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Jack Halberstam's Queer Futures: “Zombie Humanism at the End of the World"

July 6, 2015

by Nicole Gervasio, English Ph.D. '17 and 2014 - 2015 IRWGS Grad Fellow

Jack Halberstam closed out “Queer Futures” for this year by playfully politicizing several seemingly disparate aspects of contemporary culture— zombies, biopolitics, wilderness, prisons, and even pet ownership. A professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, Comparative Literature, and English at the University of Southern California, Halberstam will be hosting a master class at IRWGS for the next two weeks.

The adventurous trajectory of Halberstam’s arc towards “zombie humanism” started with the concept of “wildness” as an occasion for “aesthetic rupture.” Thinking in terms of aesthetic rupture involves overlapping genealogies that normally would not be read together but nevertheless make sense aesthetically and historically. Halberstam staged “wildness” as a substitute for “queer,” which, in his view, “no longer signifies the wild array of embodiment and utopian projects that it once did.”

In the space of what was once queer, wildness encompasses all that is chaotic, reckless, and intense to the point of violence. Halberstam shifted discourse from queerness as a polemic against normativity to monstrosity itself—“the entropy of life, stuff, matter, and worlds.” By queering subjectivities that compulsorily inhabit that space of “living death,” we can fathom the ways in which the state imposes scripts on lives that don’t assimilate with normative views of what “living” means. 

Having enumerated black men in prisons and seniors in retirement communities as conscripts of living death, Halberstam chose one subjectivity that we would not as readily associate with regulatory violence to illustrate his thesis: household pets. “Your pet is not really alive,” he explained. “Its life script is determined by you… It is, in fact, a prosthetic extension of the human that owns it.”

Despite being a devoted pet owner myself (Halberstam would probably point out that my choice of the designation ‘owner’ is key), I couldn’t deny some of the obvious truths to his bone to pick with man’s best friend. I particularly appreciated his blistering critique of “the colonial narrative” regarding “rescue” dogs: humans cannot logically “domesticate, abandon, and then rescue again” the very creatures whose conditions of captivity they created in the first place.

Having disillusioned many an audience member with “the carceral intensity of pet-owning,” Halberstam moved into a more theoretical discussion of biopolitics and zombie humanism. He noted the racialized history of zombie mythology, particularly the fear that zombification would re-enslave free Haitians in their sleep. Zombies therefore began as “a political narrative about holding slavery at bay, but also recognizing it as a living memory and potentially a part of the present.”

By the 1960s, zombies in films like Night of the Living Dead allegorized the intensification of American viewers’ relationships to consumer capitalism. Now zombies work in a neocolonial mode—whether through fantasies of de-extinction or television shows like The Walking Dead and In the Flesh. The dominant ‘zombie imperialist’ logic, Halberstam said, works like this: “You create the conditions of rupture and disaster, and then you become the redemptive force” to reverse the very disaster that your race has enabled.

For more Halberstam, check out this Thursday’s “Keywords” interdisciplinary roundtable discussion, where Halberstam will be theorizing “trans” with Yvette Christiansë, Jack Pula, Yasmine Ergas, and Jean Howard from 4:30-6:30pm in 1512 International Affairs Building.

Image Credit: from AMC's The Walking Dead