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.)


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