The economic crisis has a new trope. Zombies. An Australian economist, professor, blogger has published a book titled Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. And Paul Krugman wrote a recent op-ed “When Zombies Win.” (it is not the first time he played with the term.) The message that Quiggin and Krugman express is that some ideas rise from oblivion, and just won’t go away, won’t die, i.e. zombies.

I believe I know a thing or two about zombies. I watched, at a very impressionable age, The Night of the Living Dead, credited to have originated the concept (zombies are the most modern of monsters), although I always preferred the zombie comedy not being a horror buff: Army of Darkness, Zombieland and that classic Shaun of the Dead. I am now adept of zombie videogames playing often with my main bro Left 4 Dead 2, and looking forward to play in Call of Duty: Black Ops where I will choose between JF Kennedy, Nixon, McNamara or Castro and fight for survival against zombies in an underground complex (really! no kidding!).

These are my extensive zombie credentials, and with those I feel confident to say a thing or two about the semiotics of zombiehood.

Survival. The first and last element of all zombie tales is survival. Financial crisis is dire but it seems hardly the matter for life and death struggle, chainsaw in hand. In this the analogy presses urgency, but not action. Survival in a zombie world is to escape, keeping out of sight, lay low, and wait for someone with big guns to come clean the place. This is not Krugman’s approach who wants us to go out there and fix the economy…

Sadism. In most of its comedic and particularly in its videogame versions, the real pleasure of zombiedom is sadism, and indulgence in its exploration. Zombies look like people but their status as infected or cursed allows you to dispense of them with extreme prejudice. The human body is dehumanized, and somehow it’s ok. Here is what worries me most about the zombie analogy and the crisis, that it invites some level of dehumanization of those that are your opponents, these zombies ideas are also zombie people, and it is ok to terminate them with righteous violence. I don’t predict physical extermination, but a unhesitating deletion of the other from public discourse is not implausible.

Closure. Along with sadism, the underlying theme of a zombie story is that of a loved one (or a peer) that cannot rest, cannot go in peace, and that is incensed by a hunger for your flesh. Tough call. Zombie narratives are about letting go, about forgetting. How do you kill a zombie? You destroy his brain, his memory, his mind, his idea. This is a hot subject in science studies right now: the construction of ignorance, of forgetting. Take the work of Naomi Oreskes on climate change and her Merchants of Doubt: like the tobacco companies many decades ago trying to deny the links between smoking and cancer, the climate change deniers are today attempting to turn back the clock on knowledge. Krugman and Quiggin might be claiming that pseudo-science is holding us back from knowledge, but as an historian I worry about their appeal for forgetting and closure. As an historian I sympathize with the zombies. Sure if they bite you you will get very ill, but i plan to keep my distance.

(this post is all the more appropriate since AMC is doing a marathon of the first season of its Walking Dead)

5 thoughts on “Zombies

  1. “But I’m coming to believe that all of us are ghosts… It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers or fathers. It’s also the shadows of dead ideas and opinions and convictions. They’re no longer alive, but they grip us all the same, and hold on to us against our will. All I have to do is open a newspaper to see ghosts hovering between the lines. They are haunting the whole country, those stubborn phantoms — so many of them, so thick, they’re like an impenetrable dark mist. And here we are, all of us, so abjectly terrified of the light.” Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts, quoted by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who advocated quite justly, I believe, that innovation results from “the willingness to move beyond received wisdom, to combine ideas from unconnected sources, to embrace change as an opportunity to test limits.” And we can reasonably assume that academic innovation stems from the same disposition of mind. How many times young scholars’ ideas are discarded on the ground that they do not respect enough the ongoing standards, that their research does not respect the authorized methodology, that they do not quote such “leading scholar” and such “estimated (and esteemed) journal”, etc. — formal arguments which too often take the place of a real discussion of the ideas in question.

    Books or ideas are, of course, not perishable; but should they stand as rigid and untouchable totems? I don’t think so.

    1. I am not pleading for antiquarianism. I just feel that walking down apocalypse with a shotgun is not the best way to treat the past and decide about what is to be forgotten and what not. (I am discussing the metaphorical taking for granted that metaphors matter more than reasoned and common sense argument assumes.)

    2. Beyond the joke (for, to me, your “semiotics of zombiehood” casts light less on Krugman’s imaginative faculty than on yours;) I thought your post was a good opportunity to question a majority of contemporary economists lack of imagination in their relationship to history (the analysis of metaphors being indeed an interesting way of exploring the past). But a blog post comment is certainly not the appropriate place to do so, however thoughtful is the blog. My mistake.

  2. Some interesting thoughts. I’m puzzled, however, by your reference to “forgetting”. A large part of the problem, in my view and I think Krugman’s is a lack of awareness of both economic history and the history of economic thought. As we, and Brad DeLong have pointed out, the errors being made now are the same as those made during the Great Depression. If the lessons learned that had not been forgotten, we would be in much better shape.

    The point of the zombie metaphor (developed perhaps in too much detail in my book) is that dead , killed by contrary evidence, should stay that way, rather than being reanimated in the service of destructive economic policies.

    Keeping dead ideas in their graves requires memory, not forgetting and closure.

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