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The Walking Dead and the security state

Did The Walking Dead television series help get President Donald J. Trump elected? During the presidential campaign, pro-Trump ads regularly interrupted episodes of the AMC series. Jared Kushner, who ran the campaign’s data program, explained to Forbes that the campaign’s predictive data analysis suggested it could optimize voter targeting by selectively buying ad-space in shows such as The Walking Dead. The data indicated that a large segment of the show’s audience was already worried about immigration. Perhaps its zombie hordes, scavengers, and survivalist communities spoke to the immigration anxieties the Trump campaign mobilized. Whether this is true or not, the series played a small but interesting role in what appears in retrospect to be a redefinition of migration as a state security problem, which in itself is hardly a new development. The Trump presidency would soon vehemently insist that the world outside of Fortress America is filled with dangerous hordes, and that travel bans, walls, and undocumented migrant sweeps are necessary for its protection.

Dystopian fictions like The Walking Dead and security both seem like growth industries today. In fact, dystopia has becomes the “default narrative of the generation” according to the novelist Junot Díaz, whose next novel seems likely to include zombies and border walls. Zombies shamble across our TV screens while older dystopias like Mad Max have been refurbished for new audiences. Just like Hollywood, serious contemporary novelists including Margaret Atwood with The Handmaid’s Tale, Cormac McCarthy, Chang-Rae Lee, and Colson Whitehead continue to update the dystopian genre. Meanwhile young adult fiction editors are tired of the flood of dystopian fiction. At least there dystopia has become a hard sell. Everywhere else the world always seems to be ending for somebody.

The hyperinflation in the fortunes of dystopian fiction is matched perhaps only by the growth of security. Promising to protect us (and our property) from harm, security is invoked everywhere as an irrefutable need for a less risky future. The word has attached itself to numerous fields ranging from national and human security to climate, cyber and food security. Recently, we were reminded of the expansion of surveillance by a WikiLeaks info dump revealing how the CIA can now hack Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft devices in the name of security. Inaugurated with the National Security Act of 1947 that established the CIA, the US national security state too has grown rapidly with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the expansion of governmental data capabilities. By 2010 the security state had developed into a network comprising “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies” as Dana Priest and William M. Arkin uncovered. With the Trump administration ready to invest vast sums in border security and the Pentagon, while cutting everything else, fortune favors the security state.

Something is happening here. Perhaps the dystopias and proliferating threats of contemporary fiction (and policy forecasts) have a pedagogical force, offering instruction in insecurity even while feeding into a desire for more security. Or is it that the expanding security state can only justify itself by projecting and standing against a world of growing threat and dystopian presentiments? It is not difficult to speculate that dystopian effects—feelings of insecurity and vulnerability—are the residues left behind by this viciously circular motion. In this sense, security produces not just safety, if it does so at all, but insecurity, which is captured by the dystopian mood of shows like The Walking Dead. What then came first, the zombie or the wall? Wherever you come down on that question, security and narrative of insecurity are inextricably intertwined in the contemporary political and literary landscape. We can see the results in more places than just within dystopian fictions. Think here of Ben Lerner assuming the role of the Walt Whitman of Manhattan’s “vulnerable grid” in 10:04, or Dana Spiotta exploring in Stone Arabia the terrors nightly news bring into the home. But it wouldn’t do to associate contemporary US fiction just with experiences of insecurity. Dave Eggers, Atticus Lish, Nathaniel Rich, Amy Waldman, and Jess Walter have all written about one side or another of the security sector. Once upon a time literature was meant to cure terror, Don DeLillo has a character say in Point Omega. Perhaps, but that hardly seems to do justice to the contemporary fictions of (in)security.

Featured image credit: cinema film movie theater by coombesy. Public domain from Pixabay.

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