There’s Zombie Formalism and then there’s the Formalism of Zombies.

Acclaimed art critic (and somewhat stereotypical Elderly Gotham Yid) Jerry Saltz took a swing at the world’s most famous screensaveri artist this week in a tirade entitled “MoMA’s Glorified Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised is a crowd-pleasing, like-generating mediocrity.” In the hit piece, Saltz calls out Anadol saying that “Unsupervised is a digital version of the dead-on-arrival Zombie Formalism of the 2010s that saw young painters making abstract paintings that looked like other, already famous abstract art.”

Indeed, while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, such repetitiousness if not exactly priviledged in our ruthlessly innovation-obsessed modern culture.ii So what is priviledged? Well, shiny things! And amidst this sea of blindingly shiny things, of which “Altcoins With Pictures” are the certainly the most salient and fruitful example, we actually find some instances more clever and compelling than others, with the ne plus ultra arguably being CryptoPunks:

Girl Punks Look LeftBoy Punks Look Left

By all accounts, Punks are the Helen that set sail a thousand ships into the Digital War.iii This – the war against Zombie Formalism – was first waged by Matt Hall and John Watkinson in 2017 with almost impossible nuance, much of which we’ve touched on before,iv but today we’ll focus on a new aspect (one that just manifest itself to your humble author after nearly two years of intense research and investment in the collection), which is the fact that Zombie Punks are the only Punks that face and look towards the viewer’s right. With that, let’s dig into the Formalism of Zombies!

But first, we must acknowledge that all Punks face quite clearly to the viewer’s right, which it turns out is typical and symptomatic of right-hemisphere deficiency, which is itself characteristic of schizophrenia, autism, and yes, Modernism… Eek? Not quite, because Matt and John don’t give fully into the left-hemisphere of the brain, oh no, they’re too shrewd for that; because the gaze of Punks nudges the viewer’s attention back towards the left, resulting in a more centred (and more hemispherically balanced) apprehension of the profile.v

This observation about the direction of profile and gaze might seem unremarkable at first, but I propose that it’s actually subtly revealing as to the level of over-priviledged left-brainedism that runs so deep through the veins of the crypto-space, and through tech more broadly at present. My oldnew-best-friend Dr. Iain McGilchrist would certainly seem to agree, so let’s bring him in to flesh out this whole left-brain vs. right-brain debate vis-a-vis artistic expression and model directionality:

Zombie Punks Look Right

To quote now at length from Dr. McGilchrist’s inexhaustible tome, The Master and his Emissary (2009) [emphasis added]

In his book “Faces: The Changing Look of Humankind,” Milton Brener has presented a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in antiquity. Noting that 90 per cent of emotional communication is non-verbal,vi and that most of this is expressed through the face (described by Georg Lichtenberg as ‘the most entertaining surface on earth’), he begins by reflecting that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals; where there are humans, there is often only a pelvis, buttocks and breasts, and almost all figurines are headless; where there is a head, though there may be hair, there is no face. When faces first begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualised. He makes a case that the earliest drawings, in their lack of spatial orientation or relationship between parts, repetition of stereotypic abstract patterns, and description of what we know rather than what we see (for example, the so-called ‘X-ray’ portrayal of the human being, showing the bones inside the body) show suggestive points of comparison with the productions of neuropsychiatric patients relying on the left hemisphere alone. Additionally Brener refers to evidence that subjects with dyslexia and prosopagnosia (inability to recognise individuals by face), both of whom have problems of right-hemisphere functioning, exhibit a preference for the ‘primitive’ facial pattern, found in early art, of inexpressive schematic features.

The importance of the right hemisphere in ‘processing’ faces and apprehending facial expressions, in feeling and expressing emotions, including and especially through the face, in feeling empathy and in appreciating individuality, has been referred to above, as has the basis in the right hemisphere for the capacity for aesthetic enjoyment. The relatively sudden change that came over the portrayal of the human face in the period beginning in the sixth century BC, and particularly from the fourth century, in Greece, in which the more abstracted, stereotypic and inexpressive gaze of Egyptian and early Greek representations of the face and head gives way to portraiture which is more individualised, varied, emotionally expressive and empathic, is attributed by Brener to a rapid advancement in functioning of the right hemisphere in Greece at around the same period. Other evidence for this, according to Brener, would be evolution of a body of highly expressive poetry rich in metaphor, the evolution of the idea of the individual as having legitimate claims to be balanced with those of the community at large, and a sense of empathy with others in general, as well as an interest in the natural world – to which I would add a sense of humour based on ironic appreciation of the pathos of man’s position in the world as a ‘being towards death’.

In support of his thesis, Brener cites the work of Hans-Joachim Hufschmidt, a German scholar who has studied the direction of gaze in 50,000 portrayals of the human face over time. This work, published in 1980, yields a remarkable finding. It seems that early two-dimensional representations tend to show the face either looking straight ahead or looking towards the viewer’s right. However, during the period between the sixth century BC and the Hellenistic period, there is a clear shift of orientation, so that the majority of portraits come to face in the opposite direction, towards the viewer’s left.

In 1973, Chris McManus and Nick Humphrey had already published in Nature the results of a study of approximately 1,400 Western portrait paintings from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, showing that there is a tendency during this period, also, for the sitter to be portrayed looking to the viewer’s left. These findings have since been confirmed by others. The implication appears to be that the focus of interest comes to lie in the viewer’s left visual field (preferentially subserved by the right hemisphere), at the same time that the more emotionally expressive left hemiface of the subject (controlled by the subject’s right hemisphere) is exposed to view.

The strength of Hufschmidt’s research, apart from the enormous scale of his undertaking, is his inclusion of the ancient world. This reveals a distinct shift towards favouring the right hemisphere in the appreciation of representations of the human face from the sixth century BC onwards. According to Brener and Hufschmidt, the tendency was lost again in the Dark Ages, but re-emerged at the Renaissance. Other research has confirmed that the left-facing tendency was strongest in the fifteenth century, and has gradually waned until the twentieth century, when it reverted to the pattern of equal right and left profiles seen before the rise of Greek civilisation. This finding is of considerable interest in view of the thesis of this book, especially in relation to what I see as the rightward shift in the brain that occurred at the time of the Renaissance and the leftward shift that is evidenced in modernism.

The ‘natural’ tendency, as exhibited by the majority of face profiles drawn by children, is still to face left, even in some cases if they are copying a model that is facing to the right. Self-portraits tend to exhibit the opposite bias, towards the right, which is presumably because painters tend to orientate themselves in front of the mirror so that their image appears in their left visual field, which involves turning the face to the right so that the left side of the face is exposed – appearing in the mirror image as the right side of the face. A study of a long series of self-portraits by the famous German painter Lovis Corinth before and after the right-hemisphere stroke he experienced in 1911, shows that, following the stroke, he reversed both facial orientation and the direction of the light source in his paintings. (In most Western painting since the Renaissance, just as there is a tendency for the face to be turned to the left, there is a tendency for the light source to come from the left side.)

Brener’s thesis is original and deserves to be better known: it is one of the very few attempts I am aware of to relate movements in the history of ideas to cerebral lateralisation. While I accept the importance of the sudden standing forth at this time of a wide range of right-hemisphere functions, particularly as exemplified in the visual arts, my own take on this state of affairs is different from Brener’s.

To be sure, we’re smack dab in the middle of left-hemisphere-dominant Modernism today, but what does that all have to do with Zombies? McGilchrist continues:

The popular assumption, aided by the reflections of some respectable neuroscientists, is that the right hemisphere might be something like a zombie, or a sleepwalker. It seems to be supposed naïvely that the defining quality of the zombie, that quintessentially uncanny phenomenon, is the lack of the verbalising and rationalising intelligence exemplified by the left hemisphere.

In Chapter 10 I will deal with the phenomenon of the uncanny, of the zombie and its like, phenomena that started to figure in literature, oddly but significantly enough, in the Enlightenment. I will suggest that the uncanny looks extraordinarily like certain aspects of the world according to the left hemisphere, in which vitality is absent, and the human is forced to approximate to the mechanical. Zombies have much in common with Frankenstein’s monster, after all. They perform like computer simulations of the human. There is no life in their eyes. And Giovanni Stanghellini has explored with subtlety, in his book Disembodied Spirits and Deanimated Bodies, the way in which the ‘zombie’ state is mimicked by schizophrenia, a largely right-hemisphere-deficit condition.

So-called ‘zombie’ states are characterised by dissociation, in which the conscious mind appears cut off from the body and from feeling. That in itself suggests a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere. Dissociation is, furthermore, the fragmentation of what should be experienced as a whole – the mental separation of components of experience that would ordinarily be processed together, again suggesting a right-hemisphere problem. Core features of dissociation include amnesia for autobiographical information, identity disturbances, depersonalisation and derealisation (lack of the sense of the reality of the phenomenal world, which appears to be a two-dimensional projection). On first principles one would therefore expect this to be a right-hemisphere-deficit condition. And subjects with right-hemisphere damage do in fact report exactly this – a change in, and a foreignness of, the self, which is disconnected from the world, a loss of feeling of belonging in the world.

This might explain why I’ve never had much affinity for Zombie movies or even the majority of Zombie Punks with their red bloodshot eyes (looking right!). I can sort of tolerate the Zombie Punks with sunglasses on, but this has always been in spite of the uncomfortable intuition that there was something just a little too creepy about the rightward-facing rightward-looking typical Zombie Punk, even for a semi-autist like yours truly. Turns out that this intuition may have been only too well founded in neuroscience! And that it almost certainly wasn’t an accident.vii Our intuitions come from our right-brains after all…

Still, it so much fun to see that, nearly two years into my digital art journey and coming up on six years since Matt & John released their most seminal project, that there’s still so many more layers of the onion to peel back — and that there’s so much more to Zombies than mere formalism.

Even Saltz could see that.

  1. Not that that’s a bad thing, as Deafbeef reminds us!
  2. Even though our broader culture can barely keep up with the pace of innovation such as it is, isn’t it strange that so few people want to slow down? Y’know, maybe there’s something to be said for cultural stagnation now and again, for taking time to absorb a new change, integrate it, incorporate it, and internalise it before jumping onto the next step change. Like, have we really absorbed the implications of nuclear energy? Or the television? Or the motorcar? Or commercial air travel? I mean, we’ve got nowhere to be and all day to get there, so what’s the rush
  3. Yes yes, Satoshi was important too.
  4. Zero-royalty self-hosted marketplace anyone? Larva Labs did it first! Power-selling tops? They’re kings at it! Releasing just the right amount of artwork? No one better! Staying engaged early on and then splitting like Satoshi? You know it!
  5. Though it’s also worth observing that even the mere detachment of the head from the body, as is typical of CryptoPunks and the thousands of “PFPs” that followed, is a very left-brained understanding of the world, id est that the world is the sum of its atomic parts and no more. If this bothers you, being the balanced sort of fellow that you are, might I direct you towards Meebits? They were also created by Matt & John, display full-bodied characters, are much more affordable, and as a bonus they look a hell of a lot better on vertical 65″ TVs. Just throwing it out there!
  6. Is it any wonder that “remote work” is a productivity disaster and an absolute wrecking ball that isn’t yet done smashing through the connective tissue of the physical economy (such as it admittedly is). When workers use emails that should’ve been phone calls that should’ve been informal water cooler conversations, there’s a complete and utter breakdown in communication, leaving projects massively behind schedule and over budget “for some reason,” as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. were ACTUALLY at your local liquor store in front of the pyramid of Bud Light and there were no difference between Wonder Bread and the bread from your local artisanal bakery. Mmk then!
  7. The reader will also note that Ape Punks look leftwards like Human Punks and that Alien Punks look everywhere and nowhere at the same time. To keep this reading consistent, Humans are still Apes and we have only to aspire to be hemispherically balanced like Aliens! Is it any wonder that my favourite Punk is the Cowboy Alien?

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