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Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human

by Deborah Christie, Sarah Juliet Lauro, Editors
Fordham University Press, NY, NY, 2011
304 pp. Paper, $26.00
ISBN: 978-0823234479.

Brian Reffin Smith
Regent, Collège de ’Pataphysique, Paris
Berlin, Germany


There are a couple of things, arguably true, that we can say about zombies. One is “The living, reeking dead are amongst us now”. The other: “We are all zombies”. Clearly the latter would entail the former. Or would it? If we are all zombies, what is a zombie to us? Would we know that we were zombies? Could we stand the smell? What is the difference, if any, between humans and zombies? One might also ask: “What is it like to be a Zombie?”. The standard philosophical response is “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie”, which deserves to be set to a tune from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The zombie is a transgression. It is not really the living dead nor the dead resurrected, but rather both: alive and dead, or if you like, true and false, 1 and 0. If things, à la Derrida, come with their opposites, then the Zombie is even a transgression to that, for there can be no opposite to ‘both alive and dead’ unless it be ‘neither alive nor dead’, which makes my brain hurt. It must be stressed: The true zombie is both fully alive and fully dead, pace Hollywood. It is both human and… ‘nothing there’.

The above, of course, is entirely about the ‘philosophical zombie’, or p-zombie. This is a construct, originally due to David Chalmers, which, in a vulgarly simplified form, asserts that if you can imagine a being like us in every way, impossible to distinguish from us by any test at all, yet it’s a Zombie…if you can imagine this, then you must perforce believe in something rather like a soul. This gets people like Daniel Dennet hopping mad, and I don’t blame him.

But the p-zombie is a rich source of intrigue and speculation, and goes (of course) to questions of consciousness, and I would argue artificial intelligence, too. I use it a lot in my performance and art work. Who has not been accused by a loved one of being a zombie? Who has not felt the lizard brain taking over after a hard night’s mulled wine? What if I don’t really feel emotions? I mean, not REALLY? And is it not plausibly argued that we are merely led to believe, by the ‘inner zombie’ in each of us, that we are in control, whereas it’s the thing inside, to which we are unconscious, that decides to press the button or steal the book, informing us only a few milliseconds or even seconds later, so that we can pretend it was our choice? Readiness potentials can be reliably reserved in action before we know we want to do X. In other words, what if, underneath it all, I am just a zombie? (And in fact, timorous reader, I am; so I must declare an interest.)

But we had better examine what we mean by the term before we apply it to philosophical or neurological states or problems, and ‘zombie’ has existed since at least 1819 in the English language and is related to nzambi ––god, and zumbi––fetish, in the West African language Kongo. The book under review is a splendid primer to the cultural senses of zombie with examples of zombie intrusion into all aspects of culture, media, and society. It covers the gamut of zombie phenomena from radio broadcasts to books, and early film to recent TV in a number of individually written chapters dealing with Haitian Identity and Zombification (how to make your own zombie, don’t try this at home), Undead Radio, the Zombie as Other and zombies in performance art, postmodern cinema, literature and so on, though oddly next to no mention of the zombie in video games and apps. There are nearly 40 pages of useful notes, a good index and a fine bibliography as well as a filmography.

In case this sounds a bit dry, it is saved from being too academic by lots of brain-watering examples:

“…your face!
My coffin was a poor one. Worms and maggots worked quickly…
No!
The dead are dead they told me…
Stay back!
The dead can’t walk they told me
No closer!
The dead can’t talk they told me
Stay back!
And yet I walk, I talk…
Back!”

(‘Scoop’, US radio drama, Dec. 8 1942)

This is one side of the zombie phenomenon. The book wisely makes no attempt to address the philosophical aspects of zombie per se for which the reader might delve into a tome such as Zombies and Consciousness (R. Kirk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007). Together, the two texts would equip one at least to approach the rich area of zombie studies. A search for the pair ‘zombie + consciousness’ in English over the last 80 years shows an almost exponential rise.

If Better Off Dead does not persuade you to get hold of a few DVDs of early zombie horror, or a book on how to survive the inevitable zombie invasion of your town or brain, then you have no inkling of the fact that what started in Haiti, continued in Hollywood, and finished as a philosophers’ nightmare is going to get bigger and bigger, for we are all post-human now. I mean, just look at us. Or if you can’t bear that, then look at those identical to us in every possible respect…except that they are zombies, who only pretend to have emotions, to feel pain or joy, to enjoy the colour and taste of a fine red wine, to make art or love. This is vital stuff: and as a British football manager said in another context, it isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.


Last Updated 2 February 2012

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