What is it with this zombie craze, anyway? There’s got to be more to it than just a macabre fascination with images of the rotting and decrepit “undead” shambling after hapless humans or getting messily dispatched by the “good guys”, right? So, does it help us come to grips with the uneasy sense of entitlement we humans have sitting here at the top of the food chain? Does it reflect some vague realization that humankind is self-destructing before our very eyes? Does it amount to a cultural catharsis, comical at times, for what is otherwise a very dark and apocalyptic foreboding? Perhaps, as a reader of my Do Zombies Have Buddha Nature? post suggested, we recognize in those zombies just a little too much of our own entertainment-addled, substance-addled, and meaningless work-addled selves. I suspect that all of these elements and more account for our fascination with zombies. However, as the title of this post suggests, I’d like to focus on one in particular: zombies as the perfect other. Let me explain.
It is the usual state of affairs that we define ourselves in terms of both that which we are and that which we are not. No, this is not a very “Buddhist” thing to do in the ultimate sense, but we do it nonetheless, and from a Western psychological perspective it is generally considered part of healthy development. We individuate. We differentiate. We form a healthy ego. And so it is that we come to look at the world in terms of self and other.
|From Tony Moore's 'Walking Dead'|
The process of self-formation is gradual (generally speaking), continuous, and utilitarian. It is at times quite simplistic and at other times exceedingly complex. For instance, I am flesh and bone, unlike that rock over there. However, I might make use of that rock in order to build a house in which to shelter myself or to go rabbit hunting if I’m feeling particularly hungry. I am Mark Frank, unlike Gerhard Frost over there. No, I can’t just go walking into Gerhard’s house without causing a disturbance, but if we should happen to become friends, then he might decide to invite me in to share a meal or a drink or some good conversation. Furthermore, I am at times a mystical rationalist, at other times a rational mystic. I’m a Christian come Buddhist existentialist, a social and political progressive, an economic pragmatist, a compassionate empowerer, a selectively technology-embracing Luddite, a lover and a loner… Of course, I could go on; as could we all. And each time we name something that we are, we are essentially naming that which we are not. (See A Gestalt View Of No-Self for more on this idea.) So as we construct our concept of self we also, by necessity, construct our concept of other.
This ongoing construction of self and other is a process of practical negotiation and discovery. We discover that inanimate objects like rocks do not feel pain as we do, and even animate objects like Gerhard do not feel “our” pain – at least not in the physical sense. We find that Christianity is something that resonates with us in some meaningful way or it does not, or perhaps it resonates with us for a time and then ceases to have such meaning. And while this process of negotiation and discovery might be disruptive at times, it need not necessarily be violent. For instance, when my Christian faith began to wane, I felt the need for a time to be more critical of Christianity than perhaps the average “non-believer” would be. As the development of my concept of self continued, however, I became able to integrate more fully those Christian and non-Christian aspects of who I was/am, thereby resulting in a greater sense of peace and wholeness. I didn’t have to go to war with Christians in order to differentiate myself from Christians and Christianity.
Of course it is quite obvious that we humans do war with each other based on our conceptualizations of self. History has been a constant interplay of this self taking the land of that other, and that self enslaving this other for their labor, and the self that is in power ensuring that as many resources as possible fall under their control instead of being used for the sake of those others. Ah, but such warring requires justification, for we are “moral” selves, as well. That which we do for the sake of the physical well-being of the self must also be adequately self-justified in order for us to continue living with a sense of psychic and emotional well-being. And so it is that we ponder “just war” against others, and rationalize the inhumane and torturous treatment of others, and condone the remote drone-strike assassination of others – all in the name of the peace and safety of the self. This is not easy! We must expend incredible amounts of psychic energy in order to keep ourselves blinded to the fact that the other feels pain just as we do, that the other wants peace and safety just as we do, that the other desires to be happy just as we do. Enter, the perfect other!
The perfect other feels no pain. The perfect other has no will. Even its unwavering existential need to devour us is not willed – it is simply a predetermined matter of fact. The perfect other has no discernable reason to exist other than to threaten the well-being of the self. In fact, the perfect other is not even “really” alive! For all of these reasons, the perfect other can be annihilated without any sense of remorse, without any moral reflection, without any spiritual consequence whatsoever.
What concerns me, then, about this zombie craze, is that it strikes me as a way for us to toy with this idea of the perfect other, to try it on for size, to see how it fits our psyche just in case we decide to make use of it one day. And perhaps that day is already here. For one need not search for very long before finding evidence of the projection of zombification onto others. Whether we’re talking about terrorists who “just hate our freedoms” or those from another political party who “have no mind of their own” save for that which is deposited within the rotting fleshiness of their cranial receptacle by charismatic leaders or talk-radio hosts, we are, in essence, sizing them up to see how this concept of the perfect other might fit them. And heaven help us if we should ever decide that it does.
Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank