9th of November, 2010
Like many people across the country, I started watching AMC’s The Walking Dead last week.
Today I stopped in Comicopolis and walked out with Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide after a short conversation with owner Troy about the zombie zeitgeist and why the living dead have risen (as it were) to the forefront of a cultural obsession with the partially human.
I’ve been mulling this one for awhile but haven’t done much in the way of research, theoretical or otherwise. I mean… I’ve never even seen Night of the Living Dead. I’ve never dressed as a zombie for Halloween, and at this point I’m sure I wouldn’t survive the zombie apocalypse (71% chance of survival, apparently, but I doubt it). I do, however, have a predilection for the gothic and geeked, particularly as it relates to pop culture and cultural history. So I’ll be reading The Guide (and watching The Dead, and searching the Web, of course) with an eye to understanding more about what it is about zombies in particular – and partial humans in general (including but not limited to: vampires, weres, cyborgs, puppets and other monsters) – that speaks to the fantasies and anxieties of this cultural moment we’re in, and others that have been before us, too. And perhaps I’ll increase my chances of survival along the way. Survival is, after all, the ultimate goal for any species, alive or otherwise……
Max Brooks begins the Introduction to The Zombie Survival Guide with this line:
The dead walk among us. Zombies, ghouls – no matter what their label – these somnambulists are the greatest threat to humanity, other than humanity itself.
“Somnambulists” are sleepwalkers, or those who perform basic motor functions without (or in a state of sub-) consciousness. They act, literally, without thinking – action is divorced from contemplation, the mind is absent and the body seemingly, impossibly, acts alone. Two thoughts:
one) ‘Somnambulism’ as quasi-political metaphor for the dangers of relinquishing one’s personal agency in favor of a ‘dumb’ body politic. Indeed, one of the defining attributes of the zombie threat is their tendency to move and feed as a group. One of the most common definitions of the present (North American) body politic is as a group of consumers. Therefor… a first, simplified reading of the zombie threat is as metaphor for a group of powerful, yet unconscious consumers (with a tendency to consume anything put in their path). Brooks backs this up: “Ignorance is the undead’s strongest ally, knowledge their deadliest enemy.” Knowledge is power. The solution to sleeping? Waking up…
two) The image or idea of the unconsciously animate body is one explored by Freud (and many since) in Das Unheimlich (“The Uncanny”). Basically, what inspires a sense of the uncanny (and I’ll come back to this concept many times, I’m sure) is “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate… [such as waxworks, automata… or zombies] because these excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ’ordinary appearance of mental activity.” (Freud, quoting Jentsch). This, Freud claims, is an ambiguous feeling, both attractive and repulsive. We are drawn to that which looks/sounds/moves like us yet repulsed by that which is recollective of death, decomposition or exanimation. The sleepwalker (zombie) incites the uncanny because it is simultaneously animate and illogically so (where is the ghost in the machine?).
Tagged: somnambulism, consumer, uncanny, body politic, ignorance, the Guide
From an interview with Max Brooks by Allie Townsend (July 15, 2010):
AT: So where does the fascination with zombies come from?
MB: I think the fascination with zombies is that they don’t obey the rules of monsters. The first rule of monsters is that you have to go find them. You have to make a conscious choice to go to the swamp or the desert or the abandoned summer camp.
AT: But will we ever be finished with zombies?
MB: Zombies are apocalyptic. I think that’s why people love them because we’re living in, not apocalyptic times, but I think we’re living in fear of the apocalyptic times.
AT: It’s like the other year with the Large Hadron Collider. There was a small chance the universe would implode if they turned it on.
MB: And it was the same for the first atom bomb. They wondered if the atmosphere would catch on fire. Literally, they thought, “Will the chain reaction just not end?”
I think that’s why people are scared of zombies. Other monsters, you’ve got to go out and find. We’re living in times where there are these really big problems. We’ve got terrorism, economic problems, unpopular wars, social meltdowns. The last time we dealt with this stuff was in the 70s, and that was the last time zombies were really popular.
AT: People are proclaiming this a mini zombie renaissance, but were zombies ever really out of the cultural landscape?
MB: That’s the thing. When I started writing, there was nothing about zombies. It was all teen movies, which to me are scarier than zombies, but that’s another story. I think now, people need a sort of safe vessel for the end of the world. You can read The Zombie Survival Guide or watch Dawn of the Dead and then go to bed saying, “Oh, it’s just zombies.”
Try doing that with The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Nuclear war can really happen. I think zombies are safe. Zombies are manageable. You can’t shoot the Gulf oil spill in the head. I think some of these problems are too big and too tough to understand. What does the global financial meltdown of 2008 mean? I can’t explain it, and I sure know you can’t shoot it in the head.
AT: There are so many metaphors you can get into with zombies because they have no overarching characteristics.
MB: I think that’s what’s so scary about them is their lack of a middle ground. You can’t negotiate with them. They’re like a disease.
AT: Even the whole idea that zombies are like a virus. Take away the living dead and focus on the idea that there could be a virus as deadly as a zombie apocalypse.
MB: It’s terrifying that’s there’s a life form out there that you can’t negotiate with.
AT: So, I interviewed George Romero before his last movie came out and I asked him how to survive a zombie attack, you know, because his characters never seem to make it out. He told me that was a question only for you.
MB: George thinks I take this way too seriously.
AT: That’s exactly what he said.
MB: (Laughs) And what does that say? That would be like George Lucas thinking you take space movies way too seriously. Well, George is all about telling the social metaphors and I think that’s what zombie movies that have come out after him have totally forgotten. Those are more about just heads being blown off. George is old school. He’s from the era where you have to use science fiction as a metaphor because they wouldn’t let you tell the real story. It’s like Star Trek or Twilight Zone. There had to be something underlying it. Like with George and the original Dawn of the Dead. It was all about the end of the baby boomers dream and surrendering to materialism. I think the old Dawn of the Dead should be put next to Easy Rider and sold as a box set. It should be called The Baby Boomers: Beginning & End.
Tagged: interview, why zombies, apocalypse now, monsters, the Guide
11th November 2010
The Posthuman Zombie
In its origins and in its folkloric incarnations, the zombie is quite literally a slave, raised by voodoo priests to labor in the fields… Just as the slave’s own body becomes his prison, the zombie illustrates humanity’s inherent imprisonment, if by counterpoint. The zombie shows us what we are: irrevocably bound to our bodies and already married to the grave. But the zombie also shows us what we are not: man… does not outlive the death of his body. As such, the zombie metaphor (like its mythological parent, the Haitian zombi) is not purely a slave but is also a slave rebellion.
- Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry, “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in an Era of Advanced Capitalism.” In boundary 2 35:1 (2008).
A cursory search of JSTOR for “zombie culture” reveals this article, a response to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” itself an “inaugural text of posthuman theory” that envisions the cyborg as an idealized, “posthuman” hybrid body, one that actively disrupts hegemonies and undermines hierarchies by blurring the boundaries that modernist, capitalist (etcetc) cultures rely on to maintain the (subject/object) status quo. In “A Zombie Manifesto,” Lauro and Embry argue that the zombie, not the cyborg, is a much more apt (if also more distressing) metaphor for the issues and anxieties of this here “historical and economic moment.” Why? Because while the specter of the cyborg contains a whole lotta utopian supposition (specifically, its reliance on the continuation and preservation of the rational mind, be it meat or machine), the zombie shows us as we already fear we are:
The zombie, we feel, is a more pessimistic but nonetheless more appropriate stand-in for our current moment, and specifically for America in the global economy, where we feed off the products of the rest of the planet, and, alienated from our humanity, stumble forward, groping for immortality even as we decompose. (ibid, p 93)
“It consumes, and it makes more consumers.” (p 99).
So, Adorno… In Dialectic of Enlightenment (which I will not even pretend to have read) Adorno and Horkheimer “show that subjectivity [and its proxy, the sanctity of the individual] remains but a fiction that allows for ideological control.” The self and its agency – desires, thoughts, memory – comprise “the bars of our imprisonment.” (The Buddhists understand this already). To kill a zombie, one must destroy its brain. But a zombie is already “brainless” – a mindless automaton. Yet such a de-individualized state is a posthuman state – if the capitalist system is in part defined by its reliance on the continued reinforcement of the subject (slash object binary), the zombie, by negating such positionality with its neither/norness, already operates outside such a system and as such is symbolic both of its ultimate function (the creation of mindless consumers that create more mindless consumers) and its utter end.
Thus: zombie as paradox – both annihilation and salvation. Slave and slave rebellion.
Will the end be monstrous, or will it be liberating? This is an unanswerable question, but regardless, it is a question that can only be posed in the future tense. When we become zombiis, when we lose our subjectivity and the ability to rationalize, there will be no difference between the two. Therefore, when we truly become posthuman, we won’t even know it. (ibid, 108)
(This text is super dense and now I apparently must read up on Adorno’s negative dialectics, something I managed to avoid all through grad school. No more!)
Tagged: critical theory, capitalism, posthuman, cyborg, paradox, individual, slavery
11th November 2010
I think now, people need a sort of safe vessel for the end of the world
(Max Brooks, interview below)
What makes zombies a safe vessel? The escape from rationalism, the (un)life beyond (un)death…
“[George] Romero was asked what he would do if zombies were to take over the planet. He responded that he would go right out and get bitten: ‘That way I could live forever.’”
(Lauro and Embry)
…or something else?
Tagged: paradox, Why Zombies, identification
11th November 2010
Tumblr sucks. My desire for uninhibited, individualized agency in these communications is feeling severely thwarted by the templates of typified expression afforded me. Garrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Tagged: capitalism, social networking
12th November 2010
With zombies, though, there’s nothing to demystify. You know exactly what they want, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, and if you slip up or get worn down, you’ll be one of them: mindless and shuffling.
Hannah Wolf Bowen, author of “Everything is Better With Zombies”
I think zombie stories reveal the underbelly of our hope that we’ll live on after we die and couple it with our fears that something might happen to us where we’ll find ourselves mindless or trapped in our bodies while still alive….
Brian Evenson, “Prairie”
Of course, as Romero has shown us again and again, they provide such a rich and powerful metaphor for life in a mass consumer culture. Even in the the most dismal zombie fiction, I think that dimension of social commentary is at least implicit.
Dale Bailey, “Death and Suffrage”
I think there’s an enormous segment of our brain that’s evolved for running away from packs of predators, and zombie stories give us a rare opportunity to take this primal part of our psyches out for a spin…
David barr Kirtley, “The Skull-Faced Boy”
Where one vampire or werewolf can be scary, one zombie is usually just funny. But you get a hundred of them, or a thousand, and suddenly they don’t seem so funny anymore. I guess there’s something misanthropic about zombie fiction in that sense; the fear of the crowd, of being surrounded by strangers.
David Tallerman, “Stockholm Syndrome”
With the zombie, what you get is us, pretty much as we are, maybe with a little damage, and we consume one another. No eroticism, no animal violence, just a single, overwhelming appetite. That’s simultaneously very straightforward and very disturbing.
John Langan, “How The Day Runs Down.”
Unlike other creatures, they have no special abilities and haven’t been overly romanticized.
Lisa Morton, “Sparks Fly Upward”
There’s an atavistic innocence to being a mindless zombie. The more Haitian style of zombie–aware and in thrall–is far more terrifying than a Dawn of the Dead flesh eater. That’s one of the attractions…is there someone in there, lurking, waiting to come back to the surface? Are they going to plow your fields? Or are they just going to tear you limb from limb? It’s almost like a game of chicken…seeing how close you can get, and how dangerous they might be.
As for being a zombie myself… some days, mom days, homeowner days, I seem to shuffle from chore to chore to chore. My writing sits there waiting and I feel foggy and anxious, like I’m not living my real life. And some other days, it sounds like the best thing in the world just to crush someone and eat their brains. I’m hungry for it.
Nancy Holder, “Passion Play”
Man… I feel that one. While writing these posts I’ve been thinking “…this all kind of begs the question [of me], “why zombies?” And that last quote comes close to it… aside from all the sociocultural/historical interest (of which there is much), what’s been my own personal relationship to the zombie? The first thing that comes to mind – because I haven’t, to this point, been all up in the zombie trend – is that throwaway line like “I feel like such a zombie lately…” with the baby, the dishes, the little I freelance, the driving to and fro… that mind/body disconnect that happens when we’re doing what we gotta do to stay systematic but not really practicing full engagement. When we somnambulate through the day cuz the boy awoke at 6 and needs feeding…
Another answer that a lot of the writers above quoted also pointed to is the emasculation of other popular monsters such as vampires and werewolves, how they’ve been de-clawed and over-sexed – humanized, in other words – by popular culture, but the zombie remains resolutely, frighteningly Other. More on this some other day…
(cuz gawd, it’s only 9pm and I feel like a total zombie)
Tagged: literature, Why Zombies