by Jesse James Stommel

“And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!” ~ Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

        My work is about postmodern bodies and disembodiment: mechanical bodies, dead bodies, undead bodies, bodies in pieces, abject bodies.  I analyze a wide array of contemporary media to track the evolution and erosion of flesh in the postmodern era.  I juxtapose two figures, the automaton and the zombie.  The automaton represents what we’re in danger of becoming with our increasing reliance on technology, technological gadgets, and virtual worlds.  Bodies and flesh have become mere materials, food for the industrial and social machines.  My work explores the ways in which that flesh fights back.  Thus, the zombie comes to represent a figurative solution, a powerful opportunity for revolt, a reclaiming of flesh in the wake of rapid technological advancement.  Quite a bit of critical work has been done on horror, and on the horror film in particular; however, much of it is focused on what is wrong with the genre or on ways the genre is symptomatic of cultural problems.  My work is about re-reading and reclaiming horror and the horrific, about exploring their liberatory potential, about seeing them not as symptomatic but as curative.  Whether we want it to or not, horror reminds us that we have bodies, that we are flesh.

        The four chapters track the body through several stages of decay and transformation.  Each of the texts I analyze is, on some basic level, about flesh, about the body and its limits.  In chapter 1, “The Not Quite Living Not Quite Dead,” I argue that bodies are becoming vestigial, making way for a new virtual person with all the mindlessness and intangibility of the automatons in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the familial drones in Don Delillo’s White Noise (1985).  I begin to deconstruct the body in chapter 2, “The Ecstatic Corpse,” where I explore the pure thingness of flesh, looking closely at the representation of dead bodies in Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Each examines the aesthetic or decidedly unaesthetic qualities of dead flesh.  American culture treats dead bodies in much the way it treats images on a television screen, dressing up their surface and stripping them of substance, but my work looks for ways to make the body vital again. 

        In chapter 3, “The Body in Pieces,” I consider why we’re compelled to watch horror, compelled to look at images of the body in pain, and why we so often divorce ourselves from horror by making a spectacle of it.  My readings of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) suggest that thoughtful horror has a truly cathartic potential, that the most wretched images can implicate the viewer, reminding us that we ourselves have bodies capable of both being violated and doing violence.  Finally, in chapter 4, “The Zombie,” I look closely at Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), and several other contemporary zombie texts.  I rescue the zombie from its conventional metaphorical trappings and offer up the zombie as a postmodern force to be reckoned with, a cultural and philosophical figure with limitless deconstructive potential, the perfect embodiment of freeplay and jouissance.

        The physical object of a typical dissertation has no distinguishable body, no flesh.  It is a collection of surfaces, sheets of paper upon which there are words, written in 12 pt. Helvetica or Times New Roman font with 1“ margins.  As an object, a dissertation is carefully and purposefully standardized.  While I have produced such a dissertation, I am conscious also of the interplay of form and content in my work.  Utilizing the seemingly intangible medium of HTML code, I am here producing an online companion to my dissertation that is visceral and offers at least the illusion (because it is on screen) of tangibility.  This site will include excerpts from the printed version of my dissertation, delivered to the user in unexpected ways.  My expectation is that my work will have life beyond what is on the physical page--that it will have both surface and depth--that the words will be both on the page and embodied in the world I invent for them online. 

Are our bodies just meat?