What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.

Mar. 25 2010 - 9:41 pm | 630 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Dead Metaphors: What Do Zombies Mean?, Part 2

Apparently, I left a few headstones unturned in my exhumation of the deeper meanings of the Zombie meme.

Screaming Zombie. Found on the Web.

On Boing Boing, readers took up the discussion in an extended comment thread, with that site’s usual happy proportion of insight to vacuity.  (Point scored for the not-insightful team: “Zombies are awesome because they mindlessly pursue you while you blow them the fuck away. I don’t see them as being symbolic.” Party on, Garth!).

Reading the zombie as social text, commenters deconstructed zombies as “our fear of death made manifest” (a “chance to fight back and kick some death ass”); embodiments of paranoid fears of “neighbors that you don’t like, the family members you don’t trust,” and other manifestations of the Enemy Within (“Watch Hotel Rwanda and you’ll understand what I’m talking about”); or emblems of our perverse “yearning to return to the age of colonialism,” when, as in the zombie apocalypse, “the protagonists have the opportunity to strike out on their own and build something of their own”—to rip it up and start again, to borrow post-punk’s battlecry.

Thought-provoking stuff.

When LOLvis italicizes the fact that “zombies embody our fears,” arguing that “whatever else it represents, the zombie-infested world is perversely attractive and almost soothing in a way because the danger there is immediate and tangible,” s/he inspires me to agree that the zombie is Embodiment embodied—gross anatomy personified, if you’ll forgive the pun. In an age when we spend more and more of our waking lives immersed, headfirst, in the world on the other side of the digital looking glass (Chatroulette, anyone? Second Life? World of Warcraft? XBox? YouTube? Twitter? Facebook?), zombies put flesh on our growing alienation from our bodies  (“meat puppets,” as William Gibson called them, in Neuromancer, his novelization of the Cartesian mind-body problem) and, more generally, unplugged reality (“meatspace,” in the jargon of cyberpunk sci-fi). Dead meat with a mind(lessness) of its own, zombies are a grotesque parody of sci-fi images of the body as a meat puppet, a growingly obsolete vehicle remotely controlled by a consciousness that spends most of its time lost in cyberspace.

A sign of our times: Paul, the fourth-grade boy quoted in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder who tells author Richard Louv, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Another sign of our times: the predator-drone pilot obliterating his target in Pakistan with videogame ease from a cubicle in Langley, Virginia. Experts are discovering that such “cubicle warriors” often suffer from a postmodern post-traumatic stress—a combat fatigue that compounds the moral burden of the bomber pilot with a sort of ontological vertigo, brought on by the dizzy chasm between mind and body.

Yet, paradoxically, even as they body forth our alienation from our physical bodies and the material world, zombies also incarnate our Nostalgia for the Real. They beckon us toward a post-apocalyptic landscape where our media-numbed nerve endings are jolted back to reality; where recovering the lost skills of more embodied eras—binding up a wound, field-stripping a gun, performing CPR on a dying car engine—is a life-or-death matter.

In that sense, the myth of the zombie apocalypse is weirdly consoling, at least to survivalists and radical libertarians whose idea of utopia is a feral future where Robinson Crusoe meets The Omega Man. (The Maker phenomenon, a burgeoning subculture of do-it-yourselfers and wannabe MacGyvers, speaks to similar yearnings, albeit in a kinder, geekier key. Celebrating hands-on knowledge of How Things Work, Maker culture is at heart about  re-embodying ourselves, re-membering how to think with our hands as well as our heads.)

Random Zombie. Found on the Web.

Zombies short-circuit philosophical dualisms in other ways. When Boing Boinger Spaceghost comments, “Zombies represent our fear of mobs…[a] group of people, completely blind to reason, who mean to tear [us] apart for not belonging,” finding in the zombie horde a parable about “how in joining the mob your reasoning dies, making you an instrument against others who still live like you used to,” s/he touches on a subject dear to pop sociologists, early in the 21st century: the trope of the crowd.

Unwittingly or not, Spaceghost’s post relocates the living dead within the history of mass psychology. Zombies are close cousins of the 19th century sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s conjuration, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896), of the “hypnotized” individual tossed on the heaving sea of the crowd, a “slave of all the unconscious activities of his spinal cord,”  “no longer himself, but…an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will,” or, worse yet, an atavistic throwback who has devolved “several rungs in the ladder of civilisation.” One on one, writes Le Bon, the same man “may be a cultivated individual,” but “in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct.” A zombie, for all intents and purposes.

The celluloid unconscious of the 20th century teems with madding crowds, from the Russian revolutionaries in Eisenstein’s October (1927) to the Nazis sharing a collective orgasm at the Nuremberg rally in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) to the police riots of the ’60s civil-rights struggle to the black Los Angelenos wilding across the evening news in the L.A. Riots of 1992.

Zombie Target Poster. All Rights Reserved.

But in our age of social networking, when Time enshrines “You”—which is to say: everybody—as its Person of the Year, we’ve reversed the elitist trope of the crowd as “bewildered herd,” in thrall to political agitators and propagandists, and reimagined the popcorn-crunching million as a Wise Crowd. Here comes everybody, the social-networking theorist Clay Shirky exults, in his book of the same name. These are the days of Wikis and crowdsourcing; of the anthill and the beehive as parables for trendsurfers and “change agents.” After the atomization of the mass market into a million microniches and the Death of Mass Culture, we’ve morphed, oxymoronically, into a crowd of individuals—social atoms who manage the neat trick of retaining their individuality en masse (or so we’re told).

Even so, fears of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds still haunt the cultural unconscious, especially at a moment when the hoarse-throated ravings of 9/11 Truthers and Obama birthers, global-warming deniers and Intelligent Designers are drowning out thoughtful discourse.  Thus the zombie army. “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will,” wrote Le Bon. What is the zombie’s essential quality? More so, even, than his inescapable corporeality, it is his herd mentality (if a brainless brain-eater can be said to have a mentality).

Zombie is a collective noun. Unlike the lone-wolf werewolf or the nightcrawling vampire or suburbia’s serial-killing slashers—Jason, Freddy, and their kin—or the torture-porn bogeymen of Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005), the undead exist only in mass, faceless faces in a frenzied crowd. But unlike the phalanxes of brownshirts thrilling to Hitler’s spittle-flecked fulminations in Nazi newsreels, they don’t even have a leader. Mindless, directionless, zombies can’t dance, and sure as hell can’t goosestep, because they’re social turbulence incarnate.

The modern zombie (as opposed to the somnambulistic slave of voodoo lore, a recovered memory of Haiti’s colonial past) was summoned forth by the Ur-zombie movie Night of the Living Dead (1968). George Romero’s zombies condensed out of the fog of violence and anxiety hanging over the ’60s—images of death and depravity in Vietnam, premonitions of societal breakdown in the wake of student protests and race riots. “It was 1968, man,” Romero told author Alan Jones, in The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. “Everybody had a ‘message.’” The movie is a crackling short- circuit of “anger and attitude,” he says, “just because it was the Sixties.”

Tea Party demonstration. Found on the Web.

Now it’s the oughties. In the aftermath of econopocalypse, when the needle of ideological polarization is far into the red, the zombie is rising again to put a mythic face on our fears of social disintegration. In Obama’s America, it’s kulturkampf all the time.

True/Slant reader Lev7 argues that zombies, with their mobthink and Nuremberg-rally irrationality (“they are relentless and can’t be reasoned with”),  incarnate “the fear of creeping fascism in this country.” His comment puts me in mind of the  “J’Accuse” post in which Charles Johnson, founder of the conservative blog Little Green Footballs, defected from the right-wing Army of Darkness. Excoriating the lunatic fringe he believes has hijacked the conservative movement, Johnson calls the right to account for its “support for anti-science bad craziness (see: creationism, climate change denialism, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, James Inhofe, etc.)” and a “hatred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies, into racism, hate speech, and bizarre conspiracy theories (see: witch doctor pictures, tea parties, Birthers, Michelle Malkin, Fox News, World Net Daily, Newsmax, and every other right wing source).” In so doing, he underscores the frothing irrationalism and Kevlar imperviousness to proven fact that adequately earns the zombie comparison.

Zombie Target Poster, from ZT- ROXIE TARGETS. All Rights Reserved.

What makes the ideological undead on today’s paranoid, anti-government right—the Tea Partiers, Glenn Beckers, Palinistas, Malkinites—zombies isn’t their conservatism.  On questions such as, say, the extent to which government should intervene in markets or whether corporate “speech” should be legally protected, reasonable minds on the right and left may reasonably disagree.

The key word, here, is reasonable. Reasoned debate stands on the common ground of accepted fact (Darwinian evolution, the human role in global warming, the Actual Contents of Obama’s healthcare bill) and is guided, at its best, by the questioning—and, crucially, self-questioning—spirit that animates science and higher education. Ideologically determined and thus faith-based (in the broadest sense of the term), the worldview of the rabid right is reflexively hostile to skeptical inquiry.  True Believers accept, on faith, any talk-radio talking point, robo-mail, or tinfoil-earmuff conspiracy theory, as long as it reaffirms the rightness of their worldview. They ask not “Is this true?,” but rather “Is this truthiness?” Fox Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.

Ideas, the old saying goes, are something you have; ideology is something that has you.

Look into the gazeless eyes of the Tea Partier or the Palinista grabbing your lapels and you’ll recognize the same glittery blankness, just this side of mania, that you saw in Tom Cruise’s eyes in that Scientology recruitment video (a peephole into a mind so thoroughly parasitized by the cult virus it will make your gray matter crawl). That twitchy eyed look is the surest sign that ideology has replaced individuality, coiling itself around the brainstem and operating the speech center. True Believers are just a mind virus’s idea of  a great way to self-replicate, which is what makes them—the human hosts—so zombielike.

Tom Cruise, Scientology recruitment video still. Found on the Web.

In his book The Selfish Gene, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the neologism meme to describe the viruses of the mind—earworms, fashion trends, political ideologies, religious beliefs—that propagate throughout a culture, traditionally by word of mouth, increasingly through viral media. “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain,” he writes, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

Dawkins is at pains to point out that a mind virus’s success isn’t dependent on anything more virtuous than contagiousness—the fiendish irresistibility of its appeal, especially to our deepest fears and desires. “To take a particular example, an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire,” he notes.  “Many children and even some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey the priestly rules.  This is a peculiarly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today.  But it is highly effective.  [...] The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self perpetuating, because of its own deep psychological impact.”

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, a business book for the age of social networking, James Surowiecki  bullet-points “four elements required to form a wise crowd,” the first two of which are:  “Diversity of Opinion: Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts” and “Independence: People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.”

Setting aside the rightness or wrongness of Surowiecki’s thesis, which is irrelevant to our purposes, the characteristics he singles out are instructive. Consider the ideological diversity, obscure expertise, and disparate angles of attack on subjects that characterizes comments on Boing Boing or Metafilter. Now compare that to the unanimity of opinion, the celebration of groupthink as a virtue, among, say, callers to the right-wing radio show Savage Nation or attendees of Tea Party events or Palin rallies, at least as evinced by news coverage. (Yes, I know: the mouth-breathing loons are all plants, tools of the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy and its media lapdogs. Duly noted.)

Think of these things as you marvel at the breathtaking ignorance of the anti-healthcare activist brandishing a photo of Obama accessorized with a Hitler mustache, asking Senator Barney Frank why he supports a “Nazi policy” intended to  provide coverage to uninsured Americans. Bear them in mind, too, as you watch videos of far-right tub-thumpers rousing the rabble to get their kids “the hell out of college” because “they’re brainwashing ‘em!,” a homily that moves one troglodyte to respond, “Burn the books!” Which books, exactly? Uh, you know, “the ones in college, the brainwashing books, like the evolution crap.” Reflect on them as you scroll through news reports on right-wingers howling down politicians with apoplectic tirades. Or hissing death threats into their message machines. Or pelting them with racist epithets. Or spit. Or, better yet, rocks.

In the movie 28 Days Later, a virus turns reasonable creatures into ravening zombies. Its name, instructively, is Rage.

The sleep of reason breeds monsters.


One T/S Member Comment Called Out, 5 Total Comments
Post your comment »
  1. collapse expand

    Nice addendum to the previous post, Mark. I realize you don’t intend this as a historical view of zombie signification, but tracing the various incarnations of Romero’s zombies complicates the zombie trope in unique ways. Land of the Dead (2005), for example, offers a world in which the dead have taken over and outnumber the living, who exist in a very class-stratified gated community. (Pittsburgh!) It’s a gated-America split into haves and have-nots, with the penthouse-dwelling upper class (Dennis Hopper!) exploiting the lower and working classes (John Leguizamo!) largely through invoking the spectre of zombies. It’s Romero’s first post-9/11 zombie film, and the parallels are pretty obvious.

    One major development in that movie involves the zombies finding a leader with rudimentary reasoning skills who instills in them a kind of class consciousness. Rather than a herd, they become collective actors; eventually they head north, presumably into Canada.

    • collapse expand

      Wonderful insights, Jesse. I’m very much in your debt for the Romero analysis, and will surely cite you if I riff on this in some extended-dance-mix version of this essay, should it ever appear in an anthology. I’d assiduously avoided LAND OF THE DEAD because it took such a savage beatdown, critically, but you’ve inspired me to add it to my Netflix queue. Sounds as if it would sit nicely, back to back, with Cronenberg’s RABID and Ballard’s HIGH RISE (neither of which is about zombies, and one of which is a book, but the LORD OF THE FLIES-in-a-high-rise theme is apposite, I think). The idea of a zombie leader emerging—shades of BEN, in the WILLARD movies!—is provocative. So much for THE WISDOM OF CROWDS! And north—to Canada, of all places! Shades of Vietnam-era conscientious objectors? But what would zombies object to, I wonder? And don’t they know the Death Panels await them?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Land of the Dead takes place in a post-Facebook world, so no one could know about the Death Panels.

        I haven’t seen Rabid or read High-Rise, but Cronenberg’s Shivers seems an amalgamation of the two. The “zombies” in Shivers thirst for both sex and violence, which also seems unique: I don’t know of any other film addressing that bodily aspect of zombie life. Does that imply sex is more in the mind (“the largest erogenous zone!”) than in the body? What would Descartes say about this?

        I suspect it would have something to do with reproductive power. The zombie hordes can’t sexually reproduce; they can only infect already-living bodies. (The new Dawn of the Dead improves on the original by adding a zombie baby.) In this sense, their time is limited: they are undead — liminally between life and death — but not able to propagate their species in the conventional way. I wonder how this would fit a reading of zombies as working class? As consumer class?

        Lately we’ve seen a few articles on the rise of “neurocapitalism” and for decades have heard about the growth of “information work.” These trend-pieces always suggest workers are becoming more valuable for their minds — or more precisely, their brains. “Information economies” demand less physical labor and so tend to neglect the bodily elements of work, yet even the most advanced information worker is more than a brain in a vat. Among the information-worker class, the Cartesian divide that zombies so aptly illustrate still exists, but as always it’s the mind — the insubstantial, the informational — that’s privileged. I’d be interested to see the zombie trope mutate for the Information Age.

        I thought about this after foolishly drinking some discount energy drinks. These products — Red Bull and their variants — seem to take as a given that in a hyper-competitive, capitalist world, you need all the energy you can get. (See also Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article on “neuroenhancers” – http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/04/27/090427fa_fact_talbot) Efficient, competitive workers are those energized through all manner of stimulants.

        Except this bodily stimulation seems, for me, anyway, to dull the mind, precisely the labor-engine of informational capitalism. I felt completely zombified by those drinks, unable to think coherently but perfectly able to jabber on incessantly. Whatever transhumanist subtext underlies the popularity of those beverages, they actually seem to underscore the connection between body and mind. (Which maybe moves us away from zombies and more toward a film like Altered States. Or The Fly. Cronenberg again!)

        So perhaps the Information Age zombie film would take place on a corporate campus somewhere in the Northwest, say around Redmond, and would involved a group of software programmers who realize the newest energy drink craze is turning their friends and co-workers into zombies. Sounds like a comedy.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
Log in for notification options
Comments RSS

Post Your Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment

Log in with your True/Slant account.

Previously logged in with Facebook?

Create an account to join True/Slant now.

Facebook users:
Create T/S account with Facebook

My T/S Activity Feed


    About Me

    I'm a cultural critic. Doom Patrol is a series of drive-by essays, mostly on America in the Age of Anxiety, as the title suggests, but also on whatever wild surmise crosses my mind. I've written for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet. My books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. I'm associated with the concept of "culture jamming," the guerrilla media criticism movement I popularized through my 1993 essay "Culture Jamming," and "Afrofuturism," a term I coined in my 1994 essay "Black to the Future" (in the anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which I edited). More: http://www.markdery.com/author.html Mail: markdery at verizon dot net.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 52
    Contributor Since: December 2009