Friday, May 13, 2011

zombies part II: our monstrous zietgeist

It is only fitting that I feel like a zombie as I write this entry. Part of our fascination with zombies emanates from the fact that we so closely identify with their stumbling, infected automatonism. Thus, the metaphorical side spawns the reanimation and reproduction of tales mirroring our uncomfortable realities -- these undead thoughts lurk, lurch, and lumber towards us in unremitting, allegorical hordes.

Like many monsters, zombies -- as an irrational fear and morbid preoccupation -- attack our brains in the amygdala. The amygdala is situated in the limbic system, the second brain to evolve, lying above and around the ancient reptilian brain. This part of the brain is the fear center. Interestingly, this reptilian brain also houses the cerebellum and controls movement and animal instincts. It inhibits us from processing "normal" and ubiquitous sensations, such as the feeling of clothing against our skin. It would be incredibly distracting to be aware of our underwear all the time! The inner part of our brain withholds such sensations from registering in other parts of our brain, thus our inability to comprehend how hard we are hitting another person -- just the reverse of Britney's adage: "Give me a sign, hit me baby one more time."

The reptilian brain also manifests in the following behaviors: obsessive-compulsiveness; ritualistic acts and reenactments; slavish conformity to established practices; automatic, instinctual responses and ardent obedience to these; advancing an agenda at all costs... might is right! The reptilian brain is isopraxic, meaning that members of a species repeat and copy behaviors impulsively... thereby, the individuals become a parroting mass... "the simultaneous head-nodding of lizards, the group gobbling of turkeys, the synchronous preening of birds..."... the spontaneous hand-clapping of an audience, the like-minded embrace of fashion trends, the mass rallies, the violent headless collective behavior of the crowd. (Center for Non-Verbal Studies) Sound familiar? "We eat BBBBRRRAAAIIINNNSSSS!!!!!" The reptilian brain both contains our very 'zombie-ness' and our fear of zombies (and everything else for that matter.)

There are many kinds of fears. The most basic is instinctual -- the fight of flight panic that all animals experience as a survival mechanism. Apparently, there exists a psychological theory which correlates fear with our strongest self-awareness...
"specifically, when we feel threatened by a force external to our bodies. Quite simply, fear heightens out awareness of ourselves as individuals because our individuality is endangered in life-threatening situations. Nowhere is this drama more acutely embodied than in the model of the zombie attack: for the zombie is an antisubject, and the zombie horde is a swarm where no trace of the individual remains. Therefore, unlike the vampire, the zombie poses a twofold terror: There is the primary fear of being devoured by a zombie, a threat posed mainly to the physical body, and the secondary fear that one will, in losing one's consciousness, become a part of the monstrous horde. Both of these fears reflect recognition of one's own mortality and ultimately reveal the primal fear of losing the 'self"; however, in the figure of the zombie, the body and the mind are separated antinomies. The zombie is different from other monsters because the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost. Like the vampire and the werewolf, the zombie threatens with its material form. Whereas the vampire and even the intangible ghost retain their mental faculties, and the werewolf may become irrational, bestial only part of time, only the zombie has completely lost its mind, becoming a blank -- animate, but whole devoid of consciousness." (Sarah Juliet Lauro & Karen Embry, "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism," boundary 2 35:1 (2008), pgs. 88-89)
This fear of loss of consciousness gets at what most would consider to be a fundamental -- perhaps the fundamental -- condition of being human. "I think therefore I am," said Descartes. And to be aware that he could think was an equally essential part of the equation. Further, the zombie seems to represent our particular historical moments and our self-reflective fears of what we might already be. Cultural theorists such as Horkheimer and Adorno suggested as much implying a sort of 'capitalist zombie' -- one who is a slave to the capitalist system but, in his delusions, thinks that he is free. Pessimistically, the zombie is "our current moment... where we feed off the products of the rest of the planet, and, alienated from our own humanity, stumble forward, groping for immortality even as we decompose." (Lauro & Embry, pg. 93) Or as Horkheimer and Adorno describe: "The individual is entirely nullified in face of the economic powers. These powers are taking society's domination over nature to unimaginable heights. While individuals as such are vanishing before the apparatus they serve, they are provided for by that apparatus and better than ever before." (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1969) How can any of us rebel against the insidious, invisible zombie horde?

The zombie consumes. The zombie infects. The zombie acts mindlessly. The zombie is absorbed into the mob. The zombie loses his individuality and his consciousness... and, relatedly, his morality. Aren't these are very modern fears? No wonder we are obsessed with zombies.

There is perhaps too much realistic cross-over too. Zora Neale Hurston claimed to have witnessed zombies and Ph.D. candidate Wade Davis claimed to have discovered the African 'zombie poison' imported to Haiti that could induce a numb state mimicking the zombie-like trance we all imagine and see in movies. It was all really a ruse to force a criminal or voodoo recipient into slavery. After being administered the poison, "a victim of zombie powder poisoning could lapse into a state of such low metabolic activity that he might appear clinically dead. This poor soul would then be buried alive, only to be rescued hours later by a sorcerer who digs up the victim, feeds him an hallucinogenic paste, and then sells his newly minted zombie into slavery..." (William Booth, "Voodoo Science," Science, New Series, vol. 240, no. 2850 (April 1988), pg. 275.) Sounds very Poe-esque... "It is the beating of his hideous heart!" But also so mind-warpingly capitalist... as we are sold repeatedly into what we buy.... perhaps even brainwashed. What virus turns someone into a zombie? What mind manipulator turns us into unconscious beings?

The whole consciousness question brings zombies to the discussion table of philosophers. Like it or not, they endlessly debate whether zombies are possible, conceivable, or explicable as a way to materialize the debate about whether consciousness is inherent in our physicality as humans or requires some other property to arise. These philosophers conceive of all kinds of thought experiments to argue the question. For example, imagine
...a team of micro-Lilliputians who invade Gulliver's head, disconnect his afferent and efferent nerves, monitor the inputs from his afferent nerves, and send outputs down his efferent nerves to produce behavior indistinguishable from what it would have been originally. The resulting system has the same behavioral dispositions as Gulliver but (allegedly) lacks sensations and other experiences...

[Alternately, imagine that] a population of tiny people disable your brain and replicate its functions themselves, while keeping the rest of your body in working order; each homunculus uses a cell phone to perform the signal-receiving and -transmitting functions of an individual neuron. Now, would such a system be conscious?" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Perhaps this is why zombie video games of the 'survival horror' genre are so satisfying. Whilst actively fighting the living dead, we still maintain our own consciousness and individuality. In fact, there is a sort of "hero's perseverance -- and sheer brutality -- in the face of relentless enemies and seemingly overwhelming odds." (Irene Chen, "Playing Undead," Film Quarterly, vol. 61, no.2 (Winter 2007), pg. 64.) In the movie theater, we watch helplessly. Here, we zealously combat. Taking control, being proactive, asserting our very agency... all are part of the 'game.'

The game can become ugly, though, when it seems too closely to resemble a barely veiled racism or xenophobia. Historically, zombie films have functioned as just such propaganda, especially during World War II when there seemed so many unclear but alarming threats. In a review of Revenge of the Zombies (1943), Lillian Bergquist observed how the black characters were "presented as a strange, uncivilized and superstitious group of people living in a world quite apart from that of other Americans. They are either comic servants, zombies, or in the case of Mammy Beulah, a voodoo-ist... [In short, the film] serves to confirm Japanese propaganda which tells dark-skinned peoples that under fascism they will receive fairer treatment than under democracy." (Bergquist, quoted in Rick Worland, "OWI Meets the Monsters: Hollywood Horror Films and War Propaganda, 1942 to 1945," Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pg. 53) In this case, zombies become the 'non-persons' against which poisonous prejudices are set.

Zombies can enslave others as much as they can enslave ourselves. And they continually seems to reflect our self-enslavement... and our oblivious lack of awareness of such. Which brings us back to the brain. Are we always running from the instinctive reptilian part of our brains? From the part of ourselves that is beast, that always seeks to be "lord of the flies"? It is in our modern brains that we confront uncertainty and make decisions. Emotions, on one level, can be considered a response to just such situations. Or "having feelings is being conscious that something is happening to me." (Jack Presbury, Joe Marchal & Ed McKee, "Must the Tin Man Have a Heart? The Qualifications of Personhood and Self-Ownership," The Personalist Forum, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1999), pg. 310) What is fundamentally disturbing is not being aware in this way... of feeling disembodied, disowned, and disconnected. Thus, Nathaniel Branden wrote of 'the disowned self." And we all share in this experience to a point... Seinfeld would describe it as making an entire sitcom about nothing...
We engage in stultifying daily routines, mindless diversions, and occupations that demand we monitor our behaviors so that we manage the impression we make on others according to social expectations. Because all this leads to a feeling of ontological insecurity, we attempt to manage the sensations that accompany the insecurity by turning down the rheostat. By reducing our conscious experience of these feelings of insecurity, we concomitantly reduce our feelings of enthusiasm and joy for living. Numbing ourselves is the instinctual way we have of reducing sensations of pain or overwhelming stimulation from the environment... Going into emotional shock when something bad happens is a normal reaction. But spending our days only partially alive, walking around like zombies, being numb when we don't have to be, is probably not good for us." (Presbury et al, pg. 318)
So, for tomorrow, let's de-fascinate ourselves with zombies for a bit. Let's stop the numbing and experience joy... and even pain. Or, if you want to indulge in zombie-mania, at least do so consciously... always remaining fundamentally human... always retaining self-ownership and participation in the very alive and awake and animated world of humanity. Waking up... even if 'the signs are interior.'

from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:

JIM: You're going to be out of a job if you don't wake up.
TOM: I am waking up --
JIM: You show no signs.
TOM: The signs are interior.

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