Digging Deep into the Zombie Complex with J. G. Michael

I was very happy to have conversation recently with J G Michael on his excellent podcast Parallax Views. J.G. asked some excellent questions that allowed us to dig deeper than usual into the historical, psychological and contemporary political implications of the zombie complex.

In it we discuss conceptions of the soul in Haitian Vodou; its role in the revolution and later suppression; primitivism, negrophilia and the romance of revolutionary Vodou amongst avant-garde intellectuals; George Bataille’s ideas about revolutionary violence, excess and General Economy; the notion of somnambulistic trance in debates about cinema and mass media; Papa Doc Duvalier’s political use of Vodou during the dictatorship; and US-UK anti-Vodou Black Ops in the 1940’s and Cold War .

It was good to be drawn into a theoretical discussion about J.G’s interview with Frank B. Wilderson III, author of Afropessimism, and to air some grievances about Wade Davis, author of Serpent and the Rainbow (1985).

Recent Podcasts and Review

I’ve recently had the good fortune to have been interviewed on two excellent podcasts. The first was with the blogger Meta-Nomad on his fringe philosophy and esotericist podcast Hermitix where I speak about Bataille, the Bwa Kayiman ceremony, zombies, Mark Fisher and Nick Land. The second was with Ryan Peverly for his Occulture podcast where we discuss Bataille’s philosophy of horror, the racial configuration of the zombie figure and speculate about their implications for zombie apocalypse narratives.

Daniel Miller has written an excellent and provocative review of Undead Uprising  – Progress and The Voodoo Gods – at Social Matter. 

“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.

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

Zora Neale Hurston on zombies (1943)

Here is a short expert of Zora Neale Hurston being interviewed on the Mary Margaret McBride radio show in 1943, five years after publishing Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, one of the earliest ethnographies of Haitian folklore in which she described her encounter with an ‘actual’ zombie: Felicia Felix-Mentor.


The image, allegedly published in Life magazine (oh irony!), gave substance to sensationalist accounts of zombies like those of self-declared cannibal William Seabrook in The Magic Island (1929) which were assumed, until this image gained public attention, to be the stuff of ‘mere legend and primitive superstition’.

Interesting to hear the term ‘suspended animation’ used in this context. 

Mortified Schizo Zombies circa 1926

In their 1972 attack on the repressive orthodoxy of psychoanalysis and its complicity with contemporary capitalism – Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously described the fully-oedipalized subjects of modern capitalist societies as zombies: “mortified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason”. The zombie figure they are referencing here is not the apocalyptic cannibal zombie that had recently made its cinematic debut in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) but an earlier incarnation of the figure associated with the hypnotized somnambulist that had come face-to-face with ‘Voodoo’ slave-zombies in films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943).

Zombie Somnambulist Face-to-Face

This earlier version of the zombie as remotely-controlled and entranced agent-without-autonomy had been used by Marshall McLuhan three years before Anti-Oedipus in his famous Playboy interview in which he used the term to describe people stupefied by the effects of the new media environment of the mid 60’s. The correlation between somnambulism (or sleep walking) and possession-trance in Vodou ritual is one which dates back to 18th century commentaries on Haitian culture. But the consolidation of the association between zombies and somnambulists in cinema starts with the first zombie film White Zombie in 1932.

The short clip above is an extract from the first explicitly psychoanalytic film Geheimnisse Einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul) directed by G.W. Pabst in 1926 (under with the guidance of two practicing psychoanalysts Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs). The psychological horrors plaguing the central character are of the kind Deleuze and Guattari would identify as explicitly oedipal, with the parade ground, the  mad house  and the prison looming large. If they had chosen Romero’s apocalyptic cannibal zombies rather than the traumatized somnambulist version the meaning would be very different. Jason J. Wallin has proposed something like this in his essay ‘Living…Again: The Revolutionary Cine-Sign of Zombie-Life’ (recently published in the Jan Jagodzinski edited collection Psychoanalyzing Cinema: A Productive Encounter with Lacan, Deleuze and Žižek).

Bitter Cane

Thanks to Kamal Joory for pointing out an interesting coincidence between Jacques Arceline’s excellent 1983 documentary about life in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship Bitter Cane and a key scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead.

As the four surviving protagonists of Dawn survey the empty shopping mall that has become their prison-home, they reflect on why the zombies keep coming back.

Francine – “They’re still here”

Stephen – “They’re after us. They know we’re still in here”

Peter – “They’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”

Francine – “What the hell are they?”

Peter – “They’re us that’s all. There’s no more room in hell.”

Stephen – “What?”

Peter – “Something my granddaddy used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo. Grandad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.””

It’s the only reference to voodoo, and by implication Haiti, in the film. As I suggested in the talk I gave before the screening of Dawn at Nottingham Contemporary two weeks ago, in the apocalyptic cannibal zombie movies that emerged after Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the Vodou sorcery explanation of zombiedom tended to recede into the background of the narrative, as the ‘plague of unknown origin’ took over.

But in the actual background of this scene from Dawn is a J.C.Penny store, which at that time of the film’s production was selling consumer goods made in Haiti under unimaginably exploitative, sweat-shop labour conditions. One informant in Bitter Cane, a worker at the TMT clothing factory, then supplying garments for J.C. Penney and GAP stores in the US – a young woman who lives without electricity or running water in  one of the shanty towns in Port-au-Prince that emerged alongside the US owned clothing manufactories – explains how, for her $2.64 daily wage, she has to achieve a production quota of 720 bras. If she doesn’t make the quota, she doesn’t get paid. To make it she has to start work at 7 am and work without a break of any kind until the evening. But it’s worse than that…In order to get and keep a job women are expected to sleep with the bosses. And if the bosses don’t enjoy it for some reason, they get fired.

Another important coincidence for the zonbi diaspora narrative is that the the first popular depiction of folkloric Haitian zombies in modern literature – Willam Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) – were rural peasants who had been brought to the city by their master to work at the HASCO sugar manufactory.

Founded in 1912, HASCO (the Haitian American Sugar Company) was the largest industrial sugar manufacturer at the time of Seabrook’s sejourn in the county. HASCO’s production methods differed from the traditional feudal system which had involved large-landholders controlling large numbers of tenant farmers. Instead they employed wage-laborers and used industrial production methods which eventually eroded the traditional agricultural economy and forced thousands of newly landless peasants into the cities looking for work. In 1915 HASCO’s operations were threatened by anti-American political unrest which prompted the first full-blown US military occupation of the country. During the occupation the US military re-introduced forced labour (corvée) to the country which was used to build an infrastructure that would ready the country for foreign investors.

Bitter Cane details the structures of political economy in Haiti during 1970’s in which HASCO continued to play a central role. The capitalist plantation system introduced by HASCO set a precedent for foreign business and industry in Haiti. Most of Haiti’s fertile land, often rented from the big Haitian landowners, is used by foreign companies to grow cash crops for export. Meanwhile most Haitians no longer have land on which to grow their own food and are forced into dependency on foreign food aid. Under Jean Claude Duvalier the Haitian government introduced the Food for Work program in which landless peasants were put to work to build roads and other infrastructure in much the same way they had worked in the corvée system during the US occupation. Workers would be paid two sacks of flour and a gallon of oil per month. The food was supplied by US charities like Catholic Relief Services and CARE, establishing a pattern of charitable complicity with the exploitation of the Haitian people by foreign capitalist interests, which, as we have seen, continues unabated today.

One of the great ironies of the current phase of zonbi diaspora – the mass zombie emulations that began in 2001 and now attract thousands of ‘undead’ participants – is that one of the major issues they raise awareness and charity for is world hunger.

UK Health Minister slams Zombie Petitioners

In a recent exchange in the house of commons earlier this week Tory Health Minister Simon Burns accused his opposition spokesperson of  “joining the ranks of organizations like 38 Degrees who are frightening people and getting them almost zombie-like to send in emails”.

In an open letter which has receive over the 80,000 signatures 38 Degrees responded:

“Yesterday Health Minister Simon Burns compared 38 Degrees members to zombies – for emailing our own MPs about risks to the NHS!

Let’s stand together to show Mr Burns that we’re citizens, not zombies. If thousands of us sign an open letter standing up for our right to be heard, we can publish it as an advert in a national newspaper and deliver it to Mr Burns personally in his constituency.”

Citizens not Subjects: Zombie Protesters March on the Banks from Occupylsx, Halloween 2011

Global Data Map of Zombies

A group of researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute have recently mapped the global distribution of content on Google Maps containing the word ‘Zombie’. Interestingly the word does not occur in Haiti. The closest place is Puerto Rico, with the lowest level incidence of references. The zombie search epicenters seem to be in the metropolitan areas of the US and Western Europe. A full resolution image of the map can be found here: Mapping zombies.

Although this zombie map is most explicitly relevant for Zonbi Diaspora (the name of which was changed recently from ‘Zombie’ to ‘Zonbi’ for reasons I will explain later), some of the other maps on the ‘Visualizing Data’ site have more implicit value in terms of the Ghetto Biennale and the work of Tele Geto. The visualization of the user-generated ‘georeferenced’ content on the internet shows the dominance of material from the USA and Canada and the relatively small amount generated in Latin American and the Caribbean. The Internet Penetration, Literacy and Gender and Location of Academic Knowledge visualizations gives us a background story. What they indicate is a clear information-knowledge imbalance which is amplified by the internet.

An underlying assumption of Zonbi Diaspora is that the migration of the zonbi/zombie figure from pre-slavery West Africa to contemporary zombie films followed paths which coincided with the evolution of communications media. The transition from a folkloric Haitian legend to a ghoulish horror figure coincided with the convergence of exotic western travel literature, sensationalist newspaper reporting and early cinema. This is not the whole story. But the informational-mediatic dimension of the story is fundamental here.

I contacted Mark Graham, one of the creators of the map and asked him why he had chosen to plot the word ‘zombie’? What was the background for this choice?

‘I guess just a small obsession with zombies that I have. Together with Matt Zook and Taylor Shelton, I’ve also co-authored a chapter on zombies that should be out in a book called ‘Zombies in the Academy’ next year’.