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The Fantasy of Abject Universality: Marx, Edelman, Freud, Bataille, and "The Walking Dead"

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

Abject Universality and "The Walking Dead"

AMC’s The Walking Dead is a television series that depicts a world in which dead corpses have risen, imbued with a new form of energy-driven life, and have violently and successfully overthrown normal society, eliminated all previous conceptions of individuality, and thrust the world into a state of futureless meaninglessness. Through examination of a few episodes of The Walking Dead, and through a close reading of the implications of the show’s fantastical elements, this horrifying doomsday scenario proves to be a projection of the individual’s unconscious desires and fears surrounding universalism in its various forms. The fictional actualization of universality on screen evokes terror and pleasure for viewers that parallels the viewers’ paradoxical attraction and repulsion towards all that is universal. By incorporating Karl Marx’s notions of “communism,” Lee Edelman’s conception of “queerness,” Sigmund Freud’s definitions of “the uncanny” and the id, and Georges Bataille’s theories of “eroticism” into the fictional world portrayed by The Walking Dead, I will reveal what I will call the fantasy of abject universality – a fantasy because of the viewer’s indulgence in desire and eroticism within a fiction, and abject because of the terror invoked by the idea of the collapse of meaning, self, and social order. I propose that the horrific world enacted on television provides a safe place for the viewer to indulge in an inherent, unconscious urge, one that taps into a primitive desire and fear for continuity and universality that is in itself universal. In analyzing the abject universality displayed in The Walking Dead, I hope to reveal that universalism is always inextricably linked to both desire and fear and that acknowledging those impulses will perhaps open up possibilities as to where universalism can take us.

Defining "Abject"

Before I explore the fantasy of abject universality displayed in The Walking Dead, I first would like to explain what is meant by “abject” and how it ties in with the unconscious desires and fears that I will associate with universalism. Julia Kristeva, in her work The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, describes abjection as an individual or collective reaction (fear, horror, or a physical reaction such as vomit) “to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other” (Felluga). The abject “evokes both loathing and fascination,” but also frightens “when it manifests itself as bodily excretion because it is not the body itself, yet still a part of it” (Kutzbach 8). According to Kristeva, the abject implies meaninglessness and collapse of self:

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness […] now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me (2).

The abject is neither object nor subject, that which we are unable to “recognize as a thing,” but rather it is situated in the place before we entered the symbolic order (Felluga). It marks what Kristeva calls a “primal repression,” which refers to “the moment in our psychosexual development when we established a border and separation between human and animal, between culture and that which preceded it” (Felluga). It is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4). The corpse is the primary figure of the abject “since it literalizes the breakdown of the distinction between subject and object that is crucial for the establishment of identity and for our entrance into the symbolic order” (Felluga). The corpse, for Kristeva, “seen without God and outside science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life” (10). Though Kristeva does not believe one could ever desire the abject, she recognizes that we are “continually and repetitively drawn to the abject,” and that we are able to “joy” in it (she associates the abject with jouissance) “violently and painfully,” but also passionately (Felluga). Even though Kristeva argues that the pleasure we take from immersing in the abject (particularly within literature or art) is different from desire, I suggest that by viewing texts that indulge in the abject as a fictional fantasy we are unconsciously displaying a desire to face that which horrifies us in a space that doesn’t threaten our sense of being. The fantasy of abject universality is just that – a fantasy of union, connectivity, sameness, and oneness that violently disrupts the social order in a fictional version of our world (thrusting it into a state of meaninglessness), allowing us as viewers to safely experience jouissance as we hold on to our particularities, identities, sense of self, and social structure.

Kristeva’s description of the abject, particularly the figure of the corpse, plays an important role both in The Walking Dead and in discerning that which is terrifying about universalism itself. In the first episode of The Walking Dead, the show’s main protagonist Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff deputy, wakes from a coma in an empty hospital. The flowers by his bedside are dead, the clock in his room has stopped, and when he leaves his hospital room he discovers a disheveled mess of papers and hospital equipment, dead bodies and blood, and something ominous trying to break through chained and barricaded double-doors where the words “Don’t Open. Dead Inside” is written. Rick soon discovers that dead corpses have risen and have violently overthrown “normal” society, without any explanation or discernible cause. Houses are empty, abandoned cars are strewn across roads and highways, and the survivors he meets have become stragglers and nomads traveling from building to building, looking for food, shelter, and protection from the “walkers” – the name given to the walking corpses who become highly animated once they perceive a living human being and immediately attempt to eat flesh. One bite from a walker will create a high fever from which that person will quickly die and return to “life” as one of the walking dead. Walkers are pure abject, they are neither subject nor object, but they are also the embodiment of all that is universal.

The first form of universality the walkers embody is the practical union of individuals into one force, in which their individuality dissolves. In The Walking Dead, the lone “walker” is not a serious threat (though, coming face-to-face with one of the walking dead presents its own abject forms of terror, desire, and eroticism which I will explore later), it is the vast number of walkers, all stripped of individuality and working towards a common goal, that makes them successful in tearing down society as a whole. This vision of a unified force working to violently disrupt all existing social order suggests a kind of perverted half-realized Marxist vision, in which this “dead” revolution succeeds but remains in a permanent revolutionary state in which no social order can exist or rise anew.

The Marx Angle

For Marx, universalism is a construct based in the practical world, and is not focused on the individual, but rather the “union” of individuals. In “The German Ideology,” Marx implies that universality is a practice rather than an abstract concept, and can only be achieved through a kind of emptying – with the abolition of private property and revolution:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew (193).

Marx suggests that universalism can only exist if it is made to exist, through a unified emptying of both the individual and society. This idea harkens back to Hegel’s notion of “negative freedom,” or “freedom of the void”: “if it turns to actuality, it becomes in the realm of both politics and religion the fanaticism of destruction, demolishing the whole existing social order, and annihilating any organization which attempts to rise up anew” (38). Marx’s universalism is the “actualization” of the “annihilation of particularity” (Hegel 38), which makes it both liberating (casting off the “chains” crafted by “all existing social conditions” [Marx and Engels 500]), but also constraining and somewhat frightening; under his notion of communism there is no longer practical individuality – which seems to eliminate free thinking and freedom to act as one chooses – and this universalism can only come about through destruction and forced union.

The "Dead" Revolution

In The Walking Dead’s version of the “dead” revolution, in which all classes are overthrown and the revolting class succeeds in “ridding” society “of all the muck of the ages,” the revolutionary aspects of Marx’s vision and the “fury of destruction” displayed in Hegel’s actualization of “negative freedom” become visual realities. Walkers embody the unified force of violence and destruction; their insatiable need to attack the “living” and their own physical decay parallel an angry, violated, marginalized people that have risen in union to eliminate an oppressing structure and difference once and for all. The idea that this revolution is performed, and this universalism practiced, by the ultimate figures of the abject – the animated corpses that break down our sense of identity and literally “infect” life – is fitting considering Marx’s description of “the communist revolution”:

In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society […] (193).

The walking dead are “the class which no longer counts as a class in society,” since they have died and left their status in life behind. Once a person becomes a walker, he or she is no longer perceived as an individual in any sense of the word; gender, race, class, age, nationality, etc. are no longer taken into consideration. Walkers are neither subject nor object (the “Not me,” “Not that,” but “not nothing, either”), they are pure revolution, in which all particularities have dissolved, all individualism has died, and they are only defined through their unified, violent uprising. Like Rick who realizes when he wakes from his coma that the clocks have stopped, the dead revolutionary figures have stopped in what Marx considers a temporary state: they will revolt eternally, continue to annihilate “any organization which attempts to rise up anew” and drive towards meaninglessness, without providing any sense of futurity.

While it is easy to see the nightmarish qualities of this force of universalized bodies and their status as permanent, violent revolution, there is also an attractive quality to this grotesque actualization of Marx and Hegel’s theories. First of all, the uprising of the dead throws the world into a state of lawlessness and cultureless-ness that proves in many ways to be liberating for both the characters on the show and the viewers watching. On the show, the idea of private property quickly becomes meaningless; nothing is off-limits and everything from houses, cars, prisons, and stores, to guns, food, and clothing, are up for grabs on an as-needed basis. With the elimination of law, the world almost seems to make more sense; instead of placing importance on the things that society tells us are important (such as marriage, careers, money, etc.), the world has become a vast, free-range land of survival, returning us to a state of pre-culture that is rid of the complicated mess of societal conventions that blind us to what life actually is (in the animalistic sense). The abject in this fiction becomes a desirable fantasy by disturbing “identity, system, order” as well as “borders, positions, rules.” The risen corpses drive the characters and viewers to a sense of meaninglessness, but also to a profound new sense of “joy” in the simplicity this meaninglessness brings. Instead of the obsession over false idols of meaning created by society and culture, everything is reduced to terms of life and death. Survival comes to replace all meaning, but refuses to serve as a sturdy foundation on which new meaning can grow.

Another attractive result of the dead revolution is that the particularities that previously used to label identities, such as race, class, nationality, and age, are not only dissolved as people are gruelingly forced into the universality of the walkers, they are also slowly and steadily dissolved for the survivors as well. In episode two of The Walking Dead, Meryl Dixon, a “white trash” man on a power-trip from wielding a big gun and shooting down walkers, gets into a confrontation with “T-Dog” Douglas, a black urbanite trying to calm him down, where Meryl tells T-Dog “that’ll be the day […] I take orders from a nigger.” A physical fight ensues, and Rick intervenes and handcuffs Meryl. As he does so, Rick tells him: “Look here, Meryl, things are different now. There are no ‘niggers’ anymore. No dumb-as-shit, inbred, white trash fools either. Only dark meat and white meat. There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together, not apart.” Rick recognizes that the dead revolution has overthrown all identity markers, (with the exception of the living and the dead, but even these markers come to mirror one another) and that individualization is in itself a hollow concept. It is only by letting go of the identities and particularities that separate them (or by acknowledging that particularity no longer exists) that they will be able to survive. In subsequent episodes, all proclamations of identity, class, or status come across as forms of nostalgia. Even age becomes less and less of a marker of identity as Carl, Rick’s adolescent son, eventually loses all sense of what it means to be a child as he comes to deal with the world in terms of life and death. Though gender proves to be the hardest marker to eliminate, it too eventually moves towards dissolution, as proved by the changes in the outwardly feminine Andrea who progressively adopts survivalist behavior – behavior originally considered “masculine” by the other characters. The survivors, therefore, increasingly demonstrate nearly the same universal qualities embodied by the abject walking corpses; their eliminated society’s laws and identity markers evolve into a universal survival-identity formed in direct opposition to the abject universality of the walkers, which paradoxically invokes a sameness between the universal-walker and universal-survivor.

The nostalgia displayed by the survivors on the show seems to be inextricably linked to a kind of “hopeless optimism for which we’re always compelled to opt” (Edelman 35) – in other words, the optimistic expectation or anticipation of futurity. What makes the fantasy of abject universality unique (in terms of “fantasy”), however, is that it revels in the “no future.” This type of fantasy differs from Lee Edelman’s explanation in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, in which he describes fantasy as a way of stabilizing our identities and securing meaning in futurity: “fantasy alone endows reality with fictional coherence and stability, which seems to guarantee that such reality, the social world in which we take our place, will still survive when we do not” (34). Fantasy for Edelman “thus compels us to identify ourselves with what’s to come by way of haven or defense against the ego’s certain end” (34). This definition of fantasy is experienced by the characters on the show, through their nostalgic adherence to social norms that are no longer applicable, but not necessarily the viewers themselves. The fantasy that the show presents us contrasts with Edelman’s interpretation of fantasy, in that it neither secures meaning nor guarantees the survival of the social world, but it allows us to safely indulge in the meaninglessness propagated by universality. Edelman’s description of “sinthomosexuality” as that which denies “the appeal of fantasy” and refuses “the promise of futurity” (35) becomes within the context of the show a site of connectivity between the walkers and the survivors, and even the viewers themselves:

We, the sinthomosexuals who figure the death drive of the social, must accept that we will be vilified as the agents of that threat. But “they,” the defenders of futurity, buzzed by negating our negativity, are themselves, however unknowingly, its secret agents too, reacting, in the name of the future, in the name of humanity, in the name of life, to the threat of the death drive we figure with the violent rush of a jouissance, which only returns them, ironically, to the death drive in spite of themselves. Futurism makes sinthomosexuals, not humans, of us all (153).

As Edelman demonstrates, the “defenders of futurity” (or, the survivors in and viewers of the show) are joined with, and essentially are, the figures of “the death drive of the social,” the sinthomosexuals/walking dead. As the “side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism,” and as those that figure “the place of the social order’s death drive,” the walking dead represent the “queerness” from which the defenders of futurity wish to disassociate but are ultimately linked (Edelman 3).

Idea of Connectivity

The opening scene of episode one of The Walking Dead seems to immediately confront the audience (as it confronts our relatable, likeable protagonist Rick) with their own emphasis on “reproductive futurism” – the “Child” – and twisting that image within the realm of the “no future” projected by the ultimate figure of “queerness.” While looking for gas at an abandoned gas station, Rick comes across a little girl, alone, picking up a teddy bear. He calls to her, and discovers that she is a walker. The camera gives her a close-up, showing her braces and young features that are somewhat mangled and gruesome, and Rick is clearly saddened as well as horrified. She tries to attack him and he is forced to shoot her in the head. She falls in slow motion, the camera lingering on her and on Rick’s look of fear before cutting to the opening credits. The horror of this scene comes from forcing the figure of “fantasy” – in Edelman’s sense of the word, the figure that is supposed to ensure our sense of stability in the future – into a figure of abject, futurelessness. The figure of the child as a symbol of innocence and “as the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value” (Edelman 4) is dissolved by an abject universality, destabilizing both Rick and the viewer’s sense of meaning. Children (both living, such as Rick’s son Carl, and “dead” like the little girl from the opening scene) are not exempt from sinthomosexuality or from the violent wrenching out of particularity. The word “child” and its connotations becomes yet another identity marker eliminated by the actualization and recognition of a universalism that, through the overthrow of our concept of meaning of both self and society, causes us to perceive a terrifying connectedness.

While terrifying in that it threatens our entire sense of being, this idea of connectivity that bonds us and the characters to the abject is associated with our unconscious desire for oneness – a desire that we perceive in terms of sameness and continuity. In “The Uncanny,” Freud describes the uncanny as a kind of repressed sameness, that which is both familiar (heimlich) and unfamiliar (unheimlich):

What interests us most […] is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. […] In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight (420).

Within the context of the show, the uncanny is fully realized in the face-to-face meeting with the walking corpse, a form of “the double” that is both strikingly familiar and yet something completely unfamiliar, that which should be “kept out of sight” and buried. In his close-reading of E.T.A Hoffman’s “The Sand-Man,” Freud describes “the double” as a person who is considered physically identical, but whose similarity is also accentuated through the idea of “transferring mental processes” in which the “self becomes confounded” through the identification with another person (425). It is the recurrence of sameness – “a same face, or character trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name” (Freud 425) – that destabilizes our notion of self and being, particularly when the familiarity associated with sameness has become unfamiliar. This effect of the uncanny is at its peak in The Walking Dead when the survivors are unable to distinguish between survivors and walkers, and when they come face-to-face with a loved one that has become a walker. In the first episode, this happens several times; the first time when Rick calls out to the little girl in the opening scene, and also later when Rick leaves the hospital and sees a man walking in the street. Rick stares at the man and almost calls out to him, but the man is out of focus, and neither Rick nor the viewer can truly tell if he is living or one of the walking dead. This moment is intense because it visually confirms a physical identicalness between walkers and survivors, one that threatens an inevitable destruction of self through an unmentionable sameness. Another instance of the uncanny occurs when Rick’s acquaintance, Morgan Jones, looks through old family photographs of him and his wife, and then watches her through the window roaming the streets as a walker, creating a “double” effect. As viewers watch Morgan break down and find himself unable to shoot her, they are forced to contemplate the effect of the uncanny and how its interrelationship with sameness both points to a destruction of self and an underlying, indescribable connectivity through sameness.

Freud attributes uncanniness to a repressed primitive state and “very early mental stage” (426) in our development in which we separate ourselves from the concept of oneness in order to form an identity and concept of self. Within the fictional fantasy of the show, the uncanny gives us a glimpse back to that primitive state while simultaneously pointing to an inescapable fate – a fate that is neither life nor death, but rather continuity and connectivity through the collapse of the boundaries of being. By season two, episode twelve, The Walking Dead reveals that people do not only become walkers if they are bitten, scratched, or otherwise “infected” by a walker, but that all survivors will become walkers when they die because of a walker “germ” – something undefinable and unexplainable within all of them that will ensure that they will come back as one of the walking dead. According to the show, everyone is infected, and no one knows how, why, or when this infection took place. The “germ” comes to serve as a placeholder for that inexplicable sameness between walker and survivor.

What points to the familiar and ultimately the uncanny between us, the characters, and the walkers is not only physical-recognition but something internal as well that is tied to our sense of self, and “infection” perhaps becomes another word for the id – it reflects an internal drive that the survivors ultimately repress, but is reflected in the id-driven walkers. Walkers are pure revolution and ultimate figures of “queerness,” but it is their status as pure id-driven beings that intimately connects them to our psyche. According to Freud, the id exists primarily in the unconscious:

It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the Dreamwork and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations […] It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis 105-106).

The walking dead openly exhibit the inner “chaos” of “seething excitations” and the “instinctual” drives that we as subjects continually repress in order to function in civilized society. As purely id-driven beings that embody the concept of both life (energy-driven) and death, they are animated solely by the instinctual need to both create and destroy; by attacking the living and consuming their flesh, they are instantly creating more beings like themselves as the destructed bodies rise from the dead. Essentially watching the id run rampant and seeing its universality displayed on the screen, viewers experience not only terror and dread at the physical manifestations of the id – which points to their own inescapable sameness just as much as to the characters they relate to – but also a sense of pleasure in allowing chaos to ensue.

The fantasy one indulges in while watching The Walking Dead is based in “assenting to life up to the point of death,” in that we, as viewers, are able to safely glimpse the rampancy of the id and the actualization of universal connectedness, along with the liberating destruction of self, social order, and meaning through abject universality, without abandoning our own mode of being. This basis of the fantasy of abject universality is also the defining formula that Georges Bataille attributes to “eroticism” (11), which he describes in terms of “continuity” and “discontinuity.” According to Bataille, “Reproduction implies the existence of discontinuous beings. […] He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity” (12). Though we perceive ourselves as “discontinuous beings,” Bataille analyzes the relationship between discontinuity and continuity, and finds them not to be contradictory terms but inextricably linked in their associations with death, connectivity, and reproduction:

Sperm and ovum are to begin with discontinuous entities, but they unite, and consequently a continuity comes into existence between them to form a new entity from death and disappearance of the separate beings. The new entity is itself discontinuous, but it bears within itself the transition to continuity, the fusion, fatal to both, of two separate beings (14).

Each person’s existence begins with a single moment of continuity, in which two separate “discontinuous entities” unite, and through this unity an instant of continuity occurs in which there is total fusion. Though this fusion results in death – the elimination of the two separate beings (sperm and ovum) – each person holds at his/her core a mode of universality, in which there are no borders, boundaries, or particularities, only unity between once separate beings. This unity that is responsible for our existence causes us, according to Bataille, to strive for oneness within our lives while holding on to our individuality:

We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is. […] this nostalgia is responsible for the three forms of eroticism in man (15).

The Erotic Angle

The concern with all forms of eroticism, and similarly of fantasy (particularly the fantasy of abject universality), is “to substitute for the individual isolated discontinuity a feeling of profound continuity” (15) – one that links “us with everything that is.”

The desire for unity and the fear of losing our selves causes us to seek ways of experiencing continuity without letting go of our discontinuity, and shows like The Walking Dead allow us to engage in a kind of erotic act that mirrors the eroticism taking place on screen. Bataille equates the “domain of eroticism” with the “domain of violence” since the “abrupt wrench out of discontinuity” is a violent act: “The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being. We blench at the thought that the separate individuality within us must suddenly be snuffed out” (16). The violence of death, which eliminates our discontinuity and individuality, is clearly represented in the figures of the walking dead. Their violent, destructive behavior is motivated by a literal consumption of selves (cannibalism), that serves as both a “snuffing out” of “separate individuality,” as the people they consume die and return as the abject, and a form of penetration (biting, scratching, tearing) and violation that enacts a horrifying striving for continuity. The cannibalism of the walkers, therefore, conveys a kind of physical eroticism that both excites and horrifies viewers: “What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? – a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?” (17). This erotic violation, found in both physical eroticism and cannibalism, is able to “strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still” (17). The cannibalistic act both literally and conceptually destroys “the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives,” (17) linking it to eroticism both on the screen and off; the viewer witnesses this violent death and the disruption in discontinuity and is able to glimpse the subsequent revelation of continuity. Bataille recognizes this spectator-participation when he discusses religious sacrifice in terms of eroticism:

A violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one. Only a spectacular killing, carried out as the solemn and collective nature religion dictates, has the power to reveal what normally escapes notice (22).

Bataille implies that a “spectacular killing” is solely a religious killing, but when thinking about his description in terms of aestheticized “spectacle” often associated with film or television, the killings on The Walking Dead also have the power to reveal, through fictionalized actualization of the wrench out of discontinuity, the continuity which “normally escapes notice” in our realities. Through the cannibalism of the walkers, we are able to witness the dissolution of beings and the moment of existence in which a new being emerges – one that physically bears the marks of the violent jerk out of discontinuity and into the universal.

Though continuity arouses a sense of doom, its “nearness” and its connection with existence actually transcends the boundaries between life and death and encourages the individual to seek that which is incomprehensible. By indulging in the fictional eroticism on screen, viewers “achieve the power to look death in the face and to perceive in death the pathway into unknowable and incomprehensible continuity” (Bataille 24). The walking dead challenge death as much as they embody it; they suggest an “indifference to death” that proves that “life may be doomed but the continuity of existence is not” (Bataille 23). Both eroticism and the fantasy of abject universality reveal, however, that “continuity is what we are after, but generally only if that continuity which the death of discontinuous beings can alone establish is not the victor in the long run” (18). In other words, we strive for a glimpse of continuity only if we are able to return to our lives as discontinuous beings. What we desire, according to Bataille, is “to bring into a world founded on discontinuity all the continuity such a world can sustain” (18) – to face death without facing our own destruction of being, and to experience the lost moment of connectivity and fusion without losing ourselves to the violence of a universalism that entails bearing “a negation” (eroticism opening “the way to death” and death opening “the way to the denial of our individual lives”) “that carries us to the farthest bounds of possibility” (24).

The terror and desire bound up in Bataille’s theory of eroticism demonstrates our paradoxical need to both “transcend” and “maintain” limits, something we are able to do by fantasizing about continuity in terms of our own existence. Continuity suggests a oneness and a totality that exists both within our being (through the fusion of sperm and ovum) and outside of the “terms of our own life;” but since we are unable to imagine anything either before or after our personal existence it is impossible for us to truly comprehend oneness, and consequently a universal oneness, without doing violence to our inner selves. As Bataille puts it:

We are incessantly trying to hoodwink ourselves, trying to get at continuity, which implies that the boundaries have been crossed, without actually crossing the boundaries of this discontinuous life. We want to get across without taking the final step, while remaining cautiously on the hither side. We can conceive of nothing except in terms of our own life, and beyond that, it seems to us everything is wiped out. Beyond death, in fact, begins the inconceivable which we are usually not brave enough to face. Yet the inconceivable is the expression of our own impotence. We know that death destroys nothing, leaves the totality of existence intact, but we still cannot imagine the continuity of being as a whole beyond our own death, or whatever it is that dies in us. We cannot accept the fact that this has limits. At all costs we need to transcend them, but we should like to transcend them and maintain them simultaneously (141).

The erotic act of fantasizing about abject universality – which the viewer performs when watching The Walking Dead – allows us to cross boundaries “without taking the final step.” The reaction of “Fear and horror” that the viewer feels, permits him/her to indulge in the desire to “overstep the limits;” a desire that would be “unthinkable” without the “initial reaction of horror” (144). Our terror legitimizes our indulgence in the fantasy of meaninglessness; if The Walking Dead was not a vision of horror viewers would not be able to “joy” in it because the eroticism, and sense of continuity and the universal within it, would no longer exist.

Fear, horror, and desire are all connected and dependent upon one another when it comes to understanding our relationship with universalism itself. The walkers and survivors in The Walking Dead exemplify several forms of universality – union, connectivity, sameness, oneness – that all similarly point to a collapse in meaning that is at once fascinating, liberating, unlonely, and ultimately terrifying. Watching The Walking Dead allows viewers to unconsciously transcend the limits imposed on them by society or themselves and safely participate in a fantasy of universalism that plays out the impulses of their mind like a collective, projected dream. The threat of collapse of meaning suggested by the recognition of universals is reduced to a threat of an imaginary abject figure: the animated corpse. While providing a form of entertainment that allows us to revel in the connectivity between fear, horror, and desire, the fantasy of abject universality ultimately reveals human beings’ unwillingness to acknowledge universal concepts within actual reality. Universalism, therefore, can only ever be an abstract or fictional concept and never a practical or acknowledgeable actuality until we learn to recognize and somehow overcome the terror that comes with the shift out of our adherence to individuality, selfhood, and social order. Once we recognize the barrier constructed by the terror and fear that is ingrained in all forms of the universal, we may be able to remove it. The barricaded double-doors of the hospital wing, with dead fingers reaching through the cracks and with the words “Don’t Open. Dead Inside,” serve as a parallel to our own relationship with the universal. Our glimpse of the other side induces curiosity, contemplation, and desire, though we already know that what is inside entails death, annihilation, and profound meaninglessness.

Closing Thoughts (and Personal Update)

For those interested, I wrote this essay when I was an atheist in graduate school, and my worldview has since changed. I no longer see life as meaningless, though I still hold that shows like The Walking Dead (particularly the first 2 seasons, which are the focus here) contain a fear/desire of the universal presented in the essay.

I now believe that Christianity is the ultimate universal, and it's not something to be feared, nor is it meaningless, but rather it is the fulfillment of that universal that we all desire. It is the ultimate meaning of life. Instead of finding the universal through death and destruction and societal chaos, it demonstrates the universal through death of self into life, through the love of a single Creator from whom we all derive. The journey is no less profound, and much more satisfying.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Veronica McDonald