(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.