Walking Dead

Voracious zombie ciphers

Media scholars dissect The Walking Dead

Wherever you look, zombies are inexorably eating their way through media culture. A Dresden workshop entitled "Not dead to get - The Walking Dead and the hell of seriality" went pleasantly intrepid on trace search.  

What might remain after a zombie apocalypse? The zombie survives us all, after all. Academically, too, it seems. Especially in the humanities, almost everything is now closely scrutinized. Comics, games and series as well as books, movies or video. For several years now, (TV) series in particular have been experiencing a lively revival in university seminar rooms and in the publication lists of academic publishers. What already started in the 80s and early 90s with classics like David Lynch's evergreen Twin Peaks or Michael Mann's pop cop skirmish Miami Vice would have initially blown the mind of an old school thinker like Adorno, is now driving numerous resourceful scholars who can no longer get past topics like HBO, Netflix, and the whole proliferation of contemporary seriality. It's all a question of attitude. Also on the subject of the zombie, which equally enjoys a constant presence in pop culture, although it comes across as neither sexy nor trendy and, with its short-term memory in a usually gigantic swelling consumer or gluttonous community, does not correspond to the much-loved narrative of an individual that societies like to tell themselves as a bedtime story to nobilize their own conception of the world.

(Keeping an) Attitude

So what attitude does one take toward a figure of attribution diversity that is so bustling in popular culture, even though zombies are characterized precisely by a lack of attitude - or at least a gracelessness in their "poses"? The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 through 5 also available at Amazon available) has now been demanding for several TV seasons (and the comic template incomparably longer) from fans as well as critics an often very variable positioning as far as questions of human morality, justice, survival and thus a notion of culture and sociality are concerned. It is not only a question of which character will suffer a more or less brutal death next, but which possible guiding principle or which ideology associated with a character is first laid to rest, only to celebrate an undead resurrection. The zombies eat their way through the hopes of a decaying world in The Walking Dead and insist as the disruption of a social order that, over the course of the series, forms zombiesque figures out of the humans, who are constantly confronted with the question of where the zombie begins in themselves and where it has perhaps always been there. That may be after all these years, the sometimes intrusive circular redundancies of the series with its recurring, never consistent shelters may also no longer be followed with the excitement as in the first seasons.

Appealing swarm (un)intelligences

Nevertheless, one fact remains undisputed and defended with a certain emphasis: The Walking Dead was in any case, and no matter what may or may not come, one of the most important series of its generation, as it provoked opinions and critical confrontations with itself and the contexts it invoked. Regardless of whether one may now find it tiresome to still ask the question of whether the loss of a character like Daryl, Rick, Michonne or member XYZ in the transit room ABC could really give the series once again really relevant impulses beyond a dramaturgy that can also be read as a zombiefied soap opera between love, loss, failure and hope under the radical surface: Robert Kirkman's universe is a piece of serial history with a lot of gravitas. This is precisely what an examination of Kirkman's creation must be about, namely the fact of a culture of engagement with series that has swelled with it. Similarly as with comparably mass-suited large-scale projects such as Game of Thrones or before Lost it is however above all the integration of completely different groups of spectators, which can be united even by the dramaturgical and thematic (un)depths of a zombie series.

Just a few years ago a series cuckoo describing itself as "normal average consumer" would probably not have expected at all to indulge in such a brutal pleasure every week or in the best binge mode. Not bad for a prime-time series in which neither the undead, staggering along in their voracity without a shred of humanism, nor their (potential) fodder can maintain a stable posture in the long run in order to survive. Zombies, paradoxically, do not make it any easier than other undead attractions such as vampires or ghosts to grasp their power of fascination, despite a supposedly rather simplistic description of their characteristics.

Am Hirntot setzt viel Denken an

In a well-attended, if for the occasion almost too contemplatively small lecture room at the TU Dresden, one could now observe for two days at the end of May how a select circle of media scholars made the attempt to vividly put their own attitude or better: different attitudes towards the zombie to the test. Under the leadership of German and media professor Lars Koch, the long-established television research group Weiter Sehen invited local researchers as well as guests from the field of series studies, such as Ivo Ritzer or Michaela Wünsch, to get a feel for the zombie. This much is already clear after the first introductions to the workshop's topic: zombies fascinate far beyond the contemporary hype surrounding The Walking Dead. Not only because of the motifs, semantics, and references that make the zombie interesting as a figure, but especially because of its near-universal adaptability as a multicultural cipher that has functioned as popularly and culturally critically over the past two centuries as it does today. In the pleasantly multi-layered thematic introduction by conference organizers Tanja Prokic and Daniel Eschkötter, it is shown how the zombie, due to its hardly possible assignment between life/death, subject/object or human/non-human, provokes social norms again and again and thus animates subversive to striking fictions and narratives across all modern media of the last decades. What a career, one would like to note: From the gothic depths of Caribbean superstition, the zombie (originally without "e") went on a media tour and became a projection figure for all kinds of gender trouble, postcolonialism,  consumer criticism, and even a bone of contention in the theoretically highly interesting question of how dead or undead media such as film or television are themselves, which nevertheless so readily seize the zombie (over the years then with "e") and revive it again and again in their stories.

Almost all lectures therefore consistently look for references and interfaces within the zombie motif, which over the decades has developed its own archive, especially cinematically, with its own genre traditions, which then sometimes swing in this or that direction. Ivo Ritzer, for example, in his more film-historically motivated survey of the zombie motif, works out how notions of the zombie-like are reflected in racist and colonial representations of power. For example, wherever undifferentiated masses appear, such as the Somali population in Ridley Scott's war drama Black Hawk Down or the Cambodian jungle dwellers in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now!, differences between the, in this case, (white) individuals and the (black) mass are accentuated. Naïve patriotism is thus given an additional, extremely questionable coat of paint, especially in Black Hawk Down, which, however, cannot only be observed in connection with zombies and zombification. As not only Ritzer points out, tendencies of massification are apparently closely linked in motif to a brutalization of the respective grouping. As several lectures emphasize, ideological demarcations such as those between the (heroic) individual and the (bestial) mass can be found just as much on the level of the family, the nation, or even the gender order.

No hero, nowhere

In this context, the analyses of the Western genre, which functions as a strong reference foil for The Walking Dead, are particularly revealing. Kirkman's work is riddled with references, but consistently avoids the tendency to tell a departure narrative in terms of the birth of a new nation, as many classic Westerns ultimately pursue. His approach rather follows that of a black Western dystopia, in which, for example, the train tracks, which in Westerns usually symbolize a modernization and thus stabilization of a capitalist order, lead to Terminus for the characters of the series in, say, Season 5. A place that, with its human cannibals, exemplifies an economically organized inhumanism and therefore, as a "modern" concentration camp, marks the zero point of any hope of salvation. In general, the theme of hope and loss of hope plays a major role, as Christian Schwarke in particular suggests with his interpretation of The Walking Dead from the perspective of religious studies, as does Svenja Taubner from the perspective of psychoanalysis. As a contemporary fiction of a post-apocalypse, Kirkman's series also recalls several biblical traditions at once, which are mixed with the paranoia and fear of the disintegration of the existing value system centrally thematized in many texts and films after September 11, 2001, without a clear perspective. Rick Grimes, for example, in The Walking Dead only at first misleading glance may be interpreted as a kind of Moses leading his people into a new future. After all, the dumbness of God reigns, which only lets more zombies crawl out of the burning bushes. Thus, it is no coincidence that almost every figure in the series who could stand for a humanistic new beginning after the apocalypse perishes. So is there a state of "post" in The Walking Dead at all? We will probably all have to wait for the answer.

What defines a human being at its core leads in The Walking Dead to the question of the possibilities of altruistic behavior and the forms of political coexistence that are played out in the various seasons. In their contributions, Anja Besand and Mark Arenhövel each elaborate on how the series can almost serve as a textbook for an introduction to the history of political systems and how strongly the boundaries of one's identity are politically charged and ideologically underpinned (often very subliminally).  The (un)dead already bring forth their very own images, sounds, and relationship patterns with their movements, sounds, and behaviors, which the usually quite chic vampires in cuddly series like Vampire Diaries can hardly give qua motif tradition. Therefore, even in its form as a romantic zombie comedy, a feature film like Warm Bodies can initially be similarly irritating as, in its own way, the chumminess between two friends in the British genre satire Shaun of  the Dead, which outlasts every life boundary. As the conference elaborates, the zombie threatens every form of demarcation and, in general, the drawing of boundaries, which, specifically in The Walking Dead, already permanently illustrates itself with the help of the many fences, prisons, and walls. The fact that zombies, with their deadly gluttony and lack of communication and negotiation, constantly disrupt orders and systems of all kinds, makes it possible to deconstruct political and psychosocial systems, narratives such as the American Western, and constructions of the alien and the self in a contemporary series like The Walking Dead. Moreover, current tendencies in our serial culture can be brought into view, as the themes and issues raised continue to be blithely reproduced in newer media such as computer games about the series, and in turn also open up their very own problematic fields.

A cipher that infects

What can remain after two days of discussion? Certainly no conclusion, as the plethora of theories and examples proved that the zombie remains as ineradicable as the media, which continues to dig it up as a reliable figure. Likewise, when a zombie apocalypse breaks out, one should not count on being saved by science (another thing that can be consistently tracked in The Walking Dead). But one sees this eternal stray yet differently, if one gets involved with him mentally and sees in him not only a veteran spectre from the mothballs of horror. For that he is simply too flexible in his attitudes and opens up too many perspectives. Perhaps this is a worthy conclusion for an academic event, in which the sense and nonsense of some interpretations of The Walking Dead was argued just as spiritedly as among nerds. A series that best demonstrates how firmly anchored the zombie has long been in our everyday culture. So it should be blithely bitten further. Infected we are yet all already.

Alexander Schlicker