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If we think of our collective identity as a fence that encloses “what we are.”  It separates us from “what we are not.”  And the monster threatens or attacks this boundary at the places where it is the weakest–at the points where there is some doubt as to who we really are.  Monsters are a product of a crisis of identity.

The shear number of zombie movies and television indicates that there must be a lot of anxiety regarding our collective identity.

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Who are we? What is the Modern Identity?

Many writers and thinkers have described our collective identity as “modern.” Modern, not in the sense of keeping current, but in the more philosophical sense of holding to the beliefs of Modernism.

The ideas found in Modernism originated about 300 years ago and they spread until they became the dominant way of understanding the world and the self in the West.

The main characteristics of the modern identity are:
  • The Modern identity is secular.  By secular I mean that the modern self believes there is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life. In other words, the modern self lives life in the absence of anything supernatural: in a strictly natural world.
  • The Modern self is also individualistic rather than communal; she is independent and doesn’t feel as much obligation to others as our pre-modern ancestors did.
  • The Modern self is also autonomous and often says things that mean, “Your not the boss of me!”
  • The Modern self believes in clear boundaries between categories like mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public and private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief and objective/subjective.
  • The Modern self believes in progress. Modernity has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs. Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
  • The Modern self is a “buffered self.”  Philosopher Charles Taylor further clarifies the Modern identity as a “buffered self.” All of the characteristics of the modern self work together to insulate the self. Because it is secular, it is insulated from anything supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons); because it is individualistic and autonomous, it is isolated from others. And because it has such faith the subject/object dichotomy, it is separated from the physical world around it.

Modern Identity Crisis

As a modern monster, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of the modern person.  What does the modern identity fear?

Given the events of the last century, the faith that we Moderns have placed in Reason, Science and Technology has been shaken. Why?

  • Two World Wars,
  • one Great Depression,
  • the Nuclear Arms Race,
  • environmental degradation,
  • and AIDS.

These are just the highlights of the many things that caused us to wonder, even fear, that Reason, Science and Technology are not all they are cracked up to be.

This sort of uncertainty unsettles identity. So modern folks like us have been asking some tough questions:

  • Science and Technology gave us the computer, but didn’t it also figured out the A-bomb and drone warfare?
  • Am I the boss of technology, or is it the boss of me?
  • Will science be able to solve climate change?
  • Technology helped us to catch a lot more fish, but what do we do when there are no fish?
  • Will I truly be happy if I have a nice place in the Hamptons?
  • Are we really better off than Laura Ingles Wilder?

The modern identity is in doubt, and when our collective identity is uncertain, the monsters attack. And they always attack at the weak points.

Zombies: an Embodiment of our Identity Crisis

How zombies are the embodiment of the Modern identity crisis is the subject of many of the posts that follow.  But we can start by saying that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead takes zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consistent with the cultural texture of secular modernity.

For this reason, it is called the first Modern zombie film.

We are no longer entirely Modern, but the uncertainty created by the shift from Modernism to whatever it is we are now, is one of the reasons for the zombie invasion of that began in 1968.

Next Zombie post: They Ain’t Got No Soul