Unheimlich Realism (and zombies)
After a night of nightmares about zombies (i.e. the best kind of night), I decided to exorcise some thoughts in a blogpost. I guess my troubled night was caused by my bed-time reading last night. A series of blogposts touching speculative realism, the unheimlich and zombies: see Levi Bryant’s post about unheimlikeit, Ian Bogost reflections on cuteness and monsters, and the zombic post at Un-canny Ontology.
Now, it got me thinking about what causes reactions to speculative realism and to the unheimlich. SR aims at a restitution of ontological independence to non-human objects. Differently from a postmodern stance, it is not only suspicious of grand-narratives, or of totalizing epistemologies, but is suspicious of any human-centered ontology, and systems of knowledge built on that. As Levi Bryant argues in his blogpost, SR unsettles our knowledge and certainties about objects, effectively casting us in a universe where every object retreats in itself, fundamentally unknowable and ungraspable.
Around unsettling images, NrG at Un-canny Ontology observes that:
OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies.
I think it is a great analogy, and I would like to elaborate on it, as it pictures well how postmodernism unsettled us by predicating hybridization, a blurring of nature and artificiality which still maintained a plural focus on humanity, while SR goes in the direction of a total flattening of the ontological horizon, expelling humans from what Harman called ‘an ever-tinier ghetto of solely human realities’. The postmodern hybrid cyborg is always (already) more than two, while the SR zombie is always less than one. The kind of fears that they produce are therefore rooted in different instincts: if the hybrid cyborg breaks the promise of a pure identifiable origin, and interrupts a pure lineage with the predication of a disseminated mongrel identity, evoking the fear of ungodly mixtures (towards a dispossession of present selfhood, but not of general humanity), the zombie’s terror is one of emptiness, being as it is the lumbering empty signifier of a ‘once-was’ humanity, the exposed empty shell of what we might be, a strange human/object which we can never inspect, probe in order to find out its intentions (think about how in analytic philosophy the ‘zombie’ has recreated the problem of ‘other minds’). The zombie is a zero which annihilates what touches, humanity which cancels out humanity. To quibble, to be dismembered by zombies is quite literally to be divided by zero.
I think that one more observation can be made though: the cyborg is by definition artificial, while the zombie is ‘natural‘. Cyborgs are mass produced in factories, are artifacts (somewhat a capitalist nightmare of products revolting against their own producers), while zombies pop out of the earth (unheimlich both as un-familiar and as un-covered, quite literally Harman’s rise of objects), in a sort of perverse natural production of death. Cyborgs defy categorization by blending human and technological (material), hence promoting matter to humanity, whilst zombies degrade the dream of humanity to a dead object. Indeed I agree with NRG when he rightfully observes, that
as non-human objects take on human characteristics, they become creepy or horrific. Yet, looked at from the opposite end, as humanity is stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous.
Zombies therefore symbolically–and practically–destroy the dream of a friendly, harmonious nature, replacing it with a world where human-object relations have no ontological priority and where the subject is no ontological nor epistemological pivotal point. Nature is no more the holistic ideal of interconnected, cooperating entities (often seen as cooperating for humankind’s sake) but an unexplainable, withdrawn universe of contingent and ever-retreating objects.
Indeed, what is ultimately unheimlich of a universe deprived of human primacy is that such a universe will be void of meaning, a contingent one, where again the postmodern dissemination of meaning which becomes always re-created, is replaced by an erasure of the possibility of meaning. As Brassier commenting on Meillasoux’s principle of facticity has it:
Speculative materialism asserts that, in order to maintain our ignorance of the necessity of correlation, we have to know that continency is necessary … What is absolute is the fact that everything is necessarily contingent, or without-reason.
Hence the power of the zombie: it is a dehumanized object which acts without reason, excluding the blind goal (hardly a purpose, indeed closer to material inertia than to human purposefulness) of annihilating humanity/reason, the incarnation of the dissociation between world and thought, which exposes the contingency of ‘natural laws’ by inverting the death-life cycle, and which announces a forthcoming Brassierian apocalyptic extinction of humanity and meaning. The zombie is the nihil unbound.