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the imagined condition of complete governmental absence envisioned by social contract theorists suc

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Leviathan The Road post-apocalypse state of nature Thomas Hobbes

2The political reticence of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road differentiates it from other post-apocalyptic works. While works in this genre imagine life after the breakdown of civilization and the collapse of political order, the scenarios they narrate usually offer abundant evidence of the influence of political events and ideas or the traces of a political point of view. In some cases, authors or filmmakers directly testify to the influence of politics on narrative themes as when filmmaker George Romero, taking note of the student protest movements and inner city riots going on during the making of Night of the Living Dead (1968), asserted that his path-breaking zombie film was about revolution (Romero in Kuhns). Even without such direct testimony, the fact that works of post-apocalyptic literature and film often proliferate in the wake of, and in seeming response to, major political events and developments suggests how such works can come to be infused with political meaning. Along these lines, an observer of the Arab literary scene of the last several years recently noted that, “a new wave of dystopian and surrealist fiction” has been building among “Middle Eastern writers who are grappling with the chaotic aftermath and stinging disappointments of the Arab Spring” (Alter). Citing one Egyptian editor’s view that “futuristic stories are all about lost utopia,” an observer of this trend noted that, “in the months after the uprisings, some novelists channeled their frustrations and fears into grim apocalyptic tales” (Alter).

3In many instances, post-apocalyptic stories include hindsight reflections on how political institutions directly contributed to, or failed to prevent, the state of civilizational collapse they narrate. So, for example, the protagonist of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), reduced to relying on his own ingenuity to survive in an environment of nightly threat, refers repeatedly to the failure of public authorities to recognize and effectively respond to initial manifestations of the plague of vampirism whose progress would eventually result in complete societal breakdown. Oftentimes, the collapse of conventional political authorities in post-apocalyptic stories occasions the creation of new political relationships and institutions, as when the protagonists of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids find themselves threatened by an authoritarian organization engaged in press-ganging survivors of the triffid invasion into rigidly supervised farm camps.

4In contrast to the relative transparency of political influences and meanings on offer in many post-apocalyptic texts, The Road remains, for the most part, politically opaque. Obvious references to political values, practices, organizations, or institutions are almost completely lacking. While the narrative of The Road is premised on a previous breakdown of governmental institutions and conventional political identities, the reader is not apprised of how that breakdown occurred or even whether politics had a role in the advent of a catastrophe whose causes McCarthy leaves unexplained. The action of the novel starts in a condition of complete governmental absence, after food production has come to a standstill and a much reduced population is reduced to scavenging scattered and ever more depleted food stocks left over from pre-apocalyptic times. The rudimentary forms of collective organization—e.g., “blood cults” (16), “communes” (79)—that arose in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe have, by the time of the events recounted in The Road, mostly disappeared, leaving only scattered refugees and roving bands of slavers and cannibals.

5The scale of resource deprivation in The Road sets it apart from many other post-apocalyptic novels in which new forms of political solidarity based on charismatic leaders or bureaucratic organizations emerge in one form or another. The extremities to which the novel’s protagonists are driven to find food have led Simon Schleusener to characterize The Road as partaking in a radically dystopian mood in which utopian alternatives to the neoliberal world order are less and less conceivable. Far from pointing the way toward alternatives to capitalism, the novel, in his view, merely extends and intensifies the dog-eat-dog world of capitalist exchange and reflects how much easier it is these days to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism (Schleusener).

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