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)