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Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.  But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests, without the transcendent, we may nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.  The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.  The collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.  In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and the zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.  The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.  The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents buffered selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth-century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.  After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.  Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.  Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.  Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2

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Heroism ain’t what it used to be

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Zombie HeroBeowulf and Achilles,  now those were heroes.  Even more recent literature has guys like Van Helsing and Aragorn.  In his treatment of the hero, Alsford says that a hero is “fundamentally oriented towards the other”; the hero “gives him or herself to the world” (29).  Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.  Our heroes have changed, because we have.

Wherever we find monsters, there, too, we also find heroes (Asma 23).

We hate monsters because they embody otherness–what we are not.  Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society.  Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

Like all heroes, the heroes in zombie films “face crisis situations in which they must assume extraordinary personal responsibility and make exceedingly difficult choices” (Robinson [Fear] 23).  The modern hero has to make these choices in a modern world and that means there is no transcendent ideal to guide these decisions.  Their choices are often between some moral principle and their survival.  The focus in these moments of crisis is on the agony of the choice, rather than on the sacrificial nature of the hero. And despite the agony, the choice is almost always in favor of survival.  Thus, in zombie narratives, it is not really appropriate to call the protagonists heroes.  For with the emphasis on survival, and without transcendent ideals, it is more accurate to call them “would-be survivors.”  Simon Pegg points out that “the protagonists of zombie invasion movies are not superheroes or professional monster slayers like Van Helsing – they are common, average folk forced to ‘step up’ and defend themselves” (Bishop 117).  So, just as the zombie is an immanent monster, the hero in the zombie narrative is an immanent hero.

Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

In Night of the Living Dead, the fate of the character Ben reveals the demise of the traditional hero.  Despite his failings, Ben is “the closest any of the human beings in Night of the Living Dead come [sic] . . . to being the sort of hero that is found in previous monster narratives” (Waller 295-96).  For lack of any better place to put it, the audience puts their faith in Ben.  This faith is regularly challenged, however.  Ben is protective of Barbara, but only somewhat so. When Barbara first enters the farmhouse, she discovers a partially consumed corpse and flees.  Ben, having just arrived in a pickup truck, intercepts Barbara, and with a tire iron gallantly dispatches several lurching men, who are becoming numerous, and finally leads the hysterical Barbara back into the house.  Ben is a hero defined, not by knowledge or depth of belief, but by his actions (Waller 284).  As soon as he arrives at the farmhouse and discovers Barbara, he gets to work barricading the doors and windows.  His heroism is rooted in a material and practical—the immanent domain.

After the others are discovered in the cellar, he seems to expect they “will prove to be as competent as he has proven and that help will come to those who help themselves” (Waller 285).  He does not see himself as one who supersedes the others in ability.  Whatever capacity he has, he expects it to be present in everyone else as well.  The radio reports widespread attacks by people seemingly in a trance; later there are reports of widespread mass murders and cannibalism. The situation is stressful, and Ben does not always deal with it very well. He obviously lacks leadership skill, for example when he engages in bickering with Harry, or when he overreacts in anger on several occasions, the last of which results in his shooting of Harry with the rifle.

It is further obvious that he is not a traditional hero when he fails to save Barbara or any of the other temporary residents of the besieged farmhouse. He merely survives the night.  In the morning, a posse, which has been killing the remaining zombies, approaches the house. Hearing them, Ben cautiously goes up the cellar stairs into the living room, and is mistakenly shot dead by a posse member who takes him for a zombie.  His body is carried from the house and burned with the zombie corpses. Rather than standing next to the vanquished foe, or at least honoured by the survivors for his sacrificial victory, the hero instead lies, undistinguished, on a pile of dead monsters.

In Night of the Living Dead, the action is bookended between two scenes that “intimate that the zombie-human distinction is not that easily made” (Cooke 167).  In the first sequence, a zombie is mistaken for a man, and, at the end, a man is mistaken for a zombie, and shot and burned as one. Thus, the movie gives its viewers a picture of a flattened world, for in the death of each character, we see the death of every previously-held source of fullness or meaning.  In Ben’s death, we see the utter meaninglessness of everything in a world without the transcendent.

The immanent “hero” of this film burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire.  There is little difference between hero and monster, given that Ben is laid upon a bonfire to be burned.   Waller’s explanation of the action around the final bonfire reinforces the absence of any meaning that we can take from the film.  The men in the posse have no idea they have misinterpreted the situation in shooting Ben; the movie audience alone is privy to this information.  McClelland orders a deputy to burn the grisly heaps of the formerly undead.  Because McClelland is the final human being we see in the film, Waller calls him the survivor.  As such, we can look to him, and his fire, for those things that endure.  He is “unemotional and almost cynically mater-of-fact.  He is concerned not with explanations, but only with getting his job done.  The work he is engaged in is just work and not a mission, much less a holy crusade” (Waller 297).  Ben suffers exactly the same fate as the monsters, and the tragedy the night before is nothing more than a day’s work for McClelland and his men.  McClelland’s attitude is what is required of secular man in the flattened world.  The death of the thoroughly immanent hero symbolizes this symptom of the modern identity “whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (A Secular Age 303).  In Night of the Living Dead, “every convention of heroism is overturned by Romero’s script” (Russell 68).

In its treatment of the hero, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead reflects what Charles Taylor called the modern malaise.  One of the effects of modernity is a malaise in which we get the sense that our lives “have been flattened or narrowed” (Malaise 4).  The movie clearly illustrates the loss of the “heroic dimension of life,” at least of a sense of what we might call a higher purpose, “of something worth dying for” (Malaise 4).  Taylor says that this sense of loss is inevitable given the “eclipse of the transcendent” (307).  He distinguishes three forms that “the malaise of immanence may take.” First, is a “sense of the ‘fragility of meaning,’” the search for an over-arching significance; second, is the felt flatness of special moments in life; and lastly, is “the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary” (309).  He suggests that this everyday lack can be the most painful and seems most significant for “people of some leisure and culture.”  This malaise is, then, particularly acute for those who live in a consumer culture, who “feel [the] emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape” (309).  The malaise of immanence that is felt so deeply in consumer culture is exploited in Romero’s second movie about the undead.

Next zombie post: Zombies ‘R Us

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Zombies Can’t Be Evil

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2013 at 4:50 am

Zombies not evilZombies function in many ways like a traditional monster, in that they represent the opposite of how we like to think of ourselves.  In other words, they transgress boundaries and challenge the identity of the modern self.  Their otherness is tailor-made to terrorizes the residents of the closed immanent frame: they have no cause and therefore have no meaning; they embody the abject, and thus threaten identities formulated against the physical world; they rub our noses in our very biological materiality and force us to face the finality of death in a world with no transcendence; and, in part, they offer us the humour needed to deal with this fact.  While the zombie monster represents otherness, the zombie films themselves, particularly Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, also reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.

Traditional movies in the horror genre present a fairly simple morality. Often it is the monster that embodies evil.  Other times, the monster is a creation of an evil scientist or sorcerer, but the representative of evil is pretty clear, as is that of the good.  In zombie narratives, because there is no transcendent source for morality, the categories of good and evil are not as clearly defined as they were in the past.  The monsters are not evil in the traditional sense, nor does the hero represent an ideal to which we can aspire.

Zombies reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.

The zombie monster is hard to classify morally.  It is difficult to say that zombies are evil because they lack the conscious will we usually require for the attribution of that term.  Wood points out that one of the main differences between zombies and the monsters in the horror genre that preceded them is that they are “not burdened with those actively negative connotations (‘evil incarnate,’ etc.)” (102). To bear such a label would link it to some transcendent category.  In the zombie films of the voodoo era, there was a clear source of evil, but it wasn’t the undead.  In these films, the zombies were mere tools in the hands of an evil sorcerer, but since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the defining characteristics of the zombie horde is that it has no leader.  There is no authority or power, no longer any villain bent on some evil purpose who controls them.  In his book Heroes and Villains, Mike Alsford says that villains “generally seek a law unto themselves. They usually have as their primary goal, power over others, world domination, control of the entire universe or, in some really ambitious instances, godhood (96).  This was very much the model for villainy in the pre-Romero zombie films like White Zombie, in which the evil Legendre turns corpses into zombies to work in his sugar mill, and worse, zombifies another man’s fiancé so as so as to possess her, body and soul.  But in modern zombie films, there is no villain that fits Alsford’s description.  In The Night of the Living Dead “the diseased, instinct-driven automatons walk the earth without a leader.  They need no master to seduce new recruits or to direct their assault on normality” (Waller 280).

Zombies are not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been.

The zombies are leaderless, but they are also, more or less, motiveless.  Frankenstien’s monster sought inclusion in community, Count Dracula was driven by conquest, but the zombie’s motivation is far baser.  Alsford says that villains are motivated by “the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction. . . .  The villain uses the world and the people in it from a distance, as pure resource” (Alsford 120).  Although this characterization of true villainy seems to describe the zombie horde, the word “desire” is too strong for the undead found in Night of the Living Dead, where we find more of a compulsion than desire; desire implies a self with at least an emotional if not spiritual longing.  Zombies are not driven by any such motive—not revenge or the quest for power, not even the desire to destroy for the sake of destruction—but by the most immanent of motives: hunger. The living dead simply “eat warm flesh, a fact that Romero graphically records and never allows us to forget. . . .   Romero’s living dead tear at their food and devour it like starving animals to whom all of existence is only a matter of hunting for food and eating” (Waller 276).  Zombies are thus not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been.  They reveal that without the transcendent, there is no longer room for evil as a motivating force—these monsters are simply hungry, and who can fault them for that?  The monsters are, again, a reflection of modern selves, for in neither the monster, nor the modern self can we clearly identify the source of evil.

Next Zombie post: Zombie Films and a Loss of Fullness

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“I’m out of ammo!”

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2013 at 4:13 am

zombie hordeAnother important characteristic of the zombie that makes it ideally suited to terrorize our contemporary society is that it is a horde.  They attack in large numbers and overwhelm their victims by sheer weight of numbers.  The horde absorbs individuality—and we modern selves are obsessed with questions of identity (what is me and what is not me?).  And with the absorption into the zombie horde, these questions, for the victim, become irrelevant.

With absorption into the zombie horde, questions of identity are irrelevant.

An individual zombie is almost no threat to any healthy adult.  It can be easily outrun or dispatched by a decent blow to the head.  What makes zombies a threat is that there are so many of them and their bite results in the absorption of their victims into the horde.  This loss of the unique self is an affront of to our modern conception of the individual.

Charles Taylor observes that the individualism of the past was restricted to the artistic élites, but by the time of Romero’s first zombie film, it had become a “mass phenomenon” (473).  Prior to the Enlightenment, one’s identity was, in part, contingent upon one’s place in society and the honour conferred accordingly.  A shift occurred in the Enlightenment when ideas of honour were replaced with the more Universalist notions of the dignity of all human beings.  In the late-eighteenth century, the idea of universal dignity was complemented with the idea that each of us has a particular way of being human.  Thus, it became “important to find and live out one’s own [humanity], as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or previous generations, or religious or political authority” (475). Taylor considers the 1960s as the “hinge moment” (476) where this individuation became mainstream.  Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released.  Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.

In an age when the dignity of all human beings translates into the importance to being true to oneself, a zombie’s bite obliterates that unique self.  The zombie horde is a mass in which all individuality has been eradicated; it is an ironic caricature of the “mass phenomenon” of modern individualism.  There are small differences between zombies, like clothing or “degree of putrefaction,” but these “only exacerbate their similarity, since they are markers which refer to the state of their corpse when they died, not anything that has been chosen to create individuality since reanimation” (Cooke 167).

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.  This is yet another source of horror that the zombie horde embodies for the modern self, who considers itself, above all things, autonomous.

Next zombie post: Zombies Can’t Be Evil

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Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

In Books, Movies and Television on January 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

Zombie 1“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.”  In popular culture we often equate the word apocalypse with zombies.  “The zombie apocalypse” actually means “that which zombies reveal.”  Zombies reveal some very interesting things about us, our society, and how we understand ourselves and our society.

This has always been the case with  monsters.  They always tell us about the people in whose stories they appear.

Richard Kearney says that “monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are (Strangers 117). What he means is, the monsters that haunt, creep and conjure in our stories have something to do with our identity–that is, the identity of the people who tell and hear (and view) the stories.  Monsters help us to clarify who we are.

When Kearney says that, “[m]ost ideas of identity . . . have been constructed in relation to some notion of alterity” (66), he means that we understand who we are, through facing what we are not.  Monsters are an embodiment of what we are not–alterity.  Our monsters function as “negative mirror image of ourselves which we project onto a fantasy world. Flawed beings, scapegoats, the enemy, the unknown, and the damned must all be willed into being as foils to our own inherent beauty, virtue, integrity and truth” (118).

This is why monsters, even as they threaten identity, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.

Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen.  As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.  Literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, understands culture to be a system of constraints where cultural beliefs and practices are “enforced by particular literary acts of praising and blaming” (226). In narratives where the central conflict is between hero and monster, these figures are the recipients of praise and blame respectively. As the embodiment of that which is praiseworthy, the hero serves to establish and sustain a culture’s ideals of self-identity.

So back to the zombies….

The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time. In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio who tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241). Both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster, “at least not the pervasive and successful one that we have seen in the modern era” (Zani [in Better Off Dead] 100).

For contemporary culture, it is the zombie that threatens our collective identity and thus leads modern secular man toward self-knowledge. The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math). The popularity of the zombie monster suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity.

George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity. What is this modern identity?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the modern identity as a “buffered self” living in a “closed immanent frame.”  He means, in essence, that the modern identity does not understand itself in terms of the transcendent—the supernatural.  The modern zombie threatens this modern identity in the same way that monsters have always done, as a monstrous other. But zombies are more than just a monstrous other. They also pose a threat to collective identity in their monstrous sameness, for the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: A Brief History of the Zombie