Sunday, March 5, 2017

"All You Zombies--"

So the scientific zombies of today are animated by and in thrall to a pathogen, a living thing that cannot be detected without the aid of instrumentation. What other unseen, undetectable, or unmeasurable forces might drive the behavior of a zombie or the conduct of a human being? Radioactivity might do it, as in the story of the Incredible Hulk. Parasites might do it, too, as in cattle infected with turning sickness. Genes are held to account by some people for much if not all of human conduct, or what they would call human behavior. Very often what is called "society" or "the system" catches the blame when things go wrong in the world. To that point, isn't "society" or "the system" also undetectable? If you think that it is, please point to "society." Draw a line around it and describe it. Try to measure its effects on the individual. What instruments will you use? What will be your units of measure? How will you test your hypotheses? How will you control for variables? Where is your control group? How will your procedure yield results that are either falsifiable or repeatable? Do you have answers yet? Have you found and measured "society" yet?

The points are these: 1) All of these forces--pathogens, radioactivity, parasites, genes, and "society" or "the system"--are undetectable without instrumentation, or, as with "society," by instrumentation, and all are basically material, physical, or biological in nature. 2) All remove responsibility and accountability for the actions of the individual from the individual and place them on an outside and uncontrollable force. (1) 3) We have resorted to these forces because we're squeamish about naming others that might better explain human conduct. One I can think of is evil.

So, zombies, despite all their atrocities, must not be evil because of one of three things: 1) They are not human; 2) Their actions are justifiable; or 3) There is no such thing as evil. But if we want to make zombies representative of real people, how do we go about that exactly? Well, either: 1) Zombies represent human beings but are not responsible for their behavior, being as they are victims of external forces; or 2) Zombies represent the evil people who really exist in the world. In the first category--the non-culpable zombies--are included all of the victims of "society": the slave, the colonial laborer, the illegal alien, the exploited industrial worker, the person born without privilege, the outsider, the downtrodden, the deprived, the forgotten, in short, "the people." Zombies of this type are excused from what they do. In the second category--the evil zombies--are all of the victimizers of "the people": the slave-master, the colonialist, the capitalist exploiter, the imperialist, the fat-cat one-percenter, the fascist, and so on. These zombies must be destroyed. The long and short of it is that all sides of the argument use zombies for their own purposes, and their arguments--despite all of the scholarly titles of their papers, the scholarly forms their ideas take, and the scholarly venues in which they are published--come down to a lot of name-calling. We're all like a bunch of children on the playground or in the street:

"You're a zombie!" cries one side.

"No, you're a zombie!" answers the other.

And so it has gone since at least 2006 when the first overtly political scholarly paper on zombies that I know of was published.

* * *

There isn't much in the way of zombie scholarship, such as it is, from the conservative side. After all, academia, especially in the liberal arts, leans hard to the left. (You might say they have turning sickness and turn only in one direction, in a narrowing rather than a widening gyre.) But there are still living conservative commentators who use zombies. Here is a long passage from a recent essay called "The Spiritual Deadness of the Left" by Judah Friedman, from the website of The American Spectator, February 6, 2017:
There is no logic. There are no facts. You can say blue, and they will hear white. One plus one equals cat. Calling the left mentally ill is truly a disservice to those who are mentally ill. At least with mental illness there’s a reason for the madness and a hope for a cure. There is no hope for the left. They are suffering from a deep-rooted spiritual sickness, one for which, I’m afraid, there is no cure. [. . .] The problem with spiritual disease is the fact that it can spread very quickly. Sadly, more and more are getting infected.
The protesters, the media, the celebrities, and the leaders are the “Walking Dead.” How soulless and lifeless can one be, calling for a military coup against a President (Sarah Silverman)? Or, comparing the President to the Taliban (Whoopi)? Anything and everything comes out of Nancy Pelosi’s non-moving mouth. Are you serious, encouraging protesters to be more violent (Judd Apatow)? [. . .]
Plain and simple, their goals are to bite and infect all those who come into contact with them. It is they who have unfriended. It is they who have labeled and ostracized others. It is they who have called for your prosecution, if you question their science. It is they who have shunned and mocked those who don’t conform. It is they, who will not hire or fire, if they find out you are a Yuden (Trump Supporter). (2)
And so on.

In zombies, it seems, we have found a word and a symbol to mean whatever we want them to mean. They're the Swiss Army knife of monsters. They have become the F-word of ideas, i.e., the word that can be used as every part of speech and then some. Whatever intellectual, moral, scholarly, or creative problem you've got, zombies are the solution.

* * *

If you go to the website of the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and do a title search for the word zombie, you will get back a list of short stories, poems, books, and magazines with titles containing that word. One of the most prominent and often reprinted is "All You Zombies--" by Robert A. Heinlein from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, from March 1959. The story isn't what you might think: there are no zombies in it. It is instead a time-travel story and one of Heinlein's patented solipsisms. It may be, in fact, the most solipsistic and inverted story ever written. (I won't give anything away--you'll have to read it yourself.) But as with so many things, Heinlein was ahead of his time. He seems to have foreseen that we would all someday tend to look at everyone outside ourselves as mindless zombies, perhaps all of them as having meaningless and contemptible lives. The title is in quotation marks for a reason: it is a quote from the story and is directed by the protagonist at everyone.

* * *

I have written a lot about zombies over the last several weeks and there is more to come. The irony is that I don't even like zombies very much, and the reason I don't like them is that they are everywhere. To me, they represent conformity and a lack of imagination on the part of the artist and writer. In my work, I strive to be original, imaginative, creative, and especially non-conforming. (I have to admit to being contrary, too. I am, after all, Irish.) I look for new things, new ideas, and new ways of thinking about, writing about, and depicting these things and ideas. Zombies aren't it (in general). Anyway, if you look at Tyll Zybura's zombibliography from a few days ago, you will see listed title after title and idea after idea that seem worn out and wrung dry. The idea of the zombie is a zombie itself: it's not just dead but past dead. It's a rapidly decaying mess, yet it won't lie down in its grave. It just keeps shambling on, especially in the minds of leftist academics. And though academics may be among the least imaginative of people (artists and writers are pretty bad, too) everyone seems to have uses for zombies, and everyone continues to rely on them. Zombies are used not only in art, literature, and film but also in journalism, political commentary, folklore, critical theory, philosophy, epidemiology, biology, robotics, and on and on. They have become all things to all people. One of the reasons I have written these series on zombies is to show that there is still the possibility of writing something original about them. (At least I hope I have written something original.) But there is so much that is not original, too, and none of it shows any signs of expiring anytime soon. So how much longer will zombies be with us?

(1) Even genes are considered to be uncontrollable. There are, after all, phrases like "genetically programmed" and "hardwired" to describe human behavior that simply can't be changed because of its genetic origins. The language echoes that used to describe computers and robots. So do computers, robots, biologically programmed zombies, and genetically programmed humans exist all on a continuum or on the same curve, as in the second zombograph from the other day? Are they all simply variations of each other?
(2) "Juden" refers to Mr. Friedman's point (and the source of his outrage) that the left has used--and trivialized--the Holocaust, its perpetrators, and its imagery to describe people who support our current president. The leftist's use of zombies is far more trivial, but it is put to the same use, namely, to malign those who oppose them or disagree with them.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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