Off to London in two days. British comrades and those I have yet to meet, I'll be there for a couple weeks, so track me down. I worry that the reputation that precedes me amongst those few who might have read me is slightly doomy/bellicist, as Danny Leigh of described my position as: "Leave out the cannibalism and it might almost pass for optimism." But is there optimism without cannibalism?
On a perhaps related note, need to share my current love affair with politically radical Zambian psychadelia from the '70s. Particularly The Witch (acronymically We Intend to Create Havoc). If all revolutionary tracts sounded this remarkable, we might be doing far better at the moment.
Dig here and prepare for the girding of struggle via proper African lo-fi off-kilter shamble psych:
From John Lyly's A Most Excellent Comedie of Alexander, Campaspe, and Diogenes:
Diogenes: Ye wicked and bewitched Athenians, whose bodies make the earth to groan and whose breaths infect the air with stench, come ye to see Diogenes fly? Diogenes cometh to see you sink. Ye call me dog; so I am, for I long to gnaw the bones in your skins. Ye term me a hater of men; no, I am a hater of your manners. Your lives dissolute, not fearing death, will prove your deaths desperate, not hoping for life.
Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.
- Heine, Lutetia; or, Paris
The world is always already apocalyptic. Just not all at the same time.
What must be overcome is a notion of apocalypse as evental, as the ground-clearing trauma that at once founds a new nomos of the earth. What we need instead is a conception of combined and uneven apocalypse.
In other words: we have always occupied a world in which Heine's entirely new beasts have emerged and exist alongside us, real organizations of suffering and domination. All the more so, in unprecedented invention and brutality, under capitalism. The question is the visibility of these beasts. They are always rearing their figurative heads, yet as they are not accidental but rather necessary functions and consequences of the world order particular to capitalism, they are structural blindspots with profound material effects. The intentional symptom, the shouldn't-be that has-to-be for it all to work: no wonder it's so hard to write a new apocalypse.
This isn't to dredge back up the persistent (and always relevant) point that we remain conveniently unaware of pockets of hell on earth, the zones that approximate the total breakdown of civility and quality of life, or that we catch glimpses of them only when they surge up in the midst of supposedly advanced sectors of the world. The rotting refuse of Katrina revealed what we've "known all along" about the structures of poverty, race and urban decay in America (as the dark mirror barely approximating the zones scattered across our planet of slums).
Instead, a different tack here, moving through the dream-image of salvage punk and the nightmare-image of the dead rising, to venture a properly unstable third: the recognition that the post-apocalyptic is not an image of that-to-be. It is not that which lies beyond the apocalyptic event. It is a necessary optic onto the flourishing wastelands of late capitalism, the recognition that the apocalyptic event has been unfolding, in slow motion accompanied with sudden leaps and storms. Behind our backs and in front of our faces. In waiting for the cataclysm, we missed the drift of it.
The figure of thought to unravel this all here - and the figure of thought around which our post-apocalyptic work must center - is the city. The city in the era of decaying industrial first-world cities, the petro-wealth boom towns beginning to slip, the slum megalopolises across the globe, the epochal transformations that we strain to recognize fully. In a time in which, as Mike Davis has shown with clarity, cities across the globe are wracked by conditions we would be hard pressed to describe as other than apocalyptic, we need to look to the cultural instantiations of apocalyptic cities and their post-apocalyptic refigurings as a way to think through and past our time.
To unravel its post-apocalyptic figuration along three lines:
The city as ruins emptied of human life, the structures of urban existence reclaimed by nature
The city as site of uneven time, of the coexistence of apocalyptic zones within the overall functioning of commerce and urban daily life
The city as time-out-of-joint zone within the world order as a whole, the consciously neglected site in which new modes of collectivity may begin to emerge
To get into it, then...
Post-apocalyptic cities seem caught between two primary fantasies which give a sense of the imagined apocalyptic event that produces the situation: the empty and the full apocalypse, the barren and the teeming, between the loners wandering the evacuated sites of life and the abandoned hordes swarming in some reclaimed outpost of lost humanity. To be sure, the most subtle iterations claim the space that is both (think of the plague city of loners flooded with the walking dead, at once the excess of bodies and the apparent desolation of life). Yet much of the dominant vision of the city "after the fall" is that of a waste zone, echoes of Tarkovsky's Stalker (and Marker's Sans Soleil) intended. In Tarkovsky's version, the sort of extraurban Zone, girded by the military, is a space delimited from "normal" life surrounding it, in all its decay and Soviet rust-belt prettiness. In our move away from the global event version of the apocalyptic condition, we find again and again the borderland and the bound, the space encircled to keep without and within. Yet in Stalker, what is preserved (as the emancipatory potential of a post-apocalyptic, post-rational Zone) is the hollow, a sort of empty anti-commons. The vestiges of day-to-day existence become otherwordly in their vacancy, fused with a halting spirituality notably absent in the far more subtle novella (the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic) that forms the source material for Stalker. (In addition, we might note the future-oriented echoes between the conditions of Stalker and the very real conditions, and consequent decay aesthetic, that came to be in Chernobyl.)
From Lenin's face watching over the abandoned room...
... to the sad majesty of interior sand dunes that may as well be burial mounds.
The result, as evident in the images above, is a form of tragic "magical" realism, of the ruins now entering into contact once more with Nature, succumbing to deep ecological time. A description early in Maurice Dantec's 2005 Cosmos Inc. (about which a much larger reading of post-apocalypticism is deserved) sums up this tendency acutely:
Nature may have been pushed aside by ecoglobal planning, but human cities are turning back into jungles: half-petrified virgin forests in the stagnant water of this unified human world, barely distinguishable from what remains of the natural wilderness around them, or from the out-of-control efflorescence running riot in the deserted streets, the silent highways; the empty buildings, shopping centers, and subway stations.
In these dead cities, cities abandoned by men, nature has become savage again, escaping the automated cycles and engineers of geo-global planning. It is the last vestige of liberty left by technology to the world of Homo sapiens. It does not lack a certain tragic beauty.
We might think here again of the function of the dream-image thinking its utopian future, shedding off the accrued material of the recent past and sliding back toward the impossible time "before it all went bad." The location of liberty in the site, and mode of sight of, the after-city is, at best, the sort of doomed nostalgia epitomized by anarcho-primitivists (and the highly conservative, survivalist, blood and soil, reversing the course of history ending of Wall-E), and, at worst, a form of Hegelian logic distorted beyond recognition: the naked ape (or two self-consciousnesses, to be precise) encounter in the forest, to be mediated and navigated into the master-slave relation, instead writ species wide, the fantasy of the human race confronting itself in mortal combat.
To be clearer, here, we might think of the recurrent instance in Hiroki Endo's Eden: It's an Endless World! manga series, the moment when an individual subject acts willfully so as to bring about the death of the species as a whole. What is at stake here is neither bald misanthropy nor the kind of anti-human logic espoused by certain radical ecological movements (though the series does articulate some of those "the earth would be better off us and our attendant damage" sentiments). Rather, buried within all their survivor-guilt and loathing of "what we've become" is the dangerous gambit of a properly apocalyptic dialectical ethics:
The human race is only worth preserving if we have the courage to make the willful decision to exterminate it.
More than just the petty fantasy of certain posturing black metallers, this is the paradox suffocating and structuring those who face the blood bath of the 20th century as well as those loners wandering those waste zones, on the other side of the irreversible event. Like the being that must be unlike itself to prove its capacity as more than mute drive and instinct, the impossible thought here is that only suicide proves that you are indeed an autonomous subject. Species-wide Russian roulette: you have to pull the trigger to realize that you never should have done so.
Ubaldo Ragona's 1964 The Last Man on Earth, the most haunting adaptation yet of I Am Legend, is riven by this, caught and split between the melancholy of nights alone, listening to old jazz records and drinking while the zombies feebly try to break in, and the task of extermination, the long slow work of daytime dispatching of those who will rise.
Of course, in the remarkable turn now well-known and the sudden and utter collapse of the narrative of persistence and lone heroism, the task of extermination finds its real blindspot: the one to be killed is the killer, the one who cannot grasp that a new order has been inaugurated. He kills to preserve the irrevocably gone and cannot make the one kill that alone redeems him. Only in staking himself would the death of the human race become something worth mourning.
Tragic as this may be, we don't want a revolutionary thought-model that is tragedy. (As for whether farce is the correct alternative remains to be seen, though I'm not alone in my suspicions.) We see, in short, the sticking-point of the empty world post-apocalyptic model: it remains in thrall only with the possibility of its own death and with the non-subjective processes to come along and swallow up the ruins of humanity. If this is the dominant figure of our day, we should be truly afraid, for it is the end of politics, the end of the thought of intervention in the patterns of history.
However, the incisive force of apocalyptic thought lies elsewhere and deserves to not be cast aside because one strain of it moves toward self-genocidal visions. Of more interest and promise is the city of uneven time, underground histories at odds with the apparent ruling organization of the urban zone.
Gary Sherman's remarkable Death Line (1972, titled Raw Meat in the U.S.) is one of the most startling articulations of this tendency, a version that, appropriately for this blog, demands the question "socialism or barbarism?" with a subtle, off-kilter severity and a degree of unparalleled literalism. In this case, the definitive answer appears to have been barbarism. Yet the above poster, attempting to shoe-horn the film into the market for exploitation horror, is at striking odds with the film itself. (One might imagine some seriously alarmed viewers looking for gore and nudity, finding instead a dark parable about the capacity of an economic order to turn against those who labor it requires.) Rather, the film is far closer to this:
The moment of mourning, of mute suffering struggling to comprehend. The rough arc of the story is as follows. In 1892, a group of workers digging tunnels for the London Underground were trapped in a collapse. No attempt was made to save them, not because the accident was undetected, but because the corporation behind the digging covered up the incident and went bankrupt, never willing to threaten their crumbling reputation with the disclosure of what happened. The workers were left to rot, slipping through the cracks of a now disappeared company and a state that couldn't be bothered to oversee the abuses of system. In short, capitalism in its standard operating procedure. And what results, then, is barbarism, of the "descent of the species", generations of the workers maintaining a community underground, winding through passageways to pick off commuters for cannibalistic feeding.
Two aspects of the film need to be considered as more than implausibilities needed for the sake of horroring up the plot. If they were trapped collectively below, why have they lost their ability to speak English in just 80 years? And if the underground dwellers know how to get to the other stations to feed, why do they not then return to the world above through these routes?
Regarding the first question: why do they not develop off the bedrock of the Victorian culture to which they belonged? One might imagine a more interesting film in which they maintain a flourishing underground community below, a community that departs from the state of affairs above at their time of burial and then articulates its own history. The Victorian moment in isolation from the world system, set to unpack its ideologies and ways of living without contamination from elsewhere. Instead, though, what we are given is a total slide back to that impossible time. A nightmare image of the human animal cut off from society, we see here a similar tendency to envision that the post-apocalyptic instance is a resetting of the clock, of a slide toward long-forgotten modes of barbarism. The political appeal of this is an apology for the barbarism of capitalism, a tendency one borne out especially in the marketing of the film that shows, unveiled, the true conception of the laboring subject under the industrial order: once humans, but now no longer men and women, less than animals, just the raw meat of production...
The second question, that of their staying below, is that of the post-apocalyptic zone as time out of joint and, against the seeming degradation of those within it, a nascent structure of realizing the act of conscious will to occupy and territorialize an alternate history. For while it is the seemingly contingent set of circumstances that "seal one off" and create this off-time, the pocket of other living that is the negation of the dominant mode of life in the city, we know better: these circumstances are structural, necessary, desired, not by any planner but by the general logic of the capitalist order. These pockets are rarely as dramatically underground (both literally and figuratively) as in Death Line. Consider one of the sharpest post-apocalyptic films to date, Godard's Alphaville. Because, at the end of the day, the point of Alphaville is that you don't need to build a set to approximate a dystopian future. You just need to drive through Paris.
No other world, no forgotten tomb below the hygenic, ordered, and adminstered city. The city itself is that set of off-times, of catastrophes written into the organization of the city, engineered to remobilize them to a productive destruction of frozen capital and the possibility of redevelopment, kicking the unwanted further and further to the periphery.
This leads to the final consideration of the post-apocalyptic city, not just as a fabric of facilitated zones of development, with the attendant post-apocalyptic sites wedged between (and at times situated directly within) massive outlays of new capital, but as a post-apocalyptic zone as a whole. The city as lived waste zone, as designated site of apocalypse, a dark space that gives shape to the combined and uneven development of international capitalism. The city as a negativity, one that is perhaps up for grabs not as a lost site to be reclaimed by nature or newer, greener capital but as a determinate negation.
The great filmmaker of the post-apocalyptic city (that is not in the future but lived now) is John Carpenter, and Escape from New York, that sloppy mess of uncertain politics and lumpen life, is perhaps the best articulation of what is at stake here. The film opens, after announcing that in 1988 "the crime rate in the United States rises 400 percent", with a cartographic depiction of the transformation of Manhattan Island into a designated lived waste zone, the space where all prisoners will be sent and kept in.
The successive additions, most notably the coloring in of the empty space, reveal that the city to be abandoned to those forced there is the hollow zone of after-the-fall: it is a space of collectivity, of bodies that need to learn to coexist. And like the subway dwellers of Death Line, we are seemingly meant to assume that they would want to leave, that being condemned to live there is necessarily worse than the world that sent them there. To echo and alter the early statement, you need to be exiled to realize that you wanted out in the first place.
Not to valorize or romanticize the situation. The Manhattan island of this film is a bleak place, all wet pavement and scattered debris. And one of the opening moments of the film, in a perverse echo of the rafts of refugees struggling toward the shore of developed nations, is a group of convicts on a makeshift raft, heading across the river to the walls of the prison.
Shot down by a helicopter, we see the city first in its exteriority, a dark, dead space from which one will escape, even by certain death.
New York City as the consummate wasteland, the negative space from which life flees. Again, the silent necropolis, halted in time.
But on the ground, things look different. It is an assemblage space, a site of trash and debris, scurrying figures in the shadows, through which the lone hero walks against the backdrop, in the infamous shot of the downed Air Force One, of the total collapse of the American version of managed life.
The more time we spend with Snake in this space, the more familiar it becomes. Like Alphaville's Paris, the discomfort is uncanny, not sublime: we know these sort of spaces, we've walked through the "bad part of town," forgotten as the money and occupants have gone elsewhere. The city of anti-development looks like much of the collapsing urban areas of the West, albeit without the frantic attempts at urban renewal.
Yet in this city, itself the designated apocalyptic zone of America, we find spaces that are truly post-apocalyptic, where life doesn't begin again but has never stopped. The cheering crowds at the deathmatch, the collectivity ready to act together. And in perhaps our finest articulation of Proletkult after the kinotrain, the emergence of culture outside of any industry, the convicts in drag putting on a show.
One makes do. Or rather, ones make do together. Against this cuts Snake, the mercenary who will trade against his fellow criminals out of an apparent continued belief in an American beyond the walled city. He does save the president, he does escape New York, he does resist participation in group formation.
But there is the ending of the film, that crooked non-grin of the misanthrope who will damn the world. After the president makes evident his lack of care for "those who died along the way," Snake pulls the consummate prank of culture jamming, replacing the cassette with necessary information for the defusing of a delicate, nuclear-backed political stalemate, with a cassette of "Bandstand Boogie." Having stated, "although i shall not be present at this historic summit, I present this in the hope that our great nations may learn to live in peace," the cheery sounds that spell nuclear war boom out. Below, the face of power confronted with the big band jazzy consequences of his lack of care for his citizens, even those cast off and refused.
In the final shot of the film, Snake limps away, apparently having produced an exquisite fuck-you not only to the president, but to world peace itself, tearing the tape from the cassette containing the possibility of glossing over the work of death needed to maintain the status quo.
Is this the same misapplied Hegelian logic, that by letting it burn we find there was something we should have saved? It seems not. Snake's gesture operates differently, in that we are no longer facing a flat world in which the decision can be made definitively. The fallout of his actions are not a universal condition (like the later turn in the Endo series, in which we learn eventually that what seemed to be a pandemic ending the human race has affected only certain areas and that much of the world goes on as before). Snake's refusal to play along, then, is different in that it is a knowing rejection not of the world as such but of the first world's claim to be the only world, to be the hegemonic universal beyond which there is nothing worth saving. While the film overvalorizes the "elite" or vanguard group able to navigate a survival of the fittest state of affairs, it simultaneously models a powerful and subtle version of what the revolutionary militant can, and perhaps must, be: to act as if my actions are universal while refusing to forget the embeddedness and particularity of the conjuncture, of recognizing both that we need to think that there is a course of history to intervene into while doing so by recognizing that history is out of joint, uneven and scattered.
To end, then, is to urge us to think about our position as that of apocalyptic analysis and post-apocalyptic ethics and tactics. Neither to urge the hurrying toward a bloody collapse of the system nor to sit and wait for it to come. Instead, to fully analyze our apocalyptic world. Post-apocalyptic is a mode of thought, not a state of affairs. And we face a globe in which portions are designated obsolete, forcibly shuffled off the world historical stage. In those spaces we might detect modes not of protesting this but of moving past it, of recognizing that we haven't been misplaced by accident. We are out of time, in both senses, stuck in histories that don't belong but which can be taken up and used.
If there is a site to fully recognize and deal with this, it is undoubtedly the city. Davis, Harvey, and others have been increasinly calling for the elevation of "right to the city" as a crucial rallying cry, one that might take the form of Brecht's 1921 question from his diary cited by Davis:
Where are the heroes, the colonisers, the victims of the Metropolis?
The world isn't flat, despite what capitalism and its apologists like to themselves and us. It never has been, never has worked that way, and has always depended on the casting to the wolves of whole populations, whole spaces of life. We inherit and occupy the material sites of this casting off, and the first step toward our casting off, both from this point in history and in casting off the weight of a monstrous world system, is to take fully on the burden of an apocalyptic world so that we can start to refuse it and, in this negation set on the grounds of those cities salvaged and never-quite-dead, write the post-apocalypse we want.
Part of Viktor Shklovskij's brilliance was that he not only described the creeping disjunctive unsettle-and-laugh anti-sublime (not that it lacks qualities of it, but it functions in reverse, the sneaking up behind you dethroning of the understanding) of defamiliarization (ostranenie). It's also how he can pull it off in his own prose, like a stand-up comedian whose punchline (at least in A Sentimental Journey, his memoirs from 1917 to 1922) is often the brutality of banal moments in the midst of slaughter.
A favorite from A Sentimental Journey (although less corpse-oriented than much of this memoir):
My wife asked every day, "Aren't you going to blow yourself up one of these days?"
I was still wearing that green suit made out of somebody's drapes.
Even where reality finds entry into the narrative, precisely at those points at which reality threatens to suppress what the literary subject once performed, it is evident that there is something uncanny about this reality. Its disproportion to the powerless subject, which makes it incommensurable with experience, renders reality unreal with a vengeance. The surplus of reality amounts to its collapse; by striking the subject dead, reality itself becomes deathly[...]
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
If it wasn't already apparent, the media flurry around Seth Grahame-Smith's forthcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes it conclusive: the zombie - at least in its often enoyable yet impotent, kitschy, "survival guide", Zombie Strippers and Shaun of the Dead form - has become the nightmare-image of the day. If salvagepunk is the dream-image vision of rust and bolts restructuring of the built world, the lurch and rot of zombie hordes is its seeming negation. The obscene persistence of the human animal shows itself, not built or builder. Salvagepunk's homo faber meets its homo superstes, defined not by how it refashions the apocalyptic world it inherits but by the bare fact of its survival (of its own personal world-ending event, its death), a survival that nevertheless signals the end of the collective world as we know it.
In other words, in the zombie scenario, the problem is not the immensity of what is to be done by the too few survivors, of how to make a world so as to avoid its trendlines toward systemic failure while still salvaging and repurposing the ruined tools of the "before." The problem, faced with zombies, is that there are too many survivors.
Albeit the wrong kind of survivor. In an echo of continued surging anxieties about overpopulation, the "planet of the slums", contaminated commodities from afar, and the ongoing degradation of the global south, the ongoing passion for all things zombie has the quality of a perverse, rather subversive joke. Rather than the production of corpses that results from capitalism's management (supported coups, ignored genocides, blocking of access to food and medication, destruction of ecosystems) of its unwanted poor, the production of corpses in the a zombie scenario becomes the production of more mouths to feed. World hunger at its most naked, the sick repetition of want let loose on a global scale.
Yet we need to think through the specificity of the recent period of zombie-fixated culture and its fixation with contagion. For in this wave, exemplified by Boyle's 28 Days Later films, the focus is less on the insatiable hunger of the zombie and more on the danger of the bite, of the transfer of the virus. To be sure, we might read in this continued fears about pandemics, AIDS, and other "literal" figures of contagion and transfer via the bodily act. But this would miss the crucial aspect at hand, namely, why the undead aren't even undead anymore.
The dominant logic of the zombie film from the 40's through the early 80's was two-fold: either the Haitian zombie who was not dead per se and actively controlled via voodoo...
or the shambling hordes, still bearing marks of their life before death, of Romero's trilogy (and others, such as Ragona's Last Man on Earth).
The latter won the day, as icon, as shot in the dark that founded a set of generic conventions, and as site of critique. Romero's own films tracked out their nascent logic, moving to the shuffling corpse mall shoppers in '78 to the factional military dwelling underground in '85. As a tradition, it found its extension into the aesthetic splatter and brutal decay of Fulci's films in Italy, ranging from the Satanic Surrealist genius of The Beyond to Zombie's island of fetid cadaverous cannibals. However, as a horror trope, the zombie film lost its mainstream cachet for a period, as the nameless, replaceable hordes were themselves replaced by the endless iterations of the big names (Freddy, Jason, Michael, Chuckie, etc) and the attempts to found series of continuing characters. More precisely, continuing locations of threat and menace in hard-to-kill, discernible individuals.
Such a tendency was equally hard to kill for the industry, as it continued (and continues) to churn out increasingly campy versions, with the kind of proto-mash-up format we can see in Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator (those odd films that have distant ancestors in the sort of madcap goofiness that is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). In the two year span between '94 and '96, Wes Craven released Wes Craven's New Nightmare (which took the piss out of his own Freddy Kreuger series and, with a broad, post-modern gesture, took the legs out of 80's horror seriality) and Scream, which paved the way for imitators of its brand of knowing, black comedic, smug slasher moves and conventions.
This is all to say while the legacy of Romero's films never went fully away, the dominant logic in horror films became that of one-to-one violence: the antagonist kills one individual after another, not as a systemic event (suddenly all the dead rise) but a series of encounters (Jason kills another camper) that give the illusion of moral readability and localizable causality (revenge, individual pathology, the usual suspects).
Yet if we consider the preeminent expression of the contemporary zombie film, the Boyle films, as well as the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, with its significant difference from the original, we find a striking departure from the Romero gesture and its embedded politics.
Namely, in these films, the zombies are not the dead risen: they are simply the infected living. The Rage virus in the Boyle series, the rabies-like contagion in the Dawn of the Dead remake. The Wikipedia entry on the remake spells out the gap:
"In the original, as in Night of the Living Dead, all 'recently dead' are reanimated by an unidentified source. Zombie bites seem to somehow induce rapid death, and subsequent reanimation, even though death by any manner will result in reanimation of the dead as well. The cause is never fully elaborated upon, but news reports in the first film imply that the cause is radiation from a space probe to Venus that was destroyed and landed back on Earth. In the remake, it springs up worldwide overnight, and is definitely blood or saliva-borne, relying on zombie bites for transmission (like rabies). In the original, anyone who dies for any reason returns after several minutes (so long as their brain is intact). In the remake, only those infected return and after a period of less than a minute after death."
In short, the specificity of the zombie - as the global condition that repeats endlessly, the ceaseless getting back up of the corpses - is abandoned for a scenario that combines the one-to-one logic of the slasher, the subject-turning bite of the vampire/werewolf film, and the fear of the thoughtless, rabid masses (although who are less concerned with sating hunger than with biting, in a blind fury of species propagation).
What is consequently abandoned is what gave the nightmare vision of the zombie its stomach-turning potency: neither the unthinking rage not the poisonous bite of the contemporary non-undead, but the lumbering want of consumption (hunger beyond shame) and the inexplicability of rising up once more. We lost the critical vision of the conatus gone haywire.
In a strange twist, when the contemporary zombie film approaches something like the massification of the vampire, it is a contemporary vampire film proper that comes closer to the blow to thought of the Romero gesture. Let the Right One In, the superb 2008 Swedish film, gives us a bleak sight of hunger-beyond-reason and homo superstes, although with a vital distinction: Eli, the permanent pre-pubescent vampire of the film, is constituted around her fundamental fact: the ontological trauma that comes from being fully aware of one's hunger, of reason apprehending the non-reason of drive. A symptom already traversed still yearns. As such, it is the proper dialectical twist of the relation to want and thought in the Romero world.
The Cotard's delusion (that turns out to be no delusion at all, unlike the sublime indeterminacy of Martin) of Eli finds its negation in the bare hunger of Night of the Living Dead's Karen, seen here eating her father. The shot is remarkable: the door opens, a crack of light reveals her, not in shame at the act but with the sudden stillness of one caught eating at the open refrigerator in the night. The absence of the shame is filled by our revulsion, perhaps not at the tasteful black and white gore of the moment but of her misrecognition.
This is the misrecognition of one who has risen without reason, not compelled to rise for a purpose beyond the mere repetition and imitation of life. For the basic fact of the true zombie gesture, in its occluded form, is not the animation of the dead body but the over-animation of the living body. What is the world condition that occurs? It is clearly not that all the dead who ever died rise. It is not even those dead with enough connective tissue and meat on their bones to stand and shamble. It is those who died after the new set of rules came to be, the evental shift that only becomes evident in its after-effects. In this way, the Romero films are not about the dying world. They are about surplus-life, the new logic of excessive existence: something has given all too-much-life, an inability to properly die, a system that no longer knows how or when to quit. The non-undead of the contemporary zombie reveals, in odd relief, that the classical undead are themselves just a continuation and modification of the human animal in its perseverance.
But the shuffle of the risen dead speaks radically, of those not even rudely awakened, but rudely going-on, the obscenity of that which can rot but which never goes away properly. A world of refuse, of unnecessary surplus-life that's forgotten how to speak.
Why, in the contemporary climate, of the consecutive fever-pitch and clusterfuck of the neo-liberal order, has the zombie at once become our definitive nightmare-form and betrayed its particularity? What undergirds this new vision of the undead who were never dead? And what will the next vision be, after the death throes of the infected? These are questions to be borne out further in thought and far further in the geopolitical and cultural consequences to come in the next few years. Yet the lines from Adorno with which we began give a crack through which to think.
The surplus of reality amounts to its collapse; by striking the subject dead, reality itself becomes deathly.
The point here, both frightening and expansive, bleak and bright, is to take fully onto ourselves this endgame of the "surplus of reality," of the symbolic, political, and economic overdetermination of all the things of the world under capitalism. Out of this surplus, this overwhelming of the subject capable of speaking and intervening in the world that was, the dead things and soon-to-be-dead bodies of the world, now the basic truth of the system, find tongues. As in the infinite corpse-strewn wasteland that concludes Fulci's The Beyond (one of the few films with the courage to stick to its properly apocalyptic guns) and as in Debord's proposition that reality explodes in the heart of the world made unreal, the task might be, at least figuratively, to stop searching for the nostalgic beating heart that brings radical thought to a standstill, in its frozen image, and to start from the fundamental deadness of that world. This is neither conciliation nor reconciliation. It is an exposure of the already-was and no-longer.
For what if we bring the plague, not just of surplus-life bound to spin its decaying wheels in the corner, but to the deeper dead? A structural condition - and what is this if not a better way to speak through the dead and to make history say what it should - that goes back further, against the grain. The long dead rising, rustling in their coffins, awake and restless and buried too deep, but thinking again. Scattered bones in killing fields sweating and shuffling. The whole earth shudders.