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On Chomsky and Zombies

It’s only a field of study if recognized by Chomsky.
Image by Chris Baker.

Recently, a contributor to the Daily Kos noted that Noam Chomsky, the “legendary linguist/philosopher,” analyzed the zombie apocalypse for a group of students in a Skype session. What students? What kind of class? Where? (There’s no mention of these salient facts). A student asked Chomsky about the current preoccupation with zombies and the apocalypse in American culture, and the philosopher responded that these shambling monsters seem to represent “fear” in “an unusually frightened country.”

Most of Chomsky’s off-the-cuff response centers on H. Bruce Franklin’s work, War Stars (2008), about manifestations of fear in popular culture, though Franklin appears to be primarily interested in superweapons. Chomsky explains that chosen enemies differ in particular time periods. Anxiety about Native Americans overrun the colonial era, slave revolts terrified antebellum slave owners, and Red Dawn fantasies of teenagers as our only hope (please, let this not be true) against Communists resonated in the 1980s. In 2012, this cinematic fantasy was updated to replace Russians with North Korean soldiers. Americans, we learn, are very afraid and paranoid too. I feel like I’ve heard this before.

Chomsky explains:

I suspect that what you’re bringing up is part of that.  I think it’s, much of it is kind of just a recognition, at some level of the psyche, that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong.  And that the people you’re oppressing may rise up and defend themselves, and then you’re in trouble.  And another is strange properties the country has always had of fear of invented dangers.  There is a kind of paranoid streak in the culture that’s pretty unusual. (Emphasis mine.)

 Zombies become the newest outlet for our multitude of fears. His analysis is pretty good considering the randomness of the student’s question. I mean, really, how often do you think he fields questions about zombies? (Rarely would be my guess.) Chomsky lays out histories of oppression and fears of retribution by channeling another scholar’s work. He’s quotable. After all, he’s Noam Chomsky. When he speaks about any topic, suddenly the discussion has new gravitas. By the mere act of speaking, he makes the news (here and here). He’s not just a linguist or philosopher, he’s a LEGENDARY linguist and philosopher. The implication should be clear: When he talks, we all should listen.

Okay, Chomsky, I’m listening but not willingly.

I’m listening because almost everyone I know forwarded me the above article (I love y’all. Please keep sending me articles.) Chomsky talking zombies! I must be interested! This is a hazard of my line of work. Hi, I’m Kelly Baker, I study zombies in American culture. You’ve never heard of me, and that’s okay. While I don’t disagree with you that zombies are about fear and desperation (and so much more), I do feel the need to respond to a statement of yours. I hope you’ll indulge me.

You say, I’ve never seen a real study” of zombies. I don’t doubt that you haven’t. What I want you to know is that there are plenty of “real” studies of zombies by scholars, including me. We realized years and years ago that zombies were a critical object of study. These monsters tell us important things about American culture, and the post-apocalyptic landscapes they inhabit offer glimpses into what terrifies us the most. Edward Ingebretsen, my favorite scholar of monsters, writes that monsters are warnings to humans of our boundaries. Zombies function this way too, and scholars have sought to figure out what these warnings actually are.

May I suggest some titles? Kyle Bishop traces the history of the zombie’s relationship with oppression and colonialism. W. Scott Poole writes about zombies as a way to think about concerns about human bodies. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro pulled together an excellent collection, in which contributors analyze the varying types of these post-human monsters. Kim Paffenroth, John Morehead, and their contributors think through theology and the undead with attention to both zombies and vampires.  Paffenroth also analyzes the theological vision of George Romero. I’ve written about zombie ethics, zombie preppers, and the sheer popularity of the zombie apocalypse. There’s also Generation Zombie, Zombies Are Us, Zombie Culture,  Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and Zombiemania. There are plenty of “real” studies, which are thoughtful, smart, and analytical. Fear is simultaneously too simple and too complex an answer. Zombie media needs more analysts. I welcome your insights. Please join us.

 My problem, then, is not with your discussion of zombies. It’s not you. Really. My problem is with the assumption that zombies only matter as an object of study if someone of Noam Chomsky’s caliber is paying attention to them. Headlines appear! Discussion happens! This suggests that zombies become an object of study when you notice them, but not the rest of us. Our voices matter less because we aren’t you. So, it is newsworthy when you talk zombies and the apocalypse.

Let me be clear: I don’t blame you for this. It’s not your fault. You just happen to fit the stereotype of “important” (read culturally relevant) academic: white, male, prolific, bespectacled, and older.

This is the image of the media often has of intellectuals, especially public intellectuals. Those vaunted few that engage someone, anyone, beyond academia. As L.D. Burnett points out public intellectual often becomes code for “celebrity thinkers,” whose fame is the marker of their merit. This celebrity thinker studies significant things that demand our notice. We must pay attention when he (most often he) speaks. If zombies seem less than significant, the moment he discusses them they become weighty, crucial, and significant. When Noam frickin’ Chomsky points us at zombies, only then to these monsters seem worthy of our attention, public or scholarly. It is almost as if the work of everyone else can only be validated when a celebrity thinker finally gets around to our topic.

This is the rub. This is what frustrates me. Celebrity equals merit. The rest of us regular intellectuals analyzing the walking dead disappear in this kind of coverage. We matter not, unless we are famous. Our labor is not obvious. I’m not suggesting it should be, but I do often wish it were.

What I am suggesting is that real studies of zombies exist whether or not Chomsky has seen them. Go read those articles and books, and then, we can have a proper discussion of zombies in American culture. I would love to talk zombies with any of you. Just let me know.

 

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