When I originally sat down with Zombie Talk (2016), a selection of reflections on the undead and contemporary culture, it was early 2017 and I read it through and made my notes accordingly. Circumstances and life being what they are, I wasn’t able to actually flesh out those notes into this review until more recently, requiring a reread of not only the book but my previous notes. I mention this here because I realised during my reread that my responses to the book, while still running along similar lines, are divided by the lens I use to engage with them—whether through the academic lens I would use when considering this as a piece of work, or my own political and social ideologies that I use to guide me within my life inside and outside of academia. While for many these might be the same, I increasingly find that I struggle to reconcile these two halves of myself without compromises on either side. What this means is this: if I reviewed this book for an academic journal, the tone I'd take would be markedly different from the tone I take here, at Strange Horizons. Though both of these are spaces that rely on critical acumen, I would pretend to more objectivity in the former (pretend, of course, because the personal is always the political and vice versa, and objectivity is sometimes a synonym for duty, sometimes for cowardice, sometimes for genuine agreement, sometimes for various combinations of these); in the latter, I am more open about what my impressions comprise and that these are influenced by what I personally am invested in calling out, celebrating, and working towards.
The result of this was that while I found Zombie Talk theoretically sound for the most part, I felt the book at times lacked a sort of basic empathy I would want to see expressed in any academic discussion, but particularly in discussions of the post-apocalyptic. As I mentioned to my editor halfway through my first attempt at a review, it felt like the collection had theory, but little soul. It’s more than a little odd to admit this but I realised when sitting down to write the first draft of this review (later scrapped) that I don’t necessarily judge academic books by their expression of empathy because empathy doesn’t necessarily equate with objectivity. And yet I would probably be deeply frustrated if anyone were to tell me that academic spaces do not need empathy and consideration. It’s hardly the first time that I’ve expressed frustration with how academia is an institution, is itself increasingly neoliberal and nationalistic, how it benefits visibly and invisibly from prevailing structures of neo-colonialism/racism/sexism/ableism/xenophobia and other exclusionary factors, but it’s perhaps the first time I’ve come to admit that, within academic settings, I do feel a form of pressure to excuse misgivings regarding a lack of empathy under the presumed frame of taking the text as it is and with authorial objectivity.
When my editor questioned whether theory necessarily had to have soul, I didn’t think twice about my response—if we’re creating frameworks by which to assess culture, by which to engage with culture, empathy is everything. Culture is of people, for people, from people. If theory doesn’t acknowledge its debt, its responsibility to people, what use is it? I realise I must sound more than a little naïve, and this has already become more a review of my reception of the book than the book itself; but if your theory or if your work isn’t always pushing towards empathy, what is its value other than echoing a status quo many admit isn’t working?
Zombie media as a contemporary genre isn’t necessarily US-centric or Eurocentric; as the collection acknowledges, it has roots in Haitian folklore and its expression tells transnational stories about power and about slavery. In so many ways, it is a postcolonial framework co-opted within the US and Europe, and much of global popular culture, to tell specific stories about cultural anxieties that center on white heteropatriarchy. Zombie media rarely features characters who are traditionally in/visibilised as parts of existing communities—immigrants, trans identities, alternative sexualities, people with visible or invisible disabilities (unless these develop later and become the focus of a traumatic loss, usually specifically focused on a white American male), or other marginalised identities. Traditionally, this media is usually a sort of parable about the loss of the North American nuclear family while validating a worldview held primarily by white American gun owners who won’t get shot for something as simple and unthreatening as holding a toy pistol like Tamir Rice, or a BB gun like John Crawford III.
When speaking of HIV/AIDS (another acknowledged metaphor that zombies stand for within the book) to the International Center for Research on Women in 2000, Geeta Rao Gupta noted that situations of social stress tend to reveal and exacerbate fault lines already present in society, resulting in even more stringent forms of control, inclusion, and exclusion. Within post-apocalyptic scenarios, it’s telling how those marginalised into invisibility are presumably “already gone”—a sort of already acceptable loss within the systems under consideration as we then invest in the survivors—those already strong enough to be visible and recognisable in contemporary representation. This is the framework of the genre the book works within, and to evaluate it, I have to accept some of these aspects as given without attributing these to the authors. And I do. What I am perhaps less willing to accept is David R. Castillo and John Edgar Browning’s introduction to this book, titled “Introduction: Our Zombies, Our Remnants,” which engages with Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times article “The Perils of Perfection” to state:
Morozov discusses the futurist plans of digital technology moguls including the development of reality-altering devices such as smart glasses or contact lenses that would ideally serve to edit “disturbing sights” like “homeless people.” The point we make here is that in our mass-media culture the human and material debris generated by global economic structures is already virtually invisible. Could it be that the undead masses that come back to haunt us in zombie movies represent, in some way, this human and material debris that has been edited out of our field of vision? This would be consistent with the standard psychoanalytic explanation of horror fiction as the site of the return of the repressed. (p. 4)
The juxtaposition of these sentences implies the homeless people Morozov speaks of stand in for their term, “human debris”; a sort of quiet, unthinking callousness of word choice. The emphasis here is on these people as the psychoanalytic “return of the repressed,” yet this point is never explored again, nor is any attempt made to acknowledge a reality of community building amongst the homeless. It goes on to acknowledge that most zombie media creates its greatest moments of trauma when someone the audience recognises returns as a zombie, yet doesn’t acknowledge how this speaks to this notion of who is left as “human debris” even in the analysis. If I pause and think about homeless people framed in this manner, placed alongside zombies used to express fears of a neoliberal middle class about becoming dirty, ragged, discardable, viewed as less than human, living “off their flesh,” with survival and food as singular goals, I think I’d start to scream. It’s half a paragraph but this introduction is creating context for the book. Even with a claim to be Marxist and intersectional (without acknowledgement of Crenshaw’s creation of the term), the introduction is in effect creating its own in-groups and out-groups and reinforcing existing hierarchies.
The introduction moves from this forcible confrontation with realities we are unwilling to acknowledge or change to argue that a zombie apocalypse then offers the perfect traumatic zero-point from which to restart any framing of an individual and collective consciousness. This segues almost smoothly into the manner in which zombies, as the inevitable result of neoliberal capitalism or expressing the deeply held fears of globalisation (as David A. Reilly’s chapter “The Coming Apocalypses of Zombies and Globalization” argues), offer a case for individuals making choices simply for their own survival while being accountable to no one else. Within a philosophy of the end of the world many might say that these concepts make perfect academic sense, and yet I struggle to infer any actionable meaning from it outside of a theoretical framework.
It might make sense at this point to point out that I’m quite emphatically not a fan of Slavoj Žižek and the ideology of many of the underlying arguments in this collection felt closest to Žižek’s ethos, so it’s quite possible that other readers could get a lot more out of this than I did. Žižek argues (and this volume repeats) that it’s simpler to imagine the end of humanity than the sort of changes we would require to keep functioning. Within that same framework of understanding and anti-neoliberal ethos, he endorsed Trump over Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, arguing that Trump would forcibly bring change to the basic structure of politics, while Clinton would simply continue an unforgivable status quo of North American warmongering and neoliberalism without confrontation. This is the non-zombie equivalent of a traumatic zero-point from which to jump-start North American consciousness.
It’s possible to argue that Žižek's Trumpish gambit has worked in the sense that there are regular marches against Trump, people are more politically involved than they’ve been in a long time, and there is an attempt at community and collective consciousness building— Žižek was not wrong to predict this. But what his prediction ignores is the scores of people who will die in the space of this traumatic zero-point, the fact that it has done nothing to endanger or change North American neoliberalism or warmongering, and, inevitably, the results validate a sort of incredibly white semi-jubilant individualist libertarianism (disconcertingly echoed in Reilly’s conclusions about individual choice and accountability). When confronted with what the collection is willing to term the “human and material debris” of this metaphorically post-apocalyptic setting in 2017, these conditions and people are far less invisible, yes; but advocating the creation of this moment is as much a part of this horror, especially when the person making the call is a white man of considerable privilege (as Žižek is). All this is very much a matter of personal choice, and we’re all going to have our favourite philosophers to quote, so it’s hard to point to this as a legitimate flaw with the collection; I can only note that, for me, using someone like Žižek as an early framing in this collection assessing a broken world doesn’t work because it feels like the equivalent of arguing in favour of a planet-wide takeover by Skynet because we all know that the Resistance escaped neoliberalism to the true freedom of individual accountability. I’d rather not, thanks.
(Perhaps I’m the wrong person to be given a collection of essays of this nature—I’m vehemently socialist, very brown, and terrified of guns, knives, and heights. None of this will stand me in particularly good stead if we go by most of the media quoted in this book.)
However, the book opens up to some interesting and valuable discussions as well. The product of an expanded and subsequently published set of papers from a symposium organised at SUNY-Buffalo entitled “The Zombie Phenomenon: An Interdisciplinary Conversation,” Zombie Talk opens with John Edgar Browning’s contribution, titled “Survival Horrors, Survival Spaces: Tracing the Modern Zombie (Cine)Myth through the Postmillennium.” Browning’s contribution seeks to establish an idea that Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) sets up many of the themes attributed to George A. Romero’s films, primarily that of the “survival space” and the threat of the hoard or “massing” of threatening bodies, while “de-orientalising” these threatening bodies by moving them from little known European villages to modern cityscapes. I’m sure many zombie scholars may find this interesting (I didn’t), but Browning’s discussion of “survival spaces” as an evolving ethos was fascinating—the “survival spaces” act as a porous public performance space wherein different facets of individual and collective life are enacted, weighed, and discarded. Browning traces this ethos of “survival spaces” through three generations of zombie media: through Matheson’s individually occupied “survival space” which eventually collapses at the close of the novel, to Romero’s shared “survival space” which eventually collapses once (utopian) collective action is discarded for the seeming benefits of re-privatisation, and a more recent third generation of zombie media which have ambulatory “survival spaces” wherein the space itself no longer connotes safety, refuge, or permanence.
In “Zombie Masses: Monsters for the Age of Global Capitalism,” David R. Castillo explores connotations of monstrosity, particularly that of the vampire and the zombie, in order to reflect on what zombie media specifically, outside of a general fascination with monstrosity, might have to offer. Castillo’s later subsections felt particularly distinct and fruitful to me, and I was actually quite enthralled with his brief description of Victor Conde’s Naturaleza muerta (2009) as a sort of zombie eco-criticism. I’d have liked to see more of this as it was particularly unusual, and set itself apart from what was otherwise a fairly standard theoretical exploration of monstrosity as a term with a history of positive and negative connotations. I did enjoy that Castillo’s work explicitly engaged with postcolonial and racial frameworks, and looked outside of what is otherwise a fairly singular fixation on US media in Zombie Studies.
I found Reilly’s chapter that followed, however, deeply frustrating. While I understand that the zombie ethos is the sort of framework that reinforces libertarian and pro-militia ideology, an analysis that leans into this under the guise of rejecting neoliberalism is basically the antithesis of everything I hold dear. Add in a section in which Reilly argues that, post-apocalypse, survival is no longer linked to morality or communal action—and so leaving behind a wife that “dilly dallies” (good lord) as Alice does in 28 Weeks Later (2007) is OK, and I spent a great deal of my time rubbing my temples to prevent a headache. There is also a quote from the Zombie Research Society that purportedly supports a line of argument that one should not live in India and China because of dense populations and dictatorial governments or something which added nothing to the analysis other than a sort of odd glancing “well, you’ll die, hey” to this moment. He also states at one point in his analysis:
Take, for example, the promotion of democracy abroad. Knowing that the United States has been a strong (vocal) advocate of democratic change in the world, we can anticipate where democratization would be likely to occur based on where the US wants democracy to happen, the cost the US is willing to pay, the tools the US has available to bring about democratic change, and so forth. (pp. 82-83)
This is never contradicted, nuanced, or mentioned further—the United States as a bastion of democratic change in the world. My response at the time was a full five minutes of disbelieving laughter, but it also says everything about the critical social and political understanding undergirding this chapter.
One of Reilly’s early points drawn from these films is to argue that in an extreme situation, morality and rationality become extraneous to the need for survival; essentially an argument that suggests that when the going gets tough, leave people you love to die. It seems crude and nonsensical to have to state this but if a person’s reaction to an extreme global situation is to suggest that everyone except themselves is expendable in their return to “a state of nature” (p. 76) because this is about “the process of surviving” (p. 81), they’re hardly worth listening to or using as a means for social engagement (which is how I employ most theory and culture texts). Reading a chapter that spends the grand majority of its time setting up reasoning for constant justifiable self-interest is the critical equivalent of watching dishes dry—I know what the end result will be, and I genuinely don’t care.
It all ends up being a very thinly veiled discussion of why community is essentially pointless in an extreme situation and self-prioritisation is essential. I have many reasons for why I think libertarianism is bunk, primarily the fact that it eschews all history (racist/sexist/classist/colonial) for some assumption of singular selfhood and freedom that refuses to recognise oneself as a historical being while touting some notion of “pure choice.” For me, it is the sort of individualist ideology that requires a sort of stratospheric amount of privilege to conceive of as viable, let alone implement. In a world that feels increasingly broken, the idea of someone arguing that morality is a luxury and community is unnecessary since individual choice is all—while Republicans, Tories, and other right-wing governments strip public spending to the bone—feels particularly unnecessary. Frankly, I’d rather be a zombie than live with those people; forgive me the pun but I’d have more brains that way.
Easily my favourite chapter in this collection—and the perfect antithesis to Reilly’s analysis—was David Schmid’s “The Limits of Zombies: Monsters for a Neoliberal Age.” It argues that focusing anxieties on zombies as an expression of fears felt by the rapid advance of neoliberalism—instead of ones occasioned by the corporations and CEOs that make up its ranks—transfers monstrosity from the true monsters who benefit from the advance of neoliberalism to these massed and non-individuated hordes. It gave me one of my favourite quotes from the book, which states:
If we want to maximize the potential of a monstrous critique of neoliberalism, it might ultimately be more helpful to think of the monstrous as a process rather than a figure of any kind, be it zombie, vampire, psychopathic CEO, or financial institution. In other words, although monstrosity undoubtedly resides in a bewildering array of figures all of whom are symptomatic, in one way or another, of their respective political and cultural contexts, if we are to keep up with the flexibility and pace of neoliberal exploitation, we need to conceive of monstrosity not only as a symptom but also as a highly mobile, endlessly mutating, and extremely specific set of discourses, technologies, and ideologies, able to both adjust to local circumstances with great rapidity and abject (that is, render monstrous) anyone and anything that forms a barrier to capital accumulation. To counter this threat, our conception of the monstrous must be just as mobile and flexible. (pp. 104-5)
It seems good to end here, on Schmid’s quote—though the essay has a conclusion titled “Afterword: What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Zombies?” by William Egginton that roughly summarises the collection once more—because it brings me back to the point I began with: the notion of monstrosity (good and bad, as Castillo notes), the idea of things being in process (as Schmid notes), and the ethical concerns of discourse with soul. Barriers aren’t simply a matter of neoliberalism, they’re the language we use, the ideas we share, what we validate and what we swallow instead of say. As our conceptions of monstrosity evolve to be mobile and flexible, refusing barriers and singularity, so too should our empathy in the work we do. It's complicated to acknowledge how invested in structural violence academia is, but this work needs to be done, particularly when we pride ourselves on engaging in conversation and debate. Engaging in theorising in academic circles is often to assume that violence done in the name of learning is still worthy of respect—because it stems from objectivity or peer review, without considering how deeply entrenched academia is in a structural violence that excludes so many. These conversations so rarely produce apologies or acknowledgement, and we’re all guilty of this to some extent. I certainly am. But if academia is really the space from which resistance can be built, rather than merely co-opted from those invisibilised and marginalised, and if we genuinely want to build communities that are viable alternatives to the fear of neoliberalism which this collection is built around, this anti-empathy needs to be seen and changed. I have to keep reminding myself that this, too is a process—do the work, learn when you fuck up, always apologise, do better work next time.