'Stranger than Fiction? Meet the Real-Life Zombies' - on Zombies, Love & Rebellion



22. June 2019 I spoke about Zombies, Love & Rebellion at Silbersalz Festival #TheScienceOfLove
right before a screening of the absolutely wonderful “One Cut of the Dead” Movie

The Science of Love - Silbersalz Festival 2019
Stranger than Fiction? Meet the Real-Life Zombies

Zombies for quite a while have left the realms of popular culture. Today they aren’t anymore confined to the fantastic plots of horror literature, movies, video games and comic books. They now populate the headlines of our news.  Zombie banks, zombie corporations, zombie laws, zombie politics, zombie agents in neuroscience, zombie functions in computer science, zombie formalism in art and a varity of hyped zombie deseases like the recent zombie deers are just a very incomplete list.  

Zombies seem to be everywhere. And here we are, talking about zombies, at a conference themed “The Science of Love.” What is this supposed to mean? What could be the connection between our fascination with the Undead and love? Can zombies, something so other, so inhuman, causing deep fears and the usual calls for unrestricted violence and killing,  tell us something (maybe even uplifting) about love and our own humanity?

On first view that looks like a rather difficult task, if you are familiar with tv shows like ‘the Walking Dead’ you know that even if those shows sometimes explore the moral question of having to kill an infected loved one, the ultimate answer is always the same: “Of course you do!”

Self interest trumps love.
Or in this case what could be called a residue of sentimentality, unhelpful for survival.
We don’t love zombies, we kill them. We are told we must.
If zombies teach us anything about love, it is,
that in the end, love is something conditional and tied to a harsh competition for survival. Basic requirements for getting some are at least being healthy and useful.
Love in times of zombies is reduced to rational decisions.
That doesn’t sound very romantic nor uplifting.

So, it might surprise you, that still,  I will try to convince you that zombies, despite all these odds, hold the key to something very inspiring about humanity and love.
But let me warn you, going beyond rational cost benefit analysis
to find hope for love, will involve acknowledging that there are indeed real-life zombies. And that those zombies… are us.

But let’s start with some zombie history.  Few remember that before the zombie became an evil, contagious horde, the zombie started out as a singular body without a soul, raised from the dead by a malignant human sorcerer. (396) A slave condemed to eternally labor the fields, producing goods for another person’s gain. But the fear that haunted the colonial world in those times, wasn’t just about those individual and terrifying zombie fates, but much more about the idea that those same vodou practices had also been capable of uniting the slaves. During the Haitian Revolution, those powers are believed to have rendered the slaves bodies insensible to pain, a power that helped them overcome white oppression.

So, the first zombies were not only conjured by humans but could be empowered or released from their horrific spell.  They were zombies capable of awakening, of rebelling and winning their liberation.

The zombies we know of today are quite different and their huge transformation can be traced back to 1968 when George Romero’s movie “Night of the Living Dead” came out. Zombies became contagious consumers
of human flesh and brains, ghouls that weren’t conjured by human sorcerers, but caused by maybe a virus or some other mysterious and alien force. 

But zombies, like all monsters, are always metaphors and represent the social anxieties of their times. That’s why it’s really important to note and understand this shift in the root of our fear of zombies. After Haitin mythology was appropriated and updated for the west and our modern times , the zombie horde stopped being conceived of as a threat of rebellion. Likewise the terror of zombification isn’t rooted anymore in the fear of becoming an eternal slave, mindlessly working for someone else’s gain, but turned into a fear solely focused on losing your identity and self. 

Plus these new zombies are reimagined as contagious.
And this contagion is driven by an added senseless hunger.
Modern zombies don’t produce anything useful anymore, the only reason they devour humans is to replicate themselves. For them there is no need to eat to survive.
They just crave our brains and flesh… to spread infection and multiply their numbers.
There is no logic behind the madness… except maybe… human extinction?

For the humans facing this new threat the fear is two fold:
There is the terror of being devoured alive, and the terror of becoming one of them. Infection, losing your self, your identity, your consciousness, your memory, will turn you into a mere decaying body … more dead than alive, a sub human. A non person, unworthy of living and whose murder doesn’t count.

Of course this is fiction, right? Zombies aren’t real.
But why then, do all those zombies creep up in the headlines of our news?

Is there a connection between this fear of losing your self, your identity and being forcefully merged into a faceless, killable crowd and our own day to day lives? 

And if there is, and we too, struggle to hold on to our selves in our day to day lives,
why then, are we entertained by watching the carnage of shows like the Walking dead?

Does it make sense that we autmatically identify with the survivors? Why aren’t we appalled, but feel a certain kind of excitement and relief when the infected get killed over and over again? Why do we crave these murderous lessons those distopian shows provide? Isn’t it weird, that it feels so comforting to watch the end of the world, and being told that there is no hope… that things can only get worse?

Why do we feel the need to welcome these ideas, that the power of love is an illusion, that to believe in justice is naive, and that only the most rational, hard hearted and strongest of us… will ever have the dimest chances of surviving?

In ‘The Political Unconscious’ Fredric Jameson points out that there is an utopian and critical element within popular culture. He provides the insight that ideology is “necessarily Utopian” even as it serves the negative function of justifying and disguising what he calls class domination. (298)  When we identify with the diverse group of survivors in the Walking Dead, they don’t seem to be divided by class. Could this be the utopian dream we cling to in a story so obviously distopian as the zombie apocalypse?
Or is it something else?

I think living our fragmented, hyperindividualized lives in this world threatened by a multitude of complex crisis, the utopian dream might be as simple as belonging:
Finding a community and for once an easy answer.
I am arguing, that the zombie apocalypse, uses this dream of a new found community, to provide a mirror image and justification of our neoliberal societies. Societies that cling to the illusion that each of us has an equal chance based on individual accomplishments. A “fair” chance in a comptition, that already, for many of us resembles a constant fight for survival.

The Walking Dead’s group of survivors, diverse and thrown together by pure chance and ability, seem to reflect this internalized belief, that despite all the obvious racism, sexism and inequalities in this world, that the rules of the market itself, must be …somehow… “fair.”
Or at least they only reflect some supposedly undisputable laws of nature. 

So, the utopian bit we cling to, in these zombie narratives, is anything but socially ambitious.
It’s a celebration of life as precarious.
This fantasy of a new found WE,… this reconstituted collectivity,
is nothing more than a group bound by ….of course: the enemy.

That’s why, in contrast to ourselves, zombies are never individualized.
They are NO one. They have no personal histories.
They are just part of an indistingushable mass.  The zombie horde.
And though most of us would never want to be accused of being racist, those zombies have racialized bodies. Somehow, we feel no shame or hesitation speaking about them in terms of determanative mental traits, communal body designators and stereo typed characteristics. 

Finally and without regret, zombies offer us a permissable groupthink of the Other. 

Disgusting, only uttering grunts and moans, they want what we have. 

Who could blame us, erecting walls, securing borders, building fortresses, and amassing guns against their surging tide? (387) 

Just like those laws of nature, it’s simple, it’s us or them.

But what we don’t realize, clinging to this flimsy fantasy of a reconstituted collectivity,
is that we too, just like the zombies, will not be included.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes: Zombies “are a danger from without
that already is …within.” And it’s not a coincedence, that the zombies’ shambling bodies remind us of the sick, the old and the disabled. In our youth loving, death and disability phobic cultures, where we keep the aging and the sick out of sight, cared for by people living on the meagerest of wages, they remind us of our own inevitable futures. 

Most of us will at some point experience sickness and disability, and won’t be able to compete, or fight ,or make it on their own. 

And most definitely, each and everyone of us will some day …die.
So, to be human, to have a consciousness and be aware of time, 


to be the living dead.

But why then, do we so passionately identify with those survivors?
Why is it so hard, to even empathize with those grunts and groans of the suffering?
The suffering, we deny listening to and understanding what they are trying to voice?
Why does no one ever want to be a zombie?

Actually, that’s not true. I am sure you all have heard about the zombie walks.
Initiated by Thea Munster in 2003, by now, those walks gather thousands of zombies shuffling through cities all around the world. I suspect that the same people taking part in those zombie walks, also might enjoy watching tv series like the Walking Dead.
Still, somehow they identify with being zombies not survivors. And I guess, most of us, can easily imagine why.
It must be fun to dress up like zombies and join the horde disrupting the stressful yet boring flow of everyday
life. All kinds of people join these bloody crowds. Here, with your bowels hanging out, social positions doesn’t
matter anymore. And although everybody puts a lot of pride and effort in their individual zombie, what’s most exciting is helping to create and being part of this huge growling collective.

Zombie walks create a mass identity, that allows to playfully make visible the internal ruptures, traumas, and anguishes of feeling socially and collectively “dead.” All those feelings of anxiety, abandonment, fear, despair, self doubt and hate, that we usually hide from each other… find a release. (306)  

And paradoxically,  this kind of zombification makes people feel more alive & connected. 

Eventhough it is a shortlived experience, we are at least once more reminded that the fear of zombies wasn’t always rooted in contagion, but, their capacity to unite for rebellion and setting themselves free.

Identifying with the undead this way, might also help us, recover the notion, that zombies might ….have a reason for biting back.

In times when corporations are people and people are often reduced to mere numbers or things, we shouldn’t be fooled into believing that undeadness is an infection with out a cure. 

Have you ever wondered why zombies want to eat our brains, while the only way to kill them is supposed to be…to put a bullet in theirs, or chop of their heads?

When Sigmund Freud wrote “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”
he grappled with the question of what we now call the ‘death drive’.

An irrational human compulsion to repeat actions that seem to run counter to any interest of self preservation. Just like the zombies mindlessly crave human flesh, without being able to digest or needing it to survive, the death drive, beyond any conscious desire, turns out to be what distinguishes us, humans ,
from mere instinctual life: a persistant pleasure seeking beyond anything remotely beneficial for one’s own well being.

So again, zombies confront us with with our own humanity.
Zombies are us. 

Irrational beings that most of the times, don’t really know,
why they are doing what they are doing.
And this self, we are so afraid of losing, turns out to be an illusion,
or at least…. it has never been …or won’t ever be…. completely in charge.

But what then, exactly, is this death drive? 

This irrational hunger that can not be satisfied?

Zizek calls this alien kernel inside an “excess of life or undeadness” (89),
a “no-thing”,
a force of negativity,
“the abyssal freedom of human subjectivity that opens up,
when we traverse the fundamental fantasies that regulate our self experience.” (95)

I believe the best way to understand what he means, is stopping to see zombies as the enemy,  and starting to be able to regognize ….their infinite sadness… as our own.
These moans and groans, expressing their inability to figure out …what’s missing. 

I believe what the Undead can teach us… about love…
is that human self awareness has a tendency to disconnect us from all other life.

One thing, that’s striking about zombies is, that despite we deem them unconscious and devoid of a self, they always seem in search of connection. Despite all the obstacles their decaying bodies cause, they are always out there trying to find each other and unite.

And although we are afraid of them… eating us… they… never, ever,

try to eat eachother.

The Undead might seem utterly inhuman and frightening, but let’s face it, confronting them… we…the living, always turn out to be capable of much worse than those zombies we are fighting. (388) 

Maybe this undeadness inside, that causes us so much terror, so much fear, is indeed an excess of life? 
A threating notion that there is something else, something bigger than us, something bigger than self-interest and self-preservation? Something frightening …but that we can’t help… wanting to be part of, because we just can’t help …feeling it inside.
Unless …we kill it…

Yes, I am talking about love and connection, the unconditional kind.
And what I am trying to say is this:
Aren’t you too, having trouble feeling connection with this world?
Your fellow humans and your self?
When was the last time you truly felt alive?

I think living today, in constant cognitive dissonace about, who we say we are, and stand for, and what we actually do…feels like having your twin zombie, constantly trying to eat your brains, while you are trying to put a bullet in hers.

And I believe that in all those stories we crave about survivors, zombies are just a stand in for all the problems we are facing. Climate change, the ecological, the economic crisis,  the way we treat refugees and the way we treat each other. Is it really so hard to figure out, why we do what we do?

Despite all the wrong reasons we fool ourselves into believing?

And is it really so hard to figure out, that we don’t have to do it, 

because it’s wrong?

I think, all  those zombies are here to tell us…this:

There is nothing to be afraid of …except ourselves.
And if you can…. let that… sink in,
it will be inspiring and it will make you pick sides.
Because it’s time to wake up. Time to rebel.
Learn to love the zombies 

and never bite each other. 

Thank you!

Join the #InternationalRebellion rebellion.earth
And come to Berlin #BerlinBlockieren or any capital near you 7th of October 2019
extinctionrebellion.de #ExtinctionRebellion #RebelWithoutBorders
#WannWennNichtWir* wannwennnichtwir.de


Many of the topics I talk about here (and all quotes/ page numbers refer to) are from one of my absolute favorite book on zombies: ‘Zombie Theory’ edited by SARAH JULIET LAURO zombiescholar