Written by Matt Bernico. Media by Austin Schumacher.
There is a certain violent and apocalyptic tendency in the contemporary social imaginary. Violence saturates the world in no uncertain or abstract way. Violence and catastrophe manifest constantly, but what can we make of the simulation of violence and apocalypse in visual culture? Especially, what do we make of the upsurge in popularity of the theme of the apocalypse? Television series such as The Walking Dead (2010) demonstrate our fascinations in the apocalypse and post-apocalypse. Thinking critically about this series leads us toward some interesting cultural investigation. What do we mean when we say apocalyptic? Why does it capture our attention? How is our religious understanding of apocalypse informed by our cultural understanding? Might we get them a bit mixed up? Using this television series’ as a case study, we can interrogate the idea of apocalypse culturally and religiously.
What is the apocalypse according to The Walking Dead? The Walking Dead plays off the usual tropes of the zombie and horror genre. The dead are re-animated through a disease or plague of unknown origin. In 28 Days Later (2002), a zombie plague is unleashed through a virus transmitted from lab animals to humans. 28 Days Later gives us an apocalyptic image that is utterly accidental. The outbreak or plague is never planned for, but it is the accident or catastrophe of modern science or civilization. In the case of the zombie outbreak, it is an accident of science reaching too far.
The Walking Dead simply attributes the “walkers” to a virus or a plague. The idea of the zombie outbreak or plague intersects with Judeo-Christian eschatology with the notion of the resurrection of the dead. However, there is no origin story for the rupture of the zombie virus in The Walking Dead universe. All that the audience and characters know is that it might be a virus that everyone has. It is my assumption that the zombie virus in The Walking Dead may be of a similar origin has 28 Days Later. The episode that takes place at the CDC at least points toward this explanation. However, this is just an assumption, but one that is rather “safe” to make in the zombie genre.
We see Apocalypse in The Walking Dead most concretely in season one. A particularly powerful and interesting scene features Merle, handcuffed on the roof of a building, along with the rest of the cast. Rick and the rest attempt to decide what they ought to do with the racist and homicidal Merle. According to Rick, race is no longer a concern. “Only dark meat and white meat. That’s us and the dead.” What this means is an erasure of previous cultural and social boundaries and an eruption of new social value based on survival and perhaps some leftover trace of previous cultural hegemony. The apocalypse for Rick, Merle, T-Dog, Glen and the rest is the reduction of human life down to mere survival.
These are some common examples of how we think about apocalypse culturally. It’s the end of culture, the end of stable political orders, or the literal extinction of humanity. However, this is not our apocalypse. The apocalypse according to The Walking Dead is not the Christian apocalypse. There’s some nuance about apocalypse in the Christian tradition that we utterly miss. Apocalypse comes from the conglomeration of the Greek ἀπό καλύπτω. We might translate these words best as un-convering or revealing, hence the confusion around the book of Revelations or the Apocalypse of John.
When we think about apocalypse as Christians, we ought not think of the absolute end. The apocalypse, as Paul Virilio says, “…is not the ‘end of the world’…the concept ‘end of the world’ is a concept without future.” (26, Grey Ecology, 2009) Simply, who cares about the end? “One ‘boom’ and there is nothing left, that is of no interest…” Then, considering the apocalypse, we need to think as revelationaries. The apocalypse is not the end, it’s a revelation of accidents. This notion of revelation against “the end” helps us read our visual culture more critically.
When we watch The Walking Dead, what is revealed to us? A zombie outbreak is not the end, and if it was, it would not concern us, because, practically speaking, we’d be zombies. What is revealed to us in the zombie outbreak is something about human communities and culture. Simply, that the human community is contextual and structural. Divisions of race and gender are structural; when the structure changes, so do those divisions and relationships. For example, what are the cultural roles of women in 2013 United States capitalist society? What are the roles of women on the terrain of a zombie outbreak? Of course, forces of patriarchy and misogyny may remain, which Rick, Shane, and the Governor demonstrate the worst of. Though, characters like Andrea and Michonne portray different female roles.
If the apocalypse doesn’t refer to catastrophic events or the end of the world, what do we make of catastrophe? Once again, falling back on Paul Virilio, “To invent the sailing ship or steamer is to invent the shipwreck.” (The Original Accident, 2006) What this means is that in science and technology there is what we might call an integral accident or catastrophe. In The Walking Dead, the accident of techno-science is the zombie outbreak.
Even more, think of the cinematography of The Walking Dead. The first few episodes portray the characters fleeing the city. There are many camera shots of open roads, countrysides and abandoned houses. What does this reveal? It’s a breath of fresh air for the characters: an escape from an ecology that is closing in on them. The city represents the old order and the circumstances they desperately try to escape.
Technologically speaking, we live in a world saturated with meaning, media and messages. It is just too much. Recent technological revolutions like faster Internet connections and new web platforms are great and worthy of our attention, though what is the accident of this increased connection? The accident is claustrophobia and exhaustion. Very concretely, what claustrophobia or exhaustion means here is that there’s simply too much to take in. We cannot keep up with all of the information and connections of networked communication and culture. Catastrophic accidents like the outbreak of zombies gives us a space to imagine what it might be to escape our claustrophobia.
We live in the interstices of a physical and digital ecology, so what do our surroundings do to us? When we think of technology as a tool we think wrongly. Over technology, there is no mastery. When we use technology, we are changed. In our digital ecology we become claustrophobic. Contemporary network culture and politics operate off a logic of speed. Networks make the instantaneity of communication possible. There are no boundaries to the instantaneity of communication in world. We often think of the speed in terms of locomotive power, but this is misstep.
The fist vehicle that introduces speed into human life is not the locomotive, ship, car or plane, it is the camera. The camera allows one to store an image for later transmission. With the increased transmission power of networks, the effect of all experience is simultaneous. We become choked up with our own digital productions and we want to escape. Here, it is clear that escape is most easily imagined in the accident or collapse.
When we inhabit the Christian tradition and story, we need to retain the Christian idea of apocalypse. The apocalypse is a revelationary event, not a catastrophic event. This is why in the face of these accidents and catastrophes of techno-science, the Christian knows the catastrophe, as horrible as it may be, is not the end.
Finally, it is revelations that shape the Christian story. The revelation of Christ is the Gospel, that is the good news to all of humanity. Humans will surely continue to inflict the accident upon themselves as it is integral to scientific and technological progress, but Christians know the end of the story: reconciliation to God and to one another. This means there is no reason to be technophobes, but rather to firmly live in the Christian story: to know where we’re going and what kind of people we might be. Christians are not interested in the end of our existence, but in the revelation of Christ and the reconciliation of creation.