“In the Blood”: Zombis, Zombies and Race (I)

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.

The main accusations against Chagnon were threefold. Beyond his challenging of a dominant romantic myth of the Yanomamö as a noble and peace-able people – Changon described them as “the fierce people” having estimated that about a third of all adult males died violently in inter-tribal conflict and that 40% of all males over the age of 25 had murdered someone, often while intoxicated on pychoactive drugs – and his affirmation of a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution, which concluded that the homicidal behaviour of the Yanomamö was the consequence of an evolutionary mechanism (i.e. the competition for reproductive success) that was “in the blood”, he is also accused of introducing “modern technologies” (machetes, knives, fish-hooks and steel axes) into the culture thereby corrupting the purity of this rare stone-age specimen of early human social existence, and also of turning a blind eye to the paederastic proclivities of co-fieldworker Jacques Lizot. (Lizot was a disciple and protégé of Claude-Levi Strauss who, eager to gain access to the invaluable ethnographic resource for French anthroplogy, sent his emissary to study the tribe alongside Chagnon in 1968. Lizot quickly set about writing a dictionary of their language and began teaching elementary anthropology to local Salesian missionaries working with the Yanomamö. The French-Venezuelan ethno-linguistic anthropologist Marie Claude Mattei-Muller, who translated the dictionary into Spanish, was surprised to find so many words seemingly meaning ‘to stroke the penis’. On further investigation it turns out that Lizot, in ways worthy of Dr Benway, had been trading guns and tape-recorders with Yanomamö boys for dish washing services, masturbation, anal-sex and the names of their dead ancestors. The word “Lizot” subsequently entered the Yanomamö lexicon as the word for “erect penis”). Despite being well aware of Lizot’s idiosyncratic fieldwork techniques, neither Chagnon of the Salesian missionaries chose to report him to the Venezualan authorities.

The most damaging indictment however was that Chagnon was working covertly for the US Atomic Energy Commission who, it transpires, funded the Yanomamö mission because of their interests in the effects of atomic radiation on inherited immunity. The Yanomamö were an ideal control group, never having been exposed to atomic radiation or major epidemic diseases, and could therefore be used as an experimental human baseline – or “virgin soil population” – for research in the field. At the time of the team’s arrival in the region a measles epidemic was working its way up the Orinoco river towards their “virgin population” and the geneticist who accompanied Chagnon, James V. Neel, decided to vaccinate the tribe with a very reactive vaccine that produced symptoms extremely close to those of the actual disease. In fact, and in contradiction to claims made by Chagnin and Neel at the time, rather than saving the local population, the team had knowingly introduced measles and other highly infectious diseases into the community leading to the deaths of over 200 people.

Chagnon has defended himself vociferously against these accusations and was vindicated by the American Anthropological Association in 2005. But he has still not been able to rid himself the taint of being cast as the Joseph Mengele of American anthropology. Interestingly for neoreaction his defense has a strongly anti-Cathedralist tone, accusing the anthropological establishment of being “more like a religion than a science…in the sense that the truths that anthropologists subscribe to now are established more by faith than by evidence. And one of the truths is that biology has nothing to do with cultural behaviour. And I challenge that truth. So like the church, or like Islam, Popes and Ayatollahs step forth defending the faith, identifying who the heretics are and burning them”.

I won’t delve any deeper into the neo-reactionary dimensions of the debate at this time as Chagnon’s conversations with the other eminent HBD scientists can be watched at your leisure here – but the issues unpacked in there do have a bearing on my bringing of the terms ‘zombi’ and ‘diaspora’ together in the title of this blog.

The origins of the term ‘zombie’ have been discussed elsewhere  at length, and I am currently writing a chapter on what I’m calling the ‘Zombie Complex” in which I explore its uncertain etymology in more depth. But simply stated I’m using the term here as an extended metaphor, derived primarily from a mythical figure of Haitian folklore and ethnographic (‘pseudo’ or otherwise) writing about Haiti, which transitioned into gothic-inflected literature and horror cinema in the early twentieth century, becoming a phantasmatic fictional trope that was used to represent a complex of ideas about mortality, colonialism, primitivism, the effects of power, the unconscious, agency, autonomy, reason, superstition, politics and divergent belief systems. The cultural figure of the zombi – the spelling I use here to keep the orientation of the research directed towards Haiti –  went through a major behavioral shift when it entered the apocalyptic phase of zombie films from the late 1960’s onwards, since when two very distinct versions of the figure – one remotely-controlled, pacified, “uncanny” and generally quite singular, the other totally out of control, rampant, ‘massive’ and cannibalistic – have often been confused. But whichever manifestations of the entity named “zombie” I discuss here and elsewhere, I approach it primarily as a complex cultural trope (or rhetorical figure) used in various ways within different kinds of discourse, rather than as any actually existing type of quasi-human being (or thing). This “trope-figure”, despite being historically tangled in debates about race, colonialism, and, by extension HBD (more later), is not intended to have any essentially racial or explicitly ethnological meaning, despite my coupling of it with the term ‘diaspora’, which, ostensibly at least, does.

The term diaspora, derived from the Greek diaspeirō meaning “to scatter” or “to spread”, was first used to mean the dispersion of a people in Greek translations of the Hebrew bible where it was used to describe the exile of Jews from Israel. It was not until the mid 20th century that the term began to take on a more general meaning for the forced global migration of a people from its national territory. It is in this latter sense that Zombi Diaspora uses the term to suggest an ‘imaginary’ entity displaced from its nominal national territory and re-rooted in new and unfamiliar domains. A more scholarly way of naming this might process have been “cultural diffusion”, and that is certainly the sense in which I have been thinking about how the zombie figure has passed between different cultural contexts. But diffusion carries with it a sense of dilution that runs counter to the growing ubiquity of the figure since it first migrated into modern popular culture and began proliferating in contemporary discourse as metaphor for a range of often contradictory modes of being, cultural processes and systemic behaviours. Moreover diffusion primarily concerns cultural practices, styles and artifacts, rather than sexually transmitted “genetic information”. I did however want to muddy somewhat the distinction between these two modes of reproduction in keeping with the mythic formulation of a “zombie plague” and the historical fact that a “slave” is a person, very like a zombie, who is treated as a thing, bought and sold, exported, put to use. I also wanted to maintain a certain paradoxical sense, fundamental to the ‘zombie complex’, that the zombie has no memory of where it came from or where it is going, and that a ‘taste of salt’ would bring about such an abysmal anamnesis that it would probably choose, if choose it could, to stick with the blue pill. I also wanted to evoke the aimless shuffling of the typical pre-cannibal zombie figure, eternally exiled from its not-so-final resting place, doing mindless work for remote-masters in newly spectacular and mediatic territories.

So you may well ask why keep the pointer to Haiti in the zombi of the title? Well, despite the current metaphorical over-determination of the term I still wanted to fix a focus on the crucible of colonial plantation slavery with which the Haitian zombi figure is implicitly associated, in order to explore, what, if any, the meanings might be for contemporary zombie discourse when reflected upon from this originary perspective. And, in an opposite sense, I wanted to return the mass zombie back to Haiti to see what its dark, apocalyptic light might shine on contemporary geo-political debates about Haitian life and culture today.

So the main point to make here is that despite the racial associations of the term “diaspora”, and explicit racial meanings within the history of the zombie complex, the “diaspora” of the title is intended to ironically combine associations of “cultural diffusion”, “cultural migration”, and “cultural contagion”, and to point to the paradox of an ostensibly diasporic “identity” without memory, will or historical consciousness, yet one that is, in important ways, the cultural product of an explicitly racial mode of economic organization based on the systematic forced extraction of people from their multiple homelands in Africa over four centuries of extremely brutal colonial rule. And it is the memory of this forced diaspora of beings treated as things that the zombi figure mutely, involuntarily and relentlessly continues to evoke, even in its most extended, mutated and over-stretched metaphorical forms.

2 Replies to ““In the Blood”: Zombis, Zombies and Race (I)”

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