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
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!***