Zombie Nations

Chapter Five

The Talking Dead: Articulating the “Zombified” Subject Under Putin


"'What does it matter who is speaking,' someone said, 'what does it matter who is speaking."

--Samuel Beckett, as quoted by Michel Foucault. (Foucault 101)

 “О том, что нас всех зомбируют пропагандой, мы читаем и слышим вот уже второе десятилетие.” ["We’ve been hearing for over a decade now that we’re being zombified by propaganda.”] — Quoted by Michelle Berdy, “The Zombies Are Coming.” 


Zombie Nations

Our world has been overrun by zombies.  This, at least, is the conclusion we may draw from our mass culture, and the border between our mass culture and our world is a sketchy one.  The blurriness of this boundary immediately points to one of the main purposes to which zombies have been used in American culture (though not, as we shall see, in Russia).  After all, one of the logical reactions to the breakdown of civilization prompted by a zombie uprising would be hoarding, the frantic accumulation of consumer goods.  But zombie critique reminds us that this is what we already do with our lives: George W. Bush told a traumatized America after 9/11 that it should go shopping.  Slow-moving zombies simply make us pick up the pace of our own consumption as we try desperately to avoid being consumed.  

The American zombie is, of course, a Haitian import that has been transformed almost beyond recognition. Like most products of black culture in American, it has been whitewashed, only this time to an extreme, deathly pallor. The zombie of Voodoo is, we should recall, an individual; it took George Romero and his disciples to make us see zombies in the plural.  Thus zombies have become America's go-to metaphor for the problem of mass culture.  We may lament a face-to-face world, but we don’t want to replace it with a face-eat-face world. Zombies are pure bodies—small wonder that,  in so many versions, they crave brains.

Yet zombies are also very much about knowledge and subjectivity (brains again), even if they function so effectively as a symbol of  a total lack of selfhood. As a shorthand, we can understand the zombie and the ghost as polar opposites: the ghost is the self without a body, and the zombie is the body without the self.   

Rarely do we ask ourselves what mindless zombies are thinking about (with Hugh Howey’s I, Zombie as a disturbing exception).  Yet the figure of the zombie demands that we reconsider questions of knowledge and selfhood.  The philosopher David Chalmers has quite productively addressed the “philosophical zombie” as a way to think about the possibility of living without consciousness.

Indeed, the prevalence of zombies as a media phenomenon turns them into bodies of knowledge, figuratively for those watching, and literally for those who used to watch, but now find themselves in their own terrible zombie stories.  Zombies are the nothing we know everything about.  In Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series about bloggers two decades after a zombie uprising, an inordinate number of characters are named “George” or “Georgia,” out of gratitude to George Romero for inadvertently training the population through films that now look like zombie-preparation public service announcements.   By contrast, the television version of The Walking Dead, unlike the comic,  is set in a world that never had zombie movies, depriving the show of the multiple levels of self-consciousness available to other zombie entertainments.   Thus zombies both embody the danger of the mass media and the need to pay attention to the mass media. The life saved by a zombie film could be your own.

Moreover, the fight against zombies is often not just existential (as a matter of survival) but ontological. In a world where basic survival is the sole preoccupation, “I” am the subject of the sentences “fights zombies.” In the television version of The Walking Dead, when Michonne is left to wander a desolate landscape in the company of a zombie herd, she is in danger of mentally becoming a zombie herself. Rick famously says (in both the show and the comic) “We are the walking dead.”  But the fight against mindlessness can also reawaken a sense of self.  

This is one of the themes of the novel (not the movie) World War Z.  An oral history of the zombie war, it cannot work without the almost palpable subjectivity of its subjects (many of whom lived unsatisfying, automatic lives before the disaster strikes).  The threat of the zombies prompts a similar coming-to-consciousness of those who fight them.  A rising tide of zombies lifts all biped boats.  

Thursday: The Zombies of Postsocialism