A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of the undead.

Legions of cultural critics are focusing the beam of Marxist-inflected critical theory on the mass-cultural phenomenon of zombies. And what a phenomenon they have become. Zombies—the rambling, post-apocalyptic, multitudinous variety, as opposed to the voodoo-induced loners of Caribbean lore—have spread like a virulent contagion since their introduction in George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, itself an adaptation of the novel from a decade earlier I Am Legend. Indeed, my own quick survey on the Google Ngram viewer shows a steep incline in English-language mentions starting in the year that seminal slasher was released, amounting to a more than one thousand percent increase in the appearance of zombies in print by 2008, the last year surveyed.

In light of this explosion in zombie cultural production, but also in critical examinations of those cultural artefacts, it behooves us both to ask what zombies mean in late capitalist society and what it can possibly mean for zombies to mean something.

Our dark mirror image

Such interpretations entail the critical use of zombies in particular or monsters in general as a metaphor for representing some aspect, usually socio-political, of society, such as when Henry Giroux writes that “the metaphor [of the zombie] is particularly apt for drawing attention to the ways in which political culture and power in American society now work in the interests of bare survival, if not disposability, for the vast majority of people.”

For David Schmid, writing in a forthcoming volume on zombies, while monsters in general and zombies in particular can be read metaphorically as reminders of the monstrous aspects of neoliberalism, the concomitant risk such readings carry with them is that the very same monsters, in the “excessive visibility” of the “subjective violence” that they commit and that is committed against them, can blind us to the very real “objective violence” of a neoliberal political economy whose devastation continues unabated.

Yet, while zombies commit subjective violence in excessively visible ways on our screens, critically informed attention to their role on those screens and the appeal they generate need not be distracted by that visibility from the hidden but almost universal violence that is, using T. S. Eliot’s term, their objective correlative. In other words, a reading attuned to such objective violence can give us clues as to how the undeniable appeal of zombies responds to an implicit knowledge on the part of the consumers of that hidden violence, and how the cloistered, suburban lives of late capitalist consumers rest uneasily over the shallow grave of abject multitudes. This is why the consumer class of the culture industry, on the one hand, seeks to erase the suffering legions produced by an economy of extraction, while on the other greedily devouring their avatars in fictional form.

In fact, it is exactly because zombies stand in such conflicted relation to the socio-historical reality they emerge from that they exert such a fascination on their consumers. As David Castillo puts it, “zombie masses are us in more ways than one: they are our dark mirror image, our sweat shops, our garbage, our landfills, our pollution, the face of globalization, an infinitely reproducible and exportable product of the mass-culture industry, and also, paradoxically, a built-in site of contestation against this same phenomenon.”

We ensure our destruction

This paradox is what lies at the heart of the cultural symptom, and what gives it its force. It represents the socio-historical reality at the same time as it articulates an unconscious knowledge and a concomitant desire. In this case that knowledge is that we are the agents of our own demise; like the slave Jacques Lacan spoke of bearing the order for his own execution tattooed to his scalp, our destruction is ensured by the very fulfillment of our functioning as autonomous consumers in a late capitalist economy. Zombies literalize that image in their relentless and cannibalistic drive to consume the human survivors; at the same time, as Dave Reilly has argued, the cells of human survivors evince the desire imbricated with that knowledge, a desire for freedom and self-determination from the economic forces that situate us as the agents of our own destruction. For as producers proudly turn to new technologies (including and even especially information technologies) to obviate the need for employees, those of us still employed happily purchase their products, thereby contributing to the very economy that, according to Martin Ford’s analysis in Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, will inevitably drive us to obsolescence as well.

In some ways, then, the ultimate zombie movie of the twenty-first century was a pre-millennial release that technically had no zombies in it. Nevertheless, the fantasy scenario painted by the 1999 film The Matrix firmly encapsulates the paradoxes and appeal of our fascination with the undead. For can it not be said that we, the citizens of the early twenty-first-century industrialized world, are like so many coppertop batteries, our brains plugged into a virtual world in which we live, play, and dream, while our bodies, that is, our economic livelihood, are kept on life-support to be drained dry in the service of that economy? Everything is constructed so that we avert our gaze from this reality. We become zombie consumers of media—zombies because we are animate without anima; we believe we are alive, real, autonomous, but in reality we are already dead, plugged into the relentless machine of capital hell bent on our destruction.

This piece is excerpted from the afterword to the forthcoming volume Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics. All quotes in the article are from this book.