The Inhumanities

Zombies and Ethics

with 6 comments

This is the fourth post in the cross-blog event. This one was written by Greg Pollock.



The problem of the ontological status of the other appears to me as the problem of the zombie. By this I mean that not only does the problem of other minds appertain, but more importantly, there is an urgency to deciding where in the schema of life, death, and the inanimate this other stands so I can act well toward it. So while I am on one hand concerned with the status of this other’s mind–and, projecting myself into their position, whether I appear to have a mind–the problem immediately becomes one about bodies in motion. On reflection, I will try to make sense of this in terms of minds, and probably gird myself for future encounters with a good theory of mind, but at the moment of exchange the real existence of the other and the need to respond to it successfully are more pressing.
If carried out as an extreme functionalism, this approach to other beings would destroy both ethics and ontology. It is to avoid such an outcome that I begin with the other as zombie. As both alive and dead, the zombie opens a new ontological zone, one which dialectically spills over into its symmetrical category of the neither alive nor dead. In other words, the split living/dead is supposed to exhaust the states of the human being, but if this split is not exhaustive (as in the zombie) we encounter a new category that interpellates human existence. Humans are shot through with the inanimate, and conversely the inanimate bears the traces of life and death. In this analysis, I believe the zombie is uncanny not because it transgresses the division between life and death, but because it intimates a further ontological interpellation that retroactively makes the life/death split less than final. The (human psychological) fixation on death is a distraction from our far-from privileged place in fundamental ontology.
In fact, once we have stopped stacking the deck in favor of our personal experience of death, death is quite simply another form of becoming. Deleuze’s Spinoza is quite clear on the continual de- and re-composition of forces, in which one organism’s decomposition is continuous with another’s composition, and K. Silen Mohammad has a very good essay reading zombies in this light (in Philosophy and the Undead). As the surgeon must first overcome her revulsion to blood, so animal theorists/activists need to first get over a humanist conception of death. What is disgusting and wrong about factory farming (etc) goes well beyond a hystericizing version of “death.”
Beginning instead from a zombified world, in which traces of life appear everywhere by virtue of the double split between life/death and in/animate–in plants, rocks, the face of Jesus in your soup–I think we have room for a speculatively realist ontology. By this I mean that we can describe objects as having real existences unto themselves, as well as their existences for other objects, without seeing them as fundamentally collections of attributes which are not proper to their existence (if this is not SR please correct me). Having all objects already traversed by the same indistinctions that compose the human condition–or rather, seeing humans as a particular kind of object with the same fundamental ontology as other objects–allows one to discover the same mysteries in the microwave and the thumbtack as in other humans.
Animals fit into this as the naturally existing disruption of a life-death division(Zombies, for better or worse, do not exist naturally, though they are the better example). We understand animals to be living, of course, but philosophy has worked quite hard to deny them death; and in any case, the category of actual animal trails off into murky waters. Within humans and other animals we find a plethora of bacterial lifeforms that do not count as “animals” but which are physically constitutive of them. This kind of problematic is par for the course in animal/science studies these days so I won’t dwell on it. Because of this I don’t see “animal” as a new subject of ethics, but as the sign for the problematic of ethics attached to life/death. Animals actual and conceptual can be leveraged against a regime of humanism and the denial of “reality” to other beings.
So I wouldn’t say that consideration of animals provide a new “foundation” for ethics, but neither does this deny the importance of our attitudes and actions concerning other (living) beings. I would say that in the zombified world there are still better and worse actions, and these values are connected to the resultant lumpy ontology, but that there is not a codification resulting from that ontology. Ethics is still historical and situated, but the terms of history and the situation are different.
The shiver of hesitation one feels before terminating a zombified loved one speaks to ethics after zombies. The experience of this shudder is the persistent opening in which animals and other objects flicker into ethical existence in the shadow of a new ontology. It is in this light that I repeat Donna Haraway’s position that our task is not to ban killing animals, but to stop making them ontologically “killable.” The political ontology of the zombie body is often taken to be precisely the expansion of killability, its totalization as applicable to the human form and the means by which we might imagine all humans as homo sacer–and in popular vulgarities such as Zombieland this is the case. However, I contend that in zombie movies what we see is frequently the opposite: not the brutal efficiency of the war machine given free reign to exterminate its foe, but the continual hesitation in the face of ontological uncertainty. In sum, I am hesitant to articulate a new ethics around “the animal” because I am not convinced this is a rigorous category, but by pursuing the ontological reformulations of its problematic I see a new understanding of ethics emerging, one in which the content of ethical statements–don’t eat meat, for example–are already grounded in the preceding transformation of the very category “ethics.”

Written by Greg Pollock

November 30, 2009 at 3:17 am

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  1. […] by Nick Srnicek The latest contribution to the Inhumanities/Speculative Heresy event can be found over at The Inhumanities – make sure to go check it out! Also don’t forget to check out An und fur sich’s […]

  2. This is really interesting. I’m actually working on a similar theme with Brackhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes–which films a series of autopsies. This film is so fascinating because it traces the ontological divide you articulate here: we want to see the dead body as a person, and yet it is also something else. We can’t identify this something else because we are so attached to the human. Brackhage’s film uses the camera to enact this uncertainty. It is, at different times, fascinated and repulsed by what it is seeing.

    There also seem to be historical reasons for this conception of being dead. Thomas Lacquer, for example, argues that our dis-ease with being around the dead stems the medicalization of death in the eighteenth century. It’s kinda too Foucauldian for my tastes, but it has some interesting insights. Prior to this century–and for most of the middle ages–people would literally walk by and breathe in the stench of the dead while going to church. Priests would say that the stench is not only a sign of transience on this earth but also a reminder of the eternal life that exists in heaven. As the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment occurs, suddenly dead bodies are identified with disease and cemetaries are pushed to the outskirts of town. In most histories, this shift is identified with suddenly “discovering” that dead bodies are unsanitary. But Lacquer points out that not only is this not true, but that the so called crusading physicians who made this argument knew it not to be true.

    The reason the dead body became an object of disgust, Lacquer argues, is because the dead body is no longer a reflection of the afterlife. Instead, it merely reminds people of death, of the loss of their own personhood after death. I see in the dead body, in other words, my own state of non-existence after death. Of course, films like Brakhage and the figure of something like the zombie might point to a different conception of death and the dead body that might point to something you suggest here.

    Roger Whitson

    December 1, 2009 at 9:31 am

  3. Roger, that is all good stuff to bring up, and your work on Brackhage sounds really interesting. I would be interested to talk more about how viewing autopsies through film, or other ways of looking, could move beyond the dead body as an object of disgust “because the dead body is no longer a reflection of the afterlife.” If the disgust at the corpse is bound up with 1) medicalization and 2) ontotheology, those both seem like constraints we would want to at least be able to challenge. Personally, I see this challenge as vital to political ecology, but I understand that the Foucauldian/Derridean register of “medicalization” and “ontotheology” is off-putting to some. At any rate, a conditioned response built around religious nostalgia does not useful.

    This also raises the question of “the uncanny valley,” the idea that representations of living beings that are very close but no cigar freak us out. The corpse is one example (and zombies are often explained in this way), but if we agree with Lacqueur then the uncanny valley is culturally negotiable–our culture just chooses not to negotiate with dead people. The “uncanny” would have to be more expansively theorized than as “that which freaks us out because it is too familiar and too alien,” to include also modes of acceptance, translation, community.


    December 2, 2009 at 11:29 am

  4. This would help me conceptualize on the upcoming International Seminar on I, We and the Other in New Delhi. Especially, the Donna Haraway thesis of stopping to make animals ‘Ontologically Killable’ in line with the opening up of a new ontology is worth pondering over. I am looking forward to post the deliberations of the seminar after the 22nd of this month and this is going to be really interesting affair as it talks of comparative themes of the west vs. the east. Thanks petbull.

    himanshu damle

    February 6, 2010 at 11:11 pm

  5. Himanshu, I’m glad I could help. I’ve bookmarked your blog and look forward to heading about the seminar.


    February 7, 2010 at 12:44 am

  6. Thanks for the reply. I am sending you the concept note for the seminar titled I, we and the Other. I would be interested in knowing your idea on the same.

    concept note:

    International Seminar


    “I, We and the Other: Asymmetries of Moral Evaluation”

    The other, across cultures, has been seen variously as a friend – an extension of oneself – or as a foe posing a threat to one’s freedom. The other has been seen by some as deserving our concern or respect, by some as an opportunity for solidarity or mutual transformation, and by some as a typically unwelcome practical, political or cultural limitation. The other can be the ethnic other, the cultural other, the religious other, the national other, the gendered other. The purpose of this seminar is to examine the relationship between various moral values and principles that either guide, or contribute to the assessment of one’s own deeds and the deeds of one’s community – whether at the level of family, tribe, class, group, village, state, nation, continent, species, planet – in relation to those whom one regards as the other, the outsider.

    The central questions for discussion and deliberation, therefore, shall be: What is a properly ethical approach to the other? What does it mean to respect the other, in his or her difference from myself? Do we, and should we, judge our own actions by the same moral yardstick with which we judge others? Do the notions of capability and care also apply to care of the self, or do the corresponding values essentially relate to a moral recognition of the other? How can moral psychology and moral epistemology help us to comprehend variations in the way ‘others’ understand and apply these values? Is the principle of universalisability as propounded by philosophers like Kant able to accommodate differential applications of moral standards? Are there comparable moral ideas in the Indian tradition (e.g. in commentaries on the Gita, or in Santideva) that offer equally good, or better, justifications for adapting moral theory and practice so as to make room for the nuances and contextual considerations that may call for such differential approaches?

    Some authors in the Indian tradition (Manu and Kautilaya, for example) prescribe different awards and punishments both in terms of quality and quantity for the identical action to different classes. It is hard to see how such a differential treatment could be justified in the present day world, which lays great emphasis on equality. At the same time, we need to ask whether preferential treatment to a part of the community can be justified. The seminar will also consider how groups who regard each other as the other can nonetheless join to act as a public without submerging their own identities. Finally, it will raise the question of how the achievement of a unified public can expand the scope for transnational solidarity among peoples.

    himanshu damle

    February 7, 2010 at 3:29 am

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