Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Unemployed Negativity: The Zombie as a Critic

(Part of a deep cultural stream as evidenced by Dialogic's ongoing series of Zombie critiques: Understanding the Zombie Mentality: Pt. 3. Thanks to Larval Subjects for pointing out this latest meditation on the Zombie.)

"The Zombie as a Critic"
by Unemployed Negativity

If I was Slavoj Zizek, I would begin this post with something to the effect that each period in history gets the monsters it deserves. These monsters express a fundamental contradiction at the heart of reality, a particular social nightmare. Thus while the nineteen-nineties may have been the decade of the vampire, from the brooding Goth vampires of Anne Rice to the nightmarishly adolescent vampires of Buffy, the first decade of this century has clearly been the decade of the zombie. The zombie movie has come back in multiple forms, from horror to comedy, and has even given rise to various “pseudo-zombies” such as the rage infected of the 28…films and the “reavers” of Firefly. There are even zombie books such as Max Brook’s World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide.

The zombie film carries particular heavy symbolic baggage, placed upon it by the genre’s creator George Romero, to serve as a metaphor or allegory (to use Shaviro’s term) for something about reality. Ever since Romero’s “living dead” wandered through the shopping mall, the zombie film has been inseparable from a social critique. The political subtext is not just tacked onto these films as some kind of didactic message, but stems directly from the narrative of the film. Romero’s zombies are so slow and lumbering that any destructive power that they have must be an effect of internal tensions within humanity. In each of Romero’s films it is ultimately the fissures within society, fissures of class, race, and gender, that lead to the zombie’s victory over the living. It is true that some films have avoided this burden of subtext, case in point the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which eschews the original’s anti-consumerism for a vaguely nihilistic apocalypse. The 28… films seem to embrace the imperative of subtext, making allusions to everything from fears of contagion to the contagious nature of violence itself.

What interested me about the first film, 28 Days Later, is the way in which it uses the geographical isolation of the UK as an element of its plot structure. One of the central questions of the first film has to do with the scope of the “rage infection” itself: does it encompass the globe, or is it limited to the island nation of the UK? This question is answered in the film by the memorable shot of the jet contrails in the sky. This could be seen as a sign of hope, that all is not lost. However, it also suggests that the UK is simply quarantined from the rest of the world. There is something horrific about the contrast between the apocalyptic violence on the ground and the image of the jet streaming peacefully overhead. What makes it horrific is that this is not just something invented by the film, but is in actuality a occurring event. All around the world jets full of businessmen and tourists coast blissfully unaware of the struggles for basic survival that rages below. At one point in the film a character imagines that life goes on outside of the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the UK, conjuring up images of people watching “The Simpsons.” What the character of the film imagines is us, the audience who seeks out horrors on the screen in a world full of horror.

The first film deals with the relation between what Balibar calls “ultra-objective violence,” the violence of the quarantine or embargo that simply renders a part of society expendable, and “ultra-subjective violence,” not just in the form of the “infected” of the film, but the soldiers who have become violently corrupt. In Balibar’s thought these two forms of violence are never separate, but exist in a dense “overdetermined” dialectic that it is necessary to untangle. As Balibar writes, discussing Bernard Ogilvie’s concept of a “l’homme jetable,” a disposable human being, individuals left to the ravages of AIDs, malnutrition, and ethnic battles.

“The “disposable human being” is indeed a social phenomenon, but it tends to look, at least in some cases, like a ‘natural’ phenomenon, or a phenomenon of violence in which the boundaries between what is human and what is natural, or what is post-human and what is post-natural, tend to become blurred; what I would be tempted to call an ultra-objective form of violence, or cruelty without a face; whereas the practices and theories of ethnic cleansing confront us with what I would call ultra-subjective forms of violence, or cruelty with a Medusa face.”

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