A Strange Encounter
It exists. I’ve seen it.
I’d heard the rumours, but didn’t believe them. They were like Yeti sightings or Area 51 tales, stories told at parties to mess with people’s heads, make them laugh uncomfortably over their scotch and water. Then I found one while surfing the web on a cold winter night. I was a doctoral student spending late nights in my cubicle on the 14th floor of Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. These were the lean years following the 2008 financial crisis, so the chill wind rattling the windows had an austere quality. I happened to be hunting for matters related to my research, bleary-eyed after a day banging my head against obscure texts written in turgid language, when I happened upon one creeping around in the dark crevices of a global economic unraveling. The blurb on the website tried to mask its queerness with formal language, but there was no mistaking it. Here it was, strange beast of the 21st Century.
An ad for apocalypse insurance.
I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke. My chortle was short-lived. The language on the site was too sombre to be anything but serious. This was the real thing.
You have to understand the fatalistic miasma that pervaded all thought in those first few years following the Big Crash. Our once over-confident economics professors had turned glassy-eyed and speechless before a nightmarish economic landscape peopled by quants churning out incomprehensible trading algorithms, institutions deemed “too big to fail” and a housing market gone sour. Marxists and anarchists atuned their ears to the distant ring that sounded much like the death knell for the status quo, while those nuts with sandwich boards on the corner hearkening in The End of the World went from sickos to soothsayers in less time than it took to complete a flash trade. By 2009, we were all carrying around our own sandwich board in one way or another.
But apocalypse insurance? Apparently, even with the advent of the End of Days, the market would continue to provide.
To be fair, the idea itself was brilliant. Premiums on apocalypse insurance were super-low, since the actuarial stats for risk were literally off the charts. Meanwhile, the sky was the limit on your return. Minor payments for a big payout – who wouldn’t want to invest?!
But then one has to wonder what the collection scenario on this kind of policy would look like: you, sitting across a desk from an insurance agent signing cheques while fire and brimstone topple the giant towers of the financial district in the background.
You wonder if there’s a Moneymart nearby, but dismiss the idea as you watch demons streak the streets, black beasts hungering after lost souls. Probably best to stick to the alleys for now…
As easy as it is to dismiss the notion of apocalypse insurance as just one more scam for the crackpots and suckers out there, the fact that it is even thinkable should give us pause. I’m reminded of a comment made by cultural theorist Fredric Jameson in his 1991 epic tome Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. For Jameson, the weird contradictions inherent to this kind of apocalyptic thinking are more than strange aberrations. They are symptoms of a more general malaise plaguing us all. In the late capitalist era, he argues, it has become easier to imagine the end of the world, than it has to think the end of capital itself. Apocalypse insurance is only the most absurd apotheosis of this ideological epidemic. Its symptoms, once you know where to look, are found everywhere.
Slovenian pop-philosophy icon, Slavoj Zizek, points us to film to locate this strange logic. Watch any post-apocalyptic film – Children of Men, Elysium, or the Hunger Games Trilogy – and you will find one constant persisting beyond the narrative of world collapse: the flow of capital. Wealthy sponsors send Katniss rare consumer products to help her during the games. Market divisions are expressed in stark spatial terms for Elysium’s underdog hero.
After 1989, capital hasn’t just spread to occupy all of space. It has colonized all of time, as well.
The sharpest indication of this ideological malaise for me was found at the bookstore in the years following the 2008 crash. I would peruse the bookshelves in hope of finding a sign of the economic revolution I was sure would build in the aftermath of financial collapse. What did I find lining the shelves in the business section? Eco-capitalism, neo-capitalism, ethico-capitalism, digital capitalism.
The business world was teeming with pop-economists dreaming of the new world, but like their filmic brethren, they adamantly refused to look beyond the pale of a market-based system. And I’m not just talking about the conservative right we knew would try to capitalize on the uber-Friedmanesque opportunity of a global meltdown. Economists on the left, such as Nobel laureates Paul Krugmann and Joseph Stiglitz, did little to change the tenor of the discussion. Meanwhile, economic historians like Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff told us there was nothing essentially different about this particular bump along the boom-bust cycle. All we needed was a healthy dose of economic snake oil to cure the world’s ills.
It’s been seven years since the Big Crash. The apocalypse didn’t come, but neither did an economic solution. Instead, a world of austerity has taken over. The groan of economic pain has become the droning soundtrack to our existence, it’s variations measured in market corruption and fluctuating oil prices. Modern market ideology has dug in deeper than we anticipated.
Yet, all is not lost. Often when an ideology takes over, hope shows up in the oddest of places. It has to. Ideology leaves it little room for expression, because ideology codes our very language at the moment of enunciation. This is what makes an ideology so frustratingly resilient to attack. Have you ever tried to argue with a religious fundamentalist? At some point the exercise becomes pointless. Their mind has already been made. The rest is just rhetorical gymnastics. Try arguing with a devout capitalist or an orthodox Marxist. Same thing. Ideology organizes how we think, feel, and judge in advance of the rationalizations we use to justify our belief system.
The beautiful thing about hope is that its very structure is designed to oppose ideology. Hope is, at its heart, an overcoming. Where an ideology wants to tell us everything will be fine so long as we stick to the program, hope inverts this logic. It begins with the assumption that something is fundamentally wrong, and tells us we need to look beyond the status quo for our exit strategy. Thus, for an ideology to function properly, it must keep hope hidden from view. Instead it gives us fear, entertainment, the Kardashians. Why would we need hope when everything is fine? And hey, look at my butt!
For an ideology, hope is dangerous, and so must be suppressed. Buried. As Freud has taught us, though, bury anything too long and it returns with a vengeance.
Placed in the context of our contemporary moment, what does hope look like? Well, if you read articles on the economy in most newspapers, you’re familiar with the “healthy body” analogy applied to most discussions of economic policy. Like the body, the market is a self-regulating system, and when things take a turn for the worse, the market needs a “healthy” injection of capital to return circulation to a robust state. God forbid it goes into full cardiac arrest (like the crash of 2008). In moments of market defibrillation, it will take nothing less than a massive stimulus (TARP) to shock it back into working order. Who cares who pays the cost of the recovery so long as the vitals of the market are kept hale and hearty.
In the wake of our apocalyptic worries of 2008, you can imagine what sort of figure would emerge as counterpoint to this analogy of the healthy body of the market. It has groaned its way into our collective unconscious – insatiable in its perverse desires, stumbling along in a body that defies all concepts of health and illness. It hungers for our flesh and kills all sense of decorum…
Like our repressed hopes returning, they claw their way back into the sunlight from long forgotten graves. Hope plods on wobbly legs.
The Hope of Zombies and Their Apocalypse
No, really. I’m serious as a corpse.
Zombies are our messengers of hope. It all came to me while I was watching this last season of The Walking Dead.
The thing is, I avoided this television show for the longest time. I took Zombies to be one more link in the chain of figures garnering the obsessive attention of consumers mesmerized by weird Christian monster figures: vampires as the perfect expression of a religio-capitalist aesthetic; faeries, demons, werewolves dancing amongst the hackneyed good-versus-evil tropes of market driven YA consumerism. It’s like we’ve regressed to what Japanese theorist Asada Akira once called “infantile capitalism.” Our entire culture is being driven by the consumerist fantasies of a pubescent majority.
Plus, I thought it’d be boring. I put horror alongside porn on the entertainment spectrum; it’s great for a quick thrill, but ultimately repetitive over the long haul. How many times can you see someone’s intestines pulled out and eaten before your mind starts to wander? You can imagine my skepticism when the horror form tried to make the jump to TV. I could hardly sit all the way through a George A. Romero flic. How was I going to last through a multi-episode gore-fest?
Then I watched the first few minutes of The Walking Dead.
I guess you could say I was hooked the moment Rick Grimes’s bullet smashed through the skull of that young girl in the opening scene. Goodbye, infantile capitalism! A few binge episodes in and it suddenly became clear to me what the long form and horror could do to the cultural landscape. This wasn’t going to be about cheap visceral kicks and quick jolts to the system.
This was about charting out the end of humanity itself. It would be horror in its finest hour, horror raised to the level of hope. Yet, if this horrific hope was to overcome the asphyxiating grasp of 21st Century ideology and lead our thoughts to a radically alternative future, it would need to do more than shock us with violent iconoclasm.
It would need to take on the three guardians of modern market ideology. I call them the Prison Guards of the Future:
Money, humanity, and nostalgia.
The Walking Dead takes them on with aplomb, turning all three to a gory, bloody mulch.
A Very Present Absence
Watch a few episodes of The Walking Dead and you’ll start to notice something odd about their world – I mean, outside the obvious. There is an absence that is unique to this vision of the future. Have you noticed? It took me a few seasons before the realization hit me, but when it did I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It’s something that overturns everything Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Zizek can tell us about our current cultural moment. It’s such a simple thing. Simple, elegant, transformative absence:
There is no money in the age of the zombie apocalypse – no possibility to cash in on your Armageddon insurance policy, no ABM on the corner dispensing crisp bills. Our survivors don’t try to capitalize their gains; they apportion, share, exchange, take, and plunder, but there is no movement of M to M1. Rick Grimes and his troupe move into zones of accumulation, where guns and food are kept amidst barricaded neighborhoods run by bloodthirsty tyrants or a cadre of well-meaning idealists, but never do we see money changing hands. The Walking Dead economy is an alternative economy that can’t but be multiple, because at its very heart, it must shift and change with the changing situations encountered by our roving anti-heroes. It’s a nomad economy, whose only mode of exchange is stabilized by numbers of zombies and humans killed. After all, what do our survivors ask each stranger they meet on the road?
- How many walkers have you killed?
- How many people have you killed?
During the zombie apocalypse it’s not your wealth that is the measure of your value. It’s the distance you’ve strayed from your humanity, the point being that no one during the zombie apocalypse has not strayed in one way or another. This is a completely different economy from anything we might recognize in our own lives, and yet we get it. It speaks to us because we recognize it as the sub-economy that slides beneath the veneer of modern living. Money is only the mask we use to cover this more sinister mode of exchange that swarms in violent acts under our skin. Money justifies treating others on the other side of the counter dismissively. It helps us organize our daily relationships in hierarchical fashion. On a larger scale, it justifies invasions, genocides, occupations. At its heart, money helps us cut ourselves off from our greater community while simultaneously holding us to this same community by the thinnest of threads. It gives us the excuse to commune without communing.
In the absence of money, all we have is the wane of this paltry thing we call “humanity.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, it makes us more honest with ourselves.
For Rick Grimes and his fellow travelers, there is no avoiding the lies that the absence of money reveals. They are nothing but a waning into inhumanity.
Why It Doesn’t Suck to be Inhuman
Which brings us to the second hurdle to thinking the future: humanity. I can think of two ideologically charged gut reactions to the characterization of “humanity” as an obstacle to real progress.
- How can humanity be characterized as an obstacle since, by definition, it has existed since the dawn of man?
- Why would we want to abandon our humanity when it’s the only thing that makes us who we are?
Answering the first question is easy. Humanity is not timeless. For fans of French theory and the works of Michel Foucault, you’ll be familiar with the notion that man as a concept has only been around for a few hundred years. Which is to say, when we use the term “humanity,” we are not speaking in general about some legacy that has been passed down to us from cavemen. We are speaking about a new concept, founded upon a very specific set of relations – ones creating a grid whereby the particularity of the modern individual can locate its place amongst the shift of universals.
To give some examples, 17th Century Japanese peasants didn’t have last names that helped define them in relation to a landscape of national subjects. They existed within dense village networks that constantly displaced attempts at self-identification. Subjects only took up names when the Meiji government decided to modernize its demographics. In Europe, similarly, peasants organized themselves according to familial relations, while the church danced about arguments concerning God’s relation to man. It was only in the modern age, through enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Bayle, Malebranche, etc., that God was removed from this equation, and man was left to relate to his own character as a species – his own “humanity.” Modern man became self-referential, and in the absence of the goo of religious adherence, he had nothing but the nation and its economy to organize his identity in the world. Thus, was born homo oeconomicus, or economic man; a new being crawling from the primordial ooze of the feudal system to swarm in mass migrations of landless subjects searching for security within the inherently precarious situation of a growing urban economy. “Sell us your labour” became the maxim of the new age, while things like the Poor Laws and Keynesian economics came later to be added as external correctives to an originally privative economic system. Feelings of alienation and disconnection ensued. Thus, was born the modern condition and the need to feel connected to a greater humanity.
Which brings us to the second question – Why abandon humanity? In answer, I offer an anecdote. I used to teach undergraduate students at the U of T. One of the first things I would advise them when writing their papers was to avoid using the term “human” and other generalizations of its ilk. Why? Not because I wanted to warn them against the use of a term that would lead to generalizations they would have difficulty substantiating (though this was always the case). It was because every time a student used the term, it would inevitably be followed by some implied racist, homophobic or prejudicial assertion. The breach of etiquette would always be unintentional, but because there were real limits on what could be included under the category of the human, the student’s prejudices couldn’t but be put on display each time “human” slipped from their pen. “Humans are inclined towards love,” they would write, while the statement would be followed by limiting examples of heterosexual love. “Humanity is driven by the rule of survival of the fittest,” which was a statement often prefacing some veiled justification for European imperialism. The figure of humanity has always been a useful form by which one could smuggle in one’s worst prejudices. It is too vague and empty not to invite its own corruption.
Rick Grimes and his growing inhumanity comes to us like a breath of fresh air. Each time he and his traveling companions lose a part of themselves, they lose one more violent generalization living in the heart of the modern condition.
Their inhumanity creates a vacuum where modern values once stood, and we are left to wonder what will come in its place.
The End of Man, The End of History
We discovered the final toll of this growing inhumanity in a Walking Dead episode this season, aptly titled “Forget.” After four seasons of roaming the zombie landscape as nomads in the wilderness, our band of survivors find themselves safe amongst a walled community that has managed to maintain all the trappings of the old world. Neighbors chat on the stoop about recipes. Policemen walk the streets ensuring civility amongst citizenry. Had this episode taken place in the second or third season, it’s possible Rick and his troupe would’ve been more amenable to assimilating to the easy habits of their former existence. By fifth season, the horrors have been too frequent, their scars too transformative. They are no longer the people they once were.
At this point there is no looking back. Strangely, it is one of the residents living in this community of the past, that explains the benefits of their transformation. It’s made explicit in a conversation between our beloved anti-hero, Rick Grimes, and his Season 5 love interest, Jessie, during an off-kilter dinner party. The exchange is a passing one. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Jessie: Take a look. Ordinary life like before. Well, not like before.
Jessie: Yeah, no. I mean, it’s better. Not out there. In here. You know, everyone’s been through it somehow. Everyone. And a lot of things disappeared, but a lot of bullshit went with it. They’re all from totally different backgrounds, different places. They never would’ve even met. Now they’re part of each other’s lives. They are each other’s lives. I’m just saying we all lost things, but we got something back. It isn’t enough, but it’s something.
Jessie points to another absence thriving at the heart of the new world, but you have to watch all five seasons to feel it. Really, it’s only something you could feel within the confines of the horror genre stretched out over the long form of a TV series. After we’ve watched all our most precious values turned to zombie fodder, after we’ve experienced the slow corruption of humanity by degrees, we cannot but feel revulsion at the simpering hypocrisies of this old world. Our world. We become strangers to ourselves as we stand with Rick in the alien world of polite company, feeling out of place in clean clothing, holding a scotch glass awkwardly in hand listening to the banal drone of idle conversation around us. How do we match this to the incessant horrors that have been our everyday?
Suddenly the nature of what’s missing becomes absolutely clear: nostalgia. We don’t miss the world that came before. Like Rick, we scowl at this display of lived reminiscence. We’ve been married too long to horror. We have grown accustomed to our inhumanity. In a strange inversion, modernity and its economies have become the decayed corpse, while the zombie apocalypse outside is the place of our vitality. We’d rather tear apart the old world with its bullshit and quotidian banalities, than live with these old hypocrisies. And that’s exactly what Rick, Carol, Maggie, Michone and Glen conspire to do. They have become the apocalypse, and we, the viewers, are modernity’s walking dead.
The Stories at Armageddon’s End
Money. Humanity. Nostalgia.
After the dust has settled on our zombie apocalypse, what are we left with except an irrevocable, exuberant feeling of hope? You have to begin to wonder at this point in the show, what will our anti-heroes have when the zombies are gone? What will the world be except an open space of possibility to remake politics, economics, existence itself according to a new map which no longer holds money, humanity or nostalgia as sign posts organizing all time and space.
Of course, none of us want to live through this apocalypse. A real apocalyptic event would mean the deaths of billions. It would mean the death of loved ones, of strangers, of neighbors and friends. In some theoretical circles it is considered posh or cutting edge to theorize the actual occurrence of cataclysmic events as resolution to the problem of modern ideology. What we need is a Third World War or an ecological disaster of global proportions to loosen capitalism’s hold upon us. I find these arguments to be the height of irresponsibility. Worse. They are downright immoral. This is wishing the suffering of others.
Imagining the apocalypse, however, is different from wishing it. This is why we emphasize the importance of aesthetics and cultural production at the 14th Floor. Through aesthetic productions like The Walking Dead we get to experience the imaginative leap into an alternative future without having to go through the actual violence and bloodshed that this kind of transformation would necessitate. With ecological and economic collapse seemingly on our real horizon, we need these leaps of imagination to speak the next world in the hope that we can get there by circumventing the violence. We need a leap of the imagination that will take us over the apocalypse.
Imaginative leaps taken by the likes of The Walking Dead provide us with a good jumping off point to begin these much needed ruminations, but it’s up to the rest of us to take the reins in building this new world. The makers of a television show still have a market to which they must appeal. As far as the Walking Dead creators Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard have pushed our imagination beyond the pale of modern market ideology, I worry that elastic band has been stretched as far as it can go. Logistically they cannot write an afterward to the zombie apocalypse, because this would mean writing an entirely new show.
Instead, the rest of us can write what follows.
Call it The Zombie Apocalypse After-show. We won’t restrict ourselves to the normal rules of fan fiction. This doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the world of The Walking Dead. All we have is the carte blanche it has primed for us.
To see what this new brand of hope can offer us as experiment with the future. I will start us off with an installment or two in the next few weeks – look for the title “The Zombie Apocalypse After-Show.” I also enjoin our readers to help out in the experiment. Send us your post-zombie apocalypse stories and we’ll pick the best ones to post.
Consider it BYOF. Bring Your Own Future to the party, and let’s see what’s out there.
Related Article: Zombies are actually a new thing for me. I’m more of a sci-fi fanatic, so for sci-fi fans, please see my article on sci-fi here.
Sean Callaghan completed his doctoral dissertation in Japanese literature and history at the University of Toronto. He is currently working on short and long fiction projects. He lives in Vancouver with his wife, daughter, and guinea pig.