On Saturday, April 18, I gave the following talk at Bard College, as part of Bard’s Experimental Humanities Mellon lecture series. Sorry if it doesn’t read as an “academic” talk. It’s written to be told.
I’m going to tell you a story today about zombies and the liberal arts. There are a lot of places I could begin—say, the huge number of classes in the humanities that focus on zombies, or the burgeoning field of zombie scholarship. But I’m going to take a more circuitous route, a kind of lurching, shambling path to connect the dots. The story begins in 2013. That’s the year the film adaptation of Max Brook’s World War Z came out. It’s the year The Last of Us became a bestselling game for the Sony Playstation. It’s also the year Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Governor—my home state governor—was a guest on Bill Bennett’s radio talk show to talk about his vision for the North Carolina public university system. Chapel Hill. NC State. UNC-Charlotte. McCrory told Bennett—who, if your memory goes back that far, was Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he told Bennett that “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”[footnote]Kevin Kiley. “North Carolina Governor Joins Chorus of Republicans Critical of Liberal Arts.” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/30/north-carolina-governor-joins-chorus-republicans-critical-liberal-arts.[/footnote]
It doesn’t take much to unpack McCrory’s logic. It comes straight from the conservative playbook. Instrumentalize education so that it’s about getting jobs and not, say, civic engagement, understanding multiple perspectives, or asking questions with no easy answers. Fire up the populist rhetoric that pits public education against “private”—which is really McCrory’s codeword for elite—schools. And most revealing of all, name a supposedly marginal area of academic work—gender studies—as the embodiment of all that is useless and wrong with the liberal arts. I’m actually surprised he didn’t pick on zombie studies.
It would have made sense. For McCrory and other politicians and pundits, the liberal arts are a source of contamination, supposedly threatening the job prospects of undergrads, but more importantly, threatening the decrees handed down from the Koch Brothers, Art Pope, Sheldon Adelson, and the other billionaire funders of the ongoing privatization of the public sphere. The liberal arts for these fantastically wealthy men is a contagion that should be contained to private schools, or even better, eliminated altogether, stamped out. The liberal arts—that is, the pursuit of knowledge and creative expression for the sake of sustenance and discovery—is a kind of zombie discipline in their eyes. It reanimates questions about the past, about history, about the powerful and the powerless, about prosperity and its costs, when all they want, they’ll tell you, is for people to get jobs.
If the neoliberal anxiety about the liberal arts were confined to a handful of Americans, I might not feel so threatened myself. But it’s not. The anxiety trickles down and is amplified in the media, by columnists in the New York Times, by reporters, by endless news stories about the crisis in the humanities. It’s an anxiety I’ve seen on my own campus, when a student sheepishly tells me they like literature but need to major in Econ instead.
An image that crystallizes the neoliberal anxiety about the liberal arts comes from the source of the epigraph in my title: “Warning: Infected Inside, Do Not Enter.” The phrase appears in The Last of Us, Naughty Dogs’ blockbuster videogame from 2013. The Last of Us takes place in 2033, after, of course, a zombie apocalypse. In this case a mutation of the cordyceps parasitical fungus turns humans into zombie-like monsters. For most of the game the player takes the role of Joel, a survivor from the initial outbreak in 2013, who now, twenty years later is trying to take a teenage girl, Ellie, to a guerilla group who believes she may hold the cure for the epidemic. Ellie, it turns out, is immune to the cordyceps mutation. The game follows Joel and Ellie as they travel across the country, from Boston to Pittsburgh, to Colorado and finally to Salt Lake City, looking for the elusive scientists who might be able to find a cure in Ellie’s body.
In the scene I’m thinking of, Joel and Ellie are escaping along with two other survivors from a building overrun with zombies. As they finally make it out of the building alive they see a spray-painted sign, “Warning: Infected Inside, Do Not Enter.” It’s a sign that comes too late for them.
Ellie’s reaction is priceless. “Thanks for warning on the other side guys.” Of course, there was no warning on the other side, on the side they came in on. They were caught totally unaware.
I can’t help but to see this futile warning sign—“Infected inside, do not enter”—as a metaphor for the way the liberal arts have been characterized in the ongoing assault on the humanities. We, you and me, the people who study language, literature, history, culture, communication, we are the infected. And if you nudge open the door even a crack, we will pour forth and consume you.
And then none of us will have jobs.
In my description to this talk I promised that I would explore the “figure of the zombie as an allegory for our failure to imagine the future of the liberal arts.” But here’s the thing about zombies. I hate them. I hate them. Not the literal thing. I mean, if they existed I might find them interesting on a clinical level. I mean the zombie metaphor, that’s what I hate, the allegorical purposes to which zombies are put to use. About the most interesting thing you can say about zombies is that they are the modern version of the medieval memento mori, infused with an American exceptionalism that says we do not in fact die. But in general, thinking about zombies demands little thinking. Zombies lack subtlety. Contemporary zombie movies and games lack it even more. After George Romero, zombies are all text. There is no subtext. They are empty signifiers. Think about it. Just now, trying to describe how liberal arts students, teachers, and practitioners are seen as infected, as threats, I likened us to zombies in the eyes of those who would cut our programs, defund our arts, ridicule our attempts to expand the cultural canon. And you probably understood exactly what I meant.
Because zombies are meaningless, we can use them to mean anything.
If we really want to understand the significance of zombie narratives and why they’re so popular—and, being in the liberal arts, that’s actually something I want to do, and in fact, something I believe we need to do—if we really want to understand their significance, don’t look at the zombies themselves. Look at the world they inhabit.
The Last of Us
Post-apocalyptic worlds are clarifying. You don’t have to worry about finding a parking space, but you also don’t have to worry about global warming. All that matters is survival. And I mean survival in a very narrow sense; how are you going to survive the next five minutes. That’s certainly the challenge in a game like The Last of Us, which takes the form of what is literally called the “survival horror” genre. Still, even though players are constantly forced to pay attention to the dangers at hand—which include paramilitary troops, gangs of marauders, roving bands of cannibals, as well as zombies—one can’t help but notice the evidence of a much more complex and slowly unraveling story hidden beneath the surface narrative.
In The Last of Us Joel and Ellie travel across a landscape littered with the ruins of contemporary America. Museums, government buildings, office parks, hotels, shopping malls, hospitals, even a university campus. Each of these locations contribute to what Henry Jenkins calls environmental storytelling, the way videogames can embed narrative cues in the canvas of the game world. Consider for a moment where Joel and Ellie’s epic journey begins—Boston. It is no accident that The Last of Us begins in the birthplace of the American Revolution, for in the game the city is also our introduction to the death of the great American experiment in democracy. The city is divided into heavily fortified quarantine zones, ruled by the military. Residents are more like refugees, living in a permanent state of emergency. Martial law has replaced the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. If you’re out after curfew, you will be shot on sight. As if to drive home the point that democracy is dead, an early firefight between Joel and the military takes place in the state capitol building itself. Shortly after that Joel and Ellie retreat to a museum, where the player finds paintings torn from the walls, priceless exhibits shattered, the memorabilia of America’s revolutionary origins in tatters on the ground.
Later in the game Joel and Ellie explore the campus of the fictional University of Eastern Colorado, looking for the scientists. Their destination is the science building, literally a shimmering white tower on campus. But this ivory tower, like the museum and office park and every other icon of contemporary America, lies in ruins, the university buildings desolate and crumbling. Joel hopes to find the scientists on the campus, but they have abandoned the halls of higher ed. The dorms too are empty of human life, though of course they are infested with zombies. The only sign of life are a pack of monkeys, escapees from the research labs. As they roam across the overgrown quads, Ellie asks Joel if he ever went to college. No, he answers. That opportunity wasn’t available to him, and now, as the game makes clear, that opportunity is foreclosed forever, for everyone.
I don’t want to belabor the point here, except to say that The Last of Us offers a kind of disaster tourism, but not a tour of disaster in any general sense, of generic ruins decaying with the romantic splendor of an abandoned train station or derelict factory, the kind of images that have come to be known as ruin porn. No, the tour provided by the game is a tour through the extreme but logical conclusion to the neoliberal agenda. As we travel from Boston to the West, a kind of perverse Manifest Destiny, we are witnesses to the fruits of the so-called American Dream. Gutted infrastructures, militarized police forces, an utter lack of opportunity—and even contempt—for the weak, the powerless, the dispossessed. The zombies in this scenario are almost an afterthought.
Where are the Liberal Arts?
So in this post-apocalyptic world, where are the liberal arts? Is there even room for the liberal arts? That’s really want I talk about today. Playing The Last of Us, Watching The Walking Dead, reading Zone One, I’ve realized that zombie narratives rarely provide us any clues about the value of higher education and the liberal arts. College campuses are wastelands. The scientist savior in The Walking Dead turns out to be a fraud. In Colson Whitehead’s Zone One desperate survivors burn books for heat. Arts and culture in zombie narratives face an existence even more threatened than the humans who produce that art and culture.
On one hand, it only makes sense. Who has time for literature and philosophy when it’s the end of the world as we know it and we don’t feel fine. On the other hand plenty of dystopian narratives illustrate that it doesn’t have to be this way. In his short poem “Motto,” Bertolt Brecht famously asked “In the dark times, will there also be singing?” “Yes,” he concludes, “there will be singing / about the dark times.”
Like Brecht, many non-zombie post-apocalyptic narratives envision a world with arts and culture. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a bleak novel if ever there was one—it’s language itself that provides a sense of relief and redemption. In Emily St. Johns Mandel’s exquisite Station Eleven, where a mutant strain of the flu has killed the bulk of the world’s population, a troupe of actors and musicians travel across a desolate Midwest, playing symphonies and performing Shakespeare to the struggling communities that remain. The troupe’s motto, its raison d’être—which echoes Brecht’s in sentiment—is lettered on one of their horse-drawn caravans. “Because survival is insufficient,” it reads. The source of the line is revealed in a conversation between some of the troupe members.
“All I’m saying,” Dieter said…, “is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” […]
“Yes,” Kirsten said, “I’m aware of your opinion on the subject, but it remains my favorite line of text in the world.”
“See, that illustrates the whole problem,” Dieter said. “The best Shakespearean actress in the territory, and her favorite line of text is from Star Trek.”
This is why the Traveling Symphony performs: not merely to keep Shakespeare alive, but because survival is not enough. And eventually, as Kirsten discovers in Station Eleven, even Shakespeare is not enough.
Zombie narratives test Brecht’s motto, not to mention the ethos of Star Trek. Contrast Kirsten’s favorite line of text with Joel’s refrain in The Last of Us, whenever he and Ellie face difficult setbacks. “We keep going on. Because that’s what we do.” Survival is not only sufficient for Joel, it’s all there is, it’s all he can imagine.
Yet one of the reasons I find The Last of Us so interesting is the way the game explores the power of imagination to enrich and even transcend the limits of the present—which for me is the true spirit of the liberal arts. And the game does this not through Joel, the white, middle-aged man whom the player controls through most of the game, a man who before the zombie apocalypse was a single working blue-collar father, but Ellie, the 14-year-old girl who embodies hope—and not because she may hold the key to ending the zombie plague, but because she escapes the failure of imagination that dogs the zombie genre.
We see hints of a world beyond survival throughout the main narrative. Ellie loves comic books, and Joel occasionally finds copies in abandoned houses and shares them with her. Comics, of course, provide a kind of umbilical to one of the influences of The Last of Us, Robert Kirkman’s comic The Walking Dead. But the comics have a narrative purpose as well. Like Kirsten’s preference for a line of text from Star Trek over Shakespeare, the comics suggests that differences between high and low culture no longer matter in the apocalypse. They are both equally worthy and inspiring. Art Spiegelman once quipped that comics have gone from being the “icon of illiteracy” to “one of the last bastions of literacy.” Certainly this is true in the post-apocalyptic world of The Last of Us.
The pleasure Ellie finds in comics is only a hint of a later moment in The Last of Us that profoundly illustrates the power of the humanities—a moment of soaring imagination transcending the bounds of the present reality, where mere survival is insufficient.
The scene occurs not in the main game of The Last of Us, but in an optional expansion story called Left Behind. This kind of expansion story, known as downloadable content, usually provides additional levels or adds more playable characters, but rarely is the downloadable content as narratively complex as Left Behind. The story arc begins with a moment about three-quarters of the way through The Last of Us, when Joel is gravely injured and Ellie is left to save him. The Last of Us fades out at this moment and jumps ahead some days into the future. Left Behind fills in this narrative gap, as the player assumes the role of Ellie and scavenges for first aid equipment in a shopping mall in order to save Joel’s life. The shopping mall is an homage to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but its function in Left Behind goes well beyond the tired zombies-as-mindless-consumers metaphor. The present-day scenes in the shopping mall are interspersed with playable flashbacks, also in a shopping mall. Through these flashbacks we learn how Ellie was attacked by the zombies and discovered her immunity. We also learn about her relationship with Riley, a friend from her military boarding school in the quarantine zone.
In the flashbacks, Ellie and Riley sneak into an abandoned shopping mall, where they even discover a working generator. They ride a Merry Go Round, have a water pistol fight, but the highlight occurs in the arcade, when Ellie discovers a legendary Street Fighter-like fighting game. The game no longer works of course, but Riley figures out a way for Ellie to experience the game after all. I’ll play the scene now, but you’ll have to believe me that simply watching it is nothing like playing it. When you see icons in the lower left of the screen, those are the game controller buttons Ellie needs to push, which means they’re the game controller buttons you the player need to push as well.
It’s difficult to describe the power of this scene when you only watch it, instead of play it. Guided only by the voice of her friend, Ellie makes the arcade game come alive. This distant technology—older than her, a relic of the past—becomes real for her. Reanimated, a new kind of storytelling. It’s chilling and giddy and empowering. I asked earlier where is there room in the dark, distant, and foreboding future for the humanities. Here it is. This is The Last of Us, which so convincingly imagines what a gutted America looks like, telling us that survival is insufficient, that we also need something more, something above and beyond mere survival. We need sustenance, we need discovery, we need play, we need imagination. And we can find it, even amongst the wreckage. We can find it, despite the wreckage.
Ellie is a remarkable character. Where others die, she lives. Where others become “infected inside”—either figuratively or literally, she remains human. Where others are governed by fear, she maintains compassion, and love. A vivid example of this occurs after the videogame scene, when she confronts her own feelings about the possibility of Riley leaving the safe zone to join a guerrilla group who opposes military rule.
The revelation of queer teenage sexuality in a zombie survival horror game garnered great acclaim when Left Behind was first released. As it should. Queer characters are virtually non-existent in big budget games, and here Left Behind portrays Ellie and Riley as richly human. Two girls finding each other among the wreckage of world. But the scene is even more meaningful when we consider the broader context of the game. If The Last of Us is, as I’ve suggested, as much an indictment of the status quo as it is a portrayal of some distant disaster, then Ellie represents a way to, as Riley puts it, “figure it out.” We know that survival is not enough. We also know we need imagination. And Ellie shows us that there are borders and boundaries we must not be afraid to cross.
The queer sensibility of The Last of Us takes us full circle, back to Governor McCrory’s statement about gender studies in higher education. What McCrory and other critics of the liberal arts don’t get, the mistake they make, is to assume there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the name of a major or the name of a department and the ways that disciplinary knowledge can be put to use outside the classroom.
It’s difficult to convince people of the value of the humanities or the liberal arts when we treat the liberal arts as a black box, or when we don’t push back when others speak of the humanities as a monolithic entity, something that as Bourdieu might say, goes without saying because it comes without saying. We need to open up the black box of the liberal arts and articulate its contents. We ourselves occasionally treat the words “liberal arts” as if what was inside was infected and must be contained, a box that must not be entered, a box that must be accepted as-is. “Gender Studies”—it’s a black box, a phrase when wielded outside of academia, is inscrutable. But when I hear Gender Studies, I hear the need to understand the toxicity of gamer culture. When I hear Gender Studies, I hear efforts to track, catalog, and analyze the hate speech and death threats leveled against female game designers and critics. When I hear Gender Studies, I hear art professors partnering with teen support groups, fighting against the unconscionable suicide rate of queer and trans teens. When I hear Gender Studies, I hear an invitation to ask why is it still a big deal that there’s a gay kid in a game about zombies. These questions, practices, and experiments are what I hear when I hear Gender Studies. Place those questions, practices, and experiments first, and it’s hard to dispute the value of Gender Studies, even in a game about zombies. This strategy applies to all the liberal arts. Place our questions, practices, and experiments first—before labels, titles, fields, majors, departments—place them first, and we will demonstrate that the mere survival of the liberal arts is insufficient.