Archive for the The Walking Dead Category

Reflections on The Walking Dead

Posted in Apocalypse, Brain Science, Consciousness, Descartes, emotion, Ethics, Existentialism, God, Horror, humanities, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Monster, Monsters, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Psychology, Religion, religious, Science, State of nature, terror, The Walking Dead, theory of mind, Zombies with tags , , , on October 19, 2013 by Uroboros

walking deadWARNING: SPOILERS. The Walking Dead’s violent, post-apocalyptic setting always makes me wonder: what kind of person would I be under circumstances like that? Given what one has to do in order to survive, could I still look at myself in the mirror and recognize the person gazing back at me? Would I even want to?

Critics sometimes complain about the show’s pacing and quieter, more reflective scenarios, but the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down, developing the characters, and exploring the thematic implications of their struggles. The Walking Dead knows how to alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite. Utilizing this key dynamic means including lots of slower, quieter scenes. Setting up psychological conflicts and tweaking character arcs enhances the terror because we are more invested in the outcomes—we care about what is lurking around the corner, and, when the horror is finally unleashed, the gore is all the more terrifying because we know more about the victims. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the hyperactivity you get in shows like American Horror Story, a series that flows like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation.

The slow-burn approach also allows viewers to reflect on the shows themes, like the existential and moral status of the Walkers themselves. During Season Two, Herschel didn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened in Atlanta in Season One, there was little reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the Walkers chomping at the bit to eat them. But, when farm life slowed things down and gave characters more time to reflect on their situation, the issue slowly but surely lumbered out into the open and became the turning point of the season.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

Rick and Herschel’s Moral Debate

When Rick confronted Herschel about hiding his zombified relatives in the barn, the conviction in Herschel’s moral reasoning was hard to dismiss. From his perspective, a zombie was just a sick human being: behind the blank eyes and pale, rotting skin, Herschel saw a human being waiting to be saved. After all, what if zombiehood could be cured? If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to would be murder. By the end of Season Two, of course, we learn that everybody is infected and thus destined to be a zombie. We’re all the Walking Dead, so to speak. In Season Three, even the duplicitous, devious Governor struggles with the issue. As much as we grow to hate him as a brutal tyrant, he’s also a loving father who can’t let go of his daughter. She’s not just a zombie to him. In the Season Four opener, the issue resurfaced again with Tyreese’s ambivalence about having to kill Walkers all day at the prison fence and then later when Carl rebuked the other kids for naming them. “They’re not people, and they’re not pets,” he tells them. “Don’t name them.” This is after Rick warned him about getting too attached to the pig, which he’d named Violet. To Carl, animals are more like people than Walkers are.

‘Personhood’ is a sticky philosophical issue. We all walk around assuming other people also have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, can make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption, which philosophers call ‘theory of mind,’ frames our experience of reality. But, some philosophers are quick to ask: how do you know others really have feelings and intelligent intentions? Sure, they have the body language and can speak about their inner states, but couldn’t that be mere appearance? After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.

That was what Rene Descartes, the highly influential 17th century philosopher, meant when he said cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He was trying to establish a foundation for modern philosophy and science by basing it on the one thing in the world everyone can be absolutely certain of, i.e. one’s own consciousness, which in turn has the rational capacities to understand the clock-like machinations of the physical world. Descartes, therefore, posits a dualistic metaphysics with physical stuff on side of the ontological divide and mental stuff on the other. Minds can use brains and bodies to get around and know a world made up of mindless stuff. Only humans and God have souls and can ‘know’ what is happening, can understand what is going on.  Zombie girl

The problem with Descartes’ cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. You could be dreaming or in a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism. How do you really know that others aren’t ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings that behave like they’re conscious but are really only organic machines without subjective experiences and free-will? This is what some philosophers call the ‘hard problem:’ how do brain states generated by the synaptic mesh of neurons and the electrochemical flow inside the skull—purely physical processes that can be observed objectively with an fMRI machine—cause or correlate to subjective awareness—to feelings, images, and ideas that can’t be seen in an fMRI?

This theory was dramatized during Season One by Dr. Jenner when he showed an fMRI rendered transformation from human to Walker. He said the brain holds the sum total of the memories and dreams, the hopes and fears that make you who you are—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some uncanny way—but it’s not really you. That’s of course most characters’ default theory until we meet Herschel and get an alternative perspective. He’s not interested in scientifically or philosophically ‘proving’ the personhood of Walkers. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing is how his response bypasses the metaphysical problem and goes right to the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—that there isn’t some sliver of humanity swirling around inside those rotting skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

What matters most, from this perspective, is how you treat the other, the stranger. It’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. What matters isn’t testing and determining the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption that necessitates hospitality, not hostility. The perspective one adopts, the stance one assumes, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

I think this is one of the most relevant and potent themes in The Walking Dead, and I was glad to see it re-emerge in the Season Four opener. In future episodes, it will be interesting to see how they explore it, especially through Carl and Tyreese. I’ll be focused on how they react to the Walkers: how they manage their feelings and control themselves in the crises to come. Walkers are like uncanny mirrors in which characters can glimpse otherwise hidden aspects of their own minds. What do Tyreese and Carl see when they look into the seemingly-soulless eyes of a Walker, and what does that say about the state of their souls? Will they lose themselves? If they do, can they come back?

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Sublimity and the Brightside of Being Terrorized

Posted in Consciousness, conspiracy, critical thinking, emotion, Enlightenment, Ethics, Existentialism, fiction, freedom, Freud, God, Gothic, Horror, humanities, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Morality, nihilism, paranoia, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, psychoanalysis, Psychology, rational animal, reason, Religion, religious, Romanticism, superheroes, terror, Terror Management Theory, The Walking Dead, theory, theory of mind, Uroboros, Zombies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by Uroboros
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sleep_of_Reason_Produces_Monsters

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

We live in a terrorized age. At the dawn of the 21st century, the world is not only coping with the constant threat of violent extremism, we face global warming, potential pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, Middle Eastern conflicts, the debilitating consequences of partisan politics, and so on. The list grows each time you click on the news. Fear seems to be infecting the collective consciousness like a virus, resulting in a culture of anxiety and a rising tide of helplessness, despair, and anger. In the U.S.,  symptoms of this chronic unease can be seen in the proliferation of apocalyptic paranoia and conspiracy theories coupled with the record sales of both weapons and tickets for Hollywood’s superhero blockbusters, fables that reflect post-9/11 fears and the desire for a hero to sweep in and save us.

That’s why I want to take the time to analyze some complex but important concepts like the sublime, the Gothic, and the uncanny, ideas which, I believe, can help people get a rational grip on the forces that terrorize the soul. Let’s begin with the sublime.

18c philosopher Immanuel Kant

18C Philosopher Immanuel Kant

The word is Latin in origin and means rising up to meet a threshold. To Enlightenment thinkers, it referred to those experiences that challenged or transcended the limits of thought, to overwhelming forces that left humans feeling vulnerable and in need of paternal protection. Edmund Burke, one of the great theorists of the sublime, distinguished this feeling from the experience of beauty. The beautiful is tame, pleasant. It comes from the recognition of order, the harmony of symmetrical form, as in the appreciation of a flower or a healthy human body. You can behold them without being unnerved, without feeling subtly terrorized. Beautiful things speak of a universe with intrinsic meaning, tucking the mind into a world that is hospitable to human endeavors. Contrast this with the awe and astonishment one feels when contemplating the dimensions of a starry sky or a rugged, mist-wreathed mountain. From a distance, of course, they can appear ‘beautiful,’ but, as Immanuel Kant points out in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, it is a different kind of pleasure because it contains a “certain dread, or melancholy, in some cases merely the quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan.”

This description captures the ambivalence in sublime experiences, moments where we are at once paradoxically terrified and fascinated by the same thing. It is important here to distinguish ‘terror’ from ‘horror.’ Terror is the experience of danger at a safe distance, the potential of a threat, as opposed to horror, which refers to imminent dangers that actually threaten our existence. If I’m standing on the shore, staring out across a vast, breathtaking sea, entranced by the hissing surf, terror is the goose-pimply, weirded-out feeling I get while contemplating the dimensions and unfathomable power before me. Horror would be what I feel if a tsunami reared up and came crashing in. There’s nothing sublime in horror. It’s too intense to allow for the odd mix of pleasure and fear, no gap in the feeling for some kind of deeper revelation to emerge.

Friedrich's Monk by the Sea

Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea

While Burke located the power of the sublime in the external world, in the recognition of an authority ‘out there,’ Kant has a more sophisticated take. Without digging too deeply into the jargon-laden minutia of his critique, suffice it to say that Kant ‘subjectivizes’ the concept, locating the sublime in the mind itself. I interpret Kant as pointing to a recursive, self-referential quality in the heart of the sublime, an openness that stimulates our imagination in profound ways. When contemplating stormy seas and dark skies, we experience our both nervous system’s anxious reaction to the environment along with a weird sense of wonder and awe. Beneath this thrill, however, is a humbling sense of futility and isolation in the face of the Infinite, in the awesome cycles that evaporate seas, crush mountains, and dissolve stars without a care in the cosmos as to any ‘meaning’ they may have to us. Rising up to the threshold of consciousness is the haunting suspicion that the universe is a harsh place devoid of a predetermined purpose that validates its existence. These contradictory feelings give rise to a self-awareness of the ambivalence itself, allowing ‘meta-cognitive’ processes to emerge. This is the mind’s means of understanding the fissure and trying to close the gap in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, by experiencing forms and magnitudes that stagger and disturb the imagination, the mind can actually grasp its own liberation from the deterministic workings of nature, from the blind mechanisms of a clockwork universe. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant says “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.” One is now thinking about their own thinking, after all, reflecting upon the complexity of the subject-object feedback loop, which, I assert, is the very dynamic that makes self-consciousness and freedom possible in the first place. We can’t feel terrorized by life’s machinations if we aren’t somehow psychologically distant from them, and this gap entails our ability to think intelligently and make decisions about how best to react to our feelings.

Van Gogh's Starry Night

Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I think this is in line with Kant’s claim that the sublime is symbolic of our moral freedom—an aesthetic validation of our ethical intentions and existential purposes over and above our biological inclinations and physical limitations. We are autonomous creatures who can trust our capacity to understand the cosmos and govern ourselves precisely because we are also capable of being terrorized by a universe that appears indifferent to our hopes and dreams. Seen in this light, the sublime is like a secularized burning bush, an enlightened version of God coming out of the whirlwind and parting seas. It is a more mature way of getting in touch with and listening to the divine, a reasonable basis for faith.

My faith is in the dawn of a post-Terrorized Age. What Kant’s critique of the sublime teaches me is that, paradoxically, we need to be terrorized in order to get there. The concept of the sublime allows us to reflect on our fears in order to resist their potentially debilitating, destructive effects. The antidote is in the poison, so to speak. The sublime elevates these feelings: the more sublime the terror, the freer you are, the more moral you can be. So, may you live in terrifying times.

Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

It’s Okay to Kill Zombies ‘Cause They Don’t Have Any Feelings.

Posted in Brain Science, Christianity, David Chalmers, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Metaphysics, Morality, Neurology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, The Walking Dead, Zombies with tags , , on March 10, 2012 by Uroboros

You’re sprinting and stumbling through a thick, dark forest. Gun cocked, finger on the trigger. You’re fleeing a zombie horde. You want to survive. They want to eat you. You trip on a rotten limb, tumbling to the ground. Looking up, you’re face-to-face with a zombie. It can’t move, though. A broken leg, severed arm. It’s basically a piece of animated flesh, writhing madly, but not a true threat. You can skirt by it, no problem. What do you do? 

Season Two of The Walking Dead has brought the zombicide issue to the fore. Is it ever wrong to kill zombies? On a practical, survival level, of course, the answer seems morally unambiguous: If a Walker is after you, self-defense necessitates doing what you have to do. 

Self-defense notwithstanding, let’s explore how the characters in TWD view what they’re doing. What’s their ethical stance? As in all zombie fiction, the dominant position is the kill’em all approach: the living dead aren’t people, which excuses or dismisses any moral qualms one may have about pumping a few shotgun rounds into the side of a Walker’s head. But TWD is too thoughtful a series to let this issue go unexamined. 

The existential and moral status of zombies themselves, which has lurked in the background of the series since Season One, moved front and center as we reached the climax of the middle of this season—brought to a head by Herschel, patriarch of the farm. As you’ll recall, Herschel doesn’t share the kill ’em all approach that Rick and company had pretty much taken for granted—and who could blame them? After what happened at their camp and in Atlanta, there’s been little time and reason to contemplate the possible personhood of the herds of Walkers chomping at the bit to kill them.

But, since farm life has slowed things down and afforded the time to think, the issue has slowly but surely lumbered and lunged out into the open. It was just one of the crises interwoven into the drama, but, by Episode Seven, the status of zombies became the key issue, the breaking point in the tension between the main characters and their hosts.

Rick and Herschel's Moral Debate

If you were like me, you couldn’t believe what Herschel was hiding was in the barn. At first, I was with the rest of the gang who thought he was either delusional or up to something sinister. It’s easy to react like Shane and dismiss Herschel’s view. A Walker is a Walker, and the only good Walker is a dead Walker. When Rick confronted him, however, the conviction in Herschel’s reasoning and ethical stance was interesting. From his perspective, a zombie is just a sick human being. What if zombiehood could be cured? What if someone comes up with a serum or antidote to the disease or whatever the TWD mythology eventually puts forth as the cause of the zombocalypse? Behind the evil eyes and pale, rotten skin, Herschel sees a human being waiting to be saved. If that’s your philosophy, then killing a zombie when you don’t have to is murder.    ‘Personhood’ is a tougher thing to verify than you might think. We all walk around assuming the people around us have a subjective awareness of the world—have feelings and memories and intelligence, the ability both to make decisions and be held responsible for them. This assumption frames one’s experience of reality. You can criticize or condemn your fellow human beings for their improprieties—but you don’t feel the same way towards your car or laptop if it let’s you down. You may, for a second or two, get angry at the laptop for freezing up—might even smack it a few times—but that’s just an instinctual projection of your own emotions. If you actually think your laptop is trying to undermine you, then I’ll post a link for the psychiatrist you need to consult.

It’s okay to hit computers because they don’t have any feelings (yet). But how do you know other people have feelings? Sure, they appear to—they have the body language and can speak about intentions and inner states—but that, too, could be just an appearance. After all, that’s just behavior. It could be a simulation of consciousness, a simulacrum of selfhood. You can’t get ‘inside’ somebody’s head and experience the world from their point of view. We don’t have Being John Malkovich portals into the subjectivity of others (yet). Philosophically and scientifically speaking, the only state of consciousness you can be sure of is your own.  

Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, pointed this out in the 17th century, and it’s been a tantalizing issue ever since. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum—I  think, therefore I am—he was trying to establish a rock solid foundation for philosophy and science, but leave it to a Frenchman to lay an intellectual foundation in quicksand and produce the opposite of what he intended. The problem with cogito is that—unless you assume the same things Descartes did about God, language, and math—you can’t really be sure about the existence of other cogitos or even the world outside your own head. What one experiences could be like a dream or a fake reality conjured up by a Matrix-style evil genius. ‘I think, therefore I am’ opens up a Pandora’s jar of radical skepticism and solipsism.

So how do you know that other people are conscious like you and not ‘philosophical zombies,’ i.e. beings which behave like they’re conscious but are in fact only organic  machines without actual intelligence and free-will. Contemporary philosopher of mind David Chalmers has made a career of pointing out the deep quirk—the so-called ‘hard problem’—embedded in the modern concept of personhood. Scientifically-speaking, we can only observe and measure objective phenomena. So, what is ‘mind’ to a neurologist? It’s the product of brain states—it’s located in the synaptic mesh of neurons and electrochemical flow of hormones which happens inside the skull, a purely physical thing which can be observed with an fMRI machine.

This theory was dramatized in Episode Six of Season One by Dr. Jenner at the CDC facility. When he shows Grimes and the gang an actual transformation from human to Walker using (what looks like) an fMRI, Dr. Jenner claims the brain images represent all that one is—the sum total of your memories and dreams, the hopes and fears which define you as a person—and the death of the brain is the irrevocable end of that identity. What is revived through zombification  is not that person—it’s not even human. In other words, you are your brain. Brain dead equals you dead. The zombie that emerges may resemble you in some way—it may move its eyes and limbs as if  it’s a being with some kind of conscious intentions—but it’s not. At least, that’s Dr. Jenner’s theory, and, up until we meet Herschel, nobody on the show seems to disagree or question it.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay on the issue called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which argued we shouldn’t reduce mindfulness to purely physical, objective descriptions because such descriptions, by definition, leave out the very thing we’re trying to understand, namely, what is it like to be that being, what it is like to have that mind. We’re right back in Descartes’ quicksand. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics notwithstanding, we seem to be able to explain everything in nature, at least in principle, in physical, materialist terms, except for the very thing we’re using to explain everything else in nature, i.e. our own minds.

These days the debate has become divisive, even ideological. Which side are you on? Are you a materialist—do you believe the mind is either caused by brain states or so closely correlated to them as to be functionally indistinguishable—or are you still haunted by Descartes’ cogito and believe the mind is not just an illusory ghost in the machine? Do you believe there’s something irreducible to the self, maybe even soulful or spiritual? If you do, you’d be labeled a dualist, which, in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a euphemism for superstitious.                         

I think Herschel’s theory offers another way of approaching the problem, one that sidesteps the Cartesian quicksand. After all Herschel’s not interested in proving scientificallythat he’s right about zombiehood. For him, it’s a given: the creatures corralled in the barn aren’t soulless ghouls who can be exterminated with impunity. They’re family members and neighbors who happen to be sick and might someday be cured. He can’t kill them. What’s intriguing about his approach is how it bypasses the metaphysical problem in favor of the ethical question. If you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that zombies aren’t conscious—devoid of some sliver of humanity swirling around inside their skulls—then isn’t Herschel’s theory a more appropriate moral response, a more humane approach?

Zombies on leashes?

If a zombie attacks, and you can subdue it with out scattering its brains across the grass, then why not leash it and put it in the barn like Herschel did? It’s an ethically-complex question with implications that go beyond the do’s and dont’s of zombocalypse survival. It answers the question of consciousness and selfhood not by getting bogged down in the metaphysical quicksand, but by recognizing the ambiguous metaphysics and essentially saying, until you neurologists and philosophers get a better grip on the issue, we’re going to treat the zombie-other as if it’s a conscious being deserving of humane and dignified treatment. The show roots Herschel’s ethics in his religious beliefs, his faith. Agnostic or atheist viewers might find this a facile cop out, more a symptom of intellectual weakness than a sign of moral integrity. But I don’t think Herschel’s ethics should be dismissed as merely the product of old-timey superstitions. In a situation where there isn’t absolute certainty—where empirical observation and rational explanations can give you two valid, but logically irreconcilable descriptions—isn’t some kind of faith necessary? The zombie dilemma on The Walking Dead echoes the actual debate going on in neurology and philosophy of mind and reminds me of the lines from Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? about truth and illusion. We don’t know the difference…but we must carry on as though we did. Amen.

Herschel has decided to carry on as though the zombies are persons who deserve to be treated with some degree of dignity. His faith justifies his moral stance; it’s an act of religious compassion. Even if zombies seem like enemies, he must love them. If they terrify and enrage him, he must pull the beam from his own eye, judge not, and learn to care for his zombie brothers and sisters—in a way which doesn’t threaten the lives of his non-zombie kin, of course. Hence the leashes and barn accommodations. It may not be room and board at a cozy bed and breakfast, but it’s certainly more humane than Shane’s handgun or one of Darryl’s arrows.

There is something to a Sermon on the Mount ethical approach to such quandaries. If we can’t know with scientific certainty the objective nature of consciousness, we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions and endorse policies, especially violent ones, which depend on assumptions about subjectivity, or the lack there of. The greatest atrocities in history all begin with  dehumanizing the other—by drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Religious beliefs always cut both ways—sometimes they reinforce that line—they sharpen the blade—and sometimes they undermine it by redefining and expanding the definition of what counts as a human being—of who deserves to be treated with respect.

I mean, what Jesus would do to a zombie? Wait, didn’t Jesus become a zombie? (Sorry, couldn’t resist;)

That matters is how you treat the other, the stranger. I think it’s no accident that Herschel is a veterinarian and not a ‘human ‘doctor, which would’ve served his initial plot function—saving  Carl—just as well, if not better. As a vet, Herschel has to care about the pain and suffering of creatures whose states of mind he can’t know or prove. He  has to carry on just the same. What matters most is not trying to test and determine the degree to which a creature is conscious and then scaling your moral obligations in proportion to that measurement—after all, such a measurement may be in principle impossible—what matters is how you treat others in the absence of such evidence. In short, it depends on a kind of faith, a default assumption which necessitates hospitality, not hostility. In an uncertain world, it’s the right thing to do—not only what Jesus might do, but a logically-consistent, rationally-valid thing to do.

The implications are profound. The perspective we adopt, the stance we assume, defines how we relate to animals and the planet as a whole—to other human beings and ultimately oneself.

Of course, by Episode Eight, Herschel backs away from his radical ethical stance. In a state of despair, he regrets putting them in the barn—says it was his way of avoiding the grief over losing his wife. Maybe so. But something tells me that’s just the despair talking. Whether Herschel returns to his old perspective or embraces a kill ’em all approach, I don’t think the issue itself is dead and buried.

My hope is that it will be raised again, and it’ll have something to do with what Dr. Jenner whispered to Rick at the end of Season One. After all the suicidal doctor told Rick that all the survivors are carrying a latent form of the zombie virus. Maybe they’ll meet another scientist down the road who can cure the plague. If this scenario or something like it plays out, then the show will have to confront the zombies-are-people-too versus kill ’em all question again.        

Zombocalypse Now!

Posted in Apocalypse, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Morality, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, Uncategorized, Zombies with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by Uroboros

The Walking Dead as Dark Thought Experiment

Glimpse Behind the Apocalyptic Door

One thing I love about zombie stories—from Romero’s groundbreaking Dead   saga to AMC’s brilliant The Walking Dead—is how they flip the script of history and imagine an inverted world. It’s a dark thought experiment. Post-apocalypse, what would our lives be like? What kind of humans would we be under those circumstances?

Contemplating such extremes, I can’t help but wonder if I could survive at all, a curiosity which taps into my anxieties over the fact that, if I had to feed, shelter, and clothe myself, I’d be  screwed. Long ago, our culture off-loaded these life-skills to specialists and technological capabilities most of us take for granted     and are pretty clueless about. We’re alienated from our own livelihood. That’s why there’s a growing subculture in this country devoted to learning survival  skills and preparing for the social calamity so many see coming.

As a student of history, I can’t just dismiss this anxiety as pure paranoid fantasy. One of the properties all civilizations seem to share is their inability to overcome the law of entropy. Even the mighty Roman Empire fell. Dark ages do happen. So where do we get off assuming the modern West will be the one culture that bucks this trend?

While I graze the aisles of my beloved local supermarket, sipping my bottled water and pondering which shrink-wrapped package of factory farm beef to buy, I’m haunted by the notion that, if this easy access to sustenance were to vanish suddenly, I’d be hard-pressed to find an alternative source. After all, I’m not a hunter and gatherer. In the zombified state-of-mindlessness, in which I often find myself these days, it’s a struggle to remember to water the plants sometimes. After all, I’m not a farmer. I’m a consumer. I’m a debit card-swiper and button-pusher.

How in the world would I survive the end of the world?     

[Warning: Walking Dead spoiler alert]

Andrea vs. Dale

Zombie mythology raises an even deeper issue: would I even want to survive? The characters in The Walking Dead constantly wrestle with this core existential dilemma. Andrea’s nihilism in particular gets under my skin. You want to reach through the screen and slap her—you want to tell her that, yes, what happened to your sister is  tragic—you’re obviously entitled to your grief—but be glad you’re still alive and that someone like Dale, the post-apocalyptic Obi-Wan, is there for you. Your life matters, Andrea, because life itself still matters. I hope I’d be like Dale—optimistic, determined, not cynical and defeatist. But how do I know I wouldn’t feel like Andrea? After what she’s experienced, isn’t she entitled to her nihilism? What’s even more disturbing is, what if she’s right? Under those conditions, the right to check out—to call it a life—could be just as ethically-viable as making the effort to survive. If I decided to stockpile booze and pills and go out like Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, who’s to say that, under those circumstances, I’m ‘wrong.’ Live fast, die young, and leave a rotten liver for the Walkers to munch on.

Why not?  

The first half of Season Two has been particularly good at exploring the existential implications of a zombocalypse. But finding the will to go on is just the beginning of your troubles because, even if your will to live survives intact, the anxiety just switches from ‘Do I want to live?’ to an even harder question: ‘How do I want to live?’

I tell myself I wouldn’t become like Shane, whose cold pragmatism has grown more brutal and vicious as Season Two has progressed. Watching his transformation from wily, but redeemable trickster to a truly duplicitous, anti-heroic killer has been the creepiest thing about this season, punctuated with startling irony and tragic pathos in the climax of Episode Seven.

But what really disturbed me about the ending was who wound up resolving it. When Rick pulled the trigger, his intentions seemed so ambiguous. Was he doing “the right thing” by putting Sophia and, by extension, the rest of the gang out of their misery? Or was he really just reasserting his authority over the tribe after Shane’s over-the-top attempt at a coup de ta? Are the two intentions so conflated in his mind they could never be pried apart and judged?

Shane vs. Rick

Looking towards the future, will Rick have to become like Shane in order to keep him in line? One thing’s for sure, they can’t go back to the relatively stable and orderly life the farm has provided. No doubt, after what happened at the barn, Rick would have to adopt a Shane-like mentality in order to keep the gang there. At any rate, his attempts to persuade Herschel and entertain his zombies-are-people-too ethic are all moot now. Unless Herschel has a mental breakdown or a radical change of conscience, Rick and company have certainly worn out their welcome in this pastoral paradise. So what are they going to do? Again, for Rick, it’s not a question of ‘Do I want to live?’ but ‘How do I want to live?’—a conflict made all the more poignant when you consider that his wife is pregnant. Now we’re left to wonder if, by stepping up and pulling the trigger, he hasn’t compromised some core element of his morality.

What is Rick willing and prepared to do now?       

Some fans have complained about the pacing and melodrama of the farm episodes, but I think the writers should be applauded for slowing the story down and developing the characters and the thematic implications of their struggles. The last few episodes have focused more on tweaking the character arcs in order to enhance the terror lurking around the corner and in the woods. It’s a refreshing change from the hyperactivity you get with True Blood and American Horror Story, two series which flow like a sugar rush—sleek, Gothic concoctions for the Ritalin Generation. 

The Walking Dead knows how to spread out the story and alternate between terror—the dreaded threat of the unseen, the lurking menace yet to be revealed—and horror, the moment when the monster lunges from the bushes and takes a bite, and the monster isn’t always a zombie, either. This kind of structure and pacing not only builds the dread, but it lets the viewer contemplate the dark thought experiment, too. In short, in the midst of the suspense, The Walking Dead gives its viewers the time and space to think about the truly terrifying aspects of the scenario and care about the implications because we’re invested in the characters and understand the stakes.

This approach lets us wonder about the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives, as well, the desires that get us out of bed in the morning, the fears that won’t let us sleep at night. If the script of history does flip, would you want to throw away the old morality? To hell with having to be altruistic, especially to strangers or people who can’t help you survive. To hell with reasoning and debating ‘the right thing to do.’ It’s shotgun politics. The one with the biggest gun and the most ammo makes the rules—pure might over right.

Seen in this light, zombie fiction is a pop cultural version of Enlightenment philosophers’ state-of-nature theories. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, three highly influential thinkers, imagined a prehistoric past to justify modern ethics and politics. In doing so, they helped articulate the West’s new vision of human nature—the rational individual with unalienable rights—and argued for the proper political structure in which said individual should live. Their theories helped inspire the American and French Revolutions, reshaping the modern world. Conversely, a zombie state-of-nature story allows us—not to retroject like an Enlightenment philosopher—but to project visions of human nature, politics, and ethics onto the great hypothetical that’s haunting us all these days: what if the world founded on Enlightenment principles falls apart, and we’re back to square one?

Rick’s Existential and Moral Dilemmas

In a world where life is brutish, nasty, and short, who would you be like? Rick and Dale or Andrea and Shane? Not only does The Walking Dead’s spin on the zombocalypse pose this query, it prompts an even more pointed and immediate question: what kind of person are you now? What’s your character like, morally speaking, under your current existential circumstances? Are we fulfilling our individual potential as human beings and living up to our social duties? Would it take a zombocalypse to find out who we really are and what we truly value? Maybe if we confronted these issues in the here and now, we could  redirect or squelch the very forces which make the End of Days look so inevitable sometimes.

We’re the Monsters, Man. We’re the Living Dead.

Posted in Apocalypse, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Hubert Dreyfus, Metaphor, Monsters, Morality, Myth, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, State of nature, Television, The Walking Dead, True Blood, Twilight, Uncategorized, Vampires, Zombies with tags , , on February 11, 2012 by Uroboros

You can tell a lot about a culture by the kind of monsters it craves. John Landis, director of the classic American Werewolf in London and author of Monsters in the Movies, reminds us that monsters are always metaphors—symbols of disturbing feelings buried deep inside of us. Wikipedia says monsters are also warnings—that’s the Latin root of the word, actually—a sign that something’s gone horribly wrong.  Chaos personified.

Monster are metaphors?

So, if monsters are metaphors, what do zombies represent? By considering their image, what can we glimpse and glean about ourselves? For one, the current zombie craze taps into the apocalyptic fever—this entropic vibe—which is gripping the collective conscious now more than ever. After all, it’s 2012. Time to start thinking hard about the End of Days, and zombies are a perfect means to that end.

The zombie evokes existential and moral questions, and The Walking Dead milks the symbolic potential for all it’s worth. It’s a commentary on the issue of human nature itself: Who are we as a species? Is there even such a thing as ‘human nature,’ if so what is it? Do we have core needs and unique abilities which define us, or are we socially-conditioned creatures who can evolve into just about anything? Could we turn into creatures which would be unrecognizable to us now, something inhuman, something monstrous? What if this transformation has already begun? 

 

The Zombie Herd

Watching The Walking Dead, I often wonder if I’m not already morphing into a zombie. When I saw the roaming herd of Walkers in the Season Two opener, I was struck by a question I haven’t been able to shake: Is the zombie-virus already here, slowly, invisibly creeping in and changing us? I’m not just talking about the kind of mindless consumerism that Romero satirized in the 70s with Dawn of the Dead. I mean the state-of-mindlessness I often find myself in these days and the inner battle against personal zombification. I’m talking about the zoned-out, autopilot existence—about simply going through the day-to-day motions, being little more than a creature of habit, a robot of routine.

Sometimes, while driving, I suddenly find myself unable to consciously recall having driven the last few miles. I was off in La-la land, daydreaming and worrying while my body was steered, changed gears, accelerated and braked. Have you ever caught yourself gazing into the fridge, wondering what you’re looking for—why you opened the fridge in the first place? Isn’t this state-of-mindlessness sort of what it’s like to be a zombie? That plus the pale, decaying complexion and a taste for human flesh, of course. Sometimes I hear myself and others spouting off platitudes and bullet-point truisms—spinning worn-out, jukebox references and anecdotes laced with ubiquitous terms like ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘really?’—I hear the noise that passes for conversation and think: We are the Talking Dead.

Zombificiation is not a psychological mood one can easily fight against or simply dismiss, either. In fact, as philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus have pointed out, there is value and purpose in being able to zone out. After all, athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, etc are all better at what they do when they’re in ‘The Zone.’ Dreyfus interprets the great poet Homer himself as saying that humans are actually at their best when they’re in the zone—when the self-conscious, hyper-aware mind shuts down and we’re moved by the muses. I take Dreyfus’ point, but there’s still something creepy about letting the mind go offline and just going with the flow. The beauty and danger of going with the flow is you don’t always know where the flow might take you. In this day and age, can one afford to do what Homer waxed poetic about in 700 BC?  

We have all of this state-of-the-art communication technology at our disposal, and we’re already so immersed in the flow of information we take it for granted, like water to a fish. We now have instant, global access to the sum total of human knowledge and wisdom, and we’d rather double-check our Facebook wall or click on OMG! How often does the flow go to places designed to make you zone out? In short, the smarter my phone gets, the dumber I feel—iPhone smart, iMe dumberer.

Who’s the real Droid?

Modern science tells us there’s a rational explanation for everything. Love and fear are just neurochemical cocktails, products of an organic machine—you know, the same one that can drive a car with little input from the iMe—a mechanism with interchangeable parts that’s adjustable through medication. Sometimes it seems like there’s no more mystery, no more true romance or adventure. So we make up or hype things to distract ourselves—we seek out celebrity exhibitionism and political histrionics; we ponder alien conspiracy theories and the plausibility of ghost-hunting. Perhaps the advent and enduring popularity of reality-TV is the canary in the coal mine. What does it say about a culture when, instead of wanting to watch fake people having realistic experiences, it starts to prefer ‘real’ people having fake experiences?

Is it that—somewhere in our collective unconscious—we’ve already marked a subtle existential shift, a barely-perceptible but palpable transition into a fake, fabricated existence unworthy of our humanity? Does the apocalyptic fever embodied in the zombietype represent a secret collective desire? Pardon the Freudianisms, but one could argue that the viral zombie craze and apocalypticism circulating in our culture is a sublimated version of a dark, unspoken wish that this deadening, diseased world will end soon. Could it be that many of us actually hope we’ll wake up one terrifying morning to see the world in utter chaos and rapturous ruin, so that, for the first time, we’ll get a chance to find out what it’s really like to be alive? You can’t drift around like a zombie in a world where there are actual zombies and hope to survive. What if  a ‘zombocalypse’ can show us who we truly are—what human beings are actually made of?

A show like The Walking Dead lets us vicariously fulfill this wish—lets us enter a world where what we crave and slave for now—a higher rung on the corporate ladder, the right house, the impressive car, the self-expressive clothes and accessories, the latest technological do-dads—all that stuff is suddenly rendered less valuable—if not totally worthless—and certainly less meaningful. 

If we are what we consume and what we consume becomes pointless then don’t we become pointless, too? If monsters are metaphors, then, perhaps zombies are symbolic warnings of not only how fragile and tenuous our world is, but also just how much of its true value and potential we take for granted, especially when we become mindless creatures of habit.

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