Writing of the emergence of the posthuman, Stefan Herbrechter observes: ‘[t]his time it really seems the “end of all ends”, not – as during the Cold War – the self-annihilation of some more or less abstract notion of “humanity”, but the end of humans as biological species and the dissolution of human “nature”’.1
This statement seems an apt description of the zombie apocalypse as depicted in a growing number of zombie narratives across diverse media since the turn of the millennium. Certainly, the figure of the zombie makes for a great symbol of the posthuman: it is the undead remainder that continues after the human dies. But more significantly, these narratives are increasingly more concerned with the transformations of the survivors. The real issue of the zombie apocalypse is that of how the survivors, the uninfected, retain or relinquish their humanity in the face of the chaos that their world has become. Dramatic tension in narratives such as Z Nation
(2014) and The Walking Dead
(2010) arises less from the fight for survival and more from confronting changes to human values and the resultant changes to human behaviour – those characteristics that are assumed to define human nature. The posthumans in such narratives are among the uninfected; the zombies simply provide the catalyst for the transformation into posthumanity. Audience members are challenged to contemplate the distinctions between human and inhuman survivors and to more deeply consider what defines our humanity.
An increasingly prevalent area of posthuman studies, ‘critical posthumanism’, interrogates assumptions that such distinctions between humans and non-humans continue to be valid, and questions whether definitive characteristics of humanity exist at all. Pramod K. Nayar writes that ‘critical posthumanism
seeks to move beyond the traditional humanist ways of thinking about the autonomous, self-willed individual agent in order to treat the human itself as an assemblage, co-evolving with other forms of life’.2
Placing particular emphasis on the Other in ‘other life forms’, he sees critical posthumanism as standing in opposition to liberal humanism’s anthropocentrism and speciesism. Herbrechter and Ivan Callus similarly see critical posthumanism as a method of posthumanist reading ‘enabled by the deconstruction of the integrity of the human and the Other, of the natural and the alienable’.3
Most zombie narratives, though troubling the waters, ultimately uphold the distinction between humans and non-humans, extending the division even to those uninfected who behave in monstrous, inhuman ways. However, a few works move in the direction of critical posthumanism, challenging not only conventional definitions of humanity, but the very existence of any essential human qualities that might mark a distinction between humans and non-humans. Among these works are David Wong’s novels John Dies at the End
(2009) and This Book Is Full of Spiders
Wong’s novels are somewhat unique among zombie narratives. One of the most striking differences between these novels and other zombie narratives is the nature of the zombies themselves. Wong’s zombies are not animated by means traditional to the genre, such as sorcery, radiation or viral infection. The dead are resurrected by parasitic, extra-dimensional beings – often after being killed by the same beings. In John Dies
, beings that the narrator names ‘shadow men’ take possession of humans either directly or through the use of worm-like creatures that move in swarms from one victim to the next. The characters of Justin White and Fred Chu are respectively possessed by one of these swarms, which names itself ‘Shitload … because there’s a shitload of us in here’.4
Later in the novel, a local sportscaster and then David Wong (Dave),5
the narrator/protagonist of the book, are possessed directly by a shadow man, though this form of possession seems to be rare. Though the shadow men also appear in Spiders
, possessions of humans are accomplished only through spider-like parasites that enter their victims through the mouth or the anus, and are essentially invisible to detection.6
All of these parasitic beings amount to what Fred Botting characterizes as ‘bodysnatchers, beings that penetrate, possess, and control human bodies’.7
The resulting zombies are hybrids, neither fully human nor fully monster. Many, in fact, not only appear as humans but also behave as humans, albeit always carrying the potential for monstrosity. The ambiguous quality of the zombies allows the novels to raise issues common to critical posthumanism.
Central to critical posthumanism’s questioning of essential humanity are problems of identity and transformation. In order to address these issues, both of Wong’s novels feature versions of the Ship of Theseus problem in their explorations of identity, humanity and monstrousness amidst the threat of apocalypse. The problem of the Ship of Theseus was first posed by Plutarch as follows:
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.8
Subsequent versions of the problem posit that the materials of the ship are gradually replaced while the ship is at sea, and question whether the ship that Theseus departed on is the same ship on which he arrives at the end of his journey. If it is a different ship at the end of the journey, then what is the nature of that difference and at which point of the journey did the change occur? If it is the same ship, then what is the essential quality that remains as all of the materials are replaced?
Craig Derksen and Darren Hudson Hick extend these questions to the issues of human identity and moral responsibility raised by zombie narratives, writing:
The central question of personal identity is: what is it that makes you the same person today that you were yesterday, or a year or a decade ago? After all, if you aren’t the same person that you were yesterday – if the two of you are distinct
persons – it seems we can’t reasonably hold you responsible for that person’s acts.9
Derksen and Hick are addressing not only the transformation of humans into inhuman zombies, but also the moral problems surrounding zombie killing, particularly of zombified loved ones. In fictions of zombie apocalypse, such as 28 Days Later
(2002) and the aforementioned The Walking Dead
the questions extend to the killing of non-infected humans who have, in some way, lost or forfeited their humanity. In the world of the zombie apocalypse, it is no longer clear which actions should still be considered immoral and which have become acceptable; ie. notions of humanity and inhumanity have destabilized. When Walking Dead
protagonist Rick Grimes takes a bite out of the neck of a survivor who threatens to rape and kill his son – an emulation of the human-flesh-eating ‘walkers’ – has he crossed the line into inhuman monstrousness? What does it mean to be human in such a world? And what signals the transformation to the non-human monster? Though narratives like these challenge assumptions that viewers/readers might bring to these issues, the division between humanity and monstrosity continues to be upheld. Grimes’s humanity, for example, is repeatedly reaffirmed, often by contrast to the show’s truly monstrous characters. Wong’s novels, on the other hand, take the further step of questioning the validity of this distinction. Early in each of the novels a version of the Ship of Theseus problem is employed to set up this critical posthumanist approach.
opens with a version of the problem that asks the reader to imagine being in the act of using an axe to behead ‘a big, twitchy guy with veiny skin stretched over swollen biceps, a tattoo of a swastika on his tongue’;11
in effect, a human monster. The axe handle breaks during the beheading and is afterward replaced. Later still the axe head is also broken and replaced. A year later the monster returns, now undead with his head reattached. As you, the reader, brandish the twice-repaired axe, the monster declares, ‘That’s the same
ax that beheaded me!’12
The narrator challenges the reader to consider whether this statement is true.
offers another variation of the Ship of Theseus problem when Dave’s therapist, Dr Tennet, opines on the troubling nature of Star Trek
’s transporter technology. He explains that what is sent via the transporter is not the person, but the information needed to reconstruct the person at the arrival point: ‘what it does is send the blueprint
for your body across the beam. Then it reassembles you at the destination, out of whatever atoms it has nearby … an exact copy that the machine made, of a man who is now dead.’13
Unlike the Ship of Theseus, the replacement in this case is not gradual and incremental but instantaneous and complete. Yet the copy is still regarded as the same person. Furthermore, as Dr Tennet points out, it is not simply a copy of the original person but one several generations along. Each crew member and his/her copies undergo the process numerous times.14
The disturbing question raised is whether the body’s blueprint
really represents the essence of the person, that which remains unchanged regardless of the number of reconstructions. Is the essence of a person merely a set of physical properties? Does the Ship of Theseus maintain its identity simply because it was reconstructed in the same physical form? Indeed, as Derksen and Hick note, ‘[p]roponents of the bodily-continuity perspective contend that you are the same person today that you were yesterday because you are a continuation of the same body’.15
However, this perspective becomes complicated by instances of abrupt body alteration, such as injury, cosmetic surgery and prosthesis. Occurring early in each novel, both the axe anecdote and Tennet’s monologue serve to introduce challenges to readers’ assumptions about identity and humanity. These brief thought experiments announce the central issues that recur throughout the books: those of the unstable nature of identity and of the problematic distinction between human and monstrous Other.
In most zombie narratives, zombies represent the abject of humanity and, as such, become that against which humanity is measured. As Kyle William Bishop notes, ‘the zombie directly manifests the visual horror of death: unlike most ghosts and vampires, zombies are in an active state of decay’.16
Zombies are literal manifestations of the posthuman, persons that transform into non-persons,17
their humanity continually receding before our eyes. In Spiders
, Dr Marconi declares them ‘[o]ur culture’s most perfect creation – an enemy you are absolutely morally correct in killing, because they are already dead. Why, you are doing them a favor by smashing in their skulls’.18
In fact, the killing of zombies is most often co...