February 20, 2014
This is a slightly extended version of my response to Nick Land’s Zombie Wars post at Outside In. It coincides somewhat circuitously with the image I oversaw today in a British newspaper of a protest against Atos, the French international IT and Consulting corporation whose Healthcare division won the UK Government contract to carry out ‘Work Capability Assessments’ for the Department of Work and Pensions in 2012. These assessments are designed to determine the client’s level of disability and/or ability to work. Since Atos took on this role there have been many reported deaths caused by their decisions and questions have been raised about the companies own fitness for purpose.
I wanted to make a number of brief, technical-historical points in response to the Michael Hampton post that prompted Nick’s. Firstly, as I have mentioned in other posts, the zombies described by Seabrook in The Magic Island (1929) [a book, not a film, incidentally] were allegedly working for the Haitian American Sugar Corporation (HASCO) whose operations had been threatened by anti-imperialist Haitian rebels (the Cacos) between 1912-15. The US occupation of Haiti began, in part, as response to this threat. As Mary Renda has convincingly shown in Taking Haiti (2001), an important ideological justification for U.S. intervention was the myth of white American paternalism over its black ‘Cannibal Cousins’ (the title of a 1934 book about Haiti by former U.S. marine John Huston Craige). During the occupation the marines reintroduced a forced labour system in which peasants, many of whom had been made landless by the new industrial production methods, either paid a road-building tax or were forced to build them. The marines also set about trying to eradicate the scourge of Vodou, which they identified, correctly, as having something to do with the rebels. In response the Cacos seem to have mobilized myths about their own supernatural powers (including stories about voodoo, cannibalism and zombies).
Even though Seabrook’s zombies were working for a sugar manufacturer the author failed to see them as a revenant of the horrors of plantation slavery under the Code Noir. They were in many ways too ‘modern’, a reminder of the ‘soulless robots’ who inhabited the factory system and contemporary metropolis. He was, after all, there to slough off his white skin and loose himself in sacrificial ‘voodoo’ ecstasies. Like his surrealist ethnographer friend Michel Leiris, who took The Magic Island with him on the Dakar-Djibouti to Africa in 1931, Seabrook failed to draw the correlation between the master-slave dynamics of human capital within the New World slave economy and the ‘robotic’ and ‘automated’ quality of life within modern industrial capitalism. (As Susan Zieger has pointed out in this excellent article the reason for this had much to do with their shared transgressive fantasies about race, sexuality and ‘blackness’). Seabrook found it hard to believe that the beings he met had actually been risen from the grave, instead he preferred to think of them as nothing more than “poor, ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields” (Seabrook 102). The point being that, unlike the chattel slave, a person that is either fit-for-work or dead, the zombie is both.
The second point has to do with White Zombie (1932), the first of the ‘zombie-films’ which does represent zombies as slave-workers in a plantation system. But it stages this system as an aberrant and anachronistic gothic fantasy rather than as a contemporary reality. The zombie figure in this context operates as a way of not representing what the US was doing in Haiti at that time. (No mention is made of the US occupation in this or any of the other voodoo-themed films of the 1930′s and 40s). Importantly the slave-master in White Zombie is depicted as a white hypnotist zombie-maker, a figure that is as much a metaphor for the powers of mass spectacle in modern societies as it is for the powers of industrial capital (in crisis).
The metaphorical zombic transition from black New World slave to modern, industrial automaton passes historically through the mass medium of cinema and its spectacular hypnotic powers. In this sense the zombie-automaton-somnambulist figure represents a subject condemned to geopolitical and historical oblivion by the combined forces of political-economy and hypnotic, media sorcery.
The final point has to do with the crux of Nick’s post: the question about which side of the conventional political spectrum the right to exterminate life comes from. Rather than wade too far into this ghastly philosophical mire, I wanted to note that some of the most interesting writing on the post ’68 apocalyptic zombie figure have made use of Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower and Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics, both of which are based on a fundamentally racial demarcation within the biopolitical state. As Gerry Canavan puts it ‘the zombie is a figure for those persons whose exclusion from ‘life’ secures biopower’s continued capacity for violence’ (Canavan 173). Mbembe, following Fanon, asserts that ‘sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’ (Mbembe 27). (Interestingly, given the ‘Fortress Jerusalem’ theme in World War Z, Mbembe goes on to suggests that ‘The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine’).
From the perspectives of biopower and necropolitics race continues to have a constitutive role in decisions about who gets to live and who gets to die, but it does so in ways which exceed any normative formulation of the Left/Right dualism. Instead the question devolves onto how sovereign power – as the right to decide who lives and who dies – is exercised, by whom and on what philosophical-judicial grounds?
July 18, 2013
I will be discussing the diagram of the zombie complex in relation to Reza Negrastani’s concept of ‘Organic Necrocracy‘ at Plastique Fatastique’s Schizoanalysis and Schizostrategy event at the IMT gallery from 6 pm this evening. Also on the bill is Oreet Ashery, whose talk ‘In the Space of Disparate Ghosts’ will frame her recent work Party for Freedom in terms of ideas about excess, dissociation, genitals and the political unconscious.
June 19, 2013
In timely fashion (i.e. just when I thought I’d finished the chapter) Philosophy Now unleashes its zombie special: ‘The Zombie Invasion of Philosophy‘.
June 17, 2013
A recent thread on Nick Land’s singularly brilliant, and far too absorbing blog Outside In, one which penetrates quite deeply into the dark heart of the recently-monikered Reactosphere, has prompted me to clarify the titular terms of ‘Zombi Diaspora” in light of a certain vague discomfort I’ve been feeling about how the title may (or, more probably, may not) be being read.
Briefly summarizing the “Blood is their Argument” thread, a rather illustrious group of scientists associated with the so-called HDB (Human biodiversity) wing of the reactosphere came together last week at a special Edge event to discuss Napoleon Chagnon’s recently published Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (2013). Chagnon is a veteran American anthropologist with a controversial reputation within the discipline, especially since the publication of Patrick Tierny’s Darkness in El Dorado (2000) which accused him of exacerbating a measles epidemic amongst the Yanomamö people of the Amazon rain forest who he had been studying since the mid 1960’s. A fascinating and revealing documentary account of this story is José Padilha’s Secrets of the Tribe which includes the background to Tierny’s accusations against Chagnon and the latter’s defence. It can be seen here.
June 16, 2013
Here is a short interview with me that Alexander McLean shot during the Portman Gallery “Art Power” exhibition which gives some background to the production of the show as well a little bit about Haitian history.
June 14, 2013
A strong motivation for wanting to make and film signs being made in Haiti had to do with the fact that my father was a sign-painter. From the ages of about ten to fifteen I would accompany him on his weekend jobs as a kind of pocket-money apprentice. Somehow the work I’ve been doing with Tele-Geto over the last few years has something to do with this personal back story, my own path into the arts and an attempt to reconnect this to the younger artists in Haiti. So, although it’s a little off-topic for Zombi Diaspora, I thought I’d post this trailer for a video that has recently been made (and a book too) about sign-painters in the US that has the kind of glossy, wet feel I was dreaming of when I set out to make the Tele Geto Sign Painting Video.
It is interesting to note that the invention of the automated vinyl letter plotter that made many sign-painters in the US throw in the towel in the early 1980′s had the same effect on UK sign-writers like my dad who found themselves competing for trade with their automated ‘plasti-sign’ adversaries.
This was one of those formative moments when one becomes aware of how precarious even the most respected artistic trades are in the face of machine innovation, increased demand and faster turn-over. One of the things that I love about the visual street culture of Haiti was the almost complete absence of machine-made signs and photographic printing, even when they were advertizing computers.
(Click to enlarge. The detail is well worth seeing up close.)
Thanks to Randy Lee Cutler for pointing me to the video.
June 3, 2013
Here is a short expert of Zora Neale Hurston being interviewed on the Mary Margaret McBride radio show in 1943, five years after publishing Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, one of the earliest ethnographies of Haitian folklore in which she described her encounter with an ‘actual’ zombie: Felicia Felix-Mentor.
The image, allegedly published in Life magazine (oh irony!), gave substance to sensationalist accounts of zombies like those of self-declared cannibal William Seabrook in The Magic Island (1929) which were assumed, until this image gained public attention, to be the stuff of ‘mere legend and primitive superstition’.
Interesting to hear the term ‘suspended animation’ used in this context.
June 2, 2013
In their 1972 attack on the repressive orthodoxy of psychoanalysis and its complicity with contemporary capitalism – Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously described the fully-oedipalized subjects of modern capitalist societies as zombies: “mortified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason”. The zombie figure they are referencing here is not the apocalyptic cannibal zombie that had recently made its cinematic debut in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) but an earlier incarnation of the figure associated with the hypnotized somnambulist that had come face-to-face with ‘Voodoo’ slave-zombies in films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
This earlier version of the zombie as remotely-controlled and entranced agent-without-autonomy had been used by Marshall McLuhan three years before Anti-Oedipus in his famous Playboy interview in which he used the term to describe people stupefied by the effects of the new media environment of the mid 60′s. The correlation between somnambulism (or sleep walking) and possession-trance in Vodou ritual is one which dates back to 18th century commentaries on Haitian culture. But the consolidation of the association between zombies and somnambulists in cinema starts with the first zombie film White Zombie in 1932.
The short clip above is an extract from the first explicitly psychoanalytic film Geheimnisse Einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul) directed by G.W. Pabst in 1926 (under with the guidance of two practicing psychoanalysts Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs). The psychological horrors plaguing the central character are of the kind Deleuze and Guattari would identify as explicitly oedipal, with the parade ground, the mad house and the prison looming large. If they had chosen Romero’s apocalyptic cannibal zombies rather than the traumatized somnambulist version the meaning would be very different. Jason J. Wallin has proposed something like this in his essay ‘Living…Again: The Revolutionary Cine-Sign of Zombie-Life’ (recently published in the Jan Jagodzinski edited collection Psychoanalyzing Cinema: A Productive Encounter with Lacan, Deleuze and Žižek).