Haiti and the ‘Basket Case’ Metaphor

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.  

The Zombie Complex

 Zombie Schema (May 2014)

The 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.