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Thing's Thingness OR How 'Wednesday' Teaches Us How to Stop Being so Afraid of Death

Updated: Mar 12

Apparently, the Netflix series 'Wednesday' has had over 1billion hits. That's INSANE. I mean, I loved it, but the sheer numbers of views, tik-toks, tweets, and instas referencing it is astronomical. So what is it about 'Wednesday'? The Addams family has been recreated a number of times over since its first appearance as a cartoon published in the New Yorker in 1938 - a time when mass scale death was about to seize the imagination of half the world when WWII broke out in 1939.

Now Tim Burton, a director who's quirky morbidity has been exciting film audiences for decades, has had his greatest hit ever in his new adaptation which focusses on the character Wednesday, the Addams Family's teenage daughter. So what is it about Wednesday? The series addresses all sorts of complex issues about high school education in America, the teaching of CRT, and notions of haunting and hauntology in post-pandemic and post-humanist education strategies. But here, I just want to focus on one tiny area of the massive sweep of social critique you can find in Wednesday: the way the character 'Thing' (pictured above) gets us to understand entanglement in ways that reframe Western notions of death and dying. (After all it's a Tim Burton, so let's get morbid!)

According to Thomas Nail, 1st century BCE philosopher, Lucretius, claimed that the source of all unethical action is the fear of death. Nail goes on to state that "fear of death (necrophobia) is also a fear of matter (hylephobia) and a fear of motion (kinophobia). In brief, it's our desire to hold things still, to stop matter from moving on, unfolding towards entropy, or basically breaking down / breaking into something new, that makes us get involved in all sorts of unethical actions.

Why? Because we try to freeze things in place, to seek immortality (which is a 'stop' in motion - ie the body can't move on to death), to capture, to incarcerate, to stop interruptions, differencings, and all other matters of entropic change. We create an immoveable 'normal' and erase anything that threatens to change that norm as if it might ultimately kill us or cause us harm. We cut ourselves off from the entanglement of all things that exist in endless motion and assert a separate and undying 'self' that must endure, untouched, untainted, pure. We resist the endless flow, create sets of norms that police all sorts of forms of motion and whose rigidity ends up becoming stifling and even violent - thus even creating the very death we started out fearing in the first place. The series Wednesday sets this up as the spine of its storyline - 'normies' and 'outcasts' are endlessly fighting, where 'outcasts' are the excluded kids and 'normies' are the kids in town who go to 'normal' schools.

Wednesday has been sent to Nevermore, a school for freaks and outcasts and throughout the series demonstrates a serious committement to ethics. But I want to focus here on her side-kick, 'Thing'. What is so funny and so clever about the character 'Thing' in the Addams family, but specifically so in Burton's recreation is that 'it' is a lively member of the family with a clear, rough-and-tumble attitude, and yet is just a hand. Whenever anyone asks about Thing - what happened? what is it? , Addams family characters describe it as a strange story that no one really knows or that 'we don't talk about'. Was Thing ever fully human? It doesn't really matter because Thing has more of a strong personality than most of the other characters depicted in the series!

The fact that Thing is a lively part of a full (missing) body is key here. Thing has thing-power, which according to political scientist and philosopher Jane Bennett is "the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle". A hand by itself should be inanimate. Severed from the body, it should go from being animate to inanimate. But here it doesn't. Thing is constantly drawing us to the fact that as a separate entity he should be dead. But paradoxically he isn't. So what is animacy really? Are all things in different states of animacy? Where do we draw the line between things?

Whenever I loosely introduce the idea of entanglement to my students, I hold up my two fists and ask, can you see the difference? My students always say 'yeah,' or my favourite 'yeah, duh, Annouchka!' I then ask them if the hands belong to different bodies. Usually they respond 'no, they belong to the same body, yours'. 'But you can see the difference?' 'Yes'. Then I pump one hand, leaving the other at rest and draw their attention to the fact that the actions of this hand over here are influencing the state of the other hand (through the blood circulation). It's much the same with the idea of entanglement and what it allows us to do with our thinking if we take it seriously (although of course there's a lot more going on in the science than this little metaphor describes!) If the entire universe is a flow of matter, rather than a container inside which separate objects collide, then all matter effects all matter. Like the fists that belong to one body, they seem different, and they ARE different, but they're also intrinsically part of the same body, differencing in all sorts of ways, but also intimately entangled.

Thing seems totally separate and it has adapted to 'missing' a body by turning fingers into legs by which it can move, but also into a vast communication system via which it signs.

Thing has turned its wrist into a 'head' although we have no idea how it 'sees'. Thing anthropomorphises itself to be readable to others and participate in society. But whenever we see it, we are likely to be reminded that it is part of a whole, a body that is missing. And this is what I think is so amazing - when we come to Thing's attempted murder in the series 'Wednesday' we are thrown into all sorts of confusion. How can anyone murder a hand that has been severed from its body? When Wednesday stumbles across Thing, stabbed in her room, the scene is shot like a tragic murder scene and subsequent resuscitation scene when she brings Thing to Uncle Fester who revives it via a tiny defibrillation. But I caught myself howling with laughter because it throws the audience back on their suspension of disbelief: How can a hand die? You can watch the utterly hilarious scene here:

I think what's so unique here is the scene allows us to explore the notion of what's at stake in hanging on to the belief in a non-entangled notion of separate self. This points back to Lucretius' notion of fear of death being a fear of matter and motion. What dies? Nail's translation and critique of Lucretius states: 'When we think or feel that our bodies are something radically distinct, separate or cut off from nature, we worry that death will destroy them.' Shifting the lens from separate self or classic Western, Cartesian dualism, to entanglement, we can see that, like holding up two hands and asking if they are separate or if they are part of one entangled body, our separate self does exist, but it also doesn't exist. Both things are true. Thing's continual liveliness undoes Cartesian separation in a 'horror' like way. It confounds life/death conditions that exist under the law of fear of death as a total end of self, and instead indicates a much larger notion of matter and meaning, life and liveliness.

Wednesday, trying to revive Thing says plainly, 'Thing, if you die, I will kill you' underlining again that death is never one or final, but a series of endless movements taking place inside matter in its unendending, Lucretian flow.

Wednesday as a character is consistently showing her lack of fear of death. She describes her best childhood birthday party in a series of flash backs including a pinata full of tarantulas that terrorises all the children but which she takes delight in, and presents like a tiny guillotine to decapitate her dolls with. When she hides in the freezer in the morgue in episode 4, we se the coroner pull out Wednesday in the mortuary cabinet, poke her face and exclaim 'oooh full rigour!' This suggests that Wednesday herself is in fact already dead. Not a zombie, but simultaneously dead and alive - a paradox that inverts time and again, points us to question the life/death binary. Stuck inside the freezer when the coroner closes the door, we see Thing running down a model skeleton, racing to open up the door before Wednesday dies. When he opens it she simply says 'five more minutes, I was just getting comfortable.' Such paradoxes are wildly funny if like me you like that sort of dead-pan humour. But they also point to a deep Lucretian approach to disturbing our tired old ways of understanding life, death, and everything in between. From the perspective of entanglement, and the endless motion of matter, the state of 'death' has a very relative value.

"All of nature is in continuous motion. Death therefore cannot possibly be a static, passive non-existence. There simply is no such state in nature. Death is, as the epic tradition describes it, like a river (Acheron) that flows continually with the rest of nature - in constant transfomation" - Thomas Nail, Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.


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