Dystopia for the Unprepared, Utopia for the Prepared: Why Zombies are No Promise of Monsters

by Lina Rahm

Turning dystopia to utopia

Dystopias accommodate potentials to burst the bubble of toxic positivity generated by a contemporary capitalist society idolizing perpetual growth. However, this essay argues that notions of dystopia and utopia may obscure the question of cui bono, even though this is absolutely central to the terms themselves. Dystopias and utopias cannot be understood without considering who will win and who will lose. Hence ideas of dystopia and utopia contain ideology, and as such also underpinning ontologies and ethical frameworks. Or in the words of Karen Barad, they are ethico-onto-epistemological, since they must be understood as intertwined (Barad, 2003).

People who actively prepare for dystopias are commonly referred to as preppers (from prepare). For preppers a looming societal collapse is ubiquitous. In order to tackle this breakdown, they take active and practical measures, which (besides talking about it) commonly concentrate on gathering gadgets for defence, safety and food (‘bullets, bandages and beans’). In contrast to what one might think, prepping although coloured by a dystopian view of the future (and the present), is not primarily characterized by pessimism, but rather by an optimistic belief in the capacity to survive (what is conceptualized as) real hazards. As such, preppers themselves describe prepping as a rational choice corresponding to a realistic view of the future (and a world submerged in physical risks). The zombie apocalypse is often used as a metaphor for motivating the activities of prepping. Importantly, the zombie apocalypse might be best understood as a thought experiment or as a model of societal collapse rather than an actual fear of the living dead. But, the zombie is also a very specific metaphor, with precise rules. This essay will argue that these (arbitrary) rules are designed to create a space of utopia in dystopia, but, and this is key, only for some.

Monsters, zombies and the promise of what if…

Zombies comprise a particular subcategory of monsters. The monster figuration has been extensively used in research, often ascribed with such qualities as being a subversive force with the ability to unsettle discourses (Foucault, 1996) or as being open-ended markers (Lykke, 2000) with the inherent feature to deconstruct and reconstruct the nature of what it means to be human (Haraway, 1992). Monsters enable us to rethink the relationship between the non-human and the human world, i.e. the relationship between objects understood as passive, and bodies imagined as bearers of the desired objective truth (Lykke, 2000). Thus monsters highlight how this relationship is historically contingent—it could have been otherwise. In the words of Foucault: ‘there are monsters on the prowl… whose forms alter with the history of knowledge’ (Foucault, 1996, p. 348). There is always something/someone left behind—the non-user, the “Other”, the monstrous, which always seems to be slipping away in the illumination of human interaction with the worlds becoming (Schiebinger, 1989).

Zombies are often used as a potentially disruptive figure in the same way as monsters—calling central features of society into question (Jones, 2012). However, this paper argues that the zombie metaphor is not a disruptive figuration but instead a perpetuation of prevailing orders.

The zombie is a ubiquitous monster in popular culture today: an excess of movies; the TV show Walking Dead; zombie survival manuals, zombie games; zombie walks. Not to mention the presence of the zombie in academic culture. According to Dan Drezner (2011), 15% of professional philosophers believe in God and 58% believe that zombies might exist. Further, zombies are often used as a metaphor for miscellaneous ills of society, such as hyper capitalism (Coker, 2013) or media addiction (Deuze, 2012). Even government agencies have come to apply the zombie apocalypse metaphor. U.S based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that: “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack” (CDC, 2014). The Swedish counterpart Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap (MSB) have also stated that they too are ready for the zombie apocalypse (Krisinformation.se, 2013).

Consequently, the zombie is arguably the most popular monster of today. Because of this, I argue that we need to ask what the political implications of such monsters are. Zombies feel no pain, have no reason and therefore we can kill them faster than they can kill us—we are more advanced (Coker, 2013) Thus the zombie apocalypse is a war without culture and empathy. The temporality of the imaginary zombie war is that of the past, where man is not “culture anymore but nature.” The logic of such a catastrophe is that society relapses by stepping back in time to an imaginary future of primary instincts and survival rather than complexity and reflexions. Zombies have no learning potentials (well most of them anyway) and nor do we—we just survive by killing them, therefore the metaphor of zombie apocalypse is clear-cut and apolitical. It would, if it came to reality, of course disrupt everyday life, but, as a way of thinking about the future, hardly unsettle truths taken for granted. Thus, the zombie is a dangerous metaphor since it suggests that the potential danger is, in fact, other people (or people turned into “others”) and the only solution is to completely annihilate them. There is little or no room for discussion, cures or alternative solutions. The zombie apocalypse legitimizes a response to the dangerous hordes of “others” by relying on “rational” individualism and violence.

Zombies are monsters, but not monsters “so far from acceptance, so far from the rules that include and exclude new propositions into a discipline, that they may not be called errors at all” (Nicoll & Fejes, 2011, p. 413). Rather, zombies pose a threat to our lives but not to our worldview, i.e. they are not propositions that call for current rules to be reconfigured, but rather reinforced.

Bring on the strange

The zombie apocalypse is an implosion of a fictitious future and the technologies of today. As a potential future it is thereby penetrated by more or less invisible norms and political consequences. The zombie apocalypse is construed so that it legitimizes and valorises solutions that perpetuate patriarchy. Technology-supported violence, strength and endurance are part of a preparedness that enacts the zombie as an “Other” that needs to be killed to guarantee personal survival. Thus, zombies seem to cement a prevailing order instead of enabling disruption and change. Zombies do not live up to the promise of the monster – to unsettle discourses – rather they are used to legitimize and maintain the current regime. Correspondingly, prepping for the zombie apocalypse sees heterosexuality and masculinity as recurring norms. Instead of the limiting and dangerous zombie metaphor, the monstrous space of in-betweenness should open up surprising ways of becoming (Halberstam, 2011), ideally much more cooperative and creative than the threat of the zombie.