Zombies: Real and Imagined

I’ve hooked back up with some old #moocmooc friends for a Twitter version of Humans v. Zombies, appropriately titled Twitter v. Zombies, for a weekend of fun and procrastination. And I’ve got good reason to procrastinate, as any beleaguered grad student will understand, since a fat stack of (electronic) student papers have just landed on my desk(top) and threaten to consume the weekend. I am thoroughly in agreement with Chuck Klosterman’s assessment in the New York Times last year that the zombie is our modern monster because the constant zombie onslaught (and zombie slaughter) mirror our own Sisyphean task of waging war against the daily onslaught of data, tasks, and (of course) tweets:

IF THERE’S ONE THING we all understand about zombie killing, it’s that the act is uncomplicated: you blast one in the brain from point-blank range (preferably with a shotgun). That’s Step 1. Step 2 is doing the same thing to the next zombie that takes its place. Step 3 is identical to Step 2, and Step 4 isn’t any different from Step 3. Repeat this process until (a) you perish, or (b) you run out of zombies. That’s really the only viable strategy.

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.

The Internet reminds of us this every day.

To be fair to my wonderful students and their often insightful essays, grading papers is not in fact the same thing as “reading and deleting 400 work e-mails,” but the logistics of grading—particularly within a composition course—does eventually instill instructors with a certain panic that “you will never be finished with whatever it is you do,” and even worse that you may be “consumed by the avalanche.” And, sadly, the pace of paper writing and receiving and grading and revising and returning and grading (often in environments not totally conducive to the well-being of students or instructors) can often get in the way of what this whole academic enterprise is supposed to do: give us time and space to really think about, wrestle with, and care about ideas. Just as you have little time to contemplate the possible remnants of humanity in the zombie that you just double-tapped (for good measure), there is often little time for instructors or students to really chew over the meaning of the ideas that are their bread-and-butter. In fact, there is little time to even reflect on what it is that we, in fact, do. More often than not—at least in the humanities— when we do begin to think in broad terms about what we do, it is in defensive terms to try and guarantee our own survival: a consequence of—and certainly not an anecdote to—the zombie apocalypse.

But, in every good zombie story, there are always one or two brief scenes in which characters can nostalgically reflect back on what things once were—while also realizing all the signs that they’d missed. In that spirit, I travel back more years than I care to confess to my senior year of undergrad, when I hadn’t yet realized that it was totally passée to like Herbert Marcuse (and especially Eros and Civilization!) and, in a brief lull in the zombie onslaught, before my mind’s eye floats a hazy image of a half-forgotten passage:

The culture of industrial civilization has turned the human organism into an ever more sensitive, differentiated, exchangeable instrument, and has created a social wealth sufficiently great to transform this instrument into an end in itself. The available resources make for a qualitative change in the human needs . . . Technology operates against the repressive utilization of energy in so far as it minimizes the time necessary for the production of the necessities of life, thus saving time for the development of needs beyond the realm of necessity and necessary waste.

But the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve. Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression . . . productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control.

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