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Zombie apocalypse at the ivory tower

Andrew Whelan, Christopher Moore, Ruth Walker

Andrew Whelan lectures in sociology at the University of Wollongong. He retains basic motor functions and some communicative capacity. Christopher Moore is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at Deakin University and a researcher in Game Studies. He plays games on ‘easy’ mode because he doesn’t have time for real challenges. Ruth Walker teaches academic writing at the University of Wollongong. She teaches academic. She teaches. She.

Academics in the humanities and the social sciences like to write about popular culture. They like to use ‘high’ theory, the accredited and validated discourse of the academy, to do so.

‘What does World War Z really mean? What would [insert European theorist’s name here] make of it?’ This mode is so common, it has become a kind of bait-and-switch: academics end up talking about popular culture (after all, it is ‘relatable’ for students), while somehow forgetting (how) to talk about the real economic, social and political context in which they are operating. Reality, after all—with its economics, politics, and society—is actually pretty boring, if not outright confusing. Where popular culture becomes the dominant allegory through which the truth of social reality can be understood, academics should engage with it too, or rather, explain at a ‘higher’ level what it all really means. This model of cultural interpretation looks something like this:

High theory → popular culture → social reality

The allegories of popular culture must be decoded, using the most sophisticated, elegant and fashionable intellectual resources available. Meanwhile that real world context, at which the high theory was originally pointed, gets steadily, incrementally eviscerated, such that the grounds on which to say anything at all become increasingly precarious. After the disquisition, the fall.

This old-school critical line is quite well established. However, we would argue for something else: what if popular culture is something we can use, but coming from the other direction? The university: what does it mean? What would George A. Romero or Dan O’Bannon make of it? Better: what would zombies make of it? That is to say: instead of using academic discourses to understand popular culture, let’s use popular culture to understand academic discourses. Rather than having popular culture as a ‘passive’ mass on which the ‘active’ academic analyst performs hermeneutic operations, revealing for our collective benefit what the ephemera of the contemporary really means, let’s have popular culture as a resource with which to understand this curious academic game. This model could look a bit like this:

Popular culture → social reality → high theory

Specifically, let’s take the opportunity to poke a finger into the festering hole which is the blind spot academic critique has about the material conditions sustaining (read: degrading) its own production. Being manoeuvred into social obsolescence is something in which academics have actively cooperated. As our public culture becomes slowly more anti-intellectual, academics have been siloed away, forced by the bureaucratic imperatives of institutional audit culture to produce regular ‘outputs’ of scholarship for paywalled scholarly journals. The public, to whom such erudition is entirely and deliberately invisible, justifiably wonders what academics draw salaries for. Making the outputs unavailable (and thereby, incidentally, allowing corporate publishers to bleed university libraries dry, as they simultaneously profit from the taxpayer-funded labour of academics) is certainly a rather dainty strategy for social closure. But it does not do much for academic activism in a context where budget justification is the highest priority.

This redundant make-work is compounded by the grotesque pretence that everything is ok: that universities effectively serve labour markets and this is their best and true purpose, that ongoing economic ‘growth,’ in the higher education sector and elsewhere, is not only ecologically sustainable but actually feasible, and so on. Exacerbating the problem is the way that universities now operate as incorporated entities producing and delivering various kinds of ‘products’ (degrees, courses, research, students). Students are still the biggest cash-cow for Australian universities, counted as full time participants while their brains and bodies are occupied elsewhere, in the retail and hospitality jobs that serve as the real means of production for their student status.

Contemporary universities insist with revolutionary fervour on ‘business as usual’: in their structure, their branding and their public voice. The idea that scholars might use the knowledge and resources at their disposal to actually unsettle the status quo is increasingly unthinkable. What kind of business model is predicated on actively telling the punters that things—starting with the product that is their education—are not going to be ok? Opposition is foreclosed by the structures of academic labour, the normalisation of short-term or casual teaching contracts. Sessional staff, usually on hourly rates and semester-long contracts, now do 50-60% of all teaching at Australian universities. Besides, who has the time to voice dissent, between filling out forms and massaging the Faculty strategic plan? Between forcing our snouts into the shrinking trough of research grants and the actual work of teaching? Academics have surrendered their social and political responsibilities, becoming hypocrites while doing so. This is in bizarre contradiction to what appears to be going on in the real world, where ‘business as usual’ has been globally confronted with mass protest, financial crisis and austerity, and glaring evidence of systematic governmental abuse of power.

So, let’s run a few scenarios, taking our lead from where we really learnt everything we know: zombie movies. A constitutive feature of this genre is that, whatever happens, there will be some kind of a siege, where survivors fend off legions of the undead. This is a bit like being at a university, in the following ways:

The apocalypse: everything is dead, or will be.

In the archetype, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the last stand occurs in a farmhouse. The uni is the farmhouse. Everything outside is undead. The state, the market, the military, the family, religion, mass media, civil society, all other social forms barring the university itself are dead. They keep shuffling about, but it’s all over.

Students are alive. Academic culture is undead.

Academic culture is a living dead culture. It is a ghastly and infectious miasma of putridity, feeding the most pernicious monster: ‘theory.’ It is obsessed with the minutia of the past; corpses we dig up and bury over and over to the antediluvian rhythms of the academic calendar, dismembered into neatly segmented chunks of learning. Preoccupied with archives and protocols, it presents itself to young people as a paradigm case of their own disempowerment and marginalisation. After 14 years of schooling in the hope of something better —nope, all dead here too. At uni nobody can hear you scream, and nobody cares.

Academics are alive. Student culture is undead.

The standard line. Students are dead on arrival, shuffling into the mausoleums of the lecture halls, entombed in their tutorial seats. They are zombies distracted by the pretty lights of their cybernetic devices and the endless noise of their ‘social’ lives mediated across desktop, portable and mobile screens. They push lifeless words around on paper for grades, and don’t think. If students are dead, academics probably had a hand in killing them (the first time, and maybe the second too).

Academics are alive. Administrative culture is undead.

Another popular approach. New public management is a soft target—because it is a bloated and rotting corpse! In Shaun of the Dead (2004), the last bastion of solace is the local pub. The outdated public house is a site of the tired and retired, the misaligned and misanthropic. The administrative culture once serviced the operations of higher education, but now we hunker down as it calls for our brains, fending it off as best we can. Last chance to get a few rounds in, and maybe, just maybe, wait out the apocalypse.

Administration is alive. Academics and students: both undead
This variant is a bit more esoteric, and therefore apparently challenging. But think about it: someone has to feed (us to) the bureaucratic machine. Managerialism triumphed in the university sector because academics were unwilling or unable to come to terms with financial and governance structures imposed from without, and so they relinquished control. The only reason academics and students are even populating the frame is because administrators are still fighting to make the frame possible. It makes no difference to the administration if the brains are dead as long as the bodies keep moving.

Technology is undead.

This version is encountered in relation to the discussion around MOOCs, Online Learning, and other ‘systems’ for content delivery and asynchronous communications and content delivery between pedagogues and the student masses. These are tools for systematisation and standardisation. Technology in the many forms in which it colonises academic work is ‘undeadening,’ in that machine processes supplant both intellectual labour and people. Learning and teaching are reduced to clicking.

It is also a convention of the zombie genre that inside the farmhouse, the real threat is the living, with their ignorance, greed and selfishness. The survivors are the real monsters. In this way, contemplating the undead actually teaches us something about what we value about our humanity—ideals that, like community, collaboration, and collegiality, are not best served by contemporary university culture. It is for these sorts of reasons that the contributors to a recent book about zombies in universities have all taken a bite out of the scenarios listed above.

Armed with dead metaphors, the 34 collaborators involved in the collection Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education, recently published by Intellect Books, are looking for survivors in the post apocalyptic setting, splattering the brains of high theory with the material critique of those who live, work, study and think under the current conditions in which universities operate. They reanimate debates around theory, pedagogy and the structures of the massified systems of learning. Each chapter directs familiar zombie allegories at corporatised higher education, with often surprisingly optimistic responses to the challenges and pressures presented. None is ambivalent. Rather, each is ‘undeadened’: relentlessly critical, humorous, searching and always informed by the pantheon of the living dead.

Whelan, Moore and Walker are the editors of Zombies in the Academy, Living Death in Higher Education, Intellect Books, London, 2013

Andrew Whelan lectures in sociology at the University of Wollongong. He retains basic motor functions and some communicative capacity. Christopher Moore is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at Deakin University and a researcher in Game Studies. He plays games on ‘easy’ mode because he doesn’t have time for real challenges. Ruth Walker teaches academic writing at the University of Wollongong. She teaches academic. She teaches. She.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 5

© Andrew Whelan & Christopher Moore & Ruth Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to

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