28 March 2090

Zombie Wednesday: ...And Then [Nothing] Changed

Ah, zombie survival-horror, that well that started drying up twenty years ago. A few intrepid filmmakers continue to do interesting things with Romero-style undead, but movies like Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004), Planet Terror (Rodriguez, 2007), and Dead Snow (Wirkola, 2009) are the exception. Most zombie-moviemakers approach the material with all the artistry of a wedding band covering "We Are Family."

We are family.

I offer a speculation. In zombie movie terms, this is where I stalk into the abandoned convenience store in the second reel, calling "Hello? Anybody in here?" (which is to say, I could die). My speculation: I think the American rage for zombie outbreak movies is a symptom of our hopelessness about collective solutions to collective problems.

What is the fate of groups in zombie-apocalypse movies? They collapse. First, the state goes. Cops die, platoons disintegrate, and politicians run for their survival bunkers; any such groups that remain functional do so by means of ruthless predation on survivors (i.e. the rogue unit that becomes "worse than the zombies"). The family follows suit, as daughters devour fathers, and brothers drag sisters through windows into the waiting hands of the undead.

New, ad-hoc groups form, in shopping malls, or in underground redoubts, or in armed compounds, or in sport-utility vehicles. However, these collapse, too. Individual vices--lust, greed, bravado--lead to an unlocked gate, or an exposed window, or an infected bite. Loner protagonists spurn groups as not merely ineffective, but inherently dangerous, since every other human is a potential zombie. In these 21st-century Robinsonades, lucky heroes end up more isolated than they were at the start of the film; unlucky ones end up dead. Nearly always, the idiotic hunger of the zombie horde is the only clear winner.

The Zombie Family Robinson.

The trope of the contagious, incurable zombie bite suggests political surrender: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. In the world of zombie plagues (as in the discursive world of neoliberal self-congratulation over the victory of capitalism), somehow you can never "beat 'em." What you therefore must "join" is not an organized army of the undead, who work together to accomplish goals, but a mob of individuals trampling each other as they grab for something to eat. This isn't the joining of a political party or a labor union, but the joining of an undifferentiated mass of individuals that do not acknowledge any commonality. Despite the zombie's tendency to appear in hordes, the horde is a radical negation of the social and the political.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out a tendency in the imaginary narratives that circulate in today's late capitalist culture.
Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism. (Žižek!)
He does not mention zombies by name, but the zombie-apocalypse film is part of this cultural moment. Our movies can imagine the living dead overrunning a mall; they cannot imagine a mall's living employees organizing a union or turning the space into a cooperative.

Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend, midwife of the zombie-apocalypse genre, tells the story of Robert Neville, an ex-military man who barricades himself against the vampires who besiege his house every night. These undead are victims of a plague, and now, like junkies desperate for a fix, they are too sick and stupid to work together. By day, Neville scours Los Angeles for useful goods, and destroys any sleeping vampires he finds. He eventually learns (spoiler alert!) that a small group of infected have discovered a drug that allows them to control their disease enough that they retain their intellectual and moral faculties, though they cannot venture out in daylight. The novel culminates in this new society sending a paramilitary squad to capture Neville, to try him for his crimes against their diseased friends and relatives. He acknowledges that he has become their Dracula, their legendary monster that sheds their blood as they sleep.

No zombie movie I have ever heard of goes where Matheson took his undead: a functional society replacing ours. Occasionally, zombie movies since Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985) explore the notion of a single, extraordinary zombie that can (re-)learn to behave socially, but the "smart" zombie is always one of a kind.

Bub: not the average zombie.

This rendering of zombie intellect and sociality as unique reflects American notions of individualism in an era of union-busting, increasing corporate power, and diminishing security for all but the most wealthy. We each root for the one "smart" zombie, identifying with him and congratulating ourselves for being the one who doesn't just follow the rest of the horde, hoping that we'll make it to the last reel (or become a billionaire). When people dress up as zombies and participate in "zombie walks," they make play out of real but historically specific feelings of isolation and hopelessness, their quirky and individualistic cosplay a mockery of the real condition they loathe to recognize. Zombies are free from all social obligations, but they are free only to stumble along in search of food.

Thus the notion that in a zombie apocalypse "everything" changes obscures the more fundamental narrative of zombie movies, where nothing changes except for a slight acceleration of the processes of atomization that have been eroding Americans' sense of sociality for decades. Zombie apocalypse movies are not radical visions of disruption and revolution, but neoliberal visions of continuity and (d)evolution. A zombie movie in which zombies establish worker-owned factories or build public schools or bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas--that would be a zombie movie where everything changes.

23 April 2012

Public Art and Animal Adoptions Steampunk Style!

Is this a clothing boutique, or an animal-adoption center, or a cosplay clubhouse with a "kraken" pulling an "eighteen-foot zeppelin" through the ceiling? Watch Donna Ricci's [revised] video for "Public Art and Animal Adoptions Steampunk Style" and you may be able to answer that question. Then again, I've watched it, and the idea is still blurry around the edges.

Contribute, or someone will strap goggles to each of these animals.

And what does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Ricci also plans to build a TARDIS outside the boutique, a prop that "will be available to the public 24 hours a day." Is this the "public art"? If I LARP on the street or wear Klingon-face to Burger King, is that public art? Do people consider Doctor Who steampunk? What does this have to do with stray dogs and parakeets?

Maybe I'm in the wrong simply for asking such questions. Ricci asserts that steampunk is "based around science-fiction," "largely based in the Victorian era," and "almost beyond definition--there is no right or wrong answer." Problem solved: steampunk is whatever you want it to be. If there's some Victoriana in there, all the better, but medieval Scandinavian sea-monsters and 1960s British science-fiction TV shows both count as steampunk, as do stray dogs and clapper-boards with digital displays.

I assume that the popularity of steampunk doesn't spring from nostalgia for late-19th-century scientific racism, or Jim Crow, or America's colonial adventure in the Philippines, or laws that kept women from voting, or police repression of the labor movement--but I could be wrong. Now that I think about it, the lack of interest in the actual 19th century on the part of steampunk fans suggests that I am wrong.

Is steampunk then a symptom of postmoderns' nostalgia for modernity, for that reassuring sense that humanity is making Progress? There is an undeniable beauty to modernity's grand narratives, wherein we will someday fly personal aeroplanes to our 20-hour-a-week jobs, or explore the universe in soviet-built rocketships. In the US, at least, we seem to be returning to the Gilded Age of robber barons and tentacled trusts; is "steampunk" a way of imagining a liberated but individualist fantasy of that period, where artisanal rocket boots, and not unions or political parties, can save us from bread lines and 12-hour workdays?

18 April 2012

Tangentially Zombie Wednesday: Rise of the Steam Goddess

I'm glad the word steampunk is so popular, because it's a real time-saver. It's like a handkerchief on the roommate's doorknob, code for "MASTURBATING--DO NOT DISTURB." Don't worry, bro! When you drop the s-bomb, I realize that wanking is in progress, and I can spare both the wanker and myself the shame of discovery. Unless, that is, I'm doing research for new Shitstarter posts. In that case, I kick in the door.

Dame Frances "Fanny" Juggins, Lady Bustington

I know what you're thinking. Some of you were reading along, and then when you got to the photo of Dame Fanny (above), you lost track of what I was saying. Maybe you even let slip a little wolf-whistle, in spite of yourself. A few of you might even have hoped that this woman was the artist responsible for the Kickstarter project, or at least that she appears in the video; after all, a big PLAY button hovers just above her endowments.

But such is the visual rhetoric of Kickstarter pages like the one for Ben Hamby's Rise of the Steam Goddess. Not only is Dame Fanny not the party responsible for the page, she does not even appear in the video. She is the bait, and Professor Hamsley Piggins, Marquess of Bloatingsford (below), is the switch. If you don't believe me, watch his video, which consists of Piggins sitting on a couch and holding forth about his novel of "steam-powered zombies" in an English accent that made me consider, in this order, homicide, suicide, and genocide.

"I know all there is to know about the crying game." --K.K. Rotwang

Steampunk may be the new the sink to which porky, some-college mediocrity drains. For fans with a DIY impulse, it's a snap: buy an olde-tyme hat on EBay or at the Halloween store, glue some feathers and watch parts to it, and vòila, le punk--le punk de steam! Making a convincing suit of mail, Dalek-voice ring-modulator, or bat'leth takes way more work. Besides, unlike "boffer" (i.e. foam-weapon) LARP, steampunk demands little exertion, apart from squeezing into those getups. No, you won't see any mob of steampunks chasing about St. James Park, clubbing each other with foam bumbershoots, eh, guv'nor?

Steampunk is specific enough to be useful to my purposes--I can search for the word in Kickstarter and find no shortage of awful self-promotion--but it is also a vague enough buzzword to attract all manner of "creative" awfulness to its banner.

Long live steampunk.

16 April 2012


This Kickstarter project from Emilee Wilson aims to "show the world that pole dance is a sport." "Everyone knows it is a form of fitness," she asserts, "but does it belong in the Olympic Games?" 

[Your pun HERE!]

You're probably thinking, "Pole-dancing? Isn't that what strippers do?" Wilson and company are adamant that pole-dancing is not stripping, and that it is not done for money; their slogan, "no tipping and no stripping," appears both in the text description and in the video. It seems that Wilson is trying to deflect charges that pole-dancing is little more than slightly de-sexualized striptease. The implication is that because athletic/artistic pole-dancers do not take off all their clothes, and because they do not expect to have spectators give them cash, athletic/artistic pole-dancers are somehow nobler than women who dance nude around poles for money.

This strikes me as deeply ironic, in that it suggests an anti-feminist position regarding female sexuality and sex work. The position seems to be that it's OK for women to be sexy, as long as they aren't going to do any lap-dances, and that (maybe) it's OK for women to have sex, but it's not OK for them to have sex in exchange for money.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that while I find mostly- and entirely-nude women fascinating, and while I also think that it should be legal for consenting adults to pay for striptease or for sex, I nevertheless find stripping and strip clubs repulsive. There's something about the tease of the dancing that I find personally degrading and humiliating. I hate that I can't look away from nude women who have no intention of getting to know me, let alone having sex with me. I respond like Pavlov's dog to the ringing of the bell, fully aware that my dish will remain empty. Strip clubs expose and exploit my desires without my consent.)

To return to Wilson's argument, consider the above still from her promotional video. Pole dancing isn't stripping, Wilson claims, but the video's images say otherwise. Here we see an athletic young woman with shaved limbs and a cultivated tan spinning around a pole, an iridescent curtain behind her. She wears thigh-high boots with six-inch heels. Her bikini top and bottom have bows, which suggest tying, but also--and more strongly in this context--un-tying, with a single tug. A jewel in the dancer's navel reminds us to look at her lower abdomen, while the lighting and the framing prevent us from looking at her face. Everything about the scene evokes strip clubs, and a classically eroticizing and objectifying male gaze, since this creature has no face with which to look back.

Thus the brand of pole-dancing that Wilson promotes simultaneously reminds us of women dancing in strip clubs even as Wilson and company disavow that same practice. We get the worst of both worlds: the ogling and sleaze of Roxie's at 2 AM, mixed with an equal measure of Puritanism and slut-shaming.

Consider this thought-experiment: imagine an Olympic event based on hard-core pornography. No money changes hands and nobody's genitals are exposed. Male dancers dress in black PVC thongs and bondage harnesses, and female dancers dress in lacy lingerie or leather bikinis. They perform the contorted sexual moves of gonzo pornography and live sex shows, while judges give them points in different categories. It's all strictly PG-rated. If you note the resemblance to videos of secretaries servicing well-hung bosses, or Japanese-girlschool dildo parties, or black-on-blonde anal gangbangs, the judges will arch their eyebrows, peer over their opera-glasses, and tell you that this is a rigorous sport.

In answer to Wilson's question, I'm going with, "No, pole-dancing doesn't belong in the Olympic Games."

13 April 2012

Bonobo Chat: An App for Talking with Apes

Ken Schweller, a professor of computer science and psychology, has developed software that helps humans communicate with chimpanzees. I lack the training to evaluate his research, so I can oly hope that it is as good as his Kickstarter page, which is gold.

I'm throwing this into my next PowerPoint,
to make sure my students are paying attention.

Prof. Schweller built a Robo-Bonobo. Here Scwheller plays "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on a harmonica, as a super-title tells us what the Robo-Bonobo thinks.

What has science done?

What will the bonobos say to us? Whatever it is, it won't top Scwheller's Kickstarter page. And will it matter, once Schweller equips his bonobos with tablet computers that allow them to remotely control the Robo-Bonobos?

The bonobological singularity is here.

11 April 2012

Zombie Wednesday: Rebel Wellness Gardens - 'We Survived the Zombie Apocalypse'

Some people seem incapable of getting motivated unless they imagine that society has collapsed due to a zombie apocalypse. Exercising? Donating blood? Preparing for utility outages? Gardening? Bo-ring! But if you make them part of a zombie apocalypse in which all human institutions collapse, where survivors play Robinson Crusoe in the ruins of modernity, then everything becomes jolly funtime.

We make survivalism FUN!

So Andrew Smith's zombie-themed primer on starting a community garden should come as little surprise. It takes the resurgence in gardening and the locavore movement and combines them with the old zombie apocalypse. The twist is that in this scenario, the zombie part is over. I imagine that gardening after a zombie apocalypse is... much like gardening before a zombie apocalypse, but the garden-stores are all closed, and you have to pump your own water. Really, the only time that the gardening experience is significantly different is during the actual zombie apocalypse.

What surprises me is that Smith didn't combine zombies and locavorism with that fad that keeps walking, despite smelling dead: the praise of bacon. Zombie apocalypse bacon! What's more DIY than raising your own pigs and slaughtering them? You get to fight the ghouls that try to invade your compound, while inside, you learn about swine husbandry, slaughter, and processing. Dispatch the pig with a well-placed bullet or blow from a tire iron (remember: you must destroy the brain!), then cook the pig whole, and you and your cosplay friends can tear your dinner apart with your bare hands. Appendices will explain how to make organs and gristle into sausage.*


Here are some other ideas that Smith's project has given me.
The Rock-and-Roll Knitter's Handbook to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. (includes patterns for knit rifle-cases and tactical vests)

A Cosplayer's Guide to Building Props that Would Survive a Real Zombie Apocalypse (but Still Look Like PVC).

This Fixed-Gear Cupcake Kills Zombies!

This Bacon Kills Zombies, or The Steampunk Slaughterman's Primer on Surviving the Revenant Deceased in a Manner Befitting Subjects of Her Majesty, with Appendices on Goggles, Pneumatic Captive-Bolt Stunners, and Abattoir Corsetry.
*Note: You must process all the flesh quickly, to avoid putrefaction. Gore effects master Tom Savini bought real pig entrails to use in the dismemberment scenes of Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985), but a member of the production crew accidentally unplugged the refrigerator, letting the guts begin to decay. By the time the crew filmed the scene using the decaying viscera, the stench was enough to make most of them ill.

09 April 2012

Hovercraft Amps

Kickstarter is like an enormous used-record store. I spend most of my time there looking for early-70s LPs bearing photos of guys whose only hope of ever getting laid was starting a band. Every now and then, I find a record I consider buying for non-irony value. Once in a long while, I find something so rare and wonderful that it brings tears of joy to my eyes, say a test-pressing of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, or the stack of Los Crudos EPs and splits that someone stole from my apartment on Arsenal during a party in 1996. Hovercraft Amps is such a find.

"A mountain walked or stumbled."

If you want to know what kind of amp tone makes K. K. Rotwang consider turning to crime to possess it, play the video on Hovercraft's page. It's not a "good" promotional video, by Kickstarter standards. The campaign's creator, Nial McGaughey, does not stand before the camera making a heartfelt appeal for money, or cracking jokes about the difficulty of starting an artisanal retro-amp workshop. No sophisticated editing suggests high production values. McGaughey just points the camera at the cliff-face of a Hovercraft half-stack, then lets the forces of tube-driven nature take their course.

That course consists of irradiating you with wide-frequency ionizing tube overdrive until your skeleton glows, causing your flesh to boil away and ignite in a slow-motion doom-cloud that dissolves the objects around you. When you are a luminous skeleton-ghost, held together by bong-resin and infra-bass hypergravity, then your 666th chakra will open, connecting you to the One Riff coterminous with all time, space, birth, and death.