Comfortless Bodies

(4e) Recalling Daphne Marlatt’s joy in the “mutuality” between human and animal bodies who can give and share their creaturely warmth (though I’m sure she’s thinking of cats more than, say, octopi), we note that the Zombie can neither give nor receive comfort. Its embrace is repellant. (Here, we might suggest that the abject rather than the uncanny is the appropriate psychoanalytic category for the Zombie). On the flipside, the Zombie is likewise comfortless. The Walking Dead has recurrently featured characters whose attempts to console or nurture a ‘Walker’ garner pity or frustration from the other survivors (the Governor’s care for his zombified daughter, Hershel’s initial insistence that his family members are merely sick and need care); invariably, these endeavours are acknowledged to be fruitless, if not plainly dangerous. The Zombie stands in direct contrast to both the animal victim who calls out for human care and protection and the pet who offers up its body for comfort and companionship.

Because it is dead. I argued that the traditional view of ‘the animal’ has worked to suppress an awareness of the similarity between living things and the obligations that could arise from its acknowledgment. For this reason, it’s the Zombie’s deadness that makes it a such a useful animal substitute (it’s the tofu or, more accurately, the cultured meat of the fictive world). It is not even an animal because not sentient enough to feel pain, to experience freedom from pain as a kind of natural state of contentment.

There are many instances of cruelty to Zombies, or rather specific actions that are figured as cruel: the doctor’s experiments on ‘living’ Zombies in Wyrmwood, the chaining and taunting of an infected soldier in 28 Days Later. In The Rezort, an island is “stocked” with zombies who are hunted for sport, an activity viewed with contempt by the main protagonist and moral voice of the film. In these instances, the Zombie is clearly meant to register in our moral calculations as analogous to the animal who deserves better treatment. But the mainstream tendency seems to absolve the human subject of any accusation of cruelty no matter her treatment of the Zombie on the basis of its inability to feel pain. It is perfectly acceptable in The Walking Dead to use zombies as target practice, to weaponize them—even to chop off their arms, remove their lower jaws, and lead them around on chains as Michonne does. To the extent that the non-sentient Zombie provides no obvious basis upon which we could regard it as deserving of rights, the Zombie emerges as a third-term in the human-animal binary. (Or, to the extent that the animal is disappearing altogether, it is taking its place in the binary.) It is an animal unlike animals which, though they lack human speech, nevertheless share with us an aversion to suffering. From Bentham’s point of view, the Zombie makes no claim on us for consideration. In this sense, it is not like the animal we now know; but if one of the historical uses of the animal in narratives of conflict and crisis was to provide a surface against which to project human fortitude, loyalty, and ambition, then it’s a perfect substitute precisely because there is no sense that it deserves, or can ask for, its share in the world to come.

The Zombie is threatening because it wants to attack and eat us. But it is reassuring in its terror because it operates so far outside the human realm of reason and restraint that it places no obligations on us for accommodation.


Fellow Travellers: Daphne Marlatt, Jeremy Bentham

Stops: The Walking Dead, Wyrmwood, The Rezort

Savage Men and Beasts


(4d) The forest setting of a film like Here Alone (2016) in which a trio of survivors take great precautions to protect their camp from the infected marauders that roam the countryside contributes greatly to the homesteader vibe of the whole. It recalls a long tradition of colonial and settler literature in which the place of the Zombies would be occupied by wolves, bears, or Indians. Near the end of his The Deserted Village (1770), Oliver Goldsmith imagines the fate awaiting the villagers of Auburn who have emigrated to the Americas after being forced from their ancestral lands as a consequence of the enclosures:

To distant climes, a dreary scene,
Where half the convex world intrudes between,
Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
Far different there from all that charm’d before,
The various terrors of that horrid shore;
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned,
Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they;
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.

True, he’s a little unclear on the zoological facts of the New World. But the motif is so powerful that even his grand-nephew, Oliver Goldsmith (Junior), a local, reproduces it near verbatim 50 years later in his own poetic history of the settlement of the colony of Acadia:

Behold! the savage tribes, in wildest strain,
Approach with death and terror in their train;
No longer silence o’er the forest reigns,
No longer stillness now her pow’r retains;
But hideous yells announce the murd’rous band,
Whose bloody footsteps desolate the land;
He hears them doom the white man’s instant death,
Shrinks from the sentence, while he gasps for breath;
Then, rousing with one effort all his might,
Darts from his hut, and saves himself by flight.
Yet, what a refuge! Here a host of foes,
On ev’ry side, his trembling steps oppose.
Here savage beasts terrific round him howl,
As through the gloomy wood they nightly prowl. (“The Rising Village,” 1825)

The interchangeability between indigenous people and wild animals is abundantly clear: both are “murd’rous;” neither speak; the one “howls” while the other only “shrieks.” What strikes me about these passages is how, in the postmodern and postcolonial context, the structure of these narratives has remained intact but with Zombies taking the place of ‘savage’ men and beasts. I’m not in any way suggesting that the Zombies symbolize or stand in for either animals or indigenous peoples. What I am saying is that the Zombie does the same work as these earlier figures: a demonic force, it stands opposed the human values and desires embodied in the social project, namely those values of order, reason, restraint, civility, etc. What’s changed is that the animal and the savage can no longer perform this structural role. In a particularly over-the-top sequence in season 7 of The Walking Dead, Rick and Michonne bisect hundreds of Zombies with a steel cable strung between two speeding cars. It was epic—no, literally: in a different age, the Zombies would have been Trojans, or Indians, or lions. (Can you imagine an audience’s reaction to the same scene were the Zombies human or an animal we love, like elephants or baby seals (vicious baby seals)? The Zombie is an unloveable animal, an uncivilizable man.

The Zombie conforms to our earliest Western conceptions of the animal as not-human. It possesses neither language nor reason nor self-consciousness. It is incapable of feeling naked. (In the future, I’d like to think more about the Zombie’s clothing or lack thereof.) It cannot learn or progress, only spread. It cannot plan. It cannot practice restraint. It cannot form bonds. Because it lacks tools or know-how, the Zombie must kill with its body. That body is confronted by men and women with guns, axes, knives, crowbars, shovels, hammers, swords, and so on—as if to confirm that the human is to be found in the using of tools and the non-human in not. In Romero’s oeuvre, the Zombies use basic tools, but they also develop speech. The allusion to indigenous or native populations who lack both discursive and technological means to assert their rights is clear. By moving from presumed beast to an embattled protester, however, Romero’s Zombie exemplifies the same logic I am trying to demonstrate here: in those films and books where the Zombies do not use tools or speak, a wish for an animal that can never turn out to be more than an animal is being satisfied. Romero’s films bring that desire to the narrative surface in order to thematize it.

The Zombie is a dead, yet animate, homo sapiens. It is not really an animal, though it is repeatedly compared to and treated like one. Indeed, in our Zombie narratives we reserve for ourselves an (almost) unquestionable right over the Zombie’s body that is not so different than that which we exercise when we eat veal cutlets or ride a horse: we grant ourselves the right to kill it, use it as a tool or a weapon, to—as in the case of the movie Fido (2006)—even domesticate it because it is less than us, seemingly apart from us, and unable to voice a protest against its mistreatment in our own terms—the only terms we allow to count. I earlier suggested that becoming-Zombie was marked by a loss of language and speech; the moment when growls or groans issue from the subject’s mouth rather than recognizable discourse is the moment of his transposition into the realm of death and instinct. It is worth thinking about the Zombie’s mouth again. It is a mouth that can only bite; if to be human is to have a mouth that both eats and speaks, then the Zombie is something other than human. Its being is not divided between matter and spirit, body and mind, nature and culture: it is only matter, body, nature (though unnatural in origin, is actually pure nature.) We are no longer certain that animals lack language, but we are sure the Zombie does. And in those rare instances when it does surprise us with speech, it is as though a rat or a dog had just called up and asked to be invited to the party. (See Section 2a for a discussion of the speaking Zombie as rights-seeker.)

Fellow Travellers: Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Goldsmith (Junior), George Romero

Stops: Here Alone, The Deserted Village, The Rising Village, Fido, The Walking Dead

Fourth Thought: In Place of the Animal


(This is a re-written and expanded version of an earlier post.)

(4a) One of the duties we have assigned the Zombie is to take the place of the animal, specifically the ‘wild’ animal. In my discussion of the ‘guttural’ Zombie I relied on Agamben’s concept of the “animal voice.” My goal was to get at an idea of death as the undoing of the Voice (of conscience, of identity, of mortality) that had emerged by way of a negation of the (mere) animal voice—and so: death as the collapse back into the (merely) animal voice that cannot speak about its speaking; death as the death of Voice only, not of the organism that may remain animate, ‘alive,’ even though it is dead and retains its (lowercase) voice. But in doing this thinking I, firstly, came perilously close to calling the Zombie an animal (it may turn out to be one) and, secondly, relied on a concept of ‘the animal’ that has remained shockingly, distressingly untroubled for far too long. Indeed, it is a prescriptive understanding of ‘the animal’ always defined in terms of its lack of specifically human attributes or capacities, principally speech—a view of the animal as a (kind of) Zombie, in fact—that I need to confront. At the same time, a comparison of ‘the Zombie’ with ‘the animal’ it may resemble—and not only in terms of its lack—may help clarify the symbolic work that the Zombie is engaged to perform with respect to the originary and constitutive opposition through which the human names itself and proclaims its primacy: namely, its essential otherness with respect to the animal world and wild ‘nature’.

Two Kinds of Animals

(4b) The ferocity with which the human world has imposed an unassailable wall between itself and the ‘animal world’ is in direct proportion to the degree of our similarity with animals as living entities. For millennia, we have relied on a view of the animal whose primary function is to protect us from our own awareness of this proximity. Otherwise, how could we bring ourselves to eat our brethren, with butter even? How could we wear their skins, corral, domesticate, and press into service their bodies, if not by way of a premeditated and strategic narrative of ‘the human’ defined in contradistinction to ‘the animal’ and upon which all rights to and authority over the non-human world are derived? We tell ourselves that we eat them because they are animals; but, really, they are ‘animals’ because we eat them.

Yet even the vegan will find him or herself granting special status to the human, if only by making an argument against meat on ethical grounds. “Meat is murder.” She will not, cannot, hold the lion to the same ethical standard because the lion operates by instinct whereas the human being has a choice. (Of course, particular individuals and communities have not always had the luxury of choice when it comes to their diet, and in any case chicken nuggets are still cheaper than kale in most grocery stores.) In principle, at least, the matter of meat-eating, for humans, is a question of ‘should’ not ‘could’: and in the possibility of that distinction resides the very possibility of the human as such. Thus ethics, when perceived as the sole property of the human realm, likewise serves to maintain an essential difference between the human and the animal. It is no less part of the wall separating us from the animal world than my taste for foie gras.

Some serious cracks are beginning to appear in this wall. Indeed, we are in the midst of a radical transformation of the very category of the animal and of our relationship to the natural world, its objects and inhabitants. Advances in our understanding of animal biology and behavior have expanded and complicated our view of non-human life-forms, making simple or one-sided generalizations about ‘the animal’ harder to maintain; the environmental and climate change movements have succeeded in demonstrating the interdependence of human and non-human ecologies—the importance of protecting our planet’s biodiversity is generally acknowledged; recent decades have shown signs of a wider acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledges which often assume a less bifurcated and more holistic approach to human-animal relations; a broad range of academic discourses are now beginning to think the world out from the corporeal body and its material connections rather than down from the mental constructs inherited from the Western cultural tradition. For example, in her defense of a poetics of the body that would downplay the rational and symbolic discourse of the dominant (male) tradition of writing—a so-called semiotic “écriture féminine“—Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt writes of the first-order corporeal experiences that inform her poetry: her language must speak to “the mutuality her body shares embracing other bodies, children, friends, animals, all those she customarily holds and is held by” (Musing with Mothertongue 55). As a Canadianist, I know this passage well. I have always felt that the inclusion of animals in this list is its most interesting element. The implication is clear: a poetry ‘of the body’ would inevitably dissolve much of the barrier separating ‘the human’ from ‘the animal.’ It would do so by recognizing the “mutuality” of embracing bodies; bodies that can give and take comfort from contact with other bodies. (This is one of the reasons we keep animals as pets: when my wife is out on call, the dog takes her place on the couch, and we are just as cosy, though admittedly the conversation suffers.)

In the vanguard of those forces reshaping our society’s view of ‘the animal’ is the animal rights movement. A crucial touchstone in the discourse of animal rights is Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty on the basis of animals’ ability to experience pain and suffering. The power of Bentham’s approach lies precisely in its avoidance of those factors with had historically served to construct differences in kind between animals and humans: language, will, ethics, self-consciousness. Rather, by focusing on the sensory capacities of animals Bentham draws attention to the mutuality of humans and animals as living organisms. Bentham writes: “The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In Defending Animal Rights, Tom Regan cites Bentham and glosses his argument as follows:

The possession of sentience (the capacity to feel pleasure or pain), not the possession of rationality, autonomy, or linguistic competence, entitles any individual to direct moral consideration; because nonhuman animals have this capacity Bentham and [John Stuart] Mill affirm our direct duty not to cause them needless suffering. We owe it to these animals themselves, not those humans who might be affected by what we do, to consider their pleasures and pains and, having done so, to make sure that we never make them suffer without good reason. (14)

Hidden in Bentham’s question is an implicit comparison between animal experience and our own: can they suffer like us? It is because we can relate to the animal’s experience of pain, of discomfort—because our own experience of these things seems transferable to any sensitive organism with a face—that we can begin to entertain Regan’s insistence that “we owe” some consideration to the animal Other. And the more we consider the animal as worthy of that consideration and the more we begin to recognize the commonalities between animal experience and our own, the less Other ‘the animal’ becomes.

In fact, we might speak of the contemporary emergence of a new category, the category of the animal as non-Other, the Postmodern Animal. The postmodern animal is no longer ‘wild’ even if it is undomesticated. A quasi-subject, it is affiliated with the human world of affect and experience in ways that challenge our traditional hierarchies and compartmentalizations. It is deserving of rights, worthy of respect and most especially pity when it is endangered or threatened. It is this postmodern view of the animal that underlies the outrage directed at Walter Palmer for shooting Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park or at Cincinatti Zoo officials for shooting Harambe the gorilla. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that little, if any, protest would have attended these events 30 or 40 years ago. Nothing better exemplifies the clash of opposed understandings of ‘the animal’ better than Palmer’s dazed incomprehension regarding the public outcry, or the manner in which his hunt was constructed as an act of assassination in the popular media. The general tendency is clear: we are entering a new world in which every animal we call animal will have a name. What we gain from this, potentially, is a less antagonistic and exploitive attitude towards certain creatures; what we lose is a sense of ‘the animal’ as unassimilated Other—one of the primary constructs in relation to which ‘the human’ historically had constituted itself.

But there is another version of ‘the animal,’ one no less a product of postmodern life than Cecil or Harambe—or Pizza Rat, for that matter. On the one hand, we may speak of the highly individuated animal—the animal luminary or social media star, the animal produced by human discursive networks. On the other hand, we may speak of the animal produced not by our speech acts, but by capital, the animal brought to life by genetic science and industrial farming. In The Animal that Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida writes:

It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries … traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their objects, from the transformation of the actual object, and from the milieu and world of their object, namely, the living animal. This has occurred by means of farming and regimentalization at a demographic level unknown in the past, by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of what can be called the production for consumption of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulations of the genome, the reduction of the animal to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, etc.) of meat for consumption, but also of all sorts of other end products, and all that in the service of a certain being and the putative human well-being of man. (25)

In effect, Derrida suggests that the hyperbolic manipulation of living tissues, the scope and intensity with which humans have intervened in the natural evolution of animal biology, coupled with the now unimaginable scale of livestock production have contributed to a transformation of ‘the animal’ in kind. Whatever the relationship between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ implied in traditional forms of domestication and husbandry, it has been replaced with something else. This ‘something else’ is hard to define, and is still very much evolving. But we can question whether the animal produced in this context has any of the autonomy or sovereignty of a distinct life form, any of the Otherness we might accord a another living thing. In fact, it is unclear whether our usual language for talking about animal life still retains its usefulness when the object of our speaking is so imbricated in this multitude of human systems.

To summarize: what I think we see happening with respect to the concept of the animal is this: on the one hand, an explosion in the quantity of animals brought into this world for human consumption, coupled with the qualitative (though no less material) transformation of their nature for the same purpose, has produced a set of organisms that the term ‘animal’ fails to signify (insofar as these animals are no longer ‘part of nature’). These creatures are hardly representable at all, which is precisely the point, as they continue to proliferate and change in that discursive silence. Whatever they are, and whatever names we might choose to talk about them, the category to which they belong does not present itself as something against which, or in relation to, ‘the human’ might define itself. On the other hand, and in contrast to the diffusion of the farm animal into undifferentiated meat particles, we get the highly individuated celebrity animal, the animal with a name, the animal that we continue to call ‘animal.’ This animal is unique, valuable, embattled, familiar, and necessary to maintaining our general feelings of guilt with respect to our destruction of the planet: in short, the animal as a symbol of ‘the animal.’

Running Out of Things to Kill

(4c) My theory is that the ubiquity of the Zombie narrative today relates in part to the unavailability of ‘the wild animal’ as the Other in a dialectical process of socio-cultural self-definition. Whereas we once exploited an imaginary concept of real creatures (‘the animal’) in order to define the boundaries of the human and to supply, by way of contrast, a set of attributes, values, goals, even burdens that constitute the human condition, we now employ a real concept of imaginary creatures (‘the Zombie’) to accomplish the same goal. The primary factors urging this substitution can be deduced from the preceding discussion. In a nutshell: we’re running out of things to kill. This is both literally true—the depletion of our forests, seas, and skies of animal life is a measurable fact—and true insofar as the structural category of ‘the animal’ as Other appears to be eroding along two distinct but related fault lines. Primarily, it is the reconfiguration of the animal as a sympathetic victim of human history—a history it stands within, not outside of, as was the case in other eras—that has compelled the search for a substitute, but the disappearance of anything resembling ‘the animal’ on our farms and in our grocery carts plays a significant role as well. It is interesting to note that even as Zombie narratives work to insinuate its subject in the place of the wild animal in explorations of the meaning and direction of human life, it also works to conserve and shore up traditional ideas about domesticated animals, in particular farm animals of the ‘E I E I O’ variety.

One of the hallmarks of living in the Anthropocene is that we are no longer afraid, existentially speaking, of animals. (We may be afraid of what is becoming of animals, but that is another matter entirely.) Animals now occupy the position of victim, not threat. Rushing in, symbolically, to fill the void left by the animal which we no longer quite feel we can kill, exploit, consume, or ignore with impunity and without guilt is the Zombie who/which takes on some of the functions hitherto assigned ‘the animal.’ The Zombie offers itself up as an acceptable antagonist in necessary (or at least persistent) narrative structures that would normally have featured animal or, by way of a connected logic, Indigenous aggressors.

It is surely no accident that the cause of the ‘rage virus’ that turns people into Zombies in 28 Days Later is the release, by animal rights activists, of apes and monkeys that had been subjected to medical experiments. The film thus begins by confirming the emergent view of animals as innocent victims of human overreaching: animals who have been robbed of their natural rights and right to be natural. Refusing a view of the animal as object, insisting on its subjectivity, militating on behalf of its right to a life free from pain and exploitation, the activists empty the cages of infected animals and in the process become infected themselves. Thus begins the birth of a new kind of human being genetically engineered, as it were, to take the place of the savage, threatening, wild animal. Until the end of the film, when animals suddenly reappear in the context of a traditional farm setting, no animals are shown. In their stead: the Zombie who manifests all of the negative characteristics ever attributed to the untamed beast of yore: it is mindless, languageless, instinctual, rapacious, bloodthirsty, unassimilable. The animals might be saved, but so, too, must the idea of wildness, of ‘pure’ nature be preserved, even if this requires the invention of a figure to enact it in the place of the animals who no longer signify in this way.

The Zombie represents a cultural adjustment to the loss of the animal as Other. The archetypal structure of 28 Days Later suggests that we continue to need something ‘on the other side of’ the human against which to define ourselves, and that the best way to test the border between human and not is by killing whatever’s on the other side of it. It is the Zombie’s job to be killed, a job once performed by animals and natives, which the category of ‘the animal’ was obligingly extended to include. As with animals, we no longer feel it appropriate to delight in the mass murder of primitives (which we attempted to render extinct with as much zeal as we showed the buffalo.)


Fellow Travellers: Giorgio Agamben, Jeremy Bentham, Jacques Derrida, Daphne Marlatt, Harambe the gorilla, Cecil the lion, Pizza Rat.

Stops along the way: 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead



Third Thought: The Uncanny Zombie

(3a) It would be foolish to think that an invented creature should adhere to our pre-existing categories for making sense of the world—especially in the case of the Zombie whose very purpose would at least seem to be to put those categories in doubt. To pursue the interstitiality of the Zombie in terms of its “undead” or “dead-alive” state (to invoke the title of Peter Jackson’s terrific, if anomalous, contribution to the genre) would inevitably lead us down the dark tunnel of the uncanny, Freud’s das unheimlich, which cites the living dead as capable of producing the feeling of the uncanny precisely because they embody a confusion or breakdown of ontological regimes. But Freud’s main argument, based primarily on his reading of E.T.A Hoffmann, is that the uncanny story’s power to produce a “morbid anxiety” that “recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams” derives from its rehearsal, in symbolic terms, of the overthrow of the mechanisms of repression such that the uncanny object is invariably a representation of the “return of the repressed.” At stake in the uncanny text is the unity or coherence of the subject who has become estranged from crucial parts of his/her own biography through repressive acts of (mis)memory. Jackson’s Dead-Alive (1992) would appear to model a (campy) version of the uncanny Zombie insofar as the protagonist Lionel is a hen-pecked momma’s boy whose forbearance and dedication to his manipulative mother (a monstrous thing even before she turns Zombie) is apiece with his having repressed his memory of his philandering father’s murder at her hands. It hardly takes a psychologist to recognize in the grotesquely exaggerated figure of Lionel’s zombified mother (all talons and breasts and belly) the distorted projection of Lionel’s childhood trauma. But just in case the meaning were unclear, all ambiguity is set aside once her belly opens up and she hisses “Come to Momma!” before engulfing her insubordinate child. In fact, though, the film is precisely not uncanny because the next sequence affords Lionel a visceral opportunity to “work though” his issues by carving his way out of his mother’s capacious uterus so as to join his love Paquita. Thus are ‘normal’ affiliations established and Lionel’s energies can be directed toward socially validated ends. Where the truly uncanny tale would remain suspended in an unresolved symptomology, Dead-Alive is ultimately a therapeutic exercise through which the subject’s psychological dysfunction is cured.
Somewhat surprisingly, the uncanny, which, as Freud reminds us, is a ‘class of the terrifying,’ is not a dominant feature of the zombie narrative. This is true despite the fact that Zombies, generally speaking, are meant to terrify. The final moment of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in which Ben is mistaken for a Zombie and shot by a gleeful posse has a whiff of the uncanny about it, the double or doppelgänger being for Freud one of its more reliable tropes. The scene carries an obvious political critique. Ben is black and over the course of the film, his leadership and heroic actions had gone some way towards displacing a racialized logic of social inclusion. Rather than the Other being determined by race, it was determined by a colour-blind animistic calculus: alive or dead, human or Zombie. (In The Walking Dead, Merle Dixon’s white supremacist beliefs oppose this emergent politics: his racism seems not only backward but deeply impractical. In any case, its residuality is confirmed when Merle is transformed, beyond race, into a Zombie.) But when Ben is shot by a group of white men with guns (purposefully recalling an old-fashioned lynch mob) it reestablishes his black body as Other. Thus does a moment of misrecognition in one system of inclusion enable the continuation of a social tradition of racial exclusion that the Zombie outbreak had put in jeopardy. Ben’s death signals the negation of the liberatory potential of the Zombie threat and the restablishment of traditional forms of governance in which he had ‘always-already’ been constructed as a target. By mistake or decree, black men get shot whenever white men get together to solve a problem. What makes Ben’s death uncanny is precisely the sudden exposure of his ‘always-already’ victimized status; it is uncanny because it reveals that one never has control over one’s own identity; it is not a question of what one does, or even who one is, but rather how one is ‘read’ by others.
While there are plenty of instances in which human communities act more atrociously than the Zombie hordes, thereby raising questions as to who the real monsters are, these are not to my mind especially powerful instances of the uncanny. More typically, the Zombie does not function to raise doubts about who the real threat is, but to satisfy our desire for clear-cut distinctions between inside and outside, self and other, subject and object. The broader social symbolic function of the Zombie narrative (the uncanny for the most part remains beholden to the personal-subjective focus of psychoanalysis as a whole) doesn’t to aim to destabilize ontological frameworks so much as to consolidate and coordinate these in the face of disruption—this, despite its dependence on the impossible condition of undeadness. The terror of the Zombie does not usually raise questions about agency (‘Am I in control?), or about identity (‘Am I really who I think I am?’) which are the central questions of the uncanny. The terror of the zombie resides in the ever-present possibility that something is going to eat your face off. It’s not that nuanced. If anything, the Zombie provides an opportunity for stories that set aside such psychological anxieties in order to focus on more basic priorities: food, shelter, protection, social interaction. In that respect, the therapeutic plot of Dead-Alive (though the film departs from the tropes and structures of the Zombie film in other ways) is typical of the more rehabilitative tendencies of the genre as a whole.


Second Thought: The Voice of the Zombie

(2a) We all know what goes into the Zombie’s mouth: human flesh. But perhaps it’s what comes out of its mouth that accounts for the Zombie’s privileged status among the monsters of the postmodern imaginary. I am not referring to the vomit, blood and saliva that sometimes pour from the Zombie’s mouth and exhibit its disease, but the moans, grunts, groans, howls and screeches that constitute its “language.” The scare quotes are necessary because it is precisely the non-semantic character of these utterances that must be acknowledged. If there is a decisive factor that allows us to differentiate between distinct Zombie ontologies (can I copyright the term zontology© right now?) it is not mobility (slow versus fast zombies) or even vitality (reanimated corpse versus infected being) but speech.

About talking Zombies I have little to say, except to note that they appear more frequently in Zombie comedies (eg. Return of the Living Dead: “More brains!”) which in itself suggests that speech robs the Zombie of the abjection and existential terror it might otherwise elicit. In fact, a ‘zomcom’ like Warm Bodies—which not only depicts Zombies engaging in (admittedly limited) discourse but features a Zombie narrator with a rich interior life—constructs Zombies as a social class rather than a species of the un-human. Figured as a member of a subaltern group or community, the Zombie can then serve a variety of plots revolving around the question of rights and privileges, prejudice, conformity, decorum, and so forth. These plots would seem to require that the Zombie speak, but with an accent—like an Italian or Arab. Romero’s Land of the Dead is an obvious example of Zombies as “multitude” or lumpen. At the other end of the spectrum, The Santa Clarita Diet is a morose comedy of manners where being a Zombie amounts to little more than an especially complicated lifestyle choice. Connecting these two films, however, is the Zombie’s capacity for speech, which, in individual terms, makes it possible to have a Zombie protagonist and, in social terms, makes it possible to imagine something like Zombie activism.

In Warm Bodies, the Zombies are eventually welcomed into the human community, whose generosity and open-mindedness prove physically restorative for the Zombies whose hearts begin to pump warm blood once again. Crucially, though, the reconciliation plot between these two classes is encouraged by the imminent threat of the “Boneys,” a much more savage and voracious species of Zombie entirely beyond hope of rehabilitation. Though these Boneys are merely older Zombies, individuals who turned earlier and have reached a more advanced state of decomposition, they clearly occupy a different category of being than their juniors who work alongside the survivor community to destroy them. What is it that sets these Boneys apart and protects those who kill them from the accusation of moral turpitude? What is it that prevents the Boneys from being recognized as legal or ethical subjects and which, in their case alone, makes reconciliation, accommodation, and integration not just impractical but unthinkable in absolute terms? It is not their appetite which, admittedly, is extreme. It is simply that the Boneys cannot speak.

(2b) “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” In this familiar prohibition resides the kernel of a problem upon which we might say—with only a little exaggeration—that Western metaphysics is founded. The split between nature and culture, the split between humanity and animality runs through our mouths, which have the dual function of taking in food and uttering speech. Upon the first depends our biological continuance; upon the second depends our ability to constitute our selves as the conscious subjects of history, to think our being, to share it with other beings, to project our selves forward and backward in time as sites of meaningful experience. The human organism—homo sapiens—has more in common with other animal species than it does not: against this commonality Western philosophy has recurrently seized upon language as a unique human faculty the possession of which separates us from the mere animals.

But it is too simple to claim that humans have language while animals do not (though this argument is made all the time). It would be more accurate to say that the being of being human is founded on the opposition between mere biological life (zōé) and meaningful existence (bios), a conflict that can only be grasped as constitutive through language which allows us to think (about) our selves in objective terms. (Of course, it is our having language that produces this split in our being the first place.) It is because we have language that we can think our being, but equally we can think our not-being—both as a hypothetical proposition and as a biological eventuality. All animals die, but only the speaking animal can conceive of death as the negation of his being. Heidegger writes: “Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us.” The human faculty for language is, as Hegel puts it, always also a “faculty for death.” Our language gives birth to death as Death—fearsome, forbidding, annihilating Death as the end of me.

Yeats understood this well: “Nor dread nor hope attend / A dying animal;
/ A man awaits his end
/ Dreading and hoping all;
 / … / He knows death to the bone —
/ Man has created death.” In The Open Giorgio Agamben writes: “man exists historically only in this tension; he can be human only to the degree that he transcends the anthropomorphous animal which supports him, and only because, through the action of negation, he is capable of mastering and, eventually, destroying his own animality” (12). To talk with your mouth full is to risk that mastery by exposing too starkly the biological, corporeal, mortal animal already encamped in the heart of speech itself. For if we consider speech rather than the more abstract notion of language, we see that speech has at its core an idea of voice. And voice, unlike language, has as its foundation the physiological production of sound (air pushed through the larynx and shaped in the mouth). Just as animals sound their bodies, so do we. But voice is also that which is most mine; more than that: my voice is my self, or at least it is the place where my self is enacted as the subject of discourse. In other words, we cannot imagine speech without imagining a voice that speaks; the voice that speaks announces, in its speaking, three things simultaneously (1) that discourse is taking place; and (2) that a person, a self, a conscious human agent is its source; and (3) that (1) and (2) take place against the non-verbal unconscious animal body that “supports” them.

According to Agamben, then, to emerge as a speaking subject, to voice our being in language, is predicated on the negation of our animal voice so as to clear a space for meaningful, human discourse. Consequently, “Death and Voice have the same negative structure and they are metaphysically inseparable” (Language and Death 86). The sign of this negation, the signal that this clearing out is taking place is the phone, the speech sound that is not (no longer) just sound but an indication of intentional meaningful discourse. The voice’s connection with death resides in the fact that the phone emerges in and through the negation, the obviation or destruction or abrogation in man of that kind of voice that is mere sound, a speechless voice that has its most obvious presence in the cry of the animal. In speaking, man “kills” his animal self, but in such a way that his speech contains within its very structure a rehearsal of his own death, a fate to which he is subject as animal, but which he, unlike the animal, is doomed to anticipate.

Agamben: “To consent to (or refuse) language does not here mean simply to speak (or be silent). To consent to language signifies to act in such a way that, in the abysmal experience of the taking place of language, in the removal of the voice, another Voice is disclosed to man, and along with this are also disclosed the dimension of being and the mortal risk of nothingness. To consent to the taking place of language, to listen to the Voice, signifies, thus, to consent also to death, to be capable of dying (sterben) rather than simply deceasing (ableben)” (87).

At the same time, to be subject to death as Death and not as a mere ceasing, to be mortal and aware of one’s own mortality, is also to declare one’s conscience, one’s ability to choose. The Voice that announces his “faculty for Death” also proclaims”a person’s ownmost and insuperable possibility, the possibility of his freedom” (Language and Death 86).

What does the Zombie have to say? Nothing. But in its muteness there nevertheless resides a critical message: “I am dead, but you can die; I am a prisoner of my nature, but you are free.” Also: “nobody said it would be easy.”

(2c) There is a scene that occurs in almost every Zombie film and book: a loved one is bitten by a Zombie or is otherwise infected and a friend, mother, lover, husband, or child watches grief-stricken and horrified as the victim is translated from one state of being to another. The infected subject barely has time to accept her fate but uses her last moments of human consciousness to speak a tribute or yell a warning to the other before she groans, convulses and then lurches toward the witness with unrecognizing eyes and open mouth. This scene (handled with great pathos in 28 Days Later) occurs so frequently across a range of Zombie narratives that one might be tempted to believe that the whole plot exists in order to present this one moment of transformation. And maybe it does. For it seems to me that it brings us to the heart of the matter: in a violent but otherwise death-denying culture, the Zombie shows us what it means to die, and in so doing what it might mean to live.

It seems clear enough that the narrative event I have just described figures death not as the body’s collapse but as the loss of speech—and with it, self-awareness, identity, and social conscience. (According to this formula it does not matter whether the Zombie is infected or dead; it only matters that he ‘flip’ into an aphasic state). It is remarkable how closely the translation from human being to Zombie imitates in reverse the process described by Agamben whereby the “removal” of the (animal) voice gives place to the Voice of conscience and historical man. In this case, the infected subject experiences a fall from symbolic discourse (in and through which she had constituted her self for herself and for others) into the sphere of nature and the merely organic body. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the moment of translation stages the triumph of zöé over bios. As such, it clarifies the distinction between a meaningful and a meaningless life. It is a distinction other quadrants of mainstream culture seem intent on obscuring via health fads, exercise regimes, preventative cures and safety protocols—as though the quality and value of a person’s existence were reducible to the condition of his organs or the tone of his skin.

The Zombie is more than a memento mori. It doesn’t need to remind us that we’re going to die; it is, rather, a chance to consider whether we are already dead. I wrote earlier that the survivor fights to preserve his death as death and not a homecoming. Part of this struggle would seem to entail realizing that we lost our home the moment we “consented to language.” But at the same time we consented to language we consented to the “hope and dread” (recalling Yeats) that propel us into the lives of others, and make us beholden to them as they are to us, for they have heard our voice and it resembles their own. Home, it turns out, is no place to live.

(2d) The speechless or non-verbal Zombie is the result of a process of de-historization: beyond hope or dread, it represents the living being’s reabsorption into dumb nature. Its growl or moan is incomprehensible in human terms. Consequently, it can’t be murdered, only killed (or re-killed). There is a fantasy here of rediscovering in a domesticated world a vestige of nature “red in tooth and claw” against which to test our mettle (incidentally, “In Memoriam” has already tread some of the above terrain). But the broader implications are more existential, I think, and political insofar as the Zombie narrative insists on a kind of historical thinking that begins by recognizing death as the subtraction from the world of a voice. The moment of translation from human being to Zombie, which is a transition from speech to noise, is also the moment when she crosses over from speaking to being spoken about. After which it falls to others to pronounce her fate and articulate her hopes.

(fellow travellers and points of interest: Giorgio Agamben (Language and Death, The Open), W.B. Yeats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Warm Bodies, 28 Days Later, Land of the Dead, The Santa Clarita Diet.)


First Thought: Zombie Politics

(1a) Any consideration of the zombie must begin by recognizing its special mode of sociality. The zombie demonstrates a desire to assemble. The lone zombie always risks looking comical or pathetic. As such, it is always the zombie herd, the horde, that threatens the survivor. The Zombie’s power to transform the physical and social landscape lies in the possibility of its becoming plural. It is the survivor’s inclusion within that group that he most dreads. More than the loss of those forms of society to which he is accustomed, the survivor is tormented by the idea of his incorporation into a collectivity the only law of which is his loss of individuality and self-awareness. The Zombie is less a thing, than a process: pure interpellation without remainder. In this way, we might read the Zombie horde as the hyperbolic representation of an historically recurrent political project, identified by Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community (1991) as the myth of a “common being” whereby community is produced according to a logic of “fusion” and “communion” such that individuals and the differences between them are dissolved into a homogenous and coherent social singularity, a single “body.” Such is the community of “absolute immanence,” a totalizing work of social incorporation predicated on the eradication of difference within the community and, by way of an annihilation those social identities, spaces, and practices external to the community, without it as well.

Is it only accidental that Nancy should see in the Catholic rites of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood (made literal according to the principle of transubstantiation) the very principle upon which the fusional community is established—namely an act of surrender to the all-in-one-in-all whereby the difference between eating and being eaten (sharing in and being shared) is abolished? In this connection, Nancy’s insight that “collective enterprises dominated by a will to absolute immanence have as their truth the truth of death” is even more telling. In the community of fusion or communion, he continues, “The fully realized person … is the dead person. In other words, death, in such a community, is not the unmasterable excess of a finitude, but the infinite fulfillment of an immanent life: it is death itself consigned to immanence.” Communion is a kind of death (the loss of one’s bounded, discrete, autonomous being—the loss of one’s own self) through which the subject escapes death insofar as he becomes at-one-with the community that can neither die nor recognize the cessation of any particular life as a loss to its essence. The paradoxical formula that you only have to die to vanquish death is literalized in the figure of the un-dead Zombie whose identity is fully subsumed to that of the ever-expanding herd.

Such “politics” are subjected to an extended critique in the second season of Fear the Walking Dead when the group of survivors­ (the usual conglomeration of fractured families, accidental allies and undeclared betrayers) are taken in by a group for whom the Zombie plague has become the source of a religious enthusiasm. For this death-cult, led by the charismatic Celia, to be “changed” (a term that connotes conversion even more powerfully than the usual “turned”) is to transcend individual “finitude” and achieve a state of grace: “This is not apocalypse,” she explains, “This is our beginning. The end of death itself. Life eternal.” The survivor, as survivor, rejects this logic; he fights not just to stay alive but to preserve death as death and his death as properly his own; against the organic community of a shared essence he sets his own indissoluble singularity: his individuality, his autonomy, his agency. It is essential, therefore, that the survivor group present itself as a mixture, a gathering of indissoluble particulars. It is not difficult to see here that the Zombie plague provides an opportunity for liberalism, the dominant political model of our age, to articulate and celebrate its basic precepts. This is not to say that the Zombie problem does not urge us to think beyond individualism and the liberal model of freedom, but that the social-symbolic function of the survivor narrative functions to exorcise the anxieties of a secular liberal society that repeatedly insists on the value of individual rights and freedoms even as segments of it continually succumb to the myth of immanence and fusion.


(1b) The Zombie horde may resemble a mob. In some films (Train to Busan, Pontypool) early outbreaks are reported in the media as “riots.” As mobs, Zombies demonstrate the liquidating power of collective action, but collective action devoid of purpose, motivation, or calculation. Even so, the zombie horde is repeatedly represented in ways that invite comparisons with unruly political assemblies: protests, riots, marches, and the like. On one hand, the Zombie film exposes the true power of these manifestations which lies not in the speeches that precede, follow and punctuate the physical exercise, but in the sheer fact of bodies in concert. The zombie horde is a mass. As a mass, it interrupts the flow of commerce and overwhelms civic infrastructure. On the other hand, the Zombie horde manifests for nothing. Zombie assemblies, then, while seeming to imitate a form of political intervention, actually constitute an inversion of politics: history turned into nature, the end of history. In this respect, though perhaps not only this respect, they are the truest representation of the mass today and the allowable forms of collectivity. The Zombie horde is a soccer mob, a hockey riot.


(1c) Even so, in their mass effect, Zombies threaten our ‘way of life’ by obliterating the forms and institutions of governance, security, trade, employment, etc. that enable and manage our daily interactions. The Zombie event—outbreak, pandemic, apocalypse—constitutes a radical transformation of the material and economic conditions of human existence. Though in itself a natural fact, the Zombie event produces changes in the character and structure of civic life that cannot but be experienced as a social threat and be taken on as a political challenge to those intent on preserving or reestablishing the status quo.

But such a return is impossible. Except in those few instances where the Zombie contamination is limited to a single municipality (or island or hospital), the transformation of society is global and irreversible. To renew itself at all, human society must organize itself according to a different logic than that which dominated prior to the disaster—which means, in effect, discovering alternatives to the nation state, wage labour, private property, monetary exchange, jurisprudence, not to mention the less formalized systems governing gender, sexuality, racial and ethnic identity. It is for this reason that even the most disturbing and traumatic treatments of the Zombie theme betray some affection for their disaster: in the very liquidation of everything we are supposed to hold dear there dwells an otherwise unrealizable political possibility. It is one of the functions of the Zombie narrative to provide for us citizens of a troubled world ‘imaginary solutions’ to our social problems, to present alternative hypothetical models of human interaction and the good life. (Think of the utopian impulse of World War Z [the film] that reconstructs the world according to the principles of humanitarian internationalism presided over by the WHO and the UN; the pastoralism of the ending of 28 Days Later; the anarcho-communism of The Walking Dead.) Here, the end of history takes a comic form insofar as the destruction of tradition is only partly unwelcome.

If nothing else, the Zombie apocalypse is a true apocalypse. It converts what Walter Benjamin once described as “homogenous empty time,” produced by the continuous systematic repression of possibility and real change, into a “jetzteit“—a time of the now which redeems the unfulfilled promise of the past and propels humanity towards a revolutionary future. The Zombie apocalypse can thus be viewed as something not unlike Benjamin’s “messianic cessation of happening” in which history, finally exposed as “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble” is mercifully interrupted. The disaster is a gift.


(1d) The propagation of the Zombie narrative world wide, its own virus-like spread across the globe, is an indication, firstly, that late-capitalism has succeeded in making it possible to speak of a world culture and, secondly, that such globalism carries within it an unconscious desire to see itself destroyed. But in the sense that it is an accident of nature that accomplishes what politics to this day has been unable to do—that is to say, transform human relations and our relationship to the natural world—the Zombie apocalypse projects the fantasy of a non-political redemption of human society. It as though the very poverty of our democratic institutions, the deepening realization that protest and critique are powerless against entrenched stupidity and greed, the undermining of science, the increasing impossibility of informed debate, the collapse of the university as a space for complex thought, the expanding power of corporations, the erosion of public space, the proliferation of distracting technology, have collectively given birth to a fantasy of social change without politics, without the labour of activism, without speech. Symbolically, the zombie plague delivers us from the paralysis of our historical moment; it does so on our behalf because we can no longer even imagine how we might accomplish this ourselves.

(fellow travellers and points of reference: Jean-Luc Nancy The Inoperative Community, Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Pontypool, Train to Busan, World War Z, 28 Days Later)