Zombie Complex Lecture

March 28, 2014

Zombie Complex

I’ll be giving a lecture about the Zombie Complex at Goldsmiths College on April 29th (details above). It’s a public event so all are welcome. There’s even a Facebook event.

And here’s the burb:

‘In its passage from Haitian folkloric myth-figure to a multivalent metaphor for ravenous, unthinking (in)humanity, the zombie figure has come to perform a vast range of allegorical and metaphorical functions, its meanings as diverse as a displaced person eking out a precarious existence at the biopolitical limits of late capitalist society, to the unfeeling advocates of free-market fundamentalism who allegedly oversee it. At the same time the Zombie Apocalypse narrative has become a metaphor for both climate change and its denial, insurrectionary trans-humanism and new forms of tele-mediated ‘drone’ labour. In this presentation I will trace the historical geneology of what I’m calling the Zombie Complex – a super-resilient, (in)human self-image and massively operational cultural meme, dead but persisting, on the brink of the ‘self’, ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’, while oscillating between the seemingly antithetical poles of apocalyptic, sub-human savagery and progressive, mass mindlessness – from it’s origins in Haiti to the apocalypse of World War Z.’

TéléGhetto, the video collective from the Ti Moun Rezistans group in Port-au-Prince, have a new website. Highlights include a gallery of art videos including the excellent Guedé inspired Plezi Gedi Credi by Romel Jean Pierre.

In Haitian Vodou Papa Guédé is Lord of the Dead, a figure closely related to the somewhat more famous Baron Samedi of James Bond Live and Let Die fameThe Guéde are a family of spirits, generally dwelling in and around the cemetery and associated with death, sensuality, sex and procreation. They include the Barons Cimetière, La Croix, Kriminel and Maman Brigit, all closely associated with Papa Legba (a chant for whom you can hear at the beginning of E Pluribus Unum).

Also excellent is Steeven Simeon’s Imajine Ou Leve Demen Epi Mizik Disparet (Imagine You Woke Up Tomorrow and Music had Disappered) named after the Bill Drummond graffiti piece from the 2009 Ghetto Biennale (shown in the video). Great to see the aesthetic and visual techniques of Atiz and Ti Moun Rezistans translated into the medium of video. All three pieces capture some of the atmosphere of Lakou Cheri where the Ghetto Biennale takes place and the Guédé spirit of the Atiz community who live there.


Atos and the Zombie Wars

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).

taking haiti001 (small)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.

White Zombie - slaves

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).

U.S. DEPRESSION BREAD LINEThe 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?


Basket Case

Intrigued by the persistent use of the term by journalists and other commentators on Haiti I’ve been doing a little research into the origin of common epithet for Haiti, a country which has been described variously as an economic basket case, an environmental basket case or more generally the basket case of the western hemisphere. It seems that the first use of the expression in relation to Haiti was by Lars Schoultz in his 1981 book Human Rights and United States Policy Towards Latin America since when it has become something of a reflex journalistic cliché for anyone seeking to represent the Haitian nation as an irredeemably damaged and incurable political-economic entity.

A brief review of the history of the expression itself is revealing. The term was first used officially at the time of WW1 by the Surgeon General of the US armed forces in an attempt to quell potentially demoralizing rumors amongst military personnel that hospitals were filling up with men who had lost both sets of limbs in battle and, as a consequence, were being transported home in baskets (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition). Similar rumors began to circulate again during the second world war. Interestingly for Haiti, the first recorded use of the term in the context of international relations was a reference made in a 1967 British newspaper article suggesting that the political solutions proposed for southern Africa by Kwame Nkrumah – the Pan-African independence leader and first president of Ghana – did not make him a basket case. This seems to be the first time the expression was used to describe a mental rather than physical state of irreparable damage or disability. Importantly, from the perspective of Haiti, Nkrumah brings together the association of unworkable agricultural and economic policies in post-colonial nations with the idea of African despotism. Like several Haitian presidents before François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Nkrumah also eventually made himself ‘president for life’. However by the 1970’s the term “basket case” was also being applied to the disastrous national agricultural policies of European states like Bavaria and Italy. Interestingly the two themes of post-colonial national independence and disastrous agricultural policy have recently been brought together in the frequently repeated simile: from bread basket to basket case. Behind these different levels of meaning there is often a sense that a basket case nation is usually led by a basket case president.  

Horror film fans will probably be more familiar with the use of the term to describe a person driven irredeemably insane by terror, like these unfortunate gentlemen who made the big mistake of watching a sexploitation horror double-bill: The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) and I Dismember Mama (1974). The term was given a new lease of life with the release of Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 comedy-gore exploitation film Basket Case in which the able-bodied brother of siamese twins carries around his mutant and murderous twin Belial – named after the Judaic demon identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls  as leader of the Sons of Darkness – in a basket.

On a more controversial and “neoreactionary” note (for Zombi Diaspora at least) Mark Krikorian, author of The New Case Against Immigration (2008), has argued that Haiti’s basket case status is due in part to the fact it it was not colonized for long enough (the argument being that the revolution cut short the possibility of Haitian’s benefiting from ‘the more advanced civilization of the colonizers’) and partly, echoing sentiments expressed by Lawrence Harrison elsewhere, because of ‘the strength of paganism, in the form of voodoo’ that the French ‘weren’t around long enough to suppress’.

In fact there have been ongoing systematic attempts to suppress and eradicate Vodou from Hispaniola since well before the revolution, and long after. And it was not only the French who sought to rid the island of this unruly ancestor cult but also many of the Haitian leaders themselves (later in cahoots with the US army and Catholic Church). That being said Duvalier’s overt public embrace and political use of Vodou as a source of noiriste Afrocentric nationalism didn’t exactly help the religion’s reputation in the outside world. By the time of this rare interview with Alan Whicker in 1969 the difference between actual basket cases caused by war, the thousands of psychological basket cases produced by his reign of terror, and the mind ‘Voodoo Dictator’ himself had become abysmally undifferentiated.  

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.

Plastique Fantastique poster



The Zombie Complex

July 6, 2013

Zombie SchemaThe above diagram is a schematization of the first chapter of Undead Uprising, the book I’m currently writing about the legacy of Haitian cultural history on the revolutionary politics, phantasmatic or otherwise, of the living and undead. It represents five transitional stages in the development of the zombie-figure from the earliest accounts in colonial literature through to its current proliferation in contemporary popular culture and discourse. I’ll briefly sketch the demarcations here.

The African Ancestral zombi refers to the figure’s origins in African religious belief systems, transposed in radically fragmented and fractured ways to Haiti, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, during the three hundred or more years of the transatlantic slave trade. The category is indicated with a broken outline because there is very limited concrete historical and ethnographic evidence about how precisely the figure was consolidated from a number of heterogenous traditions and beliefs (including European ones) into the recognizable form it took in Haitian folklore.

The Haitian Folkloric zombie names the second and more clearly defined category which is made up of representations from ethnographic and pseudo-ethnographic literature about Haiti from around 1800 to 1945. The Classic Cinematic zombie, which first appeared in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), took its form directly from the Haitian Folkloric zombi as it was represented in William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). In this first cinematic stage it coincides with the “somnambulist”, a figure popularly known from debates about, and dramatizations of hypnotism during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and its colonies. It is a figure explicitly associated with the new medium of cinema and its assumed effects on “suggestible” populations, and as such marks an important mythical point of convergence between sorcerous (magical) and psychological (scientific) accounts of zombiedom in the popular western imagination.

The next and ostensibly “revolutionary” stage occurs after the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) which introduced, in spectacular fashion, the Apocalyptic Cannibal zombie. This version of the figure is so radically different from its predecessors that it is more like a fundamental bifurcation point (or species-break) within the complex. No longer a remotely controlled agent-without-autonomy, like the Haitian Folkloric and Classical Cinematic zombies, the Apocalyptic Cannibal zombie gains a new and massively insurrectionary force (in representational terms at least). There are many differences between the AC zombie and its predecessors but one of the most important is that in this form it becomes an (almost) entirely fictional entity (i.e. there is no assumed ‘real’ zombie lurking in the basement of a mad mesmerist or labouring mindlessly for a bokor on some Haitian plantation). As such its social and political meanings become less a way of rehearsing conflicting world views, “uncanny” belief systems or inter-cultural epistemes than a way of representing the terminal ends of “humanity” (or the human being as species).

The final category, which is fully open to the future, I have named the Post Millennial zombie because it was after the turn of the new millennium that “zombie-emulators” first emerged. The transition from Apocalyptic Cannibal to Post Millennial zombie is less clearly marked by a singular cultural event than the previous transitions. But it is characterized by a newly “viral” configuration of zombies in the 1990‘s, due in part to the coincidence of myths about contagion (already popularly associated with the fictional apocalyptic zombie plague), xenophobic notions of African cultural diffusion and the identification of AIDS as being African in origin, its principle vector of transmission passing directly through Haiti, ancestral home of the apocalyptic cannibal figure. The 1990’s therefore marks the beginning of what I am calling the “biopolitical” zombie, a metaphorical figure which emerged alongside the zombie’s transition into new media platforms like computer and online role-playing games, where it coincided with fantasies about computer viruses, viral information networks and memetic contagions. From this perspective PM might also stand for “Post Media” zombies, indicating how far beyond the traditional mediums of literature and cinema “zombie life” has now insinuated itself.

Since then the metaphorical zombie has proliferated exponentially, becoming a colloquial “figure of speech” for a diverse range of entities – from banks to businesses, sociological categories to tweets – that have the disconcerting quality of being both alive and dead, of functioning automatically, without apparent conscious will or intention, and repeatedly returning from a death-like state.

The division between metaphorical and figurative representations of the zombie is marked by the vertical “axis of living dead”, the one continuous quality all zombie figures share. It is designed to help the reader identify the different meanings they have been used to serve at each stage in their cultural development. On the side of the “Figure” we have the ostensible, mythical and behavioural characteristics of each particular “version” of the zombie, on the side of “metaphor” we have the metaphorical and allegorical meanings each version has been used to represent. These different figures and their multiple meanings are represented and systematically unpacked in the “Zombie Complex” chapter of Undead Uprising.

issue96In timely fashion (i.e. just when I thought I’d finished the chapter) Philosophy Now unleashes its zombie special: ‘The Zombie Invasion of Philosophy‘.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

The Sign Painters

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.

GSP Vinyl Letter Plotter

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.

Computer sign PAP

(Click to enlarge. The detail is well worth seeing up close.)

Thanks to Randy Lee Cutler for pointing me to the video.