The season finale of the current season of The Walking Dead is broadcast on British television on August 6th, 2012. This is a short blog to mark the occasion.
It is dedicated to Lauren Cohan for her strong performance as the tomboyish, but also romantic, Maggie Greene in the second season of The Walking Dead. In the mid-nineties Lauren was a student at Winchester, where I teach English. It has been great to see her starring in a high profile role (adding to similar film and television roles in the horror genre – Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, for example – where she has started making a name for herself). She will be upgraded to the main cast of The Walking Dead, in fact, when the series returns for its third season in October.
Also, the occasion for this blog is the proposed collection of essays on The Walking Dead which comes from Dawn Keetley at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania (see the call for papers posted at The Gothic Imagination by Laura Kremmel on July 27th, 2012). What a timely collection of essays Dawn’s book looks like being! Her book title, Dead Inside: ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Problem of Meaning in the New Millennium indicates that she has identified, with the ‘Dead Inside’ message, what is probably the key to the post-millennial problem of meaning referenced in the book’s sub-title. For some reflections on all of this (remarks on zombies as ‘talking bodies’ in The Walking Dead), see below.
An iconic moment in the first episode of The Walking Dead: Rick Grimes awakes from his hospital bed to a zombie apocalypse. Wandering through the hospital he encounters a double door with the words ‘Dont [sic] Open Dead Inside’. ‘Dead Inside’ signifies an alternative title for the whole TV series. For it spells out the condition of life of the zombies who are themselves the living (walking) dead, the uncanniest of flâneurs.
What then is the meaning of ‘Dead Inside’? The question refracts the whole problem of meaning in the new millennium. Why? Because it is not that the zombies suffer a loss of consciousness through becoming ‘dead inside’. These zombies are not like the somnambulistic Jessica Holland in Jacques Tourner’s 1943 film noir, I Walked with a Zombie. They sense Rick’s presence on the other side of the locked double door and begin clawing at the opening down the middle. Nor are these zombies ‘dead inside’ in the same sense of this term as the zombies described in Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s landmark ‘Zombie Manifesto’ of 2008. For both Lauro and Embry in their boundary 2 article, the living dead are as such pre-eminently liminal creatures of the boundary that deconstruct the ‘third space’ of inside-and-outside: life-death infects death-life, and vice versa, as a result. Insightful as this is it does not fully explain ‘Dead Inside’ and its refracting of a post-millennial problem of meaning.
The sense in which these zombies are ‘dead inside’ is in terms of their peculiar form of aphasia. They are both traumatically and obscenely hyper-aphasic. They suffer an immediate, total loss of speech upon their being bitten, hence the zombie’s familiar rasp, gurgle, cry. But this loss of speech does not return the zombies to a pre-verbal infant stage (and its cries), the Latin etymology of which – infans = speech-less – Jacques Lacan has investigated so acutely. Rather, the zombies exhibit a condition of language loss, but one which will have been mediated by the famous ‘linguistic turn’ of twentieth-century thought (from Saussure to Jakobson to Lévi-Strauss . . . to Julia Kristeva as essayist of ‘abjection’). In other words, they are a negative means of exploring how both the subject and meaning are not, in the absence, very traumatizing as it is, of a theory of language as production.
That language itself is the issue in this way is revealed for us a couple of scenes later in The Walking Dead. Rick is now outside the hospital but is hit in the face by an apocalypse-survivor, Duane, carrying a shovel: Duane’s father Morgan rushes over while Rick is recovering and straight away asks his son ‘He say somethin’?’ In a sense this is a very twenty-first-century question to ask. Morgan shows that he knows implicitly by now that the test of being able to talk – and not any test of consciousness (Rick is half-conscious at this point) – is the true test of not being dead in the zombie sense, that is, dead inside.
Moreover, everything that is negative about the zombies’ penetration of this language question (otherwise known as the problem of meaning in the new millennium) is then that it fulfils the following function. It throws into relief all that may be seen as positive about, to put it in Lacanian terms, humans’ inhabitance of the signifier, this latter to which they are thence subjects with meaning, speaking animals, and so are not dead inside. To a remarkable extent, The Walking Dead is a TV series which is not about zombies: it is of course really about us. The subject of the shows is, precisely, the ‘inner lives’ of the main protagonists, the different aspects to which are delineated through the various moral dilemmas faced by this group of survivors. (Remarkable, indeed, is the extent to which, as the first season series shifts into the second, the script features zombies markedly less, the narrative is less mobile as well.)
What then becomes of the zombie hyper-aphasics, those who are ‘Dead Inside’, in their state of loss and negativity? By means of a fascinating dialectical reversal, as they lose the power of speech on the inside, on the outside, as it were, they turn into ‘talking bodies’. ‘Talking bodies’ is Sigmund Freud’s term for hysterics. It seems an apt description for the rasping zombie, for whom the speech function, not to mention its whole language system – more precisely, the lack thereof – has been displaced into (or re-topologized as) a series of somatic symptoms, each of which, as Freud would suggest, operates as a type of signifying system in its own right.
It is without doubt these extraordinary ‘somatic symptoms’ that zombies are best known for: not just the staring eyes, the grinning teeth, the shuffling gait, but, more generally, the domination by drive and destruction of everything associated with what it means to be a social being. (Regarding this nexus of aphasia and corporeality, it is surely misleading for Lauro and Embry to suggest that Victor Frankenstein’s creature in Mary Shelley’s story is a zombie: the shambling, over-sized, Thing-like creature’s acquisition of language subjectivizes him, and, indeed, ensures that he is not ‘dead inside’ . . . see the first stage adaptations of 1823 for a different story, and a mute monster.) Once again, the fact that the ‘talking’ the zombies do is of the body throws into relief the articulate richness of the inner being of Rick and the others. The conclusion to the pilot episode of The Walking Dead sees Rick holding a gun whilst trapped inside a tank internally debating whether or not to kill himself, and, of all things, it is a voice on the radio – a Lacanian object-cause of desire, if ever there was one – which calls him back to human interdependence, to the discursive sublime, to society itself. Thus the talking bodies in The Walking Dead, the zombies in their condition of the surplus and shitty sublime, exist for the sake of the speaking animals. As hyper-aphasic hysterics, they are a means of determining, within a post-millennial problem of meaning (crises like zombies are everywhere!), that we are not (the) ‘Dead Inside’.
About the Author: Gary Farnell teaches English at the University of Winchester. He has published widely on the Gothic genre (including Walter Benjamin’s ‘Gothic’ Marxism). He is the co-author, with Peter Billingham, of the entry for Melodrama in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic.
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