Our Zombies, Ourselves: A Lecture with J. Halberstam

Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.
Jack Halberstam during an interview at USC. Photo by Sara Newman.

At guest lectures I usually come prepared to fully understand about half of the references made, and get excited about one or two particular sound bytes. Not so at Jack Halberstam’s lecture on Zombie Humanism at the End of the World (originally titled ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves: Queerness at the End of Time’), kindly hosted by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Halberstam’s talk on zombie humanism and biopolitics is right in the same theoretical zone as my own PhD work on monster mashups, and her walk through wildness, pets, mess, and bare life left me sagely (and embarrassingly) nodding in agreement for the better part of an hour. I’m most familiar with Halberstam’s early work Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), which takes a look at the social issues that accompany portrayals of monsters from the nineteenth century to the present. ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ presented these issues in a new jacket.

The lecture started with some of the work Halberstam is currently doing on ‘wildness’ as a theoretical concept. Wildness is a word with a lot of connotations in our culture, and can potentially be appropriated for anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-humanist ends. Wildness isn’t part of the mainstream, but is still a part of our environment and our society. It’s a place we’ve categorised as un-categorisable. A place where ideas about what’s ‘normal’ or ‘civilised’ go to die. This makes it an ideal framework for thinking about queerness, and about zombies.

In Halberstam’s conception of zombie humanism, zombies represent everyone relegated to the role of the ‘living dead’ in our society: people we’ve ‘rescued’ from death, but who only matter in that they make us feel good about that ‘human’ act of charity. Zombie humanism serves to make us more human and everything else less so, and who the ‘us’ and ‘we’ are in this scenario may not be the groups you expected. Zombies are everywhere.

You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven't seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.
You may even be one yourself. Also, if you haven’t seen this episode of Community (Season 2, Episode 6), you need to go do that. Right now.

The first category of the ‘living dead’ Halberstam brought up in her talk was household pets – cats, dogs, goldfish, and any other animal we may ‘rescue’ from the category of food. Because no guest lecture in the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) is complete without a reference to Monty Python, she led with the infamous parrot sketch, offering the highly tweetable statement that ‘all pets are dead parrots’. The humour in the sketch lies mainly in the stereotypical dishonesty of shopkeepers (the object could just as easily have been a boat that didn’t actually float, for example), but the irrelevance of a pet’s physical or emotional state as an object is also a factor in this joke. Why couldn’t you have a dead parrot as a pet? What makes a live parrot better, really? We take care of our pets largely without considering whether they enjoy or appreciate what we are doing. We draw arbitrary boundaries (‘Nip, don’t bite’), preferring to overlook the fact that a pet’s whole existence, like that of livestock or other ‘edible’ animals, is primarily for the benefit of humans.

Frankenweenie, everyone's favourite zombie pet.
Frankenweenie, everyone’s favourite zombie pet.

The pet discussion sparked some controversy with the more aggressively progressive pet owners in the audience, and came up quite a bit during the Q&A at the end (‘But I’m a vegan’ and ‘I don’t tell people I have cats, I say I live with two cats’), but for me the super-anthropomorphising of pets among wealthy owners only complicates this issue further. It reminds me eerily of a recent trip to South Africa, where a vineyard owner was all-too-eager to tell me how they take care of ‘their blacks’ in the aftermath of apartheid. While I realise this is an extreme comparison to make, it also seems strange to me that we are often so unwilling to even think that we might be treating the animals that live with us in a demeaning or inappropriate way. This idea of the pet as a zombie is partly a response to Donna Haraway’s humanisation of the pet as a companion species (see The Companion Species Manifesto and Lively Capital in particular), it fills in some of the theoretical gaps in the ways we typically think about our ‘furry friends’.

The category of ‘living dead’ isn’t only reserved for animals. Prisoners, refugees, the poor: all categories of people we regularly argue we are ‘helping’ while simultaneously denying them humanity/personhood. While we’re on the topic of race, Halberstam offered a fun illustration from AMC’s The Walking Dead on the ease with which non-white subjects become ‘zombies’ – in both the metaphorical and the literal sense. Human characters die all the time on the show, but never quite in the numbers they do when the predominantly white band of survivors (led by cowboy-archetype Rick) encounters a prison full of predominantly non-white inmates.

Guess how long these guys lived.
Guess how long these guys lived.

For Halberstam, the US zombie is a racialised frontier metaphor: cowboys versus Indians. This also reflects US attitudes towards the socially undead ‘zombie other’. Things are quite different in UK-produced zombie media, for example, and here Halberstam made a reference to my favourite zombie series, In the Flesh. In this series, rather than putting down the zombie uprising through extermination, the Brits turn to a different kind of domination: rehabilitation. Sufferers of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are given a kit that includes anti-rage meds, special contact lenses, and makeup to mimic living flesh, and are returned to their ‘natural’ environments. Here they are naturally shunned, abused, and sometimes even killed by the angry and frightened survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

zombie-post-series-boxxThe attitudes towards zombies in popular culture again reflect widespread attitudes towards the dehumanised other in our society. We paint pictures of children and adults who are mindless, self-absorbed consumers and a burden on the economy. We rehabilitate those who don’t fit our idea of the normal. We fight wars against foreign terrorist groups, put criminals into prisons and the elderly into nursing homes.  The debate here is not necessarily whether or not these people should be rehabilitated, but rather that the way we go about it is fundamentally dehumanising for the objects of these efforts. Really, though we rarely think about it, our gestures of rehabilitation are designed to make us feel more human, and transform the recipients of that unsolicited help into people who, while they may still technically be alive, have been stripped of the agency that would imbue that life with meaning.

Bookending her discussion on wildness, Halberstam also brought the concept of ‘mess’ to bear on her analysis of zombie humanism, particularly as it relates to queerness. Citing studies by queer theorists Martin Manalansan and José Muñoz, which both seek newer and more humanising ways of looking at queer lives and spaces, Halberstam explored the use of mess as both an aesthetic and a theoretical approach. In the Western world we love order, and we love binaries – especially in academia. But if we can learn to embrace mess and chaos (whatever such an approach might look like in practice), we may discover a different but equally valid system of categorisation. At the very least we will be opening ourselves to new and much-needed perspectives. This approach will be vital if we ever want to ‘kill’ zombie humanism once and for all.

'I know exactly where everything is.'
‘I know exactly where everything is.’

These theories all form part of Halberstam’s current work on fascism and (homo)sexuality. All in all it was a very interesting evening, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Halberstam’s future work in this area. You can find a link to the original seminar description at organiser Paul Bowman’s academia.edu page.

I even got up the courage to ask a question at the end.