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<nettime> For a Symposium on Zombies
Gary . Farnell on Mon, 31 Oct 2011 15:40:27 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> For a Symposium on Zombies



Dear Nettimers

Please see below for a talk that was given at "A Symposium on Zombies"
at Winchester University, UK, last Friday, October 28th. The talk may
be of interest in connection with recent Nettime threads concerning
the current crisis and protest movements.

All the best

Gary Farnell


For a Symposium on Zombies Gary Farnell

The zombie is the official monster of our Great Recession. So says
Time magazine. "[Zombies] seem to be telling us something about the
zeitgeist" " we might expect Time magazine to know a thing or two
about the Zeitgeist.1 But in this short article by Lev Grossman,
"Zombies Are the New Vampires", relatively little is said about what
indeed zombies are telling us about the Zeitgeist. At the same time,
however, for socio-historical transformations to be registered in
the language of monstrosity is nothing new. At the time of the Great
Depression, for example, Antonio Gramsci in his prison cell wrote
"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and
the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid
symptoms appear."2 "Now is the time of monsters", Gramsci says, noting
the configuration of the Zeitgeist and thus outlining how terror
springs from torpor (a situation of dead-lock, if ever there was one)
in the early 1930s. Gramsci"s remark concerning monsters, terror and
torpor acquires a new currency in the current crisis of the Great
Recession. A new teratology " more plainly, a new monsterology " is
emergent, witness, for example, the publication of the late Chris
Harman"s Zombie Capitalism in 2009, Evan Calder Williams"s Combined
and Uneven Apocalypse in 2011 and David McNally"s Monsters of the
Market also in 2011. As well as this, there has been since late
2009 a concerted theoretical effort to conceive of the present as a
"conjuncture" in the pages of the journal Soundings.3 This initiative
marks the return of a Gramsci-inspired conjunctural analysis of the
early neo-liberal era formulated by writers in Marxism Today in the
1970s and 1980s. The point about the conjunctural analysis as such is
that it enjoins consideration of the coming together of structural
contradictions " as economically, politically and ideologically
inflected " into a social crisis situation (a ruptural fusion, as
Louis Althusser would denote it). Moreover, it prioritizes the issue
of "representing the crisis" the better to find an exit from it. In
light of this, this paper argues for the value of the zombie myth
as an interpretative motif in relation to the Hegelian "Night of
the World" that is the present crisis of our Great Recession. The
zombie should indeed be seen as the official monster of the moment.
There has been a striking proliferation of images of monsters and of
the apocalypse in the financial press starting with the sub-prime
crisis of 2006 that mutated into the credit-crunch crisis of 2007
that mutated into the financial crisis of 2008 that mutated into the
global economic crisis we know of today. Thus, "What created this
monster"? asked the New York Times in March 2008.4 In April 2009 the
Financial Times warned that "Curse of the zombies rises in Europe
amid an eerie calm".5 We have been warned that we face "Acropalypse
now" by the Sunday Times in September 2011.6 But it can be argued
that it is specifically the figure of the zombie, at once spectacular
and toxic, that traverses (intersects, negates) this problem of the
representation of the present crisis. For from its origins in the
culture of Haitian Vodou " and from a time when the Haitian Revolution
of 1791-1804 lay, as Susan Buck-Morss has said, "at the crossroads
of multiple discourses as a defining moment in world history"7 " the
image of the zombie has signified the end of civilization itself:
it is the eschaton-made-flesh. It represents (in Hegelian terms)
an image of the truth of the current conjunctural crisis of global
capitalism. (Or put differently, "What if truth were monstrous"? as
the Heideggerian philosopher John Sallis once asked.8) Therefore
we should seize on the zombie"s image in all its sublime ugliness,
itself a variation of Slavoj ??i??ek"s "sublime object of ideology".
This obscene-deformative figure of the zombie speaks to power. Recall
how Occupy Wall Street protestors dressed as zombies, allowing Wall
Street employees to "see us reflecting the metaphor of their actions".
(Likewise, as Arthur Schopenhauer once joked, where else did the
horrors of Dante"s Inferno come from if not the horrors of the present
real world itself?) Hence it"s time to love the living dead, a race
of monsters for the age of deterritorialized, new ethnicities crossed
with the politics of speed. (No wonder Gilles Deleuze and F??lix
Guattari should have suggested quite so boldly in the first part of
Capitalism and Schizophrenia " Anti-Oedipus " that "The only modern
myth is the myth of zombies".9)

Sublime ugliness The zombie"s sublime ugliness, as pressed into
relief by the force of conjunctural analysis of the neo-liberal era
from the 1970s to the present, looks like this. It is now clear that
the origins of the present financial and economic crisis lie in the
resolution of the social-democratic "Keynesian" crisis that marked the
end of the historic post-war settlement in the seventies. In other
words, the neo-liberal solution to that earlier crisis has now become
the problem of the present crisis. For if credit, deployed within
an expanding deregulatory regime (a gloriously immaterial space of
flows), was once the principal instrument of a great transformation,
redressing the various ills of "stagflation", a disgruntled working
class and big government, it has subsequently folded back on itself
and crumbled to dust in the neo-liberals" own hands. A credit boom,
bringing into play the circulation of vast amounts of virtual money,
has at length become the generator not of general prosperity but of
acute inequality (crystallized, above all, in terms of the sub-prime
mortgages scandal). Then confirmation that the crisis situation of the
late 1970s/early 1980s was in fact being repeated (but in reverse!)
in the late 2000s/early 2010s came in August 2011. Whereas forms of
industrial unrest and street violence precipitated a credit boom
(centring on London"s "big bang" of deregulation in the City in
1986) as capital"s means of expanding its way out of a crisis, so, as
the bubble of a hyperinflated economy has finally burst in 2008, the
credit boom has in fact been causal vis-??-vis the recent rioting in
English cities. The fires, the scenes of violence in the first half
of August have been frightening indeed. But at the same time, like
true "possessive individualist" subjects of neo-liberal ideology the
urban rioters and looters have acted, curiously, like shoppers who
want to go shopping without paying for anything with real money. This
explains why the violence of the bad old days of the eighties has
returned, but no longer in the form of that of politically conscious
collectives rather than that of post-credit boom consumers or pure
neo-liberal shoppers. The general situation of the implosion of not
just the financial sector but also the market system more generally
is, ironically, precisely what credit qua fetish object was meant to
forestall. Prescient indeed is Karl Marx"s comment in the third volume
of Capital (Marx"s Crisis Book) that "At first glance . . . the entire
crisis presents itself as simply a credit and monetary crisis."10
This analysis of the neo-liberal conjuncture presses into relief the
zombie"s sublime ugliness (the beautiful excrementalism, the shitty
sublime of the zombie) as portrayed in press coverage of the August
riots of 2011: see, in particular, the well-known Sun front page of
August 10th that led with the headline "Shop a Moron".

"Shop a Moron" This Sun front page belongs in the category of
the "public image". Using pictures taken by closed-circuit
television cameras, it presents a spread of photographs of rioters and
looters, laid out under the headline "Shop a Moron", accompanied
by the encouragement to readers to "name and shame" those
photographed by contacting the police " the page as constructed
is a virtual identification parade.11 Public images in this sense
are as they have been described by Stuart Hall and his co-authors in
Policing the Crisis, now a canonical reference regarding conjunctural
analysis, dating from 1978. Here a "public image" as articulated
in media discourse is "a cluster of impressions, themes and
quasi-explanations, gathered or fused together".12 It is added:
"These are sometimes the outcome of the [news] features process
itself; where hard, difficult, social, cultural or economic analysis
breaks down or is cut short".13 A "public image", then, is
a form of ideological mechanism used as a means to foreclose and
hence "resolve" difficult issues articulated in media discourse,
through a process of rhetorical closure. The "Shop a Moron" front
page constitutes a public image in the above sense. The pictures as
arranged allow the Sun to display its customary wit via the pun on
"shop" and "shopping". This forms the basis of another of the
paper"s "public-interest" campaigns, promoting the cause of law
and order, here against the stupid, idiotic, jouissant behaviour of
the "morons". At the same time, usage of the word moron in the
context of this front page is the means of cutting-short of analysis
and hence of achieving rhetorical closure regarding issues " the
story behind the news " arising from the rioting. The other main
news story of the day (and indeed of that week) was of "turmoil in
the markets", as fears spread about a return to the stormy climate
(or the forms of moronic behaviour!) of the credit boom. Yet it was
not seen as necessary to draw any connections between the two (or
follow the "chain of equivalences" in the style of Laclau and
Mouffe"s discourse analysis). Even so, what appears the pressure in
the Sun to portray the rioters and looters as zombie-like figures may
be the most important thing of all about the "Shop a Moron" case.
For the fact that the "moronic" rioters and looters represented
in the Sun are made to look like zombies who have shuffled out of
George A. Romero"s (later Zack Snyder"s) Dawn of the Dead, a film
classic of consumerist alienation, is striking indeed. This "will to
zombify" is what gives the game away.

Conclusion: the zombie as objet petit a In short, there is at the
level of representation a general reach for the zombie in the aspect
of its sublime ugliness to show, as it were, the human face of the
present crisis " the face of the moronic bankers on Wall Street as
well as that of the moronic looters on Main Street. Gillian Tett"s
article in the Financial Times in 2009, "Curse of the zombies
rises in Europe amid an eerie calm", warns of the threat of what
happened to Japanese banks in the late 1990s that tipped over into
crisis, a sort of "undead state", Tett says, "in the
sense of being too weak to flourish, but too complex and costly for
their lenders to shut down".14 (The general "zombiness" of
all this, incidentally, is summed up nicely in the title of Colin
Crouch"s recent book The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism.) But if
the Japanese experience of extended economic depression (the "lost
decade") is, as Gillian Tett feared, now becoming a reality in the
West, it is notable beyond that how "universal" now is the zombie
image-repertoire in a universe that incorporates both the broadsheet
Financial Times and the tabloid Sun " in this sense, both the high
end and the low end of representation of the current crisis. We may
conclude, then, that the zombie figures in all this as an embodiment
of the Lacanian objet petit a, itself a forerunner of the ??i??ekian
sublime object of ideology. Jacques Lacan has identified the objet a
" the always-already other, reflexive, surplus object around which
the drives circulate " as the object of psychoanalysis and, in the
process, has paved the way for the retheorization of the Marxist
concept of ideology pursued by ??i??ek. The zombie qua Lacanian objet
petit a is what we are presented with as an obscure object of desire
we seek in the other ("in you more than you") in the at once
compulsive and repetitive turn to the zombie image-repertoire that
structures our stories about the current conjuncture and its monsters.
The living dead, we may say, act out the death drive (the spectral
"eternal life" of the undead) of the current global capitalist
crisis. They are thus a valuable form of political resource in the
Occupy Wall Street sense of finding a means of reflecting the metaphor
of capitalist power. Analogous with this is Elaine Scarry"s argument
formulated in her extraordinary work The Body in Pain that physical
pain represents the destruction of language through the reversion it
causes to the cries and groans " in Ingmar Bergman, the cries and
whispers " of a pre-Oedipal, pre-verbal state. The point is that
that pain (in extremis that of the living dead) is relieved in the
moment when it takes an object, thereby "project[ing] the facts of
sentience into speech . . . at the birth of language itself".15
This clarifies how it is in the present moment that representing the
present crisis is to find an exit from it " and the object-as-pivot
in this respect is nothing other than the zombie qua objet petit
a. And so, in the end, if you have a T-shirt that says "We "
Zombies", then wear it with pride.

Notes
1       Lev Grossman, "Zombies Are the New Vampires", Time, 9 April 2009.
   2            Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Lawrence and Wishart 1971, p276.
   3    See John Clarke, "What Crisis Is This"? and Michael Rustin, "Reflections on the Present", Soundings 43, Winter 2009, pp7-17, 18-34.
   4    Nelson D. Schwartz and Julie Creswell, "What created this monster"? New York Times, 23 March 2008.
   5    Gillian Tett, "Curse of the zombies rises in Europe amid an eerie calm", Financial Times, 3 April 2009.
   6    Simon Tilford, "Acropalypse now for the euro", Sunday Times, 18 September 2011.
   7    Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, University of Pittsburgh Press 2009, p13.
   8    John Sallis, "Deformatives: Essentially Other Than Truth", in John Sallis, ed., Reading Heidegger: Commemorations, Indiana University Press 1993, p29.
   9    Gilles Deleuze and F??lix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, Continuum 1984, p335.
   10   Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3, introd. Ernest Mandel, trans. David Fernbach, Penguin Books 1981, p621.
   11   See the electronic (expanded) version of this page at www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/ 3742163/SHOP-A-MORON.html.
   12   Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Macmillan Education, 1978, p118.
   13   Loc. cit.
   14   Tett, "Curse of the zombies"
   15   Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford University Press 1985, p6.


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