I was 19 when I read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Like most of my classmates, I was at first taken aback by the idea that people act out of self-interest, but I came to really appreciate the idea of that, and of social contracts and a strong leadership, which were the elements which saved us from the chaos of man in the state of nature. The state of nature, in which the life of man would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
My friends and I loved that description, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ We’d throw it into conversations and laugh the laugh of the philosophy geek. Of course, at 19, I didn’t really consider life in the state of nature, because I was too wrapped up in the hedonism of youth, cheap secondhand books, and coffees in the library cafe. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Hobbes, and he’s one of the few philosophers in which I’ve held an interest, even though it’s been almost twenty years since I studied his work. (As opposed to Locke, whose work went in one ear and out the other. I’m sure it didn’t help that during the only presentation I gave to my tutorial on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, my tutor fell asleep. It probably wasn’t personal–he fell asleep a lot in our tutorials–but Locke has been banished from my memory all the same. Poor Locke. I really should look him up again.)
Hobbes, however, has been on my mind, especially in recent years, when fin de siècle arts and literature seems to have focussed strongly on dystopia and the aftermaths of disasters, I keep thinking about his theory of social contracts, and how indeed we would survive in a world where nothing is certain, where there is no infrastructure, no government, no overarching leadership.
Or, as we know it these days, the Zombie Apocalypse.
Zombies aren’t a new phenomenon in story telling, but there certainly seems to be a recent surge of zombies as the feature ‘baddies’ in popular culture. Zombies can be the slow and shuffling kind, as are seen in Night of the Living Dead, and the comedic Shaun of the Dead, or the terrifyingly speedy variety, as in 28 Days Later and World War Z. There has also been a plethora of games featuring zombies in the last few years with titles such as Left for Dead and Dead Island two of the best-known; the undead have even infiltrated casual gaming with incredible success, as illustrated by the ever popular Plants vs Zombies. Our interest in these stories featuring zombies and some kind of apocalypse lies mostly in how humans react to the kind of environment, where society has crumbled away and the zombies are a constant threat. We marvel at the ways in which some aspects of lost cultural norms appear to stick with us, whereas others seem to dissipate with the first zombie attack. And we also marvel at how humans change, how quickly the fight or flight instinct kicks in, or how quickly everyday life becomes ‘kill or be killed’. In these scenarios, we can easily apply Hobbes’ theories, and by doing so, we can perhaps immerse ourselves more fully into the experience, and also question the judgemental nature of our reactions to these stories.
Take the graphic-novel-turned-TV-series The Walking Dead, for example. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who’ve not seen it, and I’ll admit I stopped watching a while ago, so I’ll just stick to the beginning where we first meet the main characters. We’re introduced to a number of characters in the first episodes, some of whom are particularly unpleasant, and whom we’d be quite happy to sacrifice to the zombies. Yet their usefulness is obvious to even the audience. In true Hobbesian fashion, the survivors are making social contracts. They are forming a society, and again, following the Hobbesian tradition, choosing a leader–either willingly or due to the simple fact that one person forcefully asserts his* authority and others grudgingly fall into line–who has near absolute power. It’s safer this way.
The trouble comes, then, when these small groups, which members have formed a kind of social contract, come into contact with other groups or individuals. More often than not, such encounters are not going to end well. I mean, I know I said, ‘no spoilers’ but let’s face it, you know it’s coming. Where would the fun in that be, if there were to be trust between strangers? It would diminish the drama, after all. And maintaining the drama is a problem, which is something critics have bemoaned (warning: spoilers in this review). Emily Nussbaum asks how much blood, violence and despair the viewers can take, before it begins to wear them down to the point that they no longer care about the characters. I’m inclined to agree: once a society has been established, and some kind of law implemented, the reality is that daily life becomes routine, even a little boring, which, as Hobbes might have predicted, is ideal for survival in the real apocalypse (but not for the survival of a television series).
However, trust (or lack of it) between strangers and upping the drama is a common theme for most zombie apocalypse games and films. Take two fairly recent game releases, DayZ and Rust (the latter of which no longer has zombies, and the former of which has apparently rather ineffectual ones). Both games are still in development, but their popularity has led some to criticise strongly the way in which the games encourage an ‘anything goes’ approach to the games. Collaboration between players is not prohibited, but players also need to choose their alliances wisely, or they’re likely to find themselves marooned, tortured, or killed. Games journalist Brendan Caldwell has written about both Rust and DayZ, and describes the desperation of being a new player looking for an ally in the first instance, and the heady power of being in a partnership, able to wield mercy or death at their choosing in the second. Caldwell highlights the way in which players use the world to their advantage, and how fluid relationships can leave the player in a state of constant terror and suspicion.
I know, I’m really selling The Walking Dead and these games to you, aren’t I? Well, it is the apocalypse! So how do we expect people to act, really?
When Hobbes was writing back in the 17th century about society, personal and political obligations, and how humans should behave in order to have the most fulfilling life, and feel safe and have their needs taken care of, I can’t be certain that he was considering how we’d fare in a zombie apocalypse, and whether all the tenets of his thesis would be useful in aiding our survival. But reviewing the way we judge the behaviour of players and characters in these media is in fact, an excellent lesson in ethics. Not only are we forced to confront our fears and what strengths and weaknesses we would bring to a zombie apocalypse, but if we’re so inclined to look deeper, it’s obvious that when it comes to humans trying to eke our an existence in a hostile world, unless we form some kind of social contract, then the real monsters from whom we need protection are, of course, ourselves. Whether we are prepared to settle for a life that’s nasty, brutish and short is therefore completely up to us, regardless of the zombies.
* Let’s face it, it’s going to be a him, which is one of the reasons I stopped watching the series. NOT ENOUGH STRONG WOMEN.