Protests are marked by the waves of sound they produce- the ebb and flow of chants and the percussive energy of the crowd’s movement. Amid all the noise, it is quite often not the upsurge in volume, but the rare silences, that inflect the tone of the protest. These moments appear to present an enigma. Amidst the anticipation of each party, whose turn is it to take the stage? At a moment during the “Welcome to Hell” demonstration in Hamburg on the 6th of July, the day before the start of the G20 Summit, a seemingly drunk man, a bystander, throws a bottle at the line of policemen.
The silence descends. Then, after a moment’s deliberation, the policemen storm the opposing crowds of protesters, in a flurry of jostling and batons recorded and posted well across social media. The more aggressive elements among the protesters attempt to push back, but after a while it is clear this is an excessively one-sided affair. Bewildered figures who came only to hold up a sign are thrown against railings, and everywhere people are fleeing. This struggle is unbalanced, a prelude to the police brutality that would spread across the weekend. Yet the preceding silence was never neutral.
Media battles are fought over the innocence of such moments. Implicit in positing that the police, or the protesters, did the right thing, is the claim that they acted not out of aggression, but because they were provoked, made indignant or alarmed. The PR victory, so to speak, seems to hinge on the success of this claim. But such innocence is a mere illusion. The stage was already set. The first stone was always already thrown.
Likewise, many residents of Hamburg expressed their anger firstly against the transnational apparatus that spreads itself across their city, turning its central district, renowned for its usual energy, and surrounding areas into a virtual ghost town. They then turned their anger towards the violent groups of Black Bloc protesters, who burnt cars, upended stores and left long trails of rubbish and graffiti. While the victimisation of the city’s inhabitants is a compelling narrative, it conceals the fact that Hamburg, like many other global cities, is already a playground for the rich, and the locals are already losing out through gentrification and rising rents, phenomena which occasionally produce such ugly outbursts.
The backdrop to such events is rarely the normal state of affairs that such narratives imply. Rather, they are flashpoints of a world that is already in crisis, which give us a unique perspective on the gradual transformations of the social fabric in response to broader economic and geopolitical changes. Against this often traumatic reality, these narratives and illusions serve to mediate its effect on our everyday experience. If the former pervade the media response to such events, then they also pervade the medium of film, where they are interwoven within much a broader cultural mythology.
On the 5th of July, a collective of artists and activists called 1000 Gestalten (German for moulds) brought together as many people for a startling instance of performative protest. This crowd had painted itself in a powdery coat of silver and dispersed itself through many streets of Hamburg. A video shows them moving slowly, with lethargy and resignation, almost entirely stripped of their humanity. This kind of movement is familiar to most onlookers. What they lack is not energy but life itself. They are zombies.
As the myth unfolds, it becomes clear that this is not only an aesthetic, but also a political prelude to the events of the following days. A figure among the crowd stops, his limbs contorting inwards in a semblance of frustration or remorse, and then springs upwards as he lets off a shout. He looks around, and in his bewilderment disturbs the lifeless silver coating he wears. It falls off to reveal a colourful shirt and an awakened being. He turns to the others, and one by one they wake. The message is clear- political apathy leads to the wearing away of life itself, the life of the collective. We must wake up to the events taking place around the world and take action.
Can anyone today really claim that the scenes of carnivalesque rioting and policing-by-numbers spread across the following days were entirely unfamiliar to them, given that our screens are awash with images of destruction and apocalypse? The video of the 1000 Gestalten action went immediately viral, not only because it was one of the few actions unencumbered by angry residents and clashes with police, but because it tapped into the cultural unconscious in the same vein that zombie films more broadly have done. Moreover, it suggests that, if myths and narratives conceal aspects of the truth, they also reveal much about the moral and ideological universe we inhabit.
The myth of the zombie constitutes one of our most prevalent genres of apocalyptic cinema, and has developed throughout several historical stages of modern turmoil. It finds its origins in early-20th century Haiti, where, under US occupation, locals were forced to toil hard hours building roads and other infrastructure. The brutalisation of the workers into human automatons found its analogue in voodoo beliefs in the reanimation of the body. Over subsequent decades, the zombie myth accumulated a range of social anxieties in its appearances across television, cinema and literature.
George A. Romero, who passed away this week, singularly drew out its significance through films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), which saw the debut of zombies in their modern cinematic form. He once said that ‘Zombies are the real lower-class citizens of the monster world and that’s why I like them’. This observation recalls the myth’s origins and suggests that this genre of horror found resonance as a diagnosis of civilisation’s inability to account for the poor, forgotten masses, and the guilt and anxiety that results from this failure.
However, since entering the mainstream, zombie horror has followed the path of other mass-produced commodities. Much of the genre’s early level of critique has been pawned off for the entertainment value of the zombie trope. As such, it has additionally come to signify a range of apocalyptic visions, including eugenicist and survivalist fantasies. Add to that a range of commercial uses such as real-life games incorporating laboured zombie narratives, and it is clear that zombies are big money.
In any case, alongside the heterogeneous and ambivalent uses of the trope sit the persistent formal traits of the zombie, as an undead entity forever craving vivid flesh to convert into its own decrepit state. This makes it clear that it is not presently an empty signifier, but a contested signifier. From the present state of zombie media, it is unclear what is at stake, although it appears to sit deeper than an allegory of the working class. Yet this question has been well theorised by the left. Some have drawn insights of Adorno’s analysis of the figure of the Muselmann in Nazi concentration camps, which provides a historical account of the significance of the undead.
As Gary Mullen writes, ‘in the almost lifeless bodies of those in the camps, Adorno sees the torsion between instrumental reason and the human vulnerability that identity thinking excludes from its concept of the human.’ If the vulnerability that embodies the needs and desires all humans possess has no useful expression in a dominant social order guided by instrumental reason, then it can only appear as an excremental remainder, an awkward leftover, and in the figure of the undead one sees this persistent substance contrasted to the contingent demands of such reason. Likewise, the undead is able to stand for the bodies of the working class because, in their constant struggle to obtain the means of human sustenance, they represent not only themselves but all humanity, in a manner that has been obscured among people whose interests are assured by technology and capital.
Wherever this excluded substance returns to haunt civilisation, it acts as a mirror upon those threatened by it. This is perhaps the main message of the popular HBO show The Walking Dead, in which both zombies and protagonists are in constant a state of living death. Moreover, the more the protagonists’ actions are provoked by the imminent threat of the zombies and the state of apocalyptic scarcity they all inhabit, the more they turn on each other in states of desperation and lose their humanity. When the default state tends towards inhumanity, nobody is innocent as such- every ethical action requires a state of privation or negotiation.
In this context, claims to innocence are a thin veneer that appears to preserve one’s humanity for the time being, but this comes at the cost of designating those who are not “innocent” and legitimising violence against them. Such is the state of exclusion denoted by Adorno’s phrase “identity thinking”. The figure of the zombie makes clear that innocence is an unstable and reactionary grounding for any concept of community or personhood.
What does all this have to do with the G20? To begin with, we should extend our reading of the 1000 Gestalten protest. The protesters challenge spectators not only to awaken from their own slumber, but also to recognise their common humanity, and thus political subjects if not agents of change, among those people who appear least irrelevant or visible in the scrapheap of civilisation. Modern history is littered with, if not defined by, instances of oppressed peoples overthrowing their oppressors. They also suggest that, no matter how detached one may feel from the mechanisms of human subjugation and ecological oppression that operate under capitalism, one’s very presence within the system is all that is required to keep it turning on some level. Nobody is innocent.
To read into the universe of zombie films is to unpack the ideological structures and moral standpoints of a real world in crisis. A source of much bewilderment and controversy among the events in Hamburg was the slippage of the various participants beyond the roles from which they derive their power, authority and identity. Police at times acted as orderly sentinels, and at other times they acted as angry masters attempting to put individuals in their place. Journalists often played implicit roles in the protest movement that was further entrenched when police began to physically target them alongside the protesters. In the aftermath, a right-wing media outlet took on a vigilante role by publishing images of rioting protesters so members of the public could recognise and name them. Different kinds of protesters mingled within the crowd; often, the black bloc protesters and the purportedly peaceful groups were virtually indistinguishable. Protesters also regularly moved between acts of civil disobedience and participation in licensed marches.
This multitude of roles is rehearsed within zombie films, situated within worlds where structures and hierarchies are in constant states of upheaval. In any immediate twist of fate, hunter can become hunted, routes of escape can become routes for the virus to spread, leaders can become outcasts, and policemen deployed for civilian defence can be bitten, transform, and pose a threat to civilians. Viewers are welcome to identify with any of the characters, but at the risk of those characters transforming throughout the story and even betraying themselves. Furthermore, as outlined earlier, this elasticity poses a challenge to how such films should be consumed and enjoyed as the genre may be suited to serve a range of different agendas.
To be a bystander, or an observer, at the Schanze district in Hamburg, the focal point for the anarchist activity and riots, as well as of mindless police brutality, was to confront this challenge. The events unfolding in front of you could lie at a safe distance and then suddenly erupt uncomfortably close. The beer bottle you were drinking could be snatched from in front of you to be thrown at a car. You could observe from the relative safety of a cafe’s covered patio and then be thrown out by an owner afraid that rioters might use it as a hiding spot. You could be lying in your apartment watching a live stream of the events while a police helicopter searchlight momentarily illuminates the room. The water cannons did not discriminate, neither did the signs and fixtures used as projectiles. The silence, above all, could never be trusted.
This challenge of perspective reappears among the ambivalent political media narratives that followed the Summit and the protests. Distance became a buzzword the subsequent week. Centre-left commentators and officials scrambled to distance themselves from the far-left groups, emphasising that violence does not serve one’s political objectives. Protesters wrote long posts condemning police violence. The mayor of Hamburg took a stance in defence of the police’s use of force, and his coalition partners, the Greens, distanced themselves from him. The police distanced themselves from the vigilante activities of media outlets all the while setting up their own website for people to upload videos and identify perpetrators. While much of this has been a distraction, its clearest effect has been that various actors have doubled down on their ideological positions, most saliently in the case of the politicians calling for greater monitoring and control over the activities of leftist groups.
Above all, this distance is an attempt to disavow from oneself various aspects of this toxic situation. As in zombie films, such attempts are doomed to failure. The protester, masked or unmasked, threatening as he or she may be, is not the cause of the crisis, but a rather a symptom, and a mirror upon which the falsity of each party’s moralistic pronouncements is unveiled. Any action taken in response to the protests only reveals how deeply all of Germany, and indeed global society, are embedded in the swamp.
The entire ordeal calls not for reactionary outcries but for a lucid approach to the ongoing disaster underlying the whole controversy. The first stones, after all, were thrown by the G20 apparatus and its many parts, a ruling elite whose failing governance has in recent years produced huge gaps of inequality, a rising tide of anti-global sentiment, and rampant levels of carbon emissions, perpetuating a system aptly described as zombie capitalism. At the summit, the leaders largely spoke the language of democracy, as a democracy-free exclusion zone was being enforced in the districts surrounding the Summit venues. More than ever, we need alternative visions. For now, residents, observers, activists and officials all alike have a responsibility to confront the values, structures and relationships underlying their role within such events before the concept of democracy itself becomes a mere myth.
This article was originally published in The Hong Kong Review of Books.