Contemporary Literary Dystopias as a Reaction to Post-Modern Existentialism

For a generation unmoved by the revelation the government monitors our every online interaction, the warnings against unheeded technological advancement in past dystopias fall flat. Young adults fantasize about the possibility of self-driving cars, not the threat of a communist scanning the horizon with a satellite. The atomic threat has faded into the deep crevices of postmodern consciousness as the United States remains the sole superpower. While technology can be used for destruction or control, today’s youth see technology as inseparable from their daily existence. From the normality of a constant online-social presence to the unimaginable cures and inventions of the new future, the literary dystopias of the past grew out of fears incompatible with the modern day. To create a contemporary, young-adult, and popular dystopia, writers must forge a new relevance, a new moral, out of the realities of postmodern life. For today’s youth, one such reality is the struggle to form an identity. The search for meaning and significance in the age of mass communication and globalization continues to thwart this effort. Out of this arises a psychological imperative to instill a belief in the significance of a single life. In a post-modern world, technological growth has paralleled the secularization of the youth. Without the myths of the past, the youth turn to new avenues by which to be inspired. No better medium for inspiration exists than that of the dystopia with its potential for creating heroes and heroines placed in worlds devoid of uniqueness. The technology of our time has created a potential for constant connectedness but also feelings of tininess, loneliness, and insignificance which remind us life has no inherent meaning — the condition of post-modern existentialism. By modifying the motifs of the dystopian genre, Suzanne Collins creates a narrative centered on characters, not ideologies in The Hunger Games which has gained popularity based on its ability to address the psychological anxiety of today’s youth by providing them an easily-consumable, vicarious example of the significance of a life and of the construction of a personal identity.

Existentialism, in one form or another, has existed throughout history — an articulation of a permeating crisis of meaning. Compared to their parents, the tools of modern youth to overcome this looming question of life’s purpose have dwindled. Josep Ramoneda, in “At the End of Utopia — Indifference,” postulates “only those who believe in a religion or ideology” (117) can face, without dehumanization, the facts of reality. According to US Census data, those identifying as non-religious are the second largest and fasting growing segment of the population (Clifford et al.). The result of this growth can be traced back to today’s youth and their ready access to technology — especially the internet — which has inspired an educated challenge to unearned loyalty. Without the myths of tradition, the youth must turn elsewhere to resolve their existential crisis of meaning. Ramoneda offers up ideology. Again, the generation of today lacks that tool of their parents. In the throes of the Cold War, the world dichotomy between democracy and communism created a sense of unity and purpose. To fight for the survival of capitalism against the inherent evils of communism gave the individuals of late 20th century a cause greater than themselves — a sense of profound duty and significance. With the United States as the remaining superpower, the championing of an ideology no longer calms the broader existential crisis of society. While the parents of today marched and gained civil rights or overcame the dystopia of McCarthyism, the youth of today foresee no similar opportunities for victory. This condition of post-modern existentialism arises from the emergence of technology as an interconnecting, social force. Dissent is loud, angry, fact-less, wide-reaching, and persistent. Protesting can be done with a hashtag and victory does not induce a sense of collective pride and significance. The country no longer seems to be constantly moving forward with the youth in the driver’s seat. As a result of the ubiquity of technology, the youth of today lack the tools used by their parents to address modern existentialism and continue to seek out novel methods of and for this new age.

Today’s youth cannot face the shadow of existentialism in the manner of their parents, but in this new technological and secular age, must they face it at all? Ramoneda argues, “life is only possible thanks to the perennial illusion of total meaning” (113). Without a sense of meaning (i.e. a rejection of existentialism), indifference sets in and becomes a scourge on the moral and innovative advancement of both society and the individual. One way humans find fulfillment is through the sharing of spaces — the most important of these being politics. Indifference, stimulated by the technological creation of political echo chambers, stifles discussion and leads individuals to “abandon their humanity” (Ramoneda 119), having lost an essential aspect of the human condition. The spread of cable television “culture entails the banalization of life” (Ramoneda 120). Beauty and truth are overshadowed by the permanent dumping of fiction into homes. Without a binding purposefulness, the commercialization of existence begins to overshadow its natural, empathetic essence. Indifference also represents irresponsibility which leads to the denial of the possibly of social change and establishes a foundation for conflicts over the differences between individuals. Without meaning in life, indifference festers and with indifference, without ideals, humanity loses its sense of unity and drive for improvement. Life very well may have no meaning, but extrapolating nihilism to universal extremes suppresses natural virtue and cultivates the very worst impulses of society. Without an avenue to inspire meaning and build personal identities, the moral and general progress of humankind, under the stewardship of today’s youth, may amount to nil.

Technology has not only destroyed the tools to face existentialism but has also magnified its powers of degradation. Without the necessity to critique or warn against the specter of authoritarianism, readers of Suzanne Collins’s dystopian series, The Hunger Games, observe an attempt to address post-modern anxieties. By modifying the motifs of classic dystopias, Collins develops a contemporary tool to inspire young adults to believe in meaning and self-identity, a major factor in its popularity. Collins situates her series in an ambiguous political state, one where the leadership of neither side can claim moral absolutism. Out of all the masses, whose battles and struggles we rarely see, the series centers on one girl — a protagonist with the possibility to bring about a change greater than herself, yet still unsure of her identity in a world of manipulation. Without a focus on a broader society, Collins breaks with the ideological dystopias of the past and by providing a fire of hope creates an environment not in-line with or able to convey the motifs of the past. According to Fatimah, Collins appropriates Foucault’s panopticon (the sense of constant governmental observation) to both intrinsically develop a rejection of existentialism and provide the backdrop to create a story of inspiration to calm the youth of today. The sense of panopticon’s meaninglessness is counteracted by the emergence of District 13 which vicariously instills the belief “there is something beyond the walls” (Fatimah) of the “media obsessed culture” (Fatimah) of today. Katniss represents the possibility of significance and identity found beyond the boundaries of a seemingly meaningless life. The unsteady development of her personal identity parallels and models the development of personal identity for youth in the contemporary world. While not a myth or an ideology, The Hunger Games provides an empathetic connection to justify a rejection of existentialism. Power is the root of the display of existentialism. The absolute power of the Nazis in concentration camps — an inspiration for past dystopias — left innocent prisoners no intellectual avenue by which to grasp for meaning. Collins creates this power in her series in the form of The Capitol but develops the protagonist “to challenge the ‘great book’ [the ways thing are] and create meaning” (Ramoneda 122) in defiance of this power. This defiance of meaning in relation to a dystopic state comes not from ideology or religion as in past dystopias but rather pragmatic fiction, the utilization of a weapon of existentialism against itself. This creation of hope in the form of Katniss as the onscreen Mockingjay represents the use of fiction to combat meaninglessness but also demonstrates a break from past dystopias. In the past, fiction is the weapon of dystopias and all struggle is principled rather than hopeful or inspirational like Katniss’s eventual success. Yet, in the end, Katniss finds herself beyond the fiction and discovers her meaning (peace) after overcoming all the powers around her. Her inspirational fight leaves readers with a sense they can do the same. The easily consumable nature of the series and its adaptation into film increases its accessibility and in turn the impact of its method. Readers vicariously live Katniss’s significance and believe, against all odds, in the “perennial illusion of truth” that they are included among her peers. The dystopia, in the hands of Collins, becomes a bulwark against nihilistic tragedy in the future identity of the youth.

Yet, Collins’s creation suffers an apparent contradiction. Panem, even prior to the rise of President Snow, can be described as a post-totalitarian state. The term, coined by Czech dissent writer Václav Havel, does not imply an emergence of a state beyond dictatorship but rather one that does not fit the classical mold. The power structure of the state can be “best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self-censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent” (Havel 39). A dictatorship ends with the death of a ruler, while a post-totalitarian state — like Panem or other literary dystopian states — persists over generations. The state oppresses opposition through the threat of violence and everyone is forced to participate within the system. Such participation, like that of the district’s residents in the Hunger Games, reinforces the power of the system as well as displaying its power. The contradiction to fighting existentialism lies in the fact that the greatest threat to and only humanizing path in a post-totalitarian state is to “live within the truth” (Havel 45). To complete the narrative arc, Katniss must live in the truth, defy the spectacle of the state, and reclaim herself out of the lies — believed out of fear — which reinforced the structure of society. She fights and acknowledges loss and most importantly she reclaims truth in the killing of President Coin. Yet, this living within the truth — necessary to reignite humanity’s advancement — threatens to stifle it again. For to always live in truth, one must acknowledge the meaninglessness of life no matter the political order and in turn suffer the consequences of such an acknowledgment. In order to truly provide a medium for inspiring meaning, developing an identity, and overcoming existentialism, Collins must modify the dystopian genre further, to accomplish this goal and carve a path for the popularity of modern, young adult dystopias.

While the very nature of the dystopia appears to fail as a tool for meaningless youth, Collins overcomes this (like many other young adult authors) by not only addressing the crisis of meaning (post-modern existentialism) but also its symptoms — the struggle of youth to construct a personal identity. Katniss abandons the meaning provided her by the state — this is meant to parallel the youth’s throwing off existentialism — in order to advance humanity. This provides her life a sense of significance which inspires the deflated youth of today. Afterward, though, she must develop a new personal identity, one not defined by its relationship to the state — this can be seen occurring during the final stages and after the war. Today’s youth must also develop a personal identity, but instead separate from the state, separate from technologically driven post-modern existentialism. Katniss’s acceptance of reality and life with Peeta, in contrast to her rejection of the Hunger Games, provides both a sense of rebellious significance and a model for conforming to the manipulation of society as well as the necessary development of meaning within it. Yet, the second cannot be driven or inspired to occur among today’s youth without the first. Collins not only breaks with past dystopias to provide hope and victory but also to model the reconciliation required to build a new life in the new world one sought to create. For today’s youth, they must be inspired to believe their life has meaning but also able to successful construct a personal identity having lost this hindrance. Collins has successfully, as a measure of popularity, modified the dystopia as a medium of ideological reaction to create a new tool to both inspire the belief in the youth’s own significance but also demonstrate that constructing a personal identity in this new reality is possible.

With contemporary contexts unlike those which inspired past dystopias, the modern popularity of young adult dystopias cannot be explained by their portrayal of past themes. Instead, dystopias in the young adult genre can be seen as a reaction to post-modern existentialism. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games provides a quintessential example of the creation of a tool to help youth find meaning and create a personal identity in the face of the challenges brought by an ever more interconnected world. By modifying the motifs of the genre, Collins has found popular success — providing evidence to the claim she successfully addresses the psychological anxieties of modern youth. Collins not only breaks with the ideologues of dystopia’s past but reshaped the dystopian template to avoid existential contradiction. The hope and belief in significance Collins inspires in young readers pushes them off the path of indifference and towards the advancement of society and themselves. Unlike the existential tools of their parents, Collins’s novels are meant as pure fiction and yet, their ability to be easily consumed and spark empathy align with the realities and necessities of modern life. Katniss is not only a rebellious heroine with a meaning for her life; she is also a girl coming of age who shows readers they can too successfully form an identity in a world constantly attempting to manipulate them. In the fight for meaning and belief, young adults no longer look to gods or principles but rather to characters. Every time a young girl or boy wants to go shoot a bow and arrow, the world takes one step away from the void.

Works Cited

Clifford Grammich, Kirk Hadaway, Richard Houseal, Dale E. Jones, Alexei Krindatch, Richie Stanley, and Richard H. Taylor. 2012. 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study. Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.

Havel, Václav. “The Power of the Powerless.” Václav Havel: Living in Truth: Twenty-Two Essays Published on the Occasion of the Award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel. Ed. Jan Vladislav. London: Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. 36–122.

Fatimah, Siddiqua . “Existentialism In Dystopian Modern Sci-Fi.” Ezine Articles, 3 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Ramoneda, Josep. “At the End of Utopia — Indifference.” Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought. Ed. Patricia Vieira and Michael Marder. New York City: Continuum International Group, 2012. 113-26. Coutts. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.


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