My husband and I currently have a job which requires us to live in a house with about 35 American students who are studying abroad in Oxford. We enjoy their company very much, and learn many new things about current trends, ideas and movements in North America that we would not otherwise know about. This term, I have been particularly interested in the trend of imaginary immanent disasters. It seems that the Zombie Apocalypse is a particular favourite. Students have conversations about how they would hypothetically survive (most seem to agree that barricading oneself in Costco would be the sensible thing to do), and I am told that there are even books written on the subject.
This seems very peculiar to me. Why would people invest so much time and energy into dealing with an imaginary disaster when there are real immanent disasters that we are facing: economic trouble, climate change, political uprising, threats of war and nuclear destruction, not to mention the age-old problems of general crime, poverty, hunger, inequality and the like. It is difficult to understand why energy is being directed away from real problems and into fantasy ones. However, perhaps this is precisely the answer. There are so many large-scale amorphous threats. How could we ever expect to change the situation? To protect ourselves? We cannot even reliably identify the enemy. We feel powerless.Perhaps imagining an immanent disaster – one that has an identifiable enemy, a face – is reassuring. At least in the face of a zombie apocalypse, we would know what to do. We would have the power to save ourselves. On the contrary, we don’t even know where to begin with respect to the real threats mentioned above. They feel hopelessly complex.
However, perhaps it is too easy to point the finger at something as obviously silly as the zombie apocalypse. After all, haven’t academics been doing the same thing for generations? What about myself? I confess that I feel incredibly helpless in the face of local and global threats. There are so many of them: How do I decide where to direct my attention? The media does not represent them accurately: How can I trust the information I’m given? There are so many opinions on what one ought to do: How do I know who is right? These are very large, albeit very important, questions. An attempt to answer them will probably mean that I get it wrong. I will have to constantly revise my position, and even then there is no guarantee that I will help the situation at all, or won’t make it worse.
So, I look at my research and wonder whether it does not represent my own version of the zombie apocalypse: an imaginary problem that is manageable, towards which I can direct my attention so that I don’t have to become embroiled in real-world problems. Is it simply a problem that I know that I can solve in advance – something to make me feel competent? I certainly don’t think that all academic research is this way, nor do I believe that abstract problems are generally opposed to something called the real-world or the practical. I am concerned here with an attitude towards those abstract problems. Are they the means by which we open up reality, or the means by which we close ourselves off to it?