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November 07 2013

Toward a Zombie Epistemology: What it Means to Live and Die in Cabin in the Woods. Fascinating analysis of Drew and Joss' movie.

Okay. I'm an academic. I read academic papers. I write academic papers. I understand Foucault. This is utterly ridiculous. As an academic paper it is so flawed it beggars description. And yet, it was sort of fun to read, just to see how off the rails they were going to go. And they went way far off the rails!

Sheesh: "Whedon answers this question with an indictment of the real-world institutions of modern science in all of their bureaucratic, banal, and globally-destructive glory." You mean, like hospitals? Where people's lives are saved? Research centers, where effective interventions for crippling diseases are discovered?

"Marty recognizes that this kind of futurist orientation is, as Edelman says, “always purchased at our expense,” " Marty does, does he? Or, is this the author projecting, much?

"“None of the above,” as I see it, is the abdication of our obligation to the idealized future of our genetic offspring. A proposed zombie epistemology would push this abdication further, freeing us from the intense cultivation of even our cyborg selves. So long as we are building ourselves out of the literal wreckage of war, and knowing our bodies and ourselves using the same instruments of science that have made us experiments (and sacrifices), we will only ever know ourselves as our creators knew us. Though as cyborgs we might appropriate knowledge from scientific journals, in applying it we accept for ourselves the risks that were only conceived of as applying to an abstract population. Though we might free the speculum from the hands of a professional gynecologist, in wielding it we internalize the rightness of his vantage point, knowing ourselves as he might see us instead of how we might feel us. Though we might try to make the best possible choices about what to eat, where to live, when to work, and how to take care of ourselves, cyborg choices will always be informed by the science and technologies that were made by powerful people considering the interests of the whole system. The interests of all of the individual cyborgs were never part of the plan, and this makes system-knowledge dangerous to them."

Okay, I cannot even begin to deconstruct this. It is all just too much of much...
It is what it is.
Well, yes. Look, I had a lot of fun with this article. But it is problematic. For a fun paper, it's fun; as an academic paper in which logic needs to somehow be present, so that your arguments proceed from some point of reference, not so much.

More:" Zombies, conversely, cannot deny their place in the horde. They don’t have subjectivity. They don’t optimize. They don’t bricolage. They are the sacrifice to the high modernist system, and thus they can understand the lie: the system does not serve the lives of its members." Parse that out. I cannot. Why can't zombies deny their place in the horde? What is their place in the horde? Why don't they have subjectivity? What does that even mean? What does it mean to optimize? What about bricolage? (Bricolage is a technique where works are constructed from various materials available or on hand). What? Why would zombies "bricolage?" Do zombies understand anything? Just asking. :-)
Read part of the way through.
Kept thinking, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Dana: the author is certainly having way too much fun with academic jargon; she (or he) certainly writes the way I used to, when I was younger and got carried away by my ideas. But that doesn't mean the ideas are wrong.

I actually can parse out that last paragraph you quoted, if I fill in "lower classes" for "zombies," which seems pretty clearly to be what the author meant. They can't "deny their place in the horde" because they have been taught from the get-go that they exist to work, and that they are interchangeable. If they act up, they get fired and replaced. That threat has been used since before the Industrial Revolution. Thus they are defined by their place in the crowd, and yeah, they don't get to act, or improve, or make art of any sort... Personally, I'm flashing back to Frantz Fanon.

I would have written the essay differently (it would have been rather shorter and less florid, I hope), but the central points do make sense to me. I don't necessarily agree with the perspective -- I happen to like kids -- but I think the author's definitely on the right track about the movie's meaning. I came up with some fairly similar theories on my own.

And OneTeV, of course a cigar could just be a cigar -- but in this movie it seems unlikely. Not one so tightly plotted and layered with meaning. There's not a word in there that Joss and Drew didn't want to be there. I mean, in that critical basement scene, Marty's holding a strip of movie film, and literally holds it up to the light so that he can look through it. He is the epitome and the incarnation of meta.
My concern with this article is that it seems to be anti-science (a common and, I think, unfortunate theme in contemporary film and pop culture). See the ending of BSG, the film Oblivion, etc.

"they accept ritual sacrifice just as we accept a certain number of deaths and mutilations to industrial accidents, clinical experiments, or radiation exposures in order to keep the economy roiling and our civilization alive. In our high modernist, technocratic world, a certain quantity of deaths are “axiomatic,” written so completely into the functioning of modernity that to remove them would mean death for all, the death of our future."

First, that doesn't make sense--death is in fact axiomatic to all organic beings subject to decay. Even the type of "mutilations" demonized by the author as products of the evils of science are no worse than painful deaths that befell our ancestors via wild animal, disease, infections, etc, which you can't blame on high modernism.

Second, there is a false dichotomy in indicting "our high modernist, technocratic world" while advocating the crumbling of all social order and society. Can we not mistrust and fight against some scientific institutions that are harming individuals, especially those in less privileged classes, while accepting other institutions as valuable and positive?
PS the author also got the director wrong :P
manenough- fair analysis. But still! Zombies really cannot be "taught" anything; they're zombies. :-)

And I also thought the anti-science bias was quite strong. But this is really application of queer theory to a reading of the movie, so I get that, at least.
@manenough: I know that Joss and Drew were deliberate in their choice of plot and words. Just meant that the author is digging awfully deep to look for meanings that I don't think are there. For instance, how can it be an indictment of modern science, when the ceremonial sacrifices had been going on for centuries around the globe (although in different formats)?

I think the opening act is to set up the fact that those two "every-men", with families of their own, will shortly be murdering other people's kids. I think the purpose was personal and a question of empathy, and to set up plot points later on, not a grand treatise on reproduction. (But that is my viewpoint.)
OneTeV: fair enough. But now we're wandering into the territory of "authors' intended meaning" vs. "audience's received meaning." There are hints of Spike's redemption arc in his earliest episodes, back when Joss wasn't planning on having the character make it through his fourth episode, so Joss clearly didn't mean them to be there. But you can still see them, in the right light. So are the hints really there or not?

I might summarize the whole article, anti-science bent and all, with a saying of Albert Schweitzer: "Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight." It's a quote that works on several levels (appropriately enough), since Schweitzer himself got some criticism from Africans: he opened a hospital, yeah, but it wasn't as good as it could have been. Which was my first thought when I read your line about hospitals, Dana -- hospitals are places in our world where some people go to get better. Others don't have that luxury...
I originally misread the title as "Toward a Zombie Episiotomy". Which would have been an entirely different article. Maybe.
Not to get too "I told you so," but if you follow the link on the main page called "Joss Whedon: Before and After the Avengers," Joss's comments about Cabin in the article tell us that they were most definitely going deep.
No one is arguing that they weren't going deep. The question is the where and why. In the "Before and After" article, Joss is quoted as saying:
"I dislike agendas; I like obsessions because obsessions are part of what make us individual and exciting. Agendas – not so much."
My point being... When the author of this article is making philosophical arguments about anti-science and reproductive history, I think that crosses into making assumptions about a writer's agenda, which Joss is saying he was not trying to do.

And earlier you mentioned: "But now we're wandering into the territory of "authors' intended meaning" vs. "audience's received meaning." Which is exactly the point I was making earlier when I said it felt to me like the author was constructing a huge card tower, when sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (The movie had a purpose for everything in it, but not for the reasons given by the author.)

If you still feel like we aren't communicating properly, let me just end with a quote from "Sherlock" (UK) to summarize my viewpoint (right or wrong) on this article:

Wrong. It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts.
You’ve got a solution that you like, but you’re choosing to ignore anything you see that doesn’t comply with it.

Could be itneresting to compare this (and any other!) essays on the film with Joss's own take in the Utichi interviews. (yes, I know it's bad taste to mention one thread in another, but I figured it was worth raising.)
METAI- with regard to hospitals, yes. But again, the basic position of this article is queer theory, which seems to position such organizations as hegemonic structures and as heteronormative (and therefore to be rejected). I am not certain the author is giving any consideration to the status of people in developing nations, with regard to access to health care. This is based on a white, western understanding of the issues and structures of interest to the author. And thus biased.
OneTev: 100% valid points. But let me make myself a bit plainer as well: if an author says, "That cigar is just a cigar" and the audience says, "Yeah, but we see something else," who is right? In Serenity Joss didn't mean to write the double meaning of Zoe's line "She's broke up plenty, but she'll fly true" -- Gina Torres saw it, though. So was it there or not?

(On the flip side, a class of college kids once told Ray Bradbury to his face that Fahrenheit 451 was about censorship, which it really, really isn't, and that he was wrong about his own book.)

Dana: I think the author was thinking about oppressed people in general, but yes, I did pick up on a Western-ish slant.

...Now, to complete this situation, the article's author will appear and claim s/he didn't mean something that I've read into it.
I found this essay extremely interesting, but my understanding is that while "Cabin" is saying that a culture that *demands* the sacrifice of relative innocents and that we turn into people who kill our friends is a culture that deserves to fail, I'm not sure that translates into all of the other messages the essayist asserts are in the film. Also, what sort of zombies is she talking about? If she's referencing the drugged/bespelled people of "White Zombie," I don't think contemporary readers/viewers would think of them as zombies. Most traditional zombies *don't* know they're part of a horde; if they're intellectually functional enough to know anything (like the living dead in "The Zeppo"), they experience themselves as individuals. If she's specifically referencing the Buckners, they can act in concert with one another, and in life they didn't seem burdened by concerns about the next generation, but I don't think "Cabin" is endorsing them as a viable alternative to Hadley and Sitterson.

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