Welcome back Damien Williams for a riveting rant on, well, the aforementioned bogeymen, and what kind of future our culture is choosing.
Please pick another apocalypse. Image by Quidditch.
I don't like zombies. I don't mean I'm afraid of them, or that they skeeve me out. I mean that I don't like the current use of them as trope, or a modern cultural cipher. I told you this the last time we spoke, and I told you that I'd tell you why.
You see, back in the day, when Romero was using zombies to talk about consumer culture and the death of individual preference in the face of mass markets, a zombie horde was a potent symbol. It was crushing, endless, homogenizing death. Why do you think Dawn of the Dead takes place in a mall? It was a terrifying indictment of what Romero believed was happening to our society.
Later, when the zombie symbol came to be applied out to Western society as a whole, and not just its consumerist leanings, the fast zombie became the stand-in for the hyper-connectivity and infectious nature of concept, idea, and emotion. Unthinking Rage just spreads and spreads.
That was all well and good. The problem is, zombies don't represent that anymore. Honestly, so far as I see it? Zombies don't represent anything anymore. The modern zombie is an empty symbol, representing only itself. The fight against zombies is now only the pure expression of futility, of never giving up in the face of odds which will defeat us. Zombies are just about Fear. They are collapse and terror and, yes, also the changes that survival of terror wreaks on people. But, in the final offing, I think that's boring.
I'm what some might call a pop culture junkie. I'm interested in all aspects of the popular media (even if, as I say, I don't exactly enjoy every single one of them), because I believe that our pop culture is reflexively connected to the wider culture. It tells us what we're thinking, it tells us how we're feeling, and in turn it influences those thoughts and emotions.
Pop culture amplifies and exaggerates our existing beliefs, distilling them down and reflecting them back to us in a glittering panoply of spectacle and story. What this means for you and me is that, as long as I'm here at The Breaking Time, I'll very often talk to you about the nature of our society — and our perception of its imminent and immanent collapse — through the lens of our pop culture and what it is doing for and to us. If the ascension of “Reality” television is Jean Baudrillard's nightmare scenario, then the rise of zombie apocalypse narrative is mine.
Do you know what's more interesting to me than the zombie apocalypse? Pretty much every other kind of apocalypse.
Actually, let's back that up, and unpack something else about zombie narratives. In addition to fear and collapse, the zombie apocalypse has as its core the notion of competition vs. cooperation, with the story asking the question “which is the right way?”
That is, is it right that we take what we need in the face of unforeseen horrors, or should we share resources? How do we figure out who to let into our groups, and who to exclude? Now, these are important questions for the maintenance of any society, and we have to address them in our everyday lives, to say nothing of those times of crisis.
Think of it this way: If our narrative, our reflection of ourselves, to ourselves—our pop-culture—tells us that we should be suspicious, that we should compete, that we should find exactly one mode of survival and stick with it, and if that's what we teach ourselves and each other — if that's what we show our children and reinforce with our own behavior — then that's what we begin to believe. If we believe that competition, single answers, and zero-sum/single-winner conflict is the only way to move forward, then we have eradicated out-of-hand those perspectives which propose fluidity, flexibility, and a multiplicity of answers.
Here in the US, we are in the heart of our Presidential political season, which means that we hear a lot of Us vs. Them rhetoric — a lot of intimations that “the other one” is unpatriotic, or suspect, or hates the working class, or doesn't understand “Our Values.”
The motto of The Breaking Time is “There Is No They.” I like to think this isn't just a saying, but is an Ethos, an Operational Principle, which says that we are all Us. It's the idea which drew me to become friends with our host in the first place, and the one which resonates most clearly with what I'm looking for from our popular media, be it fictional or otherwise. I have a habit of going off about artificial intelligence, magic, bioethics, and other things of that ilk, talking about how we'll have to simultaneously respect the alterity of a created consciousness while recognising it as conscious, and thus worthy of respect. Talking about how, as we create ourselves and change and make new choices in the face of ever-evolving circumstances, we will have to respect that some people won't want to be cyborgs, at all.
Now, if that's something I believe in regards to AI, and cybernetically-enhanced humans, what do you think I think about other human beings, in regards to their political affiliations? Unfortunately, the Us/Them, In-Group/Out-Group, Zero-Sum tallying of behaviour and options for and definitions of success is everywhere. We see it in two-parties and “appealing to the base” (“...-est instincts of our constituents”) and astroturf awareness and political dog whistles. It's the language of “Getting Ahead,” of “Winning,” and it's so locked into the frame of reference that we can't see a way out of it. Because if we're going to Win, then obviously someone has to Lose, right?
Let me tell you: The worst thing to happen to Hollywood (our cultural shorthand for “Films and Television”) in the past 13 years was the failure of The Matrix to steal more thoroughly from Grant Morrison.
Less Keanu, more King Mob
By aping the style and half of the tone of The Invisibles — Morrison's Chaos Magick Magnum Opus —The Matrix was able to provide viewers just enough weird information to be dangerous. It provided the structure of underlying systems and interwoven perspectives onto what we think of as reality; gave us a young messiah who gave a big middle finger to everything and everyone who wanted him to be something he wasn't (almost); and provided people with just enough of a stable referent to start thinking that the world they knew might not be as cut and dry as they thought.
What The Matrix failed to do was uphold the core ethos of The Invisibles, as shown in the twin lines: “We’re trying to pull off a track that’ll result in everyone getting exactly the kind of world they want. Everyone including the Enemy;” and “This Isn't a War: It's A Rescue Mission.” In The Invisibles, Morrison seeks to provide a view onto a world where there are no winners and losers, no victims and victors, there are just People, free and choosing, forever. The first Matrix almost gives this to us—or at least a promise of it to come—in the final scene.
Neo tells the operators of the Matrix that he's going to show people what he can do, how he can rewrite reality, fly, bend and break their supposed “laws,” and that they can do it too. The intimation is that he's going to let everyone, human and machine, decide how they want to go forward. There doesn't have to be a war, here, there doesn't have to be zero-sum conflict. But then the second two movies happened, and maybe it's best if we just don't talk about it.
The Matrix isn't the only mass media pop-culture property to show us a promise of what we can become. I actually have a list, but The 4400, Fringe, Charlie Jade, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Farscape are the first TV shows to spring to mind. In each of these shows, there is at the very least the unmistakable subtext that cooperation and peace made by conscious entities working together is far greater than single-winner conflict and a fear of The Other. Characters who seem reprehensible or even just alien are shown to have interiority, motivations, hopes—even if they aren't exactly the same as ours.
I just finished re-watching Farscape a few days before Neil Armstrong died. The show ends with a spirit of exploration, of peace, of curiosity, and of awe and wonder at the wider universe. These are things we, as Americans—as a species—first had made concrete for us by Yuri Gagarin, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
These men, and all the people who came after them, have been the living embodiment of what it means to exist in a wider universe, to push us to go out and see what is next, and that poured into the minds of every adult and child who saw it happen, and back out into the world through many of their lives and works. These people taught and teach us that the point of humanity is not to live in fear, to merely survive, worn down, paranoiacally prepared for anything, but to strive for more. To Do Better. We explore, we create, we seek to understand, and we seek to grow. We don't wait for the other shoe to drop, the other shot to sound, but we are prepared, if it comes. We prepare, we are prepared, and even if all of our plans fall down around us, we will figure something out. This is the spirit I look for in my pop-culture media.
Science, Politics, Societal Networking, collaboration, idea-sharing: conscious beings putting their brains together to address some of the world's major problems. NASA's already sorrowfully small operations budget is likely to be slashed again, if the political climate gets any worse for science. If that happens, then the privatisation of space exploration is an actual likelihood. If our world is fractured, there are definitely some flowers growing from the cracks, and some of our best media reflect those flowers.
The shows I mentioned above look to the future, look to intense co-operation, and they say, “Yes.” They say “explore,” they say “prepare,” they say “adapt, change, grow, be better, become more, and work together." Because there will be people who don't understand working together, who don't understand the idea that everyone can win, and they're going to try to fight you. You have to be prepared to fight back, but from their blindspot: bring them to the table, sit them down, and be prepared to teach. Most importantly, be prepared to learn.
I want you to take a look at work being done in autonomous created intelligences; look at the advances being made in cybernetics/bio-mechanics and genetic engineering. Look at space. Don't you want to be there, when these things are realised? Don't you want to have a say in how they're realised. Because they're all coming — in fact, they're all already here.
All we get to do now is decide if we want to approach them in terror, waving a torch and pitchfork, ultimately getting mowed down for our efforts, or if instead we want to engage them with an enthused-if-cautious curiosity. Do we want to walk smiling and alert into the rest of this century and beyond, or do we want to huddle in fear as it washes over us like a horde?