(3b) “Can they Suffer?”

Since I am ultimately going to suggest that the Zombie Other may be approached as a kind of animal, or something that comes to occupy the place of the animal in our systems of intelligibility, it seems only fair to begin by acknowledging the ways in which the zombie is most certainly not an animal. To begin with, the zombie is a dead homo sapiens. This seems like an obvious statement, but the ferocity with which the human world has imposed an unassailable wall between itself and the “animal world” has everything to do with the otherwise undeniable commonality between animals and human beings as living entities. 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? If the essential difference between humans and animals is a fiction (it is, obviously) it is at least a necessary fiction from the point of view of any one of us who is not a vegan. But 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. But, in principle, 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.

Not animal, then, but not human either; for in our 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—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 have allowed to count. In this one sense, at least, the Zombie is especially un-troubling to our presumed preeminence vis à vis other beings: the Zombie 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. In Defending Animal Rights, Tom Regan quotes Jeremy Bentham on the question of the fair treatment of animals. In an attempt to disentangle the issue from the matter of language, thought and consciousness, Bentham famously wrote: “The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Regan continues,

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 claim that “we owe” some consideration to the animal Other.

There are many instances of cruelty to Zombies, or rather specific actions that are figured as cruel: the doctor’s experiments on un-killed zombies in Wymwood, 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 to present the Zombie as impervious to pain seems to absolve the human subject of any accusation of cruelty no matter her treatment of the Zombie. It is perfectly acceptable in The Walking Dead to use zombies as target practice, to burn them, 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 is not an animal or like ‘the animal’ which, though it also lacks human speech, nevertheless shares with us language animals an aversion to suffering.

The flip side of this equation is that the zombie is likewise comfortless. In her defence 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”—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 interested in poetry, 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 corporeal poetics 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 the conversation suffers. The Zombie, in contrast, can give no comfort, receive no comfort. Its embrace is repellant. If the case for animal rights and the first cracks in the wall separating human and animal worlds reside, firstly, in our shared capacity for suffering and, secondly, in our “mutuality” as bodies capable of holding and being held, then the zombie is no animal.

Our thinking cannot end here, however, because there exist opposing ways that the zombie’s distance from the human invites us to see it and treat it as an animal—possibly an animal even more animal than other animals. More to come.

Third Thought: Is the Zombie an Animal, Then?

(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 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 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.

Undoubtedly, I will need to think more about the implications of Freud’s argument for our understanding of the Zombie at some point, but I want to delay that investigation for the time being so as to focus on the broader social symbolism of the Zombie narrative (the uncanny for the most part remains beholden to the personal-subjective focus of psychoanalysis as a whole). Furthermore, the uncanny’s effect, as Freud makes clear, lies in confusing categories and destabilizing certainties, specifically certainties about the self and self-hood as such. My own feeling is that the Zombie narrative, contrariwise, is neither primarily psychological in its focus and nor functions to destabilize ontological frameworks but, rather, to consolidate and coordinate these in the face of disruption—this, despite its dependence on the impossible condition of undeadness. 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 and Romantic tendencies of the genre as a whole.

More specifically, my last post on the ‘guttural’ Zombie and my reliance, through Agamben, on a concept of the “animal voice” has raised some questions in my mind that demand attention. 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 in which the former is engaged, or 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 difference with respect to the animal world and ‘nature’. To be continued……

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)