As Obama celebrates his reelection, and his supporters find themselves in the odd position of planning how to fight the man they helped reelect in the first place, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Obama was able to prevail in the presidential election by receiving a preponderant number of ballots – and that these ballots (a term derived from the word ‘balls’) in many respects represents the surrender of his supporters’ symbolic balls – not only their symbolic heads, and minds, but also their actual autonomy to the ruler whose power they simultaneously support and decry.
What is interesting, as well as relevant, is that this dynamic of surrendering autonomy shares a substantial resemblance with features of the fictitious, yet symbolically loaded, figure of the zombie and its relationship to political power. Appearing in countless books, movies, tv shows, video games, and advertisements, the zombie has arguably attained the high level of popularity it has in recent years on account of the fact that, as a society, we relate to these undead creatures in more ways than we might initially suspect.
Indeed, who doesn’t from time to time, when commuting to and from work each day, for example, feel like one of a veritable army of zombies? Or, deprived of energy or power at the end of a day of work, who doesn’t find themselves shuffling about like a member of the “living dead”? Among other things, just looking about at the crowds surrounding them, who doesn’t ever think of altering the famous words of the late June Jordan and reflect – only half-facetiously – that, in certain respects, “we are the zombies we’ve been waiting for”?
Yet, if the powerless, half-dead zombie may be said to represent one end of the spectrum of political power, the other extreme is arguably occupied by another popular, undead figure. In contrast to the speechless, decaying slob of the zombie, at the other end of this spectrum of power one may not be too surprised to discover the stylish, aristocratic, and generally articulate, vampire.
While living people occupy the midsection between these two undead extremes – and are under attack at each end by these vampires and zombies – in one sense the zombie may be seen to be the product of vampires. For, among other things, zombies are generally produced by a parasite or some other life-depriving agent; and this is just what the figure of the vampire represents.
Whereas the zombie is a relatively powerless walking corpse, it should be remarked that their lost power does not necessarily merely evaporate. Rather, it may be seen to concentrate in the agent or parasite that so deprived it in the first place – i.e., in the vampire. In this respect, then, we can view the figure of the vampire as – to some degree – symbolic of the owners of the world, and the zombies as their exploited underclass. For just as Marx opined concerning capitalism, it is “vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.” Zombies, as the nonthinking result of this deprivation by the owners of capital, are for their part the living dead whose life force has been sucked out.
However, as physically (and metaphysically) powerful as the vampire is, with its capacity to fly, and its ability to defy age, among other powers, the vampire is at the same time in certain respects profoundly weak. For like any parasite who dominates its host, yet is at the same time utterly dependent on it, the vampire’s power is restricted by this dependency. And the host, strangely, who is depended upon – who in fact is the source of the parasite’s power – is the one who is in turn dominated.
To some degree this parasitic relationship of powerless dominator and powerful dominated is formulated by the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. As he elaborates it in his Master-Slave Dialectic, in the Self-Consciousness section of his Phenomenology of Spirit, the host or slave can ultimately come to live without the master, but through their exploitative relationship the master becomes unable to live without the slave.
Dominated by the master and forced to work, the slave, according to Hegel, winds up becoming creative, and consequently attains self-consciousness. The master, meanwhile, becomes ever more dependent on the slaves’ output. Yet, as a result of the slaves’ emerging self-consciousness, the slave comes to demand independence from the master, and the dialectic continues from there.
So, in spite of its similarities, the so-called Master-Slave dialectic is distinct from the dynamic between the vampire and zombie. For, whereas the master’s slave ultimately achieves self-consciousness, and freedom through his or her creative labor, insofar as the vampire deprives people of their blood and energy through mindless work, the vampires (unlike the Master) succeed in creating zombies who, instead of attaining self-consciousness, become a member of the living-dead without seeming to notice or mind much at all.
Insofar as it contributes to an understanding of the speculative relationship under consideration between vampires and zombies, Friedrich Nietzsche’s master and slave morality schema – as elaborated in his Genealogy of Morals – deserves consideration alongside Hegel’s theory. However, like Hegel’s theory, Nietzsche’s also ultimately fails to capture the complex dynamic at play.
To be sure, although the vampire possesses a type of nobility (in the aristocratic sense of a nobleman, or noblewoman) and may be said in this respect to embody the morality, or ethos, of the master in Nietzsche’s Genealogy, the other aspect, that of slave morality, does not in the end arise.
Among other things, because the zombie is not especially vindictive or resentful, the zombie may be said to lack not just a slave morality, but any morality or ethos altogether. Unlike Nietzsche’s slave, who schemes to destroy the master, zombies don’t want to bring the vampire down at all. They are more than happy to simply eat vast quantities of brains and watch American Idol. In spite of this, however, one can attribute a type of cowardice and resentment (which Nietzsche argues characterizes slave morality) to the zombie. This sentiment (or, rather, resentiment), is not directed toward the vampire, however. Rather, it is directed at those who critique the vampire. Zombies seem to truly hate such tiring exercises in critical thought.
Among other characteristics of slave morality, Nietzsche argues that the slave possesses a desire for equality. The contemporary zombie, however, to the degree that s/he considers this notion at all, tends to think of equality in only the most superficial, regressively egalitarian ways. The championing of the elimination of public sector employee benefits, based on the rationale that all are not fairly suffering the effects of an austerity economy – all the while neglecting to consider the excesses enjoyed by the rich (vampires) who created the wretched conditions in the first place – provides just one example of such invertedly resentful zombie “thought.”
However, while Nietzsche’s theory may not fit the relationship between vampires and zombies very tightly, certain similarities are still worth considering. For instance, like Nietzsche’s master, the vampire may be said to be – in Nietzsche’s words – “value-creating.” This is the case insofar as the vampire creates social norms. However, this value can also be viewed as the “value” that the businessperson creates in degrading the living world to an assortment of lifeless commodities. This “value” of the master, or vampire, and its attendant norms, which Nietzsche’s slave emphatically rejects, are, however, uncritically embraced by the zombie.
Moreover, rather than resenting the vampire, the contemporary zombie often aspires to become just like one of them – just as the well-known Joe the Zombie Plumber aspired to become a vampire, a la some Bloomberg. Indeed, unlike the slave, the zombie does not villainize its oppressor at all. Like those afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome, who come to care for their tormentors, or the host possessed and deformed by a parasite, the zombie more or less willfully sacrifices itself to the vampire.
Though Nietzsche is often presumed to support a version of a master morality, a careful reading of his works leads to the conclusion that Nietzsche in the end rejects slave morality as well as master morality. This position finds considerable support in Nietzsche’s consistent, tireless argument for not master morality at all, but for “a revaluation of all values.”
Relatedly, the term Value derives from the Latin Valere, which means wellness and health. Considering this fact, it is especially noteworthy that the opposition of class interests, or values, is complemented by the phenomenon that the health of one class in today’s world is generally dependent on the diminution of the health of the class they exploit. That is, just as the vampire extracts one form of value (health) from its host, it is significant that it then replaces this with its own (ideological) values. And because the zombie seems to accept the values of the vampire, rather than Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic or Nietzsche’s master slave morality, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony may at this point help to elucidate the relationship between the vampire and the zombie.
(That these parasites should be portrayed as sexy aristocrats, ought to yield little surprise either. Meanwhile, unlike the sexy, aristocratic vampire, the proletarian zombies – sapped of all elan vital – are rarely portrayed as anything aside from the thoroughly repulsive creatures they have been deformed into. Indeed, no one ever wants to touch, let alone sleep with any of these shuffling, rotting corpses.)
But the correspondence between vampires, parasites, and hegemony does not stop there. Insofar as the dominant classes’ values tend to produce behavior among the dominated that is to their detriment, there is an interesting – albeit highly problematic – parity between cultural hegemony and the biological, deterministic dynamic inherent in parasitism.
Beyond these examples, parasites and viruses have been shown to alter human behavior as well. As cited in the same article, behavioral biologists and biomedical anthropologists at Colorado State University, and SUNY Binghamton, have discovered social behavior in humans that is influenced by pathogens. When infected with the flu, for instance, and the virus is at its most contagious, otherwise unsociable people have been observed to experience highly increased desires to socialize with others, going so far as to throw parties when they otherwise only rarely hosted such activities. It goes without saying that this type of behavior is not beneficial for the host, who needs rest to recover from his or her illness. However, it is quite advantageous for the parasite to be exposed to new hosts in which to spread. Additionally, people infected with herpes, syphilis, and AIDS have all been found to express an enhanced desire for sex when their respective virus is most contagious.
While there is no evidence to support a correlation, it is intriguing to reflect on the similarities that exist between these biological, parasitical relationships, and the antagonistic relationships that exist between social classes which result in a dominated class exhibiting apparently self-destructive behavior vis-a-vis their exploiters. To be sure, there may even be a biological homology between parasitism and cultural hegemony.
However, though one may be tempted to find a cause for the zombification of people within biological processes, we must nevertheless resist the temptation to attribute contemporary zombie-ism to such environmental, genetic or strictly neurological factors. For as much as biological and subconscious determinants may be at play in the reproduction of ideologies, we must not overlook the fact that for the most part the things which influence our thoughts are, overwhelmingly, things we can control – and things which we are, therefore, responsible for. That is, the things that most influence us are not so much microscopic organisms, but those things which are – more than merely learned – intentionally taught (not least of which are floods of advertisements, ideology, and propaganda). Surrounding and immersing us in so-called consumer culture, this dogma is all around us. And, among other things, it is this dogmatism – and its corresponding lack of skepticism – that ensures that zombie and vampire “thought” is not able to rise much beyond the level of distraction and reflex – i.e., it hardly attains the level of thought at all.
Furthermore, it is vital to stress that everyone has a tendency, at least from time to time, to become a zombie, or a vampire (or, for those for whom being a zombie or a vampire is their primary mode, to from time to time become “human” – that is, to become not undead, but alive). In other words, though we have been distinguishing between the undead monsters and living humans, the zombies and vampires under consideration are still, after all, human beings. And not only is it a constitutive part of being human to at times become a monster, with even the most sensitive among us possessing the potential to at any moment carelessly slip into some monstrous extreme, humans may in fact be the only actual monsters anywhere.
Being sentient, however, and not being some member of the living dead, arguably means being able to catch and preclude this proclivity – just as it also means becoming cognizant of one’s ability to disrupt the causal, inertial chain of everyday life and determine our own fate. In spite of this, however, our power and ability to determine ourselves is itself severely limited by the present political-economic system, which concentrates and attenuates power to monstrous degrees, deforming people into zombies and vampires.
In other words, irrespective of one’s social role, no one is in essence a monster. However, the monstrous forms of work, among the other relations which possess us, deform us, and destroy our dignity and our health – not to mention the health of the world – is the vampire which reproduces vampires and zombies alike.
While we cannot at present explore all of the implications raised by the attempt to distinguish the vampire and the zombie from the human (such as responsibility, dignity, and many others), we can at least provisionally remark that the vampire and the zombie may be said to represent the extreme concentration, as well as the extreme lack, of social, economic, and political power. Considerations of the zombie and the vampire must lead us, therefore, to recognize the monstrous injustice that inheres in a system whose necessarily inequitable distributions of social, economic, and political power concentrates in one monstrous extreme what it deprives in the other.
That is, the problem of zombies and vampires is ultimately a problem of justice. And like the term value, which is related to health, it bears mentioning that justice – insofar as it is intrinsically related to balance – is also intimately related to the concept of health. Indeed, in many respects the concrete conditions of justice are even articulable as concrete conditions of health. Moreover, like the balance of health, which is not the balance of mere cancellation, justice requires the balance of distribution.
The corrective to the extremes of power that result in vampires and zombies is not, then, humanity (which, since we’re all human, is effectively a meaningless term) but the elimination of both of the extremes of the dead, through the equitable distribution of the world of the living. This parasitic relationship of zombies and vampires has its corrective, then, not in the destruction of the parasite or the elimination of the host but, rather, in the replacement of the capitalist system (along with the other relations of domination) with not parasitic relations, but with a symbiotic social arrangement in which all may benefit – and justice, which is always possible, can be made actual.