I wrote this a while back.
Narrative cannot narrate anything significant, or rather it narrates what is of importance by not narrating it. Again, photography began with long exposure time; and this created the ‘space’ of the 19th century photograph. Snap-shot culture grew with the assembly line and with the quick turn around of product consumption. The snap shot, and now the digital photo are there ONLY to wear out the face.
Today’s fixation with the Vampire trope is because of the sense people have that technology is sucking the blood from us. The over-photographed face of a super model is always bloodless.
That space in the 19th century portrait photograph is the space of Kafka’s stories. It is alienation and rejection and estrangement. What is also unsettling in Kafka’s stories is that our mimetic narration fails. We are estranged from our own narrative of ourselves. “
I read recently, Christian Thorne on zombies.
Just a quick survey of recent corporate film and TV product yields the following; Survivors
I Am Legend
28 Days Later
The Walking Dead Outcasts
Resident Evil (franchise)
Plaga Zombie (Argentina)
Dead Meat (Ireland)
And on it goes…the list is too long – and we could continue on back to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and really long before that, of course.
But there is another theme that is related; which is post apocalyptic worlds. Everything from Terra Nova (TV) to Falling Skies (TV) to Book of Eli, Handmaid’s Tale, Escape from LA, Independence Day, Waterworld, War of the Worlds, Children of Men, etc.
There is a consistency in the setting for all of this. A reduced universe without mortgage payments, or insurance forms or building permits or administrative responsibilities of any kind. It’s a world without corporations. It’s a fantasy landscape in which sanitation, for example, is never addressed. Beneath the obvious here, which is the ‘desire’ for the end. What becomes confusing in a first glance at the topic, is that this desire is a dream of the death of capitalism. Except corporate Hollywood cannot imagine the end of capitalism. Its easier to imagine a totally voided universe.
However, what I want to address here is a narrower question, which is that zombies and vampires and post apocalyptic narratives are created in corporate studios, and become something of a master discourse about a ruling classes’ fear of unruly hordes (unemployed workers). The film and TV examples betray the sense of contempt the ruling class has for the populace at large. How does that narrative work, exactly?
In their position as master narratives, what dies are people and nature, but rarely the spirit of capital. In fact, the military ideal remains a central element in almost all of these products. The worship of authority is so deeply engrained in (at least in the US) the populace that a landscape without guns and uniforms is almost impossible to find. Even when the “message” of the film is anti-state (i.e. a “corrupt” government, or avaricious corporate overreach, such as in Terra Nova)….the remedy is to double down on military solutions and the anal sadistic hierarchies of this institution. Obedience to authority is the single most consistent factor in all of these works. The second thread that runs through all this product is that of progress, or rather scientific progress. It’s a reductive view of science, born of the 1950’s enthusiasm for all things modern. Identity (character) is almost always predicated on scientific acumen. The future may contain massive structural breakdown, but the ethos of science and Enlightenment values is never questioned. A few bad apples just screwed up the planet. It was only people’s “greed”….as if greed were not the basis of capitalism. In any event, something else intrigues me here. The narratives themselves are stunted in the sense that the end is never really the end. Nothing “really” changes. All that has happened is that individual debt is retired due to planetary collapse. Terra Nova is particularly revealing in a sense because it’s not the future but the past, which is the escape destination (we could digress at length here on the topic of nostalgia). And new debt beckons right from the first day of the new world. (Side note on Terra Nova….that Stephen Lang reprises his role, essentially, from Avatar, is probably not an accident. The schizoid plot has Commander Taylor, whose back story includes tales of his adventures in Somalia…in 2139…. presumably for the US govt, while battling the evil “greedy” corporations bent on strip mining the future…er….past. In other words, US Imperialism never dies, it simply refines itself). The anti-government meme is inserted in places, as a sort of pacifier for the liberal classes, but its rarely more than window dressing, cosmetic touch up, for the hegemonic corporate elite feel no threat from token reformists. The environmentalist character is usually comic relief, a sort hearted female (sis) or a noob egg head. The signifiers for this include jeans, beard, and mild disobedience. The actual arc of the narrative always pays fealty to the idea of capitalism. And calpital is, among other things, about power.
Plague, extraterrestrials, zombies or vampires…..they all perform the same function. They clear away big swaths of the poor. They are more effective than Hurricane Katrina in that sense. The better to allow select real estate to be accessible again (I Am Legend exemplifies this trope). Imagine, you could just squat in a Washington Square townhouse, or Madison Avenue penthouse. A peachy farm in Surrey, or just a modest condo in Park Lane.
There is however an almost auto-critique going on here, too. The rich are vampires, those sucking the blood of the less intelligent masses. Select, sexualized, and cosmopolitan. Zombies shamble forward, brain dead, unwashed, and without plan. Jim Cameron is a vampire, those buying tickets are zombies.
Narrative, however, is more complex. Even if all the above is true, there is always another layer to be mined here, and it’s the ghost or haunted meaning of repressed desire. How an audience “reads” Independence Day, or I Am Legend, is mediated and intersected by a general conditioning – that marketing has forged in its incessant battering of psychic space. The refuge is silence…perhaps a primordial silence, but one by-product of this fragile mental balancing is the resultant autism of capital. Post schizophrenic one might suggest. The shrinkage of that space (something I intend to write much more about) which is our lost object of desire, or the theatre in our heads where the missed encounter has been forgotten, is now experienced, if its experienced at all, as illness. A play about mental illness. Mental illness, the pop-psychology version, in which adjustment means Zombiehood. Enough Paxil or Zoloft and a socially responsible Zombie state is achieved. An active inner life is pathologized. Up the dosage.
In fact, what I think is going on is that we have two registers on which meaning travels….or rather two registers, two tracks, along which the annihilation of meaning travels. You move toward just floating code, from narrative to this simple code, where meaning is exhausted. And a part of the way it is exhausted is through a public spectacle. Watching the opening state salvos as parroted by the talking heads of various news departments, on the Mladic trial, you realize this total fiction (the same one, identical in fact, that used for Milosevic) is trotted out again and put on display. But the image no longer even much matters. Some are familiar images in a specific way, some are familiar in general ways, and then others are linked to shock & awe words…”butcher” etc. But its not really a narrative. Its almost a prospectus for a narrative. And that seems to be all that is required.
Here is qlipoth:
So, back to the Zombies; the fast moving or slow moving zombies are ‘read’ as both destroyers of western society, an expression of a desire to purge the world of advanced capital , and as the dirty unthinking and destructive masses, who a heroic elite are protecting the planet (capital) from…in other words the pov of the ruling class. Both run along simultaneously – in different registers. The selfsame images, but their doubling pseudo meanings are kept apart. And I suspect that our mimetic reading, our interior interpretive function is somehow short circuited. We are autistic.
The public spectacle is always linked to meaning streams. It siphons off image and text, and sound, It also imprints – like an stamp on your passport….a signifier for authority. Abstract, but its official, its bureaucratic, its controlling . The spectacle of “the public” I have a feeling, is one of the first things Zombies attack. And this is even probably in the unconscious of studio execs, or directors. I think its in everyone.
One of the best films of the last few years (which I also want to write about) is We Need to Talk About Kevin. The character in the title, a Columbine archer, a high schooler not medicated quickly enough, slaughters scores of his classmates and teachers. It’s a disturbing film because the mosaic of its narrative reaches toward a deconstruction of its own morality tale. Form becomes its content. As Kevin shouts to his parents; “I am the context”!
There are additional cultural forces in play here. The Left Behind books (http://www.leftbehind.com/) whose sales tallies are staggering to contemplate, are a version, however pathologized, of this desire for total reboot. Christian zealotry whose marriage with US militarism is well established (http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2011/10/13/air-force-academy-cadets-decide-they-must-pretend-to-be-fundamentalist-christians/) has crept into the master narrative as well. The new signifier for “good” is Christian mania (the cancelled Invasion TV series was a treasure trove for deconstructionists….featuring a one armed ex-solider turned cop who is an obsessive Christian prude, and who eventually becomes the love interest of the sixteen year old ingénue – daughter of the local police chief, who is also an alien). Militarism and jesus. The ruling elite pander to the zombified masses.
One of the simplifications in the Thorne essay has to do with Hobbes. There is a distinction, historically speaking, between “people” and “multitude”. Paulo Virno analyses this pretty cogently in the opening chapter of his book A Grammar of the Multitude. As modern states centralized power circa the 17th century, the Hobbesian view of ‘people’ prevailed over the Spinozian notion of ‘multitude’. This is worth keeping in mind when we see this re-shifting of political theory in today’s late capitalist world. For Spinoza the multitude connects to communal and for Hobbes people suggests one. And the ‘one’ is the state.
The durability of the zombie trope has several fractals to examine. There is this question of influence. Romero, or Zach Snyder, or Danny Boyle are responding to something. Their p.o.v. is almost by default elitist. In Snyder’s case its openly fascistic, but in most of Hollywood, there is a close hewing to the master narrative as US marketing firms, and the State Dept have drawn it up. There is also an automatic addiction to ‘personality’. Zombies have no personalities….they are basically all the same. The survivors (read, usually anyway, the studio heads and talent) have ‘individuality’…which in spectacle shorthand means ‘personality’. Political theatre today, presidential elections and the like, are conducted in their entirety on platforms of personality. Someone is likable and someone is less so.
Here is Thorne again…
We take all this in, and then circle back to the colonial. I think we always end up back at the colonial. For colonialism is the brain stem of Imperialism. And in western European culture the evolution of photography (as referenced above) returns to the creation of an ‘image of the exotic’, of the less than European, or less than human colonized masses. Edward Said, of course, meditated at great length on western notions of Orientalism. What is germane here is how an image factory started to give race and power its picture of itself.
The modern zombie theme always carries with it (as Thorne points about The Passage) a reconstruction sub plot. This is, of course, the foundation of shows such as Terra Nova. The need for an ‘outside’ to cause disruption of the ‘inside’ is a basic trait of capitalist thinking. Whether its Ebola, or killer bees, or zombies or aliens or various plagues – or terrorists – it comes from ‘out there’. Disequilibrium ensues, and heroic re-stitching of the fabric of society signifies achievement. The deep paranoia of first generation film noir, those films of Siodmak and Lang and Wilder and of Val Lewton…all of them carry protagonists who have the enemy within themselves. It was part a preoccupation with Freudian psychoanalysis, but also a direct reaction to the rise of National Socialism. There was an examination of our own capacity for violence and scapegoating. I’ve always thought somewhere there is a place for a Girardian critique of 1940s noir (in one sense, McCarthy’s The Road is the prose version of this critique, even though not strictly a genre novel). Today’s zombie film however needs only a simplistic signifier for inside…..the virtues of Capital, Christianity, and war. In opposition to the mystifications of the outside– the orient, the colonized masses, and of intellectuals and Islam and of, significantly, the slave revolt or mass revolution. One meme at work in today’s product is the integration of a promising (pick one) slave, outsider, child of poverty, Muslim, African, etc……one “exception”…the exceptional individual with promise. Such promise is rewarded. A seat at the master’s table (The Blind Side is a domestic sports version of this story).
So, Zombies are an expression of both an elite class looking down at a frightening and threatening mass revolt. A Spinoza-multitude, banging at the gates of western civilization (Samuel Huntington and the rest of the reactionary faux historians). They also somehow express a desire in western populace for a reboot. This desire expresses itself in the found materials of colonial traditions and truisms. The resentments of a frightened white audience, certainly. The reconstruction is to restore a Paradise of white privilege. Never mind a few ‘other’ colored faces can exist in it. The values expressed are the same one’s those Dutch merchants wanted preserved on canvas, and are the same ones they taught me in school in the US….hard work, business, power, expansion, and Capital. Only simplified. Capital without the infrastructure that so annihilates day to day existence in the West. The apocalypse is already here for millions on the planet….in Lagos, and Jakarta and Dehli, and in Mexico City and Rio and Karachi and Brazzaville and Port au Prince. This is the invisible shadow world constantly repressed. The fear for many of the suffering poor in the US, mainly perhaps white, is that life has become only an endless repetition of meaningless bureaucratic penalties, of a new unemployed serfdom. And that vision only thinly veils the repressed material of what they dimly know exists in the slums of Manilla and Bangkok. So the hordes, the impurity, the undomesticated, the contagion from ‘out there’ is really given its image in the Zombie. And the Zombie is really the colonized untermensch.
Now, the real questions in this, at least for me, is the way desire itself, the trauma of childhood, of our lost object of desire….how this is integrated into popular culture via the tools of Empire and an elite class of studio execs and directors whose product so inundates our daily lives. What degree of the forces shaping the unconscious space is elitist dream life, and how much is sophoclean rivalries and organic aggressions. The basic identification with ourselves as criminal is certainly a thread in this master narrative, however repressed. This is where that Kafkaesque space, that dream that dreams us, becomes a riddle. The corporate kitsch machine wants an audience who believes its kitsch dreams, but really, nobody does. That resistance forms a feedback loop of obsessive repetition, of continuous propaganda in the form of ‘entertainment’. The mimetic narrative however, is now autistic. Third generation loops become fourth become fifth. At this point, decades and decades have passed, so that the tape is worn through and only its ideological skeleton remains. Christine Amanpour seems a dream from the future, some weird ghost image, muttering meaningless nonsense, making “serious” faces, and establishing thereby, that meaning is, you know, so yesterday. Or, it’s a relic from the past, a ruined text, an illegible text/sign code that was forgotten. Or both.
Close ups of Zombie faces seem like ‘news’. Seem current. Seem fresh. News anchors seems like zombies, bloodless, brain dead, soulless.