What Does a Zombie Want? Towards an Aesthetics of Undecidability

Essay by Sara Matthews

The uncanny, writes Freud, “belongs to all that is terrible – all that arouses dread and creeping horror”1. What creeps up in the name of the uncanny, he suggests, is a sense of the familiar made strange. Zombies, for example, figure the uncanny as a return of the repressed realization that life is always haunted by the spectre of its’ opposite. This return might be experienced as a threat to one’s understanding of oneself as alive and therefore human, an intuition that is both horrifying and compelling. As a representation of that which is dead but also in some sense “living”, the zombie is a borderline creature, an “undecidable” (Derrida)2 that tests the boundaries of social order. If the zombie is the inverse of subjectivity then what can it mean to pose the question of what it wants?

Fanon and Freud have taught us that the question of desire is also one of ontology – of the conditions within which it becomes possible to recognize oneself as a desiring subject. What the zombie wants, above all else, is to eat human brains. The zombie’s insatiable desire might be understood as a question of lack - it wants what it does not have, namely, the capacity for thought, the very thing that makes us human. The absence of thought signifies a psychic and physical numbness, a body animated by the unappeasable force of death. In this sense, the zombie is pure drive. But “while it may lack brains”, as St. John suggests, “the zombie is a profound device through which to think”3. What the zombie leads us to consider is the question of what it means to be human when faced with the spectre of aggression, a monster not just out there, but also internal to the self.

Aesthetic representations of the zombie - beginning with William Seabrook’s pseudo-ethnographic travelogue through Haiti, The Magic Island (1929), up to World War Z (2013), the recent cinematic interpretation of Max Brooks’ (2006) horror novel of the same name – are vastly diverse in their response to and symbolization of particular social and political dilemmas. The zombie of modernity wears its troubles on its sleeve. Via its strange corporeal habits – speech and body dimorphisms, horde mentality, and infectious cravings – the zombie enacts the very social anxieties that it provokes. We see this in two kinds of stories about the zombie: those that allow the viewer (or reader) to experience and explore their Orientalist phantasies via the zombie as representation of a demonized Other4; and those that create an identification with the zombie as a remainder of the effects of global capitalism and terror.5 Zombies, for example, are variously made to represent the shell-shocked survivors of post 9-11 America, individualism lost to the fear of communism, the dehumanized products of labor, the deadening effects of consumer culture, the loss of optimism in political accountability, the failure of rationality, bodily and psychical enslavement, the justification for civilizing missions and so on. Such narratives may express, through the figure of the zombie, affects which are difficult to symbolize and therefore monstrous, but do they succeed at bringing them into thought? We might wonder how the zombie, through its radical undecidability, asks us to think against the refusal of the monstrous towards a new possibility of being human – one that can contemplate the drive to aggression as question of ethics rather than a tale of morality.

For Derrida, undecidability references more than just the quality of indeterminacy6. As a structural condition of language and therefore of thought, it is rather the state of being that precedes representation. Undecidability is the potentiality for meaning, the provisional moment before the arrival of language. The practice of deconstruction reveals the structures organizing the determination of meaning and therefore how language orients ones relationship to the world. This is a question of ontology and, as Derrida suggests, also of politics, because to negotiate undecidability is also to determine oneself as a social being. Zombies challenge the dualisms that underlie the structures of modernity, forcing us to rethink our trust in the distinction between such categories as friend/enemy, autonomy/dependence, living/dead, and Eros/Thanatos. Nothing demonstrates this more than the now iconic zombie scenario in which an uninfected human must face the horrifying conundrum of a loved who has been “turned”. As this example illustrates, ones erotic tie, an expression of humanity, is now in conflict with the aggression that must be inflicted if one is to survive. Who is the ‘real’ monster, the zombie who kills without the capacity for thought, or the human who kills with thoughtful intent? While it may be easier to rationalize the aggressive response when confronted with an inhuman monster, there is an element of uncertainty (is the loved one ‘truly’ gone?) that makes the act difficult to reconcile. This ethical dilemma expresses the challenge of undecidability while laying bare the structures of meaning that orient ones relation to the social and political world.

If aesthetics is a theory of beauty but also, as Freud suggests, a “theory of the qualities of feeling”7, then how does aesthetics respond to the challenge of undecidability? Aesthetic objects, I would argue, have the capacity to both contain and symbolize the provisional nature of meaning and of thought. By working at the boundaries of knowability, artists return to us the question of what it is that we think we see as well as how we come to know. In some sense then, what the zombie wants is for us to side with undecidability and in doing so to imagine a new relation to the outside. Art helps us to interpret this dream of what it means to live when life includes the spectre of death.