This is an excerpt from my article “The Living Dead in the Long Downturn: Im/possible Communism and Zombie Narrative Form,” which is part of a special issue of the journal Coils of the Serpent, I co-edited with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, Cord-Christian Casper, and Emmanuel Tristan Kugland. The article begins with a discussion of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, subsequently attempts to historicize the emergence of the flesh-eating zombie in the context of what Marxist historian Robert Brenner has termed the “long downturn,” and ends with some reflections on contemporary revolutionary communist theory as seen through the prism of the zombie narrative, as it were. The full text—including proper references and footnotes—can be read here.
The Living Dead in the Long Downturn:
Im/Possible Communism and
Zombie Narrative Form
Monsters of Reproduction
The story of the zombie begins, as is well-known, on Saint-Domingue under French colonial rule. Building on motifs taken from West African belief systems that were probably fused in a syncretistic manner with the colonizer’s Catholicism, the notion of the living dead, beings lacking self-consciousness but forced to perform hard labor, first emerged. This notion of the mindless zombie worker was resurrected, as it were, under the occupation of Haiti by American troops lasting from 1915 to 1934, and was made known to the American public by William Seabrook’s 1929 travelogue The Magic Island. Soon after, the American culture industry appropriated the living dead, and the first zombie films were released. These, however, have little in common with the late capitalist monsters omnipresent in today’s popular culture.
Sarah Juliet Lauro, in her comprehensive account of the zombie myth’s transatlantic migration, proposes to treat it not merely as “a myth about slavery,” but also as a “slave metaphor”:
the figure first allegorized the displacement of the African to the cane plantations of the Carribean and, under the glare of colonial imperialism, the transformation of the human into an instrument. [It] has a history—as a myth—that uncannily parallels its own substance, and it has a structure that appositely reflects the matter of the metaphor. […]. This metaphor comes to be taken up in the twentieth century by the heirs of the oppressors to exorcize the demons of the descendants of empire. It is […] a “slave metaphor”: usurped, colonized, and altered to represent the struggles of a distinctly different culture.
This argument, which formally recalls Saidiya Hartman’s critique of the way white Americans, who in the nineteenth century empathically identified with enslaved Blacks to make legible the latter’s suffering, ended up confirming “the fungibility of the captive body” that easily ended up becoming a “vessel” for their “uses” and concerns, might, however, remain insufficiently attentive to the altered socio-historical context in which the zombie was resurrected in 1968 by George A. Romero.
That is to say, an adequate historicization of the latter’s ghouls and their heirs will have to explain precisely why they assumed the shape of flesh-eating monsters that do not and, most pertinently, cannot perform work. If the zombies of old were emblems of degrading labor under conditions of total heteronomy, it is common today to regard them as “mindless consumers,” as David McNally puts it. His book Monsters of the Market is a commendable study of the monstrous fantasies that have emerged in reaction to the universalization of capitalist social property relations, but he merely regards the zombies’ transformation from worker to consumer as a story of decline in which their critical potential goes astray. Here, the zombie becomes a toothless avatar of the culture industry, just when it begins to bite.
At first glance, there is something to this argument. As every Marxist knows, an anti-capitalism that merely zeroes in on presumably wrong consumerist practices, all the while ignoring the social organization of the production, distribution, and exchange of commodities, is entirely useless. But then, zombie films, beginning with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), often seem to satirically equate the consciouslessness of the zombies, whose actions appear to entirely lack volition, with the putative state of ignorance of modern shoppers and their desire for this or that commodity.
Evan Calder Williams has shown that the critique of consumerism thus expressed is ultimately reactionary and marked by an elitist contempt for the consuming masses. Romero’s film, famously set in an abandoned shopping mall, performs a “division of the world into two,” into mindless consumers and “[t]hose who know better than everyone, who don’t buy into buying,” offering its enlightened viewers the chance to be “on the right side of the divide.” Even more, it promises its audience the “pleasure” of fantasizing about simply getting rid of these “deplorables” (Hillary Rodham Clinton) in a manner most gruesome, thus expressing typically left liberal resentments against proletarian desires and supplying an immodest proposal on how to solve the problem. So, if the satire on consumerism was all there is to Romero’s films and the zombie genre, their anti-capitalist perspective would be very limited, indeed.
First, it is useful to reflect on the status of consumption itself. Often, two semantic levels overlap. The criticism of consumerism relies on a discourse about consumers as individuals who purchase the wrong commodities, whatever those may be. In this case, the practice in question is a purchase. On the other hand, one can consume, say, drugs; here, consumption refers not to the sale, but the use of the substance. In short, we are talking about profoundly different actions. Either a commodity changes hands in exchange for money, or it is used, negated, in short, consumed. To be sure, in capitalist societies, in which human beings lack immediate access to the products of labor produced by others, the two actions are mediated: I cannot consume the object of my desire without first purchasing it; at the same time, the decision to purchase it is always-already informed by my desire to acquire a specific use-value with the purpose of consuming it. Nonetheless, the two practices remain formally distinct, and it makes sense to reserve the term consumption for the act of using a product of labor.
In making this distinction, one can follow Marx who discusses the relationship between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption in the introduction to the Grundrisse. Here, consumption is defined as an act of “individual appropriation” of the product qua “object of gratification,” as in “taking in food” through which “the human being produces its body.” As a matter of fact, the criticism of consumerism that reproaches individuals for buying the wrong commodities is actually concerned with acts of exchange rather than acts of consumption. And yet, it should hardly be necessary to point out that zombies cannot engage in exchange, but only in the immediate consumption of use-values. They do not pay, but directly appropriate the objects they need to reproduce their very corporeal existence, bloody, putrid, fragmented, and all. Sure enough, the objects consumed by the zombies are commonly rather referred to as subjects—they eat human beings.
It becomes possibly to conjecture, then, that what is ultimately scandalous about the post-1968 flesh-eaters is not their destabilization of ontology, epistemology, or ethics, but their relation to political economy. Their consumption consists of an appropriation of use-values beyond monetarily mediated exchange. As Evan Calder Williams, who has addressed this issue, writes, their “enjoyment is no longer mediated through the value-form but through a gory mining of the potential hunger-sating use-value of one’s friends and neighbors.” That is to say, the zombies are human, all too human, and merely very hungry, yet very much incapable of buying a snack—and so they take it where they can get it. This, much more than their undead status, is what effects their exclusion from the realm of human subjectivity.
The “legal subject” is, according to Soviet legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis, nothing but “the abstract commodity owner elevated to the heavens”; subjects count as such only insofar as they are “people with products at their disposal,” who exclusively alienate their property—whether its a product or the ability to perform labor—in accordance with “a conscious act of will.” This relationship, based on the commodity owner’s mutual recognition of their wills ideally takes the form of a “contract.” Yet, zombies are constitutively ignorant of the other’s intentions and will and anyway lousy contractual partners, which is why they represent the structural antithesis of the subject form—non-personifications of economic relations or personifications of non-economic relations, as it were. They allegorize the exclusion from the sphere of simple commodity circulation which is tendentially equivalent to the exclusion from the human species in capitalist modernity (as argued by Moishe Postone). The fictional figure, however, is the product of a displacement: a political-economic relation is represented in the form of ontological difference, as the difference between the living and the living dead.
What remains to be determined is why this zombie made it appearance in movie theaters between 1968 when The Night of the Living Dead was released and 1978 when its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, consolidated Romero’s creation of a new genre. The ontological, epistemological, and ethical problems posed by the zombie—what is the difference between life and death, how can this be recognized without a doubt, and what are the consequences for practical conduct?—might be transhistorical; being excluded from capitalist commodity exchange, on the other hand, is a historically specific issue. In capitalist societies the overwhelming majority of human beings relies on the payment of a wage—whether they receive it personally or are the dependents of a wage-earner—to have access to “the products of isolated and mutually independent private labours” performed by others (Marx). Lacking money to purchase use-values while remaining forced to consume to reproduce one’s body is, thus, the predicament of those who do not engage in wage labor permanently. This is the tragedy of “not being exploited,” as Michael Denning put it or the ever-present problem of “the contingency of proletarian reproduction” (Bue Rübner Hansen).
The excessive violence of zombies eviscerating and devouring their victims that serves as a generic mark of distinction can be deciphered as a representation that has undergone a sort of Freudian “reversal”: the violence that is actually at stake in the zombie narrative’s gory spectacle is the violence suffered by those condemned to starve without access to the universal equivalent that offers its owners immediate access to “the whole world of gratifications” (Marx), including the bare necessities such as food and drink, despite the fact that their needs could easily be met. “Hunger is hunger,” writes Marx in the Grundrisse, “but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail, and tooth.” The factor determining the type of consumption is, according to Marx, production. Thus, one would be well-advised to look at the history of capitalist production after 1968 that has resulted in a situation in which the figure of the zombie, whose hunger is sated by the devouring of raw flesh “with the aid of hand, nail, and tooth” has become incredibly popular.
Read the rest here.