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……

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