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The Significance of the Wasteland in American Culture

  • Author(s): Peterson, Joshua Ryan
  • et al.
Abstract

In this paper, I examine the sense of restlessness and the resultant apocalyptic fantasy in contemporary American culture by distilling two film genres—the Hollywood western and the post-apocalyptic—down to their basic structural elements. The post-apocalyptic genre’s aesthetic and thematic borrowing from the Hollywood western signifies a cynical critique of the frontier myth. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented The Significance of the Frontier in American History, his “Frontier Thesis,” which mourns the closure of the frontier and celebrates the American institutions built upon it. The frontier only exists insofar as it is available for human exploration and settlement. Though the frontier is long gone, the desire for open space and freedom from social restriction remains prominent in American culture. The post-apocalyptic genre continues Turner’s mourning and indulges the fantasy of free and open space. In essence, it gives the frontier back to viewers by undoing everything that the frontier made possible. The characters in the post-apocalyptic genre then explore the possibilities of rebuilding society and struggle (and often fail) to avoid the mistakes of America’s historical past. In this sense, the wasteland functions as a revision of the frontier myth. This paper explores the post-apocalyptic genre’s view of the frontier myth as a trajectory towards civilization’s collapse. It posits a more cynical view of humanity, and in doing so aims to expose the feet of clay on which our social order stands. In the process, a new myth is generated—the mythic wasteland.

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