Zombie Walking and Public Space on Wall Street
In October, 2011 the undead descended on Wall Street, a visually arresting column of ashen-faced “corporate zombies” shuffling about in expensive blood-soaked suits and clutching fistfuls of money. Rather than consume the flesh of their sentient neighbors, these Occupy Wall Street performance artists aspired to illuminate corporate greed by invoking the specter of zombies in a single-minded consumption of others’ financial autonomy. A group of zombies also met in Las Vegas at the offices of banks leading in foreclosures, with similar protests in Seattle and Los Angeles as well as internationally from British Columbia to Brazil.
The zombie lumbers into the early 21st century as one of popular culture’s most pervasive symbols of anxiety, evoking apprehensions over everything from consumption to foodways to race and racism. “Zombie walks” materialize many of our most consequential social anxieties, but they do so in the counter-intuitively mundane form of walking, the most commonplace of all everyday activities. Sarah Juliet Lauro has recognized how zombie walks aspire to collectively disrupt the false unity of everyday life framed by capitalist and consumer ideologies. She is circumspect about their concrete effects, but she suggests that the collective of mass zombies—empty, directionless, yet driven—provides an interesting insurrection model for public youth politics in the early 21st century: it takes aim on the streets and public spaces of capitalism even as it situates that critique in the form of performance that may strike various observers as ironic, funny, destabilizing, or superficial.
It may be that the spectacle of zombie walks risks being reduced to its own glib event beholden to commercial interests (e.g., many zombie walks have registration and participant fees for the willing undead). Indeed, many zombie walks have become public entertainment or simply costume events, and many if not most are inseparable from any “flash mobs” that are commodified leisure events. Once viewed as symbolic re-appropriations of public spaces colonized by dominant advertising or shopping functions, many businesses now have even hired their own flash mobs (compare Rebecca Walker’s dissertation on flash mobs).
Perhaps zombie walks sometimes are shallow costume shows or predictable performances, but ideologues’ efforts to dismiss zombie walks and social protest in public space suggest that they retain some genuine power: domination always attempts to conceal itself, and in turn it always seeks to dismiss critical thought in the name of “common sense.” There is a prescient politics to elevating zombies—the trancelike shells of the living—in an activism of everyday life that focuses on walking—the most commonplace of all everyday life rhythms.
In the early 21st century one central dimension of the zombie metaphor is that it captures our apprehensions over the mass marketplace’s construction of the masses as disposable and anonymous, no different than zombies. Henry Giroux, for instance, suggests that the Wall Street zombie captures a free market corporate capitalism that has no ethics or commitment to the common good. From positions of power on Wall Street and Washington, a “hyper-dead” zombie elite single-mindedly consume the disposable masses with no compassion for the everyday plight wreaked on society. Gerry Canavan cleverly turns this zombie metaphor on its head when he suggests that the real zombies in contemporary social space may be the living and not the “undead” national elite on Wall Street: that is, where zombie capitalists have no agency and act out of single-minded desperation, the living retain reason and compassion, but the survivors in The Walking Dead and zombie movies routinely behave callously and cruelly when confronted with the undead.
The other dimension of zombie fascination revolves around the zombie’s anarchic insurgency, the revolutionary embrace of desire reflected in the literal mass movement of zombies in search of brains. Much of the Occupy Wall Street theory borrows from threads of anarchism that David Graeber calls “a democracy without a government,” so the metaphor of the zombies’ anarchic if not democratic collective is an interesting if inelegant parallel. The attraction to something dubbed “anarchy” has appeal across the political spectrum, as conservatives and liberals alike have reacted against the state’s real or perceived control of their lives. On the right, citizens wary of the state and diversity have retreated into a blogsphere and media free of critical thinking or literally abandoned public space, fleeing to home schools or into their basements prepping for doomsday; on the left, the Occupy Movement itself circumspectly views the state, seeking an unfettered experience by dismantling the broad governmental and marketing roots of 21st century zombie capitalism.
Walking itself has often been the focus of everyday life scholars. Walking resides in a mostly unexamined consciousness that is reduced to a non-productive activity traversing the spaces and time between social consequence and production itself. Michel de Certeau referred to walking as one of many “tactics” that unfold in space and time without significant intervention from domination. The cityscape is a product of power that encourages passivity, what de Certeau refers to as “places,” but de Certeau was interested in how people creatively evade discipline and redefine places. Tactics are perpetual sources of disruption to power that have no avowed goals and instead opportunistically toy with normative expectations. Walking is an utterly tactical experience that resists normative control: At various moments we feel ground surfaces through our soles, breathe in the mixed odors of cityscapes, steel ourselves against rain, wind, or chill, wander misplaced in space, or gander above the first floor façade.
Zombie walks and impromptu encampments aspire to capture our imagination of public space more than they intend to colonize Zuccotti Park. This activism in space aspires to create consciousness that will lead to concrete structural activism, but popular observers constantly complain that Occupy has no concrete goals, which is an inelegant journalistic smokescreen that fails to recognize political efficacy with anything except strategic politics. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent captured this in October 2011 when he argued that by “painting the movement as scary and radical, critics hope to bring about a cultural reaction against it by focusing attention on its radical aura, its radical-seeming optics and tactics, rather than on what it actually stands for” (italics in original).
Nevertheless, the mechanisms of performance activism—which poaches on the fissures in domination and the politicization of surprise–break from the stereotype of goal-oriented political action. Much of the Occupy movement has unfolded in spatial protests beyond the idealized community that was planted in Zuccotti Park, instead reaching onto Brooklyn Bridge (where 700 people were arrested in October 2011) and at the New York Stock Exchange, where 185 were arrested in a September 2012 protest as Occupy members attempted to create a “human chain” around the building. The tactical politics of performance without especially clear goals or hierarchical organization wears thin on some left-wing allies. For instance, Ted Rall argued for strategic activism, complaining that “For me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, failure was a foregone conclusion. … Don’t just occupy Wall Street. Occupy Main Street. Get ordinary people interested and involved. After all, college kid, it’s not just your struggle.”
Rall launched a petty dismissal of the material aesthetics of the Occupiers, but it actually reveals some demographic complexities (and media misperceptions) when he complains that “A few hundred demonstrators, dominated by the scruffy white twentysomething college grads known as `hipsters,’ wound up at Zuccotti Park, whose private owners granted them permission to camp there. There they remain, noshing on donated pizza, talking, hanging out, hoping to replicate the magic of Cairo’s Tahrir Square while remaining committed to `absolute nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition.’ … Also, lose the clown clothes. It’s not the early 1960s; you don’t have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did. But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it’s Casual Friday?” One activist critical of zombie walks complained in a similar vein, “Remember when the civil rights protesters dressed up in stupid costumes? Neither do I.” Despite such self-righteousness, it is indeed interesting that Occupy risks appearing socially monolithic, and that may well be one of the reasons that Occupiers took to the streets as zombies: Zombies represent everybody from society, rich and poor, Black and White, yet un-dead we are all leveled.
Some archaeological research on the materiality of the Occupy movement is being done in New York, which promises a fine-grained look at Occupy camps. The material details of these camps will inevitably complicate caricatures of these camps as the province of hipster freeloaders eating organic food or selfless liberals bonding with the working masses. An analysis of the material details of camp spaces, material detritus, dress, public performance activism, and ethnography will provide a nuanced picture of Occupy Wall Street.
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Brazilian Zombie Walk image courtesy Grmisiti
Paris Zombie Walk image courtesy mamasuco +++ joyeux Noel a tous
Paris Zombie Walk musicians image courtesy philippe leroyer
Porto Alegre Zombie Walk image courtesy rodolpho.reis
Wall Street Killed Me image courtesy e_monk
Warsaw Zombie Walk image courtesy aeviin