What Am I Reading? Dr. Amit Baishya on Zombies (Part 1)

Anybody who spends much time with Dr. Amit Baishya, assistant professor of English and student of post-colonial literatures, will soon hear about his enthusiasm for zombie literature.  In response to those who would dismiss zombie films as unimportant popular culture trash, Dr. Baishya makes the case here that zombie fiction represents an important cultural response to a variety of historical traumas.  In Part One, Dr. Baishya examines the history of the figure of the zombie in Anglo-American fiction and culture.  

The Zombie as a Figure for Ethical Reflection:

This blogpost is not about the figure of the zombie you may be familiar with. The cannibalistic, machine-like figure of the zombie is now a staple of pop cultural representations and is currently undergoing a sort of “revival” with the success of films like 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later and Zombieland and popular television shows like The Walking Dead. The zombie is one of the “newest” additions to the burgeoning cultural imaginary about monsters. The etymology of the word can be traced back to the Kikongo root “zumbi,” which means “fetish.” Scholars of popular culture like Kyle William Bishop trace the influence of multiple discourses that coalesce in the contemporary figure of the zombie—the cultural fascination and fear in the Americas concerning voodoo rituals practiced in Haiti and Louisiana, the persistence of cultural ideas about heaven and hell in collective memory, the concept of the end of history, and the events that could happen the “day after” an apocalyptic event ends time the way we know or imagine it. George Romero—whose “Dead” series is probably the most well-known exemplar of the zombie genre in cinema—uses and extends these earlier discourses to explore contingent cultural fears about biological and racial contact with others whose “humanity” is not like “ours” (in Night of the Living Dead), the vicissitudes of consumerist culture and its capacity to alienate us from reality and experience (especially in Dawn of the Dead), the increased technological potential for the decimation of entire human populations, and the possibility of the reduction of even greater numbers to the status of the living dead in the aftermath of catastrophic events like the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

Let us set aside the cannibalistic trope of the zombie in this post—to my mind, cannibalism in zombie fiction and cinema is an ironic representational trope that turns the gaze back on the otherness of our own notions of self. I am much more interested in the figure of the zombie because it presents us with a limit case of what it means to be human. By the term “ethical reflection,” I refer to the political, moral, and existential issues that arise when we encounter such limit figures. Such reflections usually follow in the aftermath of the destruction of a known habitat of social life. This scenario is the staple of most zombie movies and finds an uncanny parallel in the catastrophic events of recent historical memory (the Holocaust, Darfur, etc.). How does one live on after catastrophe? How does one trust the everyday world any longer? How does one communicate or form community with figures that have been reduced to forms of human “waste”? How do we re-shape a world that has been destroyed, the memories of which cannot be effaced? In these senses, the zombie is probably one of the most important figures for ethical reflection in our times. Of particular relevance here is the Aristotleian distinction of the two attributes that compose what we know as the “human.” To be human, according to Aristotle, is to be a composite of the speaking and the living being (here “speech” has to be understood broadly as the capacity to represent ‘reality’). In the figure of the zombie, we notice a sharp disjunction between the speaking and the living being. The zombie does not speak or represent (except in Romero’s Land of the Dead). As a figure, it has been reduced to the level of a limited set of biological drives—almost a pure automaton that marks a threshold between the human and the inhuman.

I already mentioned the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and even more so, the widespread dissemination of their photographic representations, as the historical markers that imprinted the figure of the zombie in popular consciousness. We also come across representations of zombie-like figures in some of the classic testimonials on the Holocaust such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. However, the ancestry of the zombie as a limit figure for ethical reflection should be pushed back even further to the first instances of the technologized and instrumental slaughter of masses of human beings in the era of modernity. Europe’s colonies are the key spaces in question here. Colonial-era Cuba and South Africa (during the Boer war) provide the first instances of modern concentration camps. However, the photographic documentation of colonial-era slave camps in the Congo (colonized by the Belgians) helped imprint images of the living dead in the modern consciousness. Incidentally, the term “crimes against humanity” was used, perhaps for the first time, by the African American journalist George Washington Williams during his journey across King Leopold’s colonial territories in the Belgian Congo (for more details, see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost). Twentieth century thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon later emphasize that the concentration camps in Nazi Germany draw upon the technologies of death deployed so brutally and effectively in the slave camps in the colonial era.

It is no wonder, then, that one of the first appearances of the zombie in cultural representation is in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1902….

Keep watching the blog for Part Two, in which Dr. Baishya examines Conrad’s novel as a text in which the “living dead” make one of their first apperances in Anglo-American fiction.

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