Dec 20, 2012

The obsession with the obsession with the end of the world

The first episode of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers was watched by 1.29 million people. It is the most-watched show in National Geographic's history. By the time the fourth episode of the second season aired last month, ratings had suffered a little, but still there were more than 700,000 viewers.

It's very unlikely that all those 700,000 viewers were themselves interested in ways to prepare for the end of the world. It seems unlikely even that such a show would make sense, economically, if it catered only to those sympathetic to the ideas of the subjects of the show. And really, the people featured in this show are presented as strange, as freaks, as laughable.

To quote the New York Times review:
Watch [...] for a short while and, unless you’re a prepper yourself, you might be moderately amused at the absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule.
It may be the case that there's a "burgeoning 'prepper' movement," as USA Today claims, but there's little actual evidence of that. Such people do clearly exist, but that's not a new thing. And that's not why such a show exists.

If you want to explain the reason such a show as this exists, you have to look not only at the existence of the people featured in the show, asking why there are so many people dedicating their lives to preparing for the end of the world, but also at the audience.

Why are there so many people so fascinated by people so obsessed by the end of the world?

This is true, too, with the slate of apocalyptic predictions all due tomorrow, the Mayan calendar and the black hole at the center of the galaxy and the hidden planet set to collide with earth. The number of people who take such theories seriously is vanishingly miniscule. The number of people who take seriously the people who take such theories seriously, however, is quite sizable. How do we explain that?

I'm very skeptical, personally, about reports of how widely such apocalyptic theories are believed. A lot of the accounts of belief seem to be very vague or very naive about what it means to believe, and there's also a strong, strong tendency towards credulity when it comes to other people's credulity. However, even if we accept the phenomenon of apocalyptic beliefs without any skepticism, that wouldn't explain the cultural phenomena of obsession with the end of the world. Because that obsession, in American culture at this moment, is not just and not even most basically obsession with the end of the world, but obsession with obsession about the end.

Beyond the matter of "true believers," there's a cultural phenomenon right now of avid interest in true believers. There's a market, here, and it's booming.

It's not enough to just explain the people featured on Doomsday Preppers, the people out there who aren't joking about Nibiru, the people who are violent in their belief in the possibility of zombie apocalypse. If we want to understand this, we can't just look at the obsessed on the TV screen. We have to also look at us looking at the TV screen.