In the midst of the fugitive and the infinite

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
-W. B. Yeats

Back in November we attended a light hearted zombie themed day at Reading library. Amongst the speakers were Dr Lee Miller and Joanne Walley, a husband and wife drama team who offered up a humorous Marxist based critique of the myth of the modern zombie. They posited that the eponymous zombie, shambling brain munching creature of foetid nightmares occupied a unique place in consumerist culture. The zombie does not care for belongings, money, culture, race, ability or sex, and certainly not for paltry geopolitical limitations such as invisible borders or government. The horde does not need a map nor Google Now, one could argue that they instead utilise a variant of the notion of the dérive, that is Debord’s ‘path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls’. They welcome us all as equals, embracing our flailing limbs and blindly devouring the last vestiges of humanity. The stumbling shreds of flesh could perhaps be regarded as the ultimate passive flâneur, counter to Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of an active modern city inhabitant. The charnel mass in the language of Charles Baudelaire lies at the ‘heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite’.

The zombie or walker reads the city in purely physical terms, as a primal realm of prey and surfaces akin to the parkour free running athlete as they seek out difficult ledges. The mob is a singularly reactionary entity which has no regard for architecture in the classical sense. Indeed in zombie films, architecture typically provides a suitably passive human backdrop to the protagonist’s various challenges, whether that is a nuclear bunker or lonely farmhouse. The walking dead eventually simply flows over and consumes the proud city from within, echoing Bachelard’s opinion that ‘death is a journey which never ends’. Appropriately parkour practitioner Cole Mero writes of his leaping efforts ‘we flow through the city, efficient and fast we run, at the end we fly’.

28-days-later-empty-street-small

(28 Days Later © DNA Films)

In the cult film 28 Days Later by British director Danny Boyle the zombies are biological in origin; an outbreak of a genetically engineered virus rapidly engulfs England whilst the hero (Jim) lies in a coma. Jim awakes to find himself in a desolate post-apocalyptic London, one which is utterly silent. He goes onto discover the chilling reason for the wasteland and encounter other survivors. Boyle’s ‘zombies’ incidentally run full pelt at any survivors, their eyes blood red with raw malevolent intent. Two of the film’s other characters hide out at the top of a crumbling Corbusian tower block, their stairwells defended by a mountain of shopping trolleys and other detritus. The monolithic architectural slum so reviled by critics ironically endeavours to protect its final inhabitants from the external organic threat. The building thus neatly symbolises the last stand for two frightened individuals desperate to hold onto faint normality as a conflict between (failed) civilisation and pre-human primal rages.

I’m reminded of Charles Jencks‘ Death of Modernism piece, in it he writes ‘modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite’. The estate was fabricated according to the standards of the Congress of International Modern Architects and embraced Corbusian ideals of  ‘sun, space and greenery’, which he called the ‘three essential joys of urbanism’. The city also critically failed to provide jobs, support and security, the locale quickly suffered from crime and economic failure blighted the environment. Social entropy ultimately devoured the residents and the enterprise collapsed.

pruitt

(Pruitt-Igoe demolition © State Historical Society of Missouri)

The disease outbreak is a vivid interpretation of James Lovelock‘s Revenge of Gaia concept. According to Lovelock nature has erupted up and strives to tame our self destructive urges that threaten the delicate balance of all life on this planet. He wrote in the Independent newspaper ‘had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth’s skin – its forest and ocean ecosystems – as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth’. The biological zombie is the great leveller, silent heralder of a visceral return to a pastoral Eden. In 28 Days Later a weary Sergeant Farrell ponders ‘well, I think Bill’s got a point. If you look at the whole life of the planet, we… you know, man, has only been around for a few blinks of an eye. So if the infection wipes us all out, that is a return to normality.’ Rage infected humans are instantly returned to a pre-technological status driven only by pure feral instinct.

There is a marvellously mischievous parallel with Richard Mabey’s championing of the tenacious weed. These plucky interstitial species have crept across asphalt roads, pushed into concrete cracks and pulled down our ivory towers, or as he writes ‘they are plants which sabotage human plans.’ Nature interferes with our abstract notion of civilisation and the zombie-like steadfast weed helps keeps our arrogance in check. I’m also reminded of the Dark Mountain movement’s manifesto part of which observes ‘this time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.’ The Dark Mountain movement is expressly not a dystopian endeavour, it seeks to instead be ‘a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial’.

We must acknowledge our humble place in the fragile fluctuating system of things. The zombies, albeit in a cartoonish manner, remind us that under the shadow of ecocide our architecture can collapse with ease and that we may require an entirely new dialogue with the world around us. The zombie lurks in the liminal as a crude Marxist eco-warrior. With this in mind, perhaps we should flow over the crumbling infrastructure hand in hand with the tumultous organic world as raging biophiliacs.

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14 Comments

    1. Very kind, I have to tip my hat to Lee Miller and Joanne Walley who started my thought process off. The city is a powerful backdrop to the zombie myth, but those nuclear bunkers always seem to eventually fail under the weight of assault.

  1. I had rather gone off zombies since Shaun of the Dead was filmed around me here in north London but I could see them in a new light now! Biophilia is a more appealing concept I feel though.

    1. Yes the zombie myth has (if you pardon the pun) been done to death, I think 28 Days Later stands alone though because they aren’t zombies, this is nature’s vengeance if you like.

  2. Matt, this is wonderful! Hard to pick a favourite line/idea but “the horde does not need a map nor Google Now, one could argue that they instead utilise a variant of the notion of the dérive, that is Debord’s ‘path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls’…” is fantastic. You should, y’know, write a book or something…

    1. Very kind sir, but I suspect the funding boat has long since sailed on this kind of left of field wacky research phd or book! Book publishing these days by volume appears to be entirely Nordic thrillers or S&M tinged romance novels. Plus it’s hard to keep a focus when there’s so much crazy stuff out there to digest!

  3. So, I take it you too are looking forward to watching ‘Warm Bodies’, the Romeo-Jul zom-com!
    Joking of course. Good book though.

    Great writing, and as ever thoughtful and penetrating.
    Architecture as memory and memory as humanity. The duality of existence: the sensate and insenate. The z is the ideal liminal manifestation.

    1. I’ve not read the book, but I confess the trailer made me chuckle. I suppose the great Z thing is that it’s a mutable symbol, everyone reads their own terror into it’s rotting face?

  4. Fantastic! You bring together some of my more intellectually acceptable interests and reference points with my enthusiasm for zombie apocalypses (a word that probably should not have a plural form, but hey, I love Buffy too…). I’ve often mused about the power of these supernatural genres – whilst vampire/werewolf etc narratives are essentially I think about being human, the zombie is about losing humanity and continuing to be nonetheless, and about the fragility of society in the face of the living inhuman. Oh, and I was reminded of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd when reading the above.

    1. You are right about that fragility. Of becoming the other, I’d forgotten about the Poe story. Perhaps that better captures the essence of the shifting city? I guess the biological zombie is a shadow of our previous civilised selves?

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