The Promise and Limitations of the Zombie Metaphor


Fresh on the tail of the blockbuster debut and the success of the book World War Z, it is likely time to revisit my thoughts regarding the use of popular fiction as a teaching tool.

These thoughts come to me via a conversation at Kafe Kerouac in Columbus Ohio and I am thankful for the thoughts of all who contributed.

I am an undying fan of the use of popular fiction in teaching. One of the most remarkable parts of World War Z (the book) is its endless potential as a source of illustration for many of the major theoretical notions present in IR theory. Specifically, it is an anarchic world in which we observe cooperation to resolve security, as well as a number of different kinds of states and actors calculating and trying to survive. WWZ is decidedly a self-help system in which the international system is revealed to be much weaker and unprepared to handle the widespread infection of dead reanimation. So… how do we use it and how far can we take it? Two potential paths follow (these are not exhaustive…. just a mental exercise)

Preparation #1
Easy and low-hanging fruit illustrations, in no particular order and with almost no attention paid to the thoroughness of this list include:

Two-level Games
Hobbesian Anarchy and What States Make of It
Cooperation Theory
Lifeboat Ethics
Transnational Threats to Security
Transborder Crises
Misperception and Signaling in Nuclear Deterrence

Application Strategy: The brief nature of each chapter means that the text is easily sliced for whichever concept you hope to illustrate. I could easily implant this text into any introductory course on IR or political theory. Read the chapter, read the original text, and let the students show you how they are connected.

Preparation #2
But let’s look a little deeper. One of the issues raised regarding the use of fictional texts for teaching IR is that these texts are also  productive of their own culture and world view. That is, as the critique goes, using fictional text as illustration ignores the way in which these cultural icons are productive of and mutually constitute politics and the culture of political interaction. (See Pop Goes IR?) If you put the social theory lingo aside (which I am absolutely certain I have already hacked up), it means that we aren’t really cashing in on the goods that these texts provide. In order to really gather the deeper more scholarly practice of what is going on here we must move beyond the illustrative into deeper critical theory of the production of politics as it is connected to popular culture and their intersection. –Well this is the critique anyhow.

MAJOR CAVEAT….While I accept that this is a potential line of teaching, the imperative is only half sold on me….particularly for an introductory course in IR. I have serious doubts about whether I want to incorporate critical theory lenses in an intro course in which learning the concept and its implications are the central task at hand. These are choices left to the instructor’s learning objectives.

BUT…. IF I wanted to examine the text as more than illustrative…. here is one direction I would travel…

Step 1. Use the text as illustrative over the course of several weeks. Allow it to highlight and provide a reasonably simple example that can help students explore the concept.

Step 2. After several chapters have been used…. return to it on the whole.  Use the text as the thing to be understood and dissected. The book, at least (we shall not speak of the movie), offers its own claims and arguments regarding ethics, morality, and social imperatives that make up the theme of survival.

Step 3. Ask the students to generate discussion on the following questions:

What are the rules of survival that this text teaches?
Are those lessons useful?
Why do we find this theme interesting? Are we zombie obsessed and why?
In what ways might the lessons here affect politics in the real world?
Who are the agents in this book, and what are the implications of that?

Essentially, I want the students to explore any number of deeper ideas: 1. dig into the sense in which the actions of states and fighters in the text are justified, 2. ask how this might affect their own personal politics, 3. does acceptance of the lessons of this text square with their view of the world? does it influence it?

The point I want the students to reach at the end of the conversation is a recognition of the limits of the zombie metaphor as guidance for global problems. AND to have them investigate the influence of these kinds of films on their thinking of global issues.

The Zombie metaphor awakens the fear of death and energizes the survivalist in all of us. But, survivalist tactics are immensely varied and tend to be justified solely on the basis of the right to live.

Therein lies the limits of the Zombie metaphor….

It is too easy to agree with the tactics used to survive, because the opposing side is not conscious. The calculus of intent, empathy, violence, cost of destruction…it is all reduced to one thing…. Us versus other. And that other is not human. And so… what were initially lessons that illustrate IR concepts…. simultaneously reveal themselves to be autistic… unable to access the other minds in the war, because there are no minds to calculate against. Then we must ask ourselves…. what are the limitations of these concepts? Are they also autistic? How does this affect our ability to understand the conduct of international relations?

Finally, and in keeping with critical theory, I wonder for myself….. how much our popular politics have truly infected us….

If zombie war logic is single minded, without a conscious enemy, then have I been handed my own infection? Is the seemingly correct logic presented in the war on zombies an offshoot of the war on terror, or drugs, or crime….rather than a representation of wars as we used to know them?

Wouldn’t that be a fun conversation? Like I said…. I don’t know whether I would walk my class down this path, especially not a freshman class….. but, this would be my first attempt.



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