Monsters, the nightmarish figures we conjure in the dark, reflect our own culturally and politically specific anxieties. They are a dark mirror: a terrifying rendering of a social fact exaggerated, turned inside out, or perhaps a manifestation of some truth we find unthinkable except in fantasy.
Why then has the zombie given Western audiences, American audiences especially, such an enduring fright? One has to wonder if other monsters have held terror quite so long. Vampires, for instance, seem to have lost their bite, now most often found in teen romances or adorning the boxes of chocolatey morning cereals. Even if we have been so inundated with zombies that we can laugh at them, in movies like Sean of the Dead, they still have an undeniable seriousness about them. As far as I know there are no plans to have a zombie character on Sesame Street.
The zombie, is in many ways, an inversion of everything “Man” is meant to be, a mirror image of what Sylvia Wynter calls the specific ethnoclass genre of human being of the Western bourgeois (Wynter 2003). If Man is meant to be rational, governed by intellect (if he thinks and therefore is), then the zombie, covered in blood and viscera, is undeniably embodied, driven only by the “lower” urge to eat. Zombie versus Man, the zombie apocalypse plays out like a final battle between that familiar Western dichotomy of body and mind, the flesh come almost-alive to strike a final blow against its other, eating the supposed seat of human consciousness: “brrraaaaiiinnnsss.”
Indeed, in eating humans the zombie reminds its victim: you too are a body, flesh, meat. As an undead entity the zombie upends the careful hierarchy Man has placed himself atop. If Man is meant to be the pinnacle of life on earth, at the top of a hierarchy descending from animal, to plant, to non-animate things, the zombie flouts this order and pulls Man screaming back into the world of “mere” matter.
Moreover, if Man is meant to be individual and autonomous, the zombie most often operates as a horde. Whether hulking as in the Night of the Living Dead or charging as in WWZ, zombies are rarely a threat in the singular. No, zombies embrace the power of the collective. Characters in films often encounter zombies as an undifferentiated mass of outstretched arms, more insect infestation than human kind.
In all this, the zombie speaks to certain ideologies about “the human” that will be familiar to many anthropologists, especially those working on posthuman or multispecies anthropology. Works in that genre of scholarship have criticized the supposed universality of the autonomous individual as instead a parochial, Western ideology and drawn attention to the fleshy more-than-human entanglements such a notion of human being obscures.
The Zombie’s birth in Blackness
Critically though, the zombie, much like the figure of Man it reflects, is racialized. Too often left out of popular accounts of the subject, the zombie first emerges in the Afro-Diasporic religious practices of Haitians. A kind of commentary on the nature of slavery, zombies within Haitian practices were living people (or the recently dead) who, subjected to the power of a sorcerer, were reduced to mindless laborers, fated to toil for another’s benefit. As Kaiama Glover explains in her Haiti Unbound, the zombie was “a thingified non-person reduced to its productive capacity. A partially resuscitated corpse that has been extracted from the tomb by an evil sorcerer (a bokor or houngan) and then maintained indefinitely” (2010, 59).
What was a “victim…deserving of pity more than fear” within Black Haitian practices, though, becomes something else in the white American imagination (Glover 2010, 59). The zombie becomes not a sympathetic rendering of the injustice of enslavement, but a horrifying reminder of the precariousness, the brutality, of white freedom. It is a materialization of the terrible, suppressed recognition among white people that their “liberty” is/was premised on, as scholars in Black Studies have consistently noted, the “making flesh” of others, the abjection of Blackness as the limit case of human being. The zombie is, in this, perhaps the first modern monster, springing from the specific violences and terrors of the founding of capitalist modernity in Black enslavement.
With the right eye, one can see many of these underlying social dynamics at play even in the trailers for recent zombie flicks like WWZ. In it, handsome white Man, Brad Pitt, protects his nuclear family (the one collective the West permits) from the hungry horde through sheer cunning. If the racialization at play in all this has eluded you until now, reader, I hope it becomes clear when you see the zombie horde climbing up a towering (border) wall.
While the 2000s have seen an unprecedented surge in gory, high-grossing zombie flicks like WWZ, zombies movies have long fascinated American audiences. The first big hit of the genre, 1932’s White Zombie, stayed close to the Caribbean origins of the zombie, featuring a married White American couple facing off against the machinations of a Haitian “vudou master” hoping to transform the unsuspecting American woman into his servant. The popularity of the genre exploded during the Second Reconstruction, and ultimately left the Caribbean behind, with films like the genre-defining Night of the Living Dead. Waning somewhat after the Nixon era and the return of his “silent majority,” zombies are back in a big way, not least since the election of Obama. With these last two upticks in the zombie’s popularity in mind, we might say that when white American middle-class hegemony is threatened, or the overrepresentation of Man as the human questioned (as Wynter would say), the zombie seems to rise from the grave to fantastically play out white people’s fears of losing their grip on power.
What the zombie might teach Multispecies Anthropology
In all this, I think the zombie can drive home something important for anthropologists of the posthuman. As scholars of Black Studies have argued for decades, there is no history of the human without reference to Man’s constitutive, natal antiblackness. Any posthuman theory that proceeds without reference to prevailing debates in Black Studies fails to truly understand the human, and in an-all-too common academic practice, creates a new space of white theoretical production on top of long running conversations among BIPOC intellectuals. Zoe Todd (2016) has argued that the Ontological Turn and related multispecies works reproduce the insights of Indigenous legal frameworks and intellectuals, often in impoverished ways and without proper accountability. In much the same vein, anthropological posthumanism seems to be marching forward while ignoring the scholarly production of Black intellectuals, who through meditation on slavery and the nature of Blackness, have compiled varied critiques of humanism’s natal negations, its violences and absences.
I write this post not to claim the moral high ground, but to ask for more collaborators and co-thinkers. Posthuman anthropologists and STS thinkers would do well to engage with WEB Du Bois’s writings on double consciousness, Sylvia Wynter and Franz Fanon’s thinking on the need for a new genre of being human, Aime Cesaire’s writings on “thingification,” Octavia Butler’s fantastical accounts of multi-species entanglement, Toni Morrison’s theorization of freedom and unfreedom in Playing in the Dark. Posthuman anthropologists should be reading Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, Alexander Weheylie’s Racializing Assemblages. A great place to start might be Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s new Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in the Anti-Black World, which freely moves across themes in Animal Studies, Posthumanism, and Black Studies to great effect.
This is not merely a supplemental project, though. Engagement with these works should shift the directions one ultimately imagines as redemptive or liberatory. These works remind us that “a critique of anthropocentrism is not necessarily a critique of liberal humanism” (Jackson 2020, 15). The former can be somewhat easily incorporated into capitalist modernity, while the latter poses a more profound break with the cruddy present.
The zombie will spook the collective white American psyche so long as Man reigns, and anthropological posthumanism seems as yet ill-equipped to diagnose why. To take up Haraway’s apt call to “stay with the trouble,” I think we need to see the rejection of our fleshy interactions with diverse lifeforms not just as a failed eco-epistemology, but perhaps the original “white flight,” the racialization of embodiment and collective being in Blackness. The ontological leveling between subject and object, human and non, that many STS scholars aspire to remains worthy, but without sensitivity to race as the medium through which these binaries were/are made real, something nearing futile.
We need to see something besides terror in the fleshy collective of the zombie. And to do that, we need more than an appreciation for sympoiesis, but, as Jackson impels us, “to displace the very terms of black(ened) animality as abjection” (2020, 1).
Glover, Kaiama. 2010. Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. 2020. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. New York: New York University Press.
Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29, 1: 4–22.
Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257-337.