One of the contemporary successes in popular culture is the TV series “The Walking Dead”, based upon the excellent graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. What is it that makes zombies so popular, across the age range? Generally considered to have taken their modern form under the influence of the film director George Romero, zombies can be found in all sorts of surprising places, from children’s games where they fight plants to serious works of academic theology (eg “The Gospel of the Living Dead” by Dr Kim Paffenroth).
I believe that popular culture functions as a mirror to contemporary behaviour. So, for example, the Frankenstein stories take off at the same time that scientific research starts to reveal immense power; the vampire stories, especially Dracula, are driven by the Victorian taboos about sexuality. So what are the zombies saying about us?
Well what are zombies? They are creatures who are superficially human – two arms, two legs, hands, eyes and so on. They also, classically, exhibit some similar behaviours, most famously shopping in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Yet this similarity is undercut by a monstrous hunger for eating normal human beings. In other words, zombies are consumers par excellence – and this, I believe, is the clue to what they mean.
For we live in a profoundly materialist culture. The one who dies with the most toys wins. We are encouraged by a vast advertising and marketing industry to think that the meaning of our lives can be displayed through our purchases, because we’re worth it. This materialist culture rests, of course, upon a materialist philosophy, the idea that we are ultimately nothing more than physical atoms bouncing off each other in random fashion. In other words, beneath our disordered culture of materialism lies a profound nihilism – a loss of meaning, a gaping hole in the fabric of our culture where the sacred used to be.
To my mind, therefore, the zombies represent nothing more than the foot-soldiers of nihilism, those for whom nothing matters, nothing has meaning. Of course, rather like zombies themselves, I’m not sure that a genuine nihilist has ever existed. We might hear rumours of fabulous creatures in far off islands, but in the mundane reality of our day to day existence, a genuine nihilist is as rare a creature as the fairies that dwell at the bottom of our gardens. After all, what would it take to be a real nihilist – to rigorously adhere to the notion that nothing has meaning? It would mean not simply that the big pictures that had previously provided meaning have to be discarded – so no Christianity or Buddhism or Stoicism or anything like that. No, all notions of better and worse need to be discarded, for those are quintessentially value judgements, and without meaning there is no value, and without value there is no meaning. A proper nihilist must be dedicated to the notion that there can be no discrimination between good and evil, and as a consequence, cannot be relied upon to serve anything which is good or resist anything which is evil.
What I find most sinister about the nihilist zombies is their unconscious innocence, the way that they function as useful idiots for the corporate machine. After all, the way in which the modern economy functions is by seeking to turn us into excellent consumers. Those patterns of resistance to consumerism all assert, even if only by a negative rebellion against the bad, a positive sense of what it means to be human, that there are elements of human life that cannot simply be reduced to a materialist analysis. Nihilist philosophies, however, are deployed as a type of universal solvent attacking the basis of resistance. There is a reason why capitalist culture does not like the local and particular – a reason why, for example, the EU wishes to standardise all the weights and measures across diverse peoples. It is because these local quirks and customs stand in the way of the great idol of material efficiency, and that is the only acceptable ground for behaviour within the corporate state.
Which is why the Walking Dead are such a powerful metaphor. Human beings live within a meaningful world in the same way that fish live within water, it is an essential element of our natures. Those who reject meaning are like fish proclaiming their independence of water (and doubtless the Darwinians will proclaim – but that is how evolution took place! See what wonderful things have come from fish who walked on land! Maybe so, but that is a meaningful claim not a nihilist one). I can’t help but see nihilism as an arrested stage of development; it is the teenage protest against the parent and their culture, a necessary first step in the establishment of a new personal identity, but one that rapidly becomes sterile unless further steps of genuine commitment are taken. So you are no longer simply the child of your parents? Excellent – what are you then?
Part of becoming an adult is the process of developing a code of behaviour to which we are committed, a code of behaviour which represents something larger than our own particular and temporary desires, something more creative than our base biological appetites. All the wisdom traditions of the world offer ways in which a person can pursue such a code and thereby become more truly themselves – that, after all, is what a wisdom tradition is. In our dealings with one another, what we most wish to find out about another person is what their guiding code might be, for that will tell us where and how we might be able to work together, where we might find a common purpose and meaning, where it is possible to establish trust. With a nihilist there is always a sense that at any point they might turn and seek to start turning you into their next meal – for what is there to stop them other than your own capacity to resist? There is no consciousness, and there is no conscience.
Nihilism is the code of the zombie, and we are living through the night of the living dead. How can we resist? How can we support the human against the undead plague? It’s all a metaphor of course – but metaphors are the way in which human beings share meaning. The nihilist will cry ‘It’s all meaningless’ and when we hear such cries we need to translate it to uncover the fundamental truth: ‘I am an undead servant of corporate capitalism! You will be assimilated!’
Aim for the head.