Zombies Reimagined seminar class, 2017
Zombies Reimagined is the brainchild of Languages of Fear, Racism, and Zombies, a linguistics seminar led by Prof. Jamie A. Thomas at Swarthmore College. The Fall 2016 seminar was conceived in response to the growing popularity of zombie media, and the lacunae of language- and discourse-specific analyses of the genre.
As the final collaborative project for the seminar course, this online exhibit offers our humanistic spin on why the ambulatory undead are of critical importance. We also intend this digital humanities project to encourage others to productively view the zombie through the intersecting lenses of race, gender, sexuality, and politics. In this way, we invite you to join us and others in the field of zombie studies in (re)imagining the symbolic and material import of the zombie.
The Freshman Seminar: From Uncivilized Wild Men to the Undead of Today
If you’re familiar with the television series The Walking Dead or movies Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead, you’re used to seeing the zombie portrayed as an outlier to ‘civilization’ and a harbinger of disorder, chaos, and anti-humanity. But where do these ideas come from? How are these ideas communicated and to what end? How do we define ‘human’?
We began the course with an examination of the Wild Man, a European Renaissance concept of the uncivilized being, to uncover how Western discourses of difference continue to pervade our reality…and even reality TV. Whereas the Wild Man of the 14th through mid-17th centuries was an unkempt beast thought to live in the forest with no capacity for learning or language, today’s wild men are also portrayed in the outdoors. These are the Bear Grylls and Swamp People of reality TV who desire an escape from the busy demands and decorum of an urban lifestyle. But do they count as uncivilized?
In our seminar, we took the time to examine the popular television series Man vs. Wild, and ways in which our notions of ‘uncivilized’ and ‘primitive’ have shifted, along with our historical understanding of what counts as human. We came to the realization that the ability to name a person or group as ‘uncivilized’ fundamentally derives from an empowered position. To pay particular attention to power relations manifest in visual and discursive texts on civilization, humanity, and zombies, we took up Critical Discourse Analysis, a key method in use by linguists and others.
Accordingly, our seminar took note of the ways Western tradition has used discursive means to justify its civilizing mission and exploitation of nations and cultures around the world. This is particularly the case with colonial linguistics, a key phase in the development of linguistics as a field of study in the 18th and 19th centuries. Concurrent with Hegelian philosophy, the development of anthropology, and the advent of Darwin’s new ideas on evolution, it was during this time when European scholars used biblical and racialized philosophies to explain their flawed characterization and analyses of non-European languages across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. We see evidence of this in Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899).
It is also around this time of colonial linguistics–the early 19th century–that the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set. As part of our course, we attended a screening of this 2016 film (see picture above). Afterwards, we put together our own language-focused movie reviews here. In our critiques, we take notice of the way the film’s opening sequence casually describes the zombie contagion as ‘coming from the colonies.’ It is clear that the film’s creators are intentionally linking the zombie to the Othering of non-Europeans of the Global South as diseased and undesirable, as was common (however mistaken) throughout the colonial period. However, for today’s audiences this link is helping to newly imagine the undead not only as a scourge of death and destruction, but also a racialized threat. Above all, it is the almost normal and reasonable way this sounds in the film that is the most problematic. Some 200 years ago, the normalized nature of radicalized rhetoric was used to justify phrenology as a legitimate science connecting brain size with supposed mental and behavioral traits. We visited the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection at the Penn Museum to learn about how discourses of phrenology and scientific racism are also an indelible aspect of Philadelphia’s local history.
As the course continued, we explored the zombie concept further, especially in its beginnings in Haitian culture and link to experiences of colonialism and enslavement. Through a viewing and analysis of X-Files episode ‘Fresh Bones’ (1995), we learned how the Haitian zonbi captures key elements of African culture(s) and orientations to death, life, and the afterlife that greatly contrast with U.S. and Christian ontologies.
Examining the Western zombie as yet another script of control on the body, and consequentially, language, we finally reviewed the life story of Henrietta Lacks, and her immortal HeLa cells that were taken from her body without her consent in a 1940s segregated U.S. hospital. In many ways, the experience of Henrietta Lacks parallels our greatest fears, when it comes to dystopic imaginings of our collective future. What truly scares us about the zombie is its utter loss of humanity, characterized by an inability to speak, think, feel, or resist cannibalizing our own family and friends. Even as Henrietta Lacks and her family have experienced a dehumanizing erasure of their bodily autonomy and voice, her HeLa cells live on, unable to be stopped or reclaimed by her progeny.
As a result of this course, we now understand the zombie to be wrapped up in notions of Otherness, primitivity, isolation, and enslavement, all of which relate to the daily experiences of marginalized peoples in the U.S. and beyond. Together, we view the zombie as a gateway to exploring ideologies of control as they relate to language use and the body, legacies of colonial linguistics, and our ongoing imaginings of the future roles religion, medicine, and science in shaping our lives.
Please contact ude.eromhtraws@6samohtj for more information about this online exhibit.
- Dr. Jamie A. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College. Her forthcoming ethnography Zombies Speak Swahili is all about the undead, videogames, and why language matters. She teaches sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and applied linguistics with attention to spoken discourse and visual and textual semiotics.
- Erick Gutierrez Prado ‘19 is a junior at Swarthmore College who enjoys politics, linguistics, and speculating about historical what-ifs.
- Melanie Kleid ‘19 is a junior at Swarthmore College who enjoys writing, making music, and learning about language and culture, particularly as they relate to multi-racial identity.
- Shaoni White ‘21 is a freshman at Swarthmore College. She spends her free time writing, reading and drawing, and hopes to study English, linguistics, and computer science.
- Elena Do ‘20 is a freshman at Swarthmore College. Her intended major is neuroscience but interests also lie in bioethics, chemistry, and dance.
- Leilani Garcia ‘20 is a Swarthmore College freshman from Portland, Oregon interested in Psychology and Art History.
- Yash Kewalramani
- Gabrielle (Rose) Kolinsky is a first year student at Swarthmore College from Walden, New York. She intends to double major in Computer Science and Psychology.
- Cindy Li ‘20 is a freshman at Swarthmore College interested in Computer Science and Educational Studies. Originally from New York, she loves dancing and hopes to one day become a teacher.
- Richard Mobley ‘20 is a first-year student at Swarthmore College interested in pursuing English Literature and Psychology. He is a photographer using his prowess to capture pretty pictures of birds for the Bird Club.
- Alejandra Sandoval ‘20 is a freshman at Swarthmore College from Gadsden, Arizona. She is interested in double majoring in Psychology and Spanish and enjoys reading and watching How to Get Away with Murder.
- Kendre Thomas
- Eojin (Jin) Choi ‘19 is a first-year student at Swarthmore College. She loves to travel, and some of her favorite places include Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Myanmar.
- Shuang Guan ‘19 is a first year at Swarthmore College, studying Math, Linguistics, and Chinese literature. She’s involved in Swarthmore Asian Organization and the Dare2Soar tutoring program. Shuang used to get really squeamish about zombies or scary movies. She still does, but this class has helped her lessen the squeamishness and find a larger meaning beyond the gore.
- Alexander Jin ‘19 is a freshman at Swarthmore College who is going to major in history and is also academically interested in philosophy, sociology and political science. Outside of class, he is a Student Academic Mentor, a Tour Guide, and loves throwing pieces of plastic in the air (Ultimate Frisbee).
- Tiauna Lewis ‘19 is a first year at Swarthmore College specializing in Arabic, French, and Black Studies. She is a slam poet and member of Swarthmore’s internationally recognized competitive slam team. Tiauna is involved in the African American Student Student Society, gospel choir, and OASIS, the spoken word collective. She is a horror movie enthusiast and has never met a dog she didn’t like.
- Romeo Luevano ‘19 is a student at Swarthmore College. He’s originally from Artesia, New Mexico. Romeo is currently studying Anthropology & Peace and Conflict Studies. He loves spending free time listening to music, playing video games, and eating really good food!
- Faye Ma ‘19 was born and raised in Shanghai, China. She’s now studying religion, music and anthropology at Swarthmore College and hoping to be an ethnomusicologist. Faye usually spends her spare time playing erhu, piano or cello, searching for good music, or reading novels.
- Gretchen Trupp ‘18 is a sophomore majoring in Languages and Linguistics at Swarthmore College, specializing in Chinese and Japanese. They are a board member of the Swarthmore Queer Union and are a part of the Title IX Student Liaison Board.
Special thanks to Nabil Kashyap, Roberto Vargas and Stephen Jaoudi of Swarthmore College Libraries