Monday, March 30, 2009

Zombie Ideas

I recently subscribed, for satirical purposes I assure you, to a service called Plinky, which was designed and developed by people who reckon that our culture doesn't produce quite enough inanity. So what Plinky does is relentlessly provide new conversation starters, just in case you might have been dangerously close to feeling like shutting the hell up for five minutes and, I don't know, reading a book, or picking your nose. I've been dutifully filing the Plinky suggestions under 'Civilisation, Collapse of', with the intention of acting all smarmy and superior about them in a future post, but here's one from last week that is worth offering ahead of schedule:

Not for the first time in the course of the last few weeks, I was left asking myself: what's this thing with the zombies all of a sudden? Between the highly anticipated release earlier this month of this book,

Paul Krugman's invective against the zombie financial ideas embraced by Obama and his advisors, the young Mr. Rae-Brown reviewing this game just this morning, and without even getting into the flurry of recent activity on the silver screen, I'm seriously beginning to wonder if it might be time to board the doors and windows shut.

Every epoch has its monsters. During the blood-sucking Eighties and partway through the Nineties, thanks to the fine work of Ms Rice and others, it was the vampire. Now it's the zombie. What could it mean? Over at Socialism and/or barbarism, Evan Calder Williams finds echoes of 'continued surging anxieties about overpopulation' the "planet of the slums", contaminated commodities from afar, and the ongoing degradation of the global south'… as well as '[w]orld hunger at its most naked, the sick repetition of want let loose on a global scale.' Plus lots more stuff, none more intriguing than the idea that what is being metabolised here by the culture is a surplus of life. It really is a richly layered piece that I urge you to set some time aside to take apart and savour, as it were.

Being far too squeamish to engage in the relevant close readings, I'm going to address this thing in much more general terms, and with one ulterior motive. For I've come in for some sharp criticism over last week's post, and while I don't want to engage directly somebody who chose to make her opinions known away from the spotlight of the comments box, I should really try to account for some objections of obvious merit. Namely: that I failed to make a stand, declare my allegiance to a specific political project at a time that demands more than just a vague nostalgia for a more militant past. And besides, contends my correspondent, nostalgia is reactionary, and we have no use for that. Now the zombie image might help me explain why I think we need imagination and memory alongside staunch resolve and a bedrock of principles.

Let's isolate a key sentence of the Fukuyama essay I went over last week:
The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance.
The end of history is made to coincide here with the passing of an ideology, which is a most interesting proposition: for how do you kill an idea, and ensure it stays dead? Following World War II some countries, including my own, legislated against the use of the symbols of fascism, not just the promotion of its key tenets, with the explicit aim of removing it from collective memory and prevent the reactivation by means of imagery of the forces that had just been defeated. 'Apology of fascism' in Italy is not the generic indictment of an unsavoury political position but an actual crime, albeit one that gets tangled into questions of constitutional legitimacy that make it hard to prosecute. And, it could be argued by looking at the pedigree of our current ministers, it has helped the country very little. But then unbecoming was always about cosmetic as opposed to substantial changes, amnesties as opposed to historical analysis and the proper apportioning of blame. Look where it got us.

Now it's the turn of Socialism to go through a revival, against the backdrop of the smoking ruins of the neoliberal edifice so dear to Mr Fukuyama. Even if you happen to be amongst those who never thought that Marx's ideas had lost any of their relevancy, you might agree that this historical juncture creates a uniquely fertile ground for creative reinvention. The man himself was obviously quite conscious of the power of imagery, and wrote of ghostly realities and of communism as a spectre haunting Europe, a metaphor that seems almost embarrassingly pertinent these days, as Derrida intuited in his timely apology of Marxism (which is also an invective contra-Fukuyama), elaborated when the rubble of the Wall was still tepid.

Derrida writes of the spectres that haunted Marx, and of Marx as a haunting presence for his detractors and supporters alike. In doing so he creates a space for disimagining capitalism and imagining a socialism no longer under the illusion that the ghosts will completely vanish at a teleologically reached and history-ending moment in time. He writes too about the difference between a spirit and a spectre, and about a mode of life that amounts to survival, a ghostly living. It's a set of images worth reclaiming, I think, as it is done quite self-consciously by various revivalists - think of the very popular political UK blog named Lenin's Tomb. But there is a tension, too: between reinvention and restoration, between accounting for the exact nature of the present challenges and resetting the clock to earlier cultural dominants - say, Modernism, or Realism - perceived to be friendlier to the cause. Except I don't see these activities as mutually exclusive: it is possible to mine the past for tools of concrete present use, not to mention a political lineage made of movements and people worthy of modelling one's activism after, in a way that is not simply retrograde or nostalgic. To the extent that I think that my work on memory has a political dimension, it is it. At the same time, I shall insist that Marxists remain willing to confront their monsters

A lovely day for a stroll by the Volga, comrade Stalin.

and to account for the people who were made to disappear for being regarded as inimical to the cause, or as soon as they stopped being faithful to the line.

Comrade Yezhov, so good to see you again!

That, too, is the proper work not just of history and historians, but of memory itself.

Having evoked this last set of spectres, it might appear a touch glib to appeal to the zombie imagery, but the times demand a little leap of imagination, I think, and fuller use of the considerable power of contemporary mythologies. The opportunity has been staring at us at least since zombie Lenin made his appearance on The Simpsons, circa season nine:

Some years earlier, in 1985, Donna Haraway had told us from the pages of Socialist Review of her 'ironic dream', and proposed that feminists make theirs the metaphor of the cyborg and use it to construct a new political identity. Thus was Cyborg Feminism born. Perhaps our epoch could use some Zombie Socialism.