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Ethicising Catastrophe: The Survivalist's Case


Abstract and Figures

The film The Survivalist portrays a dystopic world, wherein the most valuable asset is seeds. The 'seeds' metaphor applies not only in the context of agriculture but also in that of fecundity. The Survivalist's hostile hospitality toward a pair of nomads-a mother and her daughter-results in the pregnancy of the latter. In the last raid on his compound, the Survivalist allows the daughter to escape at the expense of his own life. This sacrifice manifests a severe critique against the preference given today to the well-being of the individual at the expense of the survival of the species.
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Special Issue – Isn’t all art performed?
Ethicising Catastrophe: The Survivalist’s
Dror Pimentel
Bezalel Academy of Art
and Design, Jerusalem
Abstract: The film The Survivalist portrays a dystopic world, wherein the most
valuable asset is seeds. The ‘seeds’ metaphor applies not only in the context of
agriculture but also in that of fecundity. The Survivalist’s hostile hospitality toward
a pair of nomads – a mother and her daughter – results in the pregnancy of the
latter. In the last raid on his compound, the Survivalist allows the daughter to
escape at the expense of his own life. This sacrifice manifests a severe critique
against the preference given today to the well-being of the individual at the expense
of the survival of the species.
The Survivalist (2015) is a low-budget film, dull in dialogue, actors, and
scenery; on the verge of minimalism.1Nevertheless, it is rich in philosophical
content, addressing fundamental issues of human existence in the current
age. These issues are raised against the backdrop of a dystopian reality.
Contrary to other dystopian films, The Survivalist refrains from describing
the state of affairs leading up to the catastrophe that created the dystopian
situation. Rather, it remains focused on the depiction of the catastrophic
situation itself. Nevertheless, the reason behind the catastrophe is addressed
briefly right at the start with the aid of two graphs: the first is that of fuel
production; the second is that of the worldwide population. At first, the
increase in fuel production matches that of population growth. However, at
some point in time, with the consumption of fuel resources, the graph of
fuel production plummets dramatically, and along with it, the graph of the
worldwide population.
Aesthetic Investigations Vol 5, No 1 (2021), 91-98
Ethicising Catastrophe
The catastrophe stemmed, therefore, from the consumption of fuel re-
sources, which led to the collapse of life-sustaining infrastructures: industry,
transport, communication, agriculture and so forth. This led in turn to a
rapid decrease in world population and, consequently, to the abolition of
the modern way of life, leading to a regression to a pre-industrial and pre-
technological existence, which strips man of his modern habitus with all the
comfort it entails.2As a result, man finds himself thrown back to primor-
dial existence, obliging him to sustain himself with scarce resources available
from his immediate surroundings. This is the situation in which the Sur-
vivalist (portrayed by Martin McCann) – whose name remains undisclosed
throughout the film – finds himself.
The catastrophe engenders two opposing vectors – that of unification and
that of separation. On the one hand, it leads to the renewal of the intimacy
between man and nature. On the other hand, it leads to the fragmentation
of society. These opposing vectors will serve as the pathways through which
the discussion of the film is carried out.
The loss of industrial and technological means of production compels man
to draw near to nature and cultivate it with the aid of tools that are still avail-
able to him, such as the shovel and the rake. This renewed intimacy of man
with nature engenders a reciprocal relationship: man takes what he needs
from nature, and at the same time gives back to nature. Man takes the yield
of the crops he grows and the food he randomly gathers. This is carried
out in appropriate measure, in accordance with his needs, as opposed to the
unrestricted fuel consumption that had led to the consequent catastrophe.
In Marxist terms, the Survivalist’s agricultural and gathering practices fall
under the definition of use-value, before its shift to exchange-value, typical to
industrial societies, in which natural resources are turned into commodities
and their production exceeds personal consumption.3The farming-gathering
Survivalist could therefore be portrayed as a post-catastrophic Robinson Cru-
soe, sustaining an autarkic dominion designed to satisfy his personal needs.
In this autarkic dominion, the most valuable asset is seeds, as they guarantee
the succession of yield. This is the reason the Survivalist guards them so
passionately. To these seeds – from which salvation grows – we shall return.
As man takes, he also gives back, mainly his used-up body, which is com-
mitted to the earth, as testified to in the two burial scenes vividly depicting
the corpse’s sedimentation in the ground. The corpse is portrayed in the
film without repugnance and repulsion as an integral part of the circle of life.
From a strict ecological point of view, one can even consider death as pos-
sessing a positive value, in light of its contribution to the earth’s fertilisation,
which secures the growth needed to sustain life. Perhaps the film’s ultimate
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protagonist is the earth itself, portrayed as a reservoir into which seeds and
corpses are deposited for the sake of retaining life-sustaining resources.
One can thus speculate that, paradoxically, man even benefits from the
catastrophe, as it frees him from the alienation from nature enforced upon
him by industrial society and it draws him back to the earth and the world he
long ago abandoned, as if he were the prodigal son, returning to his homeland
from exile in the colonies of industrialisation and technologisation.
In light of the first vector, it could therefore be argued that the catastrophe
is portrayed positively, as leading to the renewal of the primal bond between
man and nature. Whereas in light of the second vector, the catastrophe is
portrayed negatively as leading to the disintegration of the social bond and
hence to a regression back to the natural savagery before the constitution of
the social contract. The event of catastrophe is thought, therefore, not only
in its ecological context, but also in its sociological context, and hence, as we
shall see, in its ethical context as well.
In the renowned debate between Rousseau and Hobbes, the film sides with
Hobbes: the pre-cultural existence is not depicted in line with the innocent
and laid-back existence of the noble savage, free from the fetters of civilisation,
as Rousseau would have it.4Rather, it is depicted in a Hobbesian vein as
living under a constant threat, wherein ‘man is a wolf to man’ if to adduce
a famous Hobbesian phrase, and where life could be taken instantly at any
moment.5Our protagonist – the Survivalist – is constantly armed with a
shotgun, which he takes along with him the moment he steps out of his
shack. He surrounds the shack with ropes on which he hangs empty tin cans,
whose rattling sound warns him of unwanted intruders.
The world rendered in the film is comprised of isolated communities and
companies of nomads wandering in between them. As the catastrophe re-
news the bond between man and nature, it distances him from his fellowmen
and thus begets social atomism. It seems that law-keeping institutions are
completely absent from this post-catastrophic world. All we are left with
are isolated communities, scattered here and there, and wandering nomads.
These isolated communities are at constant war with each other, occasionally
raiding each other for the sake of attaining vital resources, especially seeds,
which are the most valuable asset in this world. The Survivalist is no excep-
tion, as he too ventures on, alongside his brother, such raids now and again.
In one of these raids, his brother is killed, whose burial is depicted in the
opening scene. Since the death of his brother, with whom he had shared his
shack, the Survivalist lives on his own, while keeping a strict daily schedule
of maintaining the shack and working in the adjacent vegetable garden. The
snapshots, which he keeps in an enclosed case and occasionally uses as burn-
ing material to light his oven, testify that he once had a wife, who probably
did not survive the catastrophe.
Ethicising Catastrophe
The Survivalist’s solitude is interrupted by two nomads seeking shelter: a
mother (Kathryn, portrayed by Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter (Milija, por-
trayed by Mia Goth). The initial contact between them is that of exchange:
at first, in exchange for shelter, the mother offers some jewellery, which is
immediately rejected since, obviously, the Survivalist has no use for it. Next
to be offered is ‘the real treasure,’ as the mother puts it, that is, seeds, which
are rejected too. As a last resort, the mother hints at possible intercourse
with her daughter, to which the Survivalist answers in the affirmative. Sex is
therefore treated in this post-catastrophic world as a legitimate commodity.
The Survivalist’s hospitality is strictly economical, being grounded in an
exchange of shelter for sex. The exchange is carried out with mutual suspi-
cion: on his part, the Survivalist takes the nomads’ presence as a redundant
burden, and, as soon as the exchange is made, he asks them to leave. The no-
mads, for their part, scheme relentlessly to kill the Survivalist and take hold
of his shack. As part of this scheming, the daughter, Milija – acting upon
her mother’s instructions – steals the bullets of the Survivalist’s shotgun, so
disarming him of his weapon. This mutual distrust brings social atomism
to a peak, wherein trust and solidarity are completely absent from human
relations. The film thus exemplifies hospitality in its Derridean sense – or
‘hos(t)pitality’ (hos(t)pitalité), as Derrida rephrases the term – which origi-
nates in the Levinasian notion of hospitality.6Hostility is thus inscribed at
the heart of hospitality: the gesture of hospitality is carried out under the
shadow of a constant threat of the outburst of hostility. The host is exposed
to the danger of becoming a hostage of his hostile guest.7
Figure 1: Hostile hospitality: the Survivalist welcomes his guests, Kathryn and
Milija, with a cocked shotgun.
The hostility reaches its peak in the subsequent rape scene: while working
in the garden, the Survivalist spots a stranger’s footprint on the ground. He
immediately deduces that danger looms for Milija, who had gone washing in
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the nearby brook. Milija is indeed abducted by the stranger, who is about to
rape her. The Survivalist saves her from the stranger, killing him in a struggle
during which he suffers an injury to his stomach. The mother and daughter
tend to his wound and carry out an extemporary operation to remove the
These mutual acts of help lead to a gradual abandonment of the instru-
mental relationship between the Survivalist and his guests, opening up the
possibility of solidarity, and even of love. The relationship between the Sur-
vivalist and Milija – which is no longer strictly commodified – results in Mil-
ija’s pregnancy. Her attempt at carrying out a self-abortion is unsuccessful,
and from then on, whether she likes it or not, she is carrying the Survivalist’s
child in her womb.
One should note the affinity generated in the film between life-supporting
activities – first and foremost pregnancy – and nature’s responsiveness to the
human call for the provision of nourishment. Nature responds to the call as
long as man acts in favour of life and it refrains from doing so when he acts
against it. This is precisely the case of the abortion scene, which is brilliantly
juxtaposed to a scene depicting a hare breaking loose from a trap laid down
in the woods. The lesson is clear: abortion, as an act against life, prevents
the hare from being caught and hence from providing the much-needed life-
sustaining nourishment.
These initial manifestations of solidarity enable the Survivalist and his
guests to survive the first raid on the shack, during which the intruders destroy
the vegetable garden and steal the seed stock. The intensifying love between
the Survivalist and Milija leads her to shift her loyalty from her mother to the
Survivalist. She refuses to participate in her mother’s attempt at poisoning
the Survivalist, while poisoning her mother instead. As the mother realises
her days are numbered, she asks the Survivalist to kill her and to commit her
body to the earth. After the passing away of the mother, only two are left, or,
more precisely, only three: the Survivalist, Milija, and the fruit of their love.
The couple enjoys a brief period of happiness, during which Milija informs
the Survivalist of her pregnancy, and the two enjoy a protein-rich meal of a
hare that was eventually caught in the trap.
These brief moments of shared happiness are brought to a halt by a second,
much more lethal raid. Playing the harmonica, the Survivalist lures the in-
truders in his direction and away from Milija. He shoots down one of them,
before getting hit by an arrow himself. The diversive subterfuge succeeds,
allowing Milija to escape the compound. The end is bitter: the shack is con-
quered; the miserable resources are plundered; and the Survivalist is roasted
on a bonfire. This is the most violent scene in the film, where the murderous
desire of the other is realised most horrifically in the absence of any law that
Ethicising Catastrophe
could have prevented it. The cannibalistic desire to eat the other is stripped
off, literally, from the metaphoric coating and fleshed out in reality. The Sur-
vivalist’s death is no doubt altruistic, and, as such, it expresses the depths of
the love forged between himself and Milija: the Survivalist knowingly sacri-
fices himself to enable the survival of Milija and their yet unborn child, whom
she bears in her womb. This act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other is
set against the act of eating the other. In the course of the film, we are wit-
nessing a radical shift in the attitude toward the other: the sheer economical
attitude, conceiving the other as a commodity, is turned into solidarity and
ends up in self-sacrifice as the ultimate act of love.
Nevertheless, the death of the Survivalist is not the end, as Milija and her
child are still alive. After enduring a voyage through the woods, Milija finds
refuge in a neighbouring community. A female guard, standing on top of a
watchtower, asks Milija, ‘When are you due?’, as she awaits the results of the
assembly’s vote in her regard. ‘In six weeks,’ answers Milija. ‘Do you know
what you will call it?’ asks the guard. ‘If it’s a boy. . . ,’ answers Milija. At
this point, the film ends abruptly, since the answer is clear, and hence there
is no need for it to be articulated: if it is a boy, the viewers already know, the
child will be called ‘Augustus,’ after the Survivalist’s brother, whose death
had never ceased to haunt him.
As we have just seen, the Survivalist did not survive. So why is the film
titled as such? Who survives in the film? The Survivalist himself does not
survive. Nevertheless, his semen, carried by Milija, does survive, and will
eventually bring about new life. The depositing of seeds assumes a double
meaning in the film: the Survivalist deposits seeds not only in the earth but
also in his lover’s womb. In this respect, the seed is no less important than
its proprietor, both in the contexts of agriculture and fecundity. The seed
is no less important since it guarantees the succession of life even after its
proprietor is long gone.
The term ‘survival’ should thus be thought of not only in the context of
the short term, but also in the context of the long run: survival is not only
about ensuring the survival of the current generation, but also, and even more
so, it is about ensuring the survival of the next generation. In this respect, the
Survivalist’s vision did bear fruit. Although he himself did not survive, his
child did. This argument sheds light on the ‘seed’ metaphor: man should not
only foster his own existence, but also the continuation of human existence
in the future, even in the event he himself is no longer among the living.
The ‘seed’ metaphor leads us directly to the renowned Aristotelian distinc-
tion between potentiality and actuality.8Existence should not be thought of
only in terms of actuality; that is, what is in the present, but also in terms of
potentiality (what will be in the future). Ensuring potential existence, which
takes place in the future, is no less important than ensuring actual existence
that’s taking place in the present.
In this respect, the post-industrial existence of the Survivalist stands in
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stark contrast to that of industrial society, which consecrates the actual ex-
istence in the present while ignoring potential existence in the future. This
is precisely the source of the inevitable catastrophe that has befallen it: the
consumption of fuel is a direct outcome of consecrating the present at the ex-
pense of the future. Industrial society sacrifices the future for the sake of the
present, whereas the Survivalist sacrifices the present, that is, his own exis-
tence, for the sake of the future, that is, for the existence of his yet-to-be-born
This also shows a shift of balance between the individual and the species:
industrial society consumes resources for the sake of the evergrowing happi-
ness of the individual at the expense of care for the future existence of the
species as a whole. Whereas the Survivalist prefers the care of the species
as a whole at the expense of the care for the individual, as his self-sacrifice
ensures the continuation of the existence of the species.
One could therefore interpret the Survivalist’s self-sacrifice as manifesting
an ethical stance amid a post-catastrophic world. The Survivalist presents
a critique of industrial society, whose sole concern for its present existence
engenders its failure to envision its future, bringing our species to the verge
of extinction. The preference of the present over the future thus goes hand
in hand with the preference of the existence of individuals over the existence
of our species.
This critique suits the current global state of affairs; that is, the fostering
of hedonistic lifestyles amid capitalist societies with evergrowing energy con-
sumptions while ignoring their inevitable ecological consequences. A lack of
pollution regulations is accompanied by the continued clearing of rainforests,
unregulated fishing industries motivated by sheer lust for profit and Trump’s
abandonment of the Paris Climate Agreement. Even worse, governments are
increasingly denying climate change, which is unfolding nowadays right in
front of our eyes. All these are manifestations of forms of existence whose
present obsessions ignore our future, thus leading to an inevitable catastrophe
that this film aims to warn us about and hopefully prevent.
1The Survivalist, directed by Stephen
Fingleton, starring Martin McCann, Mia
Goth and Olwen Fouéré.
2It is important to note that the usage
of the term ‘man’ here follows its original
Biblical sense as referring to both sexes,
female and male alike. See, e.g., ‘So God
created man in his own image, in the im-
age of God created he him; male and fe-
male created he them’ (King James Ver-
sion, Genesis 2: 27)
3Marx 1867, 125-163.
4Rousseau 1762, 117-118.
5Hobbes 1651, 24.
6Levinas 1961, 156, 172, 254, 299, 300.
7Derrida and Dufourmantelle 1998, 19.
8Aristotle 1998, 272-277.
Ethicising Catastrophe
Aristotle. 1998. Metaphysics. London: Penguin Books. translated by Hugh
Derrida, Jacques, and Anne Dufourmantelle. 2000 (1998). Of Hospitality.
Stanford: Stanford University Press. translated by Rachel Bowlby.
Hobbes, Thomas. 1983 (1651). De Cive: The English Version. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969 (1961). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Ex-
teriority. Dodrecht, NL: Kluwer Academic Publishing. translated by
Alphonso Lingis.
Marx, Karl. 1990 (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume
Vol.1. London: Penguin Books. translated by Ben Fowkes.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1979 (1762). Emile, or On Education. New York:
Basic Books. translated by Allan Bloom.
©2021 Dror Pimentel
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De Cive: The English Version
  • Thomas Hobbes
Hobbes, Thomas. 1983 (1651). De Cive: The English Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press.