Zombies and the political economy of precarity

The blood-smeared public-radio booth in Pontypool (2008), the great Canadian zombie movie

The zombie has been a tenacious mainstay of popular entertainment for decades. But this soon-turning decade seems more plagued than most, of late, by hordes of zombie pop cultural productions: movies (28 Days Later, Pontypool, Zombieland, as well as remakes like Dawn of the Dead); books, especially in the booming genre of mashed-up “monster classics” (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter); television (the forthcoming Walking Dead miniseries); pop music (e.g. Major Lazer’s “Zumbi”); new media, teeming with parodies; and “live” performances like the so many big cities now host. And it gets weirder: last year, Ottawa mathematicians published a study using zombie attack to model infectious outbreak. This fall, the U of Baltimore’s “Media genres: Zombies” undergrad course has been getting a degree of press coverage that would seem inordinate…if zombies weren’t the It monster just now. Even my toddler — who, let me assure you, has never watched a zombie movie (although we have read Wake the Dead, come to think of it) — is onto it, battling imaginary zombies at the bedroom window last weekend. (Zombies conveniently vulnerable to pinching, apparently: “Pinch the zombies! Pinch the zombies!”)

Why zombies? Why now? These questions came up recently over breakfast with colleagues at Athabasca U. But none of us had ready answers. Surely some of the blockbuster zombie activity can be attributed to the rejuvenation of pop cultural narratives of the undead that the Twilight franchise catalyzed. (This theory can be reduced to an observation on market trends: “Zombies are the new vampires.”) And some of the DIY material made by consumer-producers (conducers? prosumers) — the fan fiction, the Youtube parodies, the street theatre events — can be attributed to the ubiquity of digital media, and especially social networks, where pop-culture references mix, mutate, go viral, and spin off in all kinds of creative, hyper-mediated and performative directions.

But while watching 28 Weeks Later last weekend, just to get into the Hallowe’en spirit, I noticed some formulaic features of the zombie movie genre that suggested a tentative hypothesis. The zombies usually attack in a horde. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed. They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast.

As Susan Tyler Hitchcock observes, in her Cultural History of Frankenstein, the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein (like the earlier and successful film version of Dracula) did brisk box-office business not despite but because of the Depression in which it debuted. Desperate economic times made horror and monster movies particularly suitable flights of fancy, allowing those who could afford the tickets to live vicariously through horrific, apocalyptic tragedies that afforded a perverse but fitting escape from their real-world worries and woes.

Last week, too, my AU colleague Paul Kellogg gave a fascinating talk about the use of the Great Depression as an analogy in more recent economic crises. Using Time Magazine as an archival index of the mass-media Zeitgeist, Kellogg pointed out that the most frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression occurred in the mid-1980s, the height of Reaganomics. And the next most-frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression is happening, as you may have guessed, right now. But Kellogg sees a contradiction: during the Depression, the statistical drop in real full-time wages plummeted. Now, stats show that real full-time wages are, gradually, climbing. The problem, he maintains, is that the numbers on full-time wages don’t reflect the representative sample of the work force they once did. That is to say, not nearly as many people now have full-time employment. Even if they work forty or more hours per week. Major sectors of the work force have been reconfigured for flexibility and disposability. In Canadian universities, for example, the bulk of undergraduate teaching is no longer done by tenured or tenure-track professors; it’s done by “sessional” or “adjunct” instructors — or, increasingly, by graduate students — who have no job security from one semester to the next, though they may go on teaching at one institution for years or even decades. Such are the norms of labour and its exploitation under the globalized, financialized, and flexibly mobile world-system of neoliberal capital that’s been taking shape since the late 1970s. Such are the labour conditions of the work force we call “the precariat.”

So. What’s this detour into history and political economy got to do with zombies? It occurs to me that the pop-culture zombie today is a figure of the precariat and the poverty-stricken, and the zombie narrative is an allegory of mass impoverishment and middle-class retreat. I don’t mean this as any kind of insult to labourers without job security. I’m trying to sort out the cultural function of the zombie figure in texts that are, for the most part, products of a culture industry and the implicit hegemony of values, norms, and perspectives that it imposes.

"Don't talk": the radio talk-show host tells you so. Pontypool, 2008

The zombies usually attack in a horde; the precariat labours as a fast-growing multitude, simultaneously grouped in social environments and subjectively isolated by the conditions and technologies of work. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space; the dwindling middle class retreats to gated communities, rural properties, condominiums, dwellings that maximize architectural and social distance from the multitude. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed; in an economic downturn, society becomes more unequal and more unstable: crime escalates, criminals get creative, weary and beaten scapegoats (immigrant workers, ethnic and other minorities) are hauled before a public conditioned by increasingly neoliberal media, and job security becomes a constant concern, easily smashed at any time by any number of instrumentally rationalized management decisions. (As Ed Broadbent discussed at Congress, with reference to the social study The Spirit Level, the more unequal societies become, as social services and safety nets are scaled back or ripped away in favour of “austerity measures,” the more dysfunctional and volatile they become.) They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. The precariat and the impoverished have no tools or technologies at their disposal, they are reduced to “bare life.” They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. The precariat and the impoverished not only become demonized themselves but become instruments for demonizing education: the public sector most critically resistant to neoliberal hegemony. The zombie is a middle-class image of the precariat or the poverty-stricken, a figure instrumentalized by the culture industry to represent a certain kind of ideal consumer (fast-acting, unreflective, bent on consuming only other consumers), and weaponized to assault the institutions that raise critical consciousness about labour, exploitation, and ideology today: educational and intellectual institutions. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie; nobody’s job is secure enough not to get fired. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast; just like getting fired.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, then, on the ways in which the current popularity of all things zombie might be used not just to model infectious outbreaks (the adequacy of which modelling, I have to say, leaves me skeptical), but also to stand (or maybe stagger) as a cultural symptom of the globalized political economy that has dispossessed and continues to dispossess so many, leaving them ravenous, their hands outstretched, grasping at any purchase, crazed with rage and frustration, clamouring at the doors and windows of the dwindling few who survive the layoffs and cutbacks — the embattled few who — just like in the movies — usually harbour, whether knowingly or unwittingly, the selfish and treacherous individuals who are responsible for the plague in the first place.

The multitude outside. Pontypool, 2008.

Works Cited
Agamben, Giogio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (2008)
Adorno, Theodor. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Rpt. in Soundscapes 2 (2000) http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_reconsidered.shtml
Broadbent, Ed. “The Rise and Fall of Economic and Social Rights — What Next?” Congress, Concordia U, 29 May 2010.
Hardt, Michale and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004).
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History (2007).
Kellogg, Paul. “The great recession, the North American workplace, and the 1930’s ‘analogy trap’.” MA-IS Faculty Symposium, 15 Oct. 2010.
Pontypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Shadow Show / Maple Pictures, 2008.


3 responses to “Zombies and the political economy of precarity

  1. Hi Mark. I enjoyed your post very much. I’d like to draw your attention to another “trend” in the attacking zombie “hordes.” This is just something for you to think on and say to yourself, “hmmm…” Yes, zombies usually attack in hordes, but not always in the same way. In “Night of the Living Dead”, the young heroine realized that the zombies just plodded along, sightlessly, mindlessly. It wasn’t until they got their hands on a person that they became very dangerous. But, like she suggested, you just need to walk around them–they can’t actually catch anyone. Like the zombies in “The Walking Dead” who walk into metal spikes and flail about helplessly because they cannot think to step backward, or to not impale themselves in the first place. They are slow and lumbering. And then there are the zombies in “World War Z”, who are mindless, but also behave like ants in a way. Remember Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” and how the ants stood on each other and built a bridge, like the zombies did to get over the Jerusalem Wall, or take down the helicopter that came to rescue Gerry Lang out of Israel? And not only is the transformation fast–11 seconds–the zombies are fast, agile, and focused on their prey. Like the rage virus in “28 Days (and Weeks) Later.” It’s almost like a hive mind. It’s no surprise then that zombies in “Land of the Dead” and “I Am Legend” (film not book) display a presence of mind. But, what I was going to comment on, is that the type of zombie is also applicable in Western culture, I think, although I won’t be discussing such in my own paper. I think it’s a “thing” though. Like you suggested, the slow, lumbering zombies are like the poor, working masses. The “ash-grey men.” I think that there’s also something to be investigated in there regarding the ability of the poor to educate themselves in North America (mindlessness), and the notions of slums and police violence (decaying bodies), etc. But the fast zombies–they are the truly frightening ones. Fast, agile, contagious, and focused, although still mindless. Or are they so focused and unrelenting that they just seem mindless? That was the mistake Robert Neville made in “I Am Legend.” I think the fast ones are the aggressive “evil” ones that represent the “out-of-control” factor that seems to be so pervasive these days. Anyways…just a thought. 🙂

    • academicalism

      Have you read Christian Thorne’s excellent, extensive post about “zombies fast and slow”? It’s a piece called “The Running of the Dead”: http://sites.williams.edu/cthorne/articles/the-running-of-the-dead-part-1/
      Here’s a quote:
      “…when 28 Days Later was released, that its creatures were next-generation zombies. We remembered zombies as slow, and these weren’t. But then does that change really make a difference? I mean in some sense, it’s obviously an improvement. Boyle and Snyder ditched that staggering, shambolic gait, which was always the easiest thing to parody about zombies. The new zombies were limber and belligerent, and to that extent just scarier. … It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre.”

  2. Thank you Mark. I skimmed it, and will read it in depth next week. I noticed that it had some links to other “zombiphiles.” So…basically the idea of fast and slow zombies has been floating about for a while. Lol. Good to know.

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