Monday, August 15, 2011

History of Science in America . . .and Zombies


Inspired by the recent trend of adding the phrase “and zombies” to great works of literature, I want to use this post as an experiment in pedagogy.
For a while now I’ve been thinking
about the potential examine changes in 20th century ideas about political economy, technical knowledge, and the body through the concept of the zombie. I imagine an undergraduate course in science and popular culture that draws upon shifting depictions of the undead in American life. We would think about how the figure of the zombie has been mobilized to express anxieties about technoscience and describe the loss of personhood in our late capitalist -- increasingly interconnected -- society. Here is an initial take on the trajectory of the course with a few choice selections. I’m interested to see what people think and if we can flesh this out (pun intended) together.
I. Theorizing the Zombie
Let's start with some theory:
- Marx & Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”
- Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry. (2008) “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism” in Boundary 2, 35(1): 86-108
- Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millenial Capitalism” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(4), 779-805
- Henry A. Giroux Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Peter Lang
- Kirk et al, “Zombies” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/zombies/
II. Voodoo Roots
Unlike the European vampire or werewolf, the zombie has its roots in West Africa and was articulated early on in circumstance of slavery in the Caribbean. Divorced from their persons, and alienated from the products of their labor, the zombies worked for voodoo masters in sugar plantations without needing food or rest. In this sense, they are an “ideal” labor force . . .
Journalist William Seabrook’s 1929 The Magic Island was one of the first books to bring the zombie concept to a broad Western audience.
The 1932 film White Zombie, depicts the undead as exploited sugar plantation laborers.
Another important glimpse into the relation between ‘voodoo’, science, and capitalism is anthropologist Wade Davis’ 1985 The Serpent and the Rainbow (also a fantastic movie staring Bill Pullman). Though it relates to a later time period, the trope of ethnobotanical prospecting is of a piece with early articulations of the zombie.
III. Atomic Zombies
The atom bomb and the postwar threat of nuclear holocaust lead to a mutation in the zombie concept in the 1960s. The relationship between technical knowledge and its byproducts posed new kinds of threats. Now, one became a zombie not through voodoo, but via contact with radioactivity. The paranoia of the Cold War period is perhaps best captured
in the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. In this film, zombie sickness is linked to radiation from a fallen space satellite.
Another film which, through the use of high camp, mocks secret government experiments is Astrozombies, also from 1968. In this film, it’s not radiation that creates zombies; it’s the government that seeks to build a super-human astronaut from bits of criminals whose brain can be controlled from earth.
IV. Pandemic Zombies
With the end of the
Cold War came a new set of fears as well as a new paradigm of zombie transmission. Emerging infectious diseases such as AIDS, Ebola, SARS, and Bird Flu brought forth zombie tropes which reflected a new view of apocalypse. Recent years have brought us Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie. Films like 28 Days Later depict a zombie epidemic and the bleak struggle for survival that ensues.

V. Neuro Zombies



Zombie survival clubs have popped up around the country and even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has embraced the paradigm, issuing in May 2011, a Zombie Preparedness Guide.

Increasingly, the zombie is being mobilized to make sense of problems of mind and personhood being raised through contemporary sciences of the brain. Zombies have been used to pose philosophical questions about the theory of mind and, most recently, to hold a critical lens to neuroscience.

Take for example, as a bridge between infectious and neurological conceptions of the zombie, the novel: The Neuropathology of Zombies, recently published by Peter Cummings, a Boston-based forensic neuropathologist.
On a similar tip, we’ve also got Harvard psychiatrist Stephen Schlozman on “Zombie Neurobiology.”

***And we’re off and running . . . Let’s hear suggestions about additional potential readings/movies/graphic novels/scientific papers, creative assignments, discussion questions, and projects!***

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic idea -- I'd take this course in a second, if I had to take courses again :) -- but I'm troubled by one thing: the implication that, once the theory has been digested, we can safely limit ourselves to discussing "the figure" of the zombie -- or more broadly, of the undead -- in pop culture, and that this figure gains its meaning in relation to our anxieties about abstractions such as personhood and political economy. What about all the undead, half-dead, maybe-dead, twice-dead, resurrected, immortal, suspended, and, yes, frozen beings that surround us and help produce our somewhat monstrous technoscientific lives? I'm thinking of organ transplantation (perhaps because I'm in the middle of Aslihan Sanal's New Organs Within Us), dialysis, brain death, locked-in syndrome, resuscitation, tissue culture, cloning, Ted Williams, artificial insemination, and frozen embryos, just to start the list. These are "figures," too, of course, but they have a different weight and set of affordances than the more playful/horrorful fictions and knowing metaphors you emphasize. I love the films, the CDC gimmicks, and (a little less) the neurozombie edutainment, but I want to know what's hiding in the fridge in the back of the lab. Is there a space between or besides the grand themes of capitalism, colonialism, and the cold war, on one hand, and the campy pleasures of Astrozombies, on the other, for the monstrously mundane?

    Also: In what I hope will be my one and only contribution to Buffy studies, let me suggest two episodes from Season 5 for the extended syllabus: "The Body", in which Buffy's mother dies, and "Forever," in which she is briefly brought back as a zombie through a botched effort at resurrection. The former is an intensely realist break from the typical Buffy format, the latter a return to formula, with the "monster" incarnating a psychosocial challenge--here, the temptations and dangers of denial and the necessity of mourning. Whedon's self-conscious genre play makes me want to go McLuhan for a second and suggest that maybe here the medium is the message: isn't there something about those people on screen, following the commands of their voodoo masters (scriptwriter, director, editor, projectionist), condemned to mindlessly act out the same routines for eternity, that already seems a little--heck, a lot--undead? And so aren't zombie films in a way always a bit redundant, or perhaps simply making obvious what was there all along? Isn't this the hidden meaning of the scene in Zombieland in which Bill Murray, playing himself, is shot while "acting" the part of a zombie? I'm not saying it is, but it could be.

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