Zombies! A Talk on Zombies

(delivered March 15, 2018 to The Department of English, University of Ottawa)

In October 2016, a 24 year-old man, Ryan Stanislaw was arrested by police in his hometown of North St. Paul Minnesota. He had shot through a neighbour’s window with his AR-15, a semi-automatic assault rifle. When questioned by authorities, Stanislaw explained that he had been defending the neighbourhood from zombies. He had shot at zombie at the end of the road, but had missed, inadvertently putting a bullet into the bedroom wall of one sleeping Kenneth Quale. In his statement, Stanislaw said that, in the absence of a police presence, he had taken it upon himself to “protect the neighbourhood.” “I figured I’d do something,” he said.

 

stanislaw 1
Ryan Stanislaw, zombie hunter

 

Now, most people would argue that the only threat in St. Paul that night was Stanislaw himself. But Stanislaw was seeing zombies. And, indeed, nothing better justifies skulking about a residential neighbourhood at night with a loaded assault rifle than an incursion of the ravenous undead. It makes sense. I myself have played out a similar scenario in my mind on countless occasions. However, I don’t own an AR-15. Ryan Stanislaw was not supposed to own one either as he had a prior conviction for uttering terrorist threats and was prohibited by law from owning a firearm.

According to the NRA there are an estimated 3 million AR-15s in circulation in the US. It has been branded by the NRA as “America’s Rifle.”

 

ar-15 1
America’s rifle

 

The AR-15, of course, is the same weapon that was used most recently in the Parkland, Florida school shooting that saw 17 people killed. In 2012, Adam Lanza used an AR-15 to murder 20 school children in Sandy Hook. Stephen Paddock modified his AR-15 with a bump stock that enabled him to dispatch 58 country music fans from a hotel window in Las Vegas last year. A month after that, Devin Kelly murdered 26 people in a Texas church with a similar weapon. The connection between the AR-15 and mass murder goes back to 1982, when it was used by a man named George Banks to kill 13 people in Pennsylvania, including 7 children.

I’m trying to draw attention to a constellation of events, objects, and attitudes that connects these mass shootings to the zombie’s current status as a privileged figure in the cultural imagination of the west and to the plot of the zombie apocalypse as a paradigmatic narrative structure for our times.

If the vampire is a serial killer who stalks his victims one by one, the zombie, on the other hand, belongs to the world of mass shootings. Dracula and Jack the Ripper arise in same social context, a world that reached its nadir in the 1970s and 80s with Son of Sam, Charles Hatcher, and Ted Bundy. I’m reading the paper this week about Bruce McArthur, the gardener in Toronto who’s killed at least 7 people since 1990, and all I can think is ‘how old-fashioned!’ There’s a reason why current serial killer stories are all period pieces. But nothing quite speaks to our current historical moment than the mass shooting, and it is in this same context that the zombie narrative reaches something of a fever pitch. Not Jack the Ripper, but Anders Breivik. Not Salem’s Lot, but The Walking Dead. The zombie horde is a killing mass, but in the lone gunman dispatching scores of hapless victims in a single session we find a model of the apocalyptic survivor whose capacity for massive violence is transformed within that fantasy into a virtue. Running like a thread connecting the historical reality of mass murder and the cultural obsession with zombies is the AR-15.

I don’t put much (bump) stock in the argument that video games turn children into killers. But I do know how satisfying it is to find an AR-15 when I’m playing a zombie-themed first-person shooter or survival horror game. I drop the crowbar or machete I’ve been using and pick up the AR-15 with its 20 round clip and I go to town on those zombie bastards. And as long as I can keep finding ammo, I am a veritable killing machine at the same time that I get to be a hero, the good guy. Just like Ryan Stanislaw protecting his neighbourhood, making himself useful.

I’m not a psychologist, but it’s not too hard to imagine that the mass killers I’ve mentioned might have seen their victims in the same way Stanislaw saw the man at the end of the street, or as I see the zombies when I’m playing Dead Island—as something monstrous, something perhaps less than human, as something walking and talking but somehow dead inside, or simply something so obviously 2-dimesional that its death is likewise unreal.

But its even easier to imagine how the zombie enables a fantasy of heroism, virtue and usefulness that does not oblige us to question or rethink much of the prevailing ideological and technological machinery of 21st century life—even as zombie narratives continuously rehearse the end of times. Whatever I go on to say about zombies and zombie stories, we have to start with the idea that the contemporary zombie and its enplotment represents a complex wish fulfillment; despite its obvious horror, the zombie novel, film, or videogame speaks to a kind of craving on our part for change, even catastrophic change, but also for the emergence of conditions in which some very old fashioned and increasingly embattled ideals can reassert themselves and reacquire a futurity that now seems lost.

 

bike 1
Safety first!

There can be no doubt that the bulk of zombie narratives are socially conservative, masculinist, and tied to certain old-timey notions of community. But they also register a protest against the tendencies of late capitalist culture that appeals to people across the broadest political spectrum. Because the one thing that I have in common with a gun-loving Christian misogynist is the sense that the world is circling the drain, and it may be this fact that explains how we can both of us be so hungry for zombie narratives and their various consolations.

There is a tradition of the zombie that reaches back to Africa and the colonial West-Indies and to pre-abolition America, but over the last 40 years, the zombie has acquired a set of characteristics and associations that set it against that tradition to such an extent that we can speak of the contemporary zombie as a distinct entity. I propose, therefore, that we read the contemporary zombie as a postmodern trope and the zombie narrative as an historically specific cultural symptom, one that expresses both the desires and the anxieties of late-capitalist culture. In other words, I propose that we treat the contemporary zombie phenomenon as having produced texts that do what any fictional narratives do: namely, provide “imaginary or formal ‘solutions’ to otherwise irresolvable social contradictions” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious).

What I’m trying to say is that whether we’re mentally ill or not, the zombie narrative makes sense for us today. It’s become a major tool for what Fredric Jameson calls our “cognitive mapping”: it helps us apprehend the world and our place in it; but at the same time, it inevitably registers the effects of social conditions it can never transcend. Some zombie narratives and some figurations of the zombie are more critically useful or telling than others, but all zombie stories, by virtue of their very existence, tell us that there is something there is that needs figuring out.

ZONTOLOGIES©

But first we need to figure out what we mean when we use the word “zombie.” One of the problems with talking about the “nature” of zombies is that they don’t exist. You can get in some pretty intense arguments with people about what does or does not count as a zombie. Unless you take a step back and acknowledge that, as imaginary constructions, zombies are under no obligation to conform to a set of prescribed rules, you can end up in the world’s dumbest fistfight.

But we can learn a great deal about the function of the zombie in our cultural narratives from debates about its ontology, its nature. Historically, attempts to define the zombie have produced many disagreements, but I’d like to argue that the zombie occupies a space framed by 2 binary oppositions in particular. First, the zombie is either a supernatural entity or it’s a scientific one. It is either a species of magic that causes a dead body to get up and eat your face, or the causes are natural and empirical. In the first instance, you’d call a priest or a shaman to help with your zombie problem; in the second, you’d call a doctor or scientist. The second opposition is this: the zombie will either speak or be capable of speech or it will be entirely non-verbal, capable only of growls, groans, and other guttural noises. In the first case, you have a zombie with a degree of self-consciousness and capable of development; in the latter, you have an entity that is, as David Chalmers puts it, “all dark inside.”         

 zemiotic square

Putting these oppositional pairs together, we can form a ‘zemiotic’ square that enables us to determine the distinct zombie types, after which we can make inferences about the meaning and the function of the zombie based on which of these types dominates in any historical or cultural context.

Following the arrows, you see that we end up with 4 general types of zombies: We can have

1)     supernatural verbal zombies

2)     supernatural non-verbal zombies

3)     scientific verbal zombies

4)     scientific non-verbal zombies.

Generally speaking, there has been an historical trend away from supernatural causes towards scientific ones. We also notice a general trend away from verbal zombies to non-verbal zombies. But any of these figurations remain possible at any given time.

SUPERNATURAL VERBAL

Before the zombie became an index of environmental and biological concern—in other words before it functioned in cautionary tales about radiation poisoning, toxic waste, bioengineering and the like, it was a creature of magic. It shared a mental space with ghost and ghouls and other demonic creatures.

This was the mainstream tradition in comic books, pulp novels and movies prior to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, which attributed the zombie plague to the effects of a crashed satellite, thereby shifting the bias from occult to scientific explanations. But there are still examples of this sort of zombie in contemporary culture, but they are often overtly allusive to an outdated comic book tradition: as in the Simpsons Tree House of Horror bit and in the zombies attending the “Unholy Masquerade” in What We Do in the Shadows. The Deadites of Evil Dead are a kind of zombie, animated by satanic forces, but like most zombies of this type now, they are played for laughs.

supernatural verbal

SUPERNATURAL NON-VERBAL

More common than supernatural verbal zombies are the supernatural non-verbal kind, though these too are less in evidence today than either of the next two types. Arguably, the zombie tradition begins with supernatural non-verbal zombies, in the form of the Haitian ‘zombi,’ a resurrected plantation worker forced back to work in the cane fields. Obviously, the Caribbean voodoo zombie is a rich figure for political analysis and a number of books have recently come out that read the voodoo zombie and its cultural reverberations in the context of postcolonialism and ‘black Atlantic’ history. I find this work fascinating, but I’m suspicious of approaches that insist that all zombie stories be read in this context.

My own view is that while some contemporary zombie narratives allude to or resonate with this history, most are energized by a different matrix of historical concerns. Furthermore, there is a tendency in postcolonial readings to conflate or ignore the ontological difference between supernatural beings and natural-scientific beings that tends to obscure the cultural work being performed by the currently dominant type, the scientific non-verbal zombie. But we still see versions of the supernatural non-verbal zombie in films like Poltergeist, which tells us that we shouldn’t pave over cemeteries to build suburban planned communities, and in Games of Thrones whose ‘white walkers,’ technically wights, could be read as zombies of a kind.

supernatural nonverbal

OBJECTS OF SCIENCE

For the most part, when we talk about zombies today we assume a scientific cause. The general disappearance of the supernatural zombie is in itself a telling fact. In the late 1930s, the American writer Zora Neale Hurston—most famous today for her contribution to what’s become known as the Harlem Renaissance—went to Haiti to collect folk tales. During her stay she had occasion to meet a woman reputed to be an actual zombie. Felicia Felix Mentor had passed away, and was then raised from the dead by a voodoo priest, and now passed her days in a near vegetative state in a Port Prince mental asylum.

I had the rare opportunity to see and touch an authentic case. I listened to the broken noises in its throat…. If I had not experienced all of this in the strong sunlight of a hospital yard, I might have come away from Haiti interested but doubtful. But I saw this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor which was vouched for by the highest authority. So I know that there are Zombies in Haiti. People have been called back from the dead. (Hurston, Tell My Horse, 1938)

Hurston was a trained anthropologist, but her report was ridiculed by the academic and scientific community who were unwilling to believe that Mentor’s condition was a result of voodoo magic. I’m sorely tempted to explore the reasons why Hurston was willing to believe in the supernatural explanation. But for our immediate purposes, I’ll simply suggest that we might read this anthropological faux pas and its resultant controversy as marking the historical moment when the figure of the zombie is forced to leave the real world of history and enters the world of fiction where it has steadfastly remained, sightings in North St. Paul Minnesota notwithstanding.

felix mentor
Felicia Felix Mentor, zombie

My point is this: whereas it was at one time possible to imagine an outside to the dominant model of life in which science and rationality are the final arbiters of reality, whereas it was still possible in some places to live a reality where there were zones of experience not subject to rationalist explanation, those zones and that outside have disappeared in the context of globalization in which there is no outside whatsoever. The negation of the historical zombie speaks to the loss or negation of that outside. To some extent we can see the bonanza of fictional zombie narratives and other fantastical stories as an attempt to compensate for that loss. And to some extent we can see how many of these stories attempt to trouble the idea that scientific rationality is only ever adequate to experience. But the truth is that the lion’s share of zombie narratives work to shore up the hegemony of science and rationalistic instrumentalization first, by virtue of their very fictionality, and second because they will attribute scientific causes and explore pragmatic solutions to their zombie problem.

The contemporary zombie is an object of science. The zombie plague is a natural phenomena, which seems paradoxical because the zombie is a scientific impossibility. But it’s natural in the sense that its origins are not magical or otherworldly but demand a scientific investigation and solution. It’s no accident that the CDC, the American Centre for Disease Control, figures so prominently in many contemporary zombie narratives. Whereas one of the heroes of the 1932 film White Zombie, the first zombie movie, is a Dutch-reform minister, the hero of the film adaptation of World War Z from 2013 is an agent for the World Health Organization.

Though some films will attribute the zombie fact to alien interference, radiation, chemical agents, or genetic manipulation, far and away the most prevalent explanation of the zombie plague in contemporary narratives is some form of virus. It’s a virus that animates the zombies of The Walking Dead. It’s a virus in 28 Days Later, which after The Walking Dead is probably the most influential zombie text of the last 30 years. It’s a virus in the Spanish REC films, in The Rezort, The Dead, Dead Before Dawn, Extinction, The Horde, Here Alone, Maggie, Open Grave, Quarantine, Sean of the Dead, Warm Bodies, and Zombieland—to name but a few. An interesting deviation from the typical virus plot is found in The Girl with All the Gifts, where a fungal infection is responsible for the zombie plague. But even here the result is the same: uncontrollable cannibalistic urges.

gwatg

The old voodoo zombie was raised from the dead by a shaman who retained control over the monster. There was no sense that the zombie craved human flesh nor, importantly, that it could produce more zombies. But in the contemporary zombie story a bite from a zombie will turn you into a zombie, and this trope is more or less consistent across the board even when the condition is not viral in nature. The modern zombie, in other words, is a figure of contagion and disease. And it seems pretty obvious that it resonates with historical events like mad-cow disease, the SARS scare, ebola and the like—diseases which become more threatening the more interconnected and mobile the world becomes.

Of course, vampires also make new vampires by way of biting victims, but the vampire can discriminate: he or she can choose which victims will be invited into its aristocratic circle and which are destined to be mere snacks. The zombie, and this is a crucial aspect of its depiction, cannot make choices, it cannot discriminate or plan. You can’t reason with it any more than you can reason with the flu, or cancer. Totally lacking any interiority or psychological depth, the zombie is neither an ethical nor a political subject. It is an absolute other whose only job is to be killed.

That is, unless it is capable of speech. Though the bulk of contemporary zombie narratives feature non-verbal and unthinking antagonists, a significant number portray zombified characters whose linguistic and cognitive functions are not entirely compromised. A lot of people will tell you that the chief distinction between zombies relates to their mobility: the internet is full of heated debates about fast vs. slow zombies; many feel that the zombie capable of sprinting is a kind of travesty, a violation of the ground rules of the zombie genre. Another controversy relates to the difference between properly undead creatures and human beings who have contracted a disease that turns them violent or cannibalistic. These differences can indeed be crucial, but neither a zombie’s degree of mobility nor the specific nature of its vitalism determines its meaning for us quite so much as whether it possesses language or not. In the context of the mainstream contemporary zombie narrative, talking zombies and non-talking zombies entail completely different narrative possibilities, and serve very different cultural functions.

SCIENTIFIC VERBAL

Talking zombies 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.

scientific verbal

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 proletariat. Similarly, in 2006 film Fido, zombies have been domesticated and serve as the worker class performing menial labour in a waspy 1950s style American small town. Here, there does seem to be a clear allusion to the zombified worker of the Hatian tradition, but with the modern twist that the zombies are also infectious and prone to rampage when not subdued by their shock collars.

land of the dead

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. When the zombie speaks, the axis of identification is skewed towards the zombies and away from the survivor community; the political work of these zombie films depends on the audience’s ability to sympathize with their plight, and this seems to depend on the zombie’s ability to articulate its unfair treatment. These movies tend to work exactly like the latest cycle of Planet of the Apes movies which propose an inclusive community across the ontological divide between animal and human, but require that the animal speak to make this a thinkable possibility. A variation of the zombie as subaltern theme can be found in films like the Canadian-made Afflicted and the The Cured, an Irish film that stars a Canadian, Ellen Page, in which a cure has been developed for zombie-ism and the formerly mindless rapacious cannibals that ate your sister and father must struggle to reintegrate into a society that, understandably, has trust issues. We have the same themes of othering and prejudice that we see in Warm Bodies, Fido, and the Romero cycle of films, but within a truth and reconciliation framework.

SCIENTIFIC NON-VERBAL

Which brings us to the contemporary mainstream tradition of the scientific non-verbal zombie. What can we say about this type? Well, there seems to be a connection between its lack of speech, its contagiousness, and its tendency to congregate. To be capable of speech is to be capable of individuation, of having a self and setting that self in opposition to the mass. The Santa Clarita Diet and I-Zombie, for instance, are stories about personal struggle and there is no massification of the zombie that poses an existential threat to humanity.

santa clarita

The mainstream zombie—the zombie apocalypse 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, which threatens the survivor. And it is with the survivor and the survivor community that the viewer or reader is asked to align herself.

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 she most dreads. More than the loss of those forms of society to which she is accustomed, the survivor is tormented by the idea of her incorporation into a collectivity the only law of which is her loss of individuality and self-awareness. The Zombie is less a thing, than a process: pure interpellation without remainder.

In his book, Zombies: A Cultural History (from which I learned about Hurston and Felix-Mentor, discussed above) Roger Luckhurst suggest that the zombie is “one of the exemplary allegorical figures of the modern mass” (109) and points out that many zombie narratives are overt commentaries on the modern process of massification itself (129). Critics are split on whether the zombies represent the revolutionary potential of the mass or whether they represent the death of politics itself. Romero’s own films are themselves somewhat ambivalent on this question.

There’s a famous moment in his Dawn of the Dead, when the zombies are pounding on the doors of the shopping mall in which the survivors have taken shelter and one of survivors asks “who are they, what do they want”? To which she gets the response: “They’re us, that’s all.”

dawn of the dead

On the one hand, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is a fairly obvious allegorical critique of consumer capitalism and the viewer is explicitly invited to read the zombie horde as a hyperbolic representation of who we already are: in this sense, the zombie works to figure the generalized subject of capitalism. In its stupidity, we can read both the decline of the general intellect and the narrowing of reason in the public sphere. In its mindless sociality we can recognize a tendency towards group think and social conformity. Also, the zombie is perpetually hungry. I have yet to see a movie that depicts a satisfied zombie passing up on a meal because it’s already full. And yet, it doesn’t need to eat to live: in the absence of food, a zombie just keeps going. As an entity who craves what it does not need, the zombie can be read as an analogue of the contemporary consumer. I don’t think it’s an accident that the zombie emerges at a time of plenty and excess in North America and the rest of the west. It seems a fitting monster for a culture in which obesity and not emaciation is the sign of poverty. I would go so far as to surmise that a culture still in the grips of genuine hunger will never produce a zombie film. The zombie is the demonic and disreputable flipside of foodie culture.

So, there is this strong tradition of politically self-conscious zombie narratives in which the zombie horde mirrors the dysfunctions of contemporary global capitalism which produces wealth in direct proportion to the destruction of our intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being. Fredric Jameson coined the term “waning of affect” to describe the flattening of our emotional range in the context of the media society where only shock horror and pornography manage to produce a response beyond that suitable for the workplace. And its true that nothing shocks a zombie. The great thing about zombies is that they can manage to look bored while eating a baby.

On the one hand, as I said, Romero’s films convey the message that the zombies ‘are us’ in the sense that they represent what we have done to ourselves and to our fellow citizens. But on the other hand, the zombies are also the disenfranchised “them” that call on a more privileged “us” for recognition and inclusion as we see in Romero’s Land of the Dead. This seems to be the point of the film the REZORT, in which zombies are hunted for sport on a vacation island for rich people and we eventually discover that the stock of zombies is continually replenished by refugees from displacement camps located on the other side of the island.

rezort

This sort of political critique is benignly posthumanist in its assertion that coalitions can be formed across the traditional distinctions between life and death, human and animal, but that it may take a form of violence to encourage this sort of recognition.

In this context, it’s interesting to note the number of films and books in which early zombie outbreaks are reported in the media as “protests,” “riots” or “civic unrest.” In the South Korean film Train to Busan, zombie violence is initially thought to be the result of striking workers unhappy with their working conditions. For the economic juggernaut that is South Korea, the idea of a general strike is actually more terrifying than a plague of zombies, who will never present a list of demands.

train to busan

But there is certainly something going on in this obsessive return in zombie narratives to an idea or image of the mob. The zombie horde is repeatedly represented in ways that invite comparisons with unruly political assemblies: protests, riots, marches, and the like. As mobs, Zombies demonstrate the liquidating power of collective action. The Zombie film, we might say, exposes the true significance of any political manifestation 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, after all, a mass. As a mass, it interrupts the flow of commerce and overwhelms civic infrastructure.

zombies united

But at the same time, the Zombie horde manifests for nothing. If zombie hordes represent collective action then it’s a collective action devoid of purpose, motivation, or calculation. 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, they are the truest representation of the mass today and its pointless, misdirected moments of violence. The Zombie horde is a soccer mob, a hockey riot.

Having said that, the zombies do bring about change, radical change. 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. The truth is, zombies are a billion dollar idea because some part of us wants the apocalypse to happen. 3 million AR-15s in America cry out for a reasonable excuse to exist.

But in the sense that, even in fiction, 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 institutionalized stupidity and greed, the undermining of evidence-based decision-making, 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 all 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.

In the dominant tradition of the scientific non-verbal zombie we are not meant to identify or sympathize with the zombies. But they are our friends. The Zombie event is not a disaster, it is a gift. The zombie apocalypse provides an opportunity to imagine how things might be otherwise. 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, race and ethnicity. There’s a reason why every survivor group is a heterogeneous mixture of representative types that looks like a Gov’t of Canada P.S.A. for multiculturalism.

It is for this reason that even the most disturbing and traumatic versions of the Zombie plot 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. This is what I meant when, following Jameson, I argued that the Zombie narrative presents an imaginary solution to irresolvable social contradictions. It realizes change in fiction because we live in a world where the hope for change is increasingly imaginary. And it provides a framework in which to entertain as entertainment alternative 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 Walking Dead has been nothing but a yearly exploration of competing models of community and political organization the general trend of which seems to be towards some form of anarcho-communism, which for the last two seasons it has set against the fascism of Negan and the Saviors. In most zombie narratives, the end of history takes a comic form insofar as the destruction of tradition is only partly unwelcome.

That’s at the social level. At the level of the individual subject, the zombie narrative constructs for him or her a meaningful life, or at least the possibility of discovering what a meaningful life is. Think of Daryl in The Walking Dead; had the Zombies not appeared and changed everything, he would have ended up a drug dealing scumbag like his brother. The Zombies made him a better man.

Why do I like zombies so much?

sad robert
I’d rather be fighting zombies

Surely, my appetite for zombie films, games, and books has something to do with the fact that the definition of courage in my own life is disagreeing with someone on Facebook. It’s got to be related to the fact that there’s nothing about my manly strength—in quotation marks—that puts me at an advantage in an information-based economy. The fact that I want to live in a community, but I merely function in a society, no doubt has something to do with it. It may well speak to the fact that I’d rather make what I need than buy it, but I don’t have the skills or the time. Maybe it has something to do with my recurrent feeling that teaching young people about the poetry of P.K Page is a meaningless, even obscene, way to make a living. I live a life my grandfather could only have dreamed of, in which I have everything I need, and almost everything I want, and yet I’m often bored to death. More and more, I feel a general sense of guilt I can’t seem to shake. Perhaps I want to be redeemed.

not unworthy
I am not unworthy

It comes down to this: While there are some zombie narratives that are politically self-conscious and purposely use the genre to satirize or critique contemporary society, most zombie narratives are escapist fantasies that work for us because they secretly speak to our own unconscious need for an existence more meaningful than the one we actually lead. Some zombie narratives skew left, others skew right. But there’s a profound dissatisfaction and visceral longing that connects millions of people who would otherwise have nothing in common, just like the fictional Zombie event brings together people who would never have interacted, let alone come to love one another, in their old world. We use the term “zombie apocalypse” all the time now without remembering that the word apocalypse does not mean disaster, but revelation. My own foray into the world of zombies began as a semi-serious pass time, but the more I’ve looked, the more they have revealed to me the failings, the fears, but also the hopes of our contemporary world.

 

Comfortless Bodies

(4e) Recalling Daphne Marlatt’s joy in the “mutuality” between human and animal bodies who can give and share their creaturely warmth (though I’m sure she’s thinking of cats more than, say, octopi), we note that the Zombie can neither give nor receive comfort. Its embrace is repellant. (Here, we might suggest that the abject rather than the uncanny is the appropriate psychoanalytic category for the Zombie). On the flipside, the Zombie is likewise comfortless. The Walking Dead has recurrently featured characters whose attempts to console or nurture a ‘Walker’ garner pity or frustration from the other survivors (the Governor’s care for his zombified daughter, Hershel’s initial insistence that his family members are merely sick and need care); invariably, these endeavours are acknowledged to be fruitless, if not plainly dangerous. The Zombie stands in direct contrast to both the animal victim who calls out for human care and protection and the pet who offers up its body for comfort and companionship.

Because it is dead. I argued that the traditional view of ‘the animal’ has worked to suppress an awareness of the similarity between living things and the obligations that could arise from its acknowledgment. For this reason, it’s the Zombie’s deadness that makes it a such a useful animal substitute (it’s the tofu or, more accurately, the cultured meat of the fictive world). It 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.

There are many instances of cruelty to Zombies, or rather specific actions that are figured as cruel: the doctor’s experiments on ‘living’ Zombies in Wyrmwood, 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 seems to absolve the human subject of any accusation of cruelty no matter her treatment of the Zombie on the basis of its inability to feel pain. It is perfectly acceptable in The Walking Dead to use zombies as target practice, to 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 emerges as a third-term in the human-animal binary. (Or, to the extent that the animal is disappearing altogether, it is taking its place in the binary.) It is an animal unlike animals which, though they lack human speech, nevertheless share with us an aversion to suffering. From Bentham’s point of view, the Zombie makes no claim on us for consideration. In this sense, it is not like the animal we now know; but if one of the historical uses of the animal in narratives of conflict and crisis was to provide a surface against which to project human fortitude, loyalty, and ambition, then it’s a perfect substitute precisely because there is no sense that it deserves, or can ask for, its share in the world to come.

The Zombie is threatening because it wants to attack and eat us. But it is reassuring in its terror because it operates so far outside the human realm of reason and restraint that it places no obligations on us for accommodation.

 

Fellow Travellers: Daphne Marlatt, Jeremy Bentham

Stops: The Walking Dead, Wyrmwood, The Rezort

Savage Men and Beasts

 

(4d) The forest setting of a film like Here Alone (2016) in which a trio of survivors take great precautions to protect their camp from the infected marauders that roam the countryside contributes greatly to the homesteader vibe of the whole. It recalls a long tradition of colonial and settler literature in which the place of the Zombies would be occupied by wolves, bears, or Indians. Near the end of his The Deserted Village (1770), Oliver Goldsmith imagines the fate awaiting the villagers of Auburn who have emigrated to the Americas after being forced from their ancestral lands as a consequence of the enclosures:

To distant climes, a dreary scene,
Where half the convex world intrudes between,
Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
Far different there from all that charm’d before,
The various terrors of that horrid shore;
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crowned,
Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they;
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the ravaged landscape with the skies.

True, he’s a little unclear on the zoological facts of the New World. But the motif is so powerful that even his grand-nephew, Oliver Goldsmith (Junior), a local, reproduces it near verbatim 50 years later in his own poetic history of the settlement of the colony of Acadia:

Behold! the savage tribes, in wildest strain,
Approach with death and terror in their train;
No longer silence o’er the forest reigns,
No longer stillness now her pow’r retains;
But hideous yells announce the murd’rous band,
Whose bloody footsteps desolate the land;
[……………………………………………………………….]
He hears them doom the white man’s instant death,
Shrinks from the sentence, while he gasps for breath;
Then, rousing with one effort all his might,
Darts from his hut, and saves himself by flight.
Yet, what a refuge! Here a host of foes,
On ev’ry side, his trembling steps oppose.
Here savage beasts terrific round him howl,
As through the gloomy wood they nightly prowl. (“The Rising Village,” 1825)

The interchangeability between indigenous people and wild animals is abundantly clear: both are “murd’rous;” neither speak; the one “howls” while the other only “shrieks.” What strikes me about these passages is how, in the postmodern and postcolonial context, the structure of these narratives has remained intact but with Zombies taking the place of ‘savage’ men and beasts. I’m not in any way suggesting that the Zombies symbolize or stand in for either animals or indigenous peoples. What I am saying is that the Zombie does the same work as these earlier figures: a demonic force, it stands opposed the human values and desires embodied in the social project, namely those values of order, reason, restraint, civility, etc. What’s changed is that the animal and the savage can no longer perform this structural role. In a particularly over-the-top sequence in season 7 of The Walking Dead, Rick and Michonne bisect hundreds of Zombies with a steel cable strung between two speeding cars. It was epic—no, literally: in a different age, the Zombies would have been Trojans, or Indians, or lions. (Can you imagine an audience’s reaction to the same scene were the Zombies human or an animal we love, like elephants or baby seals (vicious baby seals)? The Zombie is an unloveable animal, an uncivilizable man.

The Zombie conforms to our earliest Western conceptions of the animal as not-human. It possesses neither language nor reason nor self-consciousness. It is incapable of feeling naked. (In the future, I’d like to think more about the Zombie’s clothing or lack thereof.) It cannot learn or progress, only spread. It cannot plan. It cannot practice restraint. It cannot form bonds. Because it lacks tools or know-how, the Zombie must kill with its body. That body is confronted by men and women with guns, axes, knives, crowbars, shovels, hammers, swords, and so on—as if to confirm that the human is to be found in the using of tools and the non-human in not. In Romero’s oeuvre, the Zombies use basic tools, but they also develop speech. The allusion to indigenous or native populations who lack both discursive and technological means to assert their rights is clear. By moving from presumed beast to an embattled protester, however, Romero’s Zombie exemplifies the same logic I am trying to demonstrate here: in those films and books where the Zombies do not use tools or speak, a wish for an animal that can never turn out to be more than an animal is being satisfied. Romero’s films bring that desire to the narrative surface in order to thematize it.

The Zombie is a dead, yet animate, homo sapiens. It is not really an animal, though it is repeatedly compared to and treated like one. Indeed, in our Zombie 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 (2006)—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 allow to count. I earlier suggested that becoming-Zombie was marked by a loss of language and speech; the moment when growls or groans issue from the subject’s mouth rather than recognizable discourse is the moment of his transposition into the realm of death and instinct. It is worth thinking about the Zombie’s mouth again. It is a mouth that can only bite; if to be human is to have a mouth that both eats and speaks, then the Zombie is something other than human. Its being is not divided between matter and spirit, body and mind, nature and culture: it is only matter, body, nature (though unnatural in origin, is actually pure nature.) We are no longer certain that animals lack language, but we are sure the Zombie does. And in those rare instances when it does surprise us with speech, it is as though a rat or a dog had just called up and asked to be invited to the party. (See Section 2a for a discussion of the speaking Zombie as rights-seeker.)

Fellow Travellers: Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Goldsmith (Junior), George Romero

Stops: Here Alone, The Deserted Village, The Rising Village, Fido, The Walking Dead

Fourth Thought: In Place of the Animal

 

(This is a re-written and expanded version of an earlier post.)

(4a) One of the duties we have assigned the Zombie is to take the place of the animal, specifically the ‘wild’ animal. In my discussion of the ‘guttural’ Zombie I relied on Agamben’s concept of the “animal voice.” 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 that the Zombie 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 otherness with respect to the animal world and wild ‘nature’.

Two Kinds of Animals

(4b) The ferocity with which the human world has imposed an unassailable wall between itself and the ‘animal world’ is in direct proportion to the degree of our similarity with animals as living entities. For millennia, we have relied on a view of the animal whose primary function is to protect us from our own awareness of this proximity. 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? We tell ourselves that we eat them because they are animals; but, really, they are ‘animals’ because we eat them.

Yet 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.) In principle, at least, 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. Thus ethics, when perceived as the sole property of the human realm, likewise serves to maintain an essential difference between the human and the animal. It is no less part of the wall separating us from the animal world than my taste for foie gras.

Some serious cracks are beginning to appear in this wall. Indeed, we are in the midst of a radical transformation of the very category of the animal and of our relationship to the natural world, its objects and inhabitants. Advances in our understanding of animal biology and behavior have expanded and complicated our view of non-human life-forms, making simple or one-sided generalizations about ‘the animal’ harder to maintain; the environmental and climate change movements have succeeded in demonstrating the interdependence of human and non-human ecologies—the importance of protecting our planet’s biodiversity is generally acknowledged; recent decades have shown signs of a wider acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledges which often assume a less bifurcated and more holistic approach to human-animal relations; a broad range of academic discourses are now beginning to think the world out from the corporeal body and its material connections rather than down from the mental constructs inherited from the Western cultural tradition. For example, in her defense 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“—Canadian poet 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, 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 poetry ‘of the body’ 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 admittedly the conversation suffers.)

In the vanguard of those forces reshaping our society’s view of ‘the animal’ is the animal rights movement. A crucial touchstone in the discourse of animal rights is Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty on the basis of animals’ ability to experience pain and suffering. The power of Bentham’s approach lies precisely in its avoidance of those factors with had historically served to construct differences in kind between animals and humans: language, will, ethics, self-consciousness. Rather, by focusing on the sensory capacities of animals Bentham draws attention to the mutuality of humans and animals as living organisms. Bentham writes: “The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In Defending Animal Rights, Tom Regan cites Bentham and glosses his argument as follows:

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 insistence that “we owe” some consideration to the animal Other. And the more we consider the animal as worthy of that consideration and the more we begin to recognize the commonalities between animal experience and our own, the less Other ‘the animal’ becomes.

In fact, we might speak of the contemporary emergence of a new category, the category of the animal as non-Other, the Postmodern Animal. The postmodern animal is no longer ‘wild’ even if it is undomesticated. A quasi-subject, it is affiliated with the human world of affect and experience in ways that challenge our traditional hierarchies and compartmentalizations. It is deserving of rights, worthy of respect and most especially pity when it is endangered or threatened. It is this postmodern view of the animal that underlies the outrage directed at Walter Palmer for shooting Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park or at Cincinatti Zoo officials for shooting Harambe the gorilla. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that little, if any, protest would have attended these events 30 or 40 years ago. Nothing better exemplifies the clash of opposed understandings of ‘the animal’ better than Palmer’s dazed incomprehension regarding the public outcry, or the manner in which his hunt was constructed as an act of assassination in the popular media. The general tendency is clear: we are entering a new world in which every animal we call animal will have a name. What we gain from this, potentially, is a less antagonistic and exploitive attitude towards certain creatures; what we lose is a sense of ‘the animal’ as unassimilated Other—one of the primary constructs in relation to which ‘the human’ historically had constituted itself.

But there is another version of ‘the animal,’ one no less a product of postmodern life than Cecil or Harambe—or Pizza Rat, for that matter. On the one hand, we may speak of the highly individuated animal—the animal luminary or social media star, the animal produced by human discursive networks. On the other hand, we may speak of the animal produced not by our speech acts, but by capital, the animal brought to life by genetic science and industrial farming. In The Animal that Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida writes:

It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries … traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their objects, from the transformation of the actual object, and from the milieu and world of their object, namely, the living animal. This has occurred by means of farming and regimentalization at a demographic level unknown in the past, by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of what can be called the production for consumption of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulations of the genome, the reduction of the animal to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, etc.) of meat for consumption, but also of all sorts of other end products, and all that in the service of a certain being and the putative human well-being of man. (25)

In effect, Derrida suggests that the hyperbolic manipulation of living tissues, the scope and intensity with which humans have intervened in the natural evolution of animal biology, coupled with the now unimaginable scale of livestock production have contributed to a transformation of ‘the animal’ in kind. Whatever the relationship between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ implied in traditional forms of domestication and husbandry, it has been replaced with something else. This ‘something else’ is hard to define, and is still very much evolving. But we can question whether the animal produced in this context has any of the autonomy or sovereignty of a distinct life form, any of the Otherness we might accord a another living thing. In fact, it is unclear whether our usual language for talking about animal life still retains its usefulness when the object of our speaking is so imbricated in this multitude of human systems.

To summarize: what I think we see happening with respect to the concept of the animal is this: on the one hand, an explosion in the quantity of animals brought into this world for human consumption, coupled with the qualitative (though no less material) transformation of their nature for the same purpose, has produced a set of organisms that the term ‘animal’ fails to signify (insofar as these animals are no longer ‘part of nature’). These creatures are hardly representable at all, which is precisely the point, as they continue to proliferate and change in that discursive silence. Whatever they are, and whatever names we might choose to talk about them, the category to which they belong does not present itself as something against which, or in relation to, ‘the human’ might define itself. On the other hand, and in contrast to the diffusion of the farm animal into undifferentiated meat particles, we get the highly individuated celebrity animal, the animal with a name, the animal that we continue to call ‘animal.’ This animal is unique, valuable, embattled, familiar, and necessary to maintaining our general feelings of guilt with respect to our destruction of the planet: in short, the animal as a symbol of ‘the animal.’

Running Out of Things to Kill

(4c) My theory is that the ubiquity of the Zombie narrative today relates in part to the unavailability of ‘the wild animal’ as the Other in a dialectical process of socio-cultural self-definition. Whereas we once exploited an imaginary concept of real creatures (‘the animal’) in order to define the boundaries of the human and to supply, by way of contrast, a set of attributes, values, goals, even burdens that constitute the human condition, we now employ a real concept of imaginary creatures (‘the Zombie’) to accomplish the same goal. The primary factors urging this substitution can be deduced from the preceding discussion. In a nutshell: we’re running out of things to kill. This is both literally true—the depletion of our forests, seas, and skies of animal life is a measurable fact—and true insofar as the structural category of ‘the animal’ as Other appears to be eroding along two distinct but related fault lines. Primarily, it is the reconfiguration of the animal as a sympathetic victim of human history—a history it stands within, not outside of, as was the case in other eras—that has compelled the search for a substitute, but the disappearance of anything resembling ‘the animal’ on our farms and in our grocery carts plays a significant role as well. It is interesting to note that even as Zombie narratives work to insinuate its subject in the place of the wild animal in explorations of the meaning and direction of human life, it also works to conserve and shore up traditional ideas about domesticated animals, in particular farm animals of the ‘E I E I O’ variety.

One of the hallmarks of living in the Anthropocene is that we are no longer afraid, existentially speaking, of animals. (We may be afraid of what is becoming of animals, but that is another matter entirely.) Animals now occupy the position of victim, not threat. Rushing in, symbolically, to fill the void left by the animal which we no longer quite feel we can kill, exploit, consume, or ignore with impunity and without guilt is the Zombie who/which takes on some of the functions hitherto assigned ‘the animal.’ The Zombie offers itself up as an acceptable antagonist in necessary (or at least persistent) narrative structures that would normally have featured animal or, by way of a connected logic, Indigenous aggressors.

It is surely no accident that the cause of the ‘rage virus’ that turns people into Zombies in 28 Days Later is the release, by animal rights activists, of apes and monkeys that had been subjected to medical experiments. The film thus begins by confirming the emergent view of animals as innocent victims of human overreaching: animals who have been robbed of their natural rights and right to be natural. Refusing a view of the animal as object, insisting on its subjectivity, militating on behalf of its right to a life free from pain and exploitation, the activists empty the cages of infected animals and in the process become infected themselves. Thus begins the birth of a new kind of human being genetically engineered, as it were, to take the place of the savage, threatening, wild animal. Until the end of the film, when animals suddenly reappear in the context of a traditional farm setting, no animals are shown. In their stead: the Zombie who manifests all of the negative characteristics ever attributed to the untamed beast of yore: it is mindless, languageless, instinctual, rapacious, bloodthirsty, unassimilable. The animals might be saved, but so, too, must the idea of wildness, of ‘pure’ nature be preserved, even if this requires the invention of a figure to enact it in the place of the animals who no longer signify in this way.

The Zombie represents a cultural adjustment to the loss of the animal as Other. The archetypal structure of 28 Days Later suggests that we continue to need something ‘on the other side of’ the human against which to define ourselves, and that the best way to test the border between human and not is by killing whatever’s on the other side of it. It is the Zombie’s job to be killed, a job once performed by animals and natives, which the category of ‘the animal’ was obligingly extended to include. As with animals, we no longer feel it appropriate to delight in the mass murder of primitives (which we attempted to render extinct with as much zeal as we showed the buffalo.)

 

Fellow Travellers: Giorgio Agamben, Jeremy Bentham, Jacques Derrida, Daphne Marlatt, Harambe the gorilla, Cecil the lion, Pizza Rat.

Stops along the way: 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead

 

 

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.)