Free dissertation topics: the first in an occasional series

Zombies have become a regular fixture in popular culture, with well-known properties and behavior patterns that remain more or less constant across a wide range of cultural artifacts. How can we explain the fact that this fictional creature is so well-understood? It is possible that this basic uniformity is solely the result of dynamics within the postwar pop culture tradition, but the widespread fascination with the zombie seems to point toward deeper roots. In this dissertation, I propose to demonstrate the connections between the contemporary figure of the zombie and medieval conceptions of the leper.

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21 Responses to “Free dissertation topics: the first in an occasional series”

  1. myles Says:

    Intriguing, except that zombies are fictional constructs, while lepers were actual folks, overlaid with fictional constructs. But, it’s extremely interesting. See Kim Paffenroth’s book on zombies and theology.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Wade Davis would beg to differ w/ you, Myles, about zombies being only fictional constructs. (See his work in ethnobiology and Haiti.)

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Myles, given that I refer to “medieval conceptions of lepers” rather than simply “lepers,” I have arguably anticipated your objection.

  4. ken oakes Says:

    In the third chapter I will discuss “zombie acceleration” in as much as the horror factor of zombie films increases in direct proportion to increases in the average velocity of a pack of zombies. I will then compare this acceleration to the average speed of a leper.

  5. myles Says:

    So, the historical existence of lepers is set aside? Fair enough. Then you’d have to account for the emergence of fictional lepers as out of historical existence vs. fictional zombies as out of public historical conciousness. Or something like that.

    Is it too late to change my dissertation topic? I’m only three chapters in.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Or the zombie could emerge out of the ideas that were associated with lepers but then took on a life of their own — as a common-sense reading of my proposal would reveal.

    I don’t want to seem overly defensive here, but your comments seem weirdly combative to me.

  7. myles Says:

    Not trying to be combative–I think there are some thematic connections to be sure, but I think making the case has to take account of the historicity question of actual lepers vs. the a-historical roots of zombies. That’s all I’m trying to suggest.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Real lepers give rise to a myth about lepers. The myth about lepers contributes to the myth of zombies. I still don’t understand why you’re acting like you’re bringing up a problem I hadn’t thought of.

  9. myles Says:

    True: real lepers lead to mythical lepers which lead to mythical zombies.

    What I’m trying to say, apparently badly, is that comparatively, the myths of lepers and myths of zombies have distinct starting points such that discussing mythical lepers have different ethical considerations than that of purely fictional constructions like zombies. We can talk about zombies as pure fictional constructs of a cultural conciousness, but talking about fictional lepers involves talking about actual lepers and their marginalization, such that zombies aren’t simply modern leper discourse, but something with a different origin which has to be taken into consideration when considering comparative discourses.

    How did a conversation about a non-existent dissertation get so tense?

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Because it frankly annoys me when people point out the obvious.

  11. Hill Says:

    I don’t want to seem weirdly combative, but some of this discussion is weirdly combative.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This reminds me of a kind of “comment terrorism” technique that I devised, though I never used it. If you want to drive a blogger to despair, then comment on his posts saying, “That’s all well and good, but it’s symptomatic that you don’t mention [the main point of his post].”

  13. myles Says:

    Right. Will check out the book, Brad. Thanks.

  14. Robert Says:

    It’s not a viable dissertation topic until you’ve awkwardly used the word “other” at least three times.

  15. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I have purged this thread. May generations never know you existed.

  16. Craig Says:

    It is traditional to distinguish between “the infected” (i.e., the current conception of the zombie) and the zombie proper. “Zombieism” qua virus is a relatively new development; previous pop-culture zombies were generated via disaster (e.g., Romero-zombies).

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks for the purge, Anthony.

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Once, to deal with how freaky I found it, I came up with a Kierkegaardian reading of 28 Days Later. It had something to do with incommunicability of the blessedness of zombie life.

  19. Chris Rodkey Says:

    Sounds like a dissertation which will get a standing-room only chapter presentation at the pop culture sections at the AAR.

  20. Andy Says:

    Thanks for that, Anthony: now I have to work through my irrational fear at 28 days again too.

    Do you not reckon the golem would make an interesting comparison? Then you could draw funky triangle diagrams in the introduction that you’d have to redo every time you revise the thesis or change format or something.

    Plus, lepers very soon became non-existent in the Middle ages, so their thought was soon much more effective in European history than their reality. As everyone who gave up after the first chapter of Foucault’s History of Madness will testify…

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yeah, the golem would be an interesting point of comparison, too.


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