For over a decade now Open Court Publishing Company has brought out collections of essays on subjects that belong to just about every arena of popular culture imaginable—movies, television series, rock and hip-hop, video games, sports, and on—under the auspices of its “Popular Culture and Philosophy®” label. To date, 70 titles exist and the Open Court website indicates that more are on the way. The Walking Dead and Philosophy, edited by Wayne Yuen, is the 68th installment in the series and its aim, as with the other entries, is to consider the existential, ethical, and political complexities of material that some might dismiss as mere cultural effluvia.
In this case, the particular subject is the graphic novel The Walking Dead and the television series based on it. (While coverage of the two in a single volume makes sense in terms of efficiency, potential readers who are more familiar with either the graphic novel or television program may sometimes find themselves a bit lost in the essays that cover the work with which they are unfamiliar since plotlines and narrative arcs sometimes diverge pretty substantially.)
What is the impetus behind the perhaps unlikely aim of the series as a whole? Series Editor George Reisch (who, it should be noted, wrote a column for PopMatters, “Pop Goes Philosophy”) articulates the aim of the series thus:
“In many cases, fans would probably rather re-watch the movie or re-read the book than open a book of scholarly essays about it. But when most fans think the movie or rock band in question is misunderstood or underestimated, PCP volumes are just the thing—especially when the philosophers writing about the concepts and arguments in question are fans themselves.”
In other words, each collection recognizes that it will not (and should not) supplant its object of study, but will hopefully expand appreciation of it and help fans to understand the deeper substrates of meaning that they may sensed are there but have not been quite able to articulate.
Given the astonishing popularity of zombies in popular culture generally over the last half-decade or so, a sustained study of their manifestations in two important media practically begs for some critical consideration. Fortunately, The Walking Dead proves a particularly rich instance of the zombie phenomena and what they can tell us about being human and, well, non-human (and the often vexed task of making a meaningful distinction between the two). We might, in other words, learn some important, if discomforting, truths about ourselves if we’re willing to think seriously about the often terrifying, often brutal, often anarchic world of The Walking Dead. As Greg Littman eloquently writes in “Can You Survive a Walker Bite?”:
“Investigating the issue of the necessary conditions for personal survivor is not just a self-indulgent excuse to think about the universe of the The Walking Dead. The problems that arise here, and the answers that we give here, may have ramifications for real-world cases in which philosophical judgments about personal identity must be made. Questions about the treatment of individuals suffering from brain injury or mental degeneration, the rights of artificial intelligences, even the ethical treatment of animals may hang on what we take the conditions of personal survival to be.”
In terms of structure, the volume falls into four sections: “This Sorrowful Life”; “What We Become”; “Miles Behind”; and “The Heart’s Desire”. Each section is loosely organized around a theme or set of interest and questions—the ethical status of zombies (Do they have rights? Do they retain any of the qualities of the human persons they once were?), for example, or the best means of governance for human survivors in the wake of the complete collapse of civilization (Is the willingness and ability to exert physical force over others a legitimate justification for authority? Is a division of labor along gender lines fair if we acknowledge that men are, generally speaking, physically stronger than women and, therefore, likely to be better at dispatching zombies?)
In each section individual essays vary in terms of sophistication and accomplishment but, overall, the third and fourth sections feature generally stronger pieces across the board. Part of the unevenness is due, no doubt, to the populist orientation of the series—specifically its willingness to include the work of less-established or relatively novice scholars in contrast to the less accommodating policies of academic publications. This policy seems perfectly, and for this reviewer admirably, in keeping with the larger interest in reminding the world that philosophical inquiry has a place outside the sometimes claustrophobic confines of the ivory tower. Less admirable are the grammatical and punctuation errors and sometimes overly casual prose that might easily have been made more rigorous without sacrificing accessibility for the general reader for whom the volume is intended.
In any case, taken all together, the essays introduce key concepts from an impressive range of important philosophers both past and present—among them Locke, Hobbes, Descartes Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Peter Singer, and David Chambers—and make a usually persuasive and engaging case for their relevance to specific events in the novel and program.
Not everyone may want to think about the philosophical implications of the living dead (the phrase itself is just the sort of fascinating paradox in which the collection is interested), but for those who do, this is a very fine place to start.