When the Undead Dream of Living
An audiovisual exploration of the utopian potential of zombiism.
Words & Movie: Céline Keller
Sounds & Music: Louisa Beck
Utopian Acts 2018 at Birbeck University London
(which was absolutely wonderful and we hope will be repeated next year!)
When The Undead Dream of Living
The Utopian Potential of Zombiism
I am sorry, if this is not going to be what you expected. But I am so desperate, I just have to try something else and different. So today, I will try magic. I have no idea how, but I believe that to have a future, we will have to free the Living Dead from this horrific spell they’re under. And I hope that if I succeed in breaking this spell, I might not only turn the Undead into living human beings, but maybe even unleash, the utopian power of Zombiism. Zombiism or what I call, the acknowledgment, understanding and caring for the little zombie that we all carry inside. So, let’s try. How does one do magic? How could I break such a spell?
A spell, as the name suggests, is about assembling parts to create a whole. Letters into words and words into story. But with a spell the resulting story is so powerful that it can make you do things you don’t want to. A magic spell changes reality by making you believe in something that takes control over your actions.
And investigating I found out that to break a spell you might need a charm. The difference between the two is, that a spell forces someone to do things against their will, while a charm enchants. It fills someone with the desire to do something. It makes you do things because you want to. And that seems to be the whole trick. If some magic has control over your actions the only way out of it, the only way to free you, is to make you dream of something, that makes you want to take action to achieve it.
But thinking about zombies it feels like it would be quite hard to convince them to dream.
I am not a specialist but I’m guessing, that since charms require chanting or singing, that they might also require listening. Plus, I think this might be so, because music has this peculiar power over people. If humans hear music that feels good, it makes us want to do things. It makes us want to move our bodies and maybe even sing. Music, no doubt, has some magical capacities. I am not sure, but maybe charms like songs might grow more powerful when we join singing and dancing to it?
I leave this question for later. What matters for now, is, I still do not know how to write or perform a charm, but I know that probably my charm won’t be successful, anyhow, if I can’t make the Living dead hear me. Looks like, making zombies want to dream will require finding out how they function and figuring out a way to make them listen to me.
So, let’s talk about zombies. How do they work?
The Undead, started out as a creatures conjured up by magic, but if we look at the origin stories of contemporary zombies, the causes of zombification seem to have changed quite a bit. Stories about zombies went from human sorcerers using powerful magic to animate dead black bodies, to external causes from outer space, mysteriously influencing humans of all ethnicities. Back to today, where again the zombification might have been caused by humans themselves. However, this time, the dark forces are not conjured by powerful wizards but somehow maybe just triggered by for example a bio-tech engineer or a scientist.
But most importantly, there seems to be no spell. Just human beings, who although highly educated and specialised, are still like the rest of us: prone to errors and causing accidents. These people might or might not have intended to unleash a deadly virus causing the zombie apocalypse. But either way, what is for sure, is, that once the power is unleashed, these people certainly stop having any control over it.
This is just one example but it shows that the causes of zombification have changed drastically over time. The old sorcerers seem to have worked on their own and always had bad intentions when creating zombies. They also not only unleashed but controlled their supernatural powers. Science, on the other hand, certainly is powerful, but it is a collective effort and happens in a community. Think about laboratories, in the old times we might have imagined a single person doing research and conducting experiments all on their own, but we stopped thinking about science and laboratories that way. Today, the places where science happens are occupied by many workers. And even a mad scientist would be surrounded by his or her peers.
ButI I think, the biggest difference in zombie creation, then and now, is not that today they might be created by a community without bad intentions, but that there seems to be no spell. A virus isn’t magic.
And therefore, the most terrifying part of this new zombie origin story, is not the possibility that a mad scientist corrupts the powers of science, nor the unsettling notion that dark forces might be unleashed by someone’s stupid error, but that what before could have only been summoned by magic, is now caused by something real.
A virus, even if we personally have never seen one and don’t understand it too well, is something that we know that it exists. In the old days, a sickness spreading caused by a virus would have appeared like magic. But this magic is gone, because science demystified it. And the fact, that we know that scientists can manipulate viruses, also suggests that scientists understand them pretty well.
So, notwithstanding good or bad intentions, why in all these stories can’t the scientists ever stop the virus? And why does it seem like, they aren’t even trying, to save us by saving them ?
Robert Kirkman the creator of “The Walking Dead” series once said, that he won’t tell what caused the zombie virus, because he found the idea of scientists working on a cure boring. And if I think about it, it seems that curing the Living Dead has always been a bit unpopular. Personally, I can’t remember a single zombie story that was specifically about releasing them from their horrifying spell. These stories, even if there might be some exceptions, are not about curing the zombies, or for that matter, the zombies themselves, at all. Instead, they seem to be exclusively about the remaining humans and what happens to them, as they are forced to deal with all those zombified others. This apocalyptic force of de-humanized bodies that threatens their survival and keeps them doing things they don’t want to.
So again, why in all these stories do we so rarely try to save us by saving them?
It makes me wonder if there might be still a spell. A spell that is not aimed at the zombies but at us, making us fear the infection but never look for and eradicate the cause.
A spell that somehow keeps us wanting, at the same time, for the zombies to be dead and alive.
If I am right about this, this kind of meta spell, I guess, trying to break it with magic would still make sense. It even seems a bit more promising that to free the living dead it might be humans not zombies that I will have to charm. But to figure out how to write my magic, I definitely will need to know more about this meta spell itself. I think, maybe looking at another contemporary monster might help.
The word virus, makes coughing humans come to my mind but also computers, the virus as an infectious program. Here there seems to be a clear villain again, because a human wrote what isn’t a spell anymore but the code. Just like one of those old sorcerers, the creator must have wanted what is happening and seems in control.
That’s why it is maybe not so surprising that the scariest monster associated with computers today, is not created by an evil hacker, putting together and running code, but by the machine itself. We may be worried about hacked devices and killer robots running wild. However, what seems to scare us most, is the machine discovering a Self and with it, all on its own, becoming alive.
It is, mesmerising and exciting to think that we humans might be on the verge of creating artificial life. But still, somehow we can’t shake this feeling, that this new life we are creating, could turn out to be so powerful and so advanced, that it might stop caring for us and our old, biological lives. Somehow it is, as if we, at the same time, wanted the singularity to stay dead and to come alive. And there is more that sounds familiar. Like that what used to be magic turned into code. Something that we know that exists. Or that the monster could be triggered, not by bad intentions, but by the scientific curiosity of a collective.
But I think there is one striking difference in what used to be the spell. Many of us know at least a simplified story of what a biological, or for that matter, a computer virus does.
But despite the fact, that today we spend our lives, in the virtual worlds of computers, the code on which these worlds are build and how they work still seems quite magical to the most us. Programmers can indeed appear like sorcerers to us, writing spells, putting together letters and numbers to create forces that animate something dead, and make it come alive.
No wonder then, that the prospect of creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence, seems so terrifying to us. Especially, when prominent scientists, people who we trust to understand and know much more than us, are in the media predicting that the singularity might have the power to kill us all. And what troubles me, is, why?
Why, despite all the fear and all the other problems we are facing, why does humanity seem to hunger for nothing quite as much as to meet this artificial other? What is this spell? What makes us long for something that we know if we get it, we won’t be able to control?
I believe, the zombies as well as the singularity represent our anxieties about one undeniable fact. What it used to mean, to be human, is under attack. The definition of who we are, is changing, if we want it to or not. And what’s most terrifying, is that we can’t shake the feeling that infusing this new definition with meaning, might solely depend on us.
Zombies have no meaning, no dreams, no desires, they solely run on drive. Former human beings turned into machines that run on a prefigured program without any meaning. Mindlessly they devour the living, without any need, to feed, to survive. The Undead aren’t really living. They have no self, no soul, just decomposing bodies, animated by a supernatural script, that keeps them spreading, a deadly virus.
But isn’t that how we already think about human beings themselves?
Minds without free will, bound by bodies as biological machines, mere vehicles for the immortal and selfish genes? I believe the zombie apocalypse might already be here and I wonder what is the meaning of life for the ones that survive? Most know that our good fortunes devour the livelihood of other beings, we know that what we are doing is not necessary for us to survive, it might even kill us, yet, even if we don’t want to, we can’t stop, we just do it.
But we neither can shake it off, this feeling that the explanation, why we do it, this story about our almighty genes, might be wrong. It just never feels right. And I think this is, because we humans might believe that there is no free will, that we can’t trust each other, can’t trust our bodies, can’t trust our feelings, and yet all humans, still feel. And those feelings make one struggle with the question of why, if we are just machines of flesh and bone, wanting to win, wanting to survive, why are we aware of making all these choices? Why even if we believe we are doing what we have to do, does it so often hurt? Not only the Undead, or the others, the ones without future, but us?
Maybe I am sentimental, and it is true, we could finally find relief of these nagging feelings, if instead, we focused on being more rational. Altruism might be demystified, as something confined by the goals of our genes, but some say, we could still feel better about it, if we tried, with the help of computers and science, to make it more effective. To be honest, I think, this won’t make us feel better, but it is a great example for why we don’t want to demystify the magic powers of computers. We do hope and long to delegate our choices to a machine undisturbed by human feelings and human irrationality. And to be able to do this, this machine has to be an all knowing, god like creature incomprehensible to us. The problem and what scares us though, is, that if we succeed in creating this kind of god, will it, and with it the future, still need us?
I think as far as our machine capacities go, probably not. If we create an artificial self causing the singularity, we might be best off just praying it’s a good god.
But what if computers, despite the mountains of data we feed them, will never learn to make our choices? Will never learn to decide on their own? What if we never will be free of this disturbing human feeling of responsibility? And what if, this bug we try to eradicate from our machinery, turns out to be our most valuable feature?
Machines like zombies have no feelings, no beliefs, no desires, but we do. The machines run on prefigured programs while we know, despite it maybe being fragile, we also do posses a mind. A self that is aware of its choices and actions. So, why are we caught in this loop, doing again and again, all these things that we really don’t want to?
I believe, that the death drive, this eternal, destructive hunger for pleasure beyond anything remotely beneficial for our own well being. This hunger that we can never satisfy, still is, exactly, what makes us human. There must be a spell. Because without any doubt, this drive is real, but I think, what turns it destructive, is us, believing that what it makes us do, has no meaning. Why do we compulsively repeat enacting this loss of self and meaning?
The brain processes underlying human thoughts and actions might be mechanical, but to infuse them with meaning, requires a community of other social, human beings. You can’t have a self without others that believe that you have one and that they do too. And I think, the drive is not about losing but finding it. This self, this little zombie inside, is not out and about to lose itself, but it wants to be found. It wants to become aware of itself, by feeling recognised, connected, belonging and being part of a story much bigger than itself. It wants to feel alive.
And to make that happen, I think, we might need a name change, or word magic, maybe from death to story drive?
The urge to fit and enact the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. And despite, of it, keeping us trapped in this vicious circle, of telling us stories that make us do things we don’t want to, we still want to feel good. But satisfying the desires of our bodies will always leave us hungry. What humans search for is finding and feeling good about our selves, our place in a collaborative story that can only be enacted together. We want to know, who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. Humans without meaning, are the living dead.
So, no, I can’t break this spell alone, because that is exactly its power.
But we can break it together. We can tell and enact different stories.
Regain this feeling of self, of agency, of meaning, creating it together.
Collaboration is magic.
The movie uses freely available footage from creative commons contributors using CC0 - you can find them on platforms like the ones listed here: http://makerbook.net/video/