FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ZOMBIES

FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ZOMBIES
By Sarah Juliet Lauro 

On May 26th, 2012, a naked man named Rudy Eugene, 31, allegedly under the influence of a street drug known as “Bath Salts” attacked a homeless man reclining under the MacArthur Causeway in Miami, Florida, stripped off his victim’s pants and began chewing off the man’s face in what eyewitnesses referred to as a “zombie-like attack.” Though initial reports said that 75% of the victim’s face had been destroyed, that both his eyes were gone, his nose completely bitten off, more recent estimations describe Ronald Poppo’s injuries as affecting 50% of his face; one recent article described the damage to Poppo: “a deranged stranger gouged out one of his eyes and chewed off his forehead, nose, an eyelid and his lips,” (Clary, Sun Sentinel, 6.6.12). The police, who were called by horrified bystanders, were unable to persuade Eugene to desist in his attack; some reports claim he even continued to maul Poppo after being shot by police.  They eventually shot Eugene dead, hitting Poppo with a stray bullet in the process. The very first accounts of the incident that surfaced drew comparisons to horror film, as if this were an incident manifested out of our collective cinematic nightmares. Larry Vega came upon the bizarre incident while riding his bike Saturday morning. He told WSVN-TV in Miami it was like something out of a horror movie. 

“The guy was, like, tearing him to pieces with his mouth, so I told him, `Get off!’” Vega said. “The guy just kept eating the other guy away, like, ripping his skin. … It was just a blob of blood. You couldn’t really see, it was just blood all over the place.” (Catherine Holland, 5.29.12) 

As a scholar who has devoted nearly the past decade to the study of zombies, I’m finding it hard to talk about this incident, which has been widely labeled the “Miami zombie attack.”  My reasons for this are entirely personal but they are revealing, I think, of the way we compartmentalize the subjects on which we work, and the border we depend upon between fiction and reality, between our professional lives and our personal lives, between our intellectual responses, and our emotional ones.  In a confessional mode, I feel pulled to describe how this event lead me to think differently about the way we talk and think about zombies, and what the larger implications of this may be for something like Post-human ethics, but in order to do this I need to transgress a barrier we erect in academic writing, and provide a preface that tells you a little bit about who I am. 

I’m a staunch pacifist; I’m the kind of person who cannot watch the news or I’ll be paralyzed for days in a depressive coma; I abhor violence and gore, in film, in video games, in life.  As a film scholar, I pretend to have some moral objection to the films of Quentin Tarantino on the grounds that his pastiche is too much plagiarism; the truth is, I just can’t stomach the gleeful violence of his movies. Every zombie movie I had to watch in order to write my 400-page doctoral dissertation on the history of the zombie myth was absolute work, much of them seen through a lattice of fingers and a screen of scrunched eyes. The instant my dissertation was filed, I stopped watching AMC’s The Walking Dead series with a sigh of relief. (No one liked it anyway; the writing was terrible.) 

In short, I’m the least likely person to have become a zombie expert. Part of my interest in the topic, in the first place, came from the fact that I could not understand why people found zombie movies enjoyable in the slightest – they are filled with scenes of people’s entrails being pulled out before their very eyes, arms separated from torsos with the ease with which we rip into a fresh baguette, and most of all, over and over again, skulls split open in a myriad of ways.  To me, watching zombie movies is gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, soul-sickening agony. But I’ve watched scores of them. And I suppose it gets easier, after awhile. 

This is what made it so strange to me that when I heard of the “Miami zombie attack,” I had virtually no reaction. I couldn’t watch the video (I still haven’t), but I read the reports in a sort of anesthetized fog. Such a fog, in fact, that I somehow missed the key fact that homeless victim Ronald Poppo remained alive.  Somehow, I thought he died in the attack, and that most of the “cannibalism,” as it was labeled in the press, occurred post-mortem; I suppose it was much easier to think of it happening that way.  Shortly after news of the bizarre story began to spread, I was besieged by questions from my students, and texts from friends; I chatted briefly about it with a reporter from the BBC who was doing an unrelated story on zombie video-games.  As I gave my “reading” of the event, it was fast becoming just one more narrative in my archive.  I was blithely unaware of the fact that this happened in real life, to real people. No, that’s not quite right. I was aware of it as something that occurred in reality, but its definition as a “real” event was subsumed to the fact that this is precisely what made it a zombie attack. I’ll explain.  First, I’m going to sketch out some of my cold, analytic interpretation, and then I’ll address the ethics of performing such an analysis.  1. Zombies are real 

It is central to my work on the zombie that unlike other cinematic creatures, or the bogeymen of folklore, the zombie is a mythological creature associated with natural rather than supernatural forces.  The Haitian zombie on which our modern day zombie is based is the product –as Harvard-trained scientist Wade Davis describes in detail in his books Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985)– of a pharmacological process involving poison and narcotics.  The appearance of the creature as a resurrected dead body is but an illusion: the Voudou zombie’s slave-like somnambulism is the result, quite simply, of drugs.  Tales of this technology can be traced back to Bryan Edwards’s History of the West Indies (1793) and Edward Long’s History of Jamaica (1774), in which he writes of the slaves: “The most sensible among them fear the supernatural powers of the African obeah-men, or pretended conjurors; often ascribing those mortal effects to magic, which are only the natural operation of some poisonous juice, or preparation, dexterously administered by these villains.” 

In Haiti, zombies are absolutely understood as a real occurrence and instances of zombie-making are well-documented.  Real life zombies have been chronicled by Zora Neale Hurston, in Tell My Horse (1938) and in Davis’s work, wherein he profiles Clairvius Narcisse, a man who claimed he was the victim of zombification in 1980; the BBC’s attention to Narcisse’s story brought his story to the world’s attention. These Haitian zombies are acknowledged as the victims of poison; their families presume them dead, but their bodies are actually in a state of paralysis; the culprit supplies an antidote which banishes the death-like state and maintains the zombie at a low-level of functioning (probably through the repeated administration of other toxins). The zombie essentially becomes a slave, capable only of following basic commands.  The fact that the Miami zombie attack happened “in real life,” was therefore no diminishment of its authenticity as a zombie event. We’ll even leave aside the fact that Rudy Eugene, the alleged zombie, is the child of Haitians, and that his girlfriend has put forth the theory that this attack was either the result of a Vodou curse, or that he was drugged unknowingly — she fails to realize these may not be mutually exclusive. 

2. “He’s not a zombie. He’s my son.” 

Despite his mother’s heart-wrenching insistence to the contrary (here, in a quote given to the Miami Herald), Rudy Eugene was a zombie.  Aptly, this statement by the attacker’s mother parallels a well-known line that appears in zombie movies, and in other iterations, in countless zombie stories: “She’s not your mother anymore; she’s a zombie.” This line is spoken in Peter Jackson’s gross-out zombie flick Dead Alive (aka Braindead, 1992), and in Simon Pegg’s zombie farce Shaun of the Dead (2004), for example. Most of the time, the surviving characters in movies face the same sort of denial as Eugene’s mother; they have to be told, by someone else, someone outside the family, that the person they knew is not he same as the mad cannibal standing before them. Eugene’s mother has the opposite problem; she pleaded with the media to stop referring to her son as a zombie. At the same time, however, both she and Rudy’s girlfriend expressed multiple times to journalists that the person who did these things was not Rudy.  What Rudy’s mother hadn’t yet realized is that this is precisely what makes him a zombie. The zombie has continually evolved since becoming a mainstay of horror cinema in the 1930s, and we’ve used the word “zombie” to refer to the innocuous walking-dead and the virus-infected cannibal, and many other incarnations in between. The best current working definition of what counts as a zombie turns around the issue of what Peter Dendle calls “depersonalization.”  A zombie is, at every turn, precisely this: a body that has been stripped of the person it once was, acting in a manner that is completely out of character, or seemingly devoid of what we used to call a soul. Therefore, by contemporary definitions, and by his mother and girlfriend’s own unwitting testimony, we must conclude with a bit of cold reason that the figure that attacked Ronald Poppo, the person formerly known as Rudy Eugene, was, in fact, a zombie. 

3. What’s real life, anyway? 

The zombie’s invasion of the quotidian, the everyday, the “real world” became an increasingly important part of the zombie narrative, especially since the films of George Romero shifted the walking dead from an exotic phenomena associated with postcolonial climes, to our own backyards. Romero’s staging of the zombie phenomenon as a global event watched on TV by the group of strangers holed up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse (in Night of the Living Dead, 1968) introduced the element of media spectatorship, through which real world crises are attended in our lifetime, as a key component of the mythology. I barely blinked when I saw the news captions proclaiming a “Zombie Attack” in Miami because I’ve seen this scene on television before, on the tele around which the survivors huddle in countless zombie films: a frame within the frame, suggesting the mis-en-abîme of life imitating art in the postmodern era. 

It has become increasingly important, too, that the zombie involves the interruption of public spaces, like Romero’s Monroeville Mall (in Dawn of the Dead, 1978), like formerly bustling London in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), and downtown Atlanta, which teems with zombies in the Walking Dead series (2010-2012) based on the comic book series by Rober Kirkman (first published 2003). Taking a cue from many such films, and using the zombie for a range of playful and political purposes, zombies have become ever more prevalent in real life.  As I have written about elsewhere, zombies can be found on Main Street, USA in nearly every state in the union (at least one day a year) in the form of zombie walks and zombie pub-crawls. Zombies have been featured in performance art displays in Toronto, Canada, in protests in London, and even, last Autumn, at Occupy Wall Street in New York City. Often the point is to assault unsuspecting witnesses with the presence of zombies in the space of “real life.” When I first read of the attack, I was painfully aware that if I had witnessed such a thing, my first reaction might have been like that of a bystander on a subway car in New York, who, seeing artist Jillian Mcdonald dressed and acting as a zombie in a piece called Horror Makeup, said bewilderedly: “I think it’s performance art.” 

The problem with my analysis of the event, and my first reactions to it, is that I wasn’t bewildered. I was looking at it with all the remove and distance with which I have come to treat films, and video-games, and comic books, and truly awful short stories: as if I were just turning a geode over in my hand to see the mysteries inside.  I forgot that this was a real event that happened to two real people: one shot dead by police, the other, left permanently disfigured. To be perfectly honest, I think I became a zombie, too, in that moment, losing completely my empathy for my fellow humans, distanced from it by the frames of my television set and the banner headlines.  

4. Social death 

Because the zombie comes directly to us from Haiti, and is a myth the origins of which we can trace back to Africa, and which implicate the slave trade in its inception—coming as it does, I believe, out of a myth chronicled by O. Dapper’s collection of narratives from the sailors of the Dutch East India Company in his Description De L’Afrique (1665)— and because, at every turn, it is a myth about slavery, about having no control over one’s actions, about being “depersonalized” by outside forces, zombies are always political. Even when they’re not.  To my mind, even a game of zombie tag played on a college campus is laden with all kinds of latent content: the race fear that characterized the first wave of zombie cinema (in films like White Zombie, 1932 and I Walked with a Zombie, 1943); commentaries on the social death of slaves, whose misery was first translated into the Haitian myth of zombies, and those who are still socially disenfranchised in our society, like prisoners, say, or the homeless.  

In R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s “The Ghouls” (in The Mammoth Book of Zombies, edited Stephen Jones, Carroll & Graf, 1993, a new version of a story published in 1975 titled “The Night Ghouls”), the protagonist, a Londoner named Mr. Goldsmith, discovers that he has been surrounded by the living dead for some time. The transients who live in the city are revealed to be zombies, kept alive and docile by means of the administering of a liquid  called “Methy” (Ministry Everlasting Topside Hardened Youth) by a shadowy government department known only as HQ. In its obvious reference to the street drug “meth,” this story calls into question the government’s tolerance of the drug habits of the poor. This is just one example of a story that draws an overt comparison between the homeless and zombies; there are many others.   The fact that this attack occurred between a young African American male (the child o Haitian immigrants, no less!), and a homeless man is one of the things that makes the story truly stranger than fiction. Both have, at times, been figured as zombies, as the outsiders of our society, and this narrative is very much present in the media coverage; an article in the New York Daily news referred to Rudy Eugene as a “wastrel” (Helen Kennedy, 6.12.12), presumably because of his career in odd-jobs, most recently car-washing. Media especially focused on the social death of vagrant victim Ronald Poppo; multiple articles emphasized that this event brought to light the fact that Poppo was even still alive: his grown daughter had presumed he was dead.  

And what bears remembering too, is that in Haitian folklore, the zombie IS the victim; he is the prey of the witchdoctor who has drugged him and pressed him into service for wageless labour. It is only in later American cinema that the zombie becomes a terrifying cannibal, and a threat to the uninfected/unaffected humans, but it is also often the victim of unchecked corporate greed, or the result of a misstep taken by scientists that leads to the zombie outbreak or epidemic (For more on this see my chapter on “The Eco Zombie” in Generation Zombie, editors Boluk and Lenz, 2011).  In nearly all cases, the finger points back to Capitalism as the witchdoctor holding its captives in a state of servitude and perpetual hunger. 

In this case, Rudy Eugene seems to have been, at best, the victim of an unscrupulous drug dealer, at worst, the victim of an uncaring, unfeeling society that does not have the appropriate resources in place to help those struggling with mental illness, drug addiction, depression and general maladjustment. One of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read on the subject is titled “Troubled lives clashed in ‘Miami Zombie’ face-eating attack (by Elinor J. Brecher and Nadege Green, Miami Herald); it describes Rudy Eugene’s dedication to his own spirituality, his difficulty with substance abuse, and his family troubles, alongside Poppo’s alcoholism and a life lead on the margins of society. 

5. Empathy, Ethics, Apology 

If I feel terrible about how coldly I first viewed this incident, if I feel that I was zombie-like in my initial treatment of it, it is because it was so out of character for me. I am a deeply empathic person, fascinated by the way empathy informs ethics, and yet, I found myself making a terrible joke, well terrible jokes, actually, on Twitter in the wake of the attack.  A friend of mine tweeted the phrase “Emmanuel Levinas Food Court.”  He was doing a project in which he reimagined all the parts of an airport taking on the names of philosophers and philosophical concepts.  To this I responded, “This one doubles as a joke about the Miami Zombie.” 

The venom of this joke comes from the fact that the philosopher mentioned, Emmanuel Levinas, is known for describing the “face-to-face encounter,” from which he feels stems the first impulse to act ethically towards the other: 

The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse…. The first word of the face is the “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me.
(Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 87-89) 

In confronting the naked face of another human, we are, in Levinas’s view, made aware of the vulnerability of the other, and reminded of our responsibility to do no harm without being aware of whether or not this social bind will be reciprocated. In full force then, an instance in which a man tears off the face of another man with his teeth either directly, ironically flouts Levinas’s description of the face-to-face encounter, or it shows us something else: that the attacker was no longer behaving as we expect a human being to behave.  

In an article by Mike Nary of the Sun Sentinel, dated 6.6.12, Poppo’s doctors discussed the moment they will tell him of the extent of his deformity: 

“What they all say is, ‘I’ve become a monster,’” said Daniel Alam, a plastic surgeon at Cleveland Clinic who helped transplant a face onto a Connecticut woman mauled by a pet chimpanzee in 2009. “Because without a face, others cannot see them as human. The world cannot relate to them ever again. That’s where depression comes in. And he will be a victim of that.” (Nary, “Miami ‘zombie’ face-eating attack victim Ronald Poppo has long road ahead of him, physician says”) 

The transformation from a human into a monster, therefore, was not Eugene’s alone. He transmitted his non-human state to Ronald Poppo when he destroyed so much of his face.  Therefore, in yet another chilling similarity to contemporary zombie narratives, the nonhuman state has proved contagious, passed on by means of the bite. 

On this point I might go into much more detail in discussing the “becoming-animal/becoming-other” transformation that the zombie often represents.  The damage to Ronald Poppo’s face is horrific, but, as the physician’s quote suggests, it is not unlike the kinds of injuries sustained by animal attack victims who cross paths with bears, mountain lions, pitt bulls. Many zombie narratives dramatize the separation of the human and the animal zombie, and juxtapose this to a dystopic vision in which the human survivors disconnect from their superegoes, as if civilization is all that holds us back from a similar abandonment of morality.  Frequently, in such tales, the surviving humans prove themselves to be more sadistic than the animalistic zombies.  But unsurprisingly, and perhaps humanly I’m more interested here in what this horrific event says about me.  

How could I think such a thing when a man was lying in critical condition in a hospital, his face ripped off by another man? What possessed me to tweet that careless quip about Levinas? Well, the truth is, I had seen a picture, of a naked black body, face down, wearing sneakers, his head dressed in corn-rows. Lying right next to him was a body with no face, just a bloody orb. I assumed they were both dead. Naturally, I assumed they were both dead, for who would take a picture of a live victim in that condition in the same pictorial frame as his destroyer — their shoulders touching? 

Only someone, I now realize, who saw that there were two victims here, and two very different zombies. One that we can neatly map onto the figure’s origins, and the other standing in for the zombie’s current moment: Poppo represents the harmless, pitiable social dead of Colonial empire, abused by a system geared towards the profit of the few at the expense of the many, where those unfit to participate in the smooth workings of the machine, are left to fall through the cracks. Eugene calls to mind the raving, insatiable cannibal that Capitalism makes us all out to be, perpetually driven to consume, having no real sense of what we do — of whose misery, somewhere in another part of the planet, needs to be maintained to ensure the lowest prices.  What this grisly story reminds me is that you don’t have to look at the face of the other, in fact you can’t even see it, if you’re a zombie.  

In the days that followed the news reports of the Miami zombie, panic spread, as it will, about this isolated event being the harbinger of a coming apocalypse.  Straight out of fiction, there were Internet rumors bandied about concerning a mysterious zombie virus, there were copycat events involving mentally unstable individuals claiming to be zombies. But let me, as an expert, assure you: we are only zombies when we lose sight of the other as a person, and begin to see him as a food source, as cheap labor, or, as I did, an interesting bit of conversation.  But thankfully, this is a zombie state from which we can awaken.  

As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, my various responses to this story (professional and personal, intellectual and emotional) lead me to question what is next in the field of Posthuman ethics.  Is there is really any liberation to be found in the term “Posthuman” anymore? The zombie is a post-human, quite literally, but it hardly seems to represent a promising future.  Though we may find it useful to critique the values of Enlightenment humanism which, in actuality, worked against the valuation of all human bodies as equal, is there still anything to be gained from a term that puts the nonhuman – I exclude here the animal, for naturally, animals, as all living creatures ought to be treated ethically– and in particular, the object (as does the recent current in philosophy called Object Oriented Ontology) on the same level as the human? Though I continue to embrace Posthumanist interest in the combination of the human with technology and other life forms as offering liberatory potential, my interest in this has always been and remains limited to my desire to enable the human’s escape from the individual subject position.  And yet, increasingly, I think of all the other ways we might find a way out of the tomb of individualism; in particular, by looking to community, by seeking in empathy and sympathy a kind of transindividual state (Brian Massumi and others are already doing work in this vein). Yet, there is a difference between an attack of flesh-eating bacteria on a person’s limbs (which made news in the US nearly the same week as the Miami zombie) and an attack of one man against another: it is more horrifying because we expect humans to be better than animals, than viruses.  If I say that I feel that we should treat “zombies ethically,” what I mean is that we need to be careful of the way we talk about Poppo and Eugene, and the way we talk about the homeless and the drug-addicted, because “These zombies,” as one short story author writes, “are not a metaphor.” (Jeff Goldberg, “ These zombies are not a metaphor,” in Justin Taylor, ed. The Apocalypse Reader, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2007). In fact, no zombie is ever really a just metaphor, and what this real life tragedy reveals to me is the liberatory potential of a new kind of posthuman transformation. To this end, we can repurpose one of the best known zombie tropes, from Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead, in which Barbara says of the zombies, “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.” If we can start thinking of all other humans (or even beings) along these same lines, perhaps we can surmount the limits of humanism, even while preserving our humanity. 

 

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