Zombies + Lacan = ?

Someone recently shouted, “let’s go kill some Nazi zombies!” I learned yesterday that “let’s go kill some Nazi zombies” is not the raving of some drugged up lunatic, but a simple invitation to play some Nazi-zombie-filled video game.

What does this say about the way I understand language if “Nazi zombie” registers drugs instead of video games in my mind? Could one simply write me off as a cynic (assuming drugs are worse than video games), or am I merely too far outside of gaming culture to understand the subtle delights of using various weapons to silence the jawohls of the undead? I’m going to explore that below, but I’m going to use Lacan’s ideas — that said, I am totally confused about what I’m attempting here, so it probably isn’t actually very Lacanian and it probably isn’t very sensible.

Zombie as a word conjures up associates of cheesy/hilarious/not-scary old zombie films. You’ve got to love Shaun of the Dead! It does not make me think of video games. Zombie also makes me think of an old friend of mine who was once fully captivated by books about voodoo and the like. Still no connection to video games. My underlying understanding of “zombie” is simply as something amusing — and Nazis aren’t what you would call amusing. How did I come to this non-gaming understanding of the brain-eating-undead? Well… pretty much through others. Without those horribly made (and purposely horribly made) zombie-flicks, my understanding of zombies — that is, my immediate understanding of the word when spoken — is that they are funny.

Yet some people take zombies seriously (I think?). Clearly zombie movies have not fallen away completely, although it seems like faster incarnations are becoming popular — but really, what good is a horror movie if all the scares are just surprises? Lame. So apparently the others who help determine my view of zombies are different others than those who help frame the view of zombies as scary. Or are they? Perhaps the key is far more complicated than all that. Is it really permissible to rule out anyfactor in a person’s life when we want to figure out what something means to them? It seems to me that if you separate one part of a person’s life from the whole, it becomes not their life, but someone else’s.

Now if we consider that I don’t live in the world of video-gaming, it probably is not important for me to know that there are Nazi-zombies. So the undead remain for me an object of mockery. Quite honestly, the absurdity of the idea should be enough to make anyone laugh. Then again, the pixels of my character’s life are not in danger of them, so I can laugh without fear… Nazi-zombies are still nonsense.

Colbert Doing Deconstruction

This week has been a reminder to me of just how funny a thing reality is. I talked last week about David’s reality after a dentist visit, but that post didn’t really deal with Meaning. Simply put, words mean stuff. They are symbols that are susceptible to change, and, as constructs of a sort of collective society (an ideology that we don’t often question), words don’t necessarily contain any truth. Example A:

The Wørd

Part of what I like about this video is that it shows how close “reality” actually comes to being “wikiality.” Wikiality is “the reality we can all agree on, the reality we just agreed on.” My big question is, so how is that different from reality? Reality is also what we can all agree on — you wouldn’t say that the thing signified by the word tree is a rubber band, rather you would agree that a tree is a tree. And it is indeed the reality we justagreed on — after all, “meh” has become a word.

Clearly wikiality is itself a metaphor. Wikiality isthe reality we just agreed on. Two words that are not the same (wikiality and reality) are put next to each other and called equal. But if we try to see if wikiality is an example of metonymy, it complicates the process. I think there are three basic approaches to this analysis.

1) Wikiality – Wikipedia – written by people – people lie – Wikipedia lies – Wikiality is a lie (metaphor)

2) Wikiality – Wikipedia – written by people – people tell the truth – Wikipedia tells the truth – Wikiality is reality (which brings us to the metaphor)

3) Wikiality – Wikipedia – written by people – people sometimes lie, sometimes tell the truth – Wikipedia sometimes lies, sometimes tells the truth – Wikiality is sometimes reality (still a metaphor)

As you can see, the change occurs when we think about what the relationship between people and reality is. And this in itself is subject to our personal conceptions. The man in the aluminum-foil hat is not going to believe  you if you say that the UFOs are not out to get him. We like things to mean what we think they mean:  especially when it comes to what we perceive as real.

One thing I would like to point out is just how careful we must be with language. I think most people realize that words can and do hurt, and so most of the time people try to soften or harden what they say in order to fit the model of how they conceive themselves. This can be a good or a bad thing. Then there are the cases like Freudian slips — things that supposedly reveal something about our repressions. Granted, the approach to uncovering meaning has to be within specific context, or the meaning is meaningless. Beyond that there is simple stupidity. On one episode of The Office, Michael is doing series of lectures and reveals that he memorizes names by associating physical characteristics in a very metonymic manner. Unfortunately, he manages to offend pretty much everyone in typical Michael Scott fashion. So I suppose the lesson is don’t be a moron, and if you are, then mean well.

A “Commie” and Ideology

Every once in a while, Youtube gets a really… interesting video. Such a video is David After Dentist:

As the title of this video asks, is David just suffering some post-knockout-gas-confusion or is he on a wilder trip? Personally, my own experience with anaesthesia and dentistry leads me to say that David is absolutely not on drugs. But what really intrigues me about this video are the questions the poor kid asks; “Is this real life? Why is this happening to me? Is this gonna be forever?” Basically, I don’t know the answers to his questions!

But there might be some headway that can be made in terms of this being reality. Yes, David, your haze is real, but it probably won’t be forever. Is it reasonable to think that we are out of a haze in the “real” world? Or are we stuck in some kind of cave? Using the theme of suspicion, or that appearances are deceiving, we may very well be underground, chained and assuming understanding.

Public Enemy’s song, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” seems to cry out to this. The title kind of tells it all — hype is not something to believe in. (Incidentally, if we do “believe” the hype and “believe” in God, what does that tell us about our faith?) And what exactly is hype? From the greater context of the song, it seems to be (particularly) the press. From my point of view, the press seems to try to fulfill the job of recounting recent history. It’s like a historical account, only the events are within memory.

And of course we cannot go a day without hearing about the “biased, liberal media” (how does “liberal” explain Limbaugh?). Ignoring the claim of a “liberal” media, it seems fair to say that anything, especially a political discourse (or, more likely, shouting match), is going to have bias — and an ideology to go with it. Marx points out the ideology behind commodities like diamonds in Capital. It has no chemical/physical “value” that makes it worth more than a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread will feed a person; a diamond will not. Yet the bread is worth less. The ideology he points out is that some perception gives value to the valueless. And when demand rises above “supply” (diamond-hoarding schemes have long been suspected) basic economics says that price goes up. The hype is that a diamond is worth more than a loaf of bread. That ideology doesn’t hold up on a desert island.

Eliot’s approach, culture as determiner of literary value, makes him a racist. Barthes approach, remove author entirely, makes things indecipherable because of lack of cultural/historical context. A combination may be a better approach. Foucault does not kill the author, but does significantly limit his authority (and thus the authority of cultural/historical context). Devoid of historical (and cultural) context, the David After Dentist video would indeed be very concerning. Barthes would appreciate it for the philosophical questions David raises, but it would be only frightening, not funny, if we were unable to reason that David just underwent some kind of dental procedure with anaesthesia. Eliot would lose out on humor too! Part of why it is so bizarre is that it’s a cute kid who is acting like he’s had a few too many, yet Eliot’s platinum-author is not a part of the equation.

But it also raises a very ideological debate. Is this just a funny video (think, “Kids Say the Darndest Things”)? Or is it cruelty and emotional scarring? I don’t want to debate that. Because I know that if my parents had a video like this it would absolutely be on Youtube.

Gooey Watches and a Chihuahua with Anger Issues

I have always been a raving lunatic of a fan of Salvador Dali‘s paintings. Even if we think we know what a painting of his is about, there is no chance at being correct, really. Even though they seem like they’re about something, it is impossible to say just what. On some level, I think this contrasts with the paintings of someone like Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s “action painting” seems to lack much of the curiosity Dali presents. On the other hand, there is such a dynamic feel to the wild splotches — Pollock’s work still seems worthwhile (Another cool Pollock site can be found here). Now, it seems fine for me to talk about art and all, but, really, I’m pretty artistically ignorant. I like looking at “Calvin and Hobbes” artwork more than some revered Renaissance painter’s masterpieces of people and fruit.

And thinking about it, I realized that my conception of comedy is much the same! Sure I love a good dose of brilliant irony, but I would just as soon get a laugh out of some crude humor. The jack-ass, Nick Bottom (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream), can be considered “high class” humor — because it is Shakespeare after all. But really, come on! His name is Bottom and his head is transformed into that of an ass… Having said this, I’m not so sure there is a real“high class” humor, but there is a limit on acceptability. “Ren and Stimpy” is a good example.

Oh, “Ren and Stimpy.” Never has a children’s television show been so… freaky. In a bad way. Looking back, it’s surprising that that show hasn’t caused a generation of delusional psychopaths. Seriously. They can sing “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” but it doesn’t change the fact that those two monsters are just gross. And stupid. And sadistic. And gross! Every episode involves Ren calling Stimpy an “eeedeeeot” and proceeding to beat the obese red cat with some household object. In retrospect, all the humor that remains in it is the thought that anyone ever found it funny. Still, I guess it deserves credit for being the creepiest mainstream cartoon ever.

But Salvador Dali’s work is creepy too! My solution to this problem is to think of the purpose of the art. Dali’s paintings are meant for those who want to see things that are above reality. “Ren and Stimpy” were directed for (of all people) children. Now, maybe the show isn’t damaging for children, but I don’t really want to debate that loaded subject. Ultimately, I want to ask what the purpose of the show is. If it is to entertain, it does so only on a really crude level (unless I’m missing some stunning nuance of the so called “dialogue”). It would be like the Bottom-ass joke forming the whole of a play. 

And, of course, the only reason I can say that some humor is “crude” or “creepy” is because of stuff acting on me. Stuff influences us in life. We have no control over what we think to a great degree. Culture and society are so very formative that there is no escape from them. My personal conception of what constitutes crude or creepy is entirely dependant upon what I have been taught (one way or another) what is crude or creepy. So maybe “Ren and Stimpy” isn’t so bad from an objective standpoint. But I’m pretty sure there isn’t an objective standpoint — at least not one that we could ever understand on any level.

Bacchanale (Salvador Dali - 1939)

The Problem of Author: From Platinum to Peafowl

Why do we care who an author is? After all, T.S. Eliot tells us that the author is a piece of platinum, unchanging.  The simplest response to this logic that I can come up with sounds like something Dr. Strangelove might say. The work of an author “could easily be accomplished with a computer.” If the author means nothing, if the author’s work is just an assembly of stuff from some (kind of arbitrary) literary tradition — why not use a computer? A computer could be programmed to formulate new ways of assembling language to express the limited emotions of humanity. It would be all in the name of progress of course; novel writing would become so much faster and similar. Think of all the human effort saved!

Hopefully my sarcasm was overt enough.

Let’s assume that the opposite of a platinum author is true, for a moment. If the author has an unyielding authority, then there can be no interpretation of a text. The life of the author becomes more important than the text itself. The story wouldn’t matter, but what the author says about the story would. The works of the ancients would have to be ignored because they are no longer alive to tell us what they meant or defend themselves.

To accept a supremely-authoritative author would negate all reason to read.

Now, a digression… I recently read Mystery & Manners, a book of articles, essays, and speeches by Flannery O’Connor. Among many things, she goes after this idea of what purpose an author has, though she does it somewhat indirectly.

It seems to me that the method we are using to discuss the function of the author has more to do with the meaning of a particular text. And this is as it should be! The author isn’t the goal; the text is the goal. We want to understand what it means. But if everything is suspect… Does it matter what the story means? Does anything have meaning. Is literature stuck in the cyclically natured Absurd of Camus? Is it just an abstraction — an absurdity we create?

I don’t think anyone willing to take an English course (or read a book) would accept a literature so hopeless.

Back to O’Connor. In talking about the meaning of a story she says, “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” I really like this because it gives a sense of purpose for both the author and the reader. The author is not lifeless platinum, nor a fascist. The reader is not a god, nor a biographer. The author’s job is to attempt to convey some kind of experience — and the reader’s job is to become a part of that experience. I’m pretty sure you would never be able to remember all the names in War and Peace without becoming a part of that world. Historical context is necessary (if we don’t know Napoleon is invading Russia, Tolstoy ceases to make sense on some level), but that must not be the endpoint.

I guess the thing that scares me about the question of meaning is that if we reach a point where we can say that a piece of literature means x, y, z… then the text is over. We can teach literature like science that way; just memorize what different works mean. Enacting the rule that all is suspect (again), I think we should treat literature that way. We should consider an author’s background, the historical context, use of symbol, use of allusion (or illusion), and the other stuff. We can psychoanalyze characters or accept them at face value. As long as we always take into question what, exactly, a text is about. If a story is an experience, we should treat it like our own experience — and it is always dangerous to look at things from one perspective only.