Notes on Modern Monsters: from Anarchists to Zombies

A friend of mine recently had surgery, and in one of those thoughtful moves that never seem to occur to me, one of his co-workers lent him a bag of easy-reading books for his hospital stay. While I was visiting him I found him asleep, and started the nearest book that seemed good (the one he was in the middle of, of course), World War Z, by Max Brooks.

Zombies have been showing up more and more in pop culture – from video games (Plants vs Zombies and Left 4 Dead are only two of the more popular out of many many examples), books (WWZ, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), activities (zombie walks), to of course movies.

WWZ is a post-apocalyptic fiction-documentary of the world wide war against zombies, which happens in the near future. The book is composed of interviews of people from around the world who have played different roles in the conflict—some significant, others not. The interviews take place after the war has been more-or-less won: although there are still zombies around, their numbers are decimated, working tactics and strategies against them have been discovered and disseminated, and people are no longer in denial that zombies exist.

What is a zombie? In this novel it is marginally explained as people with a medical condition, a condition that spreads like a disease. It is a marginal explanation because zombie-ness is only treated as a disease in how it spreads, not in how it starts or how a solution is found: there are no heroic scientist doctors racing for a cure. Other zombie scenarios have been conceived as a result of extraterrestrials (the Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), of human manipulation (the Stepford Wives, Night of the Living Dead, the Return of the Living Dead), of the supernatural (White Zombie, Zeder), and of disease (28 Days Later, I am Legend, Braindead). Sometimes the cause is unexplained, as in this book where it is vaguely attributed to a bite that someone receives from an invisible source while swimming.

Of course the concept originally comes from the Voudun tradition, in which a corpse is reanimated to carry out a wizard’s commands. The corpse has no capacity to be creative, and this lack of creativity or intelligence is the zombie characteristic that has remained most consistent over time. Intelligence is why the Borg (Star Trek, Next Generation) would not be considered zombies, although there are other similarities. (The Borg seems like more of a corporation or state gone berserk, using all of the mental capacity of each of the components for a goal that the components would not choose individually.)

But zombies are also driven: a zombie isn’t a zombie unless it is on its way somewhere, desperately and unthinkingly in search of food. They have a single focus and let nothing deter them (which of course is also their weakness, since they will continue in their path even as they are being dismembered or burned to obliteration).

And being en mass is the third most significant characteristic of zombies. One zombie alone hardly counts as a zombie at all. That sense of being besieged, completely overwhelmed by numbers of mindless ravening hordes is a major component of the horror that zombies represent.

So here we have a big unwieldy group that is driven by some unpleasant or mysterious urge, to which normal emergency responses don’t apply (they’re already dead), that cannot be reasoned with, that smells bad, is ugly (they will be in various stages of decomposition, after all), wants what you cannot comfortably part with, and is clothed in dirty ragged clothing that’s inappropriate for the situation. I couldn’t think of a more obvious analogy for fears about immigration and/or class revolt.

In WWZ, Brooks is clearly using zombies as a metaphor for crisis, for acknowledging and critiquing how individuals and especially power systems deal with emergencies, and the interesting thing is how open the metaphor is. It doesn’t matter which kind of emergency the zombies are an analogy for: the fantasy component allows the reader to insert whatever fear-inducing element that they want to substitute.

Among those who speak monsters, zombies are always compared to vampires, as opposite poles of despair and poverty vs glamour and royalty. Today’s vampires in particular (like Bela Lugosi’s version) are suave, smart, powerful: mini Satans, each of them. (This is very different from the ugliness of Nosferatu in the expressionist German version of Stoker’s Dracula.) These days vampires offer upper class sophisticated seduction: the temptations (and dangers) of the city. As in the Buffy-verse, they are more about being an outcast elite than being scary. Zombies, on the other hand, are about the unwashed masses.

This makes the fairly popular cultural phenomenon of zombie walks disturbing. Zombie walks are public social events with participants dressed and made up as rotting corpses, charged with acting like zombies, and sometimes acting out feeding on people and the consequent creation of new zombies. Frequently these parades are pub crawls. If part of the horror of zombies is the immiseration of everyday life, in which people go unthinkingly through routines over which they have no control, no influence, driven entirely by habit and bodily urges, among millions who are all in the same situation, then there is something perverse about (insufficiently) detourning this state.

Zombies might be of slightly more significance for people in computer geek culture, a scene that is notorious for feeling beseiged by people who they care about and even yearn for, but who are too stupid to understand or appreciate them. This sense of being the normal ones surrounded by the less-than-normal, is a very different take on elitism than that of the vampire crowd.

If zombies are about some kind of elitism, some fear of being surrounded and swallowed by a horde that is mindless and amorphous (yet atomized—unlike The Blob, for example), then it becomes a way to talk about one of the principle contradictions of anarchist practice/thought, which is the conflict between the goals of autonomy and revolution.

To the extent that anarchists believe in autonomy, believe in people’s capacity to create their own lives, to determine their own goals, etc, and that we don’t have the answers for other people, then to that extent we are in conflict with the kind of dramatic world wide change that we want to experience/create.

If we trust people, then we have to accept that most don’t want revolution, most don’t want dramatic change, most don’t want what we want, at least not enough to do much about it.

If we don’t trust people’s capacity to understand themselves or at least run their own lives to the best of their ability, then we have gone a fair way to becoming just like every other vanguard group ever, thinking that we do have the answers, and that we are more perceptive and intelligent than others and so should be running things.

People with politics (not by any means just anarchists) have found a dozen ways to work around this question, from saying that people are rebelling just not politically, to saying that people would rebel if they had any hope, to ignoring the question and just charging ahead with good egoistic principles… but the question is still there. What does it mean for anarchists to push change on people who don’t want it?

I come back to my favorite question ever. What kind of monster will you be?

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