The metaphor of zombification reinforces one of the points I made in the beginning of this book: living in a paranoid or conspiratorial world is tantamount to being a character in a work of fantasy or science fiction (F&SF). On a broader scale, the national conspiratorial narrative (i.e., malign internal and external forces have never ceased to plot the nation’s downfall) erodes the distinction between geopolitics and epic fantasy.
Zombification joins trolls, bots, avatars, and daemons in describing a media ecosystem that seems designed (!) to produce agency panic. The networked self, rather than taking constructive advantage of the flows of information that it navigates daily, might prove to be nothing more than a dumb terminal. Even Nietzsche’s master and slave paradigm starts to look like a matter for cybernetics rather than ethics.
Zombification also completes the cycle of F&SF metaphors by turning anxiety over subjectivity into the stuff of horror. What starts as an external threat ends by transforming the subject into the embodiment of that very menace. Zombification is teratogenic: if we consume the wrong thing, we become the monster.
This is a paranoid scenario that depends on the subject’s vulnerability to either corruption or supplantation by outside forces (including mind control, body snatching, and possession), but F&SF also provides lesser-known models where the forces of paranoia move in the opposite direction, from the inside out. Rather than agency panic, the F&SF that Frederic Jameson describes as preoccupied with subjectivity is able to posit a process of self-zombification or self-deception. Here I turn to that most paranoid of American science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick.
In one of his earliest novels, Eye in the Sky (1957), after a vague, 50s-style accident involving a particle accelerator, a seemingly random group of people loses consciousness, only to awaken in a world that is not exactly the one in which they started. Rather, it is an externalized version of the world as understood by the first person to wake up. That person has to be knocked out in order for the group to wake up in the “reality” of the next person to regain consciousness.
Thus in one version of the world, insects sting anyone who blasphemes; in another, communist spies are literally hiding everywhere, while in a third, the sun revolves around the earth due to an old man’s insistence that heliocentrism is a fraud. Eye in the Sky suggests the primacy of a self that is wedded to errant beliefs and that will selectively sort through all inputs in order to maintain a worldview virtually impervious to critique. In each version of reality, there is only one character who is unable to see that there is anything wrong—the one for whom reality has always been this way.
Eye in the Sky indirectly highlights one of the main problems with the zombification metaphor, i.e., the assumption that a worldview divergent from reality is entirely the result of false, invasive information. If I am infected with a zombie virus, I have no choice about becoming a zombie; I was bitten that way. Eat brains though they might, zombies do not have an eating disorder; instead are following all the rules of a healthy zombie diet.
But perhaps what gets identified as “zombification” is multicausal, like a weight problem: the food industry should not be pushing junk food on us, but we would like to think we know better than to eat it. Or rather, the food conglomerates are not trying to make us like sugar where we didn’t like it before; they’ve researched what we already like and are tempting us further down a dangerously non-nutritious path.
Like it or not, the simplistic idea of zombification has become the master metaphor for the Russian subject’s relationship to mass media. But where does it come from?