Review of Zombie Theory: A Reader
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
504 pp., illus. 58 b/w. $30.00
I have always thought that thinking about zombies in popular culture - the zombie movies and video games, the meaning of the zombie narrative - was a sideshow, the B-movie to the grown-up, art-house docu-drama, the tractatus zombi-philosophicus of consciousness studies, quantum physics and speculative cognition. It was epistemology as existential thriller and none the worse for that. But now, like a bull-dozer in the night, slamming sideways into the peaceful study of the philosophical zombie, comes this book, a vast collection of interdisciplinary zombie scholarship covering just about everything on zombies in the arts, society, politics, philosophy, forms of alienation and colonisation, and every aspect of the human condition. I now see that there is no way we can approach the refined questions of consciousness, artificial intelligence, free will or indeed life, the universe and everything proper to a well-found zombie-theoretical ouvroir or workshop, without considering what we bring to these enquiries from zombie culture. Like some echo from an alien past, zombies seem to be in our DNA, and we ignore their epigenetic influence on our philosophical evolution at our peril. The cultural zombie, what I'll call the c-zombie, is at least as important as the p- or philosophical zombie. The two may well share more space than we'd thought.
As editor Sarah Juliet Lauro states in her introduction, the zombie is never wholly terrifying, but is also pitiable. It has always been a result of and symbol for oppression. Its history stems from colonialism. Whilst it might be a palimpsest revealing layers of different kinds of alienation, there is a common thread that seems to be even greater than a common threat. We return to a duality, be it both/and or the pessimistic neither/nor. The zombie represents our worst fears. The zombie is us. OR (living or dead) becomes AND.
The zombie is not free but we, more or less, are. Sort of. That must surely be an a priori: the c-zombies don't want to chase, rather sluggishly, humans in order to eat their flesh or brains, nor to shuffle off, brain damaged, to do slave work in the sugar cane fields. They could never catch free, running humans were it not for doors and dead ends, so vital if the creatures are ever to have their dinner. C-zombie behaviour could mostly be modeled in a few lines of code, human behaviour not.
But Slavoj Žižek has pointed out that the zombie is the most basic part of the human, before consciousness and so on, the zero-level of humanity. It is what we fear we might actually or merely be, or be reduced to. The c-zombie is never original. They are never constructions but deconstructions, ruined, putrifying, reduced people. No one is born a zombie. There is a vast difference between a mindless robot and a mindless zombie, even if their behaviours might be identical, just for this reason: the robot, the AI, might "become"; the zombie is always a once-was, a has-been, and can only be itself, perhaps forever. It can certainly never be one more than itself. There is no cure, no redemption because they are irredeemable, as true, dehumanised enemies must always be, or what's the point? In movies, some zombies are mortal, able to be splattered, squished, squashed or otherwise slaughtered. Others just get up, keep calm insofar as they are able, and carry on pursuing brains to eat. Ola Sigurdson, in his article here Slavoj Žižek, the Death Drive and Zombies, points out that Žižek writes of our anxiety in the face of "an excess of undeadness,” a wonderful phrase. Zombies cannot experience that anxiety, so perhaps we envy them too. And of course if c-zombies were truly as predictable and modelable as I implied above, they wouldn't be very frightening, and there'd certainly be no films. They only terrify insofar as they escape real zombiedom and become, just a bit, like us. That is where their study as a cultural phenomenon perhaps begins.
Here we see a difference: the philosophical, p-zombie is indistinguishable from us, could be us. I am a zombie: prove I'm not (please; since I certainly can't). The c-zombie however is a metaphor for a part of us, what we might be reduced or amputated to. The c-zombie is, perhaps paradoxically, an optimistic idea. We are not like that, hence alive! Bravo! But we might actually be the p-zombie, hence dead (even if simultaneously alive). Boo! There are living dead and living dead, quite different. C-zombies are monochrome, the grey of decaying flesh, thus creating the optimistic counter idea, what if they were to be coloured, like... oh, like us? The p-zombie can only lose colour, or let's say: we are going to die. What if we were to be grey, like... oh, like we will be? To be a p-zombie is to be mortal, hence fearful, death-wishy or at best death wishy-washy like many of us. To be a c-zombie is possibly to be immortal, and to have no fear. Which would you prefer to be? Who has the freedom now?
Zombic thinking forces us to consider such matters. We should read and analyse those who write on p-zombies, and we should also watch, listen to and read those who document the c-zombie. I say document: both kinds of zombie are fictional, yet they are fictions so useful that even if the premises be false (and again who is to tell) the conclusions are real. I see all zombie movies and texts as documentary. Their appearance, habits, ways of being neutralised etc., are all necessarily fictional of course. We could not confront the horrifying truth (I mean the possibility, again, that zombies are us, minus our death-wish, of which they have no need). But the zombies themselves are real, flesh and blood. Would George Romero lie?
In this large book we have texts, some seminal, from all parts of zombie studies. Here are some entries from the index: zombie aesthetics, agents, apocalypse, as animals, as anonymous, bank, bottle, boundary figure, comedies or zomedies, computers, corporations... zombie diet, ethics, festivals, literature, march, music, part-time zombies, philosophical zombies, zombie poetry, preparedness, renaissance, runs, time, walks and zombie-oriented ontology, presumably a reference to O.O.O., object oriented ontology. Let's see (this is truly a book to dip into). Ah! Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his chapter Grey, writing indeed of O.O.O.: "Humans ought never to be reduced to the bare life of an object. Yet our inclination to believe that things have no agency, vitality, or autonomy also deserves interrogation. Thingly existence is very different from existence reduced to inert thingness." Here again: p- and c-zombies. Cohen speaks of a ZOO, or a ZOE, a zombie oriented ecology (the interplay, perhaps, between sum and parts, each capable of being "more than".) Obscure, worldly, challenging and embodied, the zombie's grey, he says, "is also rather beautiful."
This reader on zombie theory is as rich and thought provoking as a Whole Earth Catalog for the makers, creators, curators, thinkers and keepers of the simultaneously dead and alive, the waveform uncollapsed. The index, its end, is its beginning. How people love things, especially zombie things, to come to an end. Communism for example, those Soviet zombies, or the EU (for the end of the EU as "other" against the solid Brit was implicit in the appalling Brexit and sometimes explicitly (death-?) wished for.) The North Korean people, often characterised as zombies, teeter on our balance between pity and repulsion, our end-time displaced to a state 99% of people couldn't locate on a map. But as in some infinitely extended and extensible video game, we can target zombies from many perspectives, yet they don't end. They pop up, get up, emerge, transform, come through walls, pepper consciousness studies, computer science, philosophy and even theology with their reeking presence and in culture remind us to reflect, above all, on ourselves. They are the virus rewriting us. AND becomes DNA in the zombie mirror. Zombies are us and in an excess of undeadness we can even enjoy them. You should probably buy this book.