economic residues and the zombies of finance

This post is adapted from a talk given at the American Comparative Literature Association with a fine group of comrades on the panel “After Crisis: 21st Century Political Economy and Cultural Form.” Also, I just saw the trailer for the film World War Z, which seems like a good reason to return to Brooks' book and what I was thinking about it earlier this year. 

World War Z (2006) begins at the end—that is, after the zombie apocalypse and after the zombie war has been won, signalling that not only will this not be a straightforward novel, but it will not be a typical zombie plot either—since when do zombie plots start with evidence that the good guys survive?! Max Brooks, both author and the reporter in the fictional account of the zombie war, begins the novel by explaining how the interviews that make up the bulk of the narrative are all leftovers from an original report. Ruminating on an unrepresented object, the novel situates its narrative around the absence of the United Nation’s Postwar Commission Report—a report that does not rely on human opinion or testimony, but on an abstraction of the event itself. Almost in antagonism to the factual report, the novel’s assumption seems to be that its reportage will sketch out the social totality through the shear accumulation of points of view. But the absence of the UN report is not the hidden object of World War Z; instead its absent cause comes closer to capital itself—if only, as I will argue, in terms of circulation. The novel’s dedication to mapping the social raises a question about the aesthetic role of post-apocalyptic fiction in the moment during the crazed search for WMDs, after 9/11 but before the 2008 financial crisis: in what ways are post-apocalyptic novels at this moment able to represent capital and how do they attempt or fail to resolve the contradictions inherent in such representations?

Formally, the narrative of World War Z unfolds in small interviews, patching together a global perspective of “The Zombie War” over the course of ten years. These perspectives effectively provide a mapping of the appearance and the movement of the infected. The accounts that make up the bulk of the text are unified by the interviewer, the hidden protagonist who, as we learn in the introduction, has already compiled a study based on facts and figures of the outbreak of what is at first called “African Rabies.” Each account is only several pages long—typically characters don’t return to give a second report (if they do, it is as a continuation of their original statement, placed near the end of the novel to perform some form of closure). 

From the narrative frame, the plot unfolds in temporal categories: discovery, reaction, survival, migration, retaliation, and, finally, all out war. Unlike other post-apocalyptic novels, this book is able to deliver a more complete representation of what happens during and after the apocalypse through its formal apparatus—a specific form of writing that involves a commitment to duration through testimonial documentary and archiving: the book accounts for its own, seemingly omniscient narration, in a way that builds a type of trust commonly associated with other reportage forms or documentary modes. 

In this way, it’s easier to read World War Z as the continuation of a series of post-war accounts, than as part of a genealogy of zombie fiction. On this subject, Brooks has said that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality...well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military was a LOT of homework.” (For the concerned reader there's also an page where one can purchase zombie apocalypse supplies) What these snippets of narrative reveal to the reader is that, instead of forming a unified whole, they trace out the fractures and fragments of the social and of political economy: even though they represent, for example, the illegal movement of bodies in South-East Asia, black market medical operations, and the lightening quick marketing of “Phalanx” a false-vaccine, placebo-medication, these interviews work in concert to construct a narrative while they fail to bring humanity together against the threat of reanimating corpses.

The interviews early in the book mark the geographic spaces where zombies first emerge: heavily populated zones and areas with a thriving black market for smuggling bodies or body parts. These interviews lay bare modes of capitalist circulation, in which infected but not yet zombified individuals pay to be smuggled out of the Asian subcontinent to countries in the West. As smuggler Nurvy Televaldi says, “I was an importer: raw opium, uncut diamonds, girls, boys whatever was valuable from those primitive excuses for countries. The outbreak changed all that. Suddenly we were besieged with offers, and not just from the liudong renkou,” a footnote explains that this as a reference to “China’s ‘floating population’ of homeless labour” (12). Here, the novel lays out a logic of circulation, taken further in another moment where we are introduced to Fernando Oliveira an MD that specializes in importing organs, mostly from China one of the first zones of heavy outbreak: “You remove the heart not long after the victim’s died...maybe even while he’s still alive...they used to do that, you know, remove living organs to ensure their freshness...pack it on ice, put it on a plane for the Rio...China used to be the largest exporter of human organs on the world market. Who knows how many infected corneas, infected pituitary glands...Mother of God, who knows how many infected kidneys they pumped into the global market. And that’s just the organs.” (27) What first appears as an influx of valuable commodities – organs – upon closer inspection manifests the ruin of the value form itself. These organs chart the infectious breakdown of the fantasy generated by the surplus of organs found in zombie bodies because once these organs are transplanted their peculiar use-value becomes something that the receiving patient certainly did not bargain for. 

Further, this collapse plays out on a global register: as a pandemic narrative, World War Z represents the contact points where one infected body encounters another (a film version of this would be the opening sequence of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion). Because of this formal necessity, the novel itself attempts to represent the social totality in the form of circulation not in the global market, but in the shadow economy currently employing 1.8 billion pre-apocalyptic labourers, according to a recent Forbes article.

The novel also seems to have an understanding of the fictions supporting financialization—no longer a hot topic, but one integral for reading World War Z. One character, Breckinridge “Breck” Scott, decides as soon as the panic starts in the U.S.A. to put a vaccine on the market. The disease that causes one to become a zombie has a number of different names but the most prominent one at this point in the narrative, as mentioned above, is “African Rabies.” So, Scott markets a rabies vaccine as a zombie vaccine, calling it “Phalanx” and people start buying it en mass. Scott accounts for the success in terms of risk management, explaining that a cure would be far less successful, because you would have to be sick in order to require it, but a vaccine is preventative. He says, “It wasn’t even the idea of safety anymore, but the idea of the idea of safety!” he continues, “It protected them from their fears. That’s all I was selling. Hell, because of Phalanx the biomed sector started to recover, which in turn, jump-started the stock market, which then gave the impression of a recovery, which then restored consumer confidence to stimulate actual recovery! Phalanx hands down ended the recession! I...I ended the recession!” (58) Scott’s awareness, and insistence, on capitalism as a deeply cultural phenomenon makes his account stand out, almost as sharply as it highlights what remains blocked by it – production.

The important element to highlight here is not that the novel aesthetically solves the problematic it posses, but that, retroactively, we can see that it poses a complex set of contradictions, which represent a certain grasp on the social in the moment before the 2007-2008 financial crisis. By figuring circulation as central to the mode of representation (form), World War Z calls to mind circulation’s dialectical opposite—production—in a move that at once stages an integral problematic in contemporary capitalism, including critiques and commentaries on it, and fails to fully realize this staging. If circulation is taken to be the primary site of contradiction for the novel’s present, then something like the utopian island paradise described later on in the novel, where the crew of Chinese nuclear submarine live happily sharing resources and guard duty on the post-national island of Manihi, seems accurate as its resolution.

From the shipyards in India where ships were once broken down for parts and now refugees flock to in order to take to sea, to the island of Cuba that emerges as the dominant world power in the wake of the war, to the communities architecturally designed to be zombie proof – buildings on stilts, retractable ladders, walls and watchtowers – World War Z struggles to rebuild new modes of social organization amidst a social totality understood not in the moment of production but in circulation. What gets produced and reproduced in the novel is not capital but zombies, each one a spitting image of a former labourer in pre-apocalyptic times. 

Perhaps, were we to give the novel its due, we could read the intersection and relation of the disparate interviews as a form of fragmentation itching to be brought back together to weave a larger view of the social. Either way, one must remember that it is not the novel’s form alone that gives it a better view of the social, but rather its form during a particular moment in the history of global capitalism and consciousness—that is during the Iraq War years, after the fall of the WTC and before the sub-prime mortgage fiasco—and if that form tells us anything it has far more to do with a collectivity that can position itself within the social totality and thus act, rather than a collectivity capable of withstanding zombies. Unless of course, we were meant to identify with the zombie all along – an allegorical figure of surplus populations, if anything – in which case my ruminations will need to fold back to the start, and begin the process anew.

Works Cited
Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. Print.
---. “Zombie Wars.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 06 Oct 2006. Web. 26 March 2012.
Rabinowitz, Marco. “The Rise of the Shadow Economy: Second Largest Economy in the World.” Forbes. Forbes. 07 November 2011. Web. 26 March 2012.

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