It’s Easier to Imagine Zombies Than Peace

In his debut novel, curator Jacob Lillemose asks whether humanity must give up its freedom in exchange for security.

Oscar Newman, Plan for an Underground Nuclear Shelter (detail), 1969. Illustration from the novel Architecture Zero.

The horror novel Architecture Zero (A Mock Book, 2022) opens with the character Jacob Lillemose, who has the same name as the author, showing up at the University of Chicago for a conference devoted to social chaos. There he presents his research on how pandemics play out in popular culture. According to his lecture, zombie films tell us that it is impossible to shut out the ‘contagion’: the zombies will always find a way through any and all defences. The narrative soon introduces us to an opposing point of view, where the dissolution of the individual is seen as a guarantee of security rather than a problem. Both attitudes share a fear of the destabilising power of the masses. The author’s exploration of the theme makes for engrossing – and occasionally hair-raising – reading, but also has its blind spots.

Lillemose (the author) has said that his objective with this richly illustrated novel is to expand the horizon of exhibition-related writing and that he believes curators should venture boldly into the world of fantasy. The book is based on Lillemose’s research for his Copenhagen-based exhibition venue X and Beyond on disasters and architecture, subjects that he has also explored as a writer for Kunstkritikk, and most recently in this year’s collaboration with Uffe Isolotto at the Venice Biennale. If their exhibition at the Danish Pavilion was a manifestation of what Stian Gabrielsen referred to as a “collapsological” model of the future, Architecture Zero examines the elite’s response to such a civilisational collapse.

The novel’s essayistic style recalls Patrick Keiller’s approach in the legendary Robinson Trilogy (1994, 1997, and 2010), realistic pseudo-documentaries about the independent intellectual Robinson who investigates architecture and landscape. Like Keiller’s itinerant protagonist, Lillemose also embarks on a journey of discovery: at the conference, he meets the scholar Kendra Hubbs who gives a talk which, in contrast to his, is about architecture that is in fact prepared for crises. After her presentation, she invites Lillemose to come stay at the Institute for Built Environments, where she works.

At the remote institute in Montana, of which Lillemose had no prior knowledge and could find no trace on the internet either, his days pass in disciplined research inside a prison-like basement archive. Lillemose’s description of the institute is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Beach (2002). Just as the main character in the well-known novel devotes his time to careful reading followed by long conversations with the director of a secluded library, Lillemose finds a conversational partner in the institute’s attention-shy founder, Walon Bartok. Bartok is obsessed with security structures and strategies for survival, the very field in which the Danish academic has specialised, too. 

Jacob Lillemose, Architecture Zero (A Mock Book, 2022).

Bartok’s archive material presents Lillemose with a range of defensive structures, ranging from underground bunkers to gated communities with various sensor-controlled lockdown measures responding to intruders and pandemics. With its illustrations of armoured houses, the novel is a kind of examination of what scholar of cities and urban life Stephen Graham calls “the new military urbanism” in his book Cities Under Siege (2011), a study of differing authorities’ efforts to control what they perceive as insurgent elements in the ever-growing urban population.

Following the cultural critic Mark Fisher, who used the term “capitalist realism” to refer to the widespread worldview in which it is easier to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism, we might use the concept of “security realism” to describe paranoid defence strategies. Instead of solving natural crises and social challenges, this “realistic” worldview sets up an elitist bulwark against conflicts generated by various disasters. It is easier to imagine zombies than peace.

Yet, whereas Graham sets out to challenge the narrative claiming that the ‘population’ is the real threat, instead turning a watchful eye towards the violence perpetrated by those in power, things are quite different with the charismatic head of department in Lillemose’s book. Bartok, who has extensive experience in security consulting, quite literally fears a population that may at any time be turned into a mass of dangerous zombies. Lillemose seems perplexed in the face of such forecasts, doing little else than nodding sagely at Bartok’s grim scenarios while sinking deeper and deeper into a self-soothing cocktail of painkillers and coffee laced with sugar.

According to Bartok, we must give up our freedom in exchange for security. With the Covid-19 crisis in mind, readers might quite easily think this position reasonable, but at the same time Bartok wants to take society beyond “social distancing.” Indeed, the book becomes increasingly scary the further along we get, meriting the use of the cover’s trembling horror film-inspired font. Bartok’s solution points towards a dissolution of the individual as we know it, and his approach turns out to be inspired by the controversial biologist Nils Hellstrom, a character from the pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green.

In Lillemose’s novel, Hellstrom is real and his hypothesis probable: insects will take over the earth because they, unlike humans, do not think as individuals. Indeed, the goal of becoming a swarm informs Bartok’s mad plan. Lillemose joins in slowly but surely, aided by insights from his film analyses – of which the book offers several scintillating examples – which tell us that we humans should fear ourselves more than zombies, as we put each other in danger with our individualism.

Ed Spiegel and Walon Green, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 1971. Film still.

In Lillemose and Bartok’s conversations, the mass therefore not only manifests itself as hostile zombies; it is also a constructive model for thinking about the organisation of security. The author hopes, I suppose, that readers will be shocked by the swarm solution to which the character Lillemose acquiesces in his drugged and paranoid state. At any rate, the book anticipates such a reaction; we read that some of the people Lillemose meets after returning to Denmark have strong moral objections to his reflections on the future.

It is tempting to read Architecture Zero as the author Lillemose’s warning about where the world is headed. In that sense, the book is very much of its time, expressing a liberal reflex in the face of the masses, the mob, the swarm – call it what you will. Yet, by portraying security ‘realists’ like Bartok as mass-oriented rather than as rich individuals who fear the masses, the novel loses sight of an important insight into the political potential of the masses.

The philosopher Oscar Dybedahl has pointed out that “the reactionary critics of the market” do not target the whole of capitalist society. Rather, they put forward and promote “a critique of its levelling aspects.” Among other things, Dybedahl criticises the Norwegian conservative magazine Minerva, which in the 1930s advocated against what its editors called “the democratic way of thinking” in which the “consideration of quantity” prevailed as a result of the state’s transformation into “a tool to serve the economic interests of the majority.” Quantity, as manifested in the masses, mass production, and equality was thus singled out as the enemy of quality, meaning the strong individual, private initiative, and the idiosyncratic. Knowing that, one will hardly be surprised that Minerva was favourably disposed to fascism.

The usual liberal criticism of fascism is often based on the assumption that it represents an anti-liberal surrender to the masses. This analysis was, of course, reinforced by Donald Trump’s passive response to the storming of the US Congress in 2021. While it is true that fascism depends on the masses, the masses cannot be reduced to something inherently reactionary. We must equally well understand reactionary ideologies as expressions of a fear of the radical masses. After all, what are masses made up of progressive people other than a movement that wishes to strike down class society, racism, and patriarchy – institutions that fascism does everything it can to preserve and restore?

Are not these very hierarchies, rather than the masses, what we should be afraid of in the face of climate crises, pandemics, and growing security realism? Is not a progressive “mass action,” as human ecologist Andreas Malm recently pointed out in Kunstkritikk, the only possible means of solving the climate crisis? And are not those same masses the only things that can do away with the security regime favoured by those rich individuals who hide in remote bunkers while they watch over the rest of us? After all, no defences can withstand the zombified masses, right?

Drawing of Biosphere 2. Illustration: The Institute of Ecotechnics.

The article is translated from Norwegian.