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?