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The Turn

Josie’s photo series of the young Korean woman turning into a zombie mesmerized me that day and I have thought about it many times over the years. Her pictures stoked a deep, primal, and nameless emotion in me, but at the same time unleashed an almost endless torrent of logical inferences so entangled it might have taken me a hundred lifetimes to sort out. I had typically viewed emotion and reason—what Aristotle called pathos and logos—as dueling agents, but something about Josie’s perspective—her timing, her angle, her love for her subject, her revulsion for the turn, or whatever other impulses led her there that day—made the two converge in an instant. The photos gave me a flare of simple insight. I doubt anyone would call it brilliant, as it’s just an analogy, and any undergraduate can churn out a million of those, but, for some reason, it still strikes me as a deep truth: the distinction we make between human and zombie echoes those between other categories like living and dead or art and artifact.

It seems to me that the second I try to capture that insight, I will diminish something essential, render the whole system of feelings and thoughts quite incoherent and even trite, but of course I will try anyway, by first offering a suggestion that the reader not take each of the four component perspectives appearing below as sacrosanct, but to simply to understand that each represents a kind of thought that people always tend to have when it comes to the divisions we make between various types or states or attitudes, to seriously try to understand and even inhabit each of those views during its allotted time—then forget all that thinkier shit and just imagine, or hold in your head the thought of, a person transforming into a zombie, and transforming again in death.


Position 1: Commonsense Distinction

Most take the rather commonsense position that there is a distinct dividing line between various things as well as between various states of things, so that you could represent the difference between a piece of art and a mere artifact thus: art|artifact. Likewise, we might distinguish between a human and a zombie with this notation: human|zombie. But, of course, there are other common divisions of this sort that might be helpful for illustrative purposes, among them zygote|fetus, fetus|human, living|dead, zombie|corpse, corpse|soil. It’s not hard to understand. The vertical bar (|) represents that moment between states, a kind of pause, or caesura, and most people who tend toward seeing such a clear distinction will admit it is extremely thin, a moment in time that might only be a millionth of a second, or a billionth, moving always toward something that is very hard to imagine, which is an infinitely thin dividing line, so that you might forever get closer and closer and closer to having no dividing line at all, but never quite reaching zero, so we can say that, in the end, there is a dividing line, even though no human eye nor even any finely calibrated instrument might ever be capable of perceiving it.


But here is a little thought experiment that often comes with this view, one I have heard several people discuss over the years: say the gap separating distinct states, represented above by the vertical bar (|), were not infinitely thin, not a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second (as with human|zombie), but that it expands and expands, getting wider and wider, until we are looking at a gap that is an entire second, a minute, an hour, a day, a year, a decade, so that the vertical bar stretches out and out, like this:


human |<<<<<>>>>>| zombie 

On one side of this ten-year gap one would be fully human. On the other side, one would be fully zombie. It’s easier to understand the implications as the gap gets bigger. Because what exactly is happening within that gap? what infinitely complex or infinitely simple chemical and biological processes are taking place? what spiritual adventure is being enacted in the name of that change? Surely, if the gap is wide, much would happen so that the period represented by the gap takes on its own character; indeed, the pause, the caesura, becomes itself a kind of third state, an intermediary state, and therefore must have its own discrete set of properties.


By that same thinking, consider life|death. If the dividing-line were expanded thus....




.... then what fills the gap besides empty time? Doesn’t our experience with zombies suggest zombism fills the gap, that zombism constitutes an intermediary third state in the bardo? This, as you probably know, is a common position, the very explanation many have used to explain the zombie phenomenon over the years. But, of course, we are talking about an abstract principle, not something that is only relevant with regard to zombies or even various physical properties, but also to more qualitative designations (as with art|artifact), that if we presume there is a dividing line and its thickness is many units of whatever subjective measure of quality, and we extend this gap out and out until the gap is a hundred times as wide as our base subjective measure of quality, then here, as with the case of life|zombie|death, we would also have a third, intermediary state of quality, something like art|arty|artifact. This seems to jibe with other common presumptions that people hold in these dark ages.

Counterargument: The reader might immediately see the problem created by this so-called commonsense position. If one assumes that there must be a clear-cut division between states, that this division is a pause or caesura between states, then this caesura necessarily constitutes a third state, even if an infinitely thin one; however, if there must be an intermediary state between states (life|zombie|death or art|arty|artifact), then shouldn’t we also allow for intermediary states between the state on each end of the spectrum and those intermediary states (life|x|zombie|x|death or art|x|arty|x|artifact)? and once you’ve allowed for this, what of intermediary states between the intermediary states and on and on ad infinitum (…x|x|x|x|x|x…)? at what point does this talk of intermediary states cease to have meaning at all? aren’t all states along such a line simultaneously intermediary states and no states at all? 


Position 2: Subsequence

Another common position that seems, at first blush, to account for the philosophical problem above holds that there is no defining line, no pause or caesura, between states, that distinct states simply abut one another, so that one state comes to its conclusion and the next commences, as if turning one state off equals turning the other on. Symbolically, this might be represented not as art|artifact or human|zombie but as artartifact or humanzombie. Those who hold this position do not believe in the gap. A photo essay, a painting, a poem is a mere artifact right up until the point when it is, quite suddenly, something more highly esteemed as art. Or, in the words of a man I once met riding a donkey on the road, “People’re people till they’re not.”


There is some level of nuance allowed, however. They seem to allow that there are crossover traits, in much the same way that both sides of the abortion debate [1] before The Collapse might have agreed that a fetus and a human share features, that a fetus at a certain point in its development has a spine and fingers and toes and is largely human in form. One side in that debate, of course, would have said they shared traits because they were one in the same thing, that is, that a fetus was a human. That is decidedly not how those who favor Subsequence would see things. Rather, they would argue that a fetus is a fetus, sharing certain features and characteristics with humans but not quite human, at least until that moment when fetushood ended and its personhood, in an instant, commenced—perhaps in the breach.


Counterargument: The fundamental presumption of Subsequence of course is that there must be a fundamental quality or a dynamic set of qualities or attributes that distinguishes states. An artifact would have similar qualities as a piece of art, but there must be something that each has that the other doesn’t, some essential something that marks it as being it and only it, and vice versa. A human must have a core group of attributes that a zombie doesn’t and vice versa. Some would contend for restrictive definitons such that whatever attributes would need to be universal among individuals belonging to the category, so that every human would possess those core qualities that make them human while every zombie would possess what makes them zombie. But experience tells us that these things are at best porous and mutable. Not every person has the very things we typically consider to be human. Isn't a psychopath human though he lacks empathy, one of the qualities we often associate with humanity? Is a person with a massive head injury who is incapable of any but the most basic motor movements and associated mental activity still considered human? Aren't cannibals human? Are fucked-up jackasses who love zombies not human? Likewise, is a zombie that doesn’t bite something other than a zombie? Is a zombie that gawks at clouds not a zombie? Is solid white paint on a canvas incapable of being considered high art? Must everyone consider Othello high art or can some of us think of it as a mere artifact? What about when an ancient ancestor placed their hand on a cave wall and blew blood through a bone so that their hand print remained for millennia? It’s an artifact, sure. But art? Surely there must be some core set of attributes distinguishing such things, and yet we find there are not or at least that it is excruciatingly difficult to determine and if not to determine then to agree upon; every time we try to reduce to fundaments, we find that our own criteria are too exclusive or not exclusive enough.


Position 3: Overlap

This position is simple and seeks to acknowledge what the previous two positions did not: what if these supposedly distinct states simply are not distinct? what if they overlap around the edges, bleeding one into the next into the next? what if the boundaries are so mutable as to negate distinction except in the minds of fallible creatures such as ourselves who might explode if suddenly we were able to perceive beyond the current limits of our sensory organs and pierce the veil of “reality” that renders infinity practicable? In this position, there is no art|artifact or even artartifact but something more like the mashed-up ararttifact, no human|zombie or humanzombie but humazonmbie?


This position has its own allure. Physics told us that the hard boundaries of things were not so hard as we once believed. Even the component particles were tricky and contained enough empty space inside them that even solid statues like David or the Dying Gaul were mostly nothingness, billions of voids that, once combined in certain formations, gave the appearance of solidity, but in the end were not solid at all, and all around the edges where we perceive clear distinctions between rock and air we find that there is in fact interplay between molecules. If you take this sort of knowledge and add to it serious doubts about whether there really are distinct sets of attributes making up the fundaments of a given state and a certain sense of uncertainty arises that is hard to shake. If the firm physical boundaries of material things are not so firm, if electrons can inhabit two different positions at once, as we were told, then what of more immaterial things like attributes? Maybe autonomy, self-control, cognition, foresight, memory, advanced motor skills, etc. are not exclusively human traits. Maybe the difference between a messed-up human body and a particularly well-preserved zombie body, or between a relatively peaceful zombie and a raging lunatic, are perfectly negligible, even indistinguishable. Maybe we have a lot more in common than is comfortable to admit.  


Counterargument: Some see all that as a rather soft position. It holds that the boundaries between things are fuzzy. Okay. Duh. But if things overlap at the edges, does that really contradict the idea that there are distinct states? Of course not. Two things may bleed into one another—almost no one would deny this—but for two things to bleed into one another, those two things must still exist separate from one another up to the point when they cease to be two things and become one. On the other hand, some might take the argument against this Overlap position in the opposite direction and point out that it is nothing but a weak-kneed, incremental approach to a much bolder position: if things truly overlap—not just metaphorically, but truly overlap—so that there is really no distinction from the end of one thing and the beginning of the next, then aren’t those things actually one thing? And if that is true then....


Position 4: Universality

This position holds, as noted at the end of the previous counterargument, that there is no true, objective, universal distinction to be made between things, that all substances and states are, in fact, one substance, one state, and our human faculties are simply too limiting for us to hold onto a particularly gnarly paradox in which we are at once distinct enough to consider ourselves while also being part of the one great everything. By this thinking, humans and zombies are not truly distinct things but the same thing only perceived as different by sensory organs too roughly calibrated to perceive otherwise, the same way racists were unable to see that there was no fundamental difference between a black man and a white man or how some people decided to call jazz art but dub rap nothing but a mere artifact, a lower form of culture, or how some art-world people perceived a big enough distinction between their perceptional values (“Melville foreshadowed postmodernism”) and the perceptional values of others (“Most of that book’s boring as shit”) as to call the others Philistines and summarily disregard pretty much everything they had to say.


There is something inherently attractive about the idea that all things are one thing, all part and parcel of an endless churning substance; though it defies what our senses tell us about the universe, there is something comforting about breaking down boundaries between things, of realizing we are not distinct from our loved ones, that we are our loved ones, and, on the flipside, that we are not at war with others, but at war with ourselves, that we are not properly we, they not they, but all of us one gigantic mess of I—a great Universal I, endlessly carving out distinctions within myself, twisting and molding pieces and parts like puppets to entertain myself in my solitude, that very solitude, like everything else, nothing but another aspect of me.


Counterargument: This is a far-out proposition for some and, since it seems almost impossible to fully comprehend—like pondering holding infinity in your hand, infinity being something stretching endlessly outward and endlessly inward—has the tendency to leave one in a headspace where nothing can happen, where all one is is a mind pondering godly-ungodly abstract principles and unable to get much of anything done. Indeed, it seems sort of defeating. If I am already part of everything, not only human and zombie but also quite literally art and artifact and the earth and the heavens and good and evil and every other conceivable and inconceivable thing and state and quality, why must every part of me feel so incomplete that I’d set my inner zombie against my inner man? And so it goes: the second you are snapped out of this very heady and paradoxical meditation, by hunger, by fear, by sleepiness, the need for some semblance of definable order invariably creeps back in, establishing binaries—like human|zombie, life|death, art|artifact—and thereby leading one full circle back to the first position, where clear-cut divisions between things once again provide a sense of warmth and comfort in a seemingly cold and endless chaos.



[1] How like a zombie was the abortion debate? Every time one thought it dead and gone, it rose again. 

Commonsense Distinction
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