Theorizing Zombiism – a case for the living dead
I love zombies. I’m not a die-hard zombie film fan (excuse the pun) – I haven’t seen them all, but even the dreadful ones with terrible acting and awfully made-up zombies intrigue me. Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead are both particular favourites – I enjoy the predictable tropes as much as the infected gore. I’ve read zombie books (I love the Mira Grant Newsflesh series) and played zombie games (Dying Light is particularly stressful). And there are some fantastic zombie podcasts, including We’re Alive. But what is it with zombies? I’m obviously not the only one with this morbid fascination, and the Theorizing Zombiism conference at University College Dublin from 25-30 July 2019 was the perfect excuse to explore this monster further. Given the evolution of the zombie narrative in both culture and academia, the conference call for papers argued that this was an indication of its adaptability and viability as a distinct framework for critical theory. The conference therefore aimed to investigate the possibility of developing a singular theoretical framework to evaluate culture and society through the zombie narrative trope. It sounded perfect.
Theorizing Zombiism started well – signage towards the event consisted of zombie hands pointing ominously towards the building we were in, where we were greeted with the best conference loot I’ve ever received. Zombie stickers, which now adorn my laptop and desk, a Zombie Research t-shirt, and individually crafted zombie Lego figures to take away. Despite these fantastic giveaways, it was the papers themselves that created such a wonderful event, as scholars from all over (both geographically, and in terms of subject discipline) contributed to the zombie exploration; here are a few that were my favourites.
Amy Bride (@AmyBridePhD) used the opportunity to discuss “zombie banks” – ‘a bank that should be “dead” but continues to be alive’ (Nelms 2012) spreading the virus of financial crisis. Bride linked this to the 2008 financial crisis and the ways in which African-American borrowers were specifically targeted by unrealistic financial promises by these zombie banks. In this scenario, the “survivors” represent the bank and, implicitly, white people, whereas “zombies” become a metaphor for the borrower, implicitly people of colour.
#ZombiesinHE represented by Sheffield Hallam University were there to alert us of the “dangers of becoming an unknowingly-infected zombie leader”, zombiism, in this case, acting as a metaphor for neoliberalism within the academy and how it might stamp out creativity, leading to dead ideas being continually perpetuated. #ZombiesinHE created the fictional account for “Dr Jolliest Vendettas” (@DrVendettas) to comment on the zombification of academic staff, with her tweets starting as a satirical commentary on neoliberalism in academia and workloads and escalating along a zombification of the worker. Tweets ranged from
“Prioritising enhancement areas for my TEF Action Plan – we must value The Student Voice to Be The Best We Can!”
“WHAT A DAY!! SHATTERED! Bit disappointed that my ideas weren’t taken on board today – all that matters is #Gold – need to sharped my act by next Tuesday!”
and degraded into a fully zombified state:
“NEED FLRESH – BRING SOME”.
We were invited to take part in a workshop of “drawing a zombie leader” – considering the traits of zombification and stagnation within the university.
Sarah Cleary (@sarah_clearysc) explored the “ecozombie” in Girl With All the Gifts and the ways in which nature “bites back”, whilst Stacey Abbott (@StaceyAbbottRU) and Lorna Jowett explored identity performance and the pressures on zombies to perform “normative humanity”. Other topics included links between zombies and sex workers from Caroline West (Dublin City University), considering the abjection that they are subjected to due to the exchange of bodily fluids; and the heroic father figure who pervades our current Hollywood zombie films, from I am Legend to World War Z, from Rain Shuen (National Taiwan Normal University).
There were brilliant explorations of zombies invading other media formats. Peter Wright from The University of Sydney explored the ways in which media degrades, questioning whether the VHS format was somehow more authentic for the zombie genre – breaking down over time, and of poor quality. Connor Jackson (Edge Hill University) made links between the zombie consumer as a fat-shaming tactic in videogames, analysing games such as Dead Rising, in which obese zombies can vomit and “infect” the player, and the players own (food) consumption is monitored within the game through rewards or penalties.
Beyond panel presentations, the conference also included a variety of a-typical conference socials, including a film screening of a local, Irish zombie film, and a specially organised Zombie takeover of the ukelele troupe Ukelele Tuesday (going by the title Ukelele Tue’Z’day in honour of the occasion) which was, frankly, superb.
My own contribution to the conference, Zombies, Deviance, and the Right to Posthuman Life, explored the pop culture fascination with zombies through a posthuman lens. I suggested that the zombie apocalypse represents the cultural imperative to break with aspects of contemporary society that constrain us to conformity. Within an ongoing cultural fascination with zombie narratives, there is evident a desire to escape our current capitalist, neoliberal lifestyles; to deviate from the trend, and to therefore embody posthuman values – rejecting the attributes ascribed to us by the notion of the liberal human subject.
Bound by the neoliberal, capitalist expectations on society, citizens are encouraged to believe that they should always be producing, competing, innovating, and consuming. We should be contributing members of society, “the good citizen”; active members of society, demonstrating personal responsibility, and embodying the entrepreneurial self. However, against a backdrop of dystopian realities, I suggested that we are beginning to feel a burgeoning scepticism within these societal expectations; beginning to understand that the enterprising self and the good citizen are in fact capitalist traps, designed to keep us “in check” and our behaviours managed. A zombie outbreak therefore becomes almost romantically representative of a desire to “return to our roots”, to test our mettle against nature, and to embrace our most animalistic sides.
In its most basic form, posthumanism can arise from the desire to critically investigate and redefine what exactly we mean by “human” and what attributes we assign it. As such, the “posthuman” signals ‘the end of a certain conception of the human’ (Hayles 1999: 286) – the liberal human subject, a rational and reasonable being. From this perspective, the zombified breakdown of civilisation as we know it signals an enforced “posthuman” turn. However, as I showed in my paper, humanism, neoliberalism, and capitalism are deeply entrenched values, and their structures don’t take long to rise from the dead themselves – even whilst surrounded by reanimated corpses. Ultimately, when we actually construct a zombie narrative, this is where the posthuman dream fails. How do we imagine a society outside of what we know? We fall back into hierarchies, belonging, measuring our worth, individualistic attitudes. Our imaginations fail us. I therefore questioned, is it in fact the zombies who have truly escaped, and succeeded. Is becoming zombie becoming posthuman? I was pleased to receive positive comments and feedback on my paper, which followed through into discussions and debates at the pub that evening.
The organisers of the conference, Scott Eric Hamilton and Conor Heffernan, aimed to create a collegiate environment that was non-hierarchical and enabled plenty of discussion between delegates, and they achieved just that. Conversations and collaborations were sparked and beyond the fascinating contributions of the individual speakers the event has also given rise to the beginnings of the Zombie Studies Network – you can find us on twitter at @zombie_studies – and a website that can be found here https://zombiestudiesnetwork.com/. A selection of the papers, including my own, have been extended for an edited book collection, and the next conference is already planned for 2021, taking place at University of Gothenburg. It looks like the zombie has a strong, if undead, future ahead.