Zombie Woof

August 6, 2009

Zombie Woof








I finished reading “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” last week. It was a synchronous event conjuncting a lifetime of pretentious Anglophile Victorian literature and a transitory trashy universe of hungry corpses.

 My childhood was never totally dark or totally quiet. Night shift workers demanded graveyard silent afternoons.  Every neighborhood had houses haunted by monstrously pale men who pounded on windows or came slowly, noisily down wooden stairs threatening murder.   Even our television had ghostly shadows following around Buffalo Bob and Lucy & Ricky. Neighbors left radios and televisions on to produce the protective feeling that somebody was home. Night and day nearby steel mills boiled dark rocks into molten metal. Disembodied horn blasts escaped along the MahoningRiver. Gray men in worn and stained clothes dragged themselves through mill gates, out of bars, into houses and back with the same dulled expression of angry exhaustion.  Their voices came as loud, unmodulated fragments of languages I didn’t understand, but mostly they were silent while their bloodshot eyes searched and searched.

 My spendthrift allowance allowed for one comic book a month. That entailed weeks of previewing, studying through the window and revolving the rack at the drug store. Comic books like “Creepy, Eerie and Tales from the Crypt” sold next to “Young Romance, True Love and the guilt-edged Classics Illustrated.” (I can’t begin to express my disappointment to discover the actual classics were not substantially better and frequently not illustrated at all.)  I perused each comic book cover like a religious revelation, until the sales clerk threw me out again. Newspaper ads and movie previews for B-horror extravaganzas at the Palace or Paramount Theaters proffered a Grail-like denied world of mayhem and adolescent sexuality. Saturday nights I was imprudently permitted to stay up as late as I wished trying to watch Chilly Billy Cardell, or Ghoulardi through the TV static from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as long as it wasn’t too loud. (Chilly Billy appeared as a cameo in the original “Night of the Living Dead”.)  I was born to believe in zombies.

Popular Zombies are a relatively 20thcentury invention and appear to generally follow the growth of mass advertising. HP Lovecraft first wrote what we recognize as the modern zombie in the mid- Nineteen Twenties, about the time of the exponential rise of the J Walter Thompson Agency and the invention of mass media. Although my forty year old O.E.D. tastefully declined to define zombie, by 2005 even that most venerable of dictionaries was no longer immune to the shuffling tread of the undead.  In May of this year William Safire,our grammarian laureate, discussed etymological variations of the use of the term zombie [zombi from the Spanish sombra] in his syndicated column “On Language”. However 1995 seemed the high water mark of serious Zombie Studies.  That year was highlighted by a peer reviewed symposium in the “Journal for Consciousness Studies” (Vol. 2, Issue 4).  Zombie Studies, particularly in the area of philosophy, have a broader scope and history than most people might imagine. (I suggest you consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to poke your doubting finger into the contagious wound.)  You may already be reading this posting on a zombie computer. Etymological and doctoral abstracts aside, my zombies have proliferated primarily in mass media, books, movies, on the Internet, and in Pittsburgh.

Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichenhad a quarrel in the mid Twenties of the last century. It wasn’t about zombies…directly. It was over the relative ethics of ‘artistic’, self expressive, photography as opposed to commercial photography. They fought their battle with women’s hands, or more accurately photographs of women’s hands. Stieglitz believed in ‘pure’ art. He produced the famous photographic study of Georgia O’Keeffe’s exposing her expressive hands and body. Steichen, who had no creative difficulty withcommercial work, produced extraordinary images of women and their hands for Jergen’s Lotion among others. Happily their creative silver nitrate argument went on for a decade or so and we are richer for the images both men left us. But I believe there were zombie casualties on both sides.


Georgia O’Keeffe was dismayed at the second life the photographic images of her developed. Her body traveled in  a morphed form from artistic and passionate intimacy to painful publicity without her control or full consent. Stieglitz’s published series of gorgeous and infamous studies and nudes of her invaded the interpretation of her paintings for the rest of her life. Her life’s work was pursued by a body that was once her and then refused to die. Zombie philosophers refer to this the first type of theoretical zombie as the classic Haitian—Voo Doo Zombie.  We recognize our zombiess as Georgia O’Keeffe who is dead and whom we can never speak with. Her zombie body will never decay, but it can never get dressed, or say “Stop staring at me!” O’Keeffe’s lifeless body trudges mindlessly through art monographs, museums and lecture halls searching for fresh spectators to surprise and attack. It does what many cultures feared photography might, the pictures have captured a part of her spirit that now does the bidding of the one who captured it. Besides the sexual luxury of posing a nude attractive 20 something year old woman in privacy, the 54 year old Stieglitz had the added pleasure of ungallantly boasting of her favors on his legendary gallery walls. Her body was subject to his will; her visage controlled by someone other than herself. It goes where he sends it. Georgia O’Keeffe’s zombie was an industrial byproduct of serialized manufacture of the art industry, a classic slave zombie. Extrapolated, as zombies frequently are, this sets up the dynamic model for the most profitable activity on the World Wide Web, pornography. Porno bodies are willfully posed and/or degraded for the pleasure of any viewer who can master the Voo Doo of Pay Pal. If you don’t believe they’re zombies look in their eyes.

Edward Steichen produced a second type of theoretical zombie, the social zombie, or “Pittsburghie”. He developed hyper-perfect photographic images to demonstrate the magical properties of whatever product he was advertising. As an art form photography is different from other representational forms in that it has an inherent quality of veracity. When we see ourselves in a photograph we’re amazed we look the way we do. It’s truer than a mirror. The ‘Jergens’ hands in the advertising ads he produced rebutted Stieglitz’s intimate images of O’Keeffe hands. Stiechen’s hand images were  undeniably physical, but simultaneously untouchable. He created ad zombies that appear human, but lack certain nuances of humanity as a philosopher no less than Rene Descartes conjectured they might.

 Rene Descartes, once merely the Father of Modern Philosophy and Modern Mathematics is now rationalized as the Father of Modern Zombie Studies. In Book Five of his Discourse on Method, Descartes observed that if automata, or zombies, existed they would be unable to use language creatively and be confined only to simple stereotypical actions and reactions. He was also rumored to have traveled through the capitals of Europe in the company of a genuine artificial woman.

 Was Descartes prescient about super models? Steichen certainly was. He idealized them in the painterly manner of portraiture that followed the Renaissance, except he placed his subjects not in the service of the some miracle or royalty, but an advertising agency. Steichen and his frequent employer, J Walter Thompson, had the genius for putting High Art to work selling hand cream, soap, towels, flatware or creating public image—to sell to the actual public. Steichen’s images featured a catalog of low echelon royals, socialites, film stars and disembodied hands all photographed in world that only resembled our world. They beckoned to a world of fake reality and real desire like theater where every room is dimensionless and illusory and every word, gesture and emotion must be directed and rehearsed. Steichen’s glorious zombies were his calculated creation of collaboration with the burgeoning information industry and its technology. One of Steichen’s innovations was to create idealized photographic images for magazines that functioned as a genuine magic mirrors flattering, deriding and selling. Steichen’s zombies leave us in the alternative human world of marketing. Watch a  man with a television remote control, sit in a room of teenagers texting, or wait in a bar parking parking lot until closing time—you find sluggish people, barely able to speak, but desperately searching  for the fulfillment of some desire that seems constantly on the edge of pain—zombieland.

 Another less picturesque method zombies come to exist is by syllogism:                                                                                                                           If a thing can be conceived, it is possible.                                         Zombies canbe concieved.                                                                                                                                                    Therefore…zombies. 

Admittedly that makes for a potentially very crowded possible universe, but in that scenario zombies are standing in line with string theory, dark energy, super symmetry, winning the lottery (or lottery money going to education), intradimensional consciousness, what comes out of the backends of black holes,making your guardian angel cry, sub atomic particle telekinesis, and Htare, Superman’s Bizarro World (which I happen to find very plausible).  Who can actually prove zombies don’t exist? Wars have been fought based on faultier logic. Whether today’s zombies are merely logical, or byproducts of the rapidly aging manufacturing/industrial age, or contrived products of the information age seems too fine a line to ask such clumsy creatures to walk. Tomorrow at breakfast most of those questions will be of no more importance than, “Who was right Stieglitz or Steichen?”

 The essential question isn’t if zombies exist (Since we have examined literary, historical, philosophical and photographic proof that they do.). The penultimate question to take to bed is why do they want to eat only brains? Couldn’t they stumble through the drive-thru at Burger King? It’s open late and I don’t think anyone living ,or formerly living, would be at all surprised to find a fair bit of brain in any Angry Triple Whopper. Generally the appearance of any flesh eating gang keeps the wait line short, so they wouldn’t have to tax their limited patience.  Besides isn’t that steady diet of rare meat difficult on their digestive systems?  What happens when the undead get sick?

Do zombies have health care?     How can be it better than mine?


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