At this point, there’s no really authentic way for us to say who or what to look for and guard yourself against. Reaction of law enforcement officials is one of complete bewilderment at this hour. Police and sheriff’s deputies and emergency ambulances are literally deluded with calls for help. The scene can be best described as mayhem (Radio broadcast from George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead)
Beware of Zombies! This has been a major media narrative for quite some time now.
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” (Donald Rumsfeld in a speech at NATO HQ, 6 June 2002)
Beware of the unknown! This has been a major narrative in security politics for quite some time now. It makes you think of the benefits of exploring threat imaginaries and preemptive politics through the register of pop culture – and more specifically, through tales of the Zombie apocalypse. A register that is as distinct from any rational, empirically grounded political agenda as could be. A register that crosses the threshold between worst-case thinking and sheer absurdity. And yet, a register that has become incorporated in an institution as conservative as the U.S. military.
In April of 2011, United States Strategic Command HQ put together a document entitled “CDRUSSTRATCOM CONPLAN 8888-11” – or, less cryptic: “Counter-Zombie Dominance.”[i] The document was only recently made public, and from the onset makes a clear statement that “this plan was not actually designed as a joke”, but that “members of a USSTRATCOM component found out (by accident) that the hyperbole involved in writing a ‘zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool.” So, the U.S. military thinks about the Zombie apocalypse as well, huh?
What at first sight appears a rather odd thing, actually makes a lot of sense if we take a step back. The 9/11 Commission in their 2004 report pointed out the “failure of imagination”[ii] and the “the narrow and unimaginative menu of options for action offered to both President Clinton and President Bush.”[iii] As Claudia Aradau puts it, “after 9/11, organizations, bureaucracies and intelligence services are required to expect the unexpected and replace the improbable with the mere possible and imaginable.”[iv] Security politics was forced to adapt to such new challenges. The bottom line here is that now one better think through all futures in order to be secure, and not just those that are justified by one way or another. So we better not frame anything as hyperbole, as counterfactual, as absurdity anymore, right? Even pop cultural imaginaries of monsters and aliens?
After all, pop culture has been called upon in the aftermath of 9/11. Slavoj Žižek and Jean Baudrillard have been most prominently among those who have argued that security agencies should have looked at the dream factory that is Hollywood in the first place in order to get a glimpse at the nightmare to come. 9/11 had been premediated, so their argument, and “the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise.”[v] So, should we brace ourselves for the moment when the dead in fact rise from their graves in order to devour the living? Should we make our homes Godzilla-proof and cover our necks at night for the possibility of vampires? It is absurd, right? But what if such absurdity can actually tell us something about contemporary security politics?
Put differently: what can critical security studies make from a preoccupation with the unknown that extends far into the realm of the absurd? Security politics have largely been criticized for their ever-excessive logics of surveillance and control that tend to deeply probe our everyday lives and outweigh human rights and civil liberties. For instance, Mark Neocleous has argued that contemporary societies have become dominated by a security fetish[vi] – or, as Michael Dillon puts it, by a religiously charged narrative of security as the heroic katechon, the preventer of the end of all days.[vii] And this savior engages with Zombies? Seriously? After all, thinking about the absurd event might turn out to be a viable way to expose the illogical creep that security politics have drifted into.
Such creep is of course deeply entwined in the desire to render the future knowable and thus to cancel out harm. In the terms of Brian Massumi, however, a politics of preemption must forever remain in the realm of virtuality, as threats must under no circumstances materialize.[viii] In other words: preemptive politics can never be de-legitimized, for their success is un-falsifiable. If nothing happens, we have been successful, so the argument goes. By this very logic, preemption remains stuck in a loop that must never be broken or otherwise the worst-case event would unfold. Thus, it creeps on. If we survive another week without our brains ripped out and being eaten by re-animated corpses, then kudos to security agencies! Right? Well, there might be a little more surplus to this train of thought.
My point here is obviously not to think about what happens if flesh-eating ghouls actually start walking among us. My point is that security politics have reached a certain degree of ridiculousness that might be best exposed through the absurdity of pop cultural narratives such as the Zombie apocalypse. And despite such absurdity, they appear not that much off target. In fact, if one thinks of a security politics for the Zombie apocalypse, how would it arguably differ from counterterrorism policies, from disease control and contingency plans, from surveillance and control, and from sorting and sifting the good from the bad? How would it differ from Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns? In other words, absurdity has become part of “the master narrative through which the state shapes our lives and imaginations (security risks here, security measures there, security police everywhere), producing and organising subjects in a way that is always already predisposed towards the exercise of violence in defence of the established order.”[ix]
Of course it is provocative to speak of monsters. Of course it is a hyperbole, a counter-factual, an absurdity. However, after all, I would argue that absurdity tells us something about how we conceive of the future, and subsequently about how the present is shaped along such conceptions. It tells us something about the current state of affairs. It tells us something about where security goes wrong. It tells us something about security’s own pathology. And yes, admittedly, studying the Zombie apocalypse is pretty cool, too. But that’s just the icing on the cake…
[i] Headquarters United States Strategic Command (2011) CDRUSSTRATCOM CONPLAN 8888-11 “Counter-Zombie Dominance”, 30 April.
[ii] 9/11 Commission (2004) Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks: 336.
[iii] 9/11 Commission (2004) Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Available at: http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/911/report/911Report.pdf. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks: 350.
[iv] Aradau C (2010) The Myth of Preparedness. Radical Philosophy (161): 3.
[v] Žižek S (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London/New York: Verso: 12.
[vi] Neocleous M (2008) Critique of Security. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
[vii] Dillon M (2011) Specters of Biopolitics: Finitude, Eschaton, and Katechon. South Atlantic Quarterly 110(3): 780-792.
[viii] Massumi B (2007) Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption. Theory & Event 10(2).
[ix] Neocleous M (2008) Critique of Security. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 5.