Zombies as Paradigmatic Contemporary Monsters

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

Last week, Levi Bryant posted an interesting reflection on his blog, Larval Subjects, titled, “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” He proposes that we can identify at least three ages of monsters, beginning with the classical age, moving into the modern age, and culminating in the contemporary age. The classical age monster is the interstitial aberration: the being which falls between our categories, thus constituting the perversion of the natural order, as we understand it. The modern monster is man himself, and the contemporary monster is that being spawned of human ingenuity but having a life of its own.

The contemporary monster, our monster, is perhaps culture that has become natural or material.  With the modern monster, reason, culture, is still cerebral, a matter of thought.  It culminates in acts, but acts that are conceived in thought. With the modern monster, we are the ones doing it (as Kant said, we’re calling the shots). With the contemporary monster, by contrast, thought and reason become natural or material. The contemporary monster is the golem. With the contemporary monster thought, reason, and culture achieve what Hegel called “objective spirit”. In Hegel objective spirit consists of the objectivization of thought through labor. Our thought is given material form, objective form, through forming the world about us through, for example, the building of architecture and infrastructure. However, objective spirit becomes monstrous insofar as it takes on a life of its own. (Bryant 2015)

Reading this, I found myself reflecting on a course I’m teaching, which is about zombie films. The zombie is often said to be the paradigmatic contemporary monster, owing to its colonial origins and its appropriation by those wishing to engage in commentary on advanced corporate capitalism. Bryant’s framework provides another means by which we can affirm the same conclusion. The zombie horde is composed of beings that were once us; they are our creation (in many zombie tales, the plague is of human origin), and the horde is our future; moreover, the horde has a “life” of its own, albeit one which resists classification according to our living/dead binary. More damning is the realization that the zombie horde, though devoid of higher ordered consciousness and rational reflection, achieves a level of spontaneous organization and efficiency that rivals the political communities of their living counterparts. The zombie form of “life” is one of pure and spontaneous labor: they reproduce their “society” by obeying their only desire (to eat brains/flesh), thereby killing humans and creating more zombies.

In his essay, “Undead is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology,” Greg Pollock (2011) argues that the threat of zombies in zombie tales and how zombie apocalypses affect human society can be used as a model for thinking about how the ecological crisis threatens us. He’s not suggesting that zombies represent the ecological crisis, but rather that the fictional portrayals of zombie apocalypses end up having certain similarities to our present ecological crisis.

Like the ecological crisis, a zombie apocalypse is unusual as far as apocalypses go, since it isn’t a sudden end of time. Traditionally, apocalypses have been described as a sudden and destructive event that brings time to an end. But most fictional zombie apocalypses are portrayed as events that unfold over time and do not bring about extinction but rather a radical change in context. Society doesn’t survive as it was; rather, human beings are forced to develop new forms of life suitable to their new circumstances, their relative lack of resources, and the persistent threat posed by the zombie horde. In some films, human beings are portrayed as survivalists, foraging among the wreckage of the old society. In others, they form new and different and smaller political communities in which they isolate themselves from the zombies, adopting a more communal form of life. The point is that the apocalypse happens in time and brings about a change, but not extinction.

The most horrifying predictions concerning the ecological crisis are similar. The future that seems like an ever increasing possibility is one in which life as we know it will undergo such drastic change that it will be true to say that everything is different, and although there will be massive disruption and destruction, the human species will persist. Of all the creatures of earth, we are the most capable of surviving an ecological crisis. But this isn’t to suggest that everything would be sunshine and roses. If climate change accelerates, and brings with it increasingly destructive weather events, changes in global temperatures and growing seasons, etc., millions and millions of people will suffer. And as the pope has written, the poor, who constitute the vast majority of the world’s population, will probably suffer the most.

This is apocalypse, but it is apocalypse of a particular sort: it is the destructive upheaval of our form of life, but not the end of life itself. Just as the survivors of a zombie apocalypse could have a new future after the reality of the zombie menace has been normalized, so, too, could human beings find a new life following massive ecological change.

Pollock argues that the possibility of this new life is premised on the zombie plague survivors readjusting their conception of life. The reality of zombies forces them to give up their living/dead dichotomy, and fashion a new life for themselves in the brave new world where the barrier between life and death has been blurred and the distinction invalidated. Focusing on Max Brooks’s World War Z, Pollock writes,

The appeal to think more carefully and caringly about the ecological blowback of our actions is strong within World War Z, but it is important to recognize how it transforms our concepts of ecology and politics. Zombies are not symbols for environmental “other” that it will be our political task to pacify or patronize. Rather, zombies fundamentally overturn the dialectic of a politics of suffrage, and it is this lesson for political ecology that we stand to learn from them. There environment is not “out there” any more than zombies are: both are fully continuous with the embodied human. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The zombie is a peculiarly contemporary monster in Bryant’s sense insofar as it is “the meme that has created a body of its own, that no longer requires us to exist and that develops aims of its own” (Bryant 2015). But thinking about how humans might respond to the zombie monster provides a means by which we can begin to think about how we might respond when confronted with climate change, another uniquely contemporary monster (as Bryant himself describes it). Pollock argues that within World War Z, humanity is depicted “as an ecological being that survives the end of the political” (Pollock, p. 181). He goes on to write,

World War Z arrives at something like political ecology without nature that Latour advocates. “Nature” dies when the first zombie crawls from its grave, and in the aftermath of that temporal confusion the lines of politics and ecology can and must be redrawn for a plausible narrative of human survival. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The monstrous, whether fictional or real, always speaks to us as we are, but it forces us also to think what we might become. After spawning a monster like global climate change, our very idea of political ecology needs to be revised.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi, 2015. “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” Larval Subjects. November 19. https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/ages-of-monsters-of-gods-and-monsters/.

Pollock, Greg, 2011. “Undead Is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology.” In Moreman and Rushton (ed.), Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 169-182.