Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Towards a Post-Apocalyptic Chronotope – An introduction

Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian formalist, was the one who introduced the concept of the chronotope, or “time-space”, in an essay titled “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel – Notes towards a historical poetics” (1975):

"In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope."

(Bakhtin 1981: 84)

Bakhtin goes on to say that the chronotope in essence “defines genre and generic distinctions” (Ibid: 85); he takes as an example three quintessential types of ancient Greek romance novels. The basic structure of star-struck lovers, shipwrecks, adventures in far-away places, kidnappings, war, attacks by pirates etc. still saturate our big screens and trashy adventure novels today, in a tradition set down over a thousand years ago. To describe the chronotope of the Greek romances, Bakhtin introduces the concept of adventure-time. Adventure-time is the duration of all the adventures between the start and the (happy) end of the novel, which nonetheless does not take any biographical time. That is to say, there is no change in the personality or affections or anything else of the characters involved, the adventure (no matter how prolonged) has taken no actual time, such time as one might add in a biography.

"In this kind of time, nothing changes; the world remains as it was, the biographical life of the heroes does not change, their feelings do not change, people do not even age. This empty time leaves no traces anywhere, no indications of its passing. This, we repeat, is an extratemporal hiatus that appears between two moments of a real time sequence, in this case one that is biographical."

(Bakhtin 1981: 91)

This, however, is only the chronos. The topos is not unaffected by this strange dilution of time-space. Bakhtin notes that there are no identifiable traces of the era “no matter where one goes in the world of the Greek romance, with all its countries and cities, its buildings and works of art” (Ibid). The space in the Greek romances is purely abstract – and vast. “In order for the adventure to develop it needs space, and plenty of it” (Bakhtin 1981: 99). If there is an attack by pirates on the sea, resulting in a shipwreck and a kidnapping, there are various spatial considerations that need to be taken into account (the sea, the boats, where the kidnappers take their victims, where the shipwrecked end up), but in a real, geographical sense, none of these need exist – although the novel might mention countries or seas, they are entirely interchangeable. Thus follows, that the Greek romances take place in “an alien world” (Ibid: 101), to which the heroes have no ties or relationship and which is filled solely with random chance, that governs every event in their adventures. This is not, however, an alien world in the sense of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars adventures (which were strongly laced with exoticism, like much of the sci-fi of that era) – there is no opposition here between known and unknown, native and non-native. For that reason alone it has been hard, Bakhtin points out, for scholars to date the romances any more closely than five or so centuries!

So what does all of this signify for the post-apocalypse? The example above was of a larger whole, a super-chronotope if you wish. Bakthin also writes of 'smaller' chronotopes, and chronotopes attached to certain motifs. Within the super-chronotope there can occur smaller chronotopes, and chronotopic thought can also be used to consider for instance how individuals are portrayed. The character of the Greek romance chronotope is, for instance, someone who is forced (by chance, fate) to move spatially, yet also one who endures it all and emerges unscathed (as if no time had passed whatsoever) (Ibid: 105). I believe that trying to find a post-apocalyptic (super-)chronotope, and identifying the various chronotopic motifs within that chronotope, might be a considerably more fruitful path than merely trying to define a post-apocalyptic genre, since that to me seems as pointless as trying to define science-fiction as one heterogeneous 'genre'. Let us consider, in brief and quite abstractly, what the spatial and temporal features of the post-apocalypse are:

First, there are two 'times' in the post-apocalypse: now and then. 'Then' is the pre-apocalypse, 'now' is the post-apocalypse. The point of the apocalypse is sometimes instantaneous (the bombs fall, almost everyone dies) and sometimes drawn out (the plague slowly destroys society), but there is always a defining moment when things are no longer as they were before, and there is no return to that previous time, no matter how subtle this change may be (in Shelley, for instance, this moment is the siege of Constantinople). However, whereas the post-apocalyptic timeline might very well be biographical (to borrow Bakhtin's term), the pre-apocalyptic time tends to be an amorphous whole, a 'then' of indistinct memory and nostalgia: this 'then' usually corresponds to the reader's, and author's, 'now', or some other period of historical time.

Second, the apocalypse is unlimited spatially, it expands in all directions – the whole world is affected and changed by it. Generally, Armageddon tends to be global. However, in some cases it needn't be – consider for instance 28 Days Later, in which only the United Kingdom is affected. Nonetheless it fulfils the requirements of the post-apocalyptic chronotope, since it is the whole world of the characters and that of the viewers that has been affected. Had half the movie been dedicated to relief efforts outside the UK, the evacuation of refugees and so on, it would have been a disaster movie with zombies, not a post-apocalyptic vision of an empty England.

In any which case, the defining aspect of the post-apocalyptic chronotope is the rupture in the generally accepted timeline, which has left (spatially and temporally) both the reader and the author in the 'then', whereas the characters and the novel have been transported into the 'now'. The post-apocalyptic novel, in short, is a sort of travelogue of the post-apocalyptic novel's 'here and now'. In the post-apocalyptic novel, there are constant references and comparisons between the post- and the pre-apocalyptic world, but unlike the chronotope of the travelogue (which also makes such comparisons, between the native land of the author and the foreign lands of travel), the post-apocalyptic narrator cannot return, either temporally or spatially, to his or her 'native land'.

This very superficial definition, of course, is merely a beginning, and needs to be much narrowed down. Nonetheless, the basic premise of a spatial and temporal point of no return, of the division into pre- and post-, can form the basis of a more thorough post-apocalyptic chronotope. The addition, and identification, of typical post-apocalyptic motifs and their chronotopic constitution will certainly be of further help.

Bakhtin, M.M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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