Thursday, June 28, 2012

The house was quiet and the world was calm

by J J Cohen

[read Karl's fascinating post on lively carrion first]

My colleague Margaret Soltan has posted a beautiful meditation on a Wallace Stevens poem that, coincidentally, has been running through my head this week. The poem is about critical relations to inhabited spaces, creation, absorption, desire, worldliness, intimate ecologies, and meaning making. Its refrain ("The house was quiet and the world was calm") inhabits me because of its present truth. For the first time, both Katherine and Alex have gone to camp in West Virginia together. They departed Sunday for two weeks ... and the house is quiet and the world too calm. Like the reader in Stevens' poem I try to "become the book," to lose myself in work and thinking, but both reading and writing are difficult when domestic stillness stretches to such unaccustomed durations. I've accomplished things: "Ecomaterialism" is ready to go to press, my introduction to Prismatic Ecologies has come together well ... but, still.

I have also been pondering some lines from David Abram's book Becoming Animal, when he describes his realization that his house is angry after he returns from the hospital without his young daughter. The change in inhabitance disturbs the space. I read those lines somewhere over the Atlantic on my way back from Edinburgh and I rolled my eyes at them. This is the kind of psychological projection that a critic can get into so much trouble for indulging in. Yet Abram insists that his attunement to the house was not a projection, that lived space is a totality and when one of its bodies drops out of relation the whole system is off kilter, and that change is powerfully affective. I'm still not quite sure I believe that argument -- or, rather, I am not sure I can allow myself to say that I believe it. But I know that our house is quiet and its spaces too calm. Our home has become a place of long days of writing. There is creativity unfolding here, I hope, but something is palpably missing. That's why when Wendy comes home each evening we leave as quickly as we can -- out for dinner or a walk or both. The house is quiet and the world is calm. I'm sad (yes, I am very happy for Alex and Katherine who are having a great time at camp, but I am sad) and it feels like this house whose bustle is absent has become downcast.

Maybe this is my usual summer funk. But it feels different, deeper. I know that also means there's more possibility within it.

Like this home, I'm not much accustomed to quiet or to calm. I've been thinking about the observations Margaret excerpts from Martin Amis, about people being constantly on their phones because they do not like to be alone. Amis reads this unceasing electronic engagement as a symptom of a culture that has lost its ability to be introspective, lost its desire to self-commune. That hits home for me. There was a long period of my life when I craved solitude. Now, I am given a great deal of time alone (an academic life has moments of gregariousness but is inherently lonely; I am also at month twelve of eighteen months of leave, so I don't even have the classroom to anchor me) -- but I don't desire it as I once did. Seclusion can quickly become disconcerting. I don't even like traveling by myself as much as I once did. I try to be better about it, but still have a tendency to prevent solitary lulls. Yet I know that those private moments can be invigorating. I got one of my favorite blog posts out of a recent morning spent in Edinburgh by myself.

These have been hard days. I've been pondering a great deal the extent to which I really know myself, especially because a lesson of the past few months has been that I am more difficult to work with than I had supposed myself to be. I clearly need the time -- and the quiet house, and the calm world -- for some introspection, self communion, and maybe finding other ways to fill a house deprived of its children with community, with joy.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Forest Law and the Deer's Lively Carcass

from <a href=">here</a>
Laurent Millet, "L'herbier"

This week I'll be participating in the International Medieval Society - Paris's annual symposium, whose topic is animals. On Saturday, I'll be presenting a paper on forest law about which I wrote here long ago. In that post, most of which my dissertation swallowed up, I thought of the forest law only in terms of human interests and human anxieties, though I thought I was doing a lot to unsettle human pretensions to natural superiority. What Levi Bryant wrote in Democracy of Objects certainly applied to me: "while anti-humanisms rescue philosophy from its focus on individual minds, allowing us to discern the sway of far more impersonal and anonymous patterns and structures at work in the heart of thought and social relations, it by no means follows that anti-humanism has escaped anthropocentrism" (39).

This Saturday, and in what I know will be a thoroughly revised version in July at the New Chaucer Society, I'm going to think of the systems of the human and of the royal forest as nonhuman assemblages in which humans act and are acted upon, compelled to do irrational things, so far as they're concerned, to uphold the reason of the larger assemblage; and I'm going to remark on how irrational inconvenience some elements in an assemblage experience alerts us to the "withdrawn core" of the assemblage's constituent elements, in this case, people with leprosy and the deer. I could expand this insight to look at the forester and the sovereign as well.

Or I could if I had time. Because I have only 20 minutes, I don't really have space to do all I should do. So for that excuse, among others, what I'm sharing with you isn't anywhere near as accomplished as Jeffrey's extraordinary grey ecology paper. But it's good to share, and good for you, if you have time or interest, to share your comments with me. I might not have time to respond to them by Saturday, but I certainly will by July. Thanks for what insight you provide.


An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, concerns the problem of deer whose death violates the smooth operations of the forest. It runs as follows:
If any dead or wounded wild animal should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges; the flesh however should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.
Today I'm primarily concerned with the apparently charitable distribution of the deer's carcass. The law mandates that the carcass be confiscated or, more accurately, that it be returned to the king's control. The skin and head go to the nearest freemen, and ultimately from there, as G.J. Turner suggested long ago, to the crown, while the meat go to people with leprosy or, failing that, to the sick and the poor. In other words, the meat must be used; the law offers no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. Regardless of their condition, they cannot just be discarded.

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. It doesn't make obvious sense, however, to return the meat to the king's control, and then to take the trouble to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. While the law makes certain concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—it still requires that forester inconvenience himself with an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in at least two senses: first, thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries, and, I'm told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. A carcass left in thirteenth-century English woods wouldn't have taken long to putrefy. Second, the law required that the king's agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In sum, there's something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law is compelling the king and his agents to do.

I'm deliberately ascribing agency to the legal space of the forest. Towards the end of my paper, I will discuss the more obvious agencies of people with leprosy of the deer themselves, but mostly today I'll be presenting the legal system of the forest as itself possessing an agency in excess of human efforts and desires. Throughout my paper, implicitly and explicitly, I will be understanding all of these human, animal, and systemic efforts, obligations, and resistances through a posthuman understanding of agency inspired by the new materialisms, a body of work encompassing, more or less harmoniously, actor-network theory, vital materialism, object-oriented ontology, and so on. Thinking with this body of work helps me understand how humans are not the only significant actors in this situation of the deer's carcass; and it helps me be aware, as well, of the independent existence of the deer and forest law and, as well, people with leprosy. In a larger sense, I'm using this body of work to complicate and enrich our understandings of both responsibility and ethics.

What the king and his representative, the forester, must do is as inconvenient and possibly repulsive and dangerous as it is necessary. That necessity doesn't derive in any direct way from the king's own choices, but rather from the logic of royal authority itself, which encompasses the operations of the king, forester, poachers, freemen, and people with leprosy, deer and less-valued beasts, the forest as place and the forest as a legal space. Thus when I call the law's requirements “seemingly irrational,” I mean that they look irrational when judged from an exclusively anthropocentric perspective; from other perspectives,ones not necessarily human, the law makes perfect sense. In other words, we don't need to declare the law simply irrational, nor need we turn up a rational human benefit—say, in hygiene—for this food law, as scholars have done with so many others. Instead, we can work out how there's another, nonhuman reason at work, which puts humans to work for it.

The first of these is the system of the human itself, which operations we can discover by looking at analogous food requirements in the penitentials. The penitential's carrion laws proscribed humans from eating the meat of any animal they did not intend to kill. Moreover, some penitentials, particularly the earlier ones, demanded that the meat be distributed to pigs, dogs or, significantly, to homines bestiales, bestial men, humans in what Rob Meens identified as the outer circle of the human community.

To be sure, the penitentials may be irrelevant for an early thirteenth-century law: by this point, penitentials were a moribund genre, already being supplanted by more elaborate tools of spiritual guidance. Certainly, some evidence survives for the continued practice of the carrion laws in later medieval England, for example, in William of Canterbury's late-twelfth-century Life and Miracles of Thomas Becket, where a sheep injures itself, and its owner stabs it in the threat to kill it himself “lest it become carrion.”

But I don't think I need to demonstrate the continuing vitality of earlier carrion laws to read the penitentials with this forest law. Rather, I'm pointing out these earlier handbooks only to call attention to a similar logic at work in both. The confiscation of the carcass and its redistribution to dogs, or, in later periods, people with leprosy or the poor, repairs what the law demands be understood as an assault, depending on the law, on human or royal control over life and death in the forest.

The paired action marked some animal deaths as illicit; it enshrines human agency or the agency of dominant humans as legitimate, even while constraining or channelling that agency by turning humans into tools of the human system; it returned control over the dead animal and its flesh to the humans or dominant humans, even as it required humans to go without food to defend their own pretence at agential particularity; and it showed the scorn for the flesh and for anyone who would, in effect, share a meal with those not authorized to kill animals legitimately, or, put another way, for those not constrained to follow the dictates of the human or forest system.

In both the penitentials and the forest law, humans are made to refuse to eat certain meats, even if the meat might have been perfectly edible and desperately needed, and they were compelled to distribute this meat to eaters that were disdained, despised, or pitied. They're acting in the service of a larger system.

By the same logic, the distribution of carrion to people with leprosy should not be understood only as a freely chosen act of charity. The loss of enforested deer to violence seriously damaged the crown. Again, a seeming irrationality, this one of the forest system, helps us understand what humans are being made to do. Recently, S. A. Mileson's Parks in Medieval England has reasserted the centrality of hunting to the purpose and function of the forest, and Simon Schama, like other scholars, has observed that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The king needed the forest, as lesser nobles needed their parks and chases, and they fed that need despite their considerable expense.

Forests might generate some money, through forges and tanneries, through the extraction of turf and stone and wood, through fees for pannage rights and fines imposed for violating the forest law. But enforested land turned a much smaller profit than comparable nonforested land, and these meagre forest profits seem to have been cycled back into forest maintenance. Despite this, hunting parks were the last good that an impoverished aristocrat would give up. Instead of going without, they would dedicate themselves to these money pits, even at the cost of their own line's well-being.

The center of this drain was the deer itself, the focus on aristocratic violence for which the forests existed. Deer were great wastes of money, inefficient at converting their food to body mass, prone to disease and theft, destructive of ground cover and crops, needing the particular and expensive skills of parkers. Furthermore, as historians of medieval English hunting often observe, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the "quasi-sacred" things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton's On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, and justice themselves, along with salvage from the sea, as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can sell none of these without undoing his own position as king. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and the things that materialized his own authority—the deer and the forest system most notably—which drove him to expend energy and wealth on the maintenance of an animal almost by design resistant to any reductively rational explanation.

I'm not saying that the king would be a free actor were it not for the constraint of the dull, unthinking drag of the forest/royal system. It's not a matter, for example, of just taking the human as unbalanced by the inhuman and irrepressibly chaotic forces of the Real, whose energies remind us that no structure can live up to its pretences to rationality. It's a matter of recognizing something perhaps more terrifying, namely, that there's another reason at work in whose service the king is operating. I think we can strike a kind of compromise between these positions, however. The king's not just the object of another's agency. He's an actor in this forest system; he's choosing to engage in charity and to defend his rights; but he's also acting for others, who are making their choices, all of them imperfectly enmeshed in a forest assemblage that has them acting for it. The king's agency, like any agency, is shared in meshworks of agency and constraint, communication and miscommunication, in which what's irrational or unfair to one member might make perfect sense for another.

From Jane Bennett's "theory of distributive agency" in her book Vibrant Matter, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” The deer, poachers, the king, the king's royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, appetite itself, and perhaps, although this is hard to imagine, the thirteenth-century climate: within the forest system, all these have their own reason and own sense of the irrational, their own orders and anxieties. All are interconnected more or less harmoniously with others, all enabling and constraining or channelling the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Humans are a part of these meshworks of agency and objectification, and they shouldn't be thought of as the center, or as the only center. The king's at once acting to defend his royal position and being compelled to order behavior that may seem inconvenient to him and his servants. He's making a choice, and also having a choice made for him, and so too with everything in the assemblage of this forest law.

That some elements of a system feel themselves irrationally constrained indicates that these elements have an existence in excess of the operations of the system. Here, in my paper's final portion, I'm turning our attention to another insight from the new materialisms, specifically as developed by object-oriented ontology. The constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own motivations; that they have their own umwelt (see Democracy of Objects 63)—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality is what object-oriented ontology, as practiced, for example, by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, calls the “withdrawn core” of any object, in which, as Bryant writes, “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations.” Any object, which can be human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, whether briefly existing or seemingly perpetual, is inaccessible in its fullness to what any other unit does with it.

This insight leads us to recognitions that we wouldn't get if we pay attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or if we paid attention only to the irrational inconveniences and anxious compensations of dominant human existence. People with leprosy, for example, have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust, as Julie Orlemanski reminds us in a recent article. The forest law treats these people as the objects of charity, as a kind of machine for turning assistance into prayers. But lepers themselves might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes, but which also, I speculate, might make them potentially independent of further charitable donations. Though hailed as objects of charity, the leprous subject might not have needed or wanted a more or less intact or edible deer carcass that the forest law demanded they take. They might not have needed or wanted to serve as a disposal system for the forest system's failures.

Furthermore, recalling the existence of any unit's withdrawn core means we must recall that the deer has its own particular existence, that the deer's carcass has another, and that neither is an inert plaything for human reason. Whether alive or dead, the deer is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. If the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass's susceptibility to putrefaction witness to a stubborn liveliness, as well, outside of the operations of the forest law, or the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

Like other hunting laws, the law aims to control human behavior, in this case, serving as yet another injunction against poaching. Records of the practice of the law, however, witness to the deer's resistant bodies and activities, which the law can only hope to control after the fact. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of a hart that had come out the loser in mortal combat with one of its peers. Here we have death and violence that, through their indifference to the king, frustrates sovereign mastery of the forests. The deers' own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own murderous erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. For more on this point, which will have to be my final one, I advise you to look forward to Cary Wolfe's forthcoming Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, whose thoughts on the resistant bodies of factory-farmed livestock inspired my thinking here.


and that's all I have for now! Sometime between now and Saturday, I'm writing a final paragraph, which will have to be short, and I'll have to trim things back to keep it to 20 minutes. I'll probably have to cut the coroner/deodand paragraphs, for starters [edit: CUT! probably before you had a chance to read it]. What the last graph's going to say, apart from summarizing what's come before, I don't quite know yet.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Grey (A Zombie Ecology)

by J J Cohen

Below you will find version three of a project that has been with me for quite some time, investigating the overlap among zombies, ecotheory and object oriented philosophy.

A pop culture oriented version will appear next year in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (it was my Guest Scolar lecture at ICFA). The redaction below is substantially different, containing an extended meditation on color and ecology and a rather more theoretical framing. I composed the talk that became this essay for the Sensualising Deformity conference in Edinburgh (yes, I did more than contemplate rocks there). After some editing (it is too long), "Grey" will appear in a collection I'm putting together for the University of Minnesota Press, Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green.

Let me know what you think.


For Michael O’Rourke

I spent an afternoon in a silver grey wood, a dead wood on the banks of the Mississippi. Its lunar atmosphere a premonition. Nature morte. Lunatic. What colour is the hole in the ozone layer? A grey area?
                                                                                                                                                Derek Jarman, Chroma

Grey is the fate of color at twilight. As the sun’s radiance dwindles, objects receive less light to scatter and absorb. They yield to the world a diminishing energy, so that the vibrancy of orange, indigo and red dull to dusky hues. A grey ecology might therefore seem a moribund realm, an expanse of slow loss, wanness and withdrawal, a graveyard space of mourning. Perhaps with such muted steps the apocalypse arrives, not with a bang but a dimming. Or maybe ashen grey is all that remains after the fires of the world’s end have extinguished themselves, when nothing remains unburnt.
Yet this affective disposition in which greying signals depletion and lifelessness reveals only the stubborn embedment of our anthropocentricity: as if the earth greys to mourn with us, to lament the absence of our tread. Grey is a moment of mesopic vision, when the colors constituting the small portion of the spectrum humanly apprehensible recede, but they do not take the world’s vitality with them. The grey hour is liminal, a turning point at which owls, mosquitoes, monsters and the wind thrive, when stone cools for a while and continues its epochal process of becoming dust, when animals and elements continue indifferent to our proclivity to think that an evening’s color drain is a metaphor for human impermanence, a cosmic acknowledgment of our little fits of melancholy. Grey includes exhaustion, even death, but also reminds that mortality is a burgeoning of life by other means. Grey is unimpressed by fantasies of disaster and finality. We are too enamored of the red and blue of catastrophe – of a world destroyed in flame and flood – and of the etiolation that follows. We like to imagine our own end, and assume at our demise the world likewise terminates (fade to black) or that planet Gaia returns to the balance it possessed before apes became profligate humans (fade to deepest green). The apocalyptic imagination has difficulty discerning the vibrancy of grey. The gloaming is a place of life, but not necessarily in those sublime forms we expect life to assume. Despite our indolent habit of aligning dusk and evening with the deathly and the still, neither are terminal. Grey mornings inevitably arrive, with roiling fogs and air restlessly astir.
A sensual grey ecology is inhuman, but that does not render it misanthropic, disembodied or wholly foreign. Inhuman signifies “not human,” of course, and therefore includes a world of forces, objects, and nonhuman beings. But in-human also indicates the alien within (any human body is an ecosystem filled with strange organisms; any human collective is an ecosystem filled with strange objects), and requires as well a consideration of the violently inhumane.[1] Grey, polychrome hue of the in-between and the uncertain, a miscellaneous zone, is not easily circumscribed. Like a cloudbank, a grey ecology teems with varying densities of matter and shifting velocities: stormy thicknesses as well as serenely heterogeneous clumps (cloud after all comes from the same word as “clot” and “clod”), composites and microclimates. Grey rolls, thins, inspissates, comes on little cat feet. It’s an open aesthetic.
If an ecology is an oikos, a dwelling or a home, it must also include the one who writes about grey materiality while sitting at a laptop on a particularly fine morning just at the border of Washington DC, listening to traffic and birdsong through an open door. I know that nature is not outside with the melodies of trucks and finches, but resides also within this house (a structure built of trees, after all: birds are not the only architects of arboreal habitations), a home shared with a spiny tailed lizard named Spike and a basil plant and dust mites and a ridiculous number of small rocks I’ve brought indoors. This porous and fragile dwelling is built upon both life and death, and not just because its foundational soil is a seething expanse of decay and renewal, a necropolis of vitality. This field become a yard was at some point worked by enslaved people. Not far from here is the church attended by those transported into hard lives they did not choose, the ruins of the segregated school built for their descendants, the remains of a burial ground. When this little house was erected quickly in 1940, one of many hundreds for an influx of wartime workers, the neighborhood’s covenant declared what skin color and what religion would bar potential owners from possession. As I was reminded by a neighbor when we moved here, Jews like us were not allowed.
A grey ecology will not forget this difficult past, limned by exclusions and brutality. A community comes into being through a boundary. Forces, beings and things left outside dwell in an unsettled, “inexcluded” space. This liminal expanse marks the habitation of unfinished business. The story it conveys includes histories of injustice, trauma, violence. Grey is the realm of the monster, that which appears at the perilous limit between what we know and what we do not wish to apprehend, what we are and what we must not be, what we fear and what we desire. Like the monster, a grey ecology will often take anthropomorphic form. Our perceptions of the world are irremediably shaped by our humanity, and although we can attempt to discern what it is like to be a thing, “one can never entirely escape the recession into one’s own centrism.”[2] Grey is an expanse for what might be called disanthropocentric anthropomorphisms: a sweep in which an environmental justice may flourish, with its attention to lived human existence, as well as the vibrant matter, dark ecologies, and object orientations that are so much a part of the new materialism. In grey – a process more than a color -- can be discerned the inhumanity through which dominating notions of the human come into being, hegemonies that emerge through the sorting of who and what gets to dwell in the house and own a proper life, who and what will be excluded. Grey reveals the inhuman as a thriving of life in other forms, a liveliness even in death that demonstrates how the nonhuman is already inside, cohabitating and continuing. Grey is the human in the microbe and the stone as well as the virus and the rock in the human. It propels us beyond our own finitude, opens us to alien scales of both being (the micro and the macro) and time (the effervescent, barely glimpsed; the geologic, in which life proceeds at a billion year pace).[3] A grey ecology is an expanse of monsters, but that isn’t in the end such a dark place to dwell.
            Grey is the tint our flesh acquires as cells deprived of nutrients become energy for other creatures, for whom our demise is a flourishing. At this mortal boundary grey is undead – that strangely evocative word, the negative of a noun that is already a kind of ultimate negative. Undead names the zone of restless and perplexing activity from which monsters arrive, a sensual as well as epistemic threshold at which the familiar loses certainty. Un-dead marks a kind of contact zone between the human and the nonhuman, in which the human reveals the monster always already enfolded in whatever dispersed amalgamation we are.
A green ecology judges a culture by its regard for nature, where “nature” is typically regarded as an external entity, culture’s other. A grey ecology refuses such separations, and believes that the haunting of monsters reveal communal values, shared aspirations and lived ethics (the anthropomorphic) as well as the coinhabitance and alien thriving of the nonhuman (the disanthropocentric). Changes in the dominant monster manifest the restless processes of transformation. The undead with the most enduring history of haunting are no doubt ghosts: sublime, frighteningly aesthetic creatures with cerebral narratives and noble pedigrees, tracing their descent from Vergil, Shakespeare, James, Marx, Lacan and Derrida. The specters haunting Europe and its former colonies have a deep history and a long postcolonial reach. Yet these intangible spirits have yielded over the last decade to a relentlessly corporeal zombie onslaught. The discarnate enigma of The Turn of the Screw seems anemic compared to the harrowing eyewitness accounts of zombie apocalypse in Max Brook’s World War Z (2006), modeled on an oral history of the Second World War.[4] Our monsters are no longer ethereal and philosophical specters, but shambling, putrefying corpses. Existential riddles, ghosts and the vampires that followed them sought to challenge our minds. Now the undead just want to eat our brains. What’s at stake in this material turn, this movement from cognition to consumption, from subjectivity to grey matter, from ectoplasm to ashen flesh, to the human as yet another object in an object-filled world?
Whereas a ghost is a “soul without a body,” the zombie (according to Zora Neale Hurston in her seminal account of folklore in Haiti) is a body deprived of soul.[5] A corpse unearthed from the cemetery, the zombie is reanimated without possession of its personhood and forced into interminable labor on a Caribbean plantation. Zombies are therefore intimates of colonial history and the burgeoning of capitalism. Hurston published her research in 1938, and although zombies enjoyed a brief vogue in contemporary film they did not so thoroughly saturate pop culture until the last decade or so. Their Haitian origin has mainly been forgotten as the animated dead have migrated from film into novels, video games, and advertisements. With tiresome repetition the future now promises a zombie apocalypse, an end to all hope of righting an unjust world. Our inevitable fate is to become zombies ourselves, or to end within their insatiable stomachs.
Because they possess a subjectivity that makes them seem like us, a ghost or a vampire is a monster to which a connection is easily felt. Not so the zombie. Despite its human form, these undead are far less anthropocentric. Their barrier to desire is evident in the love poems in the recent collection Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry, replete with ironic lines like “gazing deep into your glazed eyes / you make me feel so vaguely alive.”[6] In variations like “I love you for your brains,” tongue in cheek effusions that replace soul with mere body are the best intimacies that zombie verses muster. Grey ecology, it seems, a space of foundering attachment, of withdrawal rather than collaborative composition. Yet to write poetry about zombies, to dress as them during “Zombie Runs” and to imagine at such great literary lengths their depredations enacts a kind of desire, indicating their monstrous pull. Ugly, gauche, and anything but ethereal, zombies possess a shadowy but undeniable magnetism. Like vampires they are embodied monsters; unlike their debonair cousins, zombies are nothing but their bodies. Whereas many familiar monsters are singular and alluring characters, zombies are a collective, a herd, a swarm. They do not own individualizing stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble. They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking and poorly dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay. They bring about the end of the world. They are the perfect monster for a human world more enamored of objects than subjects, in which corporations are people and people are things.
The notion of an impending zombie apocalypse is so widespread that a bestselling handbook instructs readers on the supplies, shelter and proper selfish behaviors necessary to survive the event. Over a million copies have been sold of Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival GuideComplete Protection from the Living Dead.[7] Its ardor for a doomsday when the earth is so catastrophically unbalanced that humans forfeit their dominion is a translation into a monstrous register of the vibrant genre of eco-catastrophe, what James Lovelock gloomily calls The Revenge of Gaia.[8] Inspired perhaps by the success of Brooks’s book as well as the triumph in the United States of a secular apocalyptic imagination (the intoxication of imagining all things coming to their catastrophic end), the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recently published the graphic novel Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. The book is described as “a fun new way of teaching about emergency preparedness.”[9] The CDC also offer a tongue in cheek webpage devoted to the management of virally induced zombie plagues, where the following announcement appears:
If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation … CDC and other federal agencies would send medical teams and first responders to help those in affected areas.[10]
Viewers of the AMC series The Walking Dead and readers of the graphic novels on which it is loosely based know that the CDC will not live up to any of these promises. In Season One episode six of the television series, the Atlanta headquarters of the CDC is self-incinerated after its last remaining scientist fails to identify any means of combating the agent reanimating the brain stems of the dead. To the survivors seeking its refuge, the Centers for Disease Control promise knowledge and safe harbor. The institution delivers neither. Stealing a topos from Richard Matheson’s vampiric zombie novel I Am Legend (1954), the lone scientist who mans the abandoned headquarters has been traumatized by the death and subsequent reanimation of his wife. His experiments have demonstrated that whatever agent causes corpses to become ravenous zombies has already infected the living. To be human means to inhabit the zombie’s juvenile form. The scientist can see no escape from the future’s bleakness, despite his frantic efforts to restore the past. He blasts the CDC to fiery pieces, perishing in the explosion. The scene is typical of the zombie’s doom-laden domain, an out of kilter ecology which systematically robs family, neighborhood, city and nation of protective power. Grey, the ashen shade that colors Atlanta after the blast vaporizing the CDC, is the color that moves the earth towards its ecological destiny as The World Without Us.[11]
The zombie menaces the integrity of our systems of belonging, both metaphorical (the nation, the family) and literal (the body). Like the meteors, plagues, floods, alien invaders, and personified earth that also populate the apocalyptic imagination, the advent of the zombie heralds the termination of human hegemony. The sleepers of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later awaken to a reconfigured world, a history that is literally post-human. They are tasked with navigating a landscape of catastrophe, but do so without much hope. They suffer so that their audience will not have to. Such narratives are not alarmist, but instead are excellent at inculcating passivity. The world we know may well be coming to its horrible and human-caused close. It is perversely reassuring to be told that there is not much we can do about this grey ecological advent besides spectate and carry on.
Because the word zombie migrated from Africa to Haiti to the United States and thence to Europe, zombies might seem transnational and epochal, but that does not mean they are not historicizable. George Romero’s ghouls in Night of the Living Dead, for example, offered “an allegorical condemnation of the atrocities of Vietnam, violent racism, and the opposition to the civil rights movement.”[12] Like all monsters, zombies are metaphors for that which disquiets their generative times. But while it is clear that images of the violence in Vietnam resonated with the early viewers of Romero’s film, few who watch today will associate that war with the movie’s profaned bodies. Yet Night of the Living Dead remains powerful forty-four years later. No single interpretation can capture a monstrous totality, no matter how persuasive that analysis might be. Monsters are more than the contexts that attended their births: they move through spaces even more potent than their own bodies. A monster is best understood as an extension of and collaboration with the unsettled ecology in which it dwells.
Zombies seem wholly natural: they are “just” dead human bodies, after all. Yet their haunting is the product of prosthetics, special effects, and digital enhancement: they are among the most industrially mediated of monsters. Multiple technologies have aided the exponential growth of the zombie population. Anyone with a smart phone, friends, and inexpensive make-up can create a zombie video for You Tube. Zombies are the perfect fodder for munitions-centric action films and video games (and sometimes, as with the Resident Evil series, it is impossible to tell the two apart). While social media can enable us to be more connected, more affiliated, more humane, the callous culture of the internet can also trigger a profound affective disconnect. Zombies are its perfect monster. They are human beings against whom the most horrendous violence may be ethically perpetrated. They are to be shot through the head, and such execution is never a war crime. Offering the possibility of a murder that doesn’t count, the zombie is the perfect monster for guilt free slaughter. They are also relentless. Video games require enemies that turn us into zombies, pounding away at the FIRE button without cessation and without remorse. Maybe that’s why games used to be marketed as enjoyable, but now they simply announce themselves as addictive.[13]
Our dreams used to be bucolic, pastoral, green. Now we fantasize the past in shades of violent crimson. The Gaia Hypothesis in its many guises offers either an agrarian or georgic reverie of subsistence. We do not imagine the past in such pacific frames anymore: now prehistory is a space for eating meat, running, and having our genes inalterably set to propel us towards destructive choices (evolutionary biology in its pop forms is the best thing to ever happen for white male privilege, because what used to be horrendous can now be naturalized as a response to environmental conditioning). Zombies are proliferating at the same time as our reigning fad diet is the Paleolithic, extolling the consumption of raw foods.[14] Meat loving and contemptuous of grains, the Paleo Diet renounces agricultural humanity for a fantasy of primitive hunter-gatherers who devoured what they killed or snatched with their own hands, a primal masculine ecology. Everyone was supposedly healthier when they resembled Bear Grylls, despite the fact that most hunter-gatherers probably lived very short lives that terminated in the stomachs of predators. Like the “Born to Run” movement, which insists that human bodies were designed on the savanna to run long distances without shoes, this diet is propelled by a fantasy that the past was a better space, and that the current imperfections of our bodies were in distant history its flawless adaptations. The Paleo Diet, like the Zombie Diet, imagines that it is best to consume without adding culture to your food (do not process what you devour), and that what we eat should arrive through no intermediary (nature offers bounty enough). We might even be tempted to label both the Paleo and Zombie diets green: what could be more natural, more eco-friendly, than a culinary regime that leaves so small an environmental footprint? In the end, however, zombie diets are actually the more sustainable, since humans are the most neglected meat in a flesh-loving culture. Zombies know that deer, horses, and humans all make good eating, and they were early practitioners of snout to tail dining. A grey ecology has very little waste – or, rather, that which would be waste is revealed as intimate to life in another form.
Environmental justice is a mode of analysis that urges close attention to the populations paying the highest price for the comfortable modes of living enjoyed by elites. In Stacy Alaimo’s words, “environmental justice insists upon the material interconnections between specific bodies and specific places, especially the peoples and areas that have been literally dumped upon” (Bodily Natures 28). These are the poor and the underserved: those who live downstream from toxic chemical spills, those whose drinking water has been poisoned, those whom economic necessity compels to mine toxic substances without proper protective gear. Racism is as environmental as it is social (Bodily Natures 28). The undead as another category of “unthought” share much with such victims, most of whom suffer in their bodies for ecological devastation. The state of undeath is frequently triggered by environmental hazards: radiation, toxic chemical spills, viruses. Racism is intimately entwined within monsterization, and so it is perhaps not surprising to discover that the zombie offers a racialized body. Never individualized, zombies present the single human collective about whom we can without hesitation speak in terms of determinative mental traits, communal bodily designators, and stereotyped characteristics. Zombies offer a permissible groupthinking of the other, the slough where we find ourselves besmirched by modes of thinking we claim to have surpassed. We feel no shame in declaring their bodies repulsive. They eat disgusting food. They possess no coherent language; it all sounds like grunts and moans. They desire everything we possess. They are a danger from without that is already within. We need to erect walls, secure borders, build fortresses, and amass guns against their surging tide. Applied to any other group, such homogenizing reduction and obsession with physicality, communal menace and fantastic consumption would be intolerable. But the zombie is a body from which the person has departed, so we can talk about them without worrying about bigotry.
The word zombie came into English by way of Haiti, where it arrived from Africa along with that island’s population of enslaved peoples.[15] The folkloric zombie is a reduction of person to body: an utterly dehumanized laborer, compelled relentlessly to toil, brutally subjugated even in death. Old tropes gain new life in the contemporary zombie’s body: regardless of its skin color, we speak of the undead in terms inherited from racialist discourse.  This undeath of some fairly ugly rhetoric suggests that, despite the fervent assertions of some political commentators, the United States is nowhere near post-racial. As The Walking Dead TV series made clear in an episode entitled “Vatos” (1.4), featuring a Latino “gang” whose bluster hides the fact that they are caring for the elderly in abandoned nursing home, life after the zombie apocalypse does not mark a radical break for everyone. Guillermo, the leader of the group and the nursing home’s former custodian, declares that things didn’t really change all that much once the zombies appeared. Survival has always been difficult.
Jacques Derrida obliquely predicted the zombie advent (where zombies convey real human suffering) when he published a ghostly book, Specters of Marx, critiquing the triumphalism that attended the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before we start celebrating the end of history or ideology, Derrida wrote, we should recall
Never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity … instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.[16]
These words have become only more true since Derrida composed them in 1993. Our exultant self-satisfaction at communism’s end – our very love of things coming to ends – blinds us to abiding, proliferating human suffering. From specter to zombie: is it any wonder that an ardor for the end of history has been swept along by an apocalypse that involves “violence, inequality, exclusion, famine … innumerable singular sites of suffering”? The zombie figures the return of the injustices we quietly practice against people we prefer to keep dim in a twilight that marks a willed blindness.
In its limbo of body enduring beyond death, the zombie offers a vision of an afterlife that we have decided is otherwise impossible. Imagine there’s no heaven, no hell below us, and we get the endless twilight of the zombie apocalypse, a place indifferent to good and evil, a hereafter without gods. Yet the Walking Dead are also very much of this world. We are haunted by zombies because we experience embodiment as a drag against the internet-induced fantasy of incorporeality.Perhaps we no longer dream of ghosts because we have become them. We disidentify with zombies by slaughtering them en masse, allowing us to sustain our desire for an electronic realm where we are freed from fleshly restraint. Battling zombies is a wild liberation -- or at least a powerful vehicle for our fantasy that we can escape our own embodiedness and become high-speed avatars, quick souls divorced from slow flesh, from our own worldedness.[17] Paradoxically, however, a bond of desire continues to entwine us with the zombie we murder. During a television interview to promote Land of the Dead (2005), George Romero asserted that should zombies actually appear he would offer himself to be bitten so that he could live forever. As Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry observe in “A Zombie Manifesto”: “The irony is that while the statement prompts us to ask what kind of life that would be, it reveals that our fascination with the zombie is, in part, a celebration of its immortality and a recognition of ourselves as enslaved to our bodies.”[18] And lovers of the world we inhabit as well: we will stay here forever even if the price is undeath.
Zombies are a kind of ultimate enemy, because they are so utterly inhuman … and yet we the living always turn out to be worse than the zombies we fight. We form our collectives in order to do battle with these monsters, and then we turn on each other and display a zombie-like aggression against what should be our community. In Night of the Living Dead, the “hero” Ben participates in but survives the violence practiced within the besieged farmhouse. Emerging from the place the next day he is shot by the police. The Walking Dead series seethes with brutality perpetrated by the living against each other, offering a sustained meditation on southern US racism and class enmity. Its cast of traumatized men also expose as a lie the idea that zombies have no feelings. Men in the narrative have trouble articulating needs, desires, and emotions; when they do, disaster ensues. The zombies meanwhile are not emotionally dead; they are unremittingly expressive -- of anger, of insatiable hunger, of trauma. They are raw. The zombies embody what the men feel.
To return to the “Vatos” episode of The Walking Dead and its ecology askew: though sometimes too saccharine, the narrative of the Latino “gang” brilliantly juxtaposed a fortress-like industrial building where the elderly had been placed to spend their last days with the transformed streets of Atlanta, an urban space made strange because traversed by nonnormative bodies. The zombies crowding the city blocks offered the corporeal forms communities typically render invisible, now released from their warehousing in assisted living centers, group homes, mental hospitals, and hospices to fill spaces once purged of all signs of non-ablebodiedness. We live in a disability-fearing, youth-loving, death-phobic culture. We reduce people to bodies and exile this flesh from our sight. When the elderly and the disabled are institutionalized to dwell secluded from public view, when cognitive and physical disability are conflated first with mere corporeality and then with the moribund, when we associate the end of life with the smell of disinfectant and the scrubbed walls of a hospital, when bodies simply vanish after the person inside perishes, quietly carted away by people paid a trifling wage to ensure that we do not have to stand in the presence of a corpse, to stand in the presence of our own mortality, then the zombie offers a chance to behold our bodily future. What lies ahead for most of us is disability, and for all of us is death. The zombie is the perishable carnality that we hide from ourselves, the declaration of our own thingly existence.
The zombie’s decay is not an indication of its deadness. The zombie is our window to the visceral world to which we have always belonged and into which we are ultimately absorbed as food for growth. It’s a world we close off from ourselves and yet yearn to see. We know that we are something more and something less than human, yet we hide that knowledge from ourselves. Surrounded by injunctions to conceal, costume and enjoy, we outsource the corpse to morticians, health care personnel, hospice workers and custodians. The zombie vividly exhibits the indifference of our materiality to the supposed superiority or control or beauty of the subjectivity that is supposed to reside within, grey life in death. Decomposition is the flourishing of bacteria, the autonomy of the world, an unyielding demonstration of the inhuman agency that resides in the pieces and substances that we totalize for a while into a body we call ours. Decay is a process of transformation. It seems final, fatal, and terminal, but this activity is future directed, creative and uninterested in our mourning.
Such inhuman indifference finds its human parallel in our propensity to regard others in ways patently inhumane, a withdrawal of ethical relation. As I compose this essay the news has been full of stories of cannibalism labeled, tongue in cheek, as signs of the advent of the zombie apocalypse. A man in Miami high on bath salts was shot by the police while chewing the face from a homeless man. The event illustrates some profound human failures: of a social safety net that should ensure a world where indigent people do not have to sleep under bridges, of a health care system in crisis. To say that a mentally ill substance abuser and a person without a home should be omens of a zombie apocalypse is to guard ourselves from knowledge we possess but prefer to dismiss: that we are a class riven society, that ablebodiedness is impossible to maintain, that we are in the end too selfish to care adequately for the elderly, the impoverished, the disabled. There are no monsters visible at such horrific encounters, at such foundering of our sympathy, only us.
Humans ought never be reduced to the bare life of an object. Yet our inclination to imagine that things have no agency, vitality or autonomy also deserve interrogation. Thingly existence is very different from existence reduced to inert thingness. What if the world is not passive? What if objects are livelier than we suppose? In the zombie’s ongoing putrefaction, in its inability to remain still long, in its status as animated body indifferent to human subjectivity is evident what has been called an Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Graham Harman defines this thing-centric mode of philosophical analysis as one in which “individual entities of various different scales … are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos” and “these entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations.”[19] OOO is a nonanthropocentric philosophy in which things possess agency, autonomy, and ultimate mystery. The walking dead offer what might be called a ZOO, a zombie oriented ontology which makes evident the objectal status of the body as a heterogeneous concatenation of parts, working in harmonious relation, or exerting their own will, or entropically vanishing into an ecology of other forces, other things. The zombie becomes organs without a body, an assemblage of autonomous zones without a necessary totality. The zombie is the inhuman reality of the body, our composition by volitional objects that sometimes work together and sometimes do not, as well as the dependence of this composing process upon an agentic, active nonhuman world. We don’t like to behold our own viscerality, our own material composition, and the zombie is therefore repugnant. Obscure, worldly, challenging and embodied, the zombie’s grey is also strangely beautiful.
Like dragons and giants, the walking dead are transcultural monsters, haunting nearly every geography and history. Our hope and our fear that death is not the end of life amount to same thing, yielding gods who rise from the dead to redeem us as well as humans who rise from the dead to feed upon us. Yet the world is seldom so small as this anthropocentric feeding and believing cycle would posit. A vigorous tradition of animated corpses unfolds (for example) in medieval Icelandic texts, where the sagas speak of a revenant called the draugr or aptrgangr who once interred will not remain still. In Grettir’s saga, we learn of Glam, a pagan from Sweden hired by a farmer to tend sheep on a haunted mountainside.[20] Glam refuses participation within the farmhouse community, and will not attend Christmas services or even fast before the holy day.[21] He is murdered by an unseen monster during a snowstorm, and his employer finds it impossible to bring the corpse to Christian burial. Once interred in a cairn – beneath a heft of stones that cannot hold him down -- Glam begins haunting the farm, riding atop its roof at night and descending to smash to pieces the bones of any animal or human foolish enough to slumber nearby. The young warrior Grettir offers to rid the farm of thisaptrgangr, this “again walker.” In life Glam had been “extremely large … a strange appearance, with wide-open blue eyes and wolf-grey hair” (32), and in death “large and horribly deformed, with strange oversized features” (35): an intimacy of the pre- and postmortem. Grettir wrestles with this monster furiously, destroying parts of the house and then tumbling through the door:
Glam, now off balance, came crashing out of the house with Grettir on top of him. Outside it was bright in the moonlight, with gaps here and there in the cloud cover. On and off, the moon shone through. Just as Glam fell the clouds moved, revealing the moon. Glam stared up at the light, and Grettir later said that this sight was the only one that ever scared him. (35)
At this moment when Grettir himself seems undead (“he lay between life and death”), Glam curses his foe, declaring that he will never reach more than half his strength, that he will forever fear the dark. Grettir recovers, decapitates Glam, and places the head against the buttocks, ensuring the monster will not return. Glam’s prediction will, however, hold true. Grettir forever fears darkness and isolation. His death will unfold as a result.
            Glam is clearly the walking dead, but not exactly a zombie in the contemporary sense. He murders, but not for food; after death his personhood endures within his body. Yet the episode well illustrates something lurking within but often hidden by modern zombie narratives: the twilight environmental aesthetic of the undead. Zombies are creatures who have no need of shelter. They do not build. They exist in an uncultured state. Perhaps they incarnate our fantasies of nature as an exterior and inimical force, our ecophobia.[22] They are also in the end too separate from their worlds, too solitarily human. Zombies never break anthropomorphism. Humans living and undead continue to inhabit a shared and limited ambit. Even if they sometimes devour animals, zombies generally eat only live human beings, not each other, never plants. Their limited diet is evidence enough of how circumscribed their monstrosity remains. Creatures of relation, found only in herds, their insistent human connection also constitutes a silent sociality, one that disallows the invention of wider modes of worldly inhabitance. Unlike some of the lonely bodies described by Object Oriented Philosophy – dim, rogue and dark objects, things that recede infinitely from relation, objects that cannot ever directly touch – zombies are unremittingly gregarious.[23] They do not thrive in solitude but seek others with whom to compose their vagrant herd. A zombie is a body in insistent relation, but only with other human bodies.
Zombies could learn much from their forebears. Frankenstein’s Creature, who apprehends the language of the earth through the groaning of glaciers in the Alps, who is spotted most often in resplendent, icy spaces, knows as undead Glam does that a continuity binds body and world. Glam could have taught our modern monsters the potency of lunar radiance, of dwelling at margins, of trackless snow. The love of icescapes shared by Frankenstein’s Creature and Glam, expanses where the movement of the earth is constant, suggests that their undeath is perhaps the same as the animation of that which was never supposed to have held life. They are undead as the world is undead – which is to say, that the world is differently alive. Monster, human and world are trans-coporeal. I take that term from Stacy Alaimo, who coins it to designate the “entangled territories of material and discursive, natural and cultural, biological and textual” (Bodily Natures 3), where “concern and wonder converge” in a material ethics that involves “the emergent, ultimately unmappable landscapes of interacting biological, climatic, economic, and political forces,” where “human corporeality” intermeshes with the “more-than-human” (2).
And so Glam’s power is not fully exerted until he is outdoors, in those wild spaces that during his life as a shepherd he dwelled. His curse is delivered only when clouds cease to obscure the moon, when the cold night is bathed in a radiance that makes Glam’s eyes glisten. A being of lunar luminescence, broken stones, and blizzards, Glam in his undeath is that against which we build our houses, the excluded as well as the inhuman. The aptrgangr, the again-walker is a monster whose life in death makes us realize the precariousness of our own dwellings, of our lives: the weakness of our doors and roofs, the penetrative power of the moon, storms and night. This inhuman ecology is a part of our Zombie Oriented Ontology, one in which we realize it is not simply the human body that is an assemblage of discordant, agential and envitalized objects, but the earth itself. “Undead” means “differently alive.” The very ground we walk upon, our future tomb, is alive in its supposed inertness, forever on the move, a foundation as well as our ruin, the undead material from which we construct our worlds. No wonder our zombies revive through the agency of inhuman but fully mundane agents like radiation and viruses.
            A kakosmos of flowing crimson and grey body parts autonomously alive, the zombie aesthetic is disturbing, and thereby fruitful to think with.[24] Yet in the end I wish we could have our zombies without desiring so ardently an apocalypse to accompany them. Apocalypse is ultimately a failure of the imagination, a giving up on the future instead of a commitment to the difficult work of composing a better present. Those who dream of the purgation of our problems rather than deliver themselves to the labor of repair choose an easier path. No wonder the zombies devour them. To be undead might mean something more than to inhabit a terminal world, a vastness reduced to the grey of an earthbound despair. Zombies without apocalypse might offer a future in which we recognize the suffering, the possibilities, the potency and the dignity of our fellow humans and our fellow nonhumans alike: grey as the color of unexpected life.

Epigraph taken from Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Color (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). I would like to thank the audiences in Orlando and Edinburgh who gave me valuable feedback on this essay, as well as China Miéville and Kamillea Aghtan for their critical responses.
[1] I will quietly argue throughout this essay that a grey ecology is consonant with scholarly work being conducted under the rubrics “object oriented” and “flat” ontology, and cannot exclude a consideration of ethics, especially in the form of environmental justice. Profoundly helpful in framing this invesitigation have been Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) and Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
[2] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) 80. On the unavoidability of anthropocentrism see also 64. Bogost’s work, like that of Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant and the other writers associated with object oriented philosophy, is often carelessly accused of possessing no evident ethics or politics. Yet thickening human understanding of the inhuman world and interrogating relations to it is an ethical practice (and in the case of Morton and Bryant, one conducted within an explicitly ethical mode). See especially Tim Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) and Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011). I am attempting in this essay a humane account of a subject ethically, ontologically and phenomenologically messy, as Jane Bennett accomplishes through her refusal to pathologize hoarding in her essay “Powers of the Hoard: Further Notes on Material Agency” in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Oliphaunt Books / punctum, 2012) 237-69.
[3] In writing these lines I am thinking both of Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008), especially his disruptive notion of the arche-fossil; and, conversely, Paul Virilio, Grey Ecology, trans. Drew Burk (New York: Atropos Press, 2009) about the scale and the power of finitude, as well as the necessity of rethinking progress narratives.
[4] World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (New York: Random House, 2006).
[5] “The stereotypical zombie is essentially the opposite of such a ‘ghost’: it is a soulless body, rather than a disembodied soul.” In Peter Dendle, “Zombie Movies and the ‘Millennial Generation,” Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, ed. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011) 175-86, at 177. For the zombie as body without soul, see Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper and Row, 1938) 179.
[6] Sean O’Neil, “Visceral Love” in Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry, ed. Rob ‘Ratpack Slim,’ Sturma (Long Beach, CA: Write Bloody Publishing, 2011) 46.
[7] The Zombie Survival GuideComplete Protection from the Living Dead (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003).
[8] James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia : Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - And How We Can Still Save Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2006)
[9] Downloadable at:
[11] The World Without Us is the title of a best selling book by Alan Weisman (NewYork: St Martin’s Press, 2007) that imagines life on the planet should its human population vanish: a delirium of buildings falling apart, forests eagerly expanding, subways aflood with cleansing water, farms that had been sustained by chemical interventions reverting to wilds, human traces reduced to thin lines in the geological strata and some lingering synthetic molecules.
[12] Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2010) 14.
[13] Karl Steel made that point to me via Twitter and it seems exactly right.
[14] See the multimedia spectacle of website at
[15] For the Haitian context of the zombie see Franck Degoul, “’We are the Mirror of your Fears’: Haitian Identity and Zombification,” trans. Elisabeth M. Lore inBetter off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011) 24-38.
[16] Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 2004) 85.
[17] Peter Dendle maps the “relationship between history’s least energetic monster and history’s most energetic generation” in “Zombie Movies and the ‘Millennial Generation.’” Quotation at 181.
[18] Lauro, Sarah Juliet and Karen Embry, “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism,” boundary 2 (2008):88.
[19] A fuller discussion of OOO may be found in the second half of Harman’s recent bookPrince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne:, 2009) and Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010), as well as the collection The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne:, 2011).
[20] Grettir’s saga, ed. Örnólfur Thorrson (Rekyavik, Mál og menning, 2004); trans. Jesse Byock, Jesse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). References by chapter number.
[21] “I liked the customs better when men were called heathens,” Glam declares, “and I want my food without tricks” (32). References to Grettir’s saga are by chapter number in Byock’s translation.
[22] “Ecophobia” is David Sobel’s coinage in Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society, 1996).
[23] This taxonomy of bodies according to their luminescence and relation-making (a list also includes “bright”) is taken from Levi Bryant, who uses it throughout his work. For an especially lucid explication see his blog post here:
[24] “Kakosmos” is Bruno Latour’s wonderfully messy term in Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) 99.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Geologic in Scotland

by J J Cohen

Yesterday I returned from Edinburgh, where I gave a paper with little stone in it.

On the long plane ride home I read David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. The book has problems: the cliche of the educated Western man who comes to a better sense of mindfulness via journey through enchanted Nepal; a proclivity to speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, as if their earthiness were universal and uniformly affirmative; a disdain for technology, which becomes flattening and estranging (I read Abram through the technology of a book, on a plane where if I flipped a button the screen embedded in the seat in front of me displayed three camera views of the exterior through which I became an intimate of transatlantic clouds). Yet Abram argues for an active ecological materiality that has much in common with the new material feminisms as well as object oriented philosophy. He arrives at his conclusions through a different road (a little Deleuze, a lot of phenomenology), but what he writes is consonant. And beautiful.

I found myself haunted by some lines which unintentionally resonate with some words from Derrida I'd been thinking about:
But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? ... What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders? What if the curious curve of thought is engendered by the difficult eros and tension between our flesh and the flesh of the earth? (4)
This language of inhuman being, Abram writes, possesses not words but rhythm, movement, animation; not representations but participations, dances, presencings (11). If stone tells a story, I am certain it speaks in such a tongue.

Taxi from the airport and I am trying to remember Edinburgh. Jamie narrates as he drives: the idiocy of politicians and their betrayals; the prodigality of the queen, who keeps an estate to visit once a year; the construction of a tram he does not want; bleak futures for the young. When he speaks of those who have too much love for immigrants I observe that Africa alone possesses indigenes. He laughs.

Hiking to Arthur's Seat to battle jet lag. The sun settles in its late northern way, smearing clashes of orange and violet across a dusk strangely blue. A cold wind rises at the peak, where a silver disc marks arrival. I am thinking of the silliness of calling the mountain after Arthur, beloved of the Welsh and English, but this is the queen's park after all. The last of the sun is deepening final purples across the Firth of Forth. As I sit on a rock that Arthur never sat upon, the water's other name comes to me: Linne Foirthe. I remember only because like Firth of Forth the words resound.

Twenty years and more ago I sat at the same peak: in the morning, with a crowd, owning a short past and small prospect. At this dusk I'm alone. In hiking I'd feared the cloy of personal history, feared seeing that younger me for whom I don't possess enough compassion, but the wind from the Firth is brisk, deeper, yielding geologic thoughts. The chill of this stone on this night is also the epochal cool of 350 million years. Arthur's Seat is an extinct volcano, a remnant from Scotland's childhood as land of rocky fire. Here the local physician James Hutton observed igneous expanses that were once magma, and saw they had been thrust through oceanic sedimentary stone. In this intercut (stone from fire, stone on land from the sea) Hutton discerned the logic of the earth, a lithic writing or geographesis in which he glimpsed deep time. Hutton was one of many scientists to discern in the earth its native temporality, its persisting but slow liveliness. On the way to the Seat I passed a sweep of the Salisbury Crags now called "Hutton's Section," a space at which when this eighteenth-century physician attended to the inhuman time of their record the rocks imparted a story. Arthur's Seat is the gift of slow uplift and erosion: formed in the seabed, penetrated by volcanic energies, scraped to a craggy mound by the sandpaper of glaciers. When Hutton hiked Arthur's Seat he beheld a world of sea and stone, heaviness and inestimable force, a restless world in which humans and gods are upstarts, unreadable in geology's archive.

The National Museum of Scotland narrates its earliest history through confederation with stone. The basement level is dedicated to "Beginnings" and "Early People," collections arranged around a record simultaneously petric and human, profound in its temporality and yet embodied, immediate. James Hutton adorns a placard announcing "Geologic Time." Its chronology advances in thick segments of hundreds of millions, with humans at the tiny flatness of "0 Million Years Ago." That this past is not  indifferent to the creatures curating its vastness is suggested at the exhibit announcing "Scotland's History Starts Here." A boulder marbled white, black, grey forms the totality of the beautiful display. Everyone who walks by touches the stone: a needed reassurance once they learn that it has been transported from an outcropping in the country's northwest whose stones originate about two and a half billion years ago. These are the oldest rocks in Europe, and among the eldest of the world. Yet the signage also announces that "In the rocks called the Lewisian Gneiss, Scotland's history emerges from the depths of time." The stones were already the bedrock of Scotland, even though the Precambrian life forms coeval with them were microbes, and any supercontinent to which they clung predates Pangaea by three or four iterations.

As I watched short documentaries on geologic and glacial Scotland, I was struck by how their narration of Scotland's lithic prehistory offers the same kind of very human stories that nations like to tell themselves about their continuity and primal coherence, especially in the face of briskly heterogeneous realities. I loved the repeated emphasis on Scotland as a portion of Britain that arrived from elsewhere. During the Silurian period the Scottish portion of the island was pushed by wandering Laurentia into the rest of Europe. Its meeting with what was to become England was not easy: a violent fusing that thrust up mountain ranges, that was protested by the molten fire of a multitude of volcanoes. Scotland drifted with its new companion to the equator as part of Pangaea, becoming a desert; and then northward with Eurasia to cool and flood. The rising sea ensured that Britain (as this conjoined twin would now be called) would seem an isolated entity, that Scotland's primal affinities with lands having nothing to do with the unwanted expanses to its south could be forgotten. But geology speaks the truth of history. Though Scotland has been scoured by glaciers, its primal life wiped from its stone under the weight of frozen water and then the force of floods, its stones hold the story of its endurance.

Although it does feature some bones, clothing, and even a Viking grave, the "Early People" exhibit continues the composite petric-human narrative instigated in "Beginnings." Material culture like brooches, buckles, pendants and pins are displayed in anthropomorphic cases that resemble copper robots walking across the museum floor. Incised stone slabs offer most of the stories. A placard entitled "Knowing Stone" speaks of stone's cross-cultural as well as specifically Scottish use in "every human activity ... from making fire to making an impression." Homes, weapons, domestic tools, items, religious objects and jewellery were all created from stone. Scotland's geologic diversity enabled a sophisticated stone knowledge through which the properties of various types of rock were activated and allied with to create objects specific to their abilities. Exotic stones were meanwhile imported and treasured.

Stone's archiving power is continually activated, especially to inscribe stories. Through that repeated and sensuous contact between durable rock and desiring hand narratives were incised and bequeathed. Sometimes these stories remain loquacious after centuries. Latin engraved on a sarcophagus speaks in a language we can still comprehend; a cross speaks the penetration of a religion still practiced; an engraving of a boar or sheep is a pleasant reminder of how long these animals have companioned us. Other narratives are more reticent. The Papil Stone is cut with images of monks, a cross, and a lion that is likely Saint Mark. But it also displays anthropomorphic bodies with animal visages, and two long beaked avian creatures pecking at what looks to be a severed human head. Many stones feature Pictish symbols that reassure with their beauty, intrigue with their inscrutability, and seem to be part of this geologic story of Scotland as well as a challenge to its certainty.

"The imperfect and improvisational character of all earthborn beings ... is a character also present in stone ... There's an affinity between my body and the sensible presences that surround me, an old solidarity that pays scant heed to our distinction between animate and inanimate matter ... It unfolds in an utterly silent dimension, in that mute layer of bare existence that this material body shares with the hunkered mountains ... with gushing streams and dry riverbeds and even the small stone - pink schist laced with mica - that catches my eye in one such riverbed, inducing me to clasp it between my fingers. The friendship between my hand and this stone enacts an ancient and irrefutable eros, the kindredness of matter with itself." (David Abtram, Becoming Animal 29)

By the time "Early People" is ending, stone has yielded to wood. Visitors walk through houses, glance at the remains of boats, examine textiles, and perceive that the historical archive brims where it once was as sparse as a coil engraved on stone. Andrew Goldsworthy's installation "Hearth" (1998) is its terminal point, the connection to the "Kingdom of the Scots" exhibit that comes next, with its narratives of struggle, assimilation, pride, war. "Hearth" is semi-circle of wooden fragments scrounged from the construction site of the museum. They are jagged but in their moodily lit unity beautiful. A perfectly round black disc has burnt into the center, suggesting the place where a vanished fire once flared, a circle of gathering for community and tales. The affirmative power of this installation is undeniable. Yet its wood and its absent flame seemed insubstantial to me after so many stories of stone.

An easy critique of the museum's curators: they anthropomorphize stone. Lithic stories become national stories. They discern in rocky and indifferent substance their own vitality, their own history, because they place it there themselves. They are like Alexander Duff, who looked at the Hilton of Cadboll Stone and beheld not its Pictish specificity but a pretty background to carve a story about him and his three wives, as if the world cares; or even worse, like those who left the Stone languishing upside down in a chapel, or employed it as a garden ornament.

Perhaps. But what if all an observer discerned in the Hilton of Cadboll Stone was a local type of sandstone formed by eons of alluvial sedimentation? What if its only story was its similarity to the rocky material out of which much of the National Museum of Scotland is constructed? Would that not miss the point that something generative, something more than a stone or human story, unfolds when we are drawn to such a specific sandstone by our stone knowledge -- which is really just our love for stone, as well as our recognition that we are lithic intimates?

It could also be said that the curators perceive in stone something that those who dismiss its materiality as indifferent or inert do not. The rocks that dot, subtend, texture, and continue slowly to convey the expanse of land we are calling for a while Scotland are as active, hybrid, shifting and astir as its peoples. Stone is animated and self-organizing. It speaks, when we stop insisting that communication requires words and representation rather than participation is how meaning unfolds. "Knowing Stone" is the encounter through which groups form alliances with various kinds of geologic materials -- not because they are cold and recalcitrant, but because they are metamorphic. They outlast human durations -- sometimes, like the Lewisian Gneiss, by years extending into numbers so vast as to defy real comprehension. But let's not be ageist. The temporal alterity of stone does not make the lithic any less our companion. Stories of stone are inhuman only if humans are not the world's intimates. It is not so much that we project ourselves into rock and trick ourselves into discovering tales of our implanting (although I do not deny that we often undertake such projects). More surprising is that despite having dwelt on the earth for a brief time (but then again, stones have dwelt in the cosmos only a brief time), the stories in which we participate, stories in which we may not be the protagonists or conclusions we once dreamt, are nonetheless in part about us. We matter as they matter.

James Hutton ascended Arthur's Seat and read in its shifting composite of fire-stone and ocean-stone a story that is disanthropocentric. In its length the narrative legible there makes our arrogance reel, but that movement away from our own small center is all to the good. The world may not offer its expanses for us, may rebuke us for having ever thought we culminate its processes rather than ride them for a while, but our worldedness (our mundane companionship, our material interbeing) becomes something extraordinary: a sentience that extends beyond us, into the inhuman; our lives become rather like the life, say, of granite; our dreary history of reducing matter to its use value might at last yield to an ethic of embeddedness, artistry and care.

I brought home for myself a single souvenir of my sojourn to Edinburgh: a small chip of volcanic stone, clasped near the summit of Arthur's Seat, carried with me for days and after three thousand aerial miles near me as I write these words.