MLA 2013 Talk: Insecure Lives

Hi Dear Reader!

Off to a hectic start to the Fall quarter, but I didn’t forget about you!

Here is a look at my recent talk for MLA 2013, below I’ve inserted the talk itself. When I have a little more free time, I’ll also go back and add in screencaps of the slides, for now you’ll have to use your imagination. 

For those interested, but unsure whether they should proceed, in this talk, I use the Resident Evil transmedia franchise to demonstrate how contemporary popular culture participates in a problematic effacing of history in its portrayal of contagion and control. Specificity and historicity are erased by a flexibly defined monstrosity, which seems to automatically sanction violence. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, this should be an interesting condensation of the issues I often post about.

I hope you enjoy!

 

“Insecure Lives: Securing and Regulating Life in Contemporary Popular Culture”

Intro

 Slide 1

 So this paper was conceived of in the wake of the H1N1 flu scare, and it was especially influenced after hearing a talk by Andrew Lakoff  titled “Biopolitics in Real Time: The Actuary and the Sentinel in Global Health.” I was wondering, how do pop-cultural texts engage with global health issues. Recognizing that managing and securing health is indeed a global issue, and that infection “makes the interactions and connections of community visible” to paraphrase Priscilla Wald, I wanted to ask: how do pop-cultural texts like movies, video games, and comics think through the management and security of health in the global community.

As is often the case, what I started thinking about was different than what I ended up thinking through. Turning to the transmedia Resident Evil franchise and the figure of the zombie, I am going to try, in 15 minutes, to give you an idea how cultural productions and global health interact as part of a broader biopolitical matrix. Focusing on the virus and the zombie, I will demonstrate how popular narratives interested in the relation between health, security, and governance tend to demonstrate and validate a problematic, logic of defense which effaces historical and cultural context in the name of security. And I call this, not so creatively, the biopolitics of security.

In terms of my method, for the sake of time, in this paper I won’t get into too much theory, but I’m invested in thinking through the intersection of biopolitics, posthumanism, and critical race studies and social justice. I’m really influenced by Roberto Esposito and Michel Foucault.

So, to give you a sense of the movement of the paper, I begin by talking about the Resident Evil media franchise to get us thinking about the relation of cultural productions to the politics of global health. Through this, I will turn to the figures of the virus and the zombie which share a prominent place in Resident Evil (and I am arguing, in the way that popular culture imagines global health issues). Resident Evil – and other, similar outbreak, zombie, or post-apocalyptic narratives – reproduces, complicates, and exploits contemporary fears of global infection, and this validates the aforementioned logic of the biopolitics of security. As we will see, these narratives – and the broader political hegemony they reflect – validate extreme violence against perceived threats, and champion violently enforced, local security as an antidote to global terror and infection.

 

Opening on RE

Slide 2: RE Collage.

 So, for those of you unfamiliar with Resident Evil, it’s a transmedia franchise that has produced a slew of video games, seven novels, five live action films, two CGI films, annnnd some comics. It is a set of texts crafted and set throughout the world – especially the global north – in fact, the video games are developed, manufactured, sold, and set internationally. When I say it is a pop-culture text, I mean it: the latest installment of the video game series sold over 670,000 copies worldwide in its first week. (And for comparison I believe Fifty Shades of Grey set a new record when it sold just over 205,000 copies in its first week).

There are various iterations and plotlines to Resident Evil across its various media, however, all of them are intimately tied to the biopolitical interaction between the production and distribution of medicine and the exploitation of medical research for political gain – especially in the form of bioterrorism. The earlier narratives of the series position the transnational pharmaceutical corporation Umbrella as the main antagonist: developing biological weapons and illegally testing them on unsuspecting civilians (and these weapons take the shape of a virus that turns people into zombies, and can be modified to cause extreme mutations). – and pharmaceuticals and self-medication are a major component in all of the video games which feature mixing herbs to make medicine, and a somewhat miraculous first aid spray that heals all wounds.

Originally focused on local solutions to inter and transnational civil and human rights violations, the franchise has shifted its focus more towards an interconnected, global web of espionage, terrorism, and global health management. This has become the focus of the entire franchise recently – Slide 3: RE Retribution Poster – as the newest film Resident Evil Retribution features the tagline “Evil Goes Global.” And the most recent video game takes place in the US, Eastern Europe, and China, and features a fictional anti-bioterror military unit created by the UN, travelling the globe to police it – and to kill B.O.W. s or Bio Organic Weapons – infected people. Actually, as the shift of the game has gone global, its logic has also shifted, from finding and gathering evidence to uncover a global conspiracy, to slaughtering infected creatures. And the staple or default creature that you kill? A variation on the zombie, caused by exposure to one of a number of weaponized, laboratory created viruses.

So in a nutshell, in this franchise, through the intersection of global health and global terror, the zombie and the virus are united to make people into bio-weapons, which can then be denied humanity and slaughtered with impunity. Or, in other words, people are Othered to the extreme, made inhuman, and killed because they threaten to Other more people. All of a sudden this general arc – which is honestly the arc of most zombie narratives post-Night of the Living Dead (1968, so also post-civil rights) – seems a lot less innocent. The scope of this issue, and its relation to the resurgent popularity of the zombie will become clearer when we think through the history of the zombie and its relation to the global flow of bodies, politics, power, and medicine.

The Effacement of History

Historically, the zombie most likely comes from West African spiritual traditions, altered through diaspora and creolization caused by the slave trade. Connections identified by Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 ethnology of Jamaica and Haiti, Tell My Horse. The zombie entered the imagination of the English speaking world largely through W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 ethnology of Haiti, The Magic IslandSlide 4: Magic Island copy. This directly inspired the Halperin brothers’ cult film, White Zombie (1932). A wave of popular zombie films soon followed. At nearly the same time, the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 allowed for the visualization of the formerly invisible virus – which had been theorized as an agent of infection smaller than bacteria. 1938 brought this zombie-virus nexus even closer together. In that year, Hurston published her ethnography, with a chapter devoted zombies, John Campbell Jr published his novella, Who Goes There, which compares those controlled by a microscopic, infectious alien life form to zombies, and the electron micrographs of the tobacco mosaic virus brought into view a previously invisible threat.

Early American adaptations of the zombie recognized its specificity to the Caribbean, and oftentimes its relation to Vodou; however, from the start, these texts began to efface its history while citing it. Even in the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932) – Slide 5: White Zombie – the ever so subtly named villain, Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi, uses a mixture of mesmerism, pharmaceuticals, and adapted stereotypes of voodoo practice to zombify unsuspecting targets. The role of the medical – seen here in the introduction of a mysterious pharmaceutical mixture – serves to efface the cultural history of the zombie. This role, of the clinical overwriting the cultural history of the zombie, is identified by Wade Davis in his study of the Zombi in Haiti, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985). More importantly, though, experience allows him to reverse this effacement. In his words Slide 6:

“I had arrived in Haiti to investigate zombis. A poison had been found and identified, and a substance had been indicated that was chemically capable of maintaining a person so poisoned in a zombi state. Yet as a Western scientist seeking a folk preparation I had found myself swept into a complex worldview utterly different from my own and one that left me demonstrating less the chemical basis of a popular believe than the psychological and cultural foundations of a chemical event.”

(As a fun aside, this deeply thoughtful book considering the intersection of science, bodies, and culture… was made into a Wes Craven thriller starring Bill Pullman)

This inscription of the medical over the socio-cultural on the bodies of zombies is even present in Seabrook’s ethnography, where his first encounter with a zombie leaves him nearly paralyzed with terror until he remembers seeing a lobotomized dog. Slide 7.

“I had seen so much previously in Haiti that was outside ordinary normal experience that for the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, “Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.” By “everything” I meant the natural fixed laws and processes on which all modern human thought and actions are based. Then suddenly I remembered—and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches to a solid plank—the face of a dog as I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.” Seabrook 101

The laboratory setting and the memory of a scientific analog overwrites the whole scene for him, altering the figure of the zombie: it instantly becomes the infirm victim, rather than the threatening other. Furthermore, Seabrook’s clinical gaze obliterates the beseeching ethical gaze of the enslaved man brought before him as a zombie, rewriting him as the weak, the medically deficient.

Resident Evil, Popular Zombie Fictions, Global Biopolitics of Security

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but these days, zombies are all around us – our media is full of them. In everything from ad campaigns to encourage oral care – Slide 8: Zombie Mouth – to video games, movies, novels, and comics – Slide 9: Zombie Media Collage. The zombie is a global figure, featuring prominently in media from such varied countries as Cuba (Juan De Los Muertos 2012), Japan (Resident Evil Series began 1996), the US, the UK, and Spain, just to name a few countries with major zombie releases in the last 5 years.

Looking at how zombies are portrayed in recent cultural texts, we see that the clinical effacement outlined above enables a self-serving logic of defense. I’m going to spend a moment highlighting that in a variety of pop-culture texts – so my title isn’t entirely misleading.

So, using Resident Evil and some other zombie, post-apocalyptic, and/or outbreak texts, I’ll try to outline some of the major tropes of the pop-cultural interaction of this biopolitics of security.

Slide 10: Cities in Turmoil (States of Exception) (Resident Evil, WWZ, 28 Days & Weeks, Contagion, Sweet Tooth, Jericho)

Slide 11: Officers of the Law (White Patriarchy Saves the Social Order… that favors it) (The Walking Dead, Jericho, Night of the Living Dead, if you include military it expands exponentially… don’t forget shift in RE local police to national or international law)

Slide 12: Medical Officials Have Answers (Science Can Fix the Social Order if it only has Time!) (Obvious in RE, also first season of Walking Dead, Contagion to the max, Outbreak, etc all the way back to AT LEAST Microbe Hunters [1926])

Slide 13: Sympathize and Die (Think the Other, be the Other) (World War Z quote, Glissant on Alterity in poetics of relation: Thought of the Other versus the other of Thought: thinking through the other to the point of critical mass, the moment where one changes, exchanges, and is forced to act)

Slide 14 Thanks

MLA 2013: BOSTON

Hi Dear Reader,

Sorry for the hiatus, the end of quarter and holiday push took their toll on my blogging.

I’m just writing a quick note here, to say you should come meet me at MLA!

I’m presenting a paper in an awesome panel on Global Health and World Literature, you can find the panel info here: (http://www.mla.org/program_details?prog_id=64&year=2013).

My paper looks at Resident Evil, the virus, the zombie, and the biopolitics of security… so it will be somewhat familiar to readers of this blog. Still, I’m developing my own theoretical framework a bit more, and hashing out some things that I had only previously had an inkling of, so it promises to be exciting.

I’ll do a write up on the conference and get back to normal blogging on my return.

Hope to see you there!

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