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.


Aro Valley Pre-School said...

On another socialist note, one of the central themes of the zombie ouevre is collectivism. A lone zombie is reasonably simple to handle: slow, stupid and uncoordinated. Every zombie movie has a pack scene, though - a mass of the undead working as one to devour the living, not just devour, but convert them, bring them into the collective.
Zombies also differ from other monsters because they're us, not some creature with special powers, sex appeal or a really hairy back, but regular folk in regular clothes shuffling about and trying to do their thing. Hungry to do their thing, you might say.

Giovanni Tiso said...

On another socialist note, one of the central themes of the zombie ouevre is collectivism.

Ah, yes. And, on one more socialist note, they've transcended class. I have always in fact yearned for a sequel of Matheson's I Am Legend that revealed what kind of society the zombies would produce.

Zombies also differ from other monsters because they're us

Now I just know I'm going to spend the rest of the week trying to bridge Gramsci's theory of the organic intellectual with the zombie philosophy of "Argh! Brains!". Organic, free range intellectuals are obviously a smarter dietary choice, but there may be deeper analogies.

Giovanni Tiso said...

One more for the list: my oldest told me that at school yesterday he played "zombie tag". Like regular tag, but you walk instead of running, if I understood correctly.

Paul said...

Voodoo economics leads to zombie bankers (who, incidentally will be making an appearance at the G20 protest)

Lyndon said...

The first three chapter of zombie-Austen are online.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It’s all the fun of getting a bootleg copy without the guilt.

But I was in it solely for the guilt!

(Thanks Lyndon.)

(And thanks Paul, although I'm more thinking of zombies eating the bankers rather than bankers eating us, since the latter is only a gnat's crotchet more literal than what's actually happening.)

Anonymous said...

i think we're overlooking something from the original zombie post, that the zombie itself has changed in contemporary fiction. the 80s zombie was the slow-moving, haitian-type undead who currently inhabit places like Queensgate.

seriously. those fckers are still there.

but the modern zombie is the mad rush hither and thither, screaming.

i'm not convinced modern socialism wants to imitate that.

PS. the word verification panel is "whabi". i think it's telling me there are islamists out their yelling their heads off about something banal.

Giovanni Tiso said...

but the modern zombie is the mad rush hither and thither, screaming.

i'm not convinced modern socialism wants to imitate that.

We can finalise the gait at the first committee meeting, I don't see that as a huge issue.

Jake suggests in a parallel comments thread that Land of the Dead should be the first item on the reading (viewing) list - it's all about class struggle and the tension between urban and suburban, he contends.

Jake said...

I see I am getting roped in.

Land of the Dead was Romero's fourth zombie movie, and was made twenty years after Day of the Dead.

Whereas most zombie movies deal with the outbreak of zombieness, Land of the Dead begins in the post-apocalyptic world. Survivors have found refuge in a fortified city, where a class structure has emerged. The wealthy buy their way into the Fiddler's Green Towers (I think that's what they're called), run by the evil Dennis Hopper. The rest of the survivors live out on the streets in an underclass controlled by gangs.

There is also a military class, who protect the wealthy from the underclass, and go on raids of the surrounding area, which has been overrun by zombies. They loot stores and kill any zombies who happen to be milling around.

So, there's a class distinction amongst the survivors. But the kicker is that, right at the beginning of Land of the Dead, the zombies develop class consciousness, in the E.P. Thomspon sense of the term. Sick of seeing their zombie friends killed so that wealth may be extracted, the zombies get together and start walking towards the city, collecting weapons along the way. The whole thing ends in a conflagration. It's good times, and an unsubtle call for oppressed people of different classes to band together and overthrow the entrenched interests.

The urban/suburban thing is, I think, less overt than the class dynamic. The fortified city is Pittsburgh, where Romero is from, and where the first two of his zombie films were shot. Pittsburgh is a particularly good candidate as a city to fortify against zombies, because it is situated on the confluence of three rivers. This is why it was the focus of a war between the French and English in the eighteenth century, and why it was an epicentre of steel production until the 1980s.

The city is full of amazing buildings, built by Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, and the other captains of industry, and also neighbourhoods of small row houses. One of the features of Pittsburgh housing, by the way, is a toilet in the basement, known as the 'Pittsburgh potty'. There was one in the last house we lived in, but not in our current one, which is in very large hours in what was once a neighbourhood of management types. The potties were installed so that workers could come home filthy from the mills, and clean themselves up in the basement before going into the house. So, the class history of Pittsburgh is dramatically pronounced in the architecture of the place. But I digress.

In the fifties, white Americans fled to the suburbs, and Pittsburgh was no exception. The city itself is quite small. The downtown area is situated at the point where the three rivers meet. The city ends about 10km east of that point, and takes up a little bit of land on either side of the northern and southern rivers, where there are steep hills. Beyond those hills, you're either in small townships that used to be part of the industry and are now practically ghost towns, or suburbs.

There is considerable tension between the city-dwellers and those in the suburbs, I think. If you dare to spend too much time on Craiglist Pittsburgh, you'll see it (although that's pretty much the bottom of the barrel in terms of public discourse.) The people in the suburbs are frightened of violence in the city, and it's true that there are some grisly murders around here from time to time. And those in the city don't think much of the burbs. Fairly straightforward stuff I think. And Romero lives in the city, in a flash neighbourhood called Shadyside.

So, in Land of the Dead, the people in the burbs are the zombies. The city is fortified against them, and its there that what remains of American civilization resides, albeit in an unhealthy state. The oppressed break free in the end, and in doing so destroy the city. But the thing is, the zombies are still zombies. They're still the terrifying monsters that we all fear we'll turn into, without consciousness -- grotesques of ourselves, milling around beyond the Southside Slopes, doing nothing with our unlives. The overthrow requires those zombies to wake up -- it needs to be a popular movement. No Trotskist, Romero.

I dunno, it's not a particularly complex reading of Land, but I don't think it should be ignored in a discussion like this one, or the one on socialism and/or barbarism.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thanks Jake - brilliant. I feel like postfacing it with these 100 photos of abandoned houses from the rust belt, none more haunting (and possibly haunted) than the one at the top of the page (hat tip: Ads Without Products).

Jake said...

Have a read of This article about Braddock. It's about ten minutes drive from my house. Or there's Hazelwood, which is one of the unoccupied neighbourhoods that is being demolished.

They're emblematic of post-industrial Pittsburgh's decline, although they don't tell the whole story, which is that industry has been replaced with knowledge economy.

Oh, and last year I went 'pumpkin patching' with some friends at Halloween. You can see the pictures on Facebook. It was really weird, because we drove about half an hour out of the city, through the suburban/semi-rural area. It was a couple of weeks before the election, and the change in bumper sticks and yard signs from Obama/Biden when we were in the city, to McCain/Palin when we got past the Southside couldn't have been more obvious.

Jake said...

I commented on Socialism and/or Barbarism.

Taramoc said...

The 100 abandoned houses pictures are amazing. I feel like starting a "Adopt an abandoned house program", with 20 dollars a year we can probably restore them in a 1000 years or so... Personally, I wouldn't mind owning number 20, even if virtually.

As per the zombie explosion, I read an article recently (don't recall where now) in which is mentioned that movie critics, at the end of the last century, had declared the zombie as virtually extinct cinematographic monster. The reality in the subsequent ten years proved the exact opposite: zombies are by far the most used monsters in entertainment in the last ten years, with vampires a distant second.

I could try to think what this turn-around is due to (9/11? Deregulation? HDTV? Better special effects available?) but I'm not sure I'd come up with something worth mentioning.

As per zombie as metaphor for suburban dwellers, I feel the need to mention Dawn of the Dead, one of Romero's previous film, remade a few years ago by Hollywood with the usual decrease in quality. The heroes were trapped in a big commercial mall trying to keep the mindless zombie away and living off the goods really prepared to be sold to the customers/zombies. Many scenes in the movie are really macabre version of what you see every day in malls everywhere, and the year was 1978, where consumerism wasn’t even close of what it is today.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Great comments and links, Jake. The phenomenon is not terribly new - whole cities and industrial belts in the West have died many deaths over the years, I was born next to a car factory that went that way close to thirty years ago myself - but all these stories seem to be coming to the boil again at once. I lost track of the photo and video essays that have been doing the rounds in the last few weeks, images without commentary that signal perhaps the collective difficulty in making sense of the layers of history and the where to's from here. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I enjoy so the work of Owen Hatherley - he consistently finds the words.

Many scenes in the movie are really macabre version of what you see every day in malls everywhere, and the year was 1978, where consumerism wasn’t even close of what it is today.

True, but in those days we were still capable of the occasional moment of critique. Nowadays anti-consumerism lives in the odd clever slogan on a T-shirt on sale for $29.99, or as a function of the damage it causes to the planet, as opposed to our humanity.

Curse you two, I'm going to have to watch me some Romero.

harvestbird said...

"'A zombi is a dead person
who seems to be alive
or a living person
who is dead.'"

Rhys made Rochester
mad for the unknown;
his wife, lovers, servants--
what had they that he did not?

On the other side
of our modern legend
is Pratchett's Reg Shoe:
whose revolution needs the dead

(no purgatory, no island torpor),
too much to do.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Hah... with somewhat over-zealous literal bent I was going to talk about "dead rights activism" in the context of my ongoing rant versus the digital immortalists. You open up much more interesting possibilities.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Quick, everyone: start humming to yourselves Bowie's We Are the Dead.

harvestbird said...

Pratchett's zombie characters are interesting in terms of zombie lore: you've got Reg, who is too sincere and too engaged a revolutionary to be felled by something as mere as death, much like Zombie Lenin in "Simpson Tide" (one of my favourite episodes).

Mr. Slant the lawyer on the other hand, seems to embody the kind of corporeal insight present at the end of Shaun of the Dead: some jobs don't require a living brain (or, metaphorically, mind) to be effectively completed. In SOTD it's the deadening jobs such as working in a supermarket that are shown as suitable for zombies, but in the case of Mr. Slant, removal of his emotions has far better fitted him for many years of commercial law.

I confess myself somewhat uneasy about the conflation of zombies with the lumpenproletariat in contemporary lore. It's funny but it smacks of chav-bashing: contempt for people who lack aspirations beyond their socio-economic status, whose failure is as much a failure of taste as ethics.

Having said that, I enjoyed the Zombie Reagan campaign of 2004 which was tied, eventually to fundraising for Alzheimers Research.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I confess myself somewhat uneasy about the conflation of zombies with the lumpenproletariat in contemporary lore. It's funny but it smacks of chav-bashing: contempt for people who lack aspirations beyond their socio-economic status, whose failure is as much a failure of taste as ethics.

Yes. And I should clarify that I think we should move well beyond that, creatively appropriate the simulacrum and take it to a whole new level. To reiterate, I have in mind what Haraway advocated with regard to the cyborg, another figure seen until then as an Other, a dminished or dehumanised human.