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"The Walking Dead" and the Birth of the State

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 2, 2013 | Comments ()


The-Walking-Dead-12-Andrew-Lincoln-Chandler-Riggs.jpg

I watched the first two seasons of “The Walking Dead” over the last couple of weeks, and am as thoroughly spoiled on the events of the third season as one can be without actually watching them. And some of the familiar beats struck me, the worn narrative ruts that other stories have carved, but we rarely pay much attention to.

There comes a moment in nearly all post-apocalyptic stories when the characters are compelled to take to the road. In reality, if there is such a thing, people would do the exact opposite. They stay in familiar halls, linger on the same few streets that are most comfortable. The staples of the genre’s thought experiment would hold true in the real world: the breakdown of order, the need to rummage further and further from home. But that need to expand would likely take place in a widening gyre, not an escape onto a road to the horizon. I Am Legend is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, in which the protagonist stays in his home for the entire tale, fortifying his little suburban ranch house against the end of the world.

The cities inevitably become hollowed out death traps in post-apocalyptic fiction, whether of the zombie variety or simple viral outbreak stories. The stories elevate the danger of the cities in a variety of ways, in order to ensure that the unmatchable density of potential looting is never worth the staying in them. Better to take to the road, better to search for the better place. Just about every post-apocalyptic story is a road trip.

I think the heart of the genre calls to the hunter-gatherer in us, the notion that our card houses could be tumbled back down by nature in relative moments. And when civilization disappears, when the shared fiction that props up the last six thousand years dissipates, then we go back to the beginning. It’s a return to hunter-gatherer society, no production, no agriculture, just wandering and gathering, and the incessant warfare with nature and other tribes. The blood-dimmed tide and all that. And so the cities must be abandoned for the truth in the metaphor. We must become wanderers, which is even more fitting in modern America, with our particular worship of the highways and empty spaces.

We loot and pillage the world that’s moved on, but it has a familiar feel to it doesn’t it? It has a nostalgia that we can’t quite place in our own experience. Ten thousand years ago we rummaged through the litter of nature, today it would be the detritus of our own society’s corpse. But it’s the same impulse, the same life. It is a world of no creation, in which we cannot build a car anymore than we could build a horse. In which all knowledge is the realm of magic, and a man owns nothing but what he carries.

The inclusion of a character like Daryl is critical to a tale like “The Walking Dead,” the sort of man who can live off the natural world. He has to be uneducated, has to be the lowest of the old world’s low. Not because he is raised up in this violent new world, but because everyone else is brought down. Glenn’s skill at gathering is not functionally different than Daryl’s skill set. They just specialize in different bushes to pluck.

I do find it curious that the show lacks the equivalent of the character of Glen from The Stand, the deep thinking sociologist who analyzes the new world as much he tries to survive in it. “The Walking Dead” almost can’t afford to have that sort of character because someone who sees that well would break the fourth wall too clearly, would wreck what the show is trying to demonstrate. There’s an old maxim of political science that the great democratic revolutions of the 19th century could only happen in that way one time, because everyone afterward has that hindsight and that road map. Revolutions, true revolutions, can only happen once, when the players of the game don’t know what the rules are, so they can’t destroy each other rigging the outcome.

The characters of “The Walking Dead” are having the knowledge removed, bit by bit. All the foresight and knowledge of the ancien regime dying one by one as the best of them succumb. The military is appealed to, but their tanks all sit hollow and dead. What soldiers survive are massacred. The CDC is revealed as helpless before being reduced to a crater. Fort Benning gone. In Herschel’s Farm they find the stand-in preacher, the hard man of God. It’s no coincidence that the Governor comes next, a callback to the old authority, and a hope for the future. The prison, that great panopticon treated for once as a refuge.

All of these events are the slow stripping away of the vestiges of the state, deriving step by step the hell that waits at the logical end of the libertarian impulse, a counterpoint to every argument against state power. From a certain perspective, the state is our greatest invention, for all the horrors it has wrought when wielded darkly. It is the sine qua non of everything else we normally consider to be the triumphs of civilization. Writing, electricity, science, art. None of it is more than dust in the wind without the state to jealously guard it, without a hand shielding the guttering flame from the maelstrom.

And of course Rick is a police officer, the symbol of the old order, tossed up in charge for no real reason other than that damned uniform he put on out of habit. He takes in his hands the hard decisions. He is become the state as thoroughly as old Louis.

It is difficult for us to retell the story of the creation of the state, for us to step outside its existence and really look at it. It’s everywhere, and for all of written history, always has been except for glimpses here and there. And we fetishize those glimpses of the forging of the state, of the sheriff drawing iron in the anarchy of the West. But to retell it from the beginning, with characters we can understand, requires a story that starts with civilization and then tears it down and grinds it into dust. A story willing to annihilate any characters who would provide the moral compass of the old world, who can break the fourth wall and tell the characters how this was accomplished before.

The only way we can re-experience the birth of civilization is to first destroy it.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Joel

    An interesting read, especially regards the state and libertarianism. You might find this short video worthwhile, produced by a recovering libertarian. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=N...

  • Mr. Buttons

    //There comes a moment in nearly all post-apocalyptic stories when the characters are compelled to take to the road. In reality, if there is such a thing, people would do the exact opposite. They stay in familiar halls, linger on the same few streets that are most comfortable. The staples of the genre’s thought experiment would hold true in the real world//

    The thing is, extraordinary situations can turn the ordinary to extraordinary ex:- Glenn, can turn a loving father to a sociopath ex- the Governor, the weak and bullied can discover strength ex: Carol.
    It almost feels stupid to continue giving examples. People can change on their own, if the will is strong enough or they are forced to change by the events in their life.

    //I Am Legend is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, in which the protagonist stays in his home for the entire tale, fortifying his little suburban ranch house against the end of the world.//
    I don't think you remember your movies correctly, also there is a fundamental difference between the slow zombies in "The Walking Dead" and the agile, smart and strong vampires(they were vampires right?) in "I am legend", so it seems silly to actually compare the two.
    In Will's movie, his character stays at home, because the outbreak starts in New York and he wants to end it in New York(I think he says this about 2 to 3 times in the movie), and also cause he is a researcher and has a mofoing lab in his house....much like the CDC guy in "The Walking Dead" who btw stays in his lab too.

    *Sigh* And you replace society with the state.

  • Tony Maxwell

    I simply had to write this, though I'm quite sure
    it will be near impossible for me to explain why.

    Maybe because it's the twilight and my first chance
    to relax w/ some wine & alone time at the end of a very brutal Thursday at
    work, but I am mellowed and fully able to concentrate on one - single -
    thing instead of dozens, and this beautifully-written commentary is the
    finest I've read in quite awhile.

    I love the way you casually drift from
    the TWD series itself and instead focus on the hypotheses and various
    implications of its actual premise worthy of such an interrogatory, one that
    expands on what TWD only gives an infinitesimal dramatic theory of.

    But Steven, the way you craft your thoughts into
    fluid sentences that are highly-readable and never use any more words than
    necessary, a problem this 52-year-old writer has given up on trying to change anymore.

    Paragraphs 4, 5 and 6 are so perfect, together and
    separately, with 4 and 5 being excellent examples of how poetry and creative
    words can be just as informative and much more stimulating when describing most
    anything.

    Steven, I basically just love reading
    intelligent, substantial writing, in features, articles and essays on the Internet,
    which are still few and far between these days. To me, this ease of
    communication you bring is what I've always aspired to but rarely come close to
    comparing with.

    The fact that not a single misspelling, punctuation
    error or fragmented sentence exists in your piece is further evidence that the
    only aspect of this work you might not have possibly oversaw was the 'copy /
    paste' procedure from document to Pajiba's site, as every other single article
    contains more grammatical errors than one wants to count.

    This article is brilliant, sir, and I thank you for
    sharing it.

    Tony

  • noleader

    Stick to making shows and try not to get into political theory. To assume a state is required for society to function is to ignore the historical record. I mean really... to imply that the state is a shepherd of society is to invert which created which.

    In your dystopian view of libertarianism the state would never have been created as man would have been to busy hitting each other with sticks to even think about writing a book or building a house.

  • abell

    "All of these events are the slow stripping away of the vestiges of the state, deriving step by step the hell that waits at the logical end of the libertarian impulse, a counterpoint to every argument against state power."

    Well, there's your problem. Libertarians are not Anarchists. Indeed, Rick and The Governor have both provided excellent examples of the problems with Authoritarian regimes. That is, they rely very heavily on the people in charge not to have mental breakdowns (Rick) or be scenery chewing evil (The Governor).

  • Actually, anarcho-capitalism is the logical conclusion of libertarianism. They occupy places on the same spectrum, and they aren't that far apart.

  • This is laughable. Ending the state and its monopolization of power and force, its predication on control of individuals, is like an apocalypse of the undead walking the earth and eating people?! lol

    If anything, the show is an metaphor for the state: mindless minions preying on the lives of the few, having no respect of private property, keeping productivity down, and endangering those who would otherwise live peaceful lives.

  • I am not sure what is meant by "the libertarian impulse" above, let alone how it might lead to hell. A libertarian simply believes that the only legitimate use of force is in defense of body and property, those things to which you have the best claim by virtue of being the first-user (or the recipient of a voluntary transfer, as the case with much of your property). It is quite ironic to take the position that "writing, electricity, science, art" were anything but the result of people acting freely, with minimal interference by the state.

    I was pleased when I saw The Governor's speech to the citizens of Woodbury, right after him and his military posse returned from their secret, murderous scavenging hunt for supplies. THAT was an honest depiction of state power. It's a shame you don't quite see it that way.

  • Puddin

    Darryl is unbelievably smart. He has more intelligence and critical thinking skills than anyone on the whole show. The problem is that his abilities are devalued because they don't easily fit people's spectrum of "smart". This is also why one of my favorite things is taking my city friends to my country friend's goat farm--and laughing at how much they freak the hell out.

  • Puddin

    Intellectualism is a luxury when you're facing imminent death.

  • Der Staat

    Franz Oppenheimer's Der Staat is pretty good at describing the origins of the state, although I don't agree with all his views on capitalism.

  • bleujayone

    To be honest, hitting the road and leaving a large city in the wake of a decimating apocalyptic event is in fact a wise course of action. A city requires a great deal or daily maintenance just to function and if there's no one left to keep the gears moving, it's kind of pointless to stick around. For example, someone needs to be sure the pumping stations are still bringing in water. Someone else needs to keep the power grid on. Food is usually shipped in every day and with the supply lines gone, it makes little sense to remain cut off. Where the heck can you plow a field for food in the asphalt jungle? So yes, leaving the abandoned big city for a smaller and more rural backdrop where one can maintain one structure instead of having even more adversary just in the world around you crumbling into dust, let alone whatever monsters are out there, is far easier. It's easier to maintain, to supply and to defend. It might not be the most ideal spot, but as that world is long gone, survival now is suddenly a hot commodity instead of an aspect to be taken for granted.

  • JFF

    "All of these events are the slow stripping away of the vestiges of the
    state, deriving step by step the hell that waits at the logical end of
    the libertarian impulse, a counterpoint to every argument against state
    power. From a certain perspective, the state is our greatest invention,
    for all the horrors it has wrought when wielded darkly. It is the sine
    qua non of everything else we normally consider to be the triumphs of
    civilization. Writing, electricity, science, art. None of it is more
    than dust in the wind without the state to jealously guard it, without a
    hand shielding the guttering flame from the maelstrom."

    Nonsense. The primary urge in this fantasy world is survival against chaotic forces, i.e., the zombie horde. Remove the zombies and allow people to live their lives without conflict. Quickly they will begin building, producing, and trading spontaneously without central direction. You can even see it in the people who are not actively fighting against the hordes. Prosperity soon follows with the restoration of the division of labor leading to wealth accumulation and the investment in the development of more efficient means to satisfy ends. Further, once stability is restored, people will be able to resume leisure activities and soon you'll see the restoration of the arts and expressive endeavors.

    What you're seeing is NOT the end of the line, but the dark path out of savagery.

  • John G.

    Nicely Done, Steven.

  • His_Chiefness

    Waaaahhhaaaa ZOMBIES!!! Waaaahhhaa

  • TK

    I do find it curious that the show lacks the equivalent of the character of Glen from The Stand, the deep thinking sociologist who analyzes the new world as much he tries to survive in it. “The Walking Dead” almost can’t afford to have that sort of character because someone who sees that well would break the fourth wall too clearly, would wreck what the show is trying to demonstrate.

    I'd argue that they did have that character - the scientist from the end of Season One - and he killed himself. That in and of itself is pretty heavy with symbolism, as if to say that this new world is one where logic and reason can no longer find purchase.

  • If only there were evidence that the writers had any idea they know what they're doing. At least since season 1, anyway.

  • Parker Jammstein

    He has to be uneducated, has to be the lowest of the old world’s low.
    Not because he is raised up in this violent new world, but because
    everyone else is brought down

    Somewhat related: In my graduate course on the Holocaust we spent a good chunk of time on Levi's The Intellectual in Auschwitz , where Levi discusses the uselessness of being an educated man in the era of the Holocaust. Clearly, a redneck bumpkin like Daryl would excel in a post-apocalyptic world, whereas a guy like me who reads close to 90 books a year and is getting a goddamned M.A. in English would be completely lost. Surely there would be some use for me down the line, but I've never fired a gun. I'm at heart a pacifist, and as much as I would like to imagine I'd adapt and become a suitable zombie destroyer, there's no way to tell. Essentially, it would suck to be a well-read nerd during an apocalypse, unless your companions enjoy your hackneyed interpretations of Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood.

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