable. We must rather address this story directly, and attempt to find in it something potent and constructive. It is a paradoxical task, finding the constructive elements of a fundamentally destructive mythology, but it needs doing.