(Re)mobilizing Death: Ghosts, Zombies, and Memory as Biopolitcal Dispositive

After a helpful discussion with Dr. McCoy regarding my last post—specifically my comment about Tupac in The Devil in Silver—in which Dr. McCoy suggested that I consider similar strange intertextualities as “ghostly allusions,” the specifics of my research project have seemingly fallen into place.  At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of these “ghostly allusions,” so I went home and did some research on the significance of ghosts in literature; I found a dissertation titled “Ghost Novels: Haunting as Form in the Works of Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, and J. M. Coetzee,” and although the essay focused on ghosts as a postmodern reproduction and repetition of images created by various visual technologies, its focus on the theoretical discourse of ghost narratives and hauntology was supremely insightful, and synthesized many sources that I otherwise would have had to labor over on my own.

For this post, I don’t actually want to focus much on ghost narratives and the ghostly allusions in The Devil in Silver; instead, I want to first outline how my research into ghosts informed my “mini-epiphany” about my research project, and explore the new direction my project will take.  In my first post, the critical question of my project sought to understand how narratives of illness in African-American literature created means of resisting neoliberal biopower.  I based this question largely on my readings of Octavia Butler; in her novels, I saw narratives of illness that simultaneously staked ontological positions that allowed people to resist biopower.  Accordingly, I hoped that examining other narratives of illness would yield a connection heretofore underdeveloped in scholarly work.  However, because this question was formed mostly on Octavia Butler, and not other authors, I wanted to have room to develop my critical question if I saw a more fertile area of investigation.  But in reading these narratives, the direction of my project precipitated more clearly:  my critical question no longer revolves specifically around illness, but instead seeks to understand how narratives of ghostly haunting resist the neoliberal biopolitical agenda.  This post, then, functions both as an outline of the thinking that lead to this new critical question and as an introduction to the theoretical discourses which must be explored in order to formulate the ghost as resisting biopower.

According to Roach, the neoliberal “bios,” or good life, mobilizes death as life’s limit:  in the interest of the sovereign’s growth, the neoliberal regime mobilizes death as the end of being—a formulation of death that advocates for subjects to create “a heaven on earth” via the accumulation of material pleasures (168).  If we agree with Roach’s claim that the Neoliberal paradise takes the family as its locus for implementing biopotenza because the family allows for a cycle of neoliberalsim via the passing on of material wealth—as Snead might say, a process of repetition and accumulation disguised as progress and growth in order to repress “the daunting knowledge that the apparently linear upward striving course of human endeavor exists within nature’s ineluctable circularity, and that birth and life end up in death and decay”—we must be prepared to tackle the problematic neoliberal attack on queerness (Roach 168; Snead 147).  In the conservative neoliberal conceptualization of death and the family, queerness stands in opposition to the neoliberal cycle in which families pass their wealth on to the next generation.  In his book No Future, Lee Edelman argues that this oppositional stance on queerness arises “from reading that [queer] figure literally”—or in other words, the assumption that queer couples are biologically restricted from reproducing (Edelman 2).  Hence, in the neoliberal state, queerness is posited as disrupting the growth of the sovereign by inhibiting the passing of one’s wealth to the next generation.  While this first seems to ratify Foucault’s claim that sexuality is the primary locus for dispositives of biopower—especially a biopower that configures “bios” as neoliberalism— Edelman argues that queers should embrace this conceptualization of queerness and death, as it configures queerness as a form of inescapable social resistance.  To this end, resisting the biopolitcal regime is less a matter of breaking the link between identity and truth with regard to sexuality, as Foucault claims, and more a matter of (re)mobilizing death in the neoliberal state.

Such (re)mobilizations of death, I believe, are found in contemporary African-American literature.  In her essay “History is what Bites:  Zombies, Race, and the Limits of Biopower in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One,” Jessica Hurley argues that the zombie functions as a metaphor for the “return of a repressed history of racial trauma” (Hurley 311).  The zombie is an apt vehicle for this metaphor, Hurley argues, because the zombie represents biopower’s limit:  the zombie, as an entity beyond life, is not subject to the power over biological life that is biopower; yet, the zombie is a form of “anti-life” that cannot coexist with humanity, and thus must be destroyed in order to achieve a true “bios” (Hurley 311).  Hurley articulates the biopolitcal and ontological significance of the zombie most succinctly: the zombie is “a walking embodiment of past populations that will not stay dead but extrude threateningly into the present, where systems of government disintegrate in the face of an unruly, unrulable population of the no-longer-human. Biopower can manage the living and the dead, but it has nothing in its arsenal to manage the third term that appears beyond its limits: the undead” (Hurley 312).

This essay was called to mind when Dr. McCoy suggested that I consider unsettling intertextualities like the Tupac allusion as “ghostly allusions;” my first thought was that these “ghosts” may act in a similar (but inherently different) manner to the zombies of Zone One.  While the zombie—as a physical entity that authorities of power seek to destroy—is more concretely a form of resistance to biopower, I see ghosts in literature, and especially the idea of ghostly haunting, as capable of altering the space in which readers interact with a text.  For instance, thinking about the ghostly allusions in The Devil in Silver as haunting the reader forces me to engage with The Devil in Silver in an inherently different manner than if I simply considered the allusions to be constructing conversations with other texts.  With this is mind, I set out to do some research on ghosts.

Jaeen Yoo’s essay, “Ghost Novels:  Haunting as Form in the Works of Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, and J.M. Coatzee” locates popular conceptualizations of ghosts within the systems of reasoning generated by the Enlightenment:  in the Enlightenment’s attempt to rationalize every aspect of human existence, scholars banished phenomena they could not explain, creating a boundary between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ (Yoo 2).  These banished phenomena were “internalized as mental problems, and the unreal [was] repressed, setting off uncanny returns in the future” (2).  The undergirding premise to Yoo’s essay is that the uncanny return of the repressed in literature takes the form of ghosts.  And importantly, the processes of memory (not least of which includes repression) are at the fore of ghostly haunting.  Slavoj Zizek argues that these ghosts represent the “fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture,” and utilizes Lacanian psychoanalysis to explain this fantasy:  “the answer offered by Lacan [to the question of why the dead return] is the same as that found in popular culture:  because they are not properly buried, i.e. because something went wrong with their obsequies. The return of the dead is the sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid debt (qtd. in Yoo 4).  According to Zizek, the return of the repressed/dead signifies improper burial; in other words, the memory of an event or person was improperly recorded in the annals of history, and through haunting, ghosts seek to rectify these historical inaccuracies, thereby gaining dignity through freedom of expression—a proper burial.  Yoo adds that the question of ghosts interrogates “the diachronic question of remembering the past in a responsible way”—or to put it another way, ghosts seek to remember the past responsibly.  It is important to note that the memory ghosts act upon is the communal memory—the intergenerational memories shared by groups of people in society regarding how a person or group existed or how an event occurred in history.  Accordingly, ghosts—and zombies—work contrary to the traditional mobilization of death that is conceptualized as a definitive end of being; both ghosts and zombies feature a (re)mobilization of death that seeks to uncover and revise communal memories and histories that the biopolitical regime fabricated in the service of the neoliberal good life.

Consequently, I argue that the communal memory functions as a primary locus by which biopower enforces its conceptualization of the neoliberal “bios.”  Such an understanding—one that, while not inherently different, is explicitly distanced from Foucault’s widely accepted assertion that sexuality is the primary dispositive of biopower—is necessary to explore in order to ultimately examine how ghosts in African-American literature (and especially the ghosts of The Devil in Silver) (re)mobilize death in a manner that revises communal memory responsibly, and thus resists the biopolitical regime.  As I stated earlier, I think ghosts in The Devil in Silver have the potential to alter the way readers interact with texts, but I’d like to finish the novel and have more concrete ideas about its ghostly haunting before I tackle this idea in a post.  As a result, my next post will examine memory as a dispositive of biopower (biopotenza) in Fledgling in order to set the stage for my discussion of Victor LaValle’s ghosts.

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