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.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I should point out how much this essay owes to friendship. So many of its observations come from the work and suggestions of friends: Alf Siewers on tree-dwelling, Alan Montroso on twilight vision, Lara Farina on fog ...

Michael Sarabia said...

You effortlessly blend in reference to your other work even as you maintain a thematic richness that is very much on point. (E.g., on grey never forgetting, or failing to remind us, of the violent and violative importance that human communities put on boundaries; of the life of monsters and other marginals beginning to wake and walk in a zone that anthropocentrism writes off as the gloomy and to-be-lamented end. Of this place and color in the middle that defies absolute familiarity, but promises so much connection between disparate persons, places, things.)

As usual, your writing demonstrates an ethics as well as poetics of criticism; a theory as well as practice. I’d say more than glowing praise, but I’m unapologetically a fanboy.

Anne said...

This is magnificent. As I read, I already hear the debates my students and I will be having about agency, food, time, ethics... and I think of the grey of stone (cathedral and cromlech), the grey of those well-worn manuscript folios, the grey of some monastic cloth. Thank you so much.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thank you Michael and Anne! When you write an essay like this you never know if you are going down some road of your own imagining that no one else cares to follow, or if something actually works as the path meanders. I appreciate your enthusiasm!

Grey is such a stony color (as you point out, Ann) -- but I didn't want to leave it to the stones alone.

Unknown said...

Professor Cohen: Your wonderful essay put me in mind so much of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, which is suffused with grey from the opening page onward. I just found out that there is a new critical collection available on TR and the first essay focuses on the grey in the novel. I thought you might be interested in this so here's a link to the book of essays:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow. With its emphasis on grey as a becoming and eventuation, Chris Danta's essay looks excellent. thank you!

Anonymous said...

Alan Blum: The Grey Zone of Health and Illness.
Bristol: Intellect 2011,id=4719/

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you have ever run across the British comedy Shaun of the Dead but the way your piece as here ends has much to do with the way it ends, with the apocalypse averted and the remaining zombies pacified and found 'useful tasks' in society. In practical terms this seems to mean being enslaved as unpaid labour for menial tasks and I wondered when I saw it what was supposed to be funny, rather than tragic, about that. This film flirts on several occasions with the idea that some remnants of personality may remain in the zombie of a person who has been in the film as a living person too--this especially at the very end, though I won't spoil it in case you see it--and that just makes this more difficult for me. I think that the film-makers were actually trying to find a way to make 'everything OK' but I think they missed.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'd place the film in the genre of zombie as social commentary with a few others, but Fido ( is probably the best known -- and of course Dawn of the Dead is the trail blazer. I suppose it doesn't matter if personality inheres, in the end: these films are about zombies as transformed into compliant workers or consumers, the antithesis of a true grey ecology.

Thanks for the comment!

medievalkarl said...

My favorite (so far) zombie-as-deliberate-political-commentary film is Les revenants, in which the returned recently dead pose a human rights/immigration/labor problem. The dead aren't hungry for brains; they're more like sleepwalkers: undirected, emotionally flat, and no one quite knows what to do with them.

Unknown said...

I love the idea of the ecological Z. I don't think that Lauro and Embry develop the ecology of the Z to the extent that you do. The Z subverts the Great Chain of Being and reminds us that we too are food. I will be citing your paper in an article I'm writing. Thank you! Patricia Ferrer-Medina, PhD