Friday, November 8, 2013

Zombies - The Perfect Other

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.


Image Credits

Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. Mark, enjoyed both your posts on zombies. I find your conclusion in this post a little more problematic and susceptible to challenge, however. I agree with you that zombies, as you define them, can be viewed as the perfect other. What's less convincing is the leap you make from the construction of the perfect other to the idea that our behavior will be changed as a result of this new practice of dehumanizing the perfect other. Unfortunately, humans have a long history of dehumanizing the other, going back long before the Nazis did this to Jews and other undesirables on a massive scale in the 30's and 40's. So I don't think humans need another excuse to mistreat and harm our fellow humans, certainly we shouldn't blame the zombie craze for doing this. The interesting thing about the Walking Dead TV show is that the creators are rather explicit in drawing the connection between the living and the walking dead. In other words, the walking dead are the living survivors just as much as the undead hordes who want to feed on them. The survivors do not relish killing their former family members and friends but do so as a means to ensure their own survival. I suggest that a more nuanced perspective on zombies is required, at least if we take the Walking Dead TV show as the exemplar.

  2. Thanks for replying, Bob! I totally agree with you that the 'dehumanization of the other' predates the modern zombie archetype. Like you, I was contemplating as I wrote these posts the dehumanization of the Jews and others by Nazi Germany. They didn't need a television show about zombies to prime the masses for such behavior. However, a good deal of work was done to make sure that people did think of Jews as a less than fully human other. I once saw a collection of German archival film "documenting" the Jewish ghettos of that time. The uninitiated viewer would think that this footage was documenting actual living conditions. However, a scholar spoke of this footage in fact being contrived Nazi propaganda meant to make the subjects appear as "subhuman" (worthy of annihilation) as possible. BTW, she spoke of some of this footage being presented at times even to this day as a factual representation of living conditions then present - without knowledge that the footage was actually created as propaganda.

    Steven Pinker speaks of the rise of the utopian ideal as corresponding to the rise of great violence such as that perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al. The utopian ideal prompts us to think of the infinite good that might exist if we could just get rid of these "bad actors". Thus, in the name of infinite good we might join in the perpetration of great "evil". After all, infinite good will result! If it's someone's land we want, or their gold, we will use only what force is necessary to make off with their property. However, when it is an ideal that we want, it is the annihilation of the other that is required.

    Back to zombies: Do I think that viewers of 'Walking Dead' will be more inclined than others to perpetrate violence on the basis of seeing someone else as a perfect other? Well..., I don't know..., maybe... As you are aware, I'm sure, an absolute link between the viewing of and the perpetration of violence has not been proven, but I am inclined to lean in the direction of there being a correlation. I think when we consume such imagery it does have the potential to sprout its karmic seeds within us. I find that certain violent images that I've seen in films many years ago will reappear in consciousness from time to time. For that reason, I think it does behoove us to be aware of what we watch and why.

    I'm glad to hear that 'Walking Dead' provides a more nuanced treatment of zombies and the humans who might kill them. It was after seeing parts of only two episodes that got me thinking along the lines of these two posts. I did some web research of the modern film zombie and took it from there. What disturbed me most perhaps was the use of the zombie imagery within a political context. Much of my thinking stems from contemplating how our two party system and its accompanying echo chambers has made it so that we very much seem to be coming from different planets some times. Add to this calls for cessation and government overthrow and whatnot and I think we are in a place where the zombification of others might very well tip certain predisposed individuals to committing violence. In a nutshell, I would call this conceptualization of the 'perfect other' a template that we might be tempted to overlay onto reality at such time when it might seem appropriate to us.

    So, I have to say that you definitely bring up some good points and I deserve to be challenged on them. However, I still hope that people reflect upon how the viewing of such images might potentially impact how they think about themselves and 'the other'. Thanks again, Bob! Mark

  3. Mark, thanks for your thoughtful reply. We are not that much in disagreement. You raise an important issue, that is, to what extent are shows like the Walking Dead responsible for sowing the seeds of violence? I agree there is a strong correlation between depictions of violence and the incidence of real violence in society. But how much of this is due to the influence of TV versus other forms of media including video games? And if we begin to single out TV for its graphic images what about the equally disturbing images to be found in literature and other artistic endeavors? As a child, I had terrible nightmares that sometimes kept me up all night the result of hearing Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart read aloud in class in a particularly creepy manner. I think you open a veritable Pandora's Box if you draw the line just with films.

    I think the aspect of the zombie craze that draws most of your ire seems to be the extreme violence and graphic depiction of the zombies. But I assume you would have the same response if rather than zombies we substituted aliens, vampires, serial killers or a whole host of nasty creatures? Zombies, or the walking dead, present for me a particularly poignant example of monster because they are just us except a little worse for wear and living-impaired. They have no superpower; indeed, they are mindless and one-dimensional. Their strength is in their numbers and implacable appetite. Might this be a metaphor for dangerous mass movements like fascism? I raise this possibility to counter your argument that the images of zombies might be likely to impact our views of the other. Viewed differently, it might be a warning to us that mindless consumerism is dangerous, a destroyer of lives and souls.

  4. Hello Bob. Sorry for my long delay in responding. Wow, time has flown. In rereading my previous comment I realize that I woefully misspelled secession. That has to be my worst spelling error ever! More to the point. I agree that there is a huge variety of violent imagery out there - from the more indulgent to the artistic. I would just encourage people to be mindful consumers of entertainment and to really contemplate the impact of viewing such violence on themselves, others, and society as a whole. Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven, for example, has that scene where one of the young outlaws is shot and dying painfully. It is very gripping and prolonged and it shows violence in a realistic way for both the victim and the perpetrator. Such depictions don't draw on any of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of annihilating those who stand in the way of our getting everything we want. Violence presented in this way might actually help counteract the usual one-dimensional treatment of good guys and bad guys and lots of blood but little pain and suffering and few, if any, long term consequences. Greater awareness is all I'm advocating. Thanks again!