Zombie Apocalypse: a symbol of collective transformation

 Gajda, Tegning af en Zombi. US Public Domain via Wikimedia
Gajda, Tegning af en Zombi. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

Carl Jung showed that what cannot be worked through at the conscious level is often worked through at the unconscious level, in dreams and fantasy (CW 5, para 4-45).  Encountering that for which there is yet no dream, we confront the limits of sense.

For the collective social body, film and art are an unconscious attempt to work through collective transformation at the limits of reason and sense. In the case of zombie movies and the growing zombie apocalypse movement, we may be seeing an attempt to dream ‘apocalyptic’ change.

Zombie are the  ‘Undead’: not living, not dead, driven yet not alive, the zombie images emerge from the recesses of the collective unconscious.  Animated yet with out life, they move.  Driven, yet without desire, they seek.  Emerging from “subterranean passages” of psychic life they express a surplus of drive without instinct, of desire without meaning.  How else shall we understand the collective dreaming of the zombie, but to see that our “natural instincts [have transformed] into a monstrous drive that can never be fully satisfied” (Slavoj Zizek, 2000).

Zombies express a fundamental split within psychic life.  This split bars us from instinctual life, thus initiating a “monstrous drive” within the collective culture. The question is how did we get here, and what are the nature of the instincts, manifest and latent? In my previous post, I borrowed from Jung’s text to say that during the evolution of consciousness there was a split between the ego and the depths. This split occurs not only within an individual but also within the collective social body.

The split in the collective forms, or is formed by, two types of thought: one is the dominant and affirmed mode of thought, and the other is negated as worthless.  According to Jodl the dominant mode of thought is word based.  It is “already and always socialized” (cited in Jung, para. 15).  Language is overdetermined by history and the collective. Jodl says:

“Language is the register of tradition, the record of racial conquest , the deposit of all the gains made by the genius of individual. The social “copy-system” thus established reflects the judgmental processes of the race, and in turn becomes the training school of the judgment of new generations” (Jodl, cited in Jung, para 15).

The dominant mode of thought becomes a “copy system”, which serves as a copy of the ‘real.’  Such a copy system is a working system which allows individuals to express their egoic will via adaptive means, but it can never fulfill our deeper instinctual will.  The copy system acts as a miniature village of reality, an existential Faraday cage, which cuts being off from its instinctual roots.

It is only through understanding this split within psychic life that we might understand the historical developments that are underway. Not only are the zombies expressing the ‘undead’ within us, they are also the spawn of excess, of a triumphant ego culture.  Such images erupt into the collective from an insurrection of undead drive.  They are also symbols  of transformation.  As frightening as they are, they represent the very capacity of the collective to begin to dream a catastrophe, instead of acting it out.  This ability to dream the unthinkable offers a potential for transformation.  The ability to dream is a reclamation of instinctual life.

But we must go beyond a Freudian reclamation of the instinctual, which encourage us to reclaim the sexual instincts.  We need to go into the depths of instinctual life,  whose truth is best reckoned with in religious terms (Jung, Cw 5, para 4-45).  This is no easy task; egoic life is alienated from the instinctual depths to such a degree that there is no language by which to speak of such depths.

Egoic life is collective life: adaptive, productive, and good.  But it also comes at a price: loss of the instinctual roots.  By entering into the collective, the ego makes a ‘copy’ of itself,  becoming an object to itself.  The ego is an exoskeleton built upon collective identifications, facing outward toward the collective, mirroring itself within the collective.  ‘I’ know ‘I’ by defining what is ‘not I’ or defining how ‘I am’ like something else.  The ego objectifies itself as “I” with shallow constructs:  ‘I am this’ or ‘I am not this.’  As a “pleasure ego”, it affirms only the positive within itself, spitting out or projecting the negative (Hegel; Freud, 1922).

Identification in general serves an adaptive function, helping us to achieve a positive identity within the collective. At the same time and on another level it isolates us from the totality of our being. Rigid egoic structures form bulwarks against the existential intensity of being, the ‘real’ (Hegel, see  Footnote).  They act to affirm some things and negate others.  Zombies are a breakdown of the bulwarks against the existential intensity of the ‘real.’  But they also point to a readiness, a critical mass of individuals who are opening to life beyond identification and capable of dreaming the undead drive. I have come to understand that to dream something is to be already coming into awareness of the dream images, to already be transforming. Dreams are not so much expressions of the repressed as Freud thought, but themselves acts of transformation, living symbols and expressions of transformation.

If I am correct then the collective may be in a process of transforming beyond egoic culture.  We are in the process of discovering, of beginning to dream, what is ‘real’ beyond the egoic ‘copy system.’  Such transformation is not found in positive and pre-affirmed aspects of being. It occurs as we begin to ‘look the negative in the face.’  Hegel said as much:

“It is this mighty power, not by being a positive which turns away from the negative, as when we say of anything it is nothing or it is false, and, being then done with it, pass off to something else: on the contrary, mind is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it.” (Hegel, para 32)

The positive and affirmed ‘reality’ of egoic culture is overdetermined, already preferred and predefined.  Collective ‘reality’ is socially constructed through words and symbols (Jung, CW 5; Lacan 1988).  If we are to know who we are at the depths of being then we must come into a relationship with the ‘real’ as it lies beyond such overdetermined constructs.

The problem is the initial stages of such an opening often bring us to the fantasy dimensions of our own psychic life (Jung, Cw 5, para 4-45, Lacan, 1988). We have to work to sort the difference between our own fantasy life and the real.  This is the project of psychoanalysis.  Lacan (1988) says that “the whole progress of the analysis is to show the distinction between these two planes, to unstick the imaginary and the real” (page 241).  In Jungian terms this is just the first phase of psycho-spiritual development, it is a process which entails looking into the negative, confronting the personal shadow therein.

The negative can be seen as a mirror of the positive.  All that is negated forms the existential background of the affirmed. In the first phase of spiritual development we must reabsorb our shadow: pulling back our projections, working through the split off hate, desire, envy, greed in ourselves. Such opening to our emotional life prepares us for the ‘great work.’  The field of psychology is not focused on this dimension of being. Hillman puts it quite succinctly: “psyche = mind, and mind = head” (p. 153), and  “head = ego” (ibid).  Psychology is a psychology of the ego, which aims at adaptation (Jung CW 9ii, para 11).  There is something more, however.

The work is spiritual not psychological: immanent and internal. Such work takes “the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.” (Hegel, 19) In Jungian terms, this spiritual work, our spiritual labor, forms the deepest instinctual urge within us.  When we turn away from our internal life, we turn away from an innate instinctual guidance, disconnecting from our deepest instinctual urge. This deepest urge is an urge to know the “real.”  In saying this, I am moving beyond a Hegelian ‘real,’ or a Lacanian ‘real,’ in order to articulate a Jungian ‘real.’

For Hegel “the real is rational”;  for Lacan the real lacks “absence” (Book 2).  Transcending their understanding, Jung highlights the mystery: the “mysterium magnum” (CW 12, para. 190) This mystery is experienced only through our capacity to enter into the inner world and reconnect to the deepest forms and instinctual urges therein.  Henceforth, we will be guided by the archetypal movements of being.  Such movements are deep movements, undercurrents within psychic life, that guide us beyond the collective into the eternal.

I like to imagine such movements. The first movement is ascension: a winding upward within the positive, until, through identification we have a positive, solid sense of collective identity and identification. As the zombies dreams reveal, this first movement is no end in itself.  Purely positive identifications have an anxious relationship to death, nothingness, the abyss. As Hegel says:

“The life of God and divine intelligence, then, can, if we like, be spoken of as love disporting with itself; but this idea falls into edification, and even sinks into insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative” (para. 19).

Egoic culture is fixated upon identification and lacks all capacity to labor with the negative. Egoic culture in its current decadence has lost any capacity which might open to the mystery of being, much less work with the tensions of the negative.  The dreaming part of us on the other hand is undergoing a transformation in which it is opening to the mystery. I encounter people in all parts of the world who in their hearts and imaginations are opening to the mystery, embracing the mystery.

It is only through such opening that we may move beyond fixed identifications. It takes courage to labor with the negative, the unknown, unsayable aspects of being. Without the guidance of Jung we might merely find ourselves staring into the negative as an abyss (the trap of nihilism).  Jung’s ideas transform the stark abyss of the negative. A new horizon opens, revealing the mystery of the Self– beckoning us to be explored.

The Fragile Absolute or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For, Slavoj Zizek, London: Verso, 2000.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Google eBook),Sigmund Freud, International psycho-analytical Press- 1922

Symbols of Transformation: An Analysis…, Carl Gustav Jung, 1912

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1, Jacques Lacan

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 2 ,The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis

The Phenomenology of Spirit  Georg W. F. Hegel


Hegel said “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real” (quoted in Engels, 1970. I have yet to find a good direct quote from Hegel, but this is part of Hegel’s discourse. I believe Jung offers a concept of the real that is a sort of a rational Mundus Imaginalis. I will be working through such concepts soon.

7 thoughts on “Zombie Apocalypse: a symbol of collective transformation

  1. Jung defined dreams as “spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious” (CW 8 p505). Zombies are a type of nightmare and there are two kinds of nightmares that Jung speaks of: the ones that alter a persons’ life course and the ones that summarize a rough sketch of what is to come psychically. Since I see no evidence of people altering their ways due to this “nightmare”, the latter must apply. Jung spoke of the existence of a death wish and Zombies are a type of death wish, only in this case your body isn’t what dies but you become soulless. This is not soul in the normal sense of the word but in the sense of spirit; that which gives life and personality. It is a collective portent from the unconscious to the conscious that if society doesn’t start trying to come to their senses, they will rot away to nothing. Although they will be alive, life won’t be worth living anymore. It’s what happens when a people “that thinks only in themes of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself”. We are barbaric. We are warmongerers. We are xenophobic. We are destroying our world so the world in turn is preparing to destroy us in return through our minds. When our minds are gone so will we because the body cannot exist without the mind.

  2. I stumbled upon your site just yesterday and spent many hours reading some of your excellent posts. You are re-igniting my old passion for Jung. Zombies seem to both reflect what our society has become ( as seen at any mall) and warn us of our future, in shocking terms. Zombies “are hip” with my 20-something kids, not so much with my peers. The kids are attracted/repelled, as they’re shown their shadow potential on the screen. Never underestimate the power of a bad example. These strong “Not-I” experiences may become a positive unconscious trigger in their own individuation.

  3. My last two dreams of note were Zombie dreams, nothing scary about them, it was more about provisioning, safe movement, helping others in the dream and fortifying our positions. The zombies were more of a swarm than individuals, always looking to get in. Whether this was personal or collective i will let my unconscious decide, a living symbol of transformation as you say. ‘I’ will just continue listen and feel, be an individual, a reflection of nature rather than culture.

    Once again your posts are educational and inspiring .

    Thank you so much.

  4. Andrew,
    Thank you for the reply. I agree that it is very sad: this “nightmare”, this “death wish,” our one-sided vision which may “destroy its environment” and “destroy itself.” But if we are to speak for the soul then we must speak a language of love, of imagination, of hope. It is through the soul’s language that we may re-establish a relationship to the “sense of spirit.” I believe it is possible, such reclamation of the soul.

  5. Rick Boys,
    Thank you for reading. I am happy to hear that your passion for Jung is re-igniting. I appreciate the way you have used the “not-I” in your comment. You say, ‘Not-I’ experiences may become a positive unconscious trigger for individuation. I agree, change may occur through archetypal “consolidation of error” (Frye 1969, 260), in which a ‘not-I’ response becomes possible for the soul. The zombie archetype consolidates the error of an empty, split off greed, and becomes a symbol that can provoke transformation, allowing for new life to emerge. The good news is that once we begin to dream, to consolidate the error, we have already begun the process of transformation.
    Thank you for the insight.

  6. Japhy, I too dreamed zombie dreams, a long cycle of recurring dreams that went on for several years. Now I understand these dreams as an essential part of my spiritual growth. At first I resisted them, and then I gradually gave myself over to the images my soul was offering to me, watching them take shape and transform through time. It eventually became an epic night journey, and then a period when the zombies became a swarm. Next, I went into a period in which I dreamt that the world was emptied out by zombie machines. All that remained of the earth were carved out quarries. The last dream I had in the cycle was about 12 months ago. It was a post-apocalyptic world: dried up, carved out, nothing living remained. In the dream I realized that through my love things would begin to grow and turn green with life again. There was a deep chasm, I looked in it with love. With this act of looking a form emerged: a little tiny woman with the body of a fish. In this strange dream I picked up the tiny woman-fish and then I reached up and gently placed her in the sky. With this, a new constellation emerged in the sky. After several years of dreaming, the symbol transformed. I too transformed in the process and something new emerged. A new idea, new life within my soul. I am thankful that you too are dreaming, continuing to listen, reflect, and feel. Trusting in the ‘reflection of nature’ within you, beautiful. Thank you.

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