Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ontology of the Living Dead

Admittedly my first formulation of the zombie was slightly vague, and given the responses (both positive and negative) over at Larval Subjects, Ian Bogost, and Hyper tiling, it seemed to be confusing, as well. So I hope this second post clarifies a few points, but I can make no promises.

Given that my discussion of the zombie started with a notion that it was opposite the cute object, I would like to bring up a similar object to use for comparison and contrast: the ugly object. In The Abyss of Freedom, Zizek makes the following remarks about ugliness and the ugly object:

The ugly object is an object that is in the wrong place, that "shouldn't be there." This does not mean that the ugly object is no longer ugly the moment we relocate it to its proper place; rather, an ugly object is "in itself" out of place, on account of the distorted balance between its 'representation' (the symbolic features we perceive) and 'existence' – being ugly, out-of-place, is the excess of existence over representation. Ugliness is thus a topological category; it designates an object and the space it occupies, or – to make the same point in a different way – between the outside (surface) of an object (captured by its representation) and its inside (formless stuff). In the case of beauty, we have in both cases a perfect isomorphism, while in the case of ugliness, the inside of an object somehow is (appears) larger than the outside of its surface representation (like the uncanny buildings in Kafka's novels that, once we enter them, appear much more voluminous than they seemed from the outside). (21-22)

If we consider the zombie opposite the cute object, then we wouldn't have to stretch our imaginations too far to think of it equivocal to the ugly object. Like the ugly object, then, the zombie shouldn't be there, it is out-of-place – a return of the dead. As my last post hinted at, cute objects (and objects of beauty) are absorbed by us, taken for granted, or easily passed on by. Zizek reinforces this claim when he notes that “in beauty we have in both cases [i.e., in representation and existence] a perfect isomorphism” or a one-to-one correspondence or similarity (representation = existence). Ugly objects, on the other hand, have more to them in their existence than their outward representations (representation < existence). They disturb us because we at times see the hidden, excessive elements that unsettle our sense of sameness and beauty. So, initially we can read the zombie as an ugly object.

Yet, as I previously stated, “zombies are all the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog.” In other words, a zombie is a zombie is a zombie, regardless of race, class, gender, or species. So, ontologically speaking, zombies are beautiful objects, perfect balances between representation and existence, for without the ability to signify their existence there is nothing else to the zombie beyond its desire. But isn't this a contradiction? It doesn't have to be. I would argue that zombies (as well as other objects) can be both beautiful and ugly.

What I hope comes from this discussion is to show how as of now, there seems to be a single understanding of objects. For both OOP and OOO, all objects are ugly. All objects have something hidden or secret which does not make itself known upon immediate exposure in an encounter either with humans or other objects. Representation and existence are in no way equal.

Yet, oddly, in their approach to the zombie, both OOP and OOO find the zombie as a physical (and perhaps mental/psychological) threat – that humanity is more than the zombie, and how dare you say otherwise. But in doing so, they are only recognizing the beauty of the zombie, or that the zombie somehow reduces humanity to an isomorphic blob. Or to put this another way, they are only recognizing the similarity between all zombies, that a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.

Out of all the objects, they haven't found the zombie ugly, as itself consisting of a subterranean existence that is a lot larger than its initial representation. For let us not forget that what makes the zombie more frightening than, say the android, is that the zombie is/was human. And this hint of humanity, the larger part of the zombie's existence, is at times both beautiful and ugly, but perhaps this is why we find the zombie at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley -between the object and the human.