Sentience Matters: What Is a Zombie — Meat Consumption and the Advent of the Automobile

what is a zombie

What Is a Zombie: Meat Consumption and the Advent

of the Automobile

by Gabriel Gudding

The zombie begins its life in western letters as a post-colonial comment on the history of slavery in the Americas. But it has recently been revived and repurposed both as a worryingly obstructive pedestrian and as, I contend, a parody of the meat-loving human.

History of the Vehicle-Deprived Human as Impoverished and Sexless

Newspaper op-eds in Indiana during the 1920s characterized automobiles as morally threatening to families. They were written about as mobile rooms inside which private touching and pillow talk could be brought into public spaces from houses and barns without sufficient ethical censure. 

The automobile menaced a host of customs about adolescent and post-adolescent touching, pre-marital sexuality, and religion. Adults realized on a broad-scale, maybe for the first time since the advent of horse usage, that they did not want children to move too quickly, or too far, across a landscape. The anxiety expressed in Indiana newspapers around the rise of the automobile centered generally around the sexualization of the public atmosphere and in particular on the increased possibility of rape. A new kind of room, a mobile one, could now escape the orbit of parental censure. By 1930 57% of American households had an automobile.

There were even fears that novel kinds of underwear were being produced for this new modality of privacy. These fears do seem to have been founded: the union suit, a single-piece undergarment and the mainstay of Hanes for decades, gave way for men in the early ‘30s to a two piece arrangement: the singlet and the boxer. The men’s brief was created on January 19 1935 by a guy named Arthur Kneibler, complete with the y-shaped overlapping fly, which I marvel that any man ever uses, I haven’t, and manufactured by Coopers Inc as the “Jockey.”

By the 1930s bloomers gave way to “step-ins,” the forerunner of the modern panty: in 1928 Maidenform began mass-producing brassieres. Thank you, Ida Rosenthal, American, émigré from Russian.

The fear infusing parents maybe went something like this: One could now grope and kiss anywhere, and be discretely unclothed, so long as one was wrapped in an automobile, the top half clothed, bottom naked – hurtling as a demi-nude away from farms, parents, churches, pastors, and obstructive siblings at new and alarming speeds while cupping a breast or fondling a penis, one’s lascivious enjoyment amplified by the novelty of blurry ditches and the roaring of air in retractable windows on otherwise windless days. In sum, the nature of embodiment, and the nature of the out-of-doors, changed markedly with the rise of the automobile.

Consider this embodiment in light of the concurrent advent of the zombie in popular culture: the first pulp novel to make mention of zombies was W. B. Seabrook’s Magic Island of 1929, Seabrook being an American “occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist.” “At this very moment, in the moonlight, there are zombies working on this island.”

There is an uncanny and I think not coincidental correlation between the rise of automobiles and the advent of the portrayal of zombies in popular culture. I mean, you have to ask: how is it that zombies are so thoroughly pedestrian?

They do not bicycle, jog, run, drive, ride, skate, skip; they lumber, stagger, limp, stumble thru flat piazzas, avoiding even inclined pavement until a little wall stops them. They engage in no machinic transfer. We are fascinated with them, I feel, because they somehow underscore the lumbering and dead (indeed the asexual and non-somatic) nature of the non-driver in the automobile’s new ideology of motion. In the context of the automobile’s new motile ideology, the pedestrian is a zombie – a diminished human, past death, incapable of both speed and sex. The human is the only mammal that can be a zombie, Moby-Dick notwithstanding. (Certain ants do have zomboid qualities. The arrythmic gait and absent-minded halting of some crocodilians is reminiscent of a zomboid ataxia.)

The Zombie as a Parody of the Carnivorous Human

 Beyond its vehicle-deprivation and ataxia, the other major characteristic of the zombie is its carnivorous nature.

I contend the zombie is a parody of the meat-loving human, a subaltern and lumbering being so fixated on its appetite as to be uninterested in sex and incapable of dealing with machines, one who eats no greens, no vegetables, no fruit, and is so rapacious for flesh that it devours bloated rats, rotting beavers, and its own lips. The chief characteristic of the zombie is then not that it is a metonym for the cannibal, but that it parodies the human who can’t conceive of a meal that doesn’t have meat in it, the one who, when you sit down at the table with a plate of kale, avocado, and quinoa, asks snidely, “Where’s your food?” This dimension of the zombie is not about death, Halloween, graveyards, and shotguns: it is the carnist human allegorically facing the ethical and ecological realities of its own apocalyptic appetite.

“Apocalyptic” in two senses. First, that greenhouse emissions are now driving the sixth mass extinction of species in the natural record, and that animal agriculture is the single greatest source of greenhouse emissions. And, second, that animal farming (both factory farming and supposedly small-impact locavore farms) is the root cause of global malnutrition among human animals, such that the United Nations has called for a switch to a vegan diet.

Something in us knows that just as animal farming is driving tens of thousands of species into extinction, we’re also eating ourselves into a state of global malnutrition. The allegory of the zombie suggests that something in us can see our own blindness about meat, and that the appetite for it is grotesque and threatening to all of us.

About Gabriel Gudding

Gabriel Gudding is the author of the books Literature for Nonhumans (Ahsahta Press, forthcoming 2015), Rhode Island Notebook (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) and A Defense of Poetry (Pitt, 2002). His essays and poems appear in such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Journal of the History of Ideas, in such anthologies as Great American Prose Poems, Best American Poetry, and &Now: Best Innovative Writing. His translations from Spanish appear in anthologies such as The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, Poems for the Millennium, and The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry. His most recent chapbook is Literature for Nonhumans (New Orleans Review, 2014). He is an Associate Professor in the English Studies Department at Illinois State University.
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