30 May, 2011Issue 16.3Film & TVPolitics & Society

Email This Article Print This Article

World of the Living Dead

Michael Willand

Combined and Uneven ApocalypseEvan Calder Williams
Combined and Uneven Apocalypse
Zero Books, 2011
261 Pages
ISBN 978-1846944680


The first zombie to appear in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—the first zombie to enter our collective consciousness—is recognisably “a homeless drifter of sorts, a gaunt raggedy man”. This first encounter acts as a vignette for Evan Calder Williams’s study of the darkest relics of late capitalist imagination; it epitomises the cinematic trope where the unnatural and monstrous symbolise the wretched of the Earth. Channelling an impressive range of films, from Mad Max to Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, each interpreted with formidable depth, Williams explores cinema’s fantastical distillation of capitalism’s inner workings and draws from this analysis a genuinely subversive project with unresolved political pretensions.

Williams’s first innovation, in this age of financial meltdown and nuclear fall-out, is to challenge the notion of apocalypse as a single event splitting time in two. In the place of this dramatic future history, he proposes taking the word in its original meaning, as the revelation of the true nature of things beneath the veil of illusion. Apocalypse, it follows, will not engulf us imminently or in some future time, but already exists immanent all around us, and is visible in the dehumanising debris of capitalism showing through the cracks in society’s surface. Realising that “the post-apocalyptic is a mode of thought, not a state of affairs,” we must “become post-apocalyptic without waiting for the catastrophic to occur”. The task of the theorist, then, consists in providing “a necessary optic onto the flourishing wastelands of late capitalism”; discerning the shape, not of things to come, but of underlying reality.

Williams’s chosen instruments for deciphering the buried meaning of the real are the fantasy worlds of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films. Although capitalism weaves its self-deceptive glorification most forcefully through cinema, it is nevertheless also in film that one can read most clearly the repressed anxieties of our age. Accordingly, Williams’ argument proceeds through a series of pop culture analyses, from which he distills world-historical significance with zizekian verve.

Williams’s centrepiece artefact is the Romero zombie series, but he explicitly rejects the conventional surface-level analysis, delving beyond the nigh-explicit critiques of consumerism and racism to locate a fundamentally capitalist schema at the heart of the films. Plunging the variously entrapped groups of humans into crises of trust, the zombie threat rips away the veneer of polite civilisation to reveal the genuine pervasive dynamic of capitalist-apocalyptic society. In the face of existential peril, with the constant possibility that fellow humans will turn zombie, cooperation and persuasion vanish; the violent effort of the battle for survival inevitably replaces the ethical effort of compromise, and the state of exception becomes the rule. Zombies induce in humans “the sadism of false necessity”.

The true message of these films, as Williams notes, is that “The humans prove to be your real enemies.” In normal times, this truth is hidden from us; comfortable community is guaranteed by a conscienceless state which displaces all internal tension outwards by excluding the Other. Yet the zones of exploitation and deprivation in our world — the “combined and uneven apocalypse” gradually unfolding every day — are not antiquated aberrations to an otherwise progressive system, glitches to be swept away by the tide of globalisation, but quite the opposite: this oppression is necessary to secure our own abundant bourgeois existence. Williams appeals to the zombie motif’s pre-Romero roots to show that its primary connotation is exploitative labour, not compulsive consumerism; in Haitian folklore, zombies were the undead summoned from their graves to work as slaves for their voodoo master. The appearance of the zombie horde represents the concealed exploited making their repressed exclusion manifest; the contradiction in the system threatening to annihilate it in a puff of dialectic.

In the face of this diagnosis Williams proposes a tentative antidote. Centering his ethic on the notion that the apocalypse is already happening, in some places more visibly than others, Williams suggests that we must accelerate this process, stripping away the tattered remnants of capitalist illusion to reveal the true consequences of its structures.

Yet Williams does not envisage ceasing at this moment of revelation. Once again riffing off pop culture, he presents his positive remedy in terms of the evolution of “-punk” aesthetics. Charging cyberpunk and steampunk with perpetuating and papering over the capitalist exclusion of the Other in their willful ignorance of the exploitative implications of their hyper-capitalist fantasy worlds, Williams proposes instead what he calls a “salvagepunk” ethic. This principle takes as its task the forging of new objects and practices from the wreckage of the old. Where capitalism drained its commodities of their use value, appreciating them only in terms of their exchange value, salvagepunk seeks to repurpose these commodities and imbue them with new meaning—a meaning based on their function in the community.

It is in outlining this principle that Williams is less convincing. It is not apparent how one is to imbue these salvaged objects with new meaning without collapsing back into a capitalist economy. Williams’s invocation of Kurt Schwitters’s Merz art and description of salvagepunk as “mobilising the ‘innate venom’ of objects” provides little elucidation for what at times seems intended as a society-wide project. On occasion, indeed, he appears to be primarily concerned, not with rethinking our attitudes to physical objects, but merely with theorising his own critical stance with regard to the cultural objects he examines. If salvagepunk is simply a return to culture jamming and objets trouvés, he is on firm ground, but this is hardly an economic system to rival capitalism.

Williams would not be alone in failing to build his positive suggestions for localised responses to this “combined and uneven apocalypse” into a comprehensive plan for an alternative society. Indeed, it may be that theoretically uncovering capitalist fantasies’ displacement of the Other is the boldest response conceivable. More than a blueprint for liberation, Williams’s limpid and creative dissection of these cultural artefacts is an exemplary illustration of the serious scrutiny we should apply to our imaginative lives.

Michael Willand graduated in 2007 with a licence en philosophie from L’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.