Let’s provide some context: when the committee of La belle revue got together last summer, after the confinement that we’d already agreed to call – in a curious mixture of derision and lucidity – ‘the first confinement’, the number of deaths due to Covid-19 announced each morning on the radio was decreasing. The terraces of cafes had reopened; fewer than six people could once again debate the meaning of life and we didn’t know that would leave us with the memory of ‘happy days’. The subject for our future thematic dossier was not survival, nor resilience – a term that everyone had understood would demand further efforts from the losers of the capitalist economy. We were not inspired, either, by the promise of a big reunion with art beyond social barriers, which many institutions have preached in this period of communicational frenzy. No, the subject on which we reached an agreement was death. Or rather ‘deaths’ plural, given the extent to which they add up to form a bona fide population, challenging the authorities in charge of regulating funerals, coping with the crowds at the morgues, publishing the numbers or choosing to hide them from living populations, before their truth inevitably breaks out, and with it, anger.
Pondering the anger of the dead clearly calls to mind the figure of the zombie. But imagine a large social movement of individuals who’d died of the virus, victims of the failure of public health policies, before being discriminated against at the cemetery, we might say, since they were deprived of memorial services. This considers the zombie from the perspective of activism, by opposition to the passivity that has characterised it even in its contemporary iterations. Because the definition of the zombie, as Haitian anthropologist Laënnec Hurbon sees it, is that of a creature devoid of its own will, which applies as much to the forced worker controlled by Voodoo magic as to its avatar of modern times, enslaved by its own technological tools. Furthermore, Hurbon observes the role that Voodoo and the zombie cult played in the insurrection in Haiti, by articulating it alongside the struggle against slavery in the Americas.1 In this case, might he find himself a powerful mobiliser in the zombie today, hidden under its guise of mascot of the apocalypse and other collapsist narratives that standardise a good proportion of the depressive visions offered in the field of contemporary art?
This is the hypothesis, developed in his text herein, that Benoît Lamy de La Chappelle puts to us for this dossier, or how, out of the repressed element of an economy of exploitation, a rebellious figure might emerge, or in other words: the empowerment of the zombie. By the same token, he will propose this title in reference to the pacificist organisation Universal Zulu Nation, which strives to put an end to the war of the gangs of New York and make way for hip-hop battles. Above all, let us note that, unlike the maniacs of survival, zombies (in films) act collectively. In the context of the pandemic, that can mean lots of them, not forgetting the potential rallying of the living to the cause, in a period that partially strips them of their agency: ‘we are all a bit zombie,’ artist Josèfa Ntjam tells us a bit further on, while Donna Haraway suggests that we are all compost and not post-humans2 . . . The zombie proves to be a key theme for a historical and future approach from an environmental, feminist, and (obviously) decolonialist perspective. In this capacity, the invaluable contribution from sociologist Joseph Tonda to this dossier, thanks to Sophie Lapalu, insists on the intertwining of manifestations of the zombie on the African continent with the formation of a ‘non-subject’ by the neoliberal system, rooted in slavery. When he makes the connection between ‘afrodystopia’ and ‘eurodystopia’ by way of the zombie, the author inspires in us the idea of a ‘devenir zombie’ (becoming-zombie) like a variation on the ‘devenir nègre’ (becoming-negro) announced by Achille Mbembe against the yardstick of the increasing, widespread instability of the land and humans through a global economy that relies on their exhaustion. Let us add to this that there is no less binary creature than one that is neither alive nor dead. Therefore its appearance (in films), obliges us to consider the coexistence of worlds that are seemingly separate, as much as it obliges us to accept a new ontological definition based on ‘and’ (dead and alive) as Bruno Latour or Vinciane Despret3 invite us to conceive of it.
But this idea of the zombie as a model of emancipation did not only come to us with the virus. We can identify several recent works that update the theme away from Z-movies, by firstly restoring to the zombie its cultural origins and, secondly, by ‘fleshing out’ its character. This is the case in Zombi Child by Bertrand Bonello (2019), cited several times in this dossier, in which a liberated zombie recovers her place in the family genealogy. The main character could be the muse of future humanity: a school pupil in an elite institution, she belongs to a third generation of zombies and experienced the exodus following a natural disaster that plunged her country into chaos (the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) and marked the incursion of the apocalyptic imaginary within realistic environmental scenarii. Just as striking is the use of the subjective camera angle to describe the tribulations of the zombie escaping from the plantations to find their loved one. It is also through the eyes of a zombie that Éric Chauvier describes a terrifying trip across Paris in his text Le revenant (Allia, 2018). The anthropologist reincarnates Baudelaire as a wandering Maccabee in the capital, whose madness he reveals at his expense, by turns adulated for his depraved style, targeted by the popular mob, emasculated publicly, and then winding up forgotten. This is where the poet of modernity, in search of a feeling forever lost, is aligned with the damned of the contemporary city, illegal immigrant crackheads and prostitutes. There is also Mati Diop’s film, Atlantique (2019), explored in the texts that follow, in which the dead are also seeking to be loved and return to reclaim their due from their exploiters, as inverse figures to those of Voodoo.
These fictions were not in the list of zombie films that Laurent Le Deunff sent me like a prescription drug during confinement, not to prepare me for the apocalypse (although . . . ), but for our discussion on this theme, dear to the artist’s heart. It is at the heart of Z-grade that our discussion updates most of the critical components peddled by the zombie, all this from within a genre whose inexhaustible character stems partly from its autophagy. In other words, the zombie film is often a filmic zombie.
Artist Josèfa Ntjam, interviewed by Marie Bechetoille, is less interested in the living dead than she is in making the dead live. Or rather, she allows them to speak through her and through each other, in a corpus that maintains a strong connection to history and operates by way of multiple layers of stories, myths, symbols, and characters. In this transmigration, a non-dominant language is articulated and addressed to the future – far more complex than the script of the zombie (‘grrrr, grrrr’). The system of audio extraction of ECHO technology also allows ‘the dead to speak as the living never will’. It was devised by the ALMARE collective for an audio fiction, Life Chronicles of Dorothea Ïesj S.P.U., which Pietro Della Giustina met them to discuss. Like the last conversation, this one attests to the fact that science fiction production exists in the art field, beyond mere illustration or paraphrase. It is also highly culturally enriching, weaving relations between the history of technologies and irrational impulses, archives, ghosts, surveillance, epidemics, and music. It is truly one of the surprises of this dossier that it contains so many musical references: while Michael Jackson is almost overlooked, there are mentions of Sun Ra, hip-hop, Detroit techno, Mike Kelley’s bands, or Lady Gaga . . . Enough to conclude with a chorus by Afrika Bambaataa, who is also (self-)zombified in Eurodance remixes, which we will dedicate now to all of the dead:
Ya'll just get up and dance
You got to get up and dance
Ya'll just get up and dance
- Laënnec Hurbon, ‘Le vodou et la révolution haïtienne’, Tumultes, 2018/1 (no. 50), 59–72 [DOI : www.cairn.info/revue-tumultes-2018-1-page-59.htm, consulted on 17 March 2021]
- Donna Haraway, Vivre avec le trouble (Vaulx-en-Velin: Les Éditions des mondes à faire, 2020 )
- Bruno Latour, Enquête sur les modes d’existence. Une anthropologie des Modernes (Paris: La Découverte, 2012); Vinciane Despret, Au bonheur des morts (Paris: La Découverte, 2015)