Monday, June 11, 2012

The Grey of a Zombie Ecology

by J J Cohen

My Big Project this summer -- and main way of ensuring that I never complete the book about the liveliness of stone I received fellowship funding to write, and will thereby end my career in misery and disgrace -- is an edited collection Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press). Mostly, Prismatic been a good experience: the majority of the contributors have been on time and at the peak of their creativity, amenable to the edits I've made to their essays and eager to have this collaboration succeed. Some of its most prolific contributors (Graham Harman, Tim Morton) have also been its swiftest -- no doubt there is a correlation there. I've had a few stragglers, and some essayists who required more prodding than I would have liked. The essay on "Red" had to be replaced this spring, but I love the piece that I now have. I recently lost both "Silver" and "Grey" -- and to ensure that something in that shade appears, I've been reworking my zombie project (which always had an ecological bent) to widen its scope into a grey [undead] ecology.

So far I'm pleased with the result. I'll be giving the essay a trial run in Edinburgh this week, where I'm a speaker at this conference. I paste its opening below; let me know what you think.


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, then, might seem a moribund realm, an expanse of slow loss, wanness and withdrawal, a graveyard space of mourning: no sensual bodies here, only perished flesh. 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 to burn.

Yet this affective disposition in which greying signals depletion and lifelessness reveals only the stubborn embedment of our anthropocentricity. The colors which constitute 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, vampires 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, or a cosmic acknowledgment of our little fits of melancholy. Grey includes death, but reminds that human mortality is a continuation of life by other means. We are too enamored of the red and blue of catastrophe – of a world destroyed in flame and flood. We like to imagine our own end, and assume at the demise of our race 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).

Either way, the apocalyptic imagination has difficulty discerning the vivaciousness of grey. The gloaming is a place of life, but not necessarily in those sublime forms that we expect life to assume. A sensual grey ecology (and the grey aesthetics that accompany its exploration) is inhuman, but that does not render it misanthropic, disembodied or outside the human. Inhuman means "not human," of course, and therefore includes a world of forces, objects, and nonhuman beings. But in-human also indicates the alien within (a human body is an ecosystem filled with strange organisms; a human collective is an ecosystem filled strange objects), and requires as well a consideration of the violently inhumane. Grey, the nightfall hue of the in-between and the uncertain, a tint of many shades, is not easily circumscribed. It's an open aesthetic.

Yet a community comes into being through boundary. Forces, beings and things supposedly left outside dwell in an extimate or medial space, the unsettled oikos of dusk's fade. This liminal expanse marks the habitation of unfinished business, of traumas and exclusions. The story it conveys includes histories of injustice and violence. Grey is therefore 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 who conveys its force, a grey aesthetics 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 nonhuman thing, “one can never entirely escape the recession into one’s own centrism.”[1] Yet in grey – a process more than a color -- can be discerned (not clearly, but as if it twilight) the inhumanity through which dominating notions of the human come into being, notions 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 from both. Grey reveals the inhuman as a thriving of life in other modes, a vitality even in death that demonstrates how the nonhuman is already inside, cohabitating and, long after we perish, continuing. Grey is the human in the microbe and the stone as well as the virus and the rock in the human.

A grey ecology is an expanse of monsters, but that isn’t in the end such a dim place to dwell.

[1] 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.


Unknown said...

Fantastic! I love the liminality signaled by the color grey, especially since it calls attention to the limits and failures of human vision. Grey is the result of mesopic vision, that odd transition from the use of cone cells to the use of rod cells in our eyes. The colors haven't entirely receded, it's just that our eyes rely on different photoreceptors for visual acuity when light levels diminish. Grey is humanity's struggle to see in dark places.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey, this is some of the more beautiful writing I've seen in awhile.


This is one of the points I think is most generative, and I'm curious to see where the Zombies come in. I'm always interested in zombies (though as I've said before I don't watch them on TV or film because I would never sleep again), in part because they do not seem to participate in the "natural" conclusion of death. Zombies, that is, don't generate life beyond themselves, as human corpses left to their own devices do.

It strikes me, too, that as you point out -- other living things are grey. The mice that made a temporary home in my kitchen before Nick caught them using our humane trap. The bark of the pine trees that populate the woods around my home in NC. The lichen that grows on those trees. I could go on.


This reminds me of Grendel -- the way that he only travels in the darkness of night, the way that he is stuck, in some senses, in the twilight he carries with him, keeping him from the light of the hall and the king's chair. Beowulf even seems to note that disparity -- juxtaposing the figure of light, the scop who sings of creation (se þe cuþe), and Grendel (se þe in þystrum bad), who dwells perhaps not in darkness as I thought before reading this post, but in twilight.

Bacchanal: <>

VERY cool. and well said.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Argh, Blogger ate the bits I quoted. They are, in order:

"Grey includes death, but reminds that human mortality is a continuation of life by other means."

"Yet in grey – a process more than a color -- can be discerned (not clearly, but as if it twilight) the inhumanity through which dominating notions of the human come into being, notions 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 from both."

and from Bacchanal in the Library:

"Grey is humanity's struggle to see in dark places."

Apparently Blogger has a learning curve that I forgot. Who knew?

Michelle Ziegler said...

I like your essay alot but I don't quite understand that second to the last line in microbes and viruses. It sounds nice but what does it mean?

Eileen Joy said...

I love this, Jeffrey; and I would think a little more, too, about the ways in which culturally-colloquially, gray signifies an "everything is the NOT the same" sort of zone? In other words, people often say, "the world is not not as black and white as you think; it's more of a gray zone." What does that mean, that gray signifies, simultaneously, indeterminancy, which could be very rich and diverse, and at the same time, a sort of wan, color-leached landscape? A gray zone, then, is also one in which figures *blend* into each other: the flaneur in his tails and top hat wending his way through the London streets -- a gentleman -- becomes a Ripper; the solid human figure becomes a ghost; the ghost materializes as something embodied and fleshy; and all this happens in the *medium* of the gray zone.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for these great comments. Bacchanal, I may end up quoting you. I was thinking about animal vision (owls with their plenitude of rod cells) -- but I like how you foreground the transition inherent to grey, and the search after dim objects.

Mary Kate, zombies are (in my argument) generative monsters, even more so than corpses, since they rot in their undeadness (they are full of post mortem life; their decay is ongoing). They also generate narrative, even poetry, as well as a restless thinking of catastrophe. And nature. I'm using a greyed out mountain picture (with a pine tree and clouds) to convey the greyness of nature in my talk -- and speaking about the ecological momentum of zombies. My last "zombies" are actually Frankenstein's Creature and Glam from Grettir's Saga, so Grendel resonates.

Michelle, it is hard to know what that sentence gestures towards, isn't it? I will eventually evoke Stacy Alaimo's notion of trans-corporeality (something very useful to thinking about environmental justice) to unpack it. Basically, it is about the interpenetration of body, discourse, materiality, biology, politics, environment, nature, culture ...

Eileen: grey zone indeed! There will be much invocation of how vast grey is, how it can swallow almost anything ... but into something ultimately generative, I hope, rather than deferred.

Lara Farina said...

As a San Franciscan, I must say: Grey = Fog! Fog announces all kinds of zombies, Rippers, and Hydes in film, but I think that is mostly because cinema is jealous of fog's sensuality. Fog has a light touch, yet is saturating. It gets on your skin and in your lungs. Sound carries farther, smell is intensified, and you can taste the air (especially if you're near the ocean) when it's foggy.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Lara, you are so right! It's funny, the picture I will show to initiate the talk and then circle back to at the end is a foggy stretch of pine and stone on Virginia's Old Rag. I like it because the fog suggests a presence beyond itself ... And is so animated.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing - the full paper presented in Edinburgh must have been fascinating.

My reaction to the first sentence was to imagine a graveyard, but not only in terms of the "perished flesh" which you then discussed, but in the graveyard's own topography, the many hues of grey stones and statuary, against the green of the grass and trees.

I need to think about this further (it's getting late!), but your last paragraph makes me think in particular of Suibhne (Old Irish "Buile Suibhne") who attacked a bishop and threw his psalter into a lake. Thereafter, he could be seen to become grey and monstrous as he loses his royal robes and becomes something of a wild man, possibly a bird. He lives liminally and is neither man nor animal/bird - his world seems grey, with hints of green. Hmm; once "Prismatic Theories" is out I will need to come back to this.

Inge said...

It was a beautiful paper, and the affective reaction it provoked shows how affecting it was, and how thought-provoking. I'm only sorry I didn't quite manage to tell you so myself on Saturday, and I hope the full version emerges somewhere very soon.

Elizabeth Elliott said...

It was a beautiful paper, and the affective reaction it provoked goes to show how affecting it was, and how thought-provoking. I'm only sorry I didn't manage to tell you so on Saturday, and I hope the full version emerges somewhere very soon.