Sunday, October 14, 2012

Absurd Heroism: Camus and the real Walking Dead

I have been blogging my way through The Walking Dead and Philosophy, a fascinating book that has so far addressed issues of logic (zombies like the Walkers are not possible),  the nature of humanity (but philosophical zombies are, apparently), and issues like justice, rights, and social contracts.  

Ms. Robinson-Greene ("Better Off Undead") raises the next big problem: the existential dilemma of soulless people. A gloomy fact about self-reflective creatures is that they are capable of recognizing what Albert Camus called absurdity, "the confrontation between the longings of humans and an indifferent universe.”
The Walkers in The Walking Dead provide a great example. Not only are they dead and zombified, rotting while cannibalizing the world, but virtually no one exists to grieve who they are or celebrate who they were. There is only blind, pitiless indifference.  Stephen Crane, your universe has arrived.
Camus’ existentialism would claim that our ordinary life is not philosophically that much different from the world after a zombie apocalypse. “We make demands on the universe that it simply doesn’t (and can’t) care about. We want justice out of the world. We want the guilty punished. We want the innocent to be spared suffering. But that isn’t the way the world works.”
 Camus said there are three options for those who see this relentless gloom pressing in from all around: Commit suicide, pretend life is not absurd, or turn to religion. In the face of these absurd choices, Camus recommended we become “absurd heroes.” If nothing else we can shake our fists at gods and men, even while knowing the gesture is meaningless. What is more heroic than fighting in the face of inevitable failure? 
And inevitable failure is what awaits the survivors in The Walking Dead. We found out at the end of Season Two that everyone is infected.  Is there anything meaningful left to do? They can rage at the sky, but who cares?  Despite all their rage they are still just rats in a zombie-filled cage. The hero in this Camus-haunted world is anyone who keeps fighting (and if the premier of Season Three is setting the tone, that's going to be everybody all the time).  If there is a silver lining behind the zombie cloud, it is the solidarity that comes with a shared sense of doom.

Brandon Kempner is much happier (“The Optimism of The Walking Dead").  He thinks TWD provides “a profoundly humanistic and therefore optimistic landscape” that celebrates human choice, even if the choices are made amid a landscape of despair. That’s not a problem at all, apparently, since that is already true about our current life:
 “Existentialism rejects all a priori values, and, with them, any grander meaning to human life…no meaning comes before human existence, and that there isn't any God, purpose, pattern, or form that exists before the individual…there are no transcendent truths to be found, no ultimate meaning hidden out there. There’s just existence in the world, nothing more. Human beings are stranded alone in the universe, with nothingness all around them.”
 Mr. Kempmer sees no reason to wade through the moral quagmires in the story.  After all, “You can’t be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ don’t exist. Each of us is alone in the universe, confronted with absolute and total freedom.”
He is far more interested in what people will do in the face of this daunting view of the world.  Turns out his heroes are much like those of Camus, people whose heroism in gauged by their willingness to embrace futility and despair.  Melancholia, you have a fan.
Julia Round ("The Horror of Humanity") agrees: “Existentialism’s denial of an essential soul…means that in an existential society the zombie no longer poses the threat to identity that it once did.”  Why would it?  The problem with zombies (other than the whole cannibalism thing) is that they are horrifying because they are humans without souls.

But if we do not have souls, well, we are all zombies in some sense already.  In a zombie apocalypse, not much would change other than diet and hygiene. Ms. Round’s solution is to be expected: “You should act as yourself, not as you think ‘people in general’ should act, or how society suggests, or how your genes dictate.”  You are a soulless meat machine – do what you want.

We are the real walking dead.  

So if these authors are correct, the best survivors of the zombie apocalypse are those who believe there is no such thing as right and wrong, embrace the fact that nothing matters, and actively subvert order and responsibility.  It’s hard to imagine the heroism bar being lowered much further.
That’s not a utopian landscape, as anyone who has seen The Walking Dead can attest. That’s hell. If Camus and his disciples are correct, we have always lived in a post-apocalyptic world. Which is worse, I wonder – a world in which human are wiped out, or one in which human have always roamed an earth devoid of meaning, hope, morality and truth?


  1. Which is worse, I wonder – a world in which humans are wiped out, or one in which humans have always roamed an earth devoid of meaning, hope, morality and truth?

    An existentialist would agree with the literal interpretation of your second option - that the earth itself is devoid of meaning, hope, morality, and truth - but I think they would also say that you're rather missing the point of existentialism with that question. That point is this: the only meaning, hope, morality, and truth which we will find in the world is that which we ourselves create. If there were no persons who found experiences meaningful, who hoped for better things, who judged actions to be right or wrong, and who made claims which could be true or false, the words "meaning", "hope", "morality", and "truth" would have no referent. They would be pointers to things which did not, in fact, exist.

    In a world of zombies, it might very well be the case that there is no meaning, hope, morality, or truth. But in the real world there are billions of us who assign meaning, have hope, uphold a morality, and search for truth. You'd need to ignore a lot of things to think that we're all zombies.

  2. Steve, the quotes I gave in the article are not my perspective. The quotes reflect the opinions of the fans of Camus. That's why I completely agree with your last sentence.
    That's also why I disagree with the writers of the previous essays - and with Camus. Of course we believe -and hopefully experience - that meaning, hope, morality and truth are part of our existence. However.... if all of these things are extrinsically, arbitrarily attached to something rather than intrinsically, purposefully present, that's not the same things, right? That's two very different ways of viewing life.

  3. One would only "actively subvert order and responsibility." if that was what "being yourself" dictated. Rick is decidedly heroic and feels a great deal of responsibility.

  4. One would only "actively subvert order and responsibility." if that was what "being yourself" dictated. Rick is decidedly heroic and feels a great deal of responsibility.

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