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once more unto the epistemological void: #UBScholarsontheRoad @UBCAS @HodgsonRuss

October 29, 2015

“We know we’re doomed,” Professor David Castillo said. Then he said something about being on a train barreling down a track towards the end of the world and either we can’t change course or we don’t believe we can. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the small changes needed to fix it, he said, it’s a “failure of political imagination”. Then there was a raffle randomly selecting from business cards to receive his book “Baroque Horrors” and other gifts. After all, this was a promotional event for the University of Buffalo alumni community in New York City, October 27, 2015.

The setting was back-dropped with Times Square billboards behind the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Hodgson Russ LLP’s magnificent room. The speech began after an hour of cocktails and hors d’oeuvre. The first speaker introduced the event, part of a ‘Scholars on the Road’ series, designed to reconnect alumni with their alma mater and ultimately raise donor money, because as he said, “state support continues to decrease.” The “ironic tones” were noticeable.

For the main event, Professor David Castillo of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Buffalo spoke about his interest in zombies. Apparently, Castillo was also the speaker at the first Scholars on the Road event a few years ago, so this event was sort of a reprise. It is October, time to recycle the zombie talk.

Professor Castillo began with his own interests in the 16th and 17th century romance literature, particularly Spain. He wanted to do an “archaeology of horror” about the “culture of curiosities” and collections of oddities (see Wikipedia: Cabinet of Curiosity). Then he examined the etymology of “monster” (monstrum = to demonstrate, show, reveal; and monere = warning, admonish). He emphasized that monsters are signs and warnings.

Then he summarized an old Spanish story from 1647, written by a female writer. He likened it to “White Zombie” in that a women was possessed by a man who would take her away from her home at night. When it was discovered, the women was cleared of her responsibility by officials but the husband was still upset, and so he locked the wife inside a wall for many years (a sort of second zombification). Castillo’s point was that racial slaves, objects of desire, loss of will to a voodoo master, denouncing the role of women in the culture, these have been a source of fiction going back almost 400 years or more.

Moving right along, he jumped to George Romero 1968, “Night of the Living Dead”, and the monsters now become “agents of apocalypse”. Then 1978, “Dawn”, a shopping mall, “They are us,” “consuming ourselves to death”. And then “Land of Dead”, “we are decay” and the beginning of the “self-consciousness of the zombie”. As Castillo explains, in Romero’s world, the mall is the center, the military surrounds that providing service in and out, and outside is the world of the zombies: mass spectators distracted by fireworks unable to avert our eyes even as we become aware of impending demise. And, for Castillo, “The Walking Dead” is simply a continuation in that line of post-apocalyptic landscape.

Continuing the metaphors of consumerism, homelessness, unsustainable population growth and unending piles of garbage. The one common feature of the diverse metaphors: “we made them”. The apocalypse approaches “no horsemen needed, walkers will do”. It is the “fantasy of a zero point”, a fantasy of starting over as a new person, free from our daily schedules, free from the constant ping of iPhones.

This fantasy allows us to ask ourselves, what will you do in apocalypse? It is an opportunity to examine our values, politics, and sense of self. In this way the zombies represent a society afraid to break its own routines even when those routines are leading toward certain demise.

It’s not particularly optimistic. Castillo encourages we read his new book on zombies “Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics” but even more he recommends his upcoming book “Mediologies” about the “power of media to frame reality”. He mentioned work on visual literacy and how new media in law and courtroom is changing the way juries see information.

Referencing his NY Times article from last year “Dreamboat Vampires and Zombie Capitalists,” he suggests that reading the comments is better than the article. So the event host read a few of the top comments, but then couldn’t pronounce “epistemological”. He’s not an academic so I guess, how would he know? (get it? how would he know! epistemology!) Maybe take a selfie to prove the moment is “real“.

So what do we do about it? There is “no magic bullet” for zombies (they’re not werewolves). But Castillo argues that “thinking about it is part of the solution.” Mere reflection may be enough to shake free from the “mass of indistinguishable cadavers”. He is, after all, a humanities professor for a state university.

Castillo suggested that George Romero prefers working in B-movies for the flexibility of the format; the ability to control his message that he would not get with a major Hollywood blockbuster production budget. Does he prefer working at SUNY Buffalo for similar reasons? Is it another conflict of the individual and the system under domination of economic forces? Or is it all just part of the fireworks show, another distraction? We pay “lipservice to individuality” but are we unavoidably zombies: “mass consumers possessed by a hunger they don’t understand” and it’s self-destructive.

In conclusion: Recycle. Reuse. Repurpose. It’s October, play it again zombie Tom, some jokes never die and Castillo got a big laugh when, late in the speech, he casually mentioned Jesus: you know that guy who returned from the dead with that eat-of-his-body meme. Big laugh. It seems like the oldest zombie joke there is and yet still Castillo got a laugh out of it. Jesus isn’t even a zombie (he’s a lich) and still Castillo got a laugh out of it.

Because, we are still shuddering from Dracula, still afraid of reverse colonization, still hating on the movie version of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and like in 17th century Spain, still watching an empire in decline while thinking to ourselves that this is the beginning of the end of the world. As if it hasn’t always been ending, as if Hegel hadn’t already taught us that’s the only truth of things (that they end).

And in case you are wondering (as one audience questioner was) for this Halloween, Castillo plans to dress as a father (he has teenage children who plan to trick-or-treat). It’s not an easy world for zombie fathers, but Castillo is on sabbatical now so maybe he can use it as a chance to shake up his routines. As for me, this event was a good opportunity to shake up my own routines. Thanks to Professor Castillo and the University of Buffalo College of Arts and Science for the open invitation and thanks to Hodgson Russ LLP for hosting them. I met one of their lawyers in the elevator on the way out. She was just leaving work (after 8pm) and seemed a bit frazzled, but nice enough to direct me back to the subway, and back onto that train to the end of the world. Shout-out to Lisa in real estate. Nom nom…

End of the world … and I feel fine.” Oh yeah, how do you know?

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From → Academics, capitalism

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