Scholar Meredith Kooi Talks Zombies at BURNAWAY’s Sunday Supper

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Matthew Gray Palmer’s 2008 statue of Emory’s mascot, Dooley, stands near the university’s medical school, seemingly as a mocking herald of the end of days. Photo by Jeremy Abernathy.

Meredith Kooi is a doctoral student in the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) at Emory University. She organizes a salon series titled SENSORIUM for the visual scholarship initiative at Emory and is also the editor of Radius, an experimental broadcast platform based in Chicago, where she completed her master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Kooi will be sharing an essay titled “The Zombie: A Post-human, Becoming Undead Flâneur?” at BURNAWAY’s event, End of Days Secret Supper, in the historic Oakland Cemetery this Sunday, November 18 at 5 PM. The themes explored at the Sunday Supper will include presentations in death and the apocalypse by experts, academics, and artists.

We decided to ask Meredith a few questions about her piece and her work.

BURNAWAY: Tell us a little bit about your piece titled “The Zombie: A Post-Human, Becoming-Undead Flâneur.” What is it about, and how were you inspired to create it?

Meredith Kooi: I was asked to give a presentation on the representation of the zombie, popular culture, and post-humanism. I’ve been thinking a lot about the nineteenth century, so I looked at a pop culture figure from that time period. This brought me to the flâneur, an individual that would stroll through the arcades in nineteenth-century Europe consuming the sights, sounds, and culture. I began to think about how many discussions of the zombie in the 21st century often center around mindless consumption and the machine of capitalism. I figured that these two figures of consumption, the flâneur and the zombie, could make for an interesting thought-exercise. I’m trying to complicate notions of the flâneur as the quintessential individual, while at the same time also complicating notions of the zombie as an inhuman, mindless consumer who simply follows the horde of the crowd.

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BA: I see that you’re interested in “structuring logic of the self, politics, and social spaces.” These are very broad terms of course—how do you explore the relationship among these three elements in your art? Do you think the self interacts with politics and social spaces?

MK: This is actually something I think about very much in my work. My overall project came out of my master’s thesis at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which I’m continuing in my dissertation at Emory. It deals with relations between self and non-self in the autoimmune disorder. I take very seriously immunological texts and different theories of how the immune system develops. I see the immune system as exemplifying multiple layers of social interaction: between the self and non-self within the borders of the skin, between the patient and physician, between the popular understandings of the immune system and biomedicine. In all this work, I think about the problem of defining what might be called a self outside of and prior to any relations to the world. This is a recurrent theme in my critical writing, creative writing, and art.

I’m interested in complicating traditional notions of mimesis, simply put—representation and imitation. The way we make an image, read an image, write a word, and read a word, are always already bound up in these things we call sight and language. My work does not take these as a given, and instead attempts to explore them as materialities in order to arrive at another order of representation, in any sense of the word.

BA: Cyborgs in American culture and science fiction in general have become quite popular and also fit into the “post-human” category. Do you think the zombie post-human would destroy cyborgs?

MK: It’s interesting you mention the cyborg in relation to the zombie post-human because I actually wrote a paper on the “cylon” in Battlestar Galactica as an example of an auto-antibody, and the ways entities in the show are portrayed as dangerous lurkers within the political body. This figure also brings up interesting complications with theories of the mind and the distinctions we draw and how we define cyborg. Is it a body that interfaces with the technologies and cybertechnologies of the world in a utopian sort of way? Or, is it on the order of the body that has to use a prosthetic to move through space? I find these questions necessary in dealing with what may be the borders of the body. So, to maybe get to an answer for your question: it depends. Maybe.

BA: Lastly, I see that you are a student in the ILA program at Emory. Emory University recently announced drastic cuts to the ILA program, badly hurting visual arts and English at the university. What are your thoughts on that?

MK: That’s a difficult question. The situation has sent a tremor through the ILA, but also through a lot of the university’s faculty, staff, and students. Since this was done without proper due process, it points to the fact that any department is vulnerable to these sorts of decisions. [The visual arts department] was completely dismantled, and since most faculty are lecturers, not tenured, they will lose their jobs. So, as you can see, it’s a mess.

Many students in the ILA, my home department, feel that this move has been an attack on our work and who we are. The issue of diversity figures into this debate—these departments account for a lot of the diversity on Emory’s campus. Since the graduate students in the ILA work with “unconventional” methodologies and produce “unconventional” dissertations—the first dissertations with visual chapters were just accepted by the graduate school—it is hard for traditional disciplines to recognize the work we do. Many other departments sprang from the ILA including African American studies, film studies, comparative literature, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Many are up in arms about the future of the liberal arts at Emory, but this is also a serious conversation happening throughout the academy in general. It raises so many important questions about what it means to research, teach, think, and produce today.

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