History Is What Bites: Zombies, Race, and the Limits of Biopower in Colson Whitehead's Zone One

By Hurley, Jessica | Extrapolation, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

History Is What Bites: Zombies, Race, and the Limits of Biopower in Colson Whitehead's Zone One


Hurley, Jessica, Extrapolation


The past is never dead.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The zombie has become an everyday locus of the operations of biopower in contemporary culture: the non- or ex-human enemy that it is always necessary to kill for the good of the species, without question. And these operations are always constructed around racial distinctions, the supposed difference between shooting the black criminal and shooting the zombie notwithstanding. In Michel Foucault's original descriptions of biopower in the lectures later published as Society Must Be Defended, race is wholly necessary as the distinction that allows biopower to exist in modern society: racism allows power to distinguish those who must be killed so that others may live (257). This distinction is never in doubt with the zombie. As Gerry Canavan argues in his 2010 Extrapolation article "We Are the Walking Dead,"

because zombies mark the demarcation between life (that is worth living) and unlife (that needs killing), the evocation of the zombie conjures not solidarity but racial panic [...] one of the ways the State apparatus builds the sorts of "preaccomplished" subjects it needs is precisely through the construction of a racial binary in which the (white) citizen-subject is opposed against nonwhite life, bare life, zombie life-that anti-life which is always inimically and hopelessly Other, which must always be kept quarantined, if not actively eradicated and destroyed. (433)

In the movies, on T V, at the shooting gallery, the zombie-human war compulsively enacts the biopolitical distinction between life and anti-life that structures modern forms of governmentality.

As Canavan suggests, this distinction is always a racial one, and his insistence that we must reckon with "the biopolitical origins of the zombie imaginary [... and] come to terms with the historical and ongoing colonial violence of which the zombie has always ever been only the thinnest sublimation" is vital, especially in a field that tends to subsume racial considerations underneath class-based analyses of the zombie as an allegory of the effects of late capitalism (433).1 This subsumption can entail an uncomfortably easy equivalence between racialized slavery and contemporary economic practices, as when Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry claim that "the zombie now represents the new slave, the capitalist worker, but also the consumer, trapped within the ideological construct that assures the survival of the system" (99). In other recent analyses of the zombie from Mark McGurl, Marina Warner, and Tina Pippin, the zombie's Haitian origins and founding connection to slavery are simultaneously acknowledged and consigned to an irrelevant past in a critical narrative that writes the blackness of the zombie as distant both temporally-back then-and geographically-over there-from contemporary American culture, occluding the ways in which the zombie functions as a racialized figure in the present. Canavan's theorization of the zombie as a figure for blackness in a biopolitical allegory, while correcting this tendency to deracinate the zombie, positions it as passive reflection of the way that white racism functions in society, positioning agency exclusively on the side of the state power that kills zombies or racialized others indiscriminately. Might there be another way to read the zombie, as a racialized figure that, however much you try to kill it, always bites back?

In this essay, I extend Canavan's analysis to argue that the zombie figures not only the operations of biopower but also biopower's limits. Where Canavan reads the zombie as anti-life, on a temporally flat conceptual-symbolic level where life and anti-life fight it out, I read it as un-dead: a walking embodiment of past populations that will not stay dead but extrude threateningly into the present, where systems of government disintegrate in the face of an unruly, unrulable population of the no-longer-human. Biopower can manage the living and the dead, but it has nothing in its arsenal to manage the third term that appears beyond its limits: the undead. …

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