Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Just Add Zombies" Part 1

One of the things that jumped out at me when reading Dead Inside: Do Not Enter, is that there doesn't really seem to be a genre or form of literature, or even art generally, that zombies cannot make their own. Clearly, as a horrific figure, even THE horrific figure of the 21st century, the zombie is most perfectly suited for, well, horror (surprise!). 
Unsurprisingly, given their typically post-apocalyptic (or just outright apocalyptic) settings, and the pervasive dread and uncertainty of their tales, our favorite dead things are quite at home in suspense, science fiction, and fantasy narratives as well.  As it turns out, however, zombies have been able to make a place for themselves pretty much everywhere. 


Romantic comedy?

Romance sans chuckles?
 You effin' betcha.

Historical fiction? 
Why not. 


The same can be said for literary forms. Although I would contend that zombies are first and foremost a visual monster and thus best situated for film and/or TV (why aren’t there more zombie TV shows? World War Z the series! Are you telling me people wouldn’t watch that? I want it now! Let’s get a Kickstarter goin’ and put that shit on HBO), they have been able to spread across
literary forms as seamlessly as they have genres. Comic books were pretty much a given (another visual medium), but there is no shortage of really good zombie novels, short stories, and even poetry. That’s right, really good zombie poetry. Don’t scoff at me. I’ll have a post up on “Isabelle” by the end of the week. Beyond just chronicling how awesome zombies are, though, or pointing out their inexorable march across pretty much any and every form of art, I’m wondering if there isn’t something about zombies in particular that allows for this level of omnipresence (I feel like I might use the word ubiquity too much, so I tried something new; I don’t like it; I’m going back to ubiquity from now on).

I’m still not sure where I sit on all this, so this might get a little stream-of-conscious-y as I work through some stuff.

Okay, before we go too much further, part of what I’d like to do is to attempt to categorize the zombie itself. I don’t mean define it. Well, not yet at least (Romero explicitly defines zombies, even without using that word, in Night and Dawn; the fact that nobody, Romero included, strictly abides by that definition makes it worth discussing – later). Instead, I’d like to identify its place as a literary device. Frequently, when discussing zombies, people (like me) will throw around the word "monster." And a zombie is definitely that: a monster. But it is never just about a zombie, is it? I mean that in two ways. 

First, much of the horror of the zombie figure is situated in its plurality – its teeming, swarming, ever-growing, overwhelming plurality. This doesn’t make it less of a monster, but it makes it its own kind of monster. I’d like to explore that a little bit. 

However, I was also gesturing to the fact that zombies are rarely just zombies, no matter where or in what form we encounter them. Zombies are almost always figurative representations of… stuff. And that’s where I run into trouble. Zombies operate like allegories (most zombie narratives are clearly allegorical, whether it’s intentional or imposed by the viewer/reader), but to categorize zombies as allegories, to me, seems to imply a stable underlying meaning. See, when I try to say “Zombies are allegories,” I can’t help but think that I am inviting the problematic reply: “Of what?” What do you call a figure that almost always operates with an underlying meaning but whose underlying meaning is never set? If we look at allegories as extended metaphors, then zombies are vehicles with tenors that are constantly shifting. Not just from text to text, but from reader to reader. In many ways, they behave like floating signifiers, a concept introduced by Claude Levi-Strauss to denote (and this is a gross, almost offensive, oversimplification) terms that have no meaning, or rather that have no agreed upon meaning, and thus are able to mean anything (actually, as far as oversimplifications go, that’s pretty solid; take that semiotics!). 

Is a floating allegory a thing? It should be. Zombies are floating allegories. Done.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I need sleep (Levi-Strauss and I.A. Richards in a zombie blog? I've earned a nap). We’ll get further into why zombies are so open to allegory and multiple meanings and discuss the whole horde monster thing tomorrow. Err... later today.

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