The Civilizational Significance of Zombies

Independent of its film adaptation, Max Brooks's 2006 novel World War Z is high literature: a case study in what mankind gains when forced to confront annihilation.
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When large numbers of the living start dressing up as the undead, they are announcing a true cultural phenomenon. It may seem like a fad, but zombies matter--not just in the sociology of pop culture but in how we collectively orient ourselves toward the future of civilization itself.

Pondering the zombie apocalypse is a form of shared emotional preparation--a collective therapy--for facing bad things to come. It is also, ironically, society's only working pathway to real-world, worst-case strategic analysis. And as Americans, in particular, it is our clearest window into our own dark side--and at the same time, a potential key to national renewal.

The civilizational significance of zombies is there in all cultural treatments, AMC's The Walking Dead being a revelation among them. But only Max Brooks's World War Z elevates zombies to high literature. Yes, high: like Tolstoy's War and Peace, or Graves's I Claudius, or Orwell's 1984. It is a history with the full sweep of a grand narrative directly addressing every one of life's big questions.

World War Z fulfills its literary promise on all three civilizational levels. As collective therapy, it shows how we will find a way to keep hoping, and to celebrate just being alive. As worst-case strategic analysis, it reveals the human future that is coming but we still cannot yet bear to face. As a window into the soul, it offers America two paths: one into darkness and extinction, the other into greatness beyond anything we have yet achieved. Brad Pitt and Hollywood's movie of the novel may not matter in the end, and it may not sing like the book. But it should still try, because zombies do matter.

Collective Therapy
How did we humans manage to get this far? We have been on the rocks several times. Anthropologists call these events bottlenecks. The worst of these came 150,000 years ago at Pinnacle Point in South Africa. There, the last remnants of humanity, a few ragged bands of us, fought off extinction by climate change. We survived, so scientists tell, by learning to eat shellfish.

New thinking tells us that consciousness itself is an evolutionary adaptation, and it is easy to see how being self-aware helped us survive.

But consciousness also can limit what we see. It allows us, even encourages us, to live in denial of the biggest new threats. For ruling establishments especially, the pressure to keep people oblivious can be all the more acute because admitting to big danger directly threatens legitimacy. Regimes only want "threats" that keep the money coming and the people in check.

Hence, at the beginning of World War Z, the big plague is on its way but the U.S. administration is in full, on-message denial. As the thinly veiled Karl Rove tells it:

What, you would rather we told people the truth? That it wasn't a new strain of rabies but a mysterious uber-plague that reanimated the dead? Can you imagine the panic that would have happened: the protest, the riots, the billions in damage to private property? Can you imagine all those wet-pants senators who would have brought the government to a standstill ... can you imagine the damage it would have done to that administration's political capital?

Does this mean consciousness actually works against our ability to prepare for the Big One? No, because there is a safety valve that elites cannot control. It is called literature.

Literature is humankind's vehicle for collectively preparing and readying ourselves for the threat of annihilation. The genre that you could call apocalyptic lit has been with us for a long time. It really took off when civilization began to collapse in the sixth century after Justinian's plague (brought on by climate change).

People turned to literature to frame their response, to seek solace, to organize chaos into meaning. Medical science? Modern management? None of those solutions even existed. But literature did, and offered something more important: a reason to keep going. A reason to live. The Western world survived literally because a single city survived: Constantinople. But the people behind those great walls still had to keep believing.

The zombie virus makes us fight the war *they* want, and critical time is lost while we struggle to make the necessary recognition. Only the prospect of extinction opens our eyes.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers all lived through these times, and they tapped into the climate of fear and dread. But their "apocalypses" actually had a different practical utility. As Johannes Fried writes, "such rhetoric is neither hysterical nor the result of panic but rather is a discourse of action, one that urges specific kinds of action ... in response to belief in the imminent end."

Apocalyptic lit helps us conquer fear. And when we are no longer afraid, we can do. So zombie tales tell us what we have to do in the next bottleneck, no matter what form it takes or how bad it is. It is not the message here that counts but the taking onboard of the message--repeatedly--that actually preps us emotionally and intellectually.

World War Z captures the big threat: people give up hope. From those on the ships of Radio Free Earth, keeping the last world network alive, we see how that happens:

When the last broadcast came from Buenos Aires, when that famous Latin singer played that Spanish lullaby, it was too much for one of our operators. He wasn't from Buenos Aires, he wasn't even from South America. He was just an eighteen-year old Russian sailor who blew his brains out all over his instruments. He was the first, and since the end of the war, the rest of the IR operators have followed suit. Not one of them is alive today. The last was my Belgian friend, "You carry those voices with you," he told me one morning.

Here Brooks is like a great Greek or Latin Rhetor whose goal is to teach us how not to fear.

Presented by

Michael Vlahos is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice.

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