Neoliberal Breakdowns: the Biopolitics of the Monstrous

By Katharina Donn

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” suggested George Santayana in 1905. A century of cyclically returning violence later, it is time to re-phrase this question: what if those who cannot imagine the future are condemned to repeat the past?

Like “bedraggled drones”, the after-work crowd is gathering to sip cocktails and size up each other’s misery before the bouncers with their velvet ropes divide the survivors of the neoliberal rat race from those too-far-gone. Yet, in this inconspicuous scene from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, reality is already trembling, ready to disintegrate. Still wearing their glittery dresses, these office workers will soon roam the town in bands of zombies, infected by a plague that will tempt them to switch drinks and nibbles for the raw flesh and bones of the survivors. Pouncing on prey, it turns out, is not for online marketers only.

The figure of the zombie exposes the challenges of future-oriented thinking today. Responsive to Ihab Hassan’s 1977 caution that “the human form – including human desire and all its external representations – may be changing radically” (Hassan 212), zombification is symptomatic of the challenges involved in current posthuman reconfigurations. It certainly subverts the creation of transhuman subjects which transcend the human body to achieve the “maximum attainable capacities by any current human being” as promised by Nick Bostrum of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. The zombies’ ferocious corporeality embodies the backlash against such “optimization” in the interest of enhancing the body’s “usefulness and its docility” (Foucault 139). The zombie, therefore, is a biopolitical figuration of the posthuman that is geared towards the monstrous rather than the sheen of newly engineered bodies. Its talent for revealing that humans are made of the same organic, bodily tissue as any other body, be it alive or dead, predator or prey, pulls out the ground from beneath the myth of bounded subjecthood. This is why Whitehead uses the zombie to imagine life “beyond the self” (Braidotti 13) when what he calls the “American checklist” (Whitehead 9), setting out your path to success from kindergarten to college, has collapsed. This ‘checklist’, after all, has already set humanity at the brink of collapse. Its individualist promise of personalised fulfilment can hardly hide its normative expectations; the bouncers in Whitehead’s pre-breakdown Manhattan who divide the crowd are particularly adept at sniffing out the whiff of success or failure in this rat race. Returning as zombies, the discarded bite back. Originally linked to slave rebellions, the zombie is a figure with a history of such boomerang effects. Returning in the twenty-first century as a waste product of a system that thrives on what Schmeink calls “living ‘right’ and calculating risk” (213), Whitehead uses it to project the flip side of neoliberal fantasies of biopolitical perfection.

Whitehead locates these questions in a land where bands of predatory skeletons roam and survivors barricade themselves in trees and toy stores. Mark Spitz is one of the survivors, or, to be more precise, one of those who remain whilst also retaining their traditional human form. After years on the road he is dispatched as part of a specialised, though notoriously underequipped, sweeper unit to clean out the tip of Manhattan and boost morale in the young ‘phoenix’ state. Cleaning here is to be understood as a euphemism: dragging body bags split along the seams, their shifts involve close combat with starving zombies and automatic weapons, a micro-warfare set in the ruins of corporate downtown New York.

Lacking individuality, the zombie undermines notions of the discrete, bounded self. This is why corporate settings – spaces of uniformity symbolizing phallic mastery – lend themselves so obviously to zombie meltdowns. Due to the understanding of these monotonous and depersonalised corporate spaces as expressions of reason, order, and progress it is possible to read the zombie in this context as representative of failed futurities in a present that is only an “endless prolepsis of ruin” (Rutherford, 9). There is a reason why Colson Whitehead has his crew chase zombies in Human Resources departments, “the place where human beings were paraphrased into numbers, components of bundled data to be shot out through fibre-optic cable toward meaning” (Whitehead 17). As Steven Shaviro writes, zombies are “a nearly perfect allegory for the inner logic of capitalism” (8). If zombies have one asset, it is that they are independent, competitive, single-minded and driven – just what makes the ideal employee in a free labor market. In this configuration, the zombie embodies a form of the posthuman that fully embraces the competitive and performance-oriented ideals of late capitalism.

Photo by Pxhere “Business Suits” used under CC BY 2.0 License

As liminal creatures, prowling the borderline between the modes of existence that we consider human, zombies expose humanity’s bodily and psychological exploitability through the sheen of digitised appearances. Whitehead’s protagonist, Mark Spitz, had worked as an online marketer prior to the zombie breakdown, targeting potential consumers under the guise of social media friendships. Poised like a “binary vulture, ancient pixilated eyes peeled for scraps,” it was his job to create “that human touch”, a sense of “soul”, (Whitehead 150f) in a simulacrum of human contact skilfully constructed to broaden the customer base. The zombie, however, cannot be controlled. Whitehead exploits this when he satirises the futility of the survivor’s attempts to stem the flow of zombie hordes, as they build a wall already swarming with the zombie’s breakthroughs. As the zombies seek to infect their hunters, nearly succeeding in biting Mark Spitz when he tries to eliminate them in their lawyer’s office hideout, their darkly parodic impact also testifies to a lingering sense of resistance. Interestingly, this resistance is also linked to the zombie’s talent for revealing that humans are made of the same organic, bodily tissue as other animals, exposing connectivities beyond the human that are key for the future-oriented impact of these blood-splattering creatures.

The zombie, therefore, offers a potent critique of the current socio-economic order of the West. “The dead came to scrub the Earth of Capitalism” (124), as Whitehead remarks, linking his zombies to a tendency in criticism to read these undead as symptoms of the “flattening of affect and the quenching of spirit and creativity” (Dendle, 6) that is produced by “overconsumption, media use, or political conformism” (Schmeink, 213). The zombie’s resistance, however, has another dimension. Its more fundamental and more complex force is anchored in its fierce corporeality, making the zombie a biopolitical challenge. Modern biopower, understood through Foucault, has moved beyond the dictum of “killing or letting live”, (143) and now seeks more subtle means to either foster life, or to disallow it in mechanisms to “qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize” (144) life. Whitehead’s zombies satirise such disciplining mechanisms. Their skeletal bodies still carry remnants of their former selves’ attempts to streamline their bodies according to images of perfection. TV-series inspired hairstyles and glossy officewear symbolise their quest to fit the norms of a corporeality suited to the demands of efficiency. The zombie virus, however, reveals the darker side to this biopower. Though epidemics are a core concern of such biopolitics, this one proves impossible to micromanage or control. Such faultlines are, however, inscribed into the biopolitical project. Indeed, when Foucault defines the power which optimises, controls and monitors life as biopolitical in The History of Sexuality (137), he notes that such control is legitimated by positing that the individual’s continued existence is at threat. For Foucault, biopower therefore always has a flip side. The violent reality of Foucault’s paradox, “massacres have become vital”, (Foucault, sexuality, 137) equates survival with competition and mutual exclusion, as life is either fostered and micromanaged in minute detail, or disallowed to the point of death. In the zombie figure, the disallowed return with a vengeance, engulfing those destined for survival in the mangled bodies of the zombie apocalypse. As a consequence, the zombie boils such intricate power patterns down to efforts of keeping the last boundary, that between human and non-human, intact. “I do not resemble that animal, you tell yourself” Mark’s officer tells him, “as you squat in the back of the convenience store, pissing in a bucket and cooking up mangy squirrel for dinner” (Whitehead 158). Read in terms of biopolitics, the zombie indicates that the inadvertent endpoint of micro-managed bodies, paradoxically, is a descent into the zombie’s pure drive to infect others and make them like yourself, the streamlining of neoliberal body politics taken to its violent finale.

Photo by Dan Sakamoto “Cyborg” used under CC BY 2.0 License

This biopolitical perspective exposes the zombie not as a dystopian foil to the digitised humanity of Mark Spitz’s social media alter egos, but – quite the opposite – as its inevitable telos. This is due to the ways in which neoliberal biopower has replaced the power to decide over life and death, with more subtle but pervasive mechanism of “continuous control” (Deleuze, 5). The biopolitics of neoliberalism does not rely on strategies of ringfencing as typical of Foucauldian disciplinarian societies, with their hospitals and prisons. It instead relies on politicised forms of knowledge such as statistics, demographics, epidemiology, or public health to ensure the regulation of individual bodies.

Ultimately, the aim of neoliberal biopolitics, namely perfected, efficient and docile bodies, relies on the Cartesian dualism between mind and body. Like ideas of transhuman transcendence -promising maximum attainable capacities by any current human being – neoliberal biocontrol is entranced by visions not far removed from Hans Moravec’s image of a transhuman transition:

The robot surgeon delves into your brain, layer by layer, uploading your neural signals onto a hard drive. When the excavation is complete, it leaves only an empty skull shell. Your mind has been successfully transferred from body to machine, leaving your body to die. You open your eyes. You are now inhabiting a new body, carefully tailored to your preferences, which you chose and which had been waiting next to your now discarded tissue. You have metamorphosed into a cyborg, a man-machine hybrid (Moravec, 109f).

The perfected, portable mind is also a disembodied mind, offering nothing new conceptually besides tipping a precarious ethical scale irrevocably towards the creation of “manageable subjects” (Crary, 2). Yet treating the body as a mere “prosthesis”, as Katherine Hayles has argued, (3) privileges informational patterns over their material instantiation. Such disembodiment is reflected in the band of ravenous zombies Mark Spitz encounters who had formerly worked in HR departments, “where human beings were paraphrased into numbers, components of bundled data to be shot out through fibre-optic cable toward meaning.” (Whitehead 17) This kind of disembodiment regulates the human body by tailoring and honing its life to fit the requirements of a machine, an endeavour which defines current biopolitics. “[I]ts disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility” (Foucault, 139) paradoxically de-humanises its subjects in the quest for ultimate control, a doublebind which the zombie exposes.

The zombie shifts our focus from the newly engineered body to the remains left on the operating table. Both discarded body and cyborg are results of the operation, as the bodily shell remains an inevitable by-product of such disembodiment. This is how the zombie personifies both the telos and garbage of a system that thrives on ultimate calculability. In the zombie, the refuse bites back. Thus, when it comes to imagining the future, the idea of the posthuman as ‘perfected human’ also paradoxically entails the zombie apocalypse.

This double-sidedness of neoliberal, transhuman body politics, encompassing survival and death in one gesture, is deeply engrained in the notion of biopower per se. Understood in Foucauldian terms, the power which optimises, controls and monitors life legitimates its reach by positing that the individual’s continued existence is under threat (Foucault, 137). Within this framework, the flip side of survival is genocide and warfare, or – to reach beyond Foucault’s 20th century focus – the death of migrants in the seas of the Mediterranean and at borders erected through the American continents. The violent reality of Foucault’s paradox, “massacres have become vital”, (Foucault, 137) equates survival with competition and mutual exclusion. Life is either fostered and micromanaged in minute detail or disallowed to the point of death. Under the logic of biopower, some lives are deemed less “grievable” (Butler 2009). “Mustn’t humanize them” (158) is thus the mantra of the lieutenant in charge of the zombie hunt in Whitehead’s text. Only by disavowing that all zombies stem from the darkness within, having metamorphosed and grown from within human communities and families, can the shooter’s logic and its unquestionable power of distinction be upheld. Zombies, therefore, are at the limits of Foucault’s biopolitics as they are not human but still carry a trace of the human within. Yet they equally undermine any notion of “becoming-animal” in a Deleuzian sense, as their singled-minded desire to infect others to create a homogenous mass runs counter to the ethics of relation such a becoming-animal would imply. Zombies certainly involve a “pack” (Deleuze and Guattari, 239), but impede, rather than encourage, any idea of ‘becoming’ in its generative sense. Their whole being geared towards survival alone, zombies take biopower to its tipping point from encouraging life towards producing the conditions of death.

Photo by Mengelkemper “Man Assembly” used under CC BY 2.0 License

Deep within the violent silence of the zombie, however, lie the seeds for a notion of the human liberated from the Western self with its thirst for mastery. A counterpoint to the enlightenment ideal of a bounded self with the power of free will and the ability to make choices, the zombie signals the end of Man as the measure of all things. Considering the latter’s talent for self-destruction, this image of the future points to potentially greater opportunities, even if the zombie figure only gestures towards these in a deeply ironic mode. For Whitehead’s zombies, this path from breakdown to breakthrough is shot through with bloody irony, as the freedom implied in this is of a nihilistic kind. “Fuck it. You have to learn how to swim sometime” are Spitz’s last words, as he makes the choice to throw himself into the zombie crowds. Yet it is perhaps telling that, despite their focus on affirmation and emergence, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s body without organs can be found in the death-bound zombie figure, subverting and re-defining it from the inside out.

Both the zombie and the body without organs emerge from figurations of pain (Deleuze and Guattari refer to the sadomasochist intensities of pain to introduce this concept). The body without organs is “nothing more than a set of valves, locks, floodgates, bowls, or communication vessels” (153), unformed and non-stratified. Like the zombie, the body without organs re-imagines the human body as a field of waves, vibrations, migrations and thresholds – a “zone of intensity” (156) and the absolute opposite to Moravec’s disembodied, portable mind and transhuman desires for perfection. If imagining the future without repeating the past means re-imaging human life per se, shifting the focus from bio-power imposed from above, to the body-without organs’ participation in life or bios itself seems a promising step. While it is undeniable that its unhaltable death drive makes the zombie seem out of sync with the ethically affirmative connotations of bios, the zombie is certainly such a creature of forcefields, instincts and intensities. Without language, and driven solely by the desire to bite, zombies are defined by the collective force of their hunt to which all rationality succumbs. The zombie and the body-without-organs are therefore the opposed sides of the same coin. Both figures seek out the beastliness within the human at the point when the underside of culture, “blood, torture, death, and terror” (Jameson, 20) surfaces without recall. Though the body without organs screams out at the idea of being a unitary organism, “They’ve wrongfully folded me!” (Deleuze and Guattari, 159), it does so not because it disdains corporeal being. What it fears, not unlike the zombies raging to escape the confines of the HR office, is being a subject, “nailed down” (159).

Photo by Kilworth Simmonds “Zombie” used under CC BY 2.0 License

In Whitehead’s Zone One, the zombie emerges as a multi-dimensional creature which challenges the presumptions of biopower and exposes the normative limitations of the alleged individualism in current neoliberal societies. Above all, perhaps, it diagnoses a failure of the imagination. The zombie breaks open a space beyond the one-way-street of the neoliberal transhuman, a tabula rasa to be re-coded and re-inhabited in order to create more ethically viable posthuman lives. The zombie apocalypse is the step onto the dark plank before taking the plunge, away from the logic of the neoliberal and toward the unknown. The human protagonists at the center of the novel, however, are not only powerless against the force of the zombie masses. Like the zombies they seem to have lost their ability to shape alternative futures even conceptually. Even when realizing that the “world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place” (320), no one can think of better plans that have characterised human attempts of control – and their failures – for centuries; they build walls and eliminate the other. The tragedy of Whitehead’s vision, therefore, is not the violence of the zombie, or even the world lost to the virus. It is the sense of being stuck in the Foucauldian doublebind that posits genocide or survival as the only two viable options in a stark vision of a present without a future.


Katharina Donn, “Neoliberal Breakdowns: the Biopolitics of the Monstrous”. Alluvium, 7.4 (2019): n. pag. Web. 22nd August 2019. DOI:

About the author

Dr. Katharina Donn is a teacher, lecturer and author in 20th century and contemporary literature. Her monograph A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11(Routledge, 2016) explores the entanglement of intimate vulnerability and virtual spectacle that is typical of the globalised present. Her current book project, The Politics of Literature in a Divided 21st Century (Routledge, forthcoming 2020) develops an ecocritical vision of political aesthetics. Katharina teaches at the Universität Augsburg in Germany and the University of Texas at Austin in the US, and has held research fellowships at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She has also explored questions of embodiment and precariousness in collaboration with performative artists, and has guest-edited the blogs “U.S. Studies Online: Forum for New Writing” and “Litro: Literary Magazine.”


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