Zombies: Bokor Magic, or Modern Anxiety?

The phenomena of zombies reputably began when the ritual practices of Africa were transported to Haiti and become hoodoo. Accounts vary, but generally a bokor, sorcerer, used a variety of means including witchcraft, powerful psychotropic drugs or other means to bring the dead back to life to perform services for them, or else render a living person so pliable that they would behave like the “living-dead”. Yet the modern zombie of popular culture is at best a distant decedent of these origin myths, and indeed, are more a part of the western psyche than their bokor-spawned ancestors ever were.

Modern zombies embody in the first instance the very modern anxiety of overpopulation. With this anxiety comes the fear of epidemics, dehumanization (either in the form of outright animality or the deskilling of labour), and the aggression that inevitably emerges when too many people are forced into too small a space.

The zombie apocalypse is a major way to sublimate the frustrations inherent in low-end service sector jobs, I know, I’ve been there, and the most avid enthusiasts tend to come from this walks of life, or else those who have a strange fascination with it. The skill of the parody film “Shaun of the Dead” was that it was able to articulate this very sublimation, and put a humourous twist on it (for otherwise, by all accounts it wouldn’t have been accepted).

Conversely, on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the zombie phenomena resonates with the work of modern biology, insofar as it serves to stress biological determinism and the least common denominator of food and reproduction, and industrialized capitalism, insofar as the masses literally eat each other in a dramatic “survival of the fittest”, unable to cure themselves until some stronger force dominates them with technological innovations… usually firearms.

While I’ve not dedicated a great deal of time to the subject, I do think that zombies, like a number of pop-culture creatures, offer up an as yet unspoken critique of our common experience, its anxieties, fears, and maybe even our darkest hopes.

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The Jellyfish Will Inherit the Earth

Potentially immortal, massively diverse and widespread, smaller than the eye can see, or, like Nomura’s Jellyfish, the size of a full grown man, medusozoa are among the most simple, and complex creatures on earth.

The widespread Turritopsis nutricula is the only know “biologically immortal” creature on the planet. Through the process of cellular transdifferentiation, it can revert to its immature stage and begin its life-cycle over again. The increasing publicity garnered by this wobbly immortal has served to place a new kind of emphasis on the promises and perils of stem-cell research, as commentators are quick to point out the potential for human application. Before, when stem-cell analogies were focused on the remarkable ability of certain amphibians to regrow lost limbs, the emphasis was placed on curing disease and loss, but now, it seems, there is a natural symbol for something much more than that: augmentation of our own life span.

The role of natural symbols, and their continued power over the human psyche, did not disappear with the rise of science, it only changed direction. Now they are called research agendas.

Glancing back at the past, these lanterns of life were one of the earliest creatures to develop rudimentary eyes, and some, such as the Box-Jellyfish have human-like powers of vision despite their seemingly simplicity. In Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) Origin of Species, he comments that:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances […], could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Considering how some observers in the United States continue to reject evolutionary accounts of life, the jellyfish offers yet another “missing link”.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, it serves to critique the technocratic desire to see progress everywhere in nature, and the view that natural selection is an inexorable conveyor-belt to us, and then beyond.

And speaking of the end of the world, it seems that jellyfish still have more to teach about the principles of survival and balance. The fisheries in Japan and the west coast of North America have suffered from an explosion of jellyfish blooms produced by the rapidly changing conditions of the ocean because of human activity. Relatively simple, they can survive and even thrive in conditions that would be totally inhospitable to more complicated animals. The blooms have caused enterprising Japanese researchers to try and find some economic use for the jellyfish, making them into a base for cosmetics and other products, including ice creme. On the face of it, this is a sign of how humans can adapt any situation to their own advantage, but only on the face of it.

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