The English psychedelic rock band from the mid-1960s, the Zombies, uniquely experienced a hit with the very first song they wrote, She’s not there:
Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied/Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried/But it’s too late to say you’re sorry/How would I know, why should I care?/Please don’t bother tryin’ to find her/She’s not there.
The song has been variously interpreted. Many, for example, suggest that it tells the tale of a maneater, a philandering woman. ‘She’s not there’ because she refuses to stick around for long, continuously moving on to the next victim. Others interpret it as ‘she’s not all there’, there’s a mental vacancy.
Zombies – and now I’m talking about the undead, not the rock band – are also characterised as being not all there. They are persons who have died but who are nevertheless animate in an undead condition; they are will-less, without articulate speech, and ravenously hungry for human brains.
You must have seen a zombie film sometime, there are literally hundreds of them. Perhaps the greatest classic of the genre, The Night of the Living Dead (1968), or more recent post-apocalyptic action thrillers like I Am Legend or Generation Z, or the deadpan spoof The Dead Don’t Die – or even the 2015 flop Kaise Maare Iss Zombie Ko?
The meaning behind the zombie-film genre has also been variously interpreted. Culture critics have pointed out how the spate of films in the early 2000s were indicative of America’s effort to process the collective trauma of the 9/11 attacks. Social theorists suggest that the figure of the zombie represents people’s basic herd mentality, mostly incapable of the kind of autonomous executive function that relies upon a critical intellectual capacity and non-conformist individuation. One of the most frequent interpretations is economic, that zombies epitomise our capitalist-consumerist behaviour, shambling soullessly in whatever direction corporations and marketing conglomerates lead us.
There must be something to this way of seeing zombies as the lumpen masses among us. Even the philosopher Slavoj Zizek had pointed out somewhere that vampires were aristocratic (Dracula was a noble Count, and true to the upper classes, they live by sucking our blood), but zombies, they are just humble proles and peasants.
Building on these cultural, social and economic interpretations, I would add a prognostic, political one. That is, the zombie genre is not primarily catharsis for past, or even present, trauma; rather, it presages our future, the future of all of us citizens in increasingly populist, post-truth, degenerative liberal democracies, such as India and the US.
Populism is a form of political governance that relies upon the modern nation-state model, and thus can readily appeal to the nationalist sentiment that the nation-state had already generated. But unlike in typical nation-state constitutional frameworks, where institutions mediate between the State and the people, in populism, the leader bypasses (or commandeers) the traditional institutions, enjoying a direct relationship with the masses, his or her base. The fact that populism is often a degeneration of constitutionalism is significant, since zombie-ism is itself a degenerative condition. Just like post-truth is a degeneration of a society that was previously invested in knowledge and truth, the ideals of enlightenment over the fetishes of ideology.
Under post-truth, nationalist populism, the lumpen masses – not unlike zombies – shamble in the directions that they are being led, or believe that they are being led, explicitly or impliedly, by their leader. Whether adherents of QAnon, waiting for the second coming of JFK, Jr., in Texas, or devotees of some swami or other, there’s something ‘not all there’ about these ideological adherents, a mental vacancy. Maybe a critical intellectual capacity is missing, maybe something else – but it’s an epidemic of irrationality using social media to spread like a virus.
And that’s a problem. Because now that it is here and has taken root, it is destined to continue to rapidly spread. It will infect more and ever more of us. That is, after all, a key lesson from the zombie-film genre: Zombies eat brains.
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