Gnawing at the air

It is now a commonplace for theorists and critics to elevate zombie films, along with their other gory brethen of splatter and dismemberment oriented film, for telling us something new about the "real." (Or, when those who read psychoanalysis get their/our hands on them, the "Real.") As in the following:

- The primal "real", some deep reptilian urges that get to return in all their anti-Rousseau fury, tearing away at living bodies like very ignoble savages.

- The thought of zombies as a kind of meta return of the repressed, the "Real" of contemporary life that cannot be included in the dominant symbolic order: a loopy perverted death drive whose cannibalism parodies the drives to excess consumption, thereby making the zombies mindless consumers or pitiless capitalists snatching up the weak, depending who you ask.

- What's "really" going on, the zombies as manifestations of racial, class, and gender conflict, as well as registering the anxieties and resistances to contemporary events.

- The forbidden, visceral, abject real of the body, the getting to see all the bloody bits brought to the surface, the abstract spirit of the mind rendered into just one more pile of succulent warm nutrition. Spirit is not a bone, it is the juicy bits encased within bone.

Fair enough. But our interest is in a different set of reals that map onto the particularity of what the figure of the zombie does and how it is positioned, uncertainly, in the mass culture of capitalism. Namely, it thinks how real abstractions work on real bodies, of the nastiest intersections of the law of value and the law of inevitable decay.*

And more specifically, it thinks this via two central concerns:

reanimation (transmission)

consumption (hunger)

In each pairing, the latter term is not the underlying cause, contrary to appearances. Romero-zombies are not reanimated because of infectious transmission of a "zombie disease" from the bite of a zombie, at least not until we get to the recent 28 Days Later model. They are reanimated because the world has changed in a way we can't determine. (How did the dead get the message to rise up? And why weren't we informed?) And they do not eat because of "hunger", in any physiological way: think here of the remarkable moment in Day of the Dead where Dr. Logan has removed all the vital organs of the vivisected zombie to watch it still strain to tear the flesh from his hands, its grashing teeth clamping down again and again on the air...

Rather, the latter term is the asubjective truth of the activity: it is the obscure center of a thought that exceeds what a zombie does or does not do, not verified by the reason why an individual subject, albeit necrotic and "without reason", acts a certain way. Hunger decoupled from the act of sating hunger, and transmission that we cannot trace. Each is the absent cause produced by the activity: precisely because it is not the reason for doing these things (the dead rising and the dead eating the living), it is raised in relief, the strange shadow undergirding and blackly illuminating the deeper workings of a totality. It is the point of the whole enterprise, from yawning graves to gnawing meat, precisely because it is missing from it. For what is hunger at its barest and most obscene if not a consumption that cannot end, for the very fact that it was never caused by hunger in the first place?

* I'm leaving out here a much longer, and rather theoretically dense, account of the relationship between cultural objects and real abstractions. It'll be in the much extended version of these thoughts in the book. If interested, search "real abstraction" on the blog to find my other discussions of it - there are far more than there need be.


Isaac said...

I've been silently reading this weblog for some time and I find I'm liking it more and more.

A few comments on the zombies, though. You stated that Romero-zombies are not reanimated by some ‘zombie disease’, but that instead the world is changed in some fundamental way, marking a major difference from the third generation of zombies in movies like 28 Days later and the re-make of Dawn of the Dead. This is true up to a point, I think. In Night of the Living Dead Romero made the cause of the "outbreak of mass murder" deliberately ambiguous with hints that it had something to do with the return of a probe from Venus on the news reports, and the result is a new global condition, the recently dead begin to rise-just as you’ve noted. But in Day of the Dead for example, a character’s arm is amputated on the belief that it will stop the infection. What’s more in all of Romero’s films, save for Night someone who dies of something other than bites (a gunshot wound) doesn’t seem to come back.
On another note I’ve read a lot of commentators talking about zombie hunger as a metaphor for consumerism or capital accumulation or any number of other things, I think this is all pointed in the wrong direction for a very simple reason which every piece of zombie media make very clear, especially Romero—Zombies only eat living (or uninfected), human beings. Once turned the body is now a part of the horde, ready to besiege still standing strongholds. The zombie wasn’t suppose to just be a mechanism of dissatisfied hunger but also in Romero’s words a kind of revolutionary 'masses', a vision of the “New society eating the old” is what he said in an AMC documentary.
These might be simply details, but they incline me to think that the difference between these two types of zombies (and different time periods) isn’t anything to do with transmission or any kind of amorphous hunger. The big switch, it seems, is that Romero’s zombies while slow and plodding are practically invulnerable (except the head) and as explained in Day can go on walking around indefinitely. In other words, they have no real material needs that they would need to work or steal for, they are eating purely to add to their number and can have a self sustaining undead civilization without humans (Land of the Dead). In Romero’s vision, to borrow from the feminists, a zombie needs a human like a fish needs a bicycle. Zombies were Romero’s “blue collar monsters”, after all, and were more than capable of taking over the world. To the upper and middle classes of the 1960’s and 70’s when Milton Friedman openly worried that the businessman would become extinct and social programs expanded in tandem with consumption and radical movements this seemed to be the hellish version of reality, at once horrifying and fascinating.
Moving closer to the present generation of zombies, they seem far, far weaker. Danny Boyles zombies, however enraged they got about their condition they as bodily vulnerable as any human perhaps more so, and should that fail they could be quarantined into starvation and all the land taken could be taken back. Having nothing to sustain them, they die. Where Romero’s zombies seem to be able to take over the world, Boyle’s film can only impotently riot in bloody rage as the world seals off Britain. On a different note though the tide has started to flow the other direction, with amateur movies, books, and zombie walks all taking their que from Romero, not Boyle.

socialism and/or barbarism said...


A zombie needs a human... fucking terrific. If you don't mind, at some point email me ( your full name, as I'd like to reference your formulation in the book of which these writings are a part.

thanks for the comment. There's a lot here to respond to. I'm not going to respond much here, given that you anticipated the issues I was going to be raising, particularly the question of not needing to eat, the emergent collectivity that can do very well without the humans. More than that, the question of "to whom are they frightening" is central to my account.

But indeed, the question of transmission remains muddy, most of all in the films themselves. The thing that is that no one seems to know exactly how it happens - will a bite cause you to become a zombie because of some transmitted virus, or simply because you will die from the likely very, very nasty virus that comes from a huge chunk of flesh being removed by something that has awful oral hygiene?

I would still, argue, however, that hunger remains the elephant in the room, precisely for the reason I tried to articulate in the post (the fact that it isn't a "reason" makes it all the more present). The invulnerability is indeed, as you mention, a question of hunger and its absence, not the fundamental toughness of the zombie, which largely takes the form of "not so bad one on one, but Christ, there's a lot of them". I think Return of the Living Dead, on which I'm going to spend a lot of time, is a) way more interesting than it gets credit form b) the film in which we see that deep survival toughness hits its hyperbolic apex (cutting it up isn't enough, acid isn't enough because the bones will still rage, it takes the crematorium, which then just makes it worse because of the undead life in the smoke) and c) where that question of "eating to add" to their ranks becomes fleshed out (at the moment of it being about brains and about the zombie pedagogy of sharing the pain you feel, the pain of feeling yourself rotting).