The pop-culture zombie creates a compelling analytical framework for viewing the shifts and usurpations within competing cultural theories and artistic movements. The zombie process of life–death–rebirth suggests that even what dies will eventually come back to haunt us, and its rebirth inscribes a new way of understanding the previous life-death dynamic. For instance, in the zombie mythos, the person (or thing) who dies and is reborn as a zombie is not thought of as the original, but as a monstrous entity that bears only a passing resemblance. The same can be said of the way in which artistic and literary movements are born, gain critical life, become supplanted by a new, stronger movement, and then come back, in a revised form, to disturb the theoretical implications of that newer model. There are two theorists who set the precedent for this line of thinking: Christian Moraru, in his introduction to a special issue of Focus, writes that “postmodernism is not dead, but ‘deadish,’ as somebody might say about zombies” (3); and Linda Hutcheon, in her afterword to The Politics of Postmodernity, sounds the double death knell for postmodernism (this is, in fact, a second edition). That postmodernism has been born again, or for a second time in Hutcheon’s case, comments on the difficulty artistic movements have of fully breaking from the past: “for what we are talking about is an incomplete departure complete with extemporaneous returns” (Moraru 3). Historically, competing movements attempt to break from the earlier model to address some missing critical aporia—and what normally occurs is a seismic shift from one pole to the other. However, the metamodern paradigm attempts conciliation as it anticipates, even allows for, this return and argues that our cultural moment will not be able to completely surpass postmodernism, but only oscillate between modernism, postmodernism, and a speculated neoromaticism. Deadish theories like these find acceptance and value within the theoretical modeling of metamodernism.
I view the above cycle of the zombie as a way to conceptualize several theoretical issues within metamodernism. However, in this article, I focus only on the nature of metamodern subjectivity through the lens of the zombie, specifically the one explored within Manuel Gonzales’s short story, “All of Me” in his collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. The zombie has interesting implications for the ideas of subjectivity and in “All of Me” readers are confronted with a subject position that is uniquely metamodern. Taking a cue from the representations of zombies in past cultural and artistic texts, this conceptualization of the metamodern zombie illustrates how oscillating identities are the foundation of the metamodern subject, and Gonzales’s narrator illustrates these shifts along a human/zombie continuum.
This analysis takes as its primary theoretical focus the ideas presented in the conclusion of Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s “Notes on metamodernism,” specifically the ideas of utopic syntaxis, dystopic parataxis, and a-topic metaxis. While the authors comment that these terms are bound within the temporal and spatial ordering of modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism, I believe they have interesting implications for explaining the nature of subjectivity in each specific movement, especially if evaluated through the modern, postmodern, and metamodern zombie. Before beginning my analysis of the ways in which the zombie has ramifications for metamodern subjectivity, we must first attempt a definition of the above terms. Simply, the concept of utopic syntaxis suggests a perfect hierarchy, dystopic parataxis a destroyed center, and a-topic metaxis a paradoxical middle ground, which the authors describe as, “a place (topos) that is no (a) place […] being simultaneously here, there, and nowhere,” a place that is “both—neither ordered and disordered.” (Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes”). Subjectivity, not only temporal and/or spatial, can be expressed in terms of the above definitions: the perfect hierarchy of utopic syntaxis implies the notion of the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, in which the mind holds the privileged position; the critical theories of postmodernism and poststructuralism destabilize the notion of subjectivity, creating a destroyed center of consciousness and identity, a dystopic parataxis; and metamodernism envisions identity as both a place of perfect hierarchy (at times) while also acknowledging the inescapable past of postmodernism (at times), creating a paradoxical middle ground between modernism and postmodernism where a subject’s oscillating performance of identity implies hierarchy and deconstruction concurrently.
Previous work on metamodern subjectivity by Simone Stirner does not focus on this framework in the conclusion to “Notes on metamodernism,” though she provides a useful model of metamodern subjectivity in her essay “Notes on the State of the Subject.” Her piece focuses partly on the way in which the artist Miranda July creates subjects “of the modern self [who are] stabilized despite a postmodern background.” Stirner bases her observations on several theorists, but her readings originate from Raoul Eschelman’s, Performatism, or The End of Postmodernism, where in Stirner’s applications, “a new kind of subject […] establishes itself in spite of disruptive forces in an act of belief.” These new subjects, according to Stirner, are reflective agents who perform identity in an attempt to define themselves within the new cultural model. She argues that July’s art “contains […] both a modern and postmodern subjectivity and thus exemplifies the space where an ingenious, metamodern subject can show itself.” It seems that this metamodern space postulated by Stirner is a performative one, a reflective space of ingenious showing.
In Gonzales’s “All of Me,” we have the metamodern zombie, the zombie expressed by an a-topic metaxis represented in a paradoxical middle ground between zombie and human. Exploring these concepts within the framework of the zombie mythos, we see the modern idea of the zombie as a reanimated “corpse” (first explored by the anthropologist Wade Davis) under the control of a bokor, a sorcerer, who uses the zombie as a slave. This zombie is seen throughout Haitian and voodoo tradition and in such films as White Zombie (1932) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936). Here we have a utopic syntaxis, a hierarchical system where the bokor controls the zombie through the supernatural effects and culturalization of voodoo. The zombie is shunned by his or her family and friends, who think of it as the living dead, and this structural belief stigmatizes the zombie in both his/ her culture and personal identity, as the bokor and society instills on the subject the new identity of a reanimated corpse.
The postmodern zombie popularized by Romero, however, is removed from the religious and magical setting, recontextualized and revealed as an unthinking reanimated corpse without a religious origin (or, in some cases, an origin altogether, what Seth M. Walker and I have termed “undead amnesia”). This conception of the zombie seems to fit within the framework of the dystopic parataxis, namely the zombie as the destroyed center of identity. Without brains and released from the power of the bokor, it lacks a locus of subjectivity—a space destroyed by the non-hierarchical place the zombie inhabits. It is outside of spiritual control and is, in essence, mindless. This zombie is illustrated in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and the television show The Walking Dead.
One example of the shift from the modern/postmodern identity to metamodern subjectivity occurs in the first line of Gonzales’s text: “The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear. The zombie in me would like to make it clear that there is no zombie in me, per se. Would like to make it known that there is only me, in fact, and that all of me is zombie” (135). This passage illustrates a reflective, oscillating subject-position where human and zombie are at odds with how to accurately describe the new identity they are both, it seems, performing. The human wishes to describe the zombie condition against himself, while the zombie wishes to carve out subjective space in the human to define itself. However, all of him cannot be zombie in the above estimation, as if it were, the battle between identities would be irrelevant—there would be no need for him to identify one part as zombie and the other as not-zombie, as the other would not exist or not be able to be perceived. The zombie is approaching the issue as if it has already won its battle for identity, while the human is creating the internal monologue as if he can tell which parts of him are zombie and which parts of him are not-zombie. Both subjectivities have hope that they will in fact be responsible for this subject creation, when in actuality, there is no stable position for either to find, only an ingenious showing of each subject position to the other. They both are, in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s estimation, pursuing “a horizon that is forever receding” (“Notes”). Throughout the text, there is only movement from one position to the next as they both attempt to create a meaningful foundation for future action. There is only a shift between the various points between human and zombie. This metamodern space, in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s assessment, subjects pursue but never achieve. And Stirner’s insightful use of show suggests an incompletion, as well.
The humanity of the modern and postmodern zombie is both destroyed in the above example, though each by different means, and the controlling religious metaphor is removed in the postmodern and metamodern zombies, leaving a place where the controlling element of subjectivity is not a bokor but the zombified subject itself. The metamodern zombie oscillates between the zombie and the human, never quite becoming either/or, but occupying a both/neither space, an a-topic metaxis, at various times throughout Gonzales’s text. The modern zombie is always controlled by the bokor—even if the zombie gained control of its subjectivity it is hierarchically placed as a slave within voodoo faith. The postmodern zombie, in contrast, is never under control of an explanatory force, which leaves it a shambling brainless mass. The metamodern zombie realizes its plight and each subjectivity fights for its place within the subject—sometimes it positions itself as human and sometimes as zombie, but never fully either/or within that classificatory system.
The circularity of these positions also haunts the end of the text when the narrator begins to discuss his human desires in similar terms to the zombie’s desires from the text’s beginning: “These are the things I want […] But the zombie in me wants something else. The zombie in me wants to eat […] and as much as I try to deny it, there is no zombie in me, there is only me, and all of me is zombie” (Gonzales 157). His desire to feel human, to feel his skin “pliant and lifelike again” (157), is stalled by his other, zombie, subjectivity. Yet again, we have an oscillating subject position where the demarcation between the zombie/human remains unfulfilled. The zombie and the human both attempt to perform their respective roles, i.e., eat faces and feel human, where each ingeniously shows itself to the other, only to be frustrated that either cannot complete a full transformation. Freed from its religious context and its postmodern mindlessness (this zombie has a brain!), Gonzales’s zombie is in an endless dialogue with itself and in pursuit of the (unreachable) human or zombie totality.
Gonzales constructs this dialogue between an oscillating human/zombie subjectivity in several other inner monologues. And as before, this subjectivity is not one that shifts between binaries of human/zombie or zombie/human, but rather, it is a “pendulum swinging between […] innumerable poles” (Vermeulen and van den Akker, “Notes”). The narrator states that “the zombie’s voice in my head is near constant” (Gonzales 135), and it continually argues with him across a range of varying details. The zombie tells the narrator to break necks and bite faces, to create an undead horde of followers, to “go back to an evil we know and understand” (149). But it also argues with the narrator about his description or understanding of textual details: “For instance…Let’s not for instance” (138); “The point I’m trying to make here being this: I was in a fine mood when I left the house this morning. I was in a splendid mood this morning when I left my house” (146); and finally, “what I have now is an opportunity, what I have now is a chance” (151). As this zombie/human hybrid is capable of reflection, he finds that the other’s voice moves between various issues of both human and zombie concern. At times, the other points out trivial human banality: the difference between “fine” and “splendid” and the difference between “opportunity” and “choice”; at other times, the other points out issues of deadly seriousness: whether or not to give into murderous desires, to create an undead horde, or to wallow in evil intent.
The representative poles here are not completely human or completely zombie, but some liminal space where both subjectivities test their threshold of identity against the conception of the other, which mood, word, or action is more human or zombie, and how can he/it actively promote that identity. The poles are structured around a sentiment of what is human or zombie, and throughout the text it becomes what the other actively questions. It becomes, according to Vermeulen and van den Akker, “a sentiment […] that many are aware of, but which cannot easily, if at all, be pinned down” (“Utopia”). The competing zombie and human identities within the narrator are aware of each other, but each has an incredibly difficult time pinning down what exactly it means to be human or zombie. There are gradations of identity here but no stable totalizing system, only a space of a-topic metaxis. And even though both identities attempt what may be characterized as a search for stability, the way the text positions these actions comments on the understanding that this hope for stability is going to be ultimately futile—neither human or zombie can fully displace the other. They each perform as if they could, and this action leads to a Stirnerian showing of one to the other, a contradictory self-awareness based on a metamodern notion of subjectivity.
The above analysis illustrates just one example of how subjects perform their subjectivity within the boundaries of metamodernism, particularly literature. Others, Shia LaBeouf, Joaquin Phoenix, and Reggie Watts specifically, attempt other models of subjectivity in art, film, and live performance. In Gonzales, the human subjectivity attempts to construct a peculiar hierarchy throughout the text—he wishes to control the zombie, but ultimately realizes it is futile—while the zombie deconstructs this subjectivity and replaces it with a new hybrid consciousness. If Moraru’s deadish conception is correct, it seems as if we, like the narrator, may never escape the event horizons of postmodernism, as much of our current culture is based on the foundations of this paradigm. Yet metamodernism seems to allow a path forward through their zombie-like rebirths: Gonzales’s illustration of the zombie, through the lens of metamodernism, offers a guide on how to live with the zombie in theory and culture. Whatever the undead aspects of our nature or our culture, those elements we cannot eliminate or pass over, metamodernism offers hope that they can be reintegrated and repurposed.
Gonzales, Manuel. The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Print.
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