Published Jun 25 2012 by Beams and Struts, Archived Jun 25 2012

Zombie politics and the walking dead

by Trevor Malkinson and R. Michael Fisher

(written w/ R. Michael Fisher)


There’s a lot going on in the TV show The Walking Dead that’s worthy of comment, but there’s one aspect of the show that has struck me in particular- that the civilization we’ve built and have come to depend on, could be undermined in short order, returning us quickly to a survivalist state of The-Walking-Dead-Soundtrack1nature.

The show follows a small group of people trying to survive during a zombie apocalypse, and they’re constantly trying to find gas for their vehicles, or medicine when someone is sick (and for that they have to raid abandoned pharmacies, whose stocks are running out). They don’t even really get into scarcity issues involving food and water in the show (although there’s a few hunting scenes), but that’s yet another layer of daily survival that most of us today would be helpless in the face of. Watching the show I came to a conclusion similar to the one Andrew recently came to in his new adventure on the farm- that many of us urbanites take for granted the type of life sustaining comforts that our modern societies afford us. We don’t even realize it; it’s like the air we breathe. But there was something about watching The Walking Dead that brought home to me just how fragile our whole veneer of civilization really is.

As I was pondering this thought last week a couple of other discourses I’ve been introduced to recently started to swirl around and mix in my head and then boom- out popped a thesis about zombies. It consists of two premises, followed by a conclusion. It is as follows:

The first premise comes via Jeremy Johnson in two great articles There Be Dragons and Electric Fairytales. Jeremy argues that art is always a representation of what’s happening in the individual and collective unconscious. Whether the artist knows it or not, what they represent and we see depicted in art is always a message from an unconscious within. It relays our dreams, conflicts, anxieties, fears, goals and so on. Jeremy would add also that this imaginal realm is always in quebec-protest1contact with the bigger, wider wholes of which it’s immersed in (1). In sum then, we can always read art as holding symbols and keys as to what’s going on for us that we ought to be more conscious about. Premise one.

The second premise of this zombie analysis came to me via David Macleod and a conversation a few of us were having on TJ’s post about The Montreal Student Protests. David opened my eyes to a whole field of research and writings that are dealing with “energy decline” and the “limits to growth”. The basic premise of this discourse, as I understand it, is that we’ve built a very complex civilization on the back of cheap fossil fuel energy, but this cheap energy is no longer in abundance (is in fact in decline), and is thus becoming gradually more expensive, which is going to increasingly make our current form of civilization unsustainable, and this disruption of the status quo is going to be politically very unstable. Premise two.

So as I swirled and swished these two notions around in my head with what I’d seen in The Walking Dead, something occurred to me- oh shit, we’re the freiken zombies!!

It could be that the zombie apocalypse depicted in The Walking Dead is a terrified cry from within that we’re zombies who can’t stop wantonly consuming resources, and that we’ll devour this civilization of walking-dead-2ours right to the last morsel if we keep going the way we are. Think about zombies for a second- the zombie (apparently) has little to no frontal lobe activity and is instead controlled by the mammalian instincts of the limbic system. All they want to do is eat flesh, and they’re never satiated no matter how much they get. The smell of flesh triggers in them an appetite that cannot be controlled, and will never be filled.

All of this is also true for the addict. When the rush of craving comes on for the addict the limbic system takes control; this is why in 12 Step programs people are advised to pick up “the thousand pound phone” and call someone immediately. A conversation with another sympathetic human can bring the other more evolved parts of the brain back online, giving the addict the capacity to resist the impulse and make another choice. But if not the addict becomes an undead machine seeking one thing with singular reflex-driven focus. We’re a civilization of addicts. And believe me, this is something I know from the ‘inside’. If we look at our addiction to sugar alone, and what it’s doing to our brains, you can see we’re deep down the rabbit hole. Zombies everywhere.

Consumer capitalism relies on the boundless manufacturing of unquenchable desires to maintain its growth. Here’s the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva:

Modern production, under both capitalism and socialism, make the commodity king. We live in a world in which what we buy, wear and consume defines us. And we try to fulfill our thin but insatiable desires by consuming more and more…In the society of the spectacle, people are tools of the economy; their desires are not their own; desires are manufactured as surely as are the commodities meant to fulfill them. We consume our needs, unaware that what we take to be a wheel of samsara thanka“need” has been artificially produced. (2)

The Buddha understood this suffering-reinforcing state of affairs, this unquenchable craving and thirst. He called it being trapped in samsara. A living hell. And this hell has become omnipresent in our times. Benjamin R. Barber is only one political theorist who has begun to use addiction as a political concept. Here’s Barber from his 2007 book Consumed:

Another indicator of the totalizing and homogenizing character of consumer culture is its apparent addictiveness…My use of the term addiction is not metaphoric: addiction is [consumer capitalism’s] core psychology and hence an ideal means to securing market omnipresence. For addiction leads to repetitive behavior in which the addicted subject returns to the same obsession over and over again, so that it encompasses time as well. Addiction is a clinical term, and many observers use it in speaking of consumer behavior…The aim is commodity based addiction, day and night (omnipresence is a synonym for addiction). Every mental and emotional state demands a commercial facilitator, ideally one on which a dependency can be bred. Since consumerism aspires to a world in which people are consumers all the time, addiction is commerce friendly (3).

How often do we hear people today saying things like “I’m so addicted to _____”, or “man I’ve got a craving for ___”. We’ve so normalized this type of language and behavior that we almost wear it as a badge of identity. But is this really a good thing, this state of more? Somewhere the dealers are smiling as they count their growing stacks. oiladdiction

Our nation states are addicts too, addicted to cheap energy. They can’t give us our supply without it, and without us addicts, the elites lose access to their own addictions- power, prestige, money, pleasure. The Alberta tar sands and the move towards natural gas well fracking are symptomatic of this energy addiction. As Darrin Drda writes, “These extraction processes are extremely costly, both economically and ecologically, representing a frantic attempt to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Comparisons to a junkie searching for a fix are not merely metaphorical; they are the only explanation for our profoundly irrational and self-destructive behavior”. I’ve heard crack addicts talk about frantically combing through their carpet looking for traces when they’re out, smoking lint and other shreds of garbage in the process of trying to get high. Zombies one and all.

I now turn it over to my colleague and co-curator at The Museum of Fearology, R. Michael Fisher. He’s going to talk about zombieism, zombie politics, and the culture of fear. But don't fear! There is a solution.


Michael- As much as it may be good to call a 'spade a spade,' to label people zombies is probably not all that helpful; although apparently (smile) certain addicts seem somewhat addicted to labeling themselves their illness for their entire lives ("Hello, my name is x, and I'm an addict"). The connection for me is that predatory capitalism (Peter McLaren), disaster capitalism (Naomi Klein), casino capitalism (Henry Giroux), or consumer capitalism as you say, all are fed by the Hobbesian formation for civilized modern life--that is a culture of fear. It’s normalized and it’s traumatizing. Keep people in that "state" for long enough, they'll become zombies alright. But the fact is they’re hurting and not healing. Any living organism will lose its life force more or less under that distress. Thus, zombieism.

Zombieism is the social, economic, cultural and political state of constant distress, worry, and fear if not terror. A post-9/11 era gives us a good look at the way the addictive pattern and numbing of unhealed trauma (e.g., shock and awe, as Naomi Klein calls it) works. It works on disaster after disaster, on wounding and more wounding. People become walking dead, one way or another--frantic buying and getting high as you point out is one way. Going numb, cocooning and paralysis (apathy) is another mode of expression of the same chronic culture of fear. It’s the choice Hobbes suggested we make to support the Absolute State (aka totalitarianism). Modern zombieism in vampire-squid-450postmodern drag.

I was just reading about Jane Goodall's visit to Auschwitz in her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. After going through two of the camps, she noted how her mind was numbed. She couldn't feel anything, until hours later and a "wave of anger churned my insides, my heart raced" and when I read that, it's natural to want to "kill" in revenge when one sees evil. Goodall is a peace-leader so she said she felt "sadness." If I see images of zombies in art today they look mad but are really sad, aren't they, because they are operating in an addictive system of self-hatred (traumatization) whereby the only freedom for them is freedom from death, so "kill-or-be-killed." Not a lot of happiness there, even if you get your feast of flesh once in awhile, notice the urge comes again and again insatiable. Goodall wrote, "I felt the full horror of the Holocaust. The pain, the helplessness, the black despair, the apathy of the Mussulmans, the walking dead."

In a culture of fear, my expertise area of study for 25 years, there’s some research by neuroscientists that show that if you put lab rats in a cage and constantly frighten them, where they cannot fully escape or de-stress completely, then their entire brain morphology actually is measurably different. The lower part of the brain stem that Paul MacLean called the R-complex because it is reptilian "flight-or-fight" part, actually builds more dendrites and swells in growth, relative to the mammalian and thinking lobes parts of the brain. I think it’s a cause of concern for human beings living in a culture of fear as well, but of course that research is more difficult to do ethically. Zombieism is an ideological power-system based on the fear-principle. It's nothing new in human civilization but it’s definitely becoming more intense. Images of Zombies are giving us a mirror image, I suspect for our state of fear, culture of fear, or what others have called death culture. The name doesn't matter after awhile, what’s important is to get a critical understanding of the dynamic design of it. Zombieism.

What's the solution? How can we avoid it? Well, over to you.


Trevor-  Michael, I appreciate that you’ve added this context of political-cultural fear and terror as the background within which the pattern of consumption and addiction is playing out. There’s much to numb ourselves against to be sure. And as Henry A. Giroux points out in his article on Zombie Politics,  “Manufactured appeals to fear and personal safety legitimate both the suspension of civil liberties and the expanding powers of an imperial presidency and the policing functions of a militaristic state”.
The reason I think it’s important to ‘call a spade a spade’ and acknowledge our collective zombification is to break the cycle of denial. To continue with the metaphor of addiction (which, as Benjamin Barber points, isn’t actually a metaphor, but a reality), you could call it an intervention of sorts. But I’m not only pointing fingers outwards. As Bob Dylan said, the blood on the tracks is all of our blood. Nietzsche once commented that it was because he himself was also sick with the disease of Western nihilism that he could understand it and diagnose it culturally.  I too have been bitten; I too have been dragged through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Enter Lazarus.

The first part of the solution is to recognize how desire functions within us, and to realize that the infinite commodities that are dangled in front of us daily will never fill the God-sized whole at the core of our being. This is the realm of the hungry ghosts, and this is the source of energy that fuels our pathological system. We don’t need to consume anything in order to be filled up; instead weburning man mertens 3-thumb-575x766 need to open and empty ourselves and be filled with what rushes in. It’s wholeness that fills us up, and we feel whole when connected with others, with the earth, with the cosmos.

The good news is that the road to recovery is already well underway. As Darrin Drda writes, “Despite what you have been taught, you are enough, just as you are. You are beautiful, talented, knowledgeable, capable, and complete. Not only that, but you are also a member of the largest, most ecologically conscious, politically aware, culturally sensitive, technically savvy, and interconnected generation in history. The success of your mission is all but guaranteed, should enough of you embrace it fully”.

Amen to that. Jonathan Talat Phillips, co-founder of, writes about the rise of the new spiritual counterculture he sees growing everywhere- “Generally I've found this new spiritual counterculture believes that our monochromatic, corporate society has failed us, given us information over wisdom, consumerism over community, false advertising over deeper healing. Many seem to have given up on fixing the old systems ("Look what happened to Obama," they say) and are now building new models of coexistence and sustainability, ones that enable us to live and share our unique gifts, and to reconnect with the sacredness of nature and each other”.

And if we circle back to the reality of energy decline, it’s creating the conditions of ongoing instability. soeren-kern-madrid-spain-protests-may-2011But this can be a good thing. As world-systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein recently wrote:

The world income squeeze is real, and not about to disappear. The structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy is making the standard solutions to economic downturns unworkable, no matter how much our pundits and politicians assure us that a new period of prosperity is on the horizon. We are living in a chaotic world situation. The fluctuations in everything are large and rapid. This applies as well to social protest. This is what we are seeing as the geography of protest constantly shifts. Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday, unauthorized massive marches with pots and pans in Montreal today, somewhere else (probably somewhere surprising) tomorrow.

This needn’t be a source of fear, in fact, quite the opposite. This is a temporary opening in the matrix through which the future is beginning to appear. As Slavoj Zizek recently wrote, “I'm a pessimist in the sense that we are approaching dangerous times. But I'm an optimist for exactly the same reason. Pessimism means things are getting messy. Optimism means these are precisely the times when change is possible”. We’re beginning to untangle from the culture and dealers of death, and we’re coming together collectively in a growing series of solidarity and protest, and many are experiencing what Hannah Arendt called a "public happiness", "a joy that comes from feeling that one is participating in public life, that one is having, perhaps for the first time, an influence on public affairs" (4). Apparently the Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times” was originally meant as a curse. I don’t take it that way. I hear it as the call to adventure, the herald of a passage to the better world our hearts tell us is possible. A new life beyond our collective zombieism awaits. Godspeed to its arrival.



(1) "Another important characteristic of Thompson’s work is that he pushes us to consider that reality is more than what our waking, conscious ego can perceive. The worlds unseen (but not unimagined) may exist right behind the veil. These worlds, painted and poeticized by Blake and other romantics, emphasized by the psychedelic communities and even strongly articulated by Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” urge us to consider that we are more than we think. It’s no mistake that as our materialistic culture expands, counter-cultures erupt into the collective and remind us that reality is always and ever more than we believe we have control over. It is this mystery that Thompson reminds us of. Another integral synonym is “wholeness.” Can our emerging paradigms be whole without considering the unconscious, the imagination, and the mystical? The often forgotten and always fringe dimensions of reality.

When we approach the edges of our known universe, and look over the vast stretches of time that is our evolutionary history and our science-fiction future, we participate in myth. In this strange world between the infinite and the finite, the known and unknown, imagination steps down as a halfway house for the ego to participate with the angel, and myth is then a metaphor for the larger reality we are a part of, but cannot see. It's for this reason that the imagination, that strange and unruly dimension of mind, is essential for any scholarship in an age of synthesis and planetary evolution. It is the imagination alone, sometimes in brilliant flashes of light, that can bind together disparate faculties of knowing, and it is the imagination that both science and mysticism share in their own ways. Thompson is a wonderful example of what a play of both dimensions of mind can do when they come together."

(2) McAffe, Noelle. Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge, 2004. p.108.

(3) Barber, Benjamin R. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. p.235-246. Barber cites some startling statistics surrounding the global phenomenon of shopping addiction. “The figure of twenty-four million compulsive shoppers in America suggests something approaching a pandemic”. Ibid, p.242.


Editorial Notes

Re-posted with permission. -KS

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