Desktop version

Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Nationalism versus Globalization

The apocalyptic imagination has a long history as one of the oldest narrative forms, one that is well developed in the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the twentieth century, however, apocalyptic narratives became increasingly secular as well as increasingly dystopian. Although culturally pervasive, the apocalyptic imagination has shifted over the course of the last century from faith in human survival and utopian promise to a pessimistic view of humanity and its prospects that instead sees humanity’s future as one of violence, disintegration, and collapse. Mervyn Bendle, a scholar of religion, suggests that this shift occurred as a result of global events, especially the horrors of World War I, and worsened after the genocides of World War II, becoming more prominent in the 1990s as the millennium approached. That event set off exaggerated concerns about the alleged “Year 2000” (Y2K) computer problem and prompted the FBI to establish a domestic terrorism task force that led to the debacle of the FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, killing seventy-four cult members in 1993, and helping to radicalize extreme right-wing groups in the nation. One of their members, Timothy McVeigh, blew up a federal government building in Oklahoma City two years later. The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon only accelerated this darkening apocalyptic imagination.24

Yet there have been many horrific wars, plagues, and catastrophic environmental events across the centuries that did not trigger such a lasting change in perspective. This fact suggests that more is at stake in the accelerated shift from utopian to dystopian apocalyptic fantasies than the wars and traumatic events of the last century, although these certainly contributed to the loss of faith in the Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality. We must also look to the more fundamental reorganization of the global capitalist system that has gradually subverted and destabilized the very foundations of modern society. It seems no coincidence that the popularity of vampires and Gothic horror coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which induced a fear of technological monstrosity—even Karl Marx used the language of vampires to describe the bloodsucking effects of capitalism. Similarly, the mainstream popularity of zombies today coincides with the globalization of capitalism and deindustrial decline in the traditional manufacturing centers with its attendant impoverishment of millions of people. Industrialization and deindustrialization bookend the modern period; the vampire and the zombie are the figures of excess that embody the fears and anxieties induced by these seismic economic and social transformations. Although both the vampire and the zombie are undead, the aristocratic vampire is the figure that enslaves while the zombie has come to represent the modern equivalent of the enslaved: the socially expendable laborer, the migrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the impoverished, the unemployed, the productively “useless”—that is, the figure without autonomy who is consigned to a biopolitical existence.

Indeed, the zombie may be understood as the natural victim of the vampire. This notion is explicitly realized in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2014). The film’s sophisticated, centuries-old vampire lovers, Adam and Eve, who obtain their sanguinary nourishment from medical professionals, live in separate cities until Eve arrives from Tangier to rescue Adam, a reclusive rock musician, from profound depression. Adam lives in Detroit, occupying a rundown Victorian house in a deserted neighborhood.25 His complaint is that the “zombies” have ruined the world, and by zombies he means ordinary humans. Adam is particularly depressed by the dismissive treatment of great scientists in their day, such as Galileo, Einstein, Tesla, the continuing controversy over Darwin, and, by extension, the continuing rejection of scientific rationality. Adam and Eve take nocturnal drives (in a vintage Jaguar) down empty streets to gaze at the darkly evocative abandoned houses, open spaces, and derelict factories of the city. They visit the Michigan Theater while Adam explains that it once was the site of Ford’s invention of the original prototype for the automobile and then a grand movie theater before becoming a desolate parking garage; they dispose of a body, sucked dry by Eve’s bratty younger sister, into an acid pool at the Packard Plant, understood as the best place to dump corpses in Detroit, just as the Thames River once was when Adam and Eve lived in London in another century. “Everyone has left,” says Adam gloomily, while Eve insists that because it has water, Detroit will come back when the South gets too hot, predicating the city’s speculative revival on the destructive effects of global warming. Detroit becomes a metaphor for everything grand the world once was as well as the ruination for which it is now headed. Adam and Eve retreat to Tangier only to find that their old vampire friend, a contact source for blood, is dying due to blood contamination, another “zombie” atrocity. As desperation and addiction withdrawal set in, they return to their old bloodsucking ways, preparing to prey upon a pair of young lovers, two “zombies” that are helpless before their approach. We might read this as the destructive imperative of capital despite the best intentions of individuals.

The Industrial Revolution (and the rise of the vampire) coincided with the establishment of the modern nation-state. Today, nationalism conflicts with globalization (and the rise of the zombie), which depends on free trade on a global scale and the unconstrained circulation of people, capital, and goods. This perceived need for unrestrained global circulation suggests that nation-states are becoming obsolete, constituting an unresolved contradiction between globalization and nationalism. As the free flow of people, capital, and goods occurs, the state nonetheless tries to keep out migrants, or locks them into detention camps and centers. “ ‘Illegality,’ ” notes sociologist Willem Schinkel, “a label attached to a state of being instead of a state of acting, becomes the basis of incarceration and forced repatriation.’^6 Migrants are effectively turned into zombies by a state that has become deindustrialized and thus incarcerates potential workers seeking employment. “Yet,” writes

Schinkel, “the fact remains that ‘being illegal’ is not a legal category, and incarcerated irregular immigrants are not convicted of a crime.”27 The state thus casts the migrant into a liminal category, which is neither criminal nor legal but merely a state of bare life, exposing the problem of citizenship in a globalized world and creating pressure for universal citizenship. This idea is resisted precisely because it compromises the traditional notion of the nation-state and the control of national subjects that citizenship is meant to secure, even as the foundations for citizenship continue to eroded8 The wandering zombie, who remains animate and hungry, therefore threatens to overwhelm the “legitimate” citizens of the nation-state, highlighting the central contradiction of contemporary capitalism: the clash between nationalism and globalization. Alarmingly, although citizenship has been considered a right that cannot be taken away, citizenship is also being stripped from citizens because of their actions even if it leaves them stateless.29

Zombies are thus associated with rapidly changing conditions of work under capitalism, generated by the rise of neoliberalism on a global scale that has greatly intensified market competition and created vast migrant populations. These peripatetic immigrants in search of employment are automatically coded as “nonwhite” and thereby racialized and demonized. Zombies are a potent metaphor for the new “nonstandard” laborers, the migrants who travel in “hordes,” “stream across borders,” who threaten to “flood” and overwhelm the nation. Indeed, the same language is used for both zombies and migrants.30 Zombies are those who have lost control over their own labor power, who are stateless and rightless. Noting that the number of displaced peoples and refugees in the last few decades has increased exponentially while the 9/11 attacks further increased anxieties over border protection, cultural critic Jon Stratton asserts, “Zombies provide a monster for our time because they express our anxieties over the relationship between bare life and the modern stated1

Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men (2006), set in 2027, illuminates the problem of migrants. Although ostensibly concerned with global infertility, the film constructs Britain as overrun with racialized asylum-seekers who are placed in cages on the streets and into a massive detention camp. The film critically pictures the inhumane treatment of and hostility toward large displaced populations. The Roma today are another example of a despised and rightless population who are regarded as an invasive species and not legitimate citizens. Persecuted for centuries, they have been attacked across Europe, where they make up the largest and one of the most oppressed minorities, estimated at a population of ten million to twelve million. Excluded from employment and housing, they are made to live in abysmal and unsanitary conditions while being targeted as scapegoats for the worsening economic crisis and rising unemployment. In Greece, they have been falsely accused of stealing children; in France, where they are forced to live in squalid encampments on the outskirts of Paris, the French interior minister Manuel Valls declared that the Roma were incapable of “integrating” into a civilized society and called for their forcible removal. As the Trotskyist newspaper Workers Vanguard observes, “The truth is that decaying capitalism is incapable of ‘integrating’ the Roma and all the more so in periods of crisis. The French state, including its PCF [French Communist Party] mayors, chases them from one shantytown to another and then uses the pretext that they are not official residents to refuse to enroll the children in school.”32

Neill Blomkamp’s film Elysium (2013), set in 2154, imagines the entire Earth as a squalid encampment for a rightless and rigidly policed population. The wealthy live on a different planet, a luxurious man-made space station called Elysium, with access to private medical machines and instant cures, while everyone else lives on an overpopulated and ruined Earth inundated by poverty and crime. Those on Earth are forcibly kept from emigrating to Elysium. When asked whether the film revealed his view of the future, Blomkamp responded, “No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.’”” In The Already Dead, Eric Cazdyn suggests that as the ideologies of democracy and equality continue to weaken, the existing harsh realities will become even more transparent and a global two-tier system of preemptive medicine will grow even stronger in which only those who can afford to pay for life-saving care will receive it.34 The United States today already has the highest first-day infant mortality death rate among all industrialized countries, with more than double the incidence for black women than white women^5

The fear evoked by zombies of being overwhelmed and consumed by alien others thus suggests the nature of contemporary zombies, who turned cannibalistic as post-World War II deindustrialization accelerated and the globalization of capital created vast unemployed, disfranchised, and migrant populations. These migrants, often disconnected from their families, place, and cultural life and community, are feared, despised, and distrusted by resident populations, who feel increasingly threatened by a similar fate.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics