Dancing on the Grave: Salvage, The Walking Dead, and the End of Days

by Nicholas Beuret and Gareth Brown


The culture of the Anthropocene crawls with narratives of survival. A quick glance at the last few years’ TV and cinema listings reveals a plethora of such things, suggesting that the public appetite is strong enough for these narratives now to be considered an aspect of mainstream popular culture where once they may have been niche. Most recently in the cinema, Interstellar has explored a number of themes common to these narratives such as scarcity, waste, and salvage. However, whilst Interstellar seeks refuge in the familiar, age-old ideas of exodus, pioneering, and the endless frontier, many of its contemporaries seem to be exploring a different model of change, expanding neither along the extensive lines of the Wild West nor the intensive lines of Marxist theories of revolution that constitute the mainstays of modernism. The Walking Dead is a clear example of the counter (or alter) narrative.

Far from a unique or groundbreaking new post-catastrophic formulation, The Walking Dead (and we may refer at this point both to the AMC television programme and to the Image comic on which it’s based) is instead only the most notable recent formulation of a story delivered repeatedly by producers of contemporary speculative fiction. It presents us not for the first time with a small band of survivors attempting to forge some semblance of life upon a terrain scarred by disease, decay, ruination, and hostility. A terrain in which food, shelter, and medicine are scarce, danger is ever-present, and what desire for community remains is in constant incendiary tension with paranoid atomisation. Then, as if this was not bad enough, there are the undead: rotting, reanimated, cannibal corpses, the bite of which heralds not only agonizing death but also an imminent ‘turning’ guaranteed to put any companions in mortal danger, the moment the fever claims you.

In saying that The Walking Dead is not unique we don’t mean to detract from what is special and specific to it. Indeed, the relative first of a long-running, serialised exploration of this terrain has allowed some exciting new spaces to be opened up within what is otherwise a well-established myth. However, what’s more interesting to us is the recurring nature of this tale, which we see being played out not only here but also in The Road, Revolution, Under the Dome, The 100, Falling Skies and elsewhere. Indeed, our focus here on The Walking Dead should be seen as a device via which we can explore these recurrences and commonalities within a trope of which this series is representative, rather than as a concern with the programme itself. We see this repetition as an ongoing attempt by what we might term a mass culture to deal with, experiment with, articulate, and elaborate on, a set of hidden problematics affecting our capacity to act in (or transform) the world. In many instances we suspect that this is unconscious; in others we might almost describe it as compulsive. We’re not interested in interrogating The Walking Dead for its advice on how to live. Should the worst happen, we are content to have Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide, a backpack of basic provisions, and a kitchen knife taped to a broom handle on stand-by. We are not, in fact, particularly interested in the zombies themselves at all, which is why we would more readily pair WD with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than we necessarily would with other supernatural fiction in which the dead return to life. What we’re interested in are the problems thrown up by these recurring tales of salvage and survival after the end of the world. Something is trying to claw its way up through the frosted topsoil… but what?

A common characteristic of these narratives is that they are, with few exceptions, near future scenarios. From this we might infer that they riff upon a threat or promise present in the now. These are stories of change, change that is undeniably ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that it constitutes a total overturning of the present state of things. Despite first appearances though, this is nothing so simplistic as a downbeat millenarianism or nihilistic model of revolution that envisages a new world as being possible only if the present one is first razed to the ground. There is something more in this landscape of permanent and perpetual ruin, something that refuses to allow us the possibility of relegating it to fantasy or fanaticism. What happens then if we lay these narratives on top of a traditional Marxist model of social change? We propose that instead of the worker, we find the figure of the survivor as the subject of these politics. Rather than seizure of infrastructure, or the process of exodus, we find revolutionary activity that’s imagined as practices of salvage, practices that posit the wasteland as the grounds of utopian thought after history. In exploring this we need to take into account the distinction between crisis, catastrophe, and apocalypse, and we need to deal with the concept of the Anthropocene.

Since being introduced by the climate scientist Paul Crutzen at the turn of this century, the notion of the Anthropocene has come to occupy a central place in discussion on human impact on the Earth. Initially, this was a means of dramatically emphasizing irreversible changes caused by technological advances, the rise of consumerism, and the sheer increase of human population. According to this idea, humanity began to have a significant impact on the biosphere around the time of the industrial revolution by changing the climate, modifying entire ecosystems through deforestation or rendering native species extinct, and changing the chemical composition of the biosphere through pollution. The severity of these changes is such that they will hypothetically be readable in the geological records long after humans are extinct (either by extra-terrestrial geologists or whichever other creature has evolved to the level necessary to take up the geology mantle).

There have been numerous critiques of the concept, from those who question the designation anthropo- (meaning ‘man’) on the grounds that it’s not humanity as a whole that has polluted the skies and seas and wiped out innumerable species, but either specific humans (largely in or from Europe) or specific economic systems, leading to the suggestion from Jason Moore that Capitalocene is a more appropriate descriptor. But binding these criticisms to the original designation is a common assumption of human agency at work in the Anthropocene on the Earth. But is humanity now a collective force equal to nature? Should we take conscious control over our powers in order to make a new Earth through projects such as geoengineering? Or, rather, does the Anthropocene suggest that our capacity to control the Earth is severely limited, and that quite by accident we have brought industrial civilisation to the brink of ruin without even being aware of it or without being able to enact social transformation?

What we encounter then in these stories is a problematic of agency in a time of catastrophe. Catastrophe (borrowing from Evan Calder Williams) is distinct from both Crisis and Apocalypse in that it is terminal. Crisis corresponds to a moment that demands correction. Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a revelatory moment where everything is swept away uncovering a previously hidden terrain like a beach at low tide (or beneath the cobble-stones), in other words, a moment of radical recomposition. The Walking Dead is not apocalyptic. It is not a fantasy of rupture (or rapture), a story of transition. It is instead a fantasy of perpetual present, a radical break with historic time. This also situates it outside Crisis, which, as the engine of change, is the very basis of historic time. In occupying catastrophe, it produces a very new environment for the discussion of agency, which, even in its more sophisticated elaborations (such as Deleuze and Guattari’s), has tended to inhabit crisis exclusively.

But what happens when instead of crises, with their promise of repetition, or trying again, failing again, failing better, we’re faced with catastrophe, with no future at all, with a crisis from which there is no possibility of return to previous modes of existence, in which nothing is revealed other than our own decline? This is what we see in WD where the ground has not been cleared, where the undead foreclose the possibility of clearing away the ruins. The protagonists are trapped in the destroyed present. In fact, in a telling inversion, season 3 sees the characters repurposing a prison in order to facilitate collective living.

In The Walking Dead catastrophe is produced not by a human agent, but through the eruption of an inhuman force. As a catastrophe it forms a permanent milieu within which the protagonists must now live their lives. Catastrophe is neither renewal nor rebirth – it is neither learnt from, nor put in the past. It is a constant presence, shaping how the act of survival takes place. This is perhaps even better exemplified in the series of comics upon which the television series is based. Creator Robert Kirkman has stated of the comic, now running for more than a decade, that there will be no resolution, the dead will not be cleared, neither cause nor cure will be found, the story will simply continue until he tires of writing it. In this sense the atmosphere of exhaustion extends off the page into the very process of narration itself. The slowly shifting cast of characters inhabits not a transitional space, but a permanently broken world.

The Anthropocene, for us, fits precisely within this configuration of catastrophe. Rather than the crumbling, destabilizing crises invoked by postmodernism, with their invitation to discursive gesture and critique, the colossal geo- and biological processes of the Anthropocene present themselves as truly inhuman and thus offer up little hope for such human solutions, beyond the more far-fetched fantasies of terraforming and geoengineering. The Anthropocene names the moment that catastrophe forces human and inhuman history to collapse back into each other (manifested as human and plague history in The Walking Dead), and with this collapse so too collapses the agency of the Modernist subject. This is not just because history becomes, once again, non-linear: rather it’s because the agency of any given moment becomes undecidable – history becomes contingent, and progress, as a series of crisis-resolutions, becomes undone. Worse still, there’s the suspicion that if anywhere, agency is now located within the inhuman, and that the actual state of humanity is one of vulnerability to the outcomes of its own unintended pollutions. In other words, humanity is the object of catastrophe, just as in The Walking Dead the human survivors are the objects of the zombie plague (with even the healthy survivors carrying the plague, making every death an act of zombie and not human renewal).

Without progress, or a clear sense of historical agency, the figure of politics – especially revolutionary politics – is transformed. No longer the worker who triumphs by blood and conquest, seizing the means of production (or the state); instead, the survivor.

Survivors exist in a world without frontiers or new territories to expand into. It is a world saturated with waste – with objects severed from their previous use-values. Abandoned factories, empty buildings, quiet roads. More than this, social roles no longer hold their value. It’s not who we are that forms the basis of action, but what our bodies can do. The Walking Dead is a song of the wastelands. There is no revolutionary project as there is nothing left to over turn or over throw. There is only the question of how to survive. Will it be mere survival, survival as a bare biological fact, or will it be with others, collective survival, survival as the making of a life in the ruins?

What does this survivor figure do for us, then, if, as we have suggested, we consider The Walking Dead to be a rumination on current possibilities and potentialities relating to agency and change. The survivor differs from the worker in two important ways. Firstly, the survivor doesn’t overcome capitalism and begin history as the worker was meant (but thus-far failed) to do, but instead dwells within a collapsing world. This is a new relationship to time. Time is no longer linear but fragmented, partial, bound to the life of the survivor. It’s no longer abstract, but bound to specific activities and localities. That is to say, the survivor is not going anywhere. And, we may note, if time has fractured, so too has purpose. Without the rhythmic discipline of the clock, without the 24/7 of neoliberal work-time, the survivors shamble out of old work-habits and routines.

Different tempos are attached to the meeting of basic needs in WD. There are specific tempos attached to the social life of the protagonists and the various other survivors that are encountered. All of these tempos are interspersed with inhuman zombie eruptions, and novel events that set new courses and narratives in train. There is no overriding time, however. Time becomes an unpredictable terrain within which to stumble and struggle, not against an oppressor, but against habit. Our own processes of becoming or unbecoming set the rhythm – as one of the principle characters says, ‘we’ve all done things’, and it is those ‘things’ that set the pace of life within the zombie-scape. Instead of time-discipline we get a harsh kind of care-time, time focused on the desperate maintenance of bodies and social relations that doesn’t hold to a singular tempo. Or better still, it’s repair-time, time focused on ‘things’ and their maintenance in a world that is always-already falling apart. To dwell in a world that’s always-already falling apart is to posit that the catastrophe has already occurred and that we now exist within it. We’ve taken the idea of repair-time from Steven Jackson, who’s written on the practice of viewing the world from the perspective of breakdown. If we start from repair and not invention, the world (and time) looks quite different. The Walking Dead offers a related but distinct suggestion. What if we start from the negation of this world, not from breakdown but from collapse? What if we consider the world to be unfolding as a gradual decomposing, a slow decline (albeit one punctuated by photogenic disasters)?

These modalities of time, in contrast to more traditional political conceptions of progress and succession, offer a very different relationship to the future. Along with the fracturing of linear time, what we get here is time’s dishevelment. We witness a process wherein the flesh of possibility rots away leaving the dry disarticulated bones of survivalist care-time. The pre-catastrophic blooming of potential futures, for which each individual moment is ground zero, gives way, post-catastrophe, to a simple binary fission: a step either towards the next fragment of survival or towards death.

Starting from a disheveled time, from within a period of breakdown and collapse without renewal, the continual and necessary work of repair appears as a labour of salvage. This is the second way the figure of the survivor differs from that of the revolutionary worker. Where the classical vision of the worker is of one who produces value, with this fact serving as the point of leverage by which the world is turned upside-down, the survivor produces nothing. The survivor salvages.

Salvage presupposes (and follows from) a breakage. It is to take something that has lost its value and find a way to make it work again. In the world of The Walking Dead, everything has broken down, and everything must be salvaged – from cars, to guns, to social roles and relations, to dreams and ideas of what constitutes community and living. Salvage is total (Evan Calder Williams calls this salvage in its ‘Utopian mode’). Exchange no longer functions here and new uses must be found for old things. Labour becomes largely repair and not production, and questions of utility become indistinguishable from those of desire. Labour is no longer about production but reproduction. Economics, correspondingly, shifts from a matter of growth, to one of sustainability. Within those economic accounts that take ecological catastrophe seriously, we can also see this shift towards no-growth horizons: from happiness, to well being, to simplicity, to degrowth. In The Walking Dead we’re presented with a partial or stalled trajectory, however. Desire baulks, and fails to expand itself beyond the terrain of mere survival. The struggle to salvage enough, to fabricate the space to actually live is the tension that forms the central narrative thread. We can think of this as the struggle to deepen the work of salvage and turn it into a process of invention, invention being that point where repair becomes something more, a process of ‘making new’ (again borrowing a term from Steven Jackson). At the same time, the whole notion of ‘waste’ is reshaped. We’ve talked about the landscape here being one of waste and ruin, but perhaps we could make a different argument, posing instead that this is a world where the category of waste has disappeared entirely. It’s everywhere, therefore it’s nowhere. Waste stands disrobed as a political concept. Rather than a natural fact of the arrangement of objects, it raises a series of questions: what exactly is being wasted? By whom? What is the implied legitimate use in the absence of the profit imperative?

In these catastrophic fictions, capitalism as a social form has come to an end. The excesses of plague-nature have undone it. The idea of the Anthropocene invokes a future end of capitalism through a similar process of excessive nature: storms, floods, sea-rises, etc. Also by absences: no people, no workers, no clear ground in The Walking Dead; no oil, no soil, no room to expand in the Anthropocene. Of course, this point has previously been made by many environmental and political thinkers, such as Richard Heinberg, Derrick Jensen, Serge Latouche, John Bellamy-Foster, Ted Trainer and, most recently, Naomi Klein. Despite the diversity of arguments presented by even this small sample of commentators, they all agree on two points. The first is that the cause of environmental crises is capitalism as an economic system, and the second is that the endless growth required by capitalism in order to flourish not only cannot proceed indefinitely, but is in fact now at an end. Perhaps more interestingly, we increasingly find similar arguments being made by the scientific community (with the usually staid journal Nature as well as participants in major international conferences, such as that of the American Geophysical Union, going as far as to call for direct action), where we find mounting demands to recognise that our current economic system is effectively over.

And here we come to the tension played out in The Walking Dead. At once we are presented with a wasted world, one where the possibility exists of a radical work of salvage on the ruins of capitalism, the first task of revolution – namely the abolition of capitalism – done for us. But to enact this possibility it’s necessary to move from a state of mere survival to one of living well, of not only making do with what there is but also making it work differently. Here we need to note two modes of survival. On the one hand survival as bare fact – finding food, healing wounds, killing zombies, etc. And then there’s the idea of having a life – love, social ritual, communal bonds, and so on. What we see in The Walking Dead is a continual work of trying to find space that can be cleared just enough to make a life and not merely fight to survive. While there are moments of hope to be found in the narrative, what occurs more frequently is the failure to have a life, perhaps best captured by the decivilising of the main protagonist, Rick, who becomes increasingly savage and violent as the series progress.

Salvage constitutes a work of making do with what there is. What’s now useless is taken up for other purposes; what was broken is repaired. Time is no longer productive but reproductive. Reproductive time can be inventive time, time for making anew, but not if it’s at once consumed with the bare facts of life. We could frame this as a conflict between time consumed by obtaining resources versus the freedom to put those resources to creative use, or, more darkly, the difference between struggling over how to live versus the struggle to just live, a difference geographically striated between those still-wealthy cities of the global North and the slums and informal settlements of the global South. Much politically turns on how we’re confronted with catastrophe and on the form of survival we’re able to enact.

This formulation indicates the limit of the survivor as a political figure. Whereas the worker was always figured to be capitalism’s catastrophe (the real state of emergency), in the catastrophic fantasy it is catastrophe itself that appears as the historical agent. It is the historical agent that, rather than beginning history, brings it to an end. This is the significance of vulnerability. With the return of the inhuman as a force that shapes human social life, struggle ceases to be one for progression and is instead one over the character of survival. Will survival be mere survival, the reduction of politics to bare life, or will it be a new formulation, a refusal to separate how we live from the things we need to do so? In The Walking Dead, this tension is never completely resolved. Rather it, and not progress – a Mars colony, an automated world without work – becomes the horizon against which the political is oriented. The question raised for us dwelling within the Anthropocene is thus what kind of survival do we want, and how are we to inhabit our shared vulnerability?


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