The Inhumanities

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Zombies and Ethics

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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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