Spinoza, Deleuze and zombies

So Journey is doing a series on zombies, and I wanted to expand some ideas I mentioned on last Sunday’s first conversation. (If you’re completely baffled about why in the world we’re talking about zombies, read my post about it at Patheos.)

It’s quite surprising how many philosophical books, articles and papers have been written in relation to the zombie genre. I found this fantastic little quote from Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy most intriguing:

Whereas the vampire embodies a form of Nietzchean super-humanity, beyond good and evil, the zombie goes even further beyond…The zombie is sub-Nietzchean, sub-animal, really: as K. Silem Mohammad suggests it is a Spinozan force of decomposition, a completely non-moral and completely liberated interaction of matter with other matter.”

This made a whole host of things clear to me in one fell swoop.  First, about vampires:  In the vampire genre, you are almost always dealing with questions and issues of sex. (Does this now explain why vampires are so popular with teens?!) Whether certain sources deal with those issues with any sense of aplomb, I’ll leave to your own judgment and withhold my own. But vampires are enticing because they are superhuman. They are fast, and strong, and immortal, and extremely intelligent. I was having coffee with one of my favorite teenagers and he was telling me about his latest girl troubles. He said something like, “It was all going fine until she started comparing me to Edward Cullen. Then I thought, ‘I can’t take this kind of pressure!’ and I broke it off.”  Poor teen guys of today- they have to compete with Nietzchean superhumans.

Anyway, onto zombies.  In the zombie genre, you are almost always dealing with questions and issues of death. And inside death, of course, there are a host of other questions- identity, purpose, etc.- which is why there seem to be endless philosophical angles at which to approach it.

I was specifically struck by the phrase “a Spinozan force of decomposition.” The 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza has a theory called composition vs. decomposition in which he posits that when someone or something encounters another someone or something, there are two basic outcomes. Either they come together to form a more powerful whole (composition), or one of the elements dominates the interaction and decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts. When seen in zombie theology terms, this makes absolute sense. (And it also, as an added bonus, gives you a great mental picture to understand Spinoza’s theory.)

Zombies are the purest possible example of Spinozan decomposition. You touch a zombie, you begin to erode. The resurrected Christ, on the other hand,  is the purest example of Spinozan composition. You encounter him, and you begin to live.

To put it even more plainly, despair is an act of decomposition, while hope is an act of composition (and recomposition, and recomposition).

When we set up the “spectrum” of humanity for the purposes of our conversation Sunday, we put zombie-hood at one end, “normal” humanity in the middle, and resurrected humanity at the other end. This is of course just to help us talk through the idea, but what I meant to communicate is that whatever zombies are, they are human minus. They are missing something- call it spirit, or soul, or life, or rational thinking. Whatever it is, they are disembodied bodies.  They are isolated matter. In the same way, the resurrected Christ is human plus. The stories of post-resurrection sightings tell us things like “He ate a piece of fish!” and “I touched his scars!” and “He just walked through the wall!” and “He just rose up into the air.” Whatever else these stories mean to tell us, they are trying to say that he is both as he was (physical, with a working stomach) and yet more than what he was (whatever it is you call that other crazy stuff).

To put this theologically, at Easter, what came together in the person of Jesus was a more powerful whole; not simply a human made alive again, but a human who became something entirely new: a resurrected human. Resurrection is the most robust composition possible, the most powerful whole. Easter is the event in which we witness the best and most extreme example of Spinozan composition: when the life of Christ came together with the force of death, what arose was not decomposition but resurrection, an entity that makes both death and life something more than it was previously.


*a brief note about the photograph above: it came from an Austin, TX news article about some pranksters who figured out how to hack into electronic road signs and change the messages. Since Austin/UT is where Zombieland’s Columbus hails, I think the prank is only fitting.

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