Many people have at some point in their lives experienced the curious condition of being unable to tell whether they were awake or still asleep. Some may do so while encountering a talking cat on their way back from an evening of heavy drinking, but such experiences are far more common, one may guess, on a Monday morning while chained to your desk.
This perhaps explains our deep fascination with zombie movies; there is always something slightly uplifting about seeing a colleague or a neighbor a little more lobotomized than oneself.
As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, the zombie is typically someone we used to know, perhaps even someone close, like a wife, father or a mother ― now transformed into a sleepwalking, soulless being that persistently drags itself around while spreading fear and death. Transformed but not entirely unrecognizable, they are characters to which we are bound in a relationship of horror and compassion.
Zombies are therefore to be distinguished from alien beings or spirits that invade the human body, Zizek argues.
“While aliens look and act like humans but are really foreign to the human race, zombies are humans who no longer look and act like humans,” he writes.
The zombie is still a human, albeit one lacking what we usually regard as the human dimension. It is, according to Zizek, a figure of pure habit.
Implied here is the notion that, at some elementary level of human identity, we are all figures of pure habit. That is, at some level we are nothing but a set of habitual rites and gestures (e.g. walking, breathing, eating), performed mechanically, as if we were asleep.
This elementary level enables us to carry out “higher” cognitive activities ― for example, being aware that we are not sleeping; an awareness of walking, breathing, eating. Thus, the “shock of encountering a zombie,” Zizek continues, “is not the shock of encountering a foreign entity, but the shock of being confronted by the disavowed foundation of our own human-ness” ― hence the zombie typically being a character once familiar to us.
The zombie movie tells us that everyone is at risk of regressing to this level of pure habit, eternal zombie sleep. One by one, as the movie progresses, the supporting actors succumb to the zombie epidemic, while the main character is usually identified as a hero solely in terms of his or her ability to avoid this woeful fate ― the heroic act of staying awake throughout the movie.
The zombie movie is thus essentially about the desire to stay awake; and to know that one is still awake is to be able to recognize that one’s neighbor has turned into a zombie, someone no longer awake.
In today’s society we find a whole industry based around the simple desire of staying awake ― not only in the form of spiritual or political programs designed to keep the zombies at distance, but also in the more tangible appearance of an infinite number of different coffee brands, vitamin injections, energy drinks, pills and capsules ― all of which are designed to keep us ever more focused, competitive, intense and, ultimately, awake.
At the same time, the sheer excess of this industry suggests that the fear of a state of pure habit is more acute than ever, or ― to go one step further ― that the concern about staying awake is rivaled, perhaps even superseded, by the desire to properly wake up.
To wake up properly is a main theme in one of the most popular science fiction movies of all time, “The Matrix” from 1999. The narrative of the movie is built around a series of rude awakenings, metaphorically as well as literally.
Neo, also known as Thomas A. Anderson, or simply The One, wakes up no less than five times during the movie. At first, Neo wakes up in front of his computer to the sound of an incoming message from Trinity. He then wakes to the ring of an alarm clock, realizing that he’s late for work. The third time he wakes after a surreal interrogation scene with Agent Smith. After having eaten the red pill Neo wakes up a fourth time in a vat. Finally, after a period of convalescence, he wakes up onboard a hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar.
At this stage, the movie seems to suggest, Neo is finally properly awake.
Through these multiple awakenings, “The Matrix” (as well as the sequels in which things get even more complicated) manifests the desperate feeling of never being able to wake up properly ― to the real world, to one’s real life ― while at the same time suppressing it.
But at some point one simply wakes up, period.
In “Meditations” (1641), the French philosopher Rene Descartes famously argued that things are never quite as simple as that. According to Descartes, there are no certain, absolute criteria that may enable one to distinguish a dream from the condition of being awake.
However, Descartes goes on to explain, regardless whether we are asleep or awake our senses can never constitute a path to certain knowledge. It is thus misleading to conceive the notion of accessing truth ― the truthful world ― as an awakening.
“The Matrix” has become our times’ gospel of a brave new world on the verge of drowning in a sea of ever more advanced forms of computer power, virtual realms, and subtle government controlling techniques that seriously undermine any genuine sense of reality and freedom.
This underlines, on the one hand, the obsession to wake up properly, or at least to be a little more awake than our colleagues or neighbors. Whether in terms of spiritual well-being, politics, human rights, eco-consciousness or animal welfare ― “The Matrix” is sufficiently abstract to subsume contents of any kind.
On the other hand, the movie’s wild popularity also exposes a sense of defeat; defeat in the sense that imaginations of real social and political change seem to be narrowed down to a question of being awake or asleep.
In other words, people hope to stay awake among an increasing number of sleepwalking zombies, or to wake up to what is supposed to be the real world. In that sense, the real sleeping pill is the belief that social and political change is a matter of a choice between a red or a blue pill.
By Eli Park Sorensen
Eli Park Sorensen is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Studies at Seoul National University. He specializes in comparative literature, postcolonial thought and cultural studies. ― Ed.