Monday, October 8, 2012

"All Just Bricks in the Wall": What's the Role of Intellectualism in the Post-Apocalypse?

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No  dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave those kids alone
-Part 2

I don't need no arms around me
And I don't need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don't think I need anything at all 
No! Don't think I'll need anything at all 
All in all  it was all just bricks in the wall
All in all you were all just bricks in the wall
-Part 3 
Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" Parts 2 and 3 do a great job of framing the considerations surrounding intellectualism and its role in a true crisis of humanity. In Part 2, the rejection of education--a necessarily collectivist pursuit--for an image of rugged individualism is one that frames the individual as stronger than the group. That education is deemed "thought control," and kids sent into the classroom are seen as victims being stripped of their individual abilities to reason and thrive. By Part 3, however, that focus on the individual has shifted. The individual is no longer strong because s/he escaped a collectivist attempt at "educating" society's ideals into him/her; now the individual is all that's left. The idea of a collectivist ideal is paradoxically revealed to be a sham while simultaneously being confirmed. They're all "just bricks in the wall," meaning that there really is no individualism after all. Everyone is just playing a role in a larger system. But that doesn't mean the ideal of collectivist strength is true either, as all of these "bricks" were just expendable pieces that were completely interchangeable. 

Which is where I'd like to begin my consideration of intellectualism in our pop culture displays of post-Apocalyptic landscapes (intro to the series here).

Is Intellectualism Individual or Collectivist?

One does not become an intellectual in a vacuum. No man is an island, and this is doubly true for a smart one. We benefit from the knowledge that has been collected and cataloged before us, knowledge that is most frequently gained in the very collectivist endeavor of organized education. What could be a greater focus on community than creating classrooms where groups of people gather and agree to learn as one? The very idea of having a canon of knowledge from which we can teach shores up collectivist goals. 

But let's say that you fancy yourself a rugged individualist--much like the narrator in Part 2 of "The Wall"--who needs no "mind control" from the larger culture. You're very happy to pursue intellectual endeavors on your own, without the impeding hand of Big Brother. Let's say you--as Glenn Beck once famously said he did--educate yourself by reading books. You're still benefiting from the collective knowledge of society. Every time you pick up a book, turn on the news, or eavesdrop on the people standing next to you, you are enjoying the collectivist pursuit of knowledge. Rather than having to depend on your own abilities to physically experience everything, you get the benefit of what others before you have learned. This allows us to continue growing our body of knowledge seemingly indefinitely. When we have the ability to read Einstein and Hawkin, hell, when we have the ability to go to Google News and get an aggregated stream of information from all over the world in a matter of seconds, we're at an advantage. And that advantage comes from being part of a collective. 

But then why become an intellectual to begin with? The very act of becoming someone who pores over manuscripts or spends hours experimenting in a lab is usually a very individualistic one. Intellectuals aren't known for their social lives and great parties; they're known for their great contributions to society. While their work both grows out of and contributes back into a larger social fabric, the work itself is often done as an individualistic pursuit. Even when that work is actually the product of a team of researchers, there's a leader of that team who's going to take most of the credit and accolades. We don't name new methods after researchers' graduate students, after all. 

Intellectualism, then, is fertile ground for exploring the importance of individualism and collectivism. We need intellectuals to further our own knowledge base, but our value of them waxes and wanes with our overall social situations--and we value them a lot less in a crisis.

Intellectuals in Apocalyptic Fiction

It's sort of unfair to talk about the way that intellectuals are portrayed in pop culture about the end of the world without first talking about how they are portrayed in pop culture in general. And the answer is: not all that well and not all that often. Sure, we have some notable exceptions, like The Big Bang Theory, which has been touted as making geek chic in the mainstream. And there are plenty of films that focus on intellectuals for being intellectuals. I'm thinking of films like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets' Society, or A Beautiful Mind. We're also fascinated by individual intellectuals and might capture their lives in biography, as was the case with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But I think we all have to admit that there are a lot more biopics about people who have done something physically impressive or dramatically of note. And there aren't that many casts where someone who's considered an intellectual or a scholar just exists as a normal part of the crew. So, we have to consider that when we look at fiction about the end of the world. We've already created a cultural commentary on intellectuals where they are largely absent from our pop culture settings. But I think it's important to look at the way those absences are felt--or challenged--in Apocalyptic fiction because the mythos of these narratives often focuses on how everyone has a place in saving humanity. The strong, type-A personalities have to be there to keep everyone on task. The physically strong are often needed to fight off the villain. The hippie type is needed to make sure everyone remembers our humanity. But what role does the intellectual play?

I won't pretend to have an all-encompassing knowledge of end-of-days pop culture, so I'm just going to go with what I know. Feel free to add any of your own observations in the comments. (Spoilers for all of these.)


Independence Day

Independence Day is a film where one of the main characters is an intellectual. Jeff Goldblum's character is noted for his analytical abilities, and its largely his abilities that save the world. 

But it's not just his abilities. He's the one with the insight to realize how to defeat the force fields preventing his more action-oriented companions from succeeding in their attempts to save the world, and he's the one with the knowledge to implant a virus that will take those force fields down, but he still needs Will Smith's character's hand-eye coordination and general brazen attitude to get him into the ship, and he still needs Bill Pullman's character's leadership skills to get them both that access and bring the world together in this time of crisis. I put Independence Day first because I think it brings us the trifecta in heroism tropes: leadership/smooth talking, action/fearlessness, and intelligence. In this film, it takes all three to succeed. (Though apparently it only takes men, but that's a story for a different day.)



Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I've been writing about lately), isn't exactly a post-Apocalyptic fiction, but it does take the world to the brink of destruction multiple times, and it's clear that the only thing keeping us all alive is a misfit group of friends who use their various skills to keep the world spinning. 

The film does a great job of directly examining which of these skills is most important and reminds us constantly that they have to operate together. Buffy tries to go off on her own on multiple occasions, and each time she fails without the help of her friends. At least two of those friends--Willow and Giles--are representative of intellectualism. Both are shown to be intelligent and thoughtful and to draw their strength from prior knowledge, evidenced by the stacks of books they spend their days analyzing. Even Willow's physical strength as a witch with the potential to end the world is derived through the knowledge she's acquired through books and study. Intellectualism is prominently displayed in the Buffy world.

Again, though, intellectualism is only a piece of the puzzle. Even though Willow eventually becomes powerful in her own right, early on, it is only Buffy who has the strength and ability to put knowledge into action. Sure, Willow and Giles find out how to fight the bad guys, but its Buffy--with both her strength and courage--who has to actually go into those battles.  


The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead gives fewer instances of intellectualism, especially in a heroic role. Shane and Rick most certainly represent the obvious heroes of the story, and their clashes are over how to philosophically approach being the Alpha Male, not whether or not the Alpha Male should be in charge. The one instance where we saw some signs of intellectualism creeping into the group's decisions about how to handle their situation was when Dale argued against killing their captive. He eloquently defended his stance by saying that murder without trial would be the end of their humanity, a step into a new social order that couldn't be reversed. The group remains silent, and he walks away in disgust. He's immediately killed by a zombie, and Rick decides that they will release their prisoner to honor his wishes, but Shane kills the prisoner in an attempt to overthrow the group as a whole before getting killed himself. 

The one other instance of intellectualism we saw was in Season 1 when they make it to the CDC. Here a researcher is holed up inside where he has meticulously planned an elaborate suicide that will blow up the center. It's obvious that his intellectual pursuits had made him irrelevant to the group's desire to survive. 
For the most part, intellectual questions are seen as a distraction from the real work of surviving. 


Book of Eli

The treatment of intellectualism in The Book of Eli is an interesting one. Since our protagonist's--Denzel Washington's--entire purpose is to preserve the text of the last known Bible, he's clearly appreciative of writing and past knowledge. Religious fundamentalism and intellectualism, however, are not always the best of friends. The antagonist of the film is also interested in getting his hands on the Bible because he sees it as a tool for manipulation. 

In this particular post-Apocalyptic landscape, intellectualism is portrayed as dangerous because of its rarity. Since so many of the people in this world are illiterate and without the benefit of a rich intellectual history, they are particularly vulnerable to the manipulations of anyone who can use that history to destructive ends. 

But even then the intellectuals cannot survive without also being incredibly strong and physically skilled as well as being socially aggressive. Whether its our protagonist's ability to shoot a cat with an arrow while blind or our antagonist's ability to talk a group of people into obeying his every whim, intellectual pursuits are not what has allowed them their survival in this wasteland. 

The ending of the movie complicates the portrayal of intellectualism. Denzel Washington's character makes it to a closed-off city where people are trying to rebuild society. They very much value his contribution of a Bible, which they did not have. However, when they shelve the newly printed Bible, it's not put on a pedestal (the way Washington's character treated it); it was shelved right next to the Koran and other sacred texts. This demonstrates the benefit of knowledge divorced from the need to worship it and the ability to entertain the value of beliefs without necessarily ascribing to them. The people who wanted to preserve these texts did so because they saw knowledge--in all forms--as necessary to the survival of humanity.  

The Takeaway

So what's the role of intellectualism? It seems to be a mixed bag. Surely there is a place for those who are analytical and scholarly, but what that place is depends on how the world ends. In scenarios where the potential cataclysmic event is discovered ahead of time, intellectuals play a tremendous role in holding it at bay. Consider Independence Day and Buffy for this scenario. All around our heroes and heroines, there are people trying to live their daily lives. Society has not yet been turned on its head for most people, and--in these scenarios--the role of researchers and deep thinkers is often key to keeping it that way. 

However, once the apocalyptic event has already occurred, the intellectuals aren't nearly as important--at least not at first. In scenarios like The Walking Dead and Book of Eli (and also The Stand, The Happening, and others), most of the population has been wiped out and we're left with a small band of people who are trying to survive. Often, that survival is of the individual kind. They've banded together as a collective not because they're trying to preserve society and humanity, but because working as a group is the best way to ensure their individual chances at staying alive. Often, these scenarios privilege the physically strong and emotionally cunning. These are the people who are willing and able to beat a zombie to death with their bare hands or kill a band of thieves without a moment's hesitation. There's not a lot of time for thoughtful reflection, and--when they're portrayed at all--the intellectuals in these scenarios are often hindrances and annoyances. They ask questions when they need to be acting. They require saving because they're not as skilled on their own.

I can't help but wonder if the recent pop culture turn against the liberal arts (as noted in The Atlantic) is a version of this same trope. While I don't think our current economic crisis is on the order of a zombie takeover or the end of the world, there have certainly been some people who have elevated the rhetoric to that level (not to name names, but there have been some Cash 4 Gold-type companies and those selling "magic seeds" that have truly profited from this type of panic). Could it be that we're seeing a general dismissal of intellectual pursuits in a time when we see ourselves as needing to get down to the basics of survival? Could it be that we value the literary and historical perspectives less when we see ourselves as needing to work hard just to get through the day? Could it be that we see these people as out of touch and wasting time?

And if so, what does that mean for humanity and society as a whole? Even in these texts where intellectualism is shrugged off, it seems to be apparent that those intellectuals are necessary after the dust settles and it's time to rebuild. They might not be the most helpful in the midst of a herd of zombies, but they're certainly helpful when it comes time to re-establish a democracy or to create cures for the virus that caused this problem to begin with. But if we let them all die off because they got in the way, what happens to our new world? 

Finally, what of being "just a brick in the wall"? Are some bricks more important than others? Does every brick have its place? Is there a case for individualism even in this most collectivist metaphor?

Stay tuned later this week as we discuss the role of art in the Apocalypse and whether feminism is an intellectual luxury or a necessary part of survival. 


  1. I love this series! I am a zombie lover and a feminist, and so often those identities seem to run counter to one another. On a different topic, I am often fascinated by the representation of children in the zombie apocalypse - more frequently boys in my film experience, and often a foil to the uber-masculinity of the men. Novels often have more nuance than films and television. I've just finished The Enemy trilogy - zombie apocalypse from the perspective of children.

    1. Please pardon my linkspam, but I noticed you mentioned children, and over the summer I did a tongue-in-cheek breakdown of why those of us with small children and babies will be the first to perish in the event of a Zombiepocalypse.

  2. I just watched the first episode of "Revolution" and the role of intellectuals is a pretty dominant theme. The first scene after the blackout is a teacher who tell the kids "I know this isn't as exciting as bow hunting, but physics is important!" The topic continues throughout.

    But what I also found interesting was the role of feminism (both topics I followed though out since I read this post first). When it comes to masculine/feminine roles in the "rebuilt" society, there don't seem to be any (granted I have only seen the first episode so this may change). But men and women all work, hunt, and fight. No one was shown doing laundry or cooking so the show makes no statement about who fills these roles. There is *gender,* though. Men and women still have sex, and men still use rape to intimidate and fill their own twisted desires, but women fight back and are treated as equals within society.

    There is violence with men as instigators against men and women equally. Women will fight when they have to, but they don't instigate it. Also men and women both serve as "rescuers" for both genders (though the highlight rescues are of a man saving a woman...twice).

    Probably the most interesting thing about gender roles, though, is the fact that the lead female character is named "Charlie." Why she has a masculine name and not a feminine one or a gender-neutral one is something I haven't figured out yet.

  3. Oh, boy, lady, did you hit on one of my favorite things to talk about: sci-fi and its role in popular culture! Back in the 90s at NYU I majored in Cinema Studies and wrote my senior thesis on the relationship between Hollywood and American culture. My idea was this: science fiction, and all its myriad subgenres (fantasy, horror, fairy tales, etc.), are the barometer by which we can tell exactly what is going on with our culture at any given point in our history. Cold War = invasion of aliens who look just like us; Hippies = optimistic Star Trek utopia; Reagan years = literally eviscerating our youth with the rise of slasher movies; Clinton years = government cover-ups and conspiracy theories; mortgage crisis = haunted house movies; two wars = super hero movies; economic crises = twisted takes on fairy tales. And so on. In fact, in my paper I used "Independence Day" as the quintessential example of not just America's relationship with movies, but the world's relationship to America - the self-proclaimed leader and dominant force on earth. (British soldier: "The Americans are mounting a counter-offensive." British officer: "About bloody time." That just about says it all, doesn't it?) It's not hard to see why Apocalyptic shows and movies are so popular right now, as I'm sure plenty of Americans feel like the world really is coming to an end.

    (Side note: about ten blocks from me there is an enormous, old cemetery that shares a road with a power plant. If that's not a recipe for a Zombiepocalypse, I don't know what is.)

    (I can't post my entire comment at once, so I'm doing it in two parts.)

    1. (Part two)

      As for the role of the intellectual in all these movies and shows, I think it's complicated, but I think part of the psychology behind it is this. Movies and TV are the art forms of the masses, of the people. And most people have a love/hate relationship with intelligence. They want it, but they don't really want to work for it. They value it, but only as long as its useful. The movies you mentioned that feature particularly intellectual heroes were art-housey, not blockbuster hits. (Maybe Good Will Hunting was. Maybe.) People want to feel smart, and watching a movie that shines a 100% positive, heroic light on a character meant to be smarter than they are makes them feel icky. It's easier to shunt that character to the sidelines, only have them step forward when they are absolutely needed, show how much of a pain-in-the-rear they are, but leave the true rescuing, the true saving, to the tough guys, the alpha males. In this way our movies tell the us that yes, even you can be the hero. Which isn't a *bad* message, necessarily; I certainly don't watch movies and TV shows to feel *badly* about myself. I, too, like to think that even with my lack of physical prowess, my lack of basic outdoor hunting/survival skills, and my dependency on two medications, that even I can survive the end of the world and maybe even thrive in the rebuilding. (I can babysit! I'm a good navigator! I have excellent organizational skills and can keep track of our supplies and ration food well!)

      I think that a lot of this mentality, though - the shoving of the intellectual characters to the side - is a pushback against the "revenge of the nerds" society in which we've found ourselves since the technological revolution in the 90s. And that's really too bad, because as I constantly tell my husband (who is an intellectual nerd snob), just because something is difficult to understand doesn't make it *better* and just because something is low-brow doesn't make it *less than.* There is room in this world for both high art and vulgar satisfaction, for the sublime and the ridiculous. And, as I said in the comment of your previous post, in the event of the end of the world, we'll be needing plenty of both nerdy intellectuals to fix our cars, tend our wounds, and cure the zombies/fix the lights/send a computer virus to the aliens, as well as street smart tough guys to keep us safe at night/hunt and gather food/go up there and whoop E.T.'s ass.

    2. I really love what you say about science fiction allows us to test out culture, especially the parts we fear too much to test out in "reality." I think you're spot-on (btw, have you seen this article about how zombies and vampires demonstrate political fears?)

      And I completely agree with you that there is room (and need) for all kinds of people both now and in times of crisis. Maybe we're just constantly trying to justify our own existence and so we want to pull out the qualities that we see in ourselves and hold them up as supreme--and wasn't that what the "revenge of the nerds" era was all about?

    3. I haven't seen that, but that was awesome! And true! And awesome!