Academic journal article Borderlands

Empire's Walking Dead: The Zombie Apocalypse as Capitalist Theodicy

Academic journal article Borderlands

Empire's Walking Dead: The Zombie Apocalypse as Capitalist Theodicy

Article excerpt

'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living'

(Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

The Walking Dead narrates the odyssey of bands of surviving humans in the American South in the wake of a 21st century zombie apocalypse, and is the most watched dramatic program in American cable television history. (i) In what is perhaps its most notable scene to date, midway through the third season, the show's female lead (Laurie) dies in childbirth. (ii) Laurie's death is not particularly noteworthy, in a sense, since many important characters have already died in the series to this point (zombie apocalypses have a way of doing this), but the manner of her death is striking: she is shot in the head by her tween-aged son Carl after delivering her new baby. In the imagined universe of the series Carl's deed is justified, since a) Laurie has just given birth by Caesarean section, performed by another character with nothing but a knife; b) Laurie will surely die, since there are no sutures available to close her open wound/womb and zombies are roaming nearby; and finally c) all humans are known to be infected with a virus that will resurrect them as a flesh-eating zombie post-mortem (regardless of whether they have been previously bitten by a zombie). Carl shoots his mother as she seemingly lies dead (but not resurrected yet), as a final act of love in order to save her from returning from death (zombies can't reanimate if their brain is destroyed). (iii) What the audience learns later is that, in fact, Laurie was still alive when Carl shot her, since her body is subsequently devoured by a roving zombie (and zombies don't eat other zombies), meaning that Carl actually killed his mother. (iv) Now, while in a Georgia prison where the dead walk again this is a reasonable action, I am interested in the millions of spectators, in the United States and across the globe, who view this program now, and who presumably enjoy viewing it without actually being subject to the tragic decisions forced by a zombie apocalypse. What exactly do viewers get from watching other (fictional) humans, quite sympathetically portrayed at that, hunted so mercilessly that they are forced to murder their own mothers, sisters, and daughters? To put it bluntly: is there something wrong with a culture where ordinary citizens take pleasure in such spectacles? What political subjectivities are revealed, congealed, or constructed through the witnessing of such spectacles? Are these new passion plays redolent with emancipatory energies, as we ponder our own post-apocalypse in the wake of the Great Recession, or do they cement the already-existing subjectivities associated with the global flow of capital? I will discuss these questions in relation to William Connolly's meditation on the promise of speed as a modality of resistance to capitalism (in his Neuropolitics) later in the essay, but in order to flesh out the political implications of The Walking Dead I need to first situate the show in the contemporary landscape of zombie-criticism.

Academics love their zombies as much as the average consumer of mass media, it seems, so there is no shortage of alternatives as to how we might answer these questions. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there is a near-universal consensus in the secondary literature that the 'zombie moment' is actually something of a hopeful portent, rather than being a sign of cultural degradation or exhaustion. Most of these conventional approaches blend political, economic, psychoanalytic, and cultural critique, and argue either a) that zombie narratives are psychologically useful because they allow the audience to confront its fears in a safe venue, or that b) they serve as a powerful means for the immanent critique of advanced capitalism (and of course sometimes both of these perspectives are amalgamated in some way). As to the first style of interpretation, there are many candidates for what modern audiences acutely fear: fear of death, fear of embodiment, fear of desire, fear of the nonhuman bases of the human (Kristeva 1982), fear of the persistence of power (Sutherland 2007), fear of the loss of/lack of meaning in the world (Lauro and Embry 2008; Zani and Meaux 2011), fear of the big Other, and finally, fear of consumer capitalism (Muntean 2011). …

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