[27 October 2008]
Zombies can’t die. But even if they could, we wouldn’t let them. Zombiephilia has been alive and well in pop culture at least since 1968, the year that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead inaugurated the genre and The Zombies released “Time of the Season”. It’s still that time. Romero’s zombies have fortified the shopping mall they took over in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and are making quick inroads to politics and global economics.
As I write, shortly before both a historic presidential election and Halloween, thoughts of death and half-living corpses abound. Republican presidential nominee John McCain is bidding to become the oldest elected president ever, and despite his determination his poll numbers suggest it’s not going so well. If his scars, war wounds, and restricted mobility don’t remind voters of his immanent familiarity with the great beyond, then his opposite-world running mate does.
She’s young, vibrant and in the eyes of all but the most fanatical partisans plainly unqualified to run the country should death visit the Oval Office after a Republican victory. Her very presence on the ticket points to a whopping senior-moment for the self-proclaimed “country-first” candidate. When he chose his running mate, he forgot about his country. But zombies are like that—single-minded and dead-set on immediate, unconditional gratification.
Zombies are alluring because death is. We’re all going to die; we’re all afraid of that; so we can’t help but pay attention to those who go before us, shuffling and grunting their way through shopping malls, parking lots, and big-box stores in a desperate search for something to quench the gnawing emptiness of undeath.
We don’t want to be like them, but it may be too late. Romero’s great idea, Matthew Walker explains in his chapter in The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless, was to conceive American postwar consumerism as itself a kind of death—an obsession with acquisition and goods that prevents us from achieving other, less ‘graspy’ kinds of happiness, such as the one articulated by Aristotle some two thousand years ago.
That conception of happiness has long been obscured by our consumer-based economy and buy-it-now culture. Romero has been pulling that culture apart, limb by limb, on the big screen for decades. But now that economy itself is in peril. The excesses of our credit-card, easy-mortgage consumerism—ever shuffling and lurching behind us—have finally caught up and taken a bite. So, as the global economy threatens to come apart like a rotting corpse, what better time of the season to take in some Aristotle and rethink what it might mean to be truly happy. And alive, as long as we can escape from the mall.
Below excerpted from, “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Shop the Earth: Romero and Aristotle on Zombies, Happiness, and Consumption” by Matt Walker. From The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless Open Court, 2006.
Romero is explicit about the parallels between the living and the Undead. In one scene, the survivors—absurdly overdressed in fancy furs—survey their maximum-security consumer utopia. While the groaning hordes of zombies try to claw their way back into the mall, the survivors wonder what drives them:
PETER: They’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.
STEPHEN: What the hell are they?
PETER: They’re us. That’s all.
As the hero and moral center of the film, Peter isn’t just speaking about himself and the other survivors in the mall. He’s speaking about us, the viewers, as well—consumers in our own right tempted by the fantasy of unlimited access to a mall full of stuff. And presumably, he’s speaking for Romero as well. Yet Peter is critical. By equating “us” with the walking dead outside the mall, he hints that we might not be much better off than the zombies.
“I Don’t Want to Be Walking Around Like That!”: Living versus Living Well
So what might we consumers have in common with the living dead? Why might we both have ceaseless desires to consume things?
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls the overreaching desire for the goods of fortune pleonexia. In ancient Greek, pleonexia literally means “having more,” but carries the sense of “graspingness,” of “grabbing for extra when you’re already full.” In Politics, he tries to explain pleonexia by reference to people’s unlimited desire for sheer survival: “The cause of this disposition is being serious about living, but not living well.
Now with their desire for living extending into infinity, so too they desire without limit the things productive of living.” (Book I, chap. 9) In other words, pleonexia is an attempt to escape mortality. By taking more than their fill of the goods of fortune—which Aristotle takes to be things like honor, wealth, and security—those who grasp seek to keep at bay the inescapable bad fortune with which death confronts us.
In Dawn of the Dead, graspingness is personified by Stephen (a.k.a. “Flyboy”), the well-meaning, but tragically flawed, proto-yuppie who convinces his girlfriend Fran to take off with him in a stolen TV news chopper. She has ethical reservations, but he interrupts with an appeal to the ultimate, brute value of sheer self-preservation: “We’ve got to survive, Fran. Somebody’s got to survive.” Later at the mall, Stephen rhapsodizes to Fran about his virgin “shopping trip” with Peter and Roger. “You should see all the great stuff we got, Frannie,” he says. “All kinds of stuff! This place is terrific. It really is.
It’s perfect. All kinds of things. We’ve really got it made here.” When an outlaw biker gang invades the mall toward the end of the film—“We don’t like people who don’t share!” yells their leader—it’s Stephen who first fires his rifle to defend his spoils. “It’s ours,” he mutters. “We took it. It’s ours.”
One of the great mysteries of Romero’s zombie films is just why the dead return. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), newscasters speculate that radiation from a returning Venus space probe is somehow involved. In Dawn, there’s some chat about a virus, and at one point, Peter proposes that hell is full. But no one really knows. No answer is ever settled upon.
Perhaps pleonexia plays a role. To desire living without limit is to desire immortality, or in ancient Greek, to be athanatos. But one might be a-thanatos—literally, without death, deathless—in at least two ways. You could be immortal by living like the gods Aristotle alludes to in Nicomachean Ethics (Book X, Chapter 7) who spend eternity in the exalted contemplation of the cosmic order. Or you could simply continue to metabolize and survive forever, even if the resulting survival left much to be desired.
To be without death in this sense might count simply as not being dead, or as being un-dead. So maybe one explanation for the dead’s return is that their graspingness in life—rooted in their unlimited desire for life—knows no bounds. From beyond the grave, they grasp for more living, even if such survival fails to count as living well. As Stephen puts it, the walking dead haunt the mall out of “a kind of instinct . . . memory . . . what they used to do.”
They act on the desires that governed them during their lives. It’s not surprising, then, that once the walking dead have turned him into dinner, it’s the now-lurching, Undead Stephen who leads the zombie army upstairs into the protagonists’ makeshift penthouse.
“Attention All Shoppers: If You Have a Sweet Tooth, We Have a Treat for You!”: The Limits of Hedonism
Even if both zombies and consumers are driven by graspingness, why join Romero in thinking that consumerism should turn us into zombies? Or, to put it another way, why should Dawn’s hard-shopping quartet zombify themselves through unlimited acquisition?
Once again, Aristotle offers a clue. Immediately following the Politics passage quoted earlier, he argues that the unlimited desire to consume for the sake of mere living typically assumes a certain picture of good living. In his trademark crabbed Greek, Aristotle writes, “And as much as they aim at living well, they seek after bodily enjoyments, so that since these also seem to find their source in acquisitions, all focus is on obtaining wealth.”
In other words, those who grasp after material goodies are prone to identify the good life with a life of enjoyment, a life devoted to the kind of pleasure that we can procure through consumption. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls such gratification “the pleasure from gain.” (Book V, Chapter 2) So far as such a pleasure-focused life promises to be free of suffering, it might seem to offer the same insulation against fate that mere living does.
It’s fitting, then, that Romero’s original screenplay for Dawn describes the mall’s “bright store fronts, with their displays of goods designed to attract shoppers to the sweet life the items pretend to represent.” Romero’s use of “sweet life” is revealing. In ancient Greek, the word “sweet” translates as hêdus, which also means “pleasant.” Hêdus is the word from which we get the English “hedonistic.”
The sweet life that Romero thinks the mall advertises, we might guess, is hedonistic—a life of enjoyment like the one Aristotle talks about. But given what happens to his gang of four, Romero seems skeptical about how sweet this life really is, after all.
For Aristotle, the sweet life is a model for good living, or what he calls “happiness” (eudaimonia). When Aristotle talks about “happiness,” though, he doesn’t do so in a narrow, “psychological” way. He’s not using “happiness” the way I might if I were to say, “I was so happy when I found a limited first edition Japanese pressing of Goblin’s Dawn of the Dead soundtrack!”
Our modern notion of happiness usually refers to a transitory elevated mood or feeling. Aristotle is instead speaking about something like the best possible life for human beings, the life in which human beings flourish most, the life in which they most fully shine forth as the kinds of beings they are.
Consider plants and animals. While neither can be “happy” in any strict sense, they can still live better or worse as plants or animals. The best life for a spider plant will be the life in which it flourishes most as a spider plant, blossoming forth with sturdy green shoots and photosynthesizing without a hitch.
The best life for a bulldog will be the one in which she flourishes most as a bulldog, with all the barking, tail wagging, slobbering, and eating that should entail. In turn, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics searches for the best mode of life for human beings. Aristotle wants to spell out the features of a life in which the highest capacities of human nature most fully come to light.
Although he ultimately rejects the life of enjoyment as a model of happiness, Aristotle gives it a fair hearing (Book I, Chapter 5). After all, he notes, this is the life in which most people—“and the most vulgar”—think that happiness consists. Even if he’s a bit snobbish here, Aristotle doesn’t say this common opinion is totally wrong or crazy. Surely, pleasure should have some place in happiness. No doubt we’re tempted by the lives of powerful kings who possess the material resources to enjoy whatever sensual indulgences they wish.
If we’re honest with ourselves, part of us is probably tempted to say, “That’s the life!” Aristotle considers the life of Sardanapallus, a mythical Assyrian king who spent his palace days eating, drinking, and loving. In Dawn of the Dead, we might think of Roger, who finds the mall’s master keys and quips, “Keys to the kingdom.”
But can happiness really be reduced completely to a life of enjoyment through consumption? Like Romero, Aristotle thinks not. He dismisses the life spent in the pursuit of pleasure as “fit for cattle.” A sensation-focused life might actually do the trick for horses, oxen, and other animals which lack capacities for reason and which flourish by living in accord with their sensitive capacities. But such a life cannot fit the bill for human beings, organisms best defined by their capacities for practical and theoretical reason.
In other words, Aristotle thinks the life of enjoyment gets its priorities wrong. Neither the unlimited pursuit of stuff, nor its use in a life devoted to bodily enjoyment, grants sufficient weight to our key capacities. At best, a life of enjoyment treats these capacities as purely instrumental means for getting more stuff and more bodily pleasure.
Like the flesh-eaters who always fall for Peter and Roger’s diversionary tactics—mindlessly following their tap-tap-tapping against store windows—those devoted to enjoyment through consumption ultimately get tugged around by whatever pleasures and wayward distractions come their way. So described, the life of enjoyment is not one somebody can truly lead. And since it leads to the atrophy of those capacities that most fully manifest our humanity, Aristotle believes that it can’t fully satisfy us. As the path to frustration taken by Dawn’s characters, it proves a kind of living death.
George Reisch is the Series Editor for Open Court's series Popular Culture and Philosophy. He also edited Pink Floyd and Philosophy (2007) and co-edited Monty Python and Philosophy (2006) and Radiohead and Philosophy (2009).