Note: This article attempts to answer the questions first raised by the article Co-optation, Radicals, Idealists, Realists, and Blogging. This is the first installment.
The Zombie Servants of Golem
I little imagined when I began writing this article that it would become the behemoth it has. Shortly after I started writing it I watched Resident Evil
, followed by a quick check of my blog stats before retiring to bed. I came across, via Harry
, Billmon's eulogy for blogdom. I felt a curious, almost poetic homology between these two experiences. Zombies were not originally part of this article. But I realized that to fully address the topics this article raises I need to begin at the beginning. And so zombies will lead the way...
What is a zombie?
Dawn of the Dead
—It [the T-cell virus that causes zombiehood] brings the dead back to life?
—Not fully. The subjects have the simplest of motor functions. Perhaps a little memory. Virtually no intelligence. They are driven by the basest of impulses, the most basic of needs.
—The need to feed.
Day of the Dead
—These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other, that's the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm flesh. Intelligence? Seemingly little or no reasoning power, but basic skills remain, of more remembered behaviours from normal life. There are reports of these creatures using tools, but even these actions are the most primitive. The use of external articles as bludgeons and so forth...I might point out to you that even animals will adopt the basic use of tools in these matters. These creatures are nothing but pure motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that they are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions. They must be destroyed on sight!
&sdot &sdot &sdot
[In the mall the zombies approach Penny's Department Store after our living heroes embark on a "shopping spree".]
—They're still here.
—They're after us. They know we're still in here.
—They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember...remember that they want to be in here.
—What the hell are they?
—They're us, that's all. There's no more room in hell.
—The brain is the engine, Sarah, the motor that drives them. They don't need any blood flow, don't need any of their internal organs. Now, I've severed all the vital organs in this one. There's nothing left of the corpse but brain and limbs, and still it functions. Oh, look, Sarah. Look. [He holds his hand before a zombie's mouth who instinctively tries to eat it.] See, it wants me. It wants food, but it has no stomach. It can take no nourishment from what it ingests.
&sdot &sdot &sdot
—He told me himself they don't eat for nourishment. What are we hoping for here?
—Hoping to satisfy the urge. You see, Sarah, they're...They are us! They are the extensions of us. They are the same animal, simply functioning less perfectly. They can be fooled, you see? They can be tricked into being good little girls and boys, the same way we were tricked into it on the promise of some reward to come. They have to be rewarded. Reward is the key. I'm convinced of that now.
—Well, is he dead or alive?
—Well, that's the question, isn't it?
We see with increasing clarity that zombies are nothing more than living dead who exist to consume. But if that was their entire function they would cease to resonate as effectively as they do as a cultural metaphor replete with symbolic association.
Two quick observations:
- It wants food, but it has no stomach. It can take no nourishment from what it ingests.
"From the moment that we place desire on the side of acquisition, we make desire an idealistic (dialectical, nihilistic) conception, which causes us to look upon it as primarily a lack: a lack of an object, a lack of the real object." Deleuze & Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
- They can be tricked into being good little girls and boys, the same way we were tricked into it on the promise of some reward to come. They have to be rewarded. Reward is the key. I'm convinced of that now.
"Early on in your education you are socialized to understand the need to support the power structure, primarily corporations — the business class. The lesson you learn in the socialization through education is that if you don't support the interest of the people who have wealth and power, you don't survive very long. You are just weeded out of the system or marginalized." Noam Chomsky. Chomsky on Mis-Education.
The Zombie Denizens of Wealth Bondage
If gangster movies are the morality plays capital performs for itself to explore capital's inherent ethical dilemmas, then zombie movies are the phenomenological fairy tales of the denizens who live within capital's ubiquitous empire. But it took a while for the zombie to attach itself to its cultural meaning.
The first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, is also the most terrifying. Much of this was due to the brilliant lighting and grainy black and white film, the intense sense of claustrophobia, and overall mise-en-scene. But much of its terror is also due to the fact that the zombies were, in the parlance of semiotics, "empty signifiers", or "signifiers without a signified." They were completely irrational forces of assimilation, seeking to "consume" the living and, thereby, turn the living into one of the them — but without any symbolic attachment. There was no reason for their existence, and their unquenchable hunger and their lurking premonition of death was as implacable and ineluctable as death itself. In this they capture the awesome terror of amoral nature in its essential purity.
With the next major zombie movie, Dawn of the Dead, the signifier glommed onto the signified like a glove onto a hand — and so the true cultural import of what a zombie signifies came to life. They are the soulless living-dead who go to the mall, "consumers" in the purest sense of the word since their entire raison d'etre
is to "consume." This conflation of zombies who want to consume living flesh with shoppers who want to consume the effluvia of capital known as products is made unmistably concrete by shots of the zombies clamoring at store windows seeking entrance to "consume" what's inside.
"They are us," as has been said by the living protagonists confronting them. Simply put, zombie movies are fascinating cultural metaphors for assimilation into Wealth Bondage. What are zombies if not soul-deadened automatons who desire nothing more than to "consume"? Is there any better metaphor for consumer capitalism?
In addition, zombies must feed on the living because everyone must be like them — that's why zombies don't feed on each other. Thus, not only are they consumers, they are strict, reactionary conformists who cannot tolerate difference. All life must succumb to the status of living dead — there can be no real life, no real freedom. There can be no "outside." Thus zombies are not just metaphors for consumer capitalism, they become symbolic metaphors for totalitarianism.
Zombie Alien-host Borgs in the Matrix
The theme of absorption into a closed culture has become one of the primary cultural metaphors of our time. Other manifestations of this theme of co-optation and assimilation have multiplied like the meme viruses they are: The Borg, They Live
, The Matrix
(where man is no longer even a cog, but a battery that keeps Wealth Bondage functioning!), etc. And it's not just "assimilation" into a closed culture, but a particular kind of culture: the culture of corporate capitalism. These are all metaphorical incarnations for corporate capitalism's co-optation of our environment, our media, our time, our autonomy, our very souls.
It's no coincidence that this meme first appeared shortly after WWII, at what is considered the apotheosis of The American Way of Life™ as epitomized by Ozzie and Harriet
and Father Knows Best
— the Golden Age of America idealized out of all recognition by Ronald Reagan, and promulgated by the forces of political reaction as they try to force America back there kicking and screaming. 50s precursors to the zombie metaphor of assimilation were the eponymous Blob
Steve McQueen ran from, and the suburban pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
. (Many people assume that the pod people were a metaphor for communism. Or for McCarthyism. The answer is Yes — both of them: assimilation to a closed culture transcends doctrinal differences since the end result is the same — the transference of identity and autonomy to that of the group. Fascists and statist communists may hate each other — but whether left wing or right, they're both totalitarianisms.)
Perhaps the most pointed symbolic metaphor for the way in which corporate capitalism has overtaken our lives is Alien
. Alien is a bio-engineered R&D military "product" of The Company. Alien procreates by implanting its progeny (via a facehugger) into the guts of a living human host. Thus humans are the living host by which Alien qua
corporate product fulfills its biological imperative to continue the life of the species. The metaphor is complete here — we are the unwitting carriers of the very evil we wish to eradicate, the biological entity by which the corporate product promulgates. Whether battery, cog, worker bee in a hive, or living host, the end result is always the same — our lives are not our own, but are at the service of some nefarious, universal conspiracy that we inhabit but do not, or cannot, comprehend — one that seeks the subjugation of humanity to serve its own ends, ends that are either rapacious, power-crazed, or both.
Thus the theme of assimilation warps and woofs around another major cultural metaphor that has emerged recently: the "alternate reality" metaphor, a metaphor that crosses all genres: The Matrix
, Jacob's Ladder
, The Sixth Sense
, Dark City
, The Others
, Family Man
, The Game
, Lost Highway
, Sliding Doors
, etc etc. This is, perhaps, the major metaphor of our time: our culture senses that there is an alternate reality, that things are not as they appear, that the reality in which we find ourselves is not necessarily the real
reality, that there is, there must be!
, another reality, another way of being.
But not just that. It goes deeper. It reaches a veritable postmodern ontological chaos where reality is truly up for grabs. (Exemplified, on the political level, by BushCo's assertion that
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.") Reality is up for grabs, and people are not happy with the reality they currently inhabit. There must be another one. But how to get there?
A comparable postmodern ontological explosion occurred during the Roman Empire as vastly different cultures, each with its own awareness and interpretation of reality, came into crashing conflicts with each other, each competing to define reality by its own standards. Anytime radically alien cultures interweave with each other a society's ontology becomes dissonantly fluid, causing reactionary and tenacious reversions to the safety of given cultural ideologies. (Ie, when an ontological earthquake occurs, people seek shelter in the terra firma
of their ingrained cultural truths. "In the midst of absurdity the trumpet is certain." —E. O. Wilson) (This, by the way, was one of the contributing factors to the decline of the Roman Empire. It's not the ontological crash of cultures in itself that causes the problem, it's the way in which the dominant society reacts to it. A society that enforces a "melting-pot" assimilation causes xenophobic reactions that lead to in-group and out-group mentalities, which then lead to social fractures and, ultimately, failure; a society that tolerates and encourages "cultural mosaics" will adapt and thrive.)
Zombie movies are the mature and fully realized symbolic metaphor of corporate capitalism's ability to co-opt anything into its fold. It's also no coincidence that zombies create new zombies by spreading a "virus" into the living; and that zombies can only be killed by destroying their brain. Their condition is, metaphorically, one of perception: they have been indoctrinated by a virus to be the ultimate consumers of, and servants to, corporate capital, and cannot imagine any other way of being. A blow to the head snaps them out of it (by killing them). (In this regard it's useful to remember that Death is often a symbol for rebirth — the death of the old self allows room for a new self to emerge. cf: the Death card of the Tarot
brings together many such symbols, and then adds several more contemporary symbolic metaphors to make it a very rich semiotic stew. In addition to the zombie theme, it includes references to Alice in Wonderland and False Exteriors (alternate realities), The Hive (an obvious metaphor for subsuming identity to the group), the "nefarious gaze" (the panoptic gaze of some hidden omniscience), "malign architecture" (one does not belong in one's space (because it's trying to kill you)), "Puppetmasters" (events are controlled by hidden others who have their own agendas), the evil corporation, mad scientists, etc. Resident Evil
's mythic structure is practically Homeric: the gods (ie, The Umbrella Corporation) create the theatre in which mortals seek to find their way home, battling through an assortment of symbolically resonant obstacles placed in their path.
The plot is very simple: the Umbrella Corporation is an evil multinational corporation whose nefarious researches involve genetic experimentation that lead to the creation of zombies. The research takes place in an underground facility referred to as The Hive, lorded over by a Panoptic warden called the Red Queen. Our heroes try to escape.
is exemplary of the "zombie as denizen of corporate capital" metaphor, even self-consciously so. Here's the very first thing we read and hear (as voiceover narration) after the fade in:
The Events Leading to the Incident at Raccoon City.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Umbrella Corporation had become the largest commercial entity in the United States.
9 out of every 10 homes contain its products.
It's political and financial influence is felt everywhere.
In public, it is the world's leading supplier of:
- Computer Technology
- Medical Products
Unknown even to its own employees, its massive profits are generated by:
- Military Technology
- Genetic Experimentation
- Viral Weaponry
And thus begins our descent into "The Hive", an underground research facility developing nefarious bio-weapons, bio-weapons that lead, naturally, to the transformation of all the employees of The Umbrella Corporation into zombies during an act of industrial sabotage.
We will return to The Hive in a later article as it warrants discussion because it contains within itself two relevant contemporary horror sub-genres mentioned before: the "nefarious gaze" and "malign architecture." One of the most interesting touches in The Hive is that windows reveal a cityscape outside. But The Hive is underground, so how is this possible? "Makes it easier to work underground, thinking there's a view."
Their entire environment is thus a prison in which an "outside" is seen but is not real: they live in a simulacra. They are voluntary prisoners both
of The Umbrella Corporation and of their own perceptions
, since they have internalized the simulation of the outside as
a simulation that paradoxically comforts them. They have adapted themselves to the comfort of lies to make their lives easier to bear. Another excellent metaphor that extends the symbol of corporate zombiehood.
So what, exactly, is a Golem? A Golem
is an artificial human being in Hebrew folklore endowed with life. But The Golem has a modern incarnation
Corporations before 1886 were required to serve the common good, and were created with limited lifespans and rights that expired when they fulfilled their mandate.
But a practically offhanded comment by Supreme Court Justice Morrison Remick Waite in the 1886 Supreme Court decision in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad
transformed corporations into beings that held the rights of actual humans, bestowed them with immortality, and thus allowed them free rein to wield tremendous power.
In its contemporary incarnation
Corporate persons, or golems, have since utilized rights granted to humans for their own gain and motives, usually in the name of profit and shareholder value. They use the First Amendment to justify their right to lie or deceive in advertising. They use it to pump millions of dollars into our political system. They invoke Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure of assets thwarting government oversight and auditing. The Fourteenth Amendment ensures they are not discriminated against in law and is used when a community does not wish their presence—even when brought to a general vote. The sum gain is a twisted political system which serves the rights and common good of large golems, depressed cheap-labor communities, and environmental decay. Essentially, it is the collapse of the "town commons" and democracy itself.
Thus zombies are the soul-deadened servants of their comparably soul-deadened Golem overlords.
Zombies are what the Golems require us to be. All they ask in exchange for the trinkets of our consumption is our souls, our time, and our lives. And, further, there can be no one who isn't a zombie — complete and universal conformity is required. There can be no escape — there is no "outside."
Diversion 1: The Anti-Hollywood Sorrows of Corporate Capitalism
There's a reason why so many movies cast large corporations as the villain to the point of cliche. There's also an unstated though related reason why Washington hates Hollywood so much. As "commercial" as Hollywood is, and as potent an ideological tool as movies are in spreading the gospel of consumer capitalism, they remain products largely created by an educated and artistic elite who are able to express themselves in works of art [loosely defined]. The fact that they are so incredibly successful indicates that they are tapping into the mythic structures of society as a whole, a society that may not be able to articulate in what ways it does so, but certainly the Hollywood "product" conveys a message that reflects a shared experience as much as it promulgates it.
It's no big surprise that business and government often find themselves at odds with Hollywood
. Hollywood is a powerful and famous adversary that refuses to play nice and toe the party line
. There are countless screeds about Hollywood warping the minds of our youth, all too ready to blame Hollywood for anything that goes wrong in our society.
Though it's a simplification, it ultimately comes down to a question of opposing worldviews between the humanities and business. And business and government don't like the way they are analyzed and portrayed by the humanities. It's only natural that they would feel some enmity towards Hollywood for constantly being depicted as villains.
Hence this vapid but nonetheless interesting article by Professor Larry E. Ribstein
that seeks to explain to capital the reasons for this conflict. He has the wisdom and insight to see that there are two worldviews at play, and he articulates them, from his limited point of view, quite nicely:
A strong argument can be made that all artists share an anti-capital bias. Authors, painters and other artists have reason to resent the lack of money that would permit them to pursue their art without concern for market pressures...Moreover, all artists see themselves as searching for the true meaning of things rather than for wealth. For the artist, success is measured by the inherent quality of perception or expression rather than, like the typical capitalist, accumulation of wealth.
(I'm not going to comment on his gross generalization that "all artists see themselves as searching for the true meaning of things rather than wealth," other than to bring our attention to it.) And these different motivations between artists and capitalists are, in essence, according to Ribstein, the entire reason Hollywood hates business: he ends up attributing Hollywood's "anti-corporate bias" as purely sour grapes: "When filmmakers want David and Goliath story [sic], they aim at the power that most affects them — those who control the money they need to do their art."
He addresses several other reasons for this "bias", including the notion that perhaps movies depict business accurrately; but he quickly dismisses such a fanciful idea by enlisting pro-business homilies straight out of the Cato Institute. Eg:
Finally, films often ignore the power of markets to root out bad conduct in the long run, even if not in the short term. For example, in the film version of The Fugitive, the filmmakers assume that a pharmaceutical company would want so desperately to protect false test results that its executive would kill to do so. Yet in a competitive market the firm is likely to be exposed, with results much worse than if it had disclosed the test results in the first place. Accordingly, it is much more likely that the firm is the victim of a cover-up by its agent, who might be able to abscond with a short-term gain, than that the cover-up is being done in the firm's interests.
He completely ignores the systemic injustices inherent in corporate capitalism's raison d'etre
to pursue profit because he cannot conceive of such a thing. ("There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud." —Milton Friedman.) For example, to continue with Big Pharma, a quick and simple search at, say, Multinational Monitor
Multination Monitor: What are the problems that arise from an inadequate drug regulatory system?
Dr. Sidney Wolfe: There are four general ways in which problems arise with prescription drugs. Initially, before the new drug application is even submitted, is the failure to adequately test products, or the failure to test them ethically. Second, even if the tests are done right, there can be a failure to properly report the results to the government. Third, even if the tests are ethically and adequately conducted and reported, the government may fail to regulate, usually for reasons having to do with pressure from industry. The fourth problem is failure to accurately and promptly inform patients and doctors of risks.
Ok, so maybe an executive wouldn't kill someone to protect false test results. But such a plot device functions as a symbolic synecdoche: it uses a particular, fabricated example to represent a systemic whole. After all, stories are told through people, not institutions; there's a difference between literal versus symbolic interpretation. (Just ask any fundamentalist.) Though it's easy to dismiss such a thing as a fictional contrivance, people nonetheless sense that there's a deeper truth at play — that's why it rings so true to us. Here's another example from later in the same interview:
Dr. Sidney Wolfe: ...Another drug which stayed on the market for a number of years after it should have been banned is Seldane, a widely prescribed antihistamine. For two or three years after it was crystal clear that this drug caused fatal cardiac arrhythmia when used with other drugs, it stayed on the market because the FDA was waiting for the company that made it to get another drug approved which had the benefits but not, by and large, the risks. During that period, a lot of people were taking it and a number of cases of cardiac arrhythmia and death occurred.
Did the market "root out bad conduct" against the drug manufacturer (Hoechst Marion Roussel
) responsible for Seldane? Of course not
, because there's a world of difference between the feel-good theories and homilies one wants to believe about the way the world works, and what actually transpires in it. (This article from Business Week, "Too Much Corporate Power?"
, is good for a laugh if you feel like seeing how mainstream business reporting conducts soul searching.)
If Hollywood routinely casts corporations as villains it's not for the fatuous reason that artists resent "a lack of money" to pursue their art — especially in Hollywood, of all places; it's because artists have a penchant to see the world more clearly because they scratch the surface to get at the workings underneath, and then seek to express what they find. If we apply Professor Ribstein's logic of market correction to movies then we would expect audiences that don't relate to typecasting corporations as villains to avoid movies that portray them in this manner. Movies would then be compelled to find other villains in an effort to bring their audiences back. The fact is, audiences do
relate to corporations as villains — for a plenitude of valid reasons — and the movies reflect this awareness back to their audience.
(I could go off on another diversion here to explore Jung's definition of personality as the synthesis of four dichotomous preferences, one of them being Sensing versus Intuition as the way in which one perceives the world. Though this is a vital element that flows under, around, and through much of this entire discussion I will save it for another day.)
Zombie movies, as discussed above, are one of our culture's most pointed metaphors for assimilation of citizens into Wealth Bondage as the servants of Golem — soulless living-dead who must "consume" the living, both to satisfy a craving that can never be satisfied, and to convert the living to become like them.
What is fascism if not the submersion of individual identity to a group identity? Fascism is the ultimate conformity, the ultimate "Hive" mentality, the ultimate striving for order — the order that is death. (Here we are using a broader definition of fascism to encompass such a phenomenon, the sense of fascism as used by Michel Foucault in his introduction to Deleuze & Guattari's book Anti-Oedipus: "And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini — which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively — but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.") Thus zombies, as a symbol for the mandatory and complete conformity of a society's members to achieve an impervious group identity, as well as being a symbol of insatiable, soul-deadened consumers, represent the latent fascism inherent in consumer capitalism.
Zombies are thus a locus of symbolic associations for contemporary life, of which the three most prominent functional metaphors are:
- the unlived life
- the personification of desire as a lack that can never be filled (ie, consumers who can never be satiated)
- a social group that demands complete conformity via viral assimilation (ie, the fascism as defined by Foucault: "to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us")
The only thing left unsaid about zombie movies is that they all share a similar structure: the protagonists all seek to escape the zombie's overwhelming conformist pressures and find their way to freedom. Is there a way out?
Next: The Creation and Training of Zombies