Twilight of the Living

I started watching Fear the Walking Dead this week. I had previously seen the first season and enjoyed it back when it first aired but I didn’t bother keeping up with it after its parent show, The Walking Dead, became the dead horse that AMC wouldn’t stop flogging. (A further new spin-off series was launched on Amazon Prime the other day, which I just couldn’t stomach. The AV Club, as ever, has the best small-screen reviewers — Alex McLevy is right that the show “makes the rookie mistake of treating its clear mission to be more YA-friendly as an excuse to be more simplistic.”)

Fear the Walking Dead has pleasantly surprised me so far. It’s a decent watch and better than most of the other crap that passes for small-cast sci-fi these days. It is a welcome reminder that, despite the whole Walking Dead franchise’s many flaws — and it has plenty — it’s still the source for the best zombie media that I’m aware of. Whether that’s the original comics or the TV shows or those Tell Tale video games, whilst it has produced some wet farts in all categories, at its best it is the best around. Fear the Walking Dead is a welcome addition so far, in that it manages to carry forward a number of the original show’s strengths in a compelling new location and time-frame. And I’m a sucker for anything zombie-related, truth be told. It only has to be halfway decent to get me hooked.

This penchant for undead shufflers has made the last few months quite interesting, particularly when listening to the radio. After playing through both parts of The Last of Us in lockdown and watching a few favourite movies, the PSAs on various radio stations about stopping the coronavirus with some community Blitz spirit often make me feel like I am in a zombie movie. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

However, as is the nature of our boring dystopia, it only makes it more disorientating that — in Britain at least — we are presently experiencing all the semiotic cues for the zombie apocalypse without any of the spectacle. Some days have been so mundanely British in their horror, at the start of the pandemic in particular, as to feel like a lame Shaun of the Dead re-enactment.

I was reading about Baudrillard and the hyperreal the other day and, on a related note, it is surreal to feel that term is now inverted. Plenty of hauntologists have been banging on about this for a decade or so but it has never been this palpable, surely? There was a time, for example, when Hollywood used to have to exaggerate our normal lives in order to make it feel real. And the production process flowed that way explicitly — it was always art exaggerating life, even if it didn’t feel exaggerated to our semiotic-expectant brains. But now things feel different. It feels like the polarity has been inverted. Our worst nightmares are here but they are more mundane than any satirist could have reasonably thought possible. They are not filled with an overabundance of references to the real but a complete lack of evental resonance with the irreal.

Clichés abound from here on out, albeit wrinkled and deflated. It’s as if we’re living in a moment of pure Hollywood anhedonia. It’s The Truman Show but after the producers all died. It’s Dead Set but dull — in fact, for some, it has been exactly like that. The real has returned to us, like a boomerang, but it is barely even an imitation of the psychological insecurities we first threw into our movie studios. It is, instead, just an echo of our deepest fears, played out and numb. It is as if we really are living in the zombie apocalypse right now but late capitalism is so dysfunctional that the dead can’t even be bothered to come back for it. This is not the heavy-handed anti-consumerism of Dawn of the Dead; instead, our government has to get us back into shopping with literal carrot-and-stick statics. “Eat out to help out!” What we’re staggering through right now is the twilight of the living.

Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a complaint. Nor is this the naïve disappointment of someone isolated from the very real horrors that have been experienced by many. We have cried for all our friends who have lost loved ones, and who we wish we could comfort but who, in truth, we’ve barely seen for what feels like a year. But as life continues regardless, the capitalistic sense of our being the “walking dead” is hard to deny. We are returning to a depression, a dearth of unemployment not seen since Capitalism Classic was all the rage. Never mind our recent talk about the “precariat”, now the vast majority of us are wrestling with the fact that we are “non-essential”. As we just try to survive, we find ourselves made inert by the lingustic ticks of the state, reduced to homogeneous statistics and economic cattle.

What is so darkly humorous about this is that it’s not a realisation that has taken much effort to come to terms with on my part. (Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.) The slower pace of life — at least in terms of work load — is something I have welcomed with open arms (even if the social side is really starting to take its toll, six months in). It feels like the world is moving more at a pace I can keep up with without burning out. The ideological pressures feel shared also. Previous desires that would lead to accusations of being workshy or lazy have become the norm and even encouraged. The shame that often comes from being a sort of superfluous worker that has stalked me and many other working class arts professionals I know since we were first eligible to work suddenly feels shared. To have the rest of the nation come to terms with their own “non-essential” status is really quite strange and, as nightmarish as the circumstances are, there is a strange sort of comfort in it.

With this in mind, I found myself haunted by a scene from the first season finale of Fear the Walking Dead. Much of the season follows Nick Clark, a young heroin addict who first discovers one of the flesh-eating infected on a bleary morning after the night before. The first few episodes mostly show Nick losing his mind, as he struggles to ascertain whether what he saw was real or the result of a drug-induced psychosis. To his relief, and everyone else’s horror, it turns out he was right.

By the end of the season, Nick’s character arc has been decentred, but he remains the most interesting character in the show. There is great tension in his struggles with addiction and the heightened horror of his selfishness at a time when those around him are doing everything that they can to pull together; to become a post-apocalyptic community after becoming all too accustomed to the dysfunctional disparities of late-capitalist life. And yet, at the same time, his selfishness is also more mundane compared to the violent individualism of the paranoid survivalists they come across. He continues to exist in this strange in-between space — socially speaking — but it makes me a stronger person as a result.

In a short scene with his mother, he addresses his newfound lucidity:

“I feel strange.”

“Yeah, we’re spinning off the planet. We don’t know where we’re going.”

“That’s the thing. I never knew where I was going. It’s like I’ve been living this for a long time. And now everyone is catching up with me. It’s strange.”

For all the depressive realism of the Covid-19 eschaton, I do wonder about the silver lining of our moment in this regard. We previously lived in a world where Mark Fisher’s essay “Good for Nothing” felt like a missive from a silent mass, unaccounted for within our society and particularly within the cultural sector; we now live in a world where the majority of us non-essential workers have had to come to terms with the fact that we are all good for nothing, wasting our time in bullshit jobs that, as it turns out, society can function just fine without.

And by “function”, of course, I mean stagger on. As Fisher once wrote elsewhere: “Neoliberalism now shambles on as zombie — but as the afficionados of zombie films are well aware, it is sometimes harder to kill a zombie than a living person.” His advice on what to do is perfect, encapsulated in a joyful if darkened gothic pun. As with zombies, so with neoliberals: you’ve got to aim for the head — you’ve got to roll out a program of Cold Rationalist consciousness-raising and kill the parasite from within. The result could be something special. We might find ourselves inventing “new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger”.

Saying this when Fisher said it might have been easier said than done. Right now, there’s no better time for it. When the vast majority of us have been labelled social detritus, we might find the collectivisation of this disaffection, openly shared in the commons, to be a moment that is (politically speaking) priceless.

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