Category: The Walking Dead

rousseau’s general will and the zombie apocalypse

As I referenced in my previous “the reanimated dead take on dead philosophers” post, The Walking Dead‘s core community–Rick, his family, Shane, and their various affiliates–resembles a rudimentary social hierarchy: as the group coalesces during the show’s first season, following the Atlanta exodus, power structure becomes clear, and, with the exception of a simmering, internecine struggle, political decision-making centers on Rick, his survival savvy, and his nearly uncontested authority over firearms. It’s difficult to characterize the group’s survival-oriented community as a state, per se, given the non-distinction between decision-making institutions (the state bureaucracy, which is comprised of Rick, Shane, and a couple of thorn-in-your side external actors) and the general polity. The group’s increasingly violent processes of social breakdown, ostracization, and consolidation, however, are evidently intended to mimic the nascent process of political creation, in the midst of a destructive world. The technical bureaucracy of authority gradually expands throughout the course of the show’s first two seasons; individual firearms become caches, “walker”-targeting capacity expands from a small constituency to a large hoard, and the group’s access to transportation and public health balloons. The group’s size remains relatively constant, due to the “mortality” rate, but the human consequences of the group’s decisions seem more substantial.

In the course of the Walking Dead community’s collective decision-making process, the group’s conduct–in particular, Rick’s, due to his assertion that the counter-zombie corps is “not a democracy anymore–raises some valuable concerns for the existence of democratic processes within a political society. For all intents and purposes, the Walking Dead group’s decision-making was not, at its core, democratic: voting procedures determined only the most significant of political, social, and economic decisions, and Rick’s consolidation of power seemed, insofar as is narratively possible, nearly inevitable. The “general will,” which Rousseau describes as the legitimacy-granting origin of a sovereign state, plays very little role in the group’s decision-making. Rousseau’s “general will” is, to a certain extent, an ambiguous entity: its process is neither deliberative nor sectarian, but its positive attributes are, at best, opaque. The concept coincides with a “collective good” framework, and the sovereign entity within a political society should–not the normative, rather than positive classification–determine the exercise of social welfare on the basis of the general will’s public outlook.

In the world of the Walking Dead, as in the complex politics of contemporary society, the “general will” is a Platonic idea, hardly representative of a tangible reality. Rousseau, for one, assumes a degree of information transparency that, given the bureaucratization of public politics, cannot occur in a real-world political society. Where a sovereign exists, as one does in Rousseau’s Social Contract, various characteristics of governance are inaccessible for the general public. Nowhere is the informational hierarchy clearer than the Walking Dead‘s dramatic, second-season conclusion, during which Rick reveals the existence of a ubiquitous “walker” disease, as opposed to the confined, only-communicable-through-brainzzzzz disease the group had previously imagined. Rick had known of the “walker” infection since the CDC explosion, but had withheld informational access until, during Shane’s death and undeath, the reality of the group’s infection became readily apparent. The group’s decision-making surely would have changed, as it did on the highway road, but the informational hierarchies prevented the emergence of a democratic discourse, thus establishing Rick’s authoritarian leadership as an inextricable characteristic of survival in a zombie-fied world.

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tabula zombie: locke’s political society and the post-apocalyptic scene

Philosophical zombie scholarship has understandably focused its intellectual energies on the role of natural rights, societies, and social contracts in the post-apocalyptic context. To a certain extent, this concern for the zombie-tinged social contract makes sense: almost all zombie invasions/contagions/humanitarian emergencies comprise the emergence, persistence, and incomplete resolution of civil conflict, a case study in Hobbesian contract breakdown. For political philosophers, the zombie apocalypse represents a near-perfect incubator for the state of nature, through which social roles, political societies, and internal economies are constantly in flux, due to the emotional and psychological pressures of constant flight, fratricide, and institutional collapse. As Jason Walker suggests in his treatment of The Walking Dead‘s varied embrace of Hobbesian and Lockean social contract theory, post-apocalyptic communities often resemble Hobbes’ basic expectations of human nature, as well as Locke’s concern for the corrosive impact of vigilante justice.

The state of nature’s gradual growth is, for all intents and purposes, an assumed characteristic of the post-apocalyptic scene. Rights regimes increasingly break-down over the course of The Walking Dead‘s two seasons: property rights do not retain their salience–theft and looting remain rampant among human communities in Georgia’s urban centers, almost entirely as a survival mechanism; in Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick et al.’s arrival at Hershel’s farm quickly encourages a process of normative break-down, whereby Hershel’s “enlightened” understanding of zombie/human symbiosis no longer applies to their social circumstances. This process reaches its symbolic apex during Shane’s murderous assault on Hershel’s zombie-filled barn, which culminates in the death of zombie-fied Sophie, a child and (prior to her death) member of Rick’s cohort.

Lest the post-apocalyptic scene appear as too much of an overlap between Hobbesian and Lockean state-of-nature concerns, Locke’s description bears further investigation. Locke describes the state of nature as one of “perfect freedom” and “equality,” two precepts that emerge from his epistemological understanding of human behavior: that is, knowledge within a civil society, such as it is, emerges from the state of nature’s tabula rasa (“blank state”) of human perception. It’s worth noting that this reading is an integrated understanding of Locke’s epistemology and social contract theory, which assumes conceptual consistency throughout the philosopher’s core values. While the tabula rasa is not an inherent characteristic of Locke’s social contract, one can assume that, insofar as the state of nature represents a natural point of origin for human societies, and the tabula rasa for human knowledge, perception, and experience, the two are intertwined. Like his own epistemological thought, as well as Hobbes’ political theory, Locke describes a sociopolitical teleology, through which the state of nature prompts the intentional, path-dependent consolidation of political societies and, eventually, states. Locke acknowledges a “natural law,” which, in regulating the state of nature, necessitates the gradual emergence of judicial institutions: finding vigilante justice insufficient and destructive, societies will establish magistrates of justice, in order to regulate nascent power hierarchies. Individuals and community units tacitly consent to political, judicial, and social institutions, looking to protect personal life, property, and happiness.

Reason–according to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a factor of life emerging from perceived human experience–undergirds the peaceable operation of natural law in the state of nature. Social breakdown and political violence, which Locke defines as variations on the “state of war,” rely on the corrosion of reason within human society. It’s easy to see how, within the context of our present international sphere, establishing “reason” as warfare’s causal determinant requires, at best, generous assumptions about prevailing cultural and societal norms in conflict-affected communities. Certain, disaggregated components of society may experience a normative breakdown, in line with Locke’s dismantling of reason’s common ties, but “political societies,” as Locke describes them, might well coexist alongside a “state of war.”

The Walking Dead‘s post-apocalyptic scene may provide a more instructive indication of Locke’s challenging dichotomy. Zombie communities, following the United States’ debilitating cerebral epidemic, could hardly be described as “reasoned” creatures, by Locke’s standards: in contrast to human communities, they have little understanding of private property, a natural right to human life, or the experiential perception that Locke associates with the exercise of reason. The zombie state is one of unending conflict, in which life-forms violently compete for perpetual nourishment. Insofar as social hierarchies exist, they are determined by access to flesh and brains, rather than an exercise of social power, regulation, and leadership. In order to avoid zombie transformation, Walking Dead‘s humans place themselves into a political society, determined by rudimentary, confined forms of common resource distribution and security. Towards the end of Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick’s tyranny gradually matures, but it is a “tyrannical rule” that is far removed from the all-encompassing, rights-revoking rule that Locke’s treatise envisions. And, despite the consolidation of authority, the general protection of life, property, and (to the extent that this is possible in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse) happiness, violence persists, in the form of internecine conflict: between Shane and Rick, most prominently, between Shane and Hershel’s son, and between human stragglers and the main society. That is, the existence of the political society, per se, does not prevent the emergence of violence–or, in Locke’s case, war–merely mitigates it.

Locke’s dichotomous characterization of political conflict may have applied well to his experiences in England’s civil war, which encompassed English society, infecting the full realm of social institutions, communities, and networks. But for localized violence, like the type that occurs in post-apocalyptic, human circumstances, the divide between the state of war and the political society strikes the casual zombie-observer as much less salient.