What if zombies infiltrated a course on political theory, infecting half-dazed undergraduates with a hunger to understand what constitutes a just political community? What if the dead-eyed, shuffling, animated corpses of film and fiction could be used to consummate an awakening to how political theory matters for our future and indeed the future of the planet?
This essay reviews a political theory course I recently redesigned to incorporate zombie genres as a learning tool. Power and Justice: Introduction to Political Thought is an entry-level, core curriculum introduction to theoretical inquiry in the social sciences, which provides a broad overview of major political ideologies that emerged from and competed for dominance within the modern European tradition: liberalism, conservatism, fascism, anarchism, and communism, with attention to feminism, environmentalism, and globalization along the way. While students have demonstrated consistent interest in past versions of the course, the dense historical texts and abstractions of political theory can be disorienting, especially to early undergraduates. I've also found that Millennial students seek ways to render theory more concrete and pertinent to their sense of themselves and their agency in the contemporary world. In response, the modification Political Theory, Climate Change, and the Zombie Apocalypse was born. This new pedagogical approach offers fertile provocations and a sustained mode of creative critical inquiry that can render political theory more resonant for the Millennial generation. (1)
American Millennials confront enormous challenges, in the face of which they seem to be alternately incredibly savvy and rightfully despairing--which sometimes (from my Generation X perspective, at least) takes the form of a kind of numbness about political life. On one hand, today's high school graduates grew up in a post-9/11 era of neoliberal triumphalism, in which global capitalism has been rendered the definitive and only "realistic" option. So-called democracy is guarded domestically by a militarized state apparatus, and abroad by soft empire and perpetual war(s) against terrorism. Embedded in what Benjamin Barber (1992) called the "McWorld" of global capitalism, Millennials have grown up learning that the power to buy things is a greater expression of agency than direct political engagement, and that economic growth is what keeps a nation strong. They inherit political institutions tranquilized by the effects of money, extreme polarization, corporate influence, popular disillusionment, and apathy (Gottfried and Barthel 2015). On top of that, this generation has been the most sonogrammed, scoped, quantified, monitored, medicated, and assessed in history, with school serving as the fulcrum of micromanagement orchestrated to groom youth (of the privileged classes, at least) for success in a capitalist material culture to which no meaningful alternatives seem possible. It would be hard to blame them for feeling cynical.
On the other hand, American Millennials have been represented in or led creative and technologically agile political initiatives such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, fossil fuel divestment, and most recently the Bernie Sanders campaign. They are astute observers of the world, and interact in a social milieu more networked and tech-literate than any previous generation. They are avid civic volunteers (partly but not only because that helps them reach other goals, like college), and they express a great deal of concern about the state of the world (Strauss and Howe 2000). But they register deep disillusionment with both mainstream political institutions and grassroots actions characterized as "extreme" (Miller 2014; Harvard Institute of Politics 2015). They have also recently surprised researchers with their widespread criticism of capitalism (Ehrenfreund 2016).
I find that most Millennial college students, regardless of background, suspect there is something deeply wrong with the reality they've inherited. It shows in the literature that attracts them, the serials and movies they watch, the games they play. At the same time, much of their conceptual vocabulary is still generated from within American neoliberalism, the system from which they so obviously stand to benefit, at least in the short-term. The improbable combination of zombies, political theory, and climate change provides a set of tools unusual enough to foster engagement in critical political inquiry while remaining culturally conversant. (2) Zombie stories provide metaphors that can enable students to analyze contemporary neoliberalism from different vantage points in search of more just and sustainable democratic alternatives.
Course Design and Objectives
This course serves as one of four gateway course options to the political science major, though it is also interdisciplinary, drawing from sociology, cultural theory, economics, environmental studies, and film/media studies. The version described here is designed for an 80-student lecture class, about one-quarter political science majors. Few students, whether taking it for the political science major or as a core curriculum requirement, enter with more than a rudimentary exposure to theory or philosophy from any field.
The course has three conceptual sections: an introduction to the philosophical foundations of modern liberalism; a survey of liberalism's major ideological challengers in the West; and in the final third an exploration of how different schools of political theory might be applied to address a global collective problem like the climate change crisis. Zombie genres are layered onto these topics in three ways. First, zombie apocalypse motifs are used to illustrate core concepts in political theory, such as the state of nature, the social contract, and different modes of constructing political community, especially in the face of crisis. Second, zombies as a unique kind of monster provide potent metaphors for human behavior in some of its most destructive forms. Students are enlisted in the project of contemplating why so many people--and so many Americans in particular--are attracted to zombie genres at this particular sociopolitical moment. The final section of the class is designed for students to leverage their growing familiarity with both political theory and the zombie metaphor to puzzle through the theoretical and political challenges presented by climate change crisis.
Woven throughout are texts, film clips, and other materials examining the history, symbolism, and cultural relevance of zombie genres. Though I draw on a range of zombie productions, my main pedagogical source is the popular AMC cable series The Walking Dead. This six-season runaway hit based on Robert Kirkman's comics series works especially well because most students are familiar with it, and because its unanticipated popularity--it is the most popular cable television series of all time--enables us to consider what the show offers that seems to capture the attention of so many Americans (and others) at this particular cultural moment (Wallenstein 2014).
Due to the size of the class (and the fact that I don't have TAs), students' learning is measured through three exams consisting of a combination of multiple-choice, matching, and analytical essay questions; and an analytical paper in which they work in pairs to use two different political theory frameworks to analyze a zombie production (film, television, comic, or literature). Here I will focus on students' responses to the conceptual organization of the course, and what their essays revealed about the effectiveness of zombie genres as a tool for understanding political theory.
Theory, Contract, and Zombies
The class begins with an overview of the distinction between ideology, a meaning-making system that explains the way things are, and political theory, the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events, paradigms, and institutions--including different ideologies (Love 2011). We then preview a series of texts that suggest the potential relevance of zombies to class themes (Drezner 2010, Platts 2013). Students then view the first episode of The Walking Dead (TWD), to familiarize themselves with the series' premise. From there we can wade into the political thought of the early modern liberals.
Seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that life in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Most apocalyptic fiction portrays human survival in the wake of destruction as some version of a Hobbesian struggle. To this, contemporary zombie genres add what Carl Jung (1957) would surely recognize as one of our dark, collective fantasies: apocalyptic social breakdown at the hands of an "other." Whether through animated corpses that destroy, either in the form of a relentless, slow motion herd-force (what we might call the Romero-school zombies, resurrected even more graphically in The Walking Dead) or as viral, cyber-speed millennial death vipers (as in British Director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later series), zombie apocalypse stories are propelled by fantasies of a political and economic near-tabula rasa. In this world, the former, ordered reality has been stripped bare and humans must reinvent small-sale economics, political community, and ethics from the ground up, under violent conditions that invite moral ambiguity. The previously functioning system may be retained as memory, as template, or as evidence of failure, but under crisis conditions it is not easily reproduced. This is fertile theoretical ground.
In The Walking Dead, a diverse band of survivors,...