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.
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.
2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)
In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.
It was a big year.
I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.
“How do we know they are coming?”–Karin Lane (Mireille Enos)
“They’re coming.”–Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), World War Z
Zombies are everywhere. Brad Pitt battles them in the film adaptation of World War Z. AMC’s The Walking Dead follows human survivors in a post-apocalyptic zombified world. You can download Plants vs. Zombies for your smart phones, or be chased by these monsters for 5K fun runs. Zombies, particularly portrayals of the zombie apocalypse, are also my current area of research as I have mentioned before (how an American religious historian comes to study zombies is another matter entirely).
Recently, I had the opportunity to think and write about zombie apocalypses for beyond my usual audience of fellow scholars. Bondfire Books approached me about writing about zombies for a general audience, and the result of our partnership is my ebook, The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse, which is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. My goal for this project was to interrogate how the zombie apocalypse shifted from fantasy to possible reality for some Americans. Thus, I examine government and civilian emergency preparedness campaigns, doomsday preppers, guns and ammunition created for the destruction of the undead, zombie shooting targets, and a spate of cannibalistic attacks. All of these case studies lay the groundwork for me to show how zombies emerge as real threats rather than Hollywood monsters. The fictional becomes the actual. This is the only the beginning of my work on zombies, apocalypticism, and American religions, so I welcome any feedback. If the zombies are coming, somebody has to study them. (Though, I will probably be eaten.)
Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, there is a “thorough” interview with me on Gospel According to the Klan, methods and pedagogy. There is also a good dose of apocalypticism and zombies minus any discussion of recent spate of news stories about face-eating. Here’s an excerpt:
How did you get started on researching Gospel According to the Klan?
This project grew out of my personal experiences growing up in the South, as well as a natural outgrowth of my academic work. I grew up in a small town in the Florida panhandle. Back in the 1990s, when I was in high school, there was a Klan rally in a nearby town. What I found most interesting about this was the nervousness that everyone seemed to feel, and display, about it. Not just that there might be violence (as it was also said that the Black Panthers planned a rally simultaneously in this same town), but also the attempt to tamp down the tawdriness of the reputation of the Klan, as it might get attached, or re-attached, to these people and places. “It’s in the past… it’s behind us,” was the basic attitude. While many people wanted to nostalgically hold onto some parts of the Southern past, the Klan represented a part of that past from which they wanted as much distance as possible.
As a scholar of religion, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which groups like this tend to be understood in my field of study. It is often assumed that religious people we do not like are relatively easy to figure out and are thus not worth a lot of study, whereas people we do like are worth knowing more about. More, we tend to assume that ‘bad people’ equate to ‘bad evidence’ that necessarily invokes skepticism, while ‘good people’ equate to ‘good evidence’ that we can take at face value. I’m interested in studying and understanding not only the “unloved groups” themselves, but also how we tend to think about them, how we reify such groups and how so doing obscures much more than it tells us analytically. So, in writing Gospel According to the Klan, I wanted to produce a study that unsettles academic norms as to what counts as acceptable research subjects. What objects are worth study? What are not? Where do we draw those lines? What’s at stake when we do so, when we categorize things as ‘good data’ or ‘bad data’? Quite often these judgments tell us more about the researchers who made them than about their actual subjects.
To get into my newest project, a cultural history of zombies in America, I’ve been reading about monsters, monster theory, horror, zombies in all shapes, sizes, and phenotypes, and fear. This is an entirely new endeavor for me, and I had forgotten the exhilaration and exhaustion that define learning (and then writing) on a new topic of inquiry. All the while I have been crafting promotional materials for Gospel According to the Klan, and my mind has been invaded by monsters and monstrosity. I finished reading Asma’s On Monsters (mentioned in yesterday’s post), which is really a cultural history of monsters and what becomes monstrous from Alexander the Great to the medieval period to the twenty and twenty-first centuries.
Asma is a professor of philosophy, and his book works best when he is parsing out the relationship between Kant’s sublime, Freud’s uncanny, and the dictates of modern horror films, including the much-panned turn to “torture porn” (think Saw and its many, many sequels). He also seeks to place monsters in the realm of biological reaction, cognitive psychology, and Darwinian evolution, which I find less compelling because of his attachments to science-as-reduction at the cost of the contextual. Monsters, he notes, again and again bear a familial resemblance, so that we can put our individual and collective fingers on what a monster is or is not (by virtue of this, what a human is or is not, too). The meanings and uses of monsters change as the times change. Alexander’s monsters are not quite the same as (in)famous serial killers, zombies, androids, or the things that lurk in murky waters but they are similar. Monsters become a reflection of anxiety of the period. To which, I say, sure, but what else can we say? For Asma, one of the significant features of his book was to showcase how societies, social groupings of people, and individuals need monsters. Monsters appear when boundaries are blurred. They also run rampant in our Freudian Ids as well as in our nations, communities, and homes. Monsters, if you will, are still with us.
Even in the post-modern (or is it post-post-modern) era, monsters remain in spite of the turn to relativity and the embrace of the monstrous in each of us. Asma’s meditation of monsters is about monsters, but he also wrestles with humanity, the humane, and the inhuman (read monster). Every discussion of historical and contemporary monsters enlivened a discussion of how the human is defined. Does the monster just work as a foil to humanity? (The better question is does the monster work as a foil to ideal visions of humanity?) Can inhumanity elide into monstrosity? If so, how and when? Where are the boundaries, the borders of the human? Can monsters be redeemed? In Asma’s insistence that we still have monsters no matter how the post-moderns relativize them, I see the strong desire to adjudicate who is human(e) and who is not. On Monsters begins with the author’s fear of murky waters juxtaposed with the reality of torture, so it was not entirely surprising that Asma wants to still be able to label the monstrous/the monster. Can’t we agree, he seems to say, that monsters still exist (and they torture, kill, and harm)? More important, that we know them when we see them. Monsters are always identifiable.
It was at this juncture that I wanted to nudge Asma in his attachment to the language of the monster, the morality of it, and the consequences of using this language to mark who is human and who is not. Dehumanization, he admits, is a part of the process of war and torture, but he still wants to claim the ability to dehumanize those who commit inhuman action. Edward Ingebretsen warns in his At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture (2001) that “no narrative is value-free, even, and especially, this one” (15). The narrative of the monster has agenda, complicity, and judgment. To Asma’s “can’t we agree?” is Ingebretsen’s “why do we have to?” Where Asma continually compares monstrosity and humanity without really positing how we define a term like human, Ingebretsen makes the relationship clear: monsters emerge as “failed humans” (2). He continues: “By locating monsters off the social map, we locate the human–and, thus, we hope ourselves–on it. Shall we ourselves, pass the “Monster Test”? From day to day, the answer to that question is never clear, never certain. This, ultimately, is what is at stake” (5). Hope begets humanity, and fear surrounds the abjected. Monsters, then, become a method to present our own humanity back to ourselves. We *are* not monsters, but those (people) are. This, for Ingebretsen, is the slippery slope of the monster, the identification, the label, the category.
For my own work on an unloved group, the language of the monster popped up in the most interesting of places, academic works describing the modern day hate (white supremacist) movement. In my early stages of research for the book that is now Gospel, I found that some of the scholarship followed a predictable pattern: meet supremacists, describe initial disgust/fear, socialize and uncover their humanity (shock!), write about nice conversations over coffee or sweet tea, then realize that actually these folks our inhumane/despicable/monstrous even, and finally emphasize that they aren’t ALL bad people, except for the ones who are. What struck me was not the attempts to humanize but rather the moment in which the narrative turned, for lack of a better term, creature-esque. Conversants’ bodies change, and they shifted from human to hateful creature (or monster). The supremacist rhetoric mapped onto their bodies, and they emerged as less human(e) in the telling. They became as monstrous as their words. Narratives are always already value-laden. Only monsters preach hate, the texts told me. Only monsters burn crosses and wear robes. Only monsters, only monsters, only monsters, echoed. My work, then, responds to that echo with: what if they aren’t monsters? What if the labeling of white supremacists as monsters allows one to ignore one’s own racism or the collective history of intolerance and racism in America. How do those boundaries, monster or human, impact not only public culture but our own individual strivings of self? How do monsters work for us?
We aren’t, you are becomes a dangerous supposition. Narratives are never innocent. Ingebretsen reminds, “Monster-talk might be cheap, but it is easy to use and takes toll on human lives” (9), in that he and Asma are in agreement. Yet Ingebretsen wants to push further to ponder: why we even make monsters in the first place? The answer to that question, like all good questions, is more questions, but the pursuit of monster-making has drug me asunder (which means prepare for more on monsters).