Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Daydream of the Dead

CompII Essay2
Daydream of the Dead
By Rori

Zombies are everywhere. Can you picture them? What do you see? Do you see a rotting, slow-moving corpse feasting on the flesh of the living? Or do you see a feral human, mad with bloodlust, ripping into any living thing in its path? Still yet you might envision an automaton, its soul held in ransom by a voodoo witch doctor, or a sort of flesh golem: a soulless abomination. Still further, maybe it’s a person, just like you or I in every surface way, but lacking consciousness. Which of these is correct? Why does it matter?

I believe that the things that scare us, the monsters of our folklore and culture tell us something deep about ourselves. They tell us not only what we fear on a surface level, but by proxy, the can also tell us those fears we are reluctant to admit to ourselves. Therefore, to properly know one’s cultural and personal narrative, those things we fear must be studied and defined. I don’t, however, believe these definitions must remain static. On the contrary, much can be inferred by the way the definitions change, as well as when a definition no longer fits the thing, because it has become something new. In order to see these changes and make these distinctions, we must first decide what is and isn’t, in this case, a zombie.
First things first, and what is more first than the history of the name of the thing in debate? The word “zombie” is of West African origins. In the Kikongo language, it translates as “fetish,” zumbi; the Kimbundu word is nzambi, “god.” Nzambi is also a proper name for the supreme deity of the Bacongo people of Angola. It is believed that this deity is the forerunner of Zombi-Damballah, the rainbow-serpent god of Voodoo. However, the deity with power of resurrection is the Life/Death god Ghede. It is possible that the god’s name became interwoven with zumbi and the Spanish sombra: shade or ghost, to produce the idea of a soulless animated body, or the spirit that facilitates the possession of the body. The word in this context was first recorded in 1871 ; it is unknown how long it had been in usage before then.

The usage of zombie purely in the Voodoo context continued into the Hollywood film era, with movies like White Zombie (1932) and The Voodoo Man (1944). Some films portrayed zombies as reanimated corpses, while others portrayed zombies as living, but hypnotized. The film that is generally said to have started the whole zombie-as-cannibal type is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, the creatures in Romero’s movie are never referred to as zombies, but as “ghouls” which is itself a misnomer. After Night of the Living Dead’s success, most zombie movies forsook the “voodoo” zombie type for the “Romero” zombie type. A notable exception to this is Wes Craven’s Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which explored anthropologist Wade Davis’ research into a so-called “zombie drug” in Haiti.

Beyond the switch from a slave-like zombie to a cannibalistic one, there is a more subtle switch in the vehicle by which the zombies are made. Voodoo magic gives way to vaguely scientific sources of “zombism.” As well, there is switch from the zombies, however ferocious or mild, being held in control by one or more intelligent entities to a master-less horde, driven only by its own urges. A large part of this thematic switch is due to the work of Richard Mattheson in his 1954 horror novel I Am Legend, which directly inspired Romero. However well one may be able to track down the change, the reason for this change taking hold in the American consciousness remains more elusive. Why, in 1968, did the zombie become a new thing?
If we look at what was going on historically, it becomes clear. Voodoo zombies represent slavery and a loss of self (as well as loss of labor, as many Marxists read them). The loss is personal, and rendered at the hands of a person with preternatural methods of control. In this villain, we see exploitation, but we also see order. The 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were marked by unprecedented Western expansion, industrialization and colonization. The zombie represented aspects of this, both what we could not admit was going on, and what we feared would visited upon our guilty souls. The movies played into the idea of an exotic, savage land, beyond the boundaries of white magic and Christendom. The yield of this land was the native zombie, not made so by industrialization, but by the machinations of his own inferior culture. This not only absolves the Western onlooker of cultural guilt (however futile it might be), but attempts to sooth his own fears of industrialization and mechanization. In this way the Voodoo zombie type can be seen to have certain ties with the “robot apocalypse” and “body snatcher” themed films. I believe, though the originator of the term, this use of the word zombie is nearly archaic.

Romero’s film entered our cultural radar near the height of the Vietnam War Era. Not only were chaotic and graphic images breaking into the mainstream via news reports, but culturally many of the institutions of previous eras were breaking down with seemingly nothing to fill the vacuum created. In Romero’s film, the cause of the zombies is vague and somewhat Cold-War in nature (a radioactive satellite). Their purpose seems entirely self-directed, and it is gruesome: to consume the living. Much has been written about the subversive and political overtones in this film, but my intent is to look at the broad themes, so I will not go into them in depth. At their base, Romero’s zombie horde is numerous, self-proliferating, hungry and dead. I believe this plays on the classic theme of the “barbarians at the gate.” The sheer numbers of zombies are an integral part of this type. This is why I don’t believe you can classify “flesh golems,” such as Frankenstein, as “zombies.” Although they share a quality of being risen from the dead, there is no hive mentality. If anything at all, this is closer to the Voodoo zombie type. However, the myth of the Golem is older, and in many ways, more static than that of the Voodoo zombie.

Another frightful base aspect of Romero zombies is that not only do they consume the living, but through this contact they replicate themselves. Here we see a fate worse than death, a living death, but unlike vampires, there remains little left of what makes us “human,” that is, consciousness. This appears not only to be a commentary of the search for eternal life gone terribly wrong, but also a strong commentary on the fear of contagion. In many ways this is prescient, pre-dating both the AIDS panic of the 1980s and 1990s, and our current fear of biological terrorism. This is one of the strongest aspects of the modern zombie film, and can be seen even when the “zombies” don’t technically die, such as in 28 Days Later (2002). This is why I believe technical death is not as important to what makes something a zombie as is a living state of “death” and contamination.

The final base aspect of zombie cinema I will discuss is the hunger. The ravenous feeding represents the worst instincts of a consumer-based capitalist culture. The demand is so great that it literally eats anything in its path, thus bringing about the apocalypse. This is why I believe classifying The Borg (Star Trek) as zombies is not appropriate at this time. Although they represent an insatiable, de-individualizing force, the force is one based on order, not chaos. That which is consumed is used. Zombies consume not because they need the sustenance, but out of base instinct. This is one of the most persuasive arguments against the “infected” of 28 Days Later being classified as zombies, such as the infected appear to need flesh to survive, and ultimately die of hunger. However, I believe their other zombie-like qualities tend to outweigh this. The message is the zombie message, even if not fully presented so. Still, I think it is too soon to classify these “infected” as zombies. The meaning of the word could evolve to include them, but still the idea may evolve into a category of its own.

I believe it is the message, the meaning of the thing, which is the ultimate arbiter of what we call zombie, or golem, or vampire, rather than a fixed set of physical statistics. In many ways, perhaps, the word “zombie” should have faded in the wake of decolonization and the sexual revolution. However, it was given new life in the same wake, one that epitomizes an extreme and apocalyptic near future. This seeming misnomer has grown to outshine its origins; perhaps with further study on this and other development in the horror genre, one can find a link between the chaotic future and the oppression of the past that is summed up in one word: zombies.


Monday, June 13, 2005

Rori v. Zombies


You scored 74 Survival, 62 Leadership, and 81 Psychological!
Oh you're good. Your survival skills and leadership are good enough to keep you alive and organized for at least a little while. Your real strength, however, lies in your very admirable ability to keep your calm in even the most intense situations. Your body and command qualities may be decent, but your mind is a powerhouse of stability. Estimated Survival Time: 2 Months

My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
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You scored higher than 99% on Survival
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You scored higher than 50% on Leadership
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You scored higher than 50% on Psychological

Link: The Real Zombie Attack Survival Test written by WillOlmen on Ok Cupid

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Animal Rights, Human Responsibility

I will argue that although (as far as we know) animals are not endowed with the reasoning capabilities necessary to consider them moral agents and thus grant them parity with humans under common law, as sentient, feeling beings they do hold certain natural rights. I will argue that these rights of "lower" species are directly connected to humanity's responsibility as reasonable beings and moral agents. I will focus my points mainly in relation to Carl Cohen's essay against animal rights.
Does any measure of human happiness--no matter how small--justify any measure of animal suffering--no matter how great? To answer "yes" seems selfish at best. Just because human suffering should be weighted more than animal suffering does not mean that animal suffering is dismissible.
Cohen argues only a moral agent can lay claim to a right, and any non-moral agent has absolutely no rights. This seems to lead to undesirable consequences. What can be said of human non-moral agents such as infants and the mentally infirm? One could argue that a healthy infant contains the potential for moral agency, but what of the mentally ill or retarded who have no such potential. Do we owe them no consideration? If rights are granted solely on the basis of the ability to reason and make moral claims, there would be no rational for including such non-moral agents, whether they be human or non-human. Thus the suffering of a mentally retarded child would not be something we had a responsibility to curtail, unless, I suppose, it brought us happiness to do so. But, from a Utilitarian point of view, should it bring greater happiness or better results to experiment on or kill such humans, there would be nothing morally stopping us from doing do since they had no rights.
If one were to argue that humans have certain rights by the mere virtue of being of the homo sapiens sapiens species, regardless of any other determining factors, their argument would seem to affirm a claim of speciesism. If one were to get around this problem, it seems one would be forced to argue that despite the human's lack of mental faculties, he or she still experiences pain and pleasure and this deserves consideration. If so for morally incapacitated humans then why not for non-moral animals?
I believe that animals, just as mentally incapacitated humans, have a claim as sentient beings. I also believe this claim, though not supported by the subjects own moral authority, is supported by the ethical responsibility of moral agents.
As moral agents, we have not only a responsibility to ourselves and other moral agents, but a responsibility to the greater world around us, including non-moral agents. These responsibilities are different, but that does not mean that the latter can be ignored when it is convenient to do so. If we ignore our responsibility to the non-moral world around us, or base our use of it only on the greatest perceived good for moral agents, we put ourselves outside the natural order--which we are not.
Humans, one may argue, can lay claim to a world of reason and ideas that animals may not. This is quite possibly completely true. However, humans are also part of a greater biological order and have a dual responsibility within that order to maintain individual and species survival. I believe this responsibility facilitates a claim on behalf of non-moral agents and the environment. As with humans, all other sentient life forms in this order can be said to have a right of self preservation, and insofar as this does not conflict with another's self preservation, this right should be affirmed.
It is true that animals cannot murder, but Cohen places the definition of murder strictly within the confines of a guilty mind, or by (my own) inference, a mind capable of feeling guilt. I feel this disregards moral and biological reality. In contemporary law, one may commit a murder with no guilt and one may feel guilty for a killing that is not considered murder. The designation of murder is placed not in the guilt of the perpetrators mind, but the circumstances and necessity (or lack of) of the action. Killing in self-defense: the taking of a life when that life poses an immediate threat to one's own life is seen as different from the taking of life for material, emotional or physical gain or convenience. To not attempt to defend one's self or species against extinction by another is to violate one's first responsibility: that of preservation.
It is in this similar way that animals kill and are killed, in the name of self-preservation and the overall preservation of the species, and in this I find certain animal suffering and interference morally permissible. Whereas an act that causes animal suffering can be said to further human preservation (not merely happiness) I find no contradiction with the stance that we have an obligation to honor the "rights" of animals to be free of unnecessary suffering as part of our overall obligation to be a preserving component of the material world.
I believe in this light the disregard of animal suffering in most instances is immoral. To allow suffering and death in such cases where only happiness and convenience are at stake is analogous to murder insofar as it is the unnecessary taking of life.
If one agrees that there must be a line drawn between what is necessary (morally permissible) suffering and unnecessary (immoral) suffering, then the question remains where to draw the line. Should we draw the line at immediate preservation, as in the case of justifiable homicide or a lion killing a gazelle? Should we allow for suffering when it is perceived to facilitate preservation in more vague terms, such as "quality of life" issues like health and the economy? I feel there is some elbow room here, but that the parameters must be clearly defined so as to avoid abuse of this flexibility.
Clearly, animal suffering done in the pursuit of cures for terminal diseases is morally permissible. However, it is important that alternatives are considered and that animal experimentation a last, not first resort. Animal research done for such things as cosmetics and cosmetic diseases, such as baldness and acne, though they would increase human happiness, would not be permissible since they have little, if any, bering on preservation.
Obviously, if one is starving and animals present a food source it is permissible to kill them. But we must also consider the fact that humans are omnivores and our bodies require a certain amount of animal product to maintain overall health. I believe that nutrition has a great enough weight on our overall preservation as to allow the consumption of animal products. However, I also believe this consumption should be minimal and nutritional alternatives should be considered first.
An important factor in the morality of animal products is the way the animals are treated. Is needless suffering avoided? Need death be particularly painful and life particularly unnatural? If animals are treated with care and not forced into situations in extreme counter to their natural ones, such as tight cages, surgical modifications and improper diet (i.e., the use of meat products in herbivorous animals' feed), they may actually achieve a longer, less painful life than in the wild. Such treatment would make their death in the service of human preservation morally acceptable.
Will practical adherence to this position be difficult? Yes. We live in a culture that is still very much based of the idea that humanity lies outside and above the rest of the world. I believe that this position is ultimately self-distructive, that to deny our place in the material world is to deny ourselves in favor of an illusion. Denial of the right and responsibility of self-preservation not only creates suffering in the non-human world, but breeds an arrogance that leads to destructiveness and suffering in the human realm.
If I have been convincing in any of my arguments, the moral importance of claiming our responsibility overrides matters of convenience and fashion. As long as it does not conflict with one's own right of preservation, every attempt must be made to reduce the suffering we inflict on other sentient beings. To not do so, whether by apathy or active rebellion, would be immoral.