Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Summer Reading: Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Much of my summer reading centers on the idea of civics outside of the conventional bounds of the state. I’m interested in understanding reasons why individuals and groups grow frustrated with traditional state-bound politics, and what forms of civics they explore when they opt out of engagement with the state. I’m fond of extreme cases as a way of understanding the limits of a position, so I’ve been reading about seasteading, the “dark enlightenment” movement, and prepper culture, all of which appear to me to be responses to the perception that existing states are inexorably failing.

These three forms of exit all involve a conscious renunciation of states and their accompanying services and protections. In the case of seasteading and the DE folks, this renunciation is made on an ideological basis, the belief that freedom from state tyranny (defined various ways, but usually through taxation and regulation) requires exit from political systems rather than the use of voice to influence these systems. Preppers see a collapse of existing states, either through political or natural disaster, as inevitable, and preparation to survive the collapse as prudent.

In reading about these movements, I was intrigued to see the phrase “zombie apocalypse” recur as an example of the sorts of disasters that might bring existing states to their demise. Nick Land, one of the central thinkers of the Dark Enlightenment movement, titles a section of his manifesto, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards zombie apocalypse”, a particularly dark way of stating his reactionary historical thesis. In the prepper community, “zombie apocalypse” is a common enough shorthand for “unspecified disaster” that the US Centers for Disease Control has used Zombie Preparedness as a way to get Americans to talk about more conventional disasters they should prepare for, like tornados or floods.

CDC's Zombie Poster

But zombies are not just another natural disaster, and our anxieties about zombies are more complicated and multilayered than our fears of the implications of global warming. As John Feffer notes, our fear of zombies is a manifestation of our broader fears about globalization and pandemic, and about immigration and “the enemy within”, the post-9/11 anxiety about sleeper cells and the fears that our neighbors will turn out to be homicidally “other”. Accompanying the fears is a set of fantasies. The dream of the well-prepared survivor protecting his or her family from mindless hordes is remarkably similar whether the hordes are composed of fellow citizens less prepared for the disaster, hungry for carefully stockpiled resources, or the undead hungry for brains. The zombie apocalypse is caused when people who look like us, but are not as resourceful/prepared/strong/worthy as us, become the enemy. It’s John Galt’s nightmare, where unproductive moochers rise up to demand food, education, healthcare and eventually the very lives of the more productive and worthy citizens.

The “what’s mine is mine” stance isn’t the only possible reaction to societal collapse, including zombie apocalypse. Jeriah Bowser, who self-identifies as a prepper, has a beautiful response to this selfish view of the comping collapse. His thoughtful piece on teaching wilderness survival to preppers concludes:

I very strongly believe that, in the coming collapse, those who are able to build communities and work together – abandoning their childish, apocalyptic fantasies – will have a much better chance of survival than any Prepper I have come across. Besides, what is “survival” even worth if you are encased in a concrete bunker for years, eating MRE’s and drinking recycled piss water, living in a constant state of paranoia that someone will “take what’s yours?” Not me, I would much rather live my last days actively doing meaningful work with people I love, creating a more beautiful world than the one we left behind; a world that is based on egalitarianism for all species and types of humans, a world built on cooperation, sustainability, simplicity, and freedom. You can keep your bunkers.”)

If we want to move beyond “hide and hoard” approaches, we need to consider the role of large-scale human organization in the face of the zombie threat. While most literature on the undead focuses on individual preparedness and response, it is worth considering the ways in which the zombie apocalypse has consequences for existing states, up to and including, their collapse. Fortunately, political scientist Daniel Drezner has considered the implications of widespread zombie attack and the stresses it would create on states in his seminal “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” Published in 2011, Drezner’s volume is not only the most comprehensive overview of likely state responses to the rise of flesh-eating formerly dead ghouls, it is also a thoughtful overview of the zombie canon (though clearly an American-centered understanding of the canon that consciously excludes the West African/Haitian view of zombies as living servants enslaved by magic or pharmacology, for example.)

Dresner explores state responses to a zombie pandemic from various philosophical points of view. Political realists, he predicts, will see zombies as a manageable fact of life in a globalized world, more threatening to weak states than to strong ones (much as communicable diseases and famines are.) Liberals will seek cooperation through international institutions and may mitigate and contain the threat of the living dead through regulation, but their insistence on open societies will complicate crisis response by forcing governments to deal with civil society, which may support zombie rights. Neocons will likely incorporate zombies into an Axis of the Evil Dead and turn a disastrous war on zombies into a war on autocrats, likely creating more zombies in the process.

Some of Dresner’s most nuanced analysis comes in the chapter on the social construction of zombies. Referencing thinkers like Alex Wendt, Dresner outlines a constructivist view of zombies based around the core idea that “zombies are what humans make of them”. Under a constructivist theory, zombie and human coexistence is both possible and desirable – the key is to escape existing paradigms that see the rise of zombies as an existential threat to human existence and to seek integration of zombies into human society, much as is accomplished at the end of Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead”.

In exploring the constructivist approach to zombies, Dresner steps up to the edge of a radical idea, then steps back. Dresner’s serious consideration of human/zombie coexistence is a brave move, though one he’s clearly uncomfortable with. In his literature review, Dresner makes clear “this project is explicitly prohuman, while Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p.17) In his consideration of liberal, multilateralist approaches to the zombie phenomenon, he warns that the rise of activist organizations to protect zombie rights would likely complicate or prevent global zombie eradication. (p.58-9)

Perhaps due to his inherent anthropocentrism, his suspicion of rights-based theories of politics, or the simple fact that the extant zombie literature had yet to articulate this view, Dresner is not able to consider the idea that perhaps zombification is, perhaps, a desirable next state of human existence. This radical idea is articulated by celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead, whose underappreciated contribution to the zombie canon, “Zone One”, follows a “sweeper” nicknamed Mark Spitz, tasked with clearing lower Manhattan of zombies to make the nation’s most valuable real estate inhabitable once more. “Zone One”, Manhattan below Canal Street, is one of the last safe zones in a United States transformed by zombie attacks.

(SPOILER ALERT – Stop reading here if you’re planning on reading the novel.)

While annihilation is a common theme in the zombie canon, most works focus on the transformation of society by the zombie threat. Protagonists die, but humanity survives. There are simple narrative reasons for this: it’s hard to follow a narrative when all narrators have been exterminated. In Whitehead’s apocalypse, it becomes increasingly clear that humanity cannot survive. Lower Manhattan will fall. At the close of the book, we learn that the narrator’s nickname comes from his inability to swim and fear of water, which has near-perilous consequences as he is trapped by zombies with escape possible only by diving into a stream. (As with all of Whitehead’s work, this is a comment on race in America, a reference to stereotypes of African-Americans not learning to swim.) As the novel comes to a close, waves of zombies, held back by a fragile wall, threaten to swamp Zone One and Mark Spitz realizes that it is time to learn to swim, to dive over the wall and embrace his new life as a zombie. This is suicide, the annihilation of the self, but it is also rebirth, the embrace of a new way of being in the world.

Whitehead’s radical suggestion is that we entertain the idea that it might be okay to become a zombie. That Whitehead continually confronts the idea of otherness by examining what it means to be black in a white world, may invite us to consider this idea purely as metaphor. But read literally, it’s an intriguing concept, though impossible to evaluate as the zombie is constructed as so radically other than we cannot imagine our zombified existence in anything other than cartoonish terms. (Consider how few narratives are offered from the zombie’s eye view – Jonathan Coulton’s “re: Your Brains” is one fine example, but is a reminder that the zombie perspective is so uncomfortable, it must be played for laughs, not serious consideration.)

If we read the zombie as the fear of the immigrant as other, Whitehead’s possible future merits close consideration. Some of the anxiety over the zombie invasion maps to fear of a “majority minority” nation, one where the current “default” white, Anglo-Saxon identity is merely one of many origins and backgrounds that make up a heterogenous whole. Perhaps Dresner needs to offer an update, informed by Whitehead’s addition to the canon, that considers a cosmopolitan framing of the states and zombies question. If cosmopolitanism involves recognizing the validity of other ways of living life and accepting that we may have obligations to those who live differently, perhaps it offers a framework for human/zombie coexistence, and perhaps, a richer, more varied society that recognizes the contributions and perspectives of the differently animated.

More likely, this cosmopolitan framework would rapidly lead to annihilation of human life as we know it. “As we know it” is the key phrase. The radical version of the cosmopolitan stance demands we consider the possibility that a world transformed by zombies is an optimistic future, or perhaps simply a less bleak future than one in which the main form of human existence is self-centered conflict to avoid the zombie onslaught. This is a subtext in virtually all of the zombie canon: the seven occupants of the farmhouse in Romero’s foundational Night of the Living Dead cannot cooperate or compromise, while the zombie horde at their door is remarkably coherent and peaceful, united by their desire for tasty human flesh. If we cannot unite to tackle an existential threat, perhaps we deserve our extinction. Perhaps our unity with the horde is a higher state.

This is why the zombie apocalypse analogy is such a dangerous one. If we cannot imagine a future in which we survive our encounter with the other, our likely response is to hide and hoard, to hunker down, as Robert Putnam describes, in the most extreme (and heavily armed) ways possible. Drezner does us a service in positing a world where we manage a zombie invasion much as we manage any other pandemic, and life is transformed, but still recognizable. But as soon as we posit an other – zombies, terrorists, (welfare recipients and liberals for the DE folks) – whose desire for our extinction is innate, coexistence is impossible, cooperation towards extinction of the threat fraught, and our annihilation inevitable. “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

2 Responses to “Summer Reading: Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One”

  1. Have you looked at the Transition movement? It’s like the positive, community-oriented version of the preppers.

  2. Kate Abbott says:

    I’m fascinated by your comparison between zombies and vampires, from a conversation not long ago — fear of the powerful aristocrat vs. fear of the masses. And as I read this I’m thinking about how to define a zombie. What kind of monster a zombie is seems to define what kind of fear it represents.

    An alien attack would be a fairly straightforward metaphor for fear of the other, fear of sentient creatures who are “not like us.” But a zombie attack seems to have slightly different cast to it. As I understand zombies in the kinds of films you refer to, the fear comes in at two points:

    Zombies are mindless
    Zombies used to be human

    In Night of the Living Dead, the climax of horror is not seeing something alien — it’s seeing someone you know. Someone in your family has become a monster. Someone who looks human, who looks exactly like you, is suddenly acting inhuman. And you can’t talk to them.

    In my mental map, I could compare that to the fear that people like me, in my country, in my culture, raised in the same system, can do things that seem to me not only beyond logic but drastically destructive to mass numbers of people. (By culture I mean American, in the sense that we share a national structure — our schools, our media, our politics, our states and towns, our vote. I am keenly aware that “American” blends many cultures and perspecitves and imbalances.)

    Think of debates over vaccination, abortion, basic science education, pipelines, frakking, global warming, Israel and Palestine, gay marriage. Is the fear of zombies a fear of polarization?

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