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Zombies in Western Culture

 | 
John Vervaeke
, 
Christopher Mastropietro
, 
Filip Miscevic

4. A Worldview in Crisis: The Domicide of Apocalypse

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4.1 Grassy Narrows

1Worldview, its creation and its loss, are immeasurably complex phenomena to chart and chronicle. Comprehending the scope and implications of a worldview crisis requires us to deviate from our discussion of the zombie and return to the work of Brian Walsh in the following section. Walsh’s work scaffolds a discussion of worldview loss on a term called “domicide”, a signifier for the destruction of home first introduced by J. Douglas Porteous and Sandra E. Smith (2001). In our discussions of worldview, we continue to extend the definition of home into a metaphor for the canopy of worldview, the cultural and cosmic domiciles that coordinate our beliefs and behavior, like the “faith in America” we discussed in section 2. Two case studies―one local and modern, the other sweeping and historic―will help to carry this term up the scale of magnitudes, arguing that “domicide” is the term best suited to a unified symptomatology of our meaning crisis.

2Walsh discusses the Anishinaabe of the Grassy Narrows First Nation who live on a reserve in northwestern Ontario, 80 kilometres from Kenora near the Manitoba border. They were relocated there in 1963 by authorities in the Canadian Federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Motivation for the relocation was well-reasoned; access to a variety of provisions―including schools, roads, electricity, health care institutions and employment opportunities―would be considerably improved. Most significantly, the housing that the Nation was provided with was brand new and infrastructurally upgraded. They had more power and more protection against the elements. In a very short period of time, Grassy Narrows was spared from the modest conditions of their old reserve and inaugurated into the life of contemporary suburban domesticity.

  • 1 We follow Walsh in acknowledging that the appearance of Minamata disease from the mercury poisonin (...)

3What followed was an effect that very few individuals―and apparently no one within the Federal Department―managed to foresee. By 1970, the Grassy Narrows Nation was “the site of some of the most severe social and familial disintegration, together with environmental despoliation, ever to be seen in North America” (Walsh 2006). Cases of domestic conflict, violence and suicide exploded in number, employment plummeted, welfare dependency increased and as many 1000 people showed symptoms of being infected with Minamata disease, caused by mercury-dumping upstream. “By the mid-80’s, the Grassy Narrows community demonstrated the numbness of spirit and utter hopelessness that rivaled any Third World situation” (Walsh 2006).1

4A great deal of public fallout came with the exposure of these conditions. Criticisms in both popular media and academic publications―Walsh’s included―took the disaster of Grassy Narrows as an opportunity to charge the Federal Department with “cultural genocide”, an accusation that interrogated the issue through postcolonial critique. Walsh noticed, however, that the deepest and most compelling aspect of the crisis was the cultural upset that occurred within the walls of the community. The transition into new housing did not have the reasonable effect that the officials in question were hoping for; even if we assume the Federal Department acted on benign intentions, it was arguably their relocation of the reserve that exacerbated the disintegration of the Grassy Narrows Nation.

5Why did this happen? Answering this question requires us to identify with a very severe kind of deprivation that occurred in the Nation’s relocation. Walsh’s discussion of this deprivation begins by describing a complex relationship between two interconnected sociocultural practices that, in 1963, were suddenly at loggerheads. This is the relationship between housing and homemaking. Understanding the depth of distinction in this relationship is crucial to unpacking the fate of Grassy Narrows. What precisely do we mean by home?

6First, consider the role of homemaking conterminous to house making. The house maker tends to the physical construction of a space and materializes the optimal arrangement for its organization―an arrangement that precedes and afterward consummates the construction. The house is built in agreement with a design that affords this arrangement. The homemaker is ultimately responsible for it. He is the one who organizes the space long before the house maker is enlisted to raise it, and makes it meaningful long after the house maker has gone home. The relationship is effectively described by a quote that Walsh (2006) cites early in his article: “We shape our buildings”, Winston Churchill wrote. “Then our buildings shape us”.

7Now consider the testimony of a 71 year-old Grassy Narrows elder, after his community began to disintegrate:

We don’t live like the white man, that’s not our way. The white man lives close together, but we don’t. We like to live far apart, in families. On the old reserve, you knew your place. Everybody respected your place. […] It wasn’t private property, but it was a sense of place, your place, your force around you. […] As soon as they started to bunch us up, the problems started, the drinking, the violence. This has a lot to do with being bunched up. (Walsh 2006)

8On the old reserve, the Anishinaabe lived in a series of circular compounds that were separated by clan. These compounds had been placed at a great distance from one another, and had equal access to the river. This distance respected the territoriality of hunting and trapping, but also helped to mark a configuration in the plot of the reserve that reflected the social structure and hierarchical organization of the community. Not only did the spaciousness of the reserve support and enable the hunter-gathering customs, but it also served as an implicit reminder of one’s position in the reserve relative to his neighbors, and what that relationship permitted in terms of the cultural praxis. A clan’s presence within the reserve was determined by the placement of their compound, in which the status of their membership within the culture was encoded. The particular emplotment of a family’s home had significance; it gave both identity and security and told each clan where it was meant to be. It observed the sense of place described by the elder. That sense did not only connect one clan to another, but connected the reserve as a whole with the living land it inhabited. The Anishinaabe belief in “force” invokes the fluency of worldview attunement that we have discussed; there is the force of foregrounding and the configuration of place out of physical space. The elder refers to an energy that inhabits all space in accordance with a Great Spirit; even the space we assume dead or empty is filled with a spiritual quality that gives the space its vitality. Affording the place for this force was therefore a matter of necessity, tantamount to the importance of accessing water, game and arable soil. It was also believed that, not unlike natural provisions, certain places were more inherently charged with this force than others. Naturally then, the degree to which empty space could be cultivated within the confines of the reserve determined the suitableness of the reserve for habitation, and the empowerment of its residents to maintain both physical and spiritual health. It is also important to note that the circular structures of the compounds were deliberate patterns created in likeness of the “medicine wheel and the drum, and representing the four directions […] integral to a sense of wellbeing, wholeness and being at home” (Walsh 2006). The circle of the home continuously impressed these directions into the cognitive landscape of significance, tracking relevant movements, delineating whereabouts and fixing the individual’s position relative to the dimensions of the world around him. The old reserve of the Anishinaabe provided more than shelter. It provided a worldview,

a vision of life that provides its adherents with a foundational understanding of how the world works. That means, however, that a worldview necessarily also functions as a vision for life that gives direction for normative and life-giving ways to live. A worldview shapes those who live in its embrace so that they develop certain habits […] ways of living and relating to each other in the world. (Walsh 2006)

9The Anishinaabe’s home was not significant simply by its place in the outside plot, but just as deeply by the interior shape of the dwelling. It is the signifying of space that makes a place of it. Place emerges not simply in us, or simply in space, but in the mutual modeling that prepares one for contact with the other. Place is the way of encountering, occupying and appropriating space, the finding of relevance within space, and the presence of ourselves as part of the space. We have evidence for this anywhere we build. We build spaces that anticipate our involvement in them, and become externalized paradigms of relevance. “Buildings behave, demonstrate certain legibility” (Walsh 2006).

10The residents of Grassy Narrows weren’t homeowners anymore because the moment the housing project was completed, they had ceased to be homemakers. They weren’t recognizing themselves within their homes, and they weren’t connecting to anyone through their homes. At home, you are more than simply an occupant; home remembers you, home understands you, home is where you are recognized, home is where you belong. But recall the comments made by the elder of Grassy Narrows: the space no longer communicated to its occupants. It wasn’t conveying any more. It was not telling. It was not remembering, and it was not understanding. The arrangement failed because the space was no longer phrased in any perceivable order. It could no longer answer implicit questions of who, what, where or why. The loss of intelligibility to the organization induced a crisis of placement. The residents no longer understood the affordances of their environment. They were no longer able to use their homes as a way to constitute themselves. They could no longer use them to be part of the world.

11“Strip a people of that sense of place, deprive them of the space that they feel is necessary to establish such a sense of place, and they are rendered homeless” (Walsh 2006). Following Walsh’s definition, the loss of home may be called domicide.

Humans are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is, who we are, and how we ought to live by locating ourselves within larger narratives and metanarratives that we hear and tell, and that constitute for us what is real and significant. When such narratives collapse, we are lost in the dislocation, fragmentation and disorientation of homelessness. […] In short, one suffers from a worldview crisis. One runs the risk of “losing the plot”. (Walsh 2006)

12The zombie apocalypse is a representation of the ultimate domicide. The zombie is homeless and the exhaustion of the apocalypse renders the world unhomeable. Instead of fitting together, the agent and the arena are irreparably out of joint. Consequently, the world of the zombie apocalypse is a diseased world in perpetual decay. As Wood (2003: 105) argues, “the social order […] can’t be restored”.

4.2 Domicide of the Hellenistic Era

Fig. 7: Bronze bust of a man, ca. Hellenistic Era. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto.2

13Across epochs in history, and from individual communities like that of Grassy Narrows to entire civilizations, social order and culture appear to be universally vulnerable to the threat of domicide. Just as an ecosystem can be irreparably disrupted at any time, whether constituted by the dust mites in your pillowcase or the creatures of the Cretaceous, so too can the virtual ecology of worldview attunement unravel. That a culture is living means that, inevitably, it will die.

14For instance, the Hellenistic period from the fourth-first century BCE was marked by unprecedented conflict and strife, procuring widespread social and political unrest. Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world, and just as he was to begin his rule, he unexpectedly fell ill and died in Babylon, bestowing a tenor of senseless tragedy on an era that would incur further tragedy still. His great kingdom split into four states which subsequently went to war for the next several centuries. This period of upheaval left people massively displaced both physically and psychically. It became commonplace to be surrounded by others who did not share the same language, nor heritage, nor values. Athens had once been the seat of democracy, with every man encouraged to participate in its political and economic affairs; now, one would have been thousands of kilometers away from an unmovable, monolithic monarchy. As with the Anishinaabe, the collapse of a common social and cultural base estranged people from one another. By losing their political and economic agency, a chasm formed between people and state. By virtue of losing their connection with and being unable to act intelligibly in their world, people became estranged to themselves.

15The suffocating domicide of the Hellenistic Era is reflected in the emergence of the symbol of the philosopher as physician. As Epicurus famously remarked,

Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul. (Nussbaum 1994)

16Hellenic philosophy centrally came to emphasize self-healing, in stark contrast to our zombie, afflicted by a disease with no cure.

  • 3 The point not being a critique of Anishinaabe culture, but a demonstration that under certain circ (...)

17There is something telling in the comparative semiosis of our present-day zombie and the Hellenic philosopher-physician. In the Hellenistic domicide, individual and collective agency was usurped by the widespread intrusion of foreigners and foreign rule. With the Anishinaabe however, after the initial blow of relocation, the foreignness that encroached came from within. Their worldview attunement worked against itself, alienating individuals from themselves, from others, and their cultural metanarratives. It was precisely because of the way their culture was structured that it fell apart under those circumstances, rather than offering salvation and deliverance from those circumstances. Culture amplified, rather than ameliorated, tragedy. It gnawed on itself from within.3

18Recall from section 3.1 that the zombie eats brains―that brain is eating brain, the instrument of intelligibility. The instrument poses a threat to itself (see also Vervaeke and Ferraro 2013, vis-à-vis parasitic processing). The zombie embodies this hidden vulnerability twofold―it is not only parasitic on our intelligibility, but in its heedlessness it is also parasitic unto itself. It is one thing for culture to run its course and give rise to the next stage in its development, or even to be conquered by another culture―a death and rebirth, if you will. It is another for it to trip over itself and expedite its own demise―a waking death the walking dead epitomize. As Hume (1889) wrote, “the corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst”. Our domicide is more like the Anishinaabes’ in this sense, but as penetrating and pervasive as the Hellenes’. Therein lies the rub of the pairing of zombie and apocalypse. Nature will overgrow and smooth the jagged edges of cataclysm. Even the vampire or alien will seek to re-establish their systems and way of life. The zombie is the creature most unfit to reverse the status of apocalypse. The agency-arena breakdown is so complete, so thorough, that our very apparatuses for restoring order are themselves rendered irreparable. It is these two factors that concomitantly elevate the domicide we are experiencing to a full-blown meaning crisis. Unlike the Hellenes who found comfort from their cultural domicide in the symbol of the sage―the philosopher-physician who could alleviate suffering―our symbol of the zombie apocalypse offers only the grim prognosis that, like a cancer, our culture is doomed to destroy itself from within.

Notes

1 We follow Walsh in acknowledging that the appearance of Minamata disease from the mercury poisoning in the English-Wabagoon River contributed severely to the Grassy Narrows’devastation from the sixties to present day. However, Walsh also notes that the Anishinaabe attribute the beginnings of this crisis to their forced relocation, which by their accounts preceded the appearance of Minamata symptoms. It seems likely that the loss of home exacerbated the ecological devastation caused by the toxicity, undermining the social and cultural resourcefulness that would have equipped the community to respond. “As one member of the community put it, ‘Now we have nothing. Not the old, not the new. Our families are all broken up. We are caught in the middle […] between two worlds, two ways of life’” (Walsh 2006). If the dynamics of worldview sustain the coherence of family and community, the collapse of these dynamics likely precipitated the loss of those support systems; a community cannot turn to its world for help if it is lost between one world and another.

2 Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1415_-_Archaeological_Mu​seum,_Athens_-_Bronze_portrait_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_Nov_11_​2009.jpg

3 The point not being a critique of Anishinaabe culture, but a demonstration that under certain circumstances, any culture can eat itself from within.

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Légende Fig. 7: Bronze bust of a man, ca. Hellenistic Era. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto.2
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