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:
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.