The frontier and the apocalypse; moving ‘”back” to a brutal settler colonial logic’? Katherine Sugg, ‘ The Walking Dead: Late Liberalism and Masculine Subjection in Apocalypse Fictions’, Journal of American Studies, 2015
Abstract: From The Road to The Walking Dead, contemporary apocalyptic fictions narrativize the conjunction of two central “crises”: late liberal capitalism and twenty-first-century masculinity. This conjunction underlines the insights of a variety of scholars and cultural critics who analyze the “crisis” of contemporary masculinity, often specifically white masculinity, as a product of recent economic and social transformations, including the perceived disempowering of white male authority in a neoliberal era of affective labor, joblessness and multiculturalism. But the apocalypse, especially as a television series, is a rather peculiar narrative vehicle for the articulation of a transformative future for – or a nostalgic return to – masculine agency and authority. Focussing on questions of subjection and agency in the late liberal/neoliberal moment, I suggest that zombie apocalypse stages a debate on the status of masculine agency that has roots extending deep into the foundations of liberal modernity and the gendered selfhood it produces – roots that are ironically exposed by the popular cultural referent that dominates The Walking Dead: the frontier myth. The frontier and the apocalypse both draw from Hobbesian prognostications of a state of nature as relentless competition and a war of “all against all” that are foundational to modern liberal political theory and questions of sovereignty, self-interest, and collective governance. But they also index a narrative antidote to the erasure of political agency as traditionally enshrined in liberal democratic norms and traditions. Like the western, the zombie apocalypse speculates about possible ways in which masculine agency in liberal modernity might be reimagined and/or reinvigorated. In the place of a tired, automated neo-“official man”, the apocalypse in The Walking Dead promises an opportunity to “finally start living” – reminding us that white masculinity figures precisely the Enlightenment liberal subject-citizen and the authoritative, if highly fictional, agency which has been notoriously crushed within regimes of late capitalist biopower. And yet, even as the zombie apocalypse engages foundational myths of liberal modernity, it elaborates them in surprisingly nihilistic set pieces and an apparently doomed, serial narrative loop (there is no end to the zombie apocalypse and life in it is remarkably unpleasant). The eruption of haptic elements in the television show – especially in the visual and aural technologies that allow representations of bodies, suffering, dismemberment, mutability, disgust – further counters the apparent trajectory of apocalyptic allegory and opens it to alternative logics and directions. The narrative options of the zombie apocalypse thus seem to be moving “back” to a brutal settler colonial logic or “forward” to an alternative, perhaps more ethical, “zombie logic,” but without humans. This essay is interested in what these two trajectories have to say to each other and what that dialogue, and dialectic, indicate about contemporary economic governance as it is experienced and translated affectively into popular narrative and cultural product. That is, to what extent is the racist and economic logic of settler colonialism already infected by the specter of another logic of abjection and otherness, one that is figured both by the zombies and by the nonnarrative function of spectacles of embodied male suffering? And what does that slippage between logics and directions tell us about the internal workings of settler colonialism and economic liberalism that have always been lodged within mythic fantasies of the frontier?
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