bioephemera

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It’s the very last installment of Zombiefest – one more book review, this time for one I heartily recommend!

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, prefaces his new book about zombies with an unexpected vignette – a visit to Graceland:

By the time my tour hit the Jungle Room, it was obvious that the thirty-odd people walking through Elvis Presley’s mansion fell into two groups. The first contingent was thoroughly, utterly sincere in their devotion to all things Elvis. They were hardcore fans, and Graceland was their Mecca, their Jerusalem, and their Rome. . . the second group was equally delighted to be at Graceland, but for a different reason. These people took great pleasure in the kitschy nature of all things Elvis.

Drezner explains that it fell to his tour guide to give the Elvis devotees the minutiae for which they hungered, while “acknowledging the absurdist nature of the experience” for the rest. A successful tour would leave both groups educated, amused, and satisfied. Somehow, she did this – and her achievement is cited by Drezner as the inspiration for “Theories of International Politics and Zombies,” a slim little gift-sized (or white-paper-sized) volume complete with tables, a flowchart, and a faux-blood-smeared cover.

Drezner explains his juxtaposition of such disparate fields of study thusly:

Clearly, public fears about being devoured by flesh-eating ghouls can only be allayed by rigorous scholarship. . . Zombie denialists might argue that since there is minimal chance of the dead rising from the grave and feasting upon the living this exercise will yield little in the way of enlightenment. This ignores the ways in which world politics is changing, and the need for international relations scholarship to change with it. . . . In the most important ways, flesh-eating ghouls are an exemplar for salient concerns about the global body politic.Zombies are the perfect twenty-first-century threat: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenge they post to states is very, very grave.

Reading Drezner’s Graceland preface, I guessed immediately which divergent audiences he intended to reach with this provocatively named book. First, there are zombie fanboys: devotees of the undead canon (Romero or Danny Boyle?) who can argue for hours about whether zombies are “fast” or “slow,” the products of supernatural forces or a virulent virus. These readers would take an analysis of international anti-zombie responses quite seriously, not because they believe in zombies, but because zombies are their discipline. Such readers would jump all over Drezner’s slightest error. But the casual reader would pick up Drezner’s book for the absurdity of the whole enterprise, for the ridiculousness of a professor of international politics talking about zombies with a straight face, for the humor that always bubbles to the surface in horror films when a faux CNN anchor or President acknowledges that undead brain eating-hordes (or aliens, or demons) have overrun WalMart. Such a reader would be bored by too many footnotes and qualifications, and would demand the occasional wink at the silliness of zombie lore. This, then, was Drezner’s task: to lead a tour through undead Graceland, pretending zombies are serious business, while mocking pop culture’s obsession with zombies, which any person with common sense knows don’t exist.

At least I thought that’s what Drezner meant. It turns out I was totally wrong.

This book is better than that. As the quote I just gave suggests, this is a tour not through zombie Graceland, but through academic Graceland. As Drezner dryly applied the tenets of liberalism, postmodernism, neoconservatism, and social construction to zombies, the zombies became both a tool to introduce each theory, and a means to mock the rigidity, preconceptions, and predictability of each theory. The absurdity, and yet the complete plausibility, of extending theories that model human behavior to inhuman, brain-eating, fictional fiends – this is the sort of silliness that delights many of us. (See, e.g, the Awl’s pseudointellectual critique of Rebecca Black’s Friday.) We’re absurdists in an academic Graceland, giggling about the number of rhinestones/footnotes encrusting a bombastic, brazen jumpsuit/conference paper. We post Facebook updates mocking the fields we study by referring to them in ways that only insiders would recognize. We’re snarky kids.* The fact that it took me a chapter or two to realize that Drezner had my number, and was playing my pomo snark like a master tour guide, is greatly to his credit: I really thought the book was about zombies for the first 20 pages or so! But then there are footnotes like this:

I would ordinarily encourage [Marxists or Feminists] to focus-on flesh-eating ghouls, but in this case I am wary. To be blunt, this project is explicitly prohuman, whereas Marxists and feminists would be likely to sympathize more with the zombies. To the Marxists, the dead symbolize the oppressed proletariat. Unless the zombies are all undead white males, feminists would likely welcome the posthuman smashing of existing patriarchal structures.

Ouch! But he kind of has a point (at least about academic Marxists and feminists).

Drezner’s mockery of academe is a little unfair. Reading his book, or at least starting to read it, requires suspending your threshold disbelief that zombies could ever rise to the level of an international menace. (If you’re already practiced in suspending this belief over drinks with friends, so much the better). Thus, while Drezner’s hypothetical liberal/feminist/Marxist/pomo theorists — who politicize, rationalize, and twist the zombie menace to fit their own paradigmatic structures without ever breaking character and saying “what the hell? Zombies?” — allude to the stereotypical useless detachment of academics, his polisci stand-ins are only playing the straight-man/woman roles they’re allotted. In Drezner’s world, they’re not allowed to break character. Drezner also sketches only the most bare lineaments of each theory (think freshman Politics 101); the good thing about this is that it keeps the book short, and if you’ve had any classes at all in politics, literature, or philosophy you should get the jokes, but the downside is that the deeper, more obscure reservoirs of absurdity he could draw on aren’t tapped. (I really wish that he had, for example, worked in an allusion to the Sokal Affair.)

Nevertheless, the mockery is awfully fun. Have you thought out the tragedy of the commons, game theory, or regulatory paradigms as applied to zombies? (obviously “the liberal assumption of a non-zero-sum bargain does not hold.”) What about the free-rider problem? Have you applied “A 2x 2 Table, As Required in All Political Science Research,” to zombie behavior? Have you used prospect theory to explain why survivors holed up in a mall make inefficient choices about defensive weapon use? Then you are not fully equipped to discuss zombies at happy hour with the kewl kidz, are you?

If you read this book, you’ll appreciate that neoconservatism is, “to its credit,” consistent with the strategies most efficacious in the zombie literature – except, perhaps, for its tendency to lump all perceived foes together in an “Axis of Evil Dead.” Nuclear deterrence is useless, obviously, because zombies can’t be deterred, and following through would “create the only thing worse than an army of the living dead: a mutant, radioactive army of the living dead.”** Social construction alerts us to the terrifying prospect that once zombies hit a certain critical mass, we may all start to emulate them. And so on.

In the end, Drezner is unsurprisingly less than optimistic about any governmental institution’s resilience in the face of a zombie horde. Dolefully, he observes that – just as they doom healthcare, budgets, and postpartisan compromise – “domestic pluralist pressures could sabotage multilateral efforts to stop ghouls from snacking on human flesh.” Yet all these predictions are ever-so-slightly smug. The diehard academic, after all, is pleased any time her theory can map onto a scenario and produce publishable predictions. And a conference paper. Even if everyone at the conference has been eaten.

In the end, Drezner’s task is to lead a tour through academic Graceland, pretending political theories are serious business, while mocking academia’s obsession with political theories, which any person which common sense knows too often fail to predict real world outcomes. A political science book about zombies is funny not because of the zombies, but because political science treats them like everything else. The juxtaposition of the two brings out the best in both.

Be aware, this book is short. It should be, or the joke would grow tired. It’s also, as I noted, very basic, so anyone who has some working knowledge of freshman politics or literary criticism should get the snark, and you shouldn’t expect in-jokes at a higher level. Fortunately, it’s also inexpensive, and dryly funny, although if you hate bad zombie puns, you should steer clear – something gnaws, gnashes, or devours something else (metaphorically or not) every paragraph or so. I could just imagine Drezner going back through his manuscript, squeezing in one more pun and chortling with evil delight. Evil dead delight, of course.

Highly recommended to all the liberal arts majors out there for a good, snarky read. You can sample the first chapter here, or order from Amazon:

*And so is Professor Drezner, obviously.

**As a biologist, I have to note that Drezner overstates the threat – zombies’ dead tissue would not be actively engaged in cell division; thus any radiation-induced DNA damage would not be propagated, and the zombies would not “mutate” in the sense he means, unless we are talking about a noncanonical Wolverine-style self-healing zombie quite counter to the traditional conception of slowly decaying dead flesh. But now I’m starting to sound like Drezner.