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Drezner’s Problems of “Apocalyptic Thinking”

March 11, 2013

Daniel Drezner’s TEDx talk from Binghamton University is available on Youtube: “Metaphor of the Living Dead: Daniel Drezner at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity”

Drezner posted this link on his blog last week but I didn’t see it til today where he posted “How the zombie apocalypse affects interest group politics“.

First a write up of my notes on the TEDx talk, then some thoughts.

Drezner acknowledges that zombies as a “slightly silly” topic and that he started his book (International Politics and Zombies) as a way to take advantage of the market interest. He then became a zombie expert because reporters kept calling him and so he did the research and became their expert. But now he thinks too many people are taking zombies “way too seriously” — he’s worried about the “tenor of the discourse”

He defines zombies with three properties (intentionally ignoring the fast/slow debate)
1) only dies if destroy brain
2) zombies eat live humans (zombies don’t eat other zombies)
3) bitten by zombie, 100% infection rate

He goes on to discuss the uncanny valley – robots and animations that are “too life-like” inducing “revulsion” (recall prior ZombielLaw post about Uncanny Valley:

Zombies as “structural problem” “stalking horse” for other threats that are “tough to define” and “tough to contain” like Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”. Then likening zombies to wars and post-9/11. Zombies as the “truly transgressive threat” more than vampires who can live amongst us.

So because it’s scary many actors are latching onto the zombie metaphor. Noting NYTimes op-eds, academics, commercial advertising (REI) of “large multinational corporations”, architects, the Center of Disease Control and US Dept Homeland Security — “the zombie metaphor is embraced by a lot of actors”

It is “pedagogically useful” because it motivates students to talk about these issues and it makes it easier to explain them. The “utility of the genre” comes from introducing “creativity” because if there are zombies then “there really are no rules” and allows introduction of other new ideas. We can “talk about things without really talking about things”.

But also some “bad associations” – beliefs have a viral quality to them – “surround yourself with people who believe in conspiracies pretty soon you too will also start thinking conspiratorially”. The “really bad problem” is “analogical reasoning” by our “monkey brains”. But zombie meme is homogenous trope – “by minute ten you are living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape” – People learn to “think apocalyptically” – “destined to live in post-apocalyptic hellscape” – “we wind up living in an extremely constrained confined universe”

Drezner says this is wrong because “Human beings as awesome, we invented duct tape”. Drezner’s zombie cure “we need different narratives out there” and
“appreciate our own ability to adapt to the circumstances” and “reassert order”.

So now my thoughts —

Drezner is only half right – First, he should maybe watch reruns of the original “Law and Order” or “Cops” or maybe “Full House”? He is longing for narratives of order but I think there are plenty of options. He thinks the zombie movies are causing the post-apocalyptic vibe of the post-9/11 world. He has it backwards and moreover confusing correlation with causation, but he is right to note that community creates beliefs. The zombies are born from our reflections on our feelings, and he longs for a time before the apocalypse.

At the same time, Drezner is continuing his capitalization on zombies and now considers the metaphor is possibly dangerous. Consider Dennet’s Dangerous Memes. And William Borrough’s language is a virus. But language is only half the story. The medium is also the message. Drezner is still capitalizing on the zombie meme and now the TEDx meme too – and SUNY is also so much more populist than his home institution (which also homes Professor Dennett). Branding is a bitch but it works the same in academia as in the rest of the Umbrella organization world.

Drezner alludes to cognitive studies theories (uncanny valley, viral memes) but as an policy expert he doesn’t quite get there. His policy is for “more” narrative, more diversity, more alternative, and to be mindful and creative to not take zombies too seriously. This is all great but he has no real evidence of how these narratives effect behavioral change. In so doing he merely perpetuates the zombie meme – which should be good for his book sales.

Calling it dangerous but not so dangerous if handled with attention to education is boffo for the billion dollar zombie industry – teenage boys love to do stuff that is a little dangerous and the moms can still say it’s ok so long as we talk about it and realize the fantasy. But like a good policy analyst Drezner has the other side covered too because if zombie politics do go the other way, Drezner is positioned to claim this video was his clarion call to anti-violence crusaders.

Drezner, in today’s post, also notes his:

wonder if there’s a fusion of various apocalyptic fears going on in some political quarters.

He considers metaphoric “blowback” and traps of political interests by shifting metaphors, specifically the NRA in the gun debate:

the fear of state collapse is a very different logic from a fear of an overpowering state. If you believe that governments will simply crumble at the first sign of a threat, then you’re not gona bother lobbying against some silly international treaty. It’s not like the ATT [Arms Treaty] will make a difference when the s**t hits the fan.

The most important thing Drezner misses is that we, we the People, are the zombies. Anarchy is both a fear and a utopia and it is the fascist in ourselves that longs for a return to totalitarian order. For tomorrow we all may die.

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