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Monday, December 20, 2010

On Zombies and Metaphysics

Think Mad Men is the hippest thing on television? Your brains must be exposed. Zombies are where the action is. 

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Chuck Klosterman observed that roughly 5.3 million people watched the first episode of The Walking Dead on AMC, “a stunning 83 percent more than the 2.9 million who watched the Season 4 premiere of Mad Men.” Zombies are crawling out of their graves and staggering in armies down the broad avenues of our popular culture. Not even poor Jane Austen has escaped their grasp. Indeed, when it comes to being the living end of popular culture, zombies are making vampires look, well, dead.

But why this renewed fascination with zombies? Klosterman offers this intriguing possibility: “Zombies are just so easy to kill.”

“If there’s one thing we all understand about zombie killing,” Klosterman writes, “it’s that the act is uncomplicated: you blast one in the brain from point-blank range….” And then you do it again…and again…because zombies roam in packs. There’s always more of ‘em. And they keep coming…and coming….so you must keep shooting, and shooting…

“Every zombie war is a war of attrition.” And isn’t that, as Klosterman argues, what so much of modern experience feels like? “[Z]ombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche.”

For Klosterman, it’s because modern life makes us feel like we are being hunted, that we are in constant danger of being consumed, that the archetype of the zombie has returned with such vehemence. Moreover, if Klosterman is right, it’s the mindless, moaning life-suck that is our unreflective use of electronic media that, more than anything else, gives our days that Night of the Living Dead feel. Apropos of zombies and electronic media, Klosterman quotes a disturbing, but perhaps prophetic, passage from an essay by the writer Alice Gregory: “It’s hard not to think ‘death drive’ every time I go on the Internet….Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me.”

The novelist Walker Percy, in his essay “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise” (from his collection, Signposts in a Strange Land) argues that human beings in our time suffer from an “ontological impoverishment.” This is a fifty-cent phrase that simply means that for many in our culture, there is little if anything outside the self that counts as really real. The self—its wishes and needs, desires and ambitions—is hard substance. Everything else is alien. Or to put the point more ominously, everything other than the self is something that might threaten the self.

Percy goes on to say that, for many, this ontological impoverishment is experienced, however unconsciously, as an impoverishment, as a condition of alienation and anxiety that cries out to be relieved. Many seek such relief in promiscuous sex (see Mad Men). But others seek it through violence.

The kind of pornographic violence which many video games and zombie shows help to indulge, offers to those who submit to it a peculiar brand of ecstasy. Our word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek ek-stasis, literally “to stand outside of oneself.” There is sexual ecstasy and there is spiritual ecstasy. But violence also, in its twisted fashion, promises to transport the self beyond its fretful condition. The chaos and barbarism, the death-in-lifeness, of post-modern culture—so evident, as Alice Gregory sees, on the Internet—threatens to consume the self. Yet the self can feel alive again, feel all the power of being a self again, if it will take out a gun and blow the zombies away. That frisson of ecstasy as the blood and the brains splatter implies a sinister metaphysic: the self’s reality can be affirmed only as long as it keeps shooting.

Because more zombies are coming. You can be sure of that.

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