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)

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