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The Walking Dead and Philosophy

on Mon, 10/29/2012 - 00:00

The Walking Dead and Philosophy
The AMC drama The Walking Dead follows a small group of survivors as they struggle in a post-apocalyptic world in which zombies have wiped out most of mankind. Despite its roots in the horror genre, however, The Walking Dead focuses more on the “people” of its narrative rather than the zombies as they face the struggles of not only staying alive but finding food and shelter, escaping run-ins with small bands of other survivors and even dealing with questions of leadership and strategy during their continuing quest for safety.

In the world that The Walking Dead has created, Rick Grimes and his fellow refugees thus face moral and ethical questions on a daily basis, making the series the perfect vehicle for philosophical dissertations on the very essence of humanity. The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now (Open Court, 2012) has thus gathered together a collection of essays written by various academic-oriented fans of the show that explore the philosophical dilemmas contained within The Walking Dead and offer insights into not only the decisions made on the series but how they relate to everyday life as well.

“How should we treat one another?” Editor Wayne Yeun rhetorically asks in regards to the various issues raised in The Walking Dead and Philosophy. “How should we divide the labor? Without support from things like government, law enforcement, and political correctness, are we all really equal? Can we take whatever we find? Does private property still even exist? Is the world going to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ or will it be simply different from ours, with its own problems and hardships, coupled with its joys and triumphs?”

According to Gordon Hawkes in “Are You Just Braaaiiinnnsss or Something More,” zombies have already found their way into philosophical thought in recent years, albeit not in the same way envisioned on The Walking Dead. Philosophical zombies—or P-zombies for short—instead represent the conflicting theories known as dualism and materialism. Dualism was initially derived by René Descartes, who famously exclaimed “I think, therefore I am” and argued that there is a part of us that is more than mere physical.

Materialism, meanwhile, maintains that everything in the universe, including the human mind, is essentially physical. The debate over whether P-zombies—who are psychologically void—could exist is a way for philosophers to decide which of these competing viewpoints holds the greater strength.

“Is there something in a human being that isn’t physical?” Gordon Hawkes writes. “Is there some part of a human that can never be eaten by a walker? Is there some immaterial essence or soul that humans possess, or are they just solid, edible matter all the way through?”

The differences between the two competing viewpoints is most notable during the second season of The Walking Dead, when it is discovered that Herschel Greene has been keeping a collection of zombies locked in his barn in the belief that there is some remnant of their past that still exists within them. Greene is thus a materialist, at least in this instance, as he believes that a person is something physical. Rick Grimes, on the other hand, is a dualist.

“You know that’s not your son,” Hawkes quotes Grimes as saying in the comic book version of The Walking Dead. “Your son died. That’s just his body—there’s nothing of your son left in there. He’s gone.”

The roles of gender within The Walking Dead, meanwhile, are later discussed in two essays, “Women in a Zombie Apocalypse” by Ashley Barkman and “Dead Man’s Party” by Danee Pye and Peter Padraic O’Sullivan. Both maintain that since the small group of survivors on the series originally came from a patriarchal society, it is only natural that, during the initial stages of The Walking Dead narrative, the same division of labor would likewise exist. Thus while Rick Grimes is in Atlanta attempting to rescue Merle Dixon, the female survivors are left behind to wash clothes in a nearby lake.

Ashley Barkman argues that this division of labor is a necessity given the reality of the situation, especially when it comes to leadership. “In a world where physical violence is limited or has been conquered, women may make successful leaders, but in The Walking Dead, where survival necessitates retaliatory or preemptive violence, women are less fitted for the role of leadership,” Barkman suggests. “It’s highly unusual for women to assert their authority through physical strength or violence, especially directly administered. Gender is beyond social construction as can be observed in The Walking Dead—women and men are different in how they solve problems and assert authority.”

In “Dead Man’s Party,” meanwhile, Danee Pye and Peter Padraic O’Sullivan have a different point of view. “If success requires a unified humanity, it calls for the erasure of all human divisions,” they argue. “This holds especially true for gender divisions. The walkers don’t have time for such divisions, they’re after living flesh. The survivors have a choice to make—to retreat into patriarchal power structures and ensure their continued destruction, or embrace this opportunity to shed themselves of the cultural baggage and the dangerous ‘isms’ of yesteryear. If they truly want to make a new start, they should bring food, water, and guns, but leave their cultural baggage behind. This baggage merely slows them down when the shambling horde scratches at their heels.”

While Gordon Hawkes dissects the differences between dualism and materialism, and Ashley Barkman, Danee Pye and Peter Padraic O’Sullivan debate the roles of women, many other authors in The Walking Dead and Philosophy use the opportunity to discuss the concept of existentialism within the context of the AMC drama. Existentialism is the brainchild of Albert Camus, who believed that life itself is absurd.

“Camus defines absurdity as ‘the confrontation between the longings of humans and an indifferent world,’” Rachel Robinson-Greene explains in “Better Off Undead” before using the characters of The Walking Dead as examples of the concept. “Morgan Jones and his son Duane, whom Rick befriends in the first episode and issue of the series, want Jenny, the wife and mother that they knew, back. Andrea and Amy want to go fishing with their father again, or to celebrate birthdays the way they once did. But the universe does not comply. Jenny is a walker and isn’t coming back. Andrea and Amy may never get to Florida to see if their father’s still alive, let alone fish with him.”

For Albert Camus, the only way to escape the absurdity of the everyday world is to live a life of authenticity. Instead of resisting one’s plight, or even becoming complacent with it, one must react to it instead and battle against it head on. In “The Horror of Humanity,” Julia Round thus argues that as long as the survivors cling to their notions of the past, they are essentially doomed, especially in the early phases of The Walking Dead narrative.

“They won’t admit that their circumstances have changed and still think that ‘society’ will come and rescue them from anarchy,” she writes. “They need to stop being zombies themselves, and be authentic, if they want to survive. In this way ‘the walking dead’ becomes a phrase that acknowledges the existential nature of our lives. If we’re not living authentically then we might as well be zombies—unchoosing, uncaring, and unfeeling—because we’re all certain to die eventually and existence is therefore all that matters.”

The Walking Dead imagines a world where the majority of mankind has been wiped out by hordes of zombies. More importantly, however, the AMC drama envisions a world where the principles and preconceived notions of the past no longer apply. With the human race having essentially been rebooted into a post-apocalypse landscape, the philosophical questions that have been debated since the time of Socrates and Ancient Greece take on new meaning and are thus even more relevant—a message that The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now ultimately proves.

Anthony Letizia

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