Over at Un-canny Ontology, Nathan Gale writes a post that responds to and extends both mine on Harman’s conception of cuteness and Bryant’s on the unheimlich.

The uncanny valley rears its head, a concept originally developed by Masahiro Mori about the moment when robots cease to seem realistic and begin to seem creepy. It’s an often-cited concept in videogames, and Gale compares cuteness in game characters like Nintendo’s Miis to the stuffed animals on Mori’s famous graph of the uncanny valley.


While I’m not sure if I agree that Miis are cute in the Harman’s sense (they still seem more Japanese-cute to me), the real meat of the post is about zombies, which find themselves in the very pit of the uncanny valley. To quote the author:

…as humanity is stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous. In this way, I feel that OOP/OOO must deal with the creature that presents the true meeting of object and human â?? the zombie.

There’s already a bit of this in Collapse IV, which includes pieces by Harman on Lovecraft and weird realism, Reza Negarestani on philosophy and torture, and Meillassoux on mourning and death. And K-Punk and Harman have been enjoying a fruitful blog exchange about what the former calls grey vampires (“creatures who disguise their moth-greyness in iridescent brightness”). But Gale’s post wants to take things further:

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 â?? how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it â??reallyâ? exists, without any obfuscation.

They have always intrigued us, but zombies are immensely popular right now in popular culture, from the revival of Michael Jackson’s Thriller after the artist’s untimely death, to the cult zombie comedy sendup Shaun of the Dead to the popular videogame Left 4 Dead to the Jane Austen zombie parody pastiche Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As USA Today put it a few months ago, “zombies are everywhere.”

Is it indeed the case that our collective interest in zombies signals the same overall dissatisfaction with contemporary affairs that the speculative critique of correlationism traces in philosophy? Might zombies be a symptom, in the Lacanian sense, of a broader and more general dissatisfaction? Could the dread that we face in the face of horror actually be not an existential dread, but an ontological one?

published August 18, 2009


  1. Paul Ennis

    Let us not forget all the talk about grey vampires by k-punk and Graham.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Right, yes! Let me add some links.

  3. Levi

    Really interesting stuff here, Ian. I’ll try to throw a post up responding to you and NrG later today if this abominable headache goes away later this afternoon. I wrote a post a while back on Zombie’s, taking the obvious route of comprehending them as the monster adequate to post-industrial capitalism and consumer culture (to this might be added the growing pharmacalization of contemporary subjects):


    It hadn’t occurred to me to think of zombies as also a cultural symptom similar to that motivating OOO and SR.

  4. William Huber

    I think it is more apt to call it an existentiell dread.

  5. Ian Bogost

    Nice post, Levi. The figure of the zombie as laborer might gel well with NRG’s invocation of the zombie.

    Has anyone read the Open Court collection The Undead and Philosophy? I haven’t but wonder if there is more fodder there.

  6. Mark J. Nelson

    @Ian: I’ve read (most of) it, and it’s fairly interesting.

    It’s a mix of the straightforward analytic-philosophy arguments that already use zombies as thought experiments (consciousness, mind/body, identity/corporeality, etc.), some more sociological and psychological analyses of the role of zombies in popular culture and imagination, and finally a good number of essays using zombies as basically a jumping-off point for some only-sort-of-related topic.

    Some of the latter work pretty well, though, and carry the zombie hook throughout the argument, even if sometimes sort of tongue in cheek. For example, I liked Leah Murray’s “When They Aren’t Eating Us, They Bring Us Together”, which gives a high-level survey of some of the arguments for social contracts and communitarian philosophies, through the lens of how people fare when they go-it-alone vs. work together when faced with zombies in George Romero films. There are, of course, some essays that don’t really work at all (either the zombie content or the philosophical content or both feel forced), but I suppose you have to expect that.

    Actually, the collection itself, as a survey of various ways philosophy professors treat the relationship between zombies and philosophical questions, might be as interesting as the essays.

  7. Ian Bogost

    Looks like since I posted this, NRG has un-pseudonymified, revealing himself to be Nathan A. Gale, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Literary Theory. I’ve updated the post.

  8. NrG

    Hey Ian,

    Thanks for all the comments and response to my thoughts. As for my true identity, I honestly started my blog as a way for me to work through my thoughts, but thanks to the workings of the Internet, it sort of took on a life of its own (pun fully intended). So when you pointed out that I was still “hiding” I realized I hadn’t updated my “About” section in a while.

  9. Michael Austin

    I have written on my blog on the undead in philosophy, mostly in terms of hauntology (what I have termed “spectral realism”), as well as vampirism and zombies. My forthcoming book with Zer0 (still being written) tentatively titled Death Drive: Between Chaos and Repetition will deal explicitly with Zizek’s use of the undead (both vampires and zombies) in terms of the death drive as the compulsion to repeat, even beyond the categories of life and death. I see his continued use of the undead image as a sign of his uncomfortable proximity with metaphysical vitalism, and the general proliferation of the undead in popular culture as the ultimate affirmation of life itself, that it is possible to go on living even in death.

  10. Mark Sample

    My own theory why zombies are everywhere is because they are great matches for the current level of CG technology in games and movies. You want your zombies to look uncanny, and there’s plenty of uncanny to go around when machines are trying to render photorealistic humans. A fun parlor game is to figure out what uncanny monster will ubiquitously replace zombies once our graphics are more advanced.

    Anyway, all this talk of zombies and the uncanny made me revive a post I had half-composed in July on the uncanny valley of action in videogames.