Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Zombie Apocalypse Has Already Begun

A student of mine recently warned me to begin to prepare for the zombie apocalypse that he proclaimed would be happening very soon. He was joking of course, but I’m not so certain that his prediction isn’t accurate. In fact, one could argue that the zombie apocalypse has already begun and the zombies around us are now in the majority.

But first, we need to define what a zombie is.   

My favorite kind of zombie is that kind that you get in some tropical bar—a delightful concoction of rum, citrus juice, and apricot liqueur. Enough of those might certainly turn you into a zombie, but I think that this is a different sort of zombie than the one we are referring to when we talk about the “zombie apocalypse.”

We also use the term in reference to extremely dull, listless, affect-deprived individuals, as in “God, he’s such a zombie!” While those sort of zombies are all around us (they can easily be found occupying the administrative offices at most high schools and colleges) I don’t think that’s what we mean when we refer to the zombie apocalypse either. The extremely dull may eventually take over the earth, but I seriously doubt that we will have to worry about them chomping on our vital organs.

A zombie is usually defined as “the body of a dead person, given some form of life due to some external agency.” In the case of voodoo the zombie is brought to life by some supernatural force, typically for some evil purpose. Think of Bella Lugosi as the voodoo witch doctor in the cheesy 1932 horror film, White Zombie, summoning the forces of the dead to ensnare some virginal, extremely pale woman who had the misfortune of planning her summer vacation in Haiti during zombie season.

In the current manifestations of zombidom, dead persons are brought back to life due to some kind of global cataclysm. This sort of zombie is a fairly recent phenomenon, first unveiled, I believe, in George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. In that film the dead became reanimated due to some kind of radioactive contamination from a space probe returning from Venus, and begin to chow down on those human beings who were too slow to run away from them. The only way to effectively stop a zombie, in this version and all subsequent ones, is to shoot it in the head or decapitate it. This essentially is the paradigm of the zombie that has been presented in films like Resident Evil, House of the Dead, zombie parodies like Sean of the Dead and Zombieland, and television shows like Walking Dead.

The key to understanding the nature of a zombie is to recognize that the zombie is always essentially will-less. It does what it does (at least in the post-Romero version) because it is driven by some dark, insatiable primordial need—i.e., the desire to engorge itself on the flesh of a living host (a symbol perhaps of the fear of being “consumed” during the act of coitus?). The zombie has no freedom to refrain from doing what its nature compels it to do and therefore its actions transcend categories of moral responsibility. You might have very good reasons for wanting to “kill” a zombie, but you would be completely out of line if you morally reproached one when it tried to eat you.

Now that we understand what a zombie is—a creature devoid of life and will, compelled to engage in some seriously antisocial behavior—why do I argue that a zombie apocalypse has already occurred?

I came to this conclusion only recently. If fact, the insight hit me while I was spending time with my family on Super Bowl Sunday. Despite what you might think, I’m not going to make the case that my family members have turned into zombies, because they felt compelled to watch one of the most witless, idiotic spectacles known to man. Who but a zombie, one might argue, would sit in front of a television set for hours watching over-weight jocks knock each other down or engage in idle banter about which Super Bowl commercial was the most “profound”?

No, had they been caught up in the spectacle of the Super Bowl, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so concerned. Instead, during the entire time the Super Bowl was on, almost every member of the family was totally engrossed by whatever form of personal technology they had at their disposal: Ipads, cellphones, Nooks, Kindles, laptops, etc. And those who didn’t have their own devices were looking on with those who did. Occasionally, someone would glance up at the TV and make a half-hearted comment about the current score or about how cool the commercials were, but then they immediately would go back to playing on their little devices.

It is the glut of technology so readily at our disposal that is precipitating the zombie apocalypse that my student warned me about. We have become a nation of zombies because we no longer have control over when or how we use our technology. Essentially, we use technology all the time, and we use it for just about everything. We use it to communicate with one another (email, text messaging), to express our deepest beliefs and feeling (blogs, Twitter) and to form virtual communities with like-minded others (Facebook). We no longer have the freedom and ability to meaningfully interact and interrelate with others in the real world, because the online world has seduced us with its sublime superficiality.

It’s certainly much easier being a techno-zombie than having to encounter the other in all of his or her messy, annoying, emotion-laden individuality. And it’s definitely much easier to communicate with others using a program like Facebook than to have to look them directly in the eyes and actually listen to what they have to say to us. The voodoo magic of modern technology has enabled all of us to enter into our own individual zombie havens, demanding that we return to the “real” world only when absolutely necessary—for food, sex, and to empty our bowels once or twice a day.

The zombie apocaplyse has most certainly already occurred and there are very few of us who have not been at least partially contaminated (After all, I’m writing this essay using the very technology that I am arguing has turned us into zombies in the first place!). And, unlike in the movies, the solution is not as simply as shooting the zombies among us in the head. The only way to “cure” a technozombie is to disconnect him from the technology that has caused his condition in the first place. In cases of extreme contamination the cure itself might lead to psychosis or death: who among us, after all, would care to a live in a world in which the ultimate sweetness of life—derived from our ability to surf, tweet, and post—has been so cruelly removed.

A less fatal cure is to force the technozombie to engage in deep, meaningful, face-to-face human interaction. My friend, Dr. Peter Fallon, of Roosevelt University, refers to this as “phatic communion” and thinks that it is the most essential form of communication between human beings. But achieving any level of phatic communion with a zombie is difficult at best and requires constant attentiveness. You’ve got to keep after those who are already infected, as well as those that have the potential to become infected, and continually force them to answer questions like: “How are things going?” “What are you up to?” “What are you reading these days?” and “Have you found a real girlfriend yet?” Once the infected party has begun to respond to these simple sorts of questions, you can move on to more significant ones like: “Whose works do you prefer, Elmore Leonard or Kurt Vonnegut?” “Which form of Buddhism is the optimal one for true enlightenment—Zen or Vipassana?” and “Why is there something at all rather than nothing?”

This line of questioning probably won’t work either, I’m afraid. Too many people under the age of 40 are already too far gone to be brought back from the technological infestation to which they have been exposed. The non-contaminated may just have to get used to living in a world filled with those who give the appearance of being alive, but who are actually more like the living dead than anything I have seen in even the most horrific zombie film.

As bad as this may seen, those who haven’t become zombies might learn to appreciate the benefits of living in the post apocalyptic world. After all, if you are capable of maintaining eye contact for more than 30 seconds, know how to engage in any kind of social pleasantries, and have even the most minimal sense of humor, you’ll probably wind up running the entire planet, since these qualities are virtually non-existent among zombies.

And since zombies are so slow, at least you’ll be the first on line to get dessert at every holiday. That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?

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