Revenants: The Ghost, the Zombie, the Exception

Giorgio Agamben’s figure of the Homo Sacer, that which can be killed but not sacrificed has taken on many roles since the release of his work. Particularly since the events of 9/11 scholars have been “finding” bare life everywhere. Most often, however, these iterations are housed in a corporeal being, in those at the margins of political life, indeed outside of, or exceptions to those politics. Agamben argues that the person-ness of the homo sacer emerges from his reliance on a Foucauldian sense of the biopolitical, the management of life. But I am curious if we can stretch Agamben’s term to its most excessive, can we locate a biopolitics outside of the bios, outside any ontological formation, and instead talk about hauntologies in a similar fashion. Or, in inverting that frame, can we harness the spectrality of the Derridean ghost as productive to a biopolitical methodology that Agamben is espousing? This exercise may or may not prove fruitful; it may fall short, or perhaps expose some of the inadequacies of Agamben’s notion of bare life.

Derrida reminds us in Specters of Marx of the importance of ghosts, of their ever-presence and the ambiguity they pose in oppositional ontologies of life and death. He says, “The specter is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit. It becomes, rather, some “thing” that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other.” The specter, therefore, is always a becoming, a not-yet-realized possibility that evades both demarcation and definition.  Ghosts are revenants of the past, but they also exist in the present in their hazy form, and retain the ability to exist indefinitely. Derrida asserts, “At bottom, the specter is the future, it is always to come, it presents itself only as that which could come or come back.” If, as Agamben argues, the proliferation of homo sacer emanates from “the growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power” on which “sovereign power is founded” how does the specter figure into the political appropriation of sovereignty?


Ghost, ghost I know you live within me
Feel as you fly
In thunderclouds above the city
Into one that I
Loved with all that was left within me
Until we tore in two
Now wings and rings and there’s so many
Waiting here for you


Jeff Mangum, the lyricist for Neutral Milk Hotel mobilizes the ghost of Anne Frank throughout the album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, commenting on both her ever presence and her metonymy for Holocaust experience in contemporary culture.  As Mangum recognizes the ghost is always in some sense an interior phenomenon, its substance emerges from the witnessing subject. The violence of exteriorizing, however, of separating the ghost from the self, is a priori to its usefulness as political medium. The ghost of Anne Frank does indeed haunt Holocaust pedagogy, as well as our conceptualizations of wartime childhood. It is relevant that the specter that Mangum evokes is a child, it speaks to the enormity of the horror that befell Frank and the victims of the Holocaust as a whole. For while Derrida alerts us to the fact that the ghost is neither dead nor alive, sometimes visible but hazy in appearance, the form that the ghost takes is also crucial. In Hamlet the ghost takes the form of Hamlet’s dead father, King Hamlet. He remarks to Prince Hamlet in their meeting,


Ghost:  I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.


What dictum necessarily implies that the ghost must assume the form of the dead being it once occupied? The appearance of the ghost as Hamlet’s dead father of course reinstantiates a kind of fatherly sovereignty over Prince Hamlet, providing the necessary affective and hierarchical mechanisms to make the revenge plot just. Therefore the ghost may be mobilized not only as an exception that propagates sovereignty, but also as its vehicle. Similarly, the utilization of Anne Frank’s ghost pushes us towards a particular claim of justice in her name. If Prince Hamlet had been greeted not by an apparition taking the form of his dead father, but some other presence, the effect would not have been the same.

So clearly, when regarding the spectral, visibility matters. For while the specter can be both invisible and visible as it pleases, we see it or we do not; it is the gaze of the ghost itself that is most unsettling. This is what Derrida calls the “supreme insignia of power: the power to see without being seen.“ The asymmetry of the gaze, the awareness of one’s status as object underlies the panoptic possibilities of the ghost. The ghost therefore implies a kind of divine omnipresence and prospective purveyor of epistemological violence. For if the ghost can see all, it can assuredly also know all as well.  It is this power-through-knowledge that the specter wields that makes it so terrifying, for while we may exorcise the ghost and postpone death, both lie on the horizon.  The ghost is not death, but it screams its inevitability. It wields the symbol of death as ever-present possibility, a becoming that is crucial to a biopolitics that relies on a normative ideal of life/death to ensure that the exception remains unquestioned. Because the ghost has presumably already been killed it cannot be wielded as an example of “bare life”, yet its importance to the sovereign remains.

Could, then, the specter espouse a liminality that upsets the normalizing divide between life and death that Baudrillard refers to in his work, Symbolic Exchange and Death? While the ghost throws into question an absolute contrast between life and death, the ghost is most often shackled to the realm of death. Moreover, while the specter effectively bridges the gap between death and life, allowing us to see and speak to that absolute Other, the ghost most often seeks to be at rest, to reside solely with death. This is true of many apparitions, who only haunt the living to make apparent some injustice done in their lifetime. The does not mean that the specters of bare lives past are not of use to the modern biopolitical regime, nor that the spectral is not often wielded to maintain the discursive legitimacy of democracy, the law, and the state.

What then to make of the zombie? Of the reanimated corpse that does not haunt us, per se, but most certainly hunts us? While Derrida characterizes the specter as “neither soul nor body” can we also apply this logic to the risen dead? Like the ghost the zombie is a revenant and it also is unable to speak, lest we listen. But while the ambiguity and anxiety of the ghost is in its incorporeality, its ability to see without necessarily being seen, the zombie is afforded no such ubiquity. The lifeless gaze of the zombie yields no such apparent power even in relation to human beings, much less the ghost. Yet there is certainly something to be said about reanimation, which in most of its instantiations whether through mystical conjuration or viral contagion instills a singular drive in the zombie, to consume living flesh. The zombie too straddles the gulf between life/death, even in its nomenclature as the “living” or “walking” dead, but also through its animation, its locomotion.

The zombie thus presents us with something altogether different than Derrida’s figuration of the specter, abjection. Kristeva’s notion of the abject locates the possibility of an unbecoming subject precisely through its encounter with that collapse of difference. The zombie, is an embodiment of life to death to pseudo-life, it is essentially a walking corpse. We see the decay of the human body and indeed of the soul materialized in the reanimated corpse. Is this a life to speak of, is the zombie afforded some fractional bios that we see in other bodies of similar precarity? Agamben’s language, as well as the descriptors of Primo Levi in speaking of the muselmann both hint at a kind of zombified entity, a walking corpse without voice or political power. Even the ability to think has been stripped away from the muselmann, who simply goes through the motions of life. The zombie thus proves an intriguing corollary to both bare life and the central interrogatives that Derrida asks of the specter.


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