Stories of ghosts and appearances of the dead are common in Cartagena de Indias. Virgins, pirates, saints, and deceased international personalities have appeared on walls, basements, alleys, and other public and private spaces of the city since colonial times. In June of 2009 I was shocked by the news about the apparition of phantom of Michael Jackson, few days after his dead, in the streets of the Chambacú. According to local newspapers and radio stations, neighbors reported watching the spectrum of the king of pop past midnight in a couple of alleys making dance moves. Many of them attempted to capture the image of the ghost, supposedly dressed with red leather jacket, black pants, and silver shoes, in videos that they later posted on YouTube.
Last July, another apparition of a a recently deceased international personality hit me by surprise in Cartagena. This time, it was the image of George Romero, the director of the seminal zombie film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), who had just passed away.
I was at the Convention Center, sat at the back of the auditorium Getsemaní, listening to the opening keynote of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference. Delivered by professor Omar Rincón, the talk was a provocative mix of storytelling, theorizing, and visual provocations. In an energetic and fast paced tone that challenged academic conventions, and that for moments jammed the English translators, Omar welcomed the audience to Colombia and Latinoamerica. Speaking in Español, he took us in a tour de force through the transformations of communication, politics, and culture, and the living ruins of modern zombielands. The journey included a review of Latin American scholarship in media and communication, a music video screening (Calle 13’s “Latinoamerica,”), a sensorium map for the 21st century, and an invitation to inhabit contemporary sociocultural mutations with new narratives and discourses.
Mentioning more that thirty researchers and thinkers from la region Latinoamericana, including Paulo Freire, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Jesus Martin-Barbero, and Rossana Reguillo, Omar claimed that communication and media have been thought in “another way,” “de otra manera,” by Latin Americans.* That “way” was unique, independent, and different to the North American and European scholarship. Otra manera de pensar la comunicación. For instance, instead of focusing on the industries and the media technologies, the Latinoamerican way emphasized the people, the processes, and the “mediations“. The later, an influential concept created by Martin-Barbero three decades ago, has continued to be relevant as it pushes us to focus on the cultural practices and experiences that people do with media, and the uses and appropriations of technologies and popular cultures.
Not by chance, the title of Omar’s talk was “Bastard Mutations of Communication.” In a whole section of his keynote he addressed the need to embrace the cultural, political, and communicative transformations that have occurred in our world, and to creatively inhabit them. Bringing up the idea of “zombie categories” developed by German sociologist Ulrich Beck, he reminded us that the discourses and agendas of the 20th Century are not longer useful to explain the world where we live. Concepts such as nation-state, family, religion, and sovereignty are zombie categories. They come from a modern era that is gone, from a society that has mutated with the globalization process and the rapid technological change. These categories have lost their clear meaning, blurred their boundaries, and are not longer useful for orienting our action. Despite being dead, these concepts continue to be used to theorize, and to organize social relationships and processes.
The word “zombie,” actually comes from the Haitian Creole “zonbi,” and originated in the voodoo religion. According to the Haitian folklore, a “zombie” is a person brought back to live from the dead. By magic means and sorcery, a voodoo wizard or Bokor is able to resurrect a dead human corpse, giving it live, and controlling it. The practice of “zombification,” spread through the Caribbean in the 19th century and was performed in major ports such as Havana and Cartagena de Indias, where the sincretism of religions, and hybridization of Afro, European, and indigenous cultures opened spaces for the development of magic tactics and brujeria.
In the 20th century, however, zombies entered the global popular culture through a series of films, comics, videogames, and novels, mainly produced in the United States. These mainstream zombies are living dead creatures hungry for human flesh and brains, which basic attributes have been portrayed in the film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). As the Hollywood zombie stories fascinated the world, and a huge fandom was built around them, the zombie narrative expanded to the level of an apocalypse in where hordes of living dead creatures try to to dominate human civilization.
Beck’s “zombie categories” allude to both the Haitian folklore, and the U.S/Global mainstream popular culture tradition. Modern terms and categories such as the nation-state, social class, and sovereignty, are not only living dead categories resurrected by governments, academics, the media, and other institutions, but they also have the potential of eating our brains. These concepts immobilize our action, and create barriers for inhabiting contemporary sociocultural and communication mutations.
Following Beck, Omar Rincón emphasized the need for new discourses, new narratives. At the most energetic section of his keynote, and while talking about zombies, he exhorted the audience to reimagine new ways of inhabiting and narrating the world. Explicitly, he called for recuperating magic tactics, embracing Latinoamerican local perspectives, and going to the field. Leave the academy and go to the territories, a los territorios, in order to engage in a dialogue of knowledges with a plurality of voices and peoples. Escuchar las historias de la gente, volver a lo local, contar. In an auditorium full of international academics, Omar invited us to tell stories and recover the local perspective. In a peak of excitement, Omar, like a Haitian voodoo wizard, told us:
“set free the zombie that lives inside us.”
It was precisely while Omar was exhorting the audience to recover their bodies and setting free the zombies, that the image of George Romero made his apparition. I was taking notes on my laptop, and following the stream of tweets aggregated under #IAMCR2017, when a tweet by @laripley caught my attention.
— dj ripley (@laripley) July 17, 2017
Surprised by what I read on the screen, and amused by the energetic momentum of the talk, I opened other tab on the browser and googled “George Romero.” Indeed, the horror film director had just passed away some moments ago, and the news about his dead were all over the Internet. His fans were making several tributes on social media sharing videos and images. As a matter of fact, his name, and the name of his most famous film (Night of the Living Dead), were already #hashtags trending in the global Twittesphere.
The appearance of George Romero on the #IAMCR2017 twitter stream, in between other tweets that captured all the zombie references of the opening keynote, was a powerful coincidence. The synchronicity of such events enhanced Omar’s invitation to use magic tactics, narrate, and inhabit communication mutations. Breaking news spiced reality, amplified it. Although the apparition of the name of George Romero was not exactly the one of a ghost, the context in which it happen, and the timing, felt magical. Suddenly, even without knowing it, more than a thousand communication and media academics and practitioners from all over the world, sat at the auditorium Getsemaní of the Centro de Convenciones of Cartagena de Indias, were giving homage to one of the most influential creators of the zombie universe.
I was moved, inspired, and confused by such a ritual. Still puzzled by the meaning of Omar’s call to “set free the zombies that live within us,” at the end of the keynote I thought about the myriad of zombie concepts that we continue to use for articulating our identities and organizing our everyday lives. From the category of social class to the nation-state to citizenship, we keep using sociological terms which original meaning seems to have passed away. Can those zombie categories turn against us and eat our flesh like George Romero’s monsters? Can they limit our agency? Do we need to completely erase the zombies from the discourse in order to set them free? Or can those modern categories mutate into hybrid terms that are more productive for explaining our current sociocultural changes? Moreover, how can we use the Latinoamerican local perspective, rich in tactics, makeshifts, magic, and orality, to liberate the zombie categories? What are the remixes we need to create in order to bring to the forth the local knowledges and voices, and put them in dialogue with the global mutations of technology and communication?
Beck U. (2002) Zombie categories: An interview with Ulrich Beck. In: Beck U, Beck-Gernsheim E, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage, 202–213.
Martín-Barbero, J. (1987). De los medios a las mediaciones. México: Gustavo Gili.
Ricon, O. (2016) Lo Popular en la Comunicación: <Culturas Bastardas + Ciudadanías Celebrities> In Amado, A & Rincon, O (eds). La comunicación en mutación, remix de discursos. Documento No. 15 – FES – C3. Bogotá
*The mapping of communication and media thinkers from Latinamerica included: Antonio Pasquali (Venezuela), Rosa María Alfaro (Perú), Luis Ramiro Beltrán (Bolivia), Paulo Freire (Brasil), Mario Kaplún (Uruguay), Armand Mattelart (Chile), Marita Matta (Argentina), Eliseo Verón (Argentina), Valerio Fuenzalida (Chile), Renato Ortiz (Brasil), Guillermo Orozco (México), Anibal Ford (Argentina), Rossana Reguillo (México), Immacolata Vasallo de Lopes (Brasil), Arlindo Machado (Brasil), Jorge Laferla (Argentina), Micael Herschmann, George Yudice, Angel Quintero, Pablo Semán, Pablo Alabárces, Gustavo Gómez, Germán Rey, Guillermo Mastrini, Martín Becerra, Clemencia Rodríguez, Florencia Saintout, Claudia Villamayor, Amparo Marroquín, Gabriel Kaplún, Rosalía Winocur, Carlos Scolari, Alejandro Piscitelli, Nilda Jacks Martín Caparrós, Cristian Alarcón, y Juan Villoro.