Zombie Economy


[Note: The following is a truncated version of an essay I wrote last semester entitled “The answer to ‘Che Vuoi?’ is ‘Vous’: Understanding Capitalism, Ideology and Desire through the Zombic text” with some extensions, additions and other tweaks.]

1 – Marx avec Romero

Zombies, (due most likely to their non-western roots) are not found in Marx’s hauntology. All three volumes of Capital, as well as his early works such as the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” are rife with references to vampires, werewolves, random organs, blood, mangled bodies and so forth. This Victorian/gothic story telling is no doubt part of Marx’s attempt to disengage capitalism from philosophical and historical idealism. To make a seemingly unrelated point, and as any good zombie survivalist knows ‘you must destroy the brain’ to destroy the zombie, and it is this point where Marx and George Romero meet. The limitation of ideology as false consciousness is the point at which it is best to engage Romero’s horror masterpiece Dawn of the Dead.

Malls and ideology

After reaching the Monroeville mall via helicopter, two of the protagonists have an unveiled philosophical exchange regarding the hordes of zombies flocking towards their new-found location: “Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Several theorists have used these lines as a point of entry into discussion of the various ways the zombies of George Romero’s films can be interpreted. Steve Beard, in his text Aftershocks goes against the more popular arguments of Romero’s zombies as “mindless consumers” and instead argues that the zombies represent the discontents of the transition from a Fordist to a post-Fordist economy.

Stephen Harper writes in his essay “Zombies, Malls and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead”: “In both Dawn of the Dead and its sequel, a single phrase governs the film’s concern with identification and difference: ‘they’re us.’ Harper goes on to argue that this line, and the scene that surrounds it, shows that “consumer goods provide the psychological protection against any pricks of conscience” and reveals the guilt we have regarding our pleasures and the “social costs of consumerism.” Harper rejects Beard’s specificity, arguing that Romero’s zombies represent all repressed groups and in this way are a kind of floating signifier for oppression under capitalism.

2 – Revenants on the couch

The zombie, across genres, has developed in a way that shows the eventual self-destruction of capitalism through the zombie’s desire of a subject-object, of not desiring the Other’s desire (in the Lacanian sense) but desiring the Other as an object. This over-fixing or over-determination of the object of desire exposes the complete absurdity of fetishization and capitalism itself. Here capitalism should be defined as the material and ideological artifice which systematically produces new fantasies subsequently drowning out the necessities of reality.

The zombic desire, which both embodies and contradicts the ostensibly smooth functioning of capital. As mentioned above the shrinking distance between the living and the undead is always central to zombie narratives whether on film or page. The similarity between the two resides in the operation of desire and its relation to capitalism. In the psychoanalytic account of desire, desire always has an object cause which is referred to as the objet petit a. The objet petit a is defined as the point where the symbolic fails to represent the real, a deficit that is made positive, a blank space where any object can be placed and therefore gain value.

Drive is desire for desire’s sake

Paradoxically desire is ’caused’ by a gap, or by nothing at all. This blank space, this void is only something when one looks at it awry. This gaze of desire posits objects as desirable retroactively. Žižek argues that Marxism’s major flaw is that limitless productivity, represented through the notion of surplus-value, is seen as something existing in and of itself. Like desire, Žižek argues that this supposedly limitless productivity is in fact a fantasy with surplus-value functioning as the cause or the objet petit a.

So how does this relate to the narrowing gap between the zombie and the human? The point is that humans caught in capitalism, through commodity fetishism (that is the arresting of social relations into physical objects), think that they can hold their desire, that they can make themselves whole through their purchase. But if it was possible for capitalism to completely fill the lack it would collapse in on itself which is why in order for it to continue to ‘satisfy’ human needs it must constantly create new needs.

It is for this reason that Slavoj Žižek argues that Marx’s belief that there is one social antagonism that is the cause of all others (capitalism) and that that antagonism will create the conditions which will lead to its eventual self destruction, is deeply flawed. Marx’s thinking, as Žižek points out, overlooks desire, or perhaps more specifically, it overlooks the fact that, while capitalism may corrupt most of the causes and forms of our desire, what capitalism and its fantasy of surplus-value cannot contain is the aforementioned psychoanalytic notion of drive.

/3/ – The zombic mouth

Following Jacques Lacan we can look at the drive as a mouth: “it is not the food that satisfies it, it is, as one says, the pleasure of the mouth” (Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 167). What this means is that for the drive, the object being pursued/consumed does not matter. What matters is that one is consuming at all. In the case of capitalism the specific commodity purchased does not matter, what matters is the act of purchasing. The difference between desire and drive is that while both remain unsatisfied, desire remains so because that is the very cause of it, that very lack, so that desire is always for an object that will fill this lack, an object that does not actually exist. The drive, on the other hand, ‘understands’ this very lack and is satisfied or pleasured by the very act of attempting to fill it, by the very feeling of a stuffed mouth.

To return to the concept of ideology, zombies gain a kind of self awareness in certain zombie texts such as Romero’s Land of the Dead and the graphic novel Remains.

A very Hegelian film

In the opening scene of Land of the Dead we instantly know that something is different from Romero’s earlier films. Zombies wander an abandoned city in their typical gait but they are trying to play musical instruments, a young couple holds hands, and Big Daddy, the film’s lead zombie, tries to pump gas. The film centers on a group of armed adventures who brave the zombie-infested landscape to secure supplies for one of the few cities still inhabited by humans. On one of their runs, the opening action of the movie, these marauders anger Big Daddy enough for him to lead the zombies towards the city and to eventually destroy its center – an exclusive apartment building for the rich called Fiddler’s Green.

Throughout the film, Big Daddy teaches the butcher to use his knife, several zombies to use guns, and himself to use explosive weapons and various tools. In the closing minutes of the movie Big Daddy kills Mr Kaufman, the head of Fiddler’s Green, by filling his parked car with gas and then kicking an incendiary device at it thereby liberating himself through his labor. As Alexander Kojève writes, “In the raw, natural, given World, the Slave is slave of the Master. In the technical world transformed by his work, he rules—or, at least, will one day rule—as absolute Master” (Introduction to the Reading of Hegel p. 23)

This Hegelian strain is present in humor that, as earlier mentioned, shows the closing gap between human and zombie. Cholo, one of the marauders in the film who tries to blackmail Kaufman, and gain access to Fiddler’s Green, is bitten by a zombie and when his friend offers to blow his head off before he’s transformed, Cholo replies “No, I always wanted to see how the other half lived.”

/4/- Don’t eat me, I’m trying to desire!

We are in the midst of the knot of fantasy, ideology, desire/drive and capitalism. The complexity of this knot is as follows: capitalism produces a endless series of objects to be desired in order to perpetuate its own existence, an existence that is perpetuated by the fantasy of surplus-value, of limitless productivity. At the same time drive, as opposed to desire, functions as the internal mechanism of capitalism, allowing for a kind of production for production’s sake or more for more as a pleasure in itself.

Now, the subject’s relation to capitalism is through ideological fantasy, through our identification with our desires as the same as those capitalism hands us, as well as our pseudo-fetishistic treatment of money. Zombies then are an over-identification with capitalist ideology in so far as capitalism has a superegoic form, that is it demands our enjoyment. But the superegoic function within capitalism plays a coy game through advertising: instead of the normal superegoic injunction of ‘you will do this and enjoy it’ the message is y’ou enjoy when you do this’, which of course implies we are already doing it.

But instead of this over identification damaging/destroying the fantasy of that system, of releasing the subject from its fantasmatic grasp, an over-identification with capitalism instead ‘releases’ the drive of capital. I say ‘release’ tentatively here because the drive is always present and capitalism cannot contain it. The trick of capitalism seems to be that the drive of capital is covered over by the fantasy of surplus-value, that which is both the cause of and limit to capitalism’s productivity. Zombies identify with this object cause (surplus-value) and at the same time expose consumerist consumption in its genercity. The minimal difference between the zombie and the human in zombic texts is that of the subject of desire and the subject of drive. As the zombie narrative develops, this gap shrinks more and more, showing that desire and drive presuppose the other. Žižek argues that desire and drive cannot simply be seen as a movement away from each other but instead should be viewed as two different ways of avoiding the deadlock of being a subject.

The presence of zombies acts as a kind of split in capitalism’s machinery, leaving the perpetuation of new desires and fantasy in the laps of the human survivors and the drive (and the little piece of the Real), the objet petit a of capitalism, in the zombies’ outstretched hands. And if there is any tragedy in zombie narratives it is that the humans under threat cannot seem to focus on their needs but only their desires.

We should question the mindlessness of such consumers, of ourselves. Ultimately the split of drive and the impossibility of surplus-value from desire and fantasy (in the form of mass ideology with a superegoic flavor) is reconciled in the progression of zombie narratives. This split is, of course, ever present but seldom noticed in our contemporary existence, and the pursuit of the consequences of this split more often than not end in failure. So what is needed is a radical refusal, not just of desire as it is tied up in the capitalistic symbolic playground (where we try on clothes as the zombies are at the gates) but also one of the drive of capitalism, of more for more’s sake.


7 Responses to “Zombie Economy”

  1. 1 charlie

    This is a great essay on zombies and how they work. I’m writing a book on the function of zombies mythomorphically and as cultural phenomena. I have many similar thoughts. Nice work.

  2. Ben Woodward, you’ve really got me thinking again. As if I had the time!

    It’s clear how we unconsciously prolong our living deaths by chasing fantasies, I like how you outline it, it relates to similar concepts I’ve learned about the same process from Buddhism and Taoism. And I’m wondering what you’d have to say about how to pursue life, how to wake up.

    One Buddhism lecture painted the most tragic portrait of human life I’ve yet to come across, outside of Voltaire, all endlessly chasing outward objects as if they truly exist in the way one perceives them, mistaking the appearance for the thing, spending a lifetime chasing something that doesn’t exist.

    I enjoyed looking at this question through the filter of Marxism and Capitalism, and recognize though that consumerism is as old as Eve, and as Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree one of the demons he faced in his determination to find freedom promised him anything he’d like, a trap he outmaneuvered by citing the endlessness of human desire. You have to admire how well he’d learned to recognize the trickery.

    • 3 Ben Woodard

      Thanks for your comments – though I am hardly qualified to prescribe any definite solution to waking up as you put it – the basic notion which is easy to say and hard to do is dividing necessity from luxury – though I am hesitant to utilize any religious ideas or to valorize the human spirit – existence is piles of nothingness upon nothingness – any external transcendence whether spiritual or capitalistic, that is decided without acknowledging nothingness and necessity which are the same.

      And don’t worry about the misspelling it happens all the time

  3. Ooops, sorry about yer name.

  4. So we and the world are one big cozy nothing together. There’s comfort in that.

    You sound a little like Marcus Aurelius might if he had lived to see humanity lose its dignity through continually propounding increasingly convenient and infantilizing solutions and prepackaging experiences to deliver ever more intensely saturated thrills. It’s a misery.

    The part that gives me hope is the intuition that our minds are the same as the world and cosmos, once we pare away the self-reductions.

  1. 1 Three Unrelated Essays « Editions of You
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