Monday, August 17, 2009

Zombies Ate My Ontology

For Postmodernism the cyborg seemed to represent a lot of what was being discussed. One of the reasons was that the cyborg, according to Donna Haraway, broke through crucial boundaries that had seemingly separated humanity from its world. The cyborg fused human, animal, organism, and machine into one being. It purposefully blurred boundaries and made murky the waters of pure humanism. Postmodernisms dealings with the cyborg allowed them to break free from dualisms and move beyond humanity – thus was born post-humanism.

But recent philosophical trends, mine included, have moved away from the transcendence of post-humanism to a philosophy that wishes to elevate all objects to the human level (or to lower the human to the level of all other objects). Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Given the recent surge of game theory and technical talk seen on Larval Subject’s blog, and his recent post on the uncanny (YAY!!), I’ve been tempted again and again to draw attention to aesthetics, but especially to the Uncanny Valley. Developed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the idea of the Uncanny Valley can best be summed up with help from his graph:

Seen here, before any form of technology, robotic or not, reaches an exact duplication of human speech, behavior, or physical appearance, it must cross the Uncanny Valley. For Mori, this valley represents the repulsion humanity has toward something that is like a human but is not, and the closer the object resembles a human, the stronger the feeling of disgust. It would seem, then, that as far as aesthetics are concerned, humanity prefers objects that keep their distance, that look different, that act different, that are different.

We could, however, interpret the pinnacle of this first peak in the graph (that peak level to the healthy human being) to be the place of human preference. And in the “still” graph (the solid line) we find a great example of such a preferential object – the stuffed animal. For the stuffed animal presents no threat to humanity, no need to differentiate it and any real animal.

And we could only assume, then, that the humanoid robot that the moving graph (the dotted line) suggests approaches the top of its peak might look something like ASIMO from Honda or the original NES R.O.B. which played Nintendo games with you. In essence these robots are far from being anything “human”, but like the stuffed animal, are simply cute.

But what makes an object “cute?” In a recent post on his blog, Ian Bogost references Graham Harman’s definition, so that “The labors of such agents become "cute" when they are slightly underequipped for their task…” For Bogost, though, Japanese cuteness has taken over from this behavioral “underequipped” cuteness – and is instead a cuteness which relies heavily on appearance. Take for example the difference between the Nintendo Wii’s characters and most of the characters that the Xbox and the Playstation3 pride themselves on – characters which look almost-human. Or to put this another way, while the PS3 and Xbox deal with how real they can make their graphics look, the Wii is content in providing its users with slightly miniature, often large-headed, but almost always cute characters. We have to ask ourselves, why? Why are we less threatened when we create a bobble-headed avatar than when we face a character from Madden 2010 or Halo 3?

The answer lies in the Uncanny Valley. Our Wii avatars are cute, they are in the words of Harman, objects that “are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted.” Cute objects allow for forgetfulness, or at least the opportunity to be passed by – “Oh, that’s cute.” For cuteness can never be stared at for too long. Otherwise we progress into the Uncanny Valley. As an example, my daughter has a baby doll she likes to play with. The doll is simply a shaped plastic form with a clothes and pacifier. In the context of my daughter’s play, the doll is cute for it plays the part of a baby but is underequipped to be a real baby. Yet, as Freud noticed (with the help of Jentsch and E.T.A. Hoffman) dolls can become creepy. A “Good Guy Doll” becomes Chucky in Child’s Play, small wooden marionettes become killers in Puppetmaster, and a collection of porcelain playthings become evil monsters in Dolls. Cute has the possibility to become terrifying.

As non-human objects take on human characteristics, they become creepy or horrific. Yet, looked at from the opposite end, as humanity is stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous. In this way, I feel that OOP/OOO must deal with the creature that presents the true meeting of object and human – the zombie.

From the essential film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) to perhaps the finest in literary achievement in recent decades, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, zombies have become more than mythical creatures. Like Dracula, they have taken their rightful place in popular culture as horrific creatures of the undead. Yet, unlike Dracula or any vampire for that fact, zombies are mindless – acting only on instinct or drive. Instead of blood, zombies feed on brains. Instead of needing to develop relationships with nubile necks, zombies tear and rip into any and all humans. Zombies are equal opportunity monsters. And instead of a singular vampire, the zombie attacks in hordes and large lumbering groups.

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”


  1. "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

    Maybe they'll cross over to the other side of healthy humanity. A former regular discussant on my blog extended Mori's diagram to the right, into the posthuman -- here's the link. Here we enter the realm of the genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced humans. For as long as these enhanced beings remain human-like they seem uncanny, repulsive. Once technology reaches the singularity and accelerates beyond it, the gap between ordinary human and posthuman widens and the uncanniness fades. Maybe?

  2. Hey John,

    Thanks for the link. I wonder though about the prosthetic. It seems to me (and correct me if I'm wrong) that the prosthetic falls on both sides of the healthy human being, near the uncanny valley. Why is this? What makes a prosthetic something less than AND more than human?

    If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that the prosthetic is difficult to place as either inhuman or posthuman. It adds to or subtracts from humanity but almost always resembles some part of a human. So, for example, the robotic arm will be dressed up in fake skin and even sinews and tissue - in order not to horrify those who come into contact with it.

    I guess my question then would be, given the prosthetic's need for human likeness on both sides of the graph, what would the posthuman resemble? Humanity? And if not, would humanity itself be recognizable in order to make such a distinction? Would we all have to be posthuman just like we all are zombies in OOP/OOO?

  3. I agree about the prosthetic on both sides: the more-or-less adequate limb replacement on the left of the healthy human peak, and the technologically superior super-limb on the right. Among the uncanny undead, zombies are on the left while vampires are on the right.

    I wonder why a flat ontology should have to enable a flat psychology of zombification? Maybe it's the other way around, with antihumanism as a sociopolitical movement clearing the intellectual space for something like OOO to develop.

    Arguably empirical science already has a flat ontology, with astrophysics being no higher than quantum physics. Still, there's no expectation that the people who study subatomic particles are obliged on egalitarian grounds also to study quasars. On some very abstract level a rock rolling down a hill toward an unsuspecting daisy is on the same ontological footing as a jet dropping a bomb on unsuspecting villagers. Since they're different from each other they're the same in their difference, goes the OOO argument. But if we take Larval Subjects' "lumpy ontology" seriously, we recognize that lumps come in different sizes and shapes, possess different properties, affect other lumps in different ways, etc. Sorry, sort of rambling here. Basically I agree with you that psycyhological zombification isn't a great consequence of flat OOO.

  4. Somehow on that last comment my identity changed from john doyle to ktismatics. Oh well, all names are the same...

  5. Great post,

    the idea that we should shift focus from the cyborg to the zombie is quite appealing, even if I have some thoughts about it. If the humanoid android is not quite in the uncanny valley, but the zombie is, what makes the difference? You seem to suggest that it is a matter of singlemindedness. Yet, what about a terminator? What about a humanoid robot singleminded about killing us? (because if the single thought of zombies would be pick up flowers they would not be as scary would they?). As i see it, zombies *were* humans, while androids *want to be* humans. Hence zombies aim at making everyone a zombie, oblitarating the memory of humanity while androids would desire to delete their inferior predecessors. In both cases I can't but think about the ending of 'I Am Legend' (the book not the butchered movie). That is, what scares us is the annhilation of the special trait of 'humanity'. The effect of a flat ontology is primarily the reconditioning of our minds, towards a dispelling of 'dehumanizing' fears, i.e. fear of non-being. Just random thoughts!

  6. Welcome Fabio,

    Great question. I think the distinction between the zombie and the android can be summed up as a difference between human-likeness and human-ness. As you point out, the android or humanoid robot is made to look like a human, therefore (if you look at the graph) it falls more to the left of the uncanny valley since it is right around 50% human-like. The zombie on the other hand is closer to being human and thus falls more to the right and slightly higher in percentage.

    What interests me, and what I think your comments get at, is that ultimately the zombie is stripped of all of its "humanity" yet still remains more human than say the Terminator. I think the confusion lies in the fact that where the android is intent on destroying the human race, the zombie has no purpose - the zombie just IS. Or, another way to look at the difference between the two would be to say that the android would be following commands, a built in program with a specific purpose. Once the android completes the task, ideally another task would be given.

    The zombie on the other hand is motivated by drive and drive alone - a desrie for brains. What happens when the zombie gets brains, well, it looks for more brains. The brain it is currently eating will never be enough. I wouldn't say they are out to make everyone else zombies, but that doing so is a side-effect of this desire. What I find so useful in the zombie is that they do fall closer to the healthy human, but what they are missing or lacking is the ability to cover up their desires, fantasize or create veils through which to live their lives. The zombie doesn't create signification - there are no S-1s for the zombie.

    Are we scared of the zombie because of its dehumanizing effects? Definitely, because the zombie moves us into the Uncanny Valley. But what we are really afraid of, in my opinion, is this existence without signification. Because in such a way of Being, we are not denied Being (or as you put it "fear of non-being"), but we are denied the symbolic realm - so much of which we often use to separate ourselves from other beings.

  7. John,

    I really like this idea:

    "I wonder why a flat ontology should have to enable a flat psychology of zombification? Maybe it's the other way around, with antihumanism as a sociopolitical movement clearing the intellectual space for something like OOO to develop."

    I think its always hard to tell if a philosophy is original in its calling for a new way of thinking, or if it is a response to something.

    For some reason I am reminded of those History Channel shows like "Life After People" where as viewers we are fed image after image of monuments and landmarks falling down or crumbling to the sea. What is so fascinating about these shows is that essentially they are showing natural processes, but processes "for us." In other words, what's the significance of the Statue of Liberty disintegrating when there is no one around to see it? None, really. The signification comes in when we watch these shows - a more apt title should have been "Life After People: If witnessed by people."

    The zombie is troubling to OOO because of just this point - the zombie is human without all of that "stuff", those properties that are held so dear (especially by phenomenology and hermeneutics), that before have made us human. Oops, I guess I am rambling now, as well. Anyway, I would love to hear more.

  8. NRG,

    thanks for the reply. I've had a lot of thoughts about this and I decided to write a whole blogpost about it. I kind of modified my ideas of last night, so if you have any comment I'd love to hear it.

  9. "the essential film, Night of the Living Dead (1968)"

    Interestingly, director George Romero didn't initially think of them as zombies, which to him were associated with Voodoo, but just as "ghouls". Their identification as "zombies" was post hoc, but it sure stuck. (Romero came around to it as well.)

  10. "the zombie is human without all of that "stuff""

    Making this sort of comparison seems anathema to the flat ontologists. Another comparison: humans exist in the material world as well as in various fictional worlds whereas zombies exist only fictionally. At some point the OOOs have to acknowledge that distinctions of this sort are "differences that make a difference." Those attributes usually deemed distinctive of human subjectivity -- intentional agency, tool use, symbolic language, consciousness, social role-taking, the ability to imitate, the ability to experience uncanniness, and so on -- might make no difference in the cosmic ontological scheme of things, but they do make a difference to us humans. Just because I'm no more real than the chair I'm sitting on is no reason to align myself psychologically with the chair, to reduce the differences to meaninglessness. From a realist perspective, just because humans self-centeredly think of themselves as different from rocks doesn't mean the differences aren't real.

    Okay, so I'm outing myself as a humanist I suppose. A human reduced to mindless drive really is different from a well-functioning human, and I as a human subject find the zombie proposition unheimlich and troubling. If I was to head into the posthuman, I'd want all those distinctive human characteristics enhanced rather than eliminated.

  11. Thanks Mike, I didn't know that. I wonder what made Romero come around?

  12. Hey John,

    You stated:

    "Okay, so I'm outing myself as a humanist I suppose. [BRAINS!!!] A human reduced to mindless drive really is different from a well-functioning human, and I as a human subject find the zombie proposition unheimlich and troubling. If I was to head into the posthuman, I'd want all those distinctive human characteristics enhanced rather than eliminated."

    And I think this is why the zombie is so fascinating to me! It forces the OO ontologist and philosopher to work out (whether positively or negatively) just these characteristics that you list (beautifully, I might add): "intentional agency, tool use, symbolic language, consciousness, social role-taking, the ability to imitate, the ability to experience uncanniness, and so on."

    What does OOP/OOO do with these characteristics? My guess - like the zombie, it has to cannibalize them, turn them into similar differences, none more important or "more different" than another.

  13. I recently put a comment on anotherheideggerblog making our observation that OOO seems indifferent to these kinds of differences. Levi says no: a flat ontology doesn't imply indifference to difference. I hope they'll clarify this position, since I suspect we're not the only ones to draw the inference. I.e., OOO isn't a call to zombiedom, to a flattening of distinctions that constitute the human "object."

  14. I am glad to see that you relate the zombie to drive. In my own work, I relate it specifically to the Lacano-Zizekian variant of the death drive as the libidinal remainder that is essentially nothing but drive, the compulsion to repeat as surplus within the Symbolic. My vitalism would have me say that the fright of the zombie comes not from their proximity to human beings, but as Zizek puts it in the Parallax View "TOO MUCH LIFE!" That is, we encounter a dead thing which is more alive than living things in its infinite rotary motion of drive.

  15. Michael, I was going to read your paper that you posted, but my attention span falls far short of the zombiesque. I'll get back there eventuellement.

    "TOO MUCH LIFE!" That's the classic Zizek intervention, isn't it, the negation of negation? If zombiedom is the negation of human life, then what is the negation of that negation? As humans oscillating back and forth between these two incompatible versions of unheimlich, perhaps the Real can break through for us, if only for a moment...

  16. The subtraction elements is interesting. Prosthesis in the Greek is more or less that which has a thesis added. To add an arm is to add a thesis i.e. another element different from its original relation (has undergone a translation).

    I still think Zizek's analysis is the scariest...zombies are remainder Holocaust victims coming back to haunt us adding a nice temporal twist to the whole thing. Of course zombies do sort of turn up in the collective consciousness just as the Holocaust is no longer as directly real as it had been (as in people were being born for whom the Holocaust was a historical event).

    Great post. Lots to think about.