Volume 12, Number 1 (January 2015)
Author: William Purcell
Human beings do always both what they need to for their model to succeed and all that is necessary for it to fail (Baudrillard, 2009: 68).
A common science fiction scenario imagines the final depletion of Earth. Earth is burned to a cinder, or poisoned, or made arid, or sunk beneath a global sea. The planet can no longer sustain human life. The human species divides itself. A select few depart on a mothership toward some new world. The mothership is self-sustaining and womb-like. Life within it is eventless, dream-like, suspended in the virtual infinite. The select few travel through the void ensconced in dreams in what might be described as a post- or pre-historical state—what they hope is an interlude between the play of real events. Back on Earth the last inhabitants bitterly enact their extinction. Their struggle is one of agony and war. The guilt of human dereliction surrounds them as a hard and scalded reality. One dies, and then dies again. The apocalypse arrives by zombie attack, plague, or holocaust. The deity has long since vanished but its judgement remains. Earth becomes the historical error term, the province of Lucifer, the victim of humankind’s wayward machinery, while the mothership becomes an attenuated refusal of birth and death, possibility without event.
Here, in this schismatic of science fiction, there is no eventual synthesis of master and slave. The spirit of history obeys the command of alterity, which is to say that it is not spirit, nor does it indwell, nor does it become present. In its place lies only this teleology of severance. The slave does become masterful, but only in the sense of an agonistic mastery of the conditions of hell. And the slave is doomed to disappear from memory, while the master becomes the larval embodiment of the wish to start again. When the end comes for the slaves on Earth, there is perhaps a slight perturbance of the collective sleep waves in the speeding mothership.
We might offer the hypothesis that this schism of humanity has already taken place. The hypothesis follows from the general principle that science fiction does not so much offer us an originally imagined future but instead presents what has already been accomplished or inflicted upon us in terms of an objectified metaphor—the elite have already jettisoned from a dying earth. They’ve withdrawn behind security fences, erected immunological barriers and culled secret organ banks, suspended themselves cryogenically and tested experimental biospheres in which life might be sustained while the catastrophe rages outside. All they lack is a literal liftoff, and that no doubt will come soon enough.
Perhaps the ancient human agon in all its historical instances reduces to the fantasia of a duel between opposing vertical destinies. We are fated to end in either an astral or chthonic dimension. This dualism encompasses both the real of history, and history’s symbolic stakes—Heaven or hell. Immortality or the grave. We enter here into the problem of terror and innocence. We fear the chthonic, and wish its judgement upon the other, just as we aspire to the astral domain, where we might live forever, unperturbed by memories of those buried in the Earth.
Just as the intelligence networks function to free the elites of intelligence, so do the global networks function to free them of the global. The entire apparatus of global power seems to anticipate this final schism in the emergence of an abysmal inequality. The global economy moved toward a neo-feudalism, a feudalism without faith, and becomes progressively immobile. There is the inner sanctum of capital, and its barred door, and the joke of its posthumous openness to all of us, as in Kafka’s “Before the Law.”
The last thread that ties the fortunate to the unfortunate is the thread of guilt. We have long since understood the obsessional nature of guilt. It enacts a helix-like trajectory, spiraling endlessly against the illusion of re-gaining innocence. Following a Socratic logic, guilt begins perhaps as little more than ignorance considered from the possibility of knowing, yet in this modest beginning it is already indestructible. It is as primal as the first transgression, as the first moment of cruel stupidity. It cannot be reconciled, or expiated, or carried away by a scapegoat.
In the paradigm of global inequality, an attempt is made to defer guilt, to cannibalize it, to sustain it as a renewable source of energy for global transgression. In this form it becomes terror—a blood stream of terror that continuously re-animates the global network. The war on terror takes on this form, as does the terror of joblessness, poverty, failed healthcare, and more generally the terror of the mobility of capital against the rootedness of bare life. Indeed the ultimate terrors of the post-human age concern the fantasy, or perhaps the nearly accomplished fact, that capital in its embodied form as artificial network will ride within the saving motherships, while what’s left of humanity attached to it flailing obsolete prosthetics whithers on Earth. This is the outcome Charles Stross anticipates in his novel “Saturn’s Children.” The human race stands in for the Saturnine race of gods who are overthrown and devoured by their children (Strauss, 2009). If there must be guilt about poverty, then let the poor be guilty. Let our current responsibilities be neglected, while we expiate the past in a mode by which self-congratulations exceeds remorse.
The current ubiquity of apocalyptic fantasies suggests a cultural undercurrent of guilt and premonition. We enjoy the prospect of observing the end, even if it is only a fantasy of the end, a virtual, because this mimics our secret fantasy that we will survive the end, being no part of its finitude, and that we will witness the end as a kind of revelation or judgement of the species, a judgement we have already secretly made based upon our own peculiar judgements and resentments. The end as a final mirror of our ethics and fantastic wishes. And at the end all that is lost to us returns—the primordial, the light of dawn, the sea reddened at sunset.
Guilt and premonition are necessary conditions for hysteria, and hysteria reflects the strange impulses put in motion by the global system of terror. Hysteria is a sexual phenomenon only in a secondary sense. Nor is it exclusively nor even chiefly a phenomenon of the feminine. It is rather the anticipation, the premonition, of the nothingness secreted within each of our objects, the hollow ecstasy, thrown into an attenuated or even panicked discourse of denial. We have fashioned a faulty world. We have fashioned it upon a lie—a lie that was unconsidered, primal, and hence one that return to us in the dreaded possibility of silence. The absent lover, the lover as ghost, the world as ghost world.
Those who enter elite incubation already enter it guiltily. Not only do they seek to survive the apocalypse while others die, they seek also an ambivalent conjunction with the past, a prosthetic form of memory to avoid the enigmatic sorrow of having no memory at all.
Consider the mad project of Australian billionaire and mining magnate Clive Palmer. Impatient for cloning, Palmer has attempted to re-animate the Mesozoic Era by opening a theme park of 160 animatronic dinosaurs. But perhaps the strangest and most illustrative of his mimetic fetishes is the construction of a duplicate Titanic (Hsu, 2012). The nautical simulacrum will set sail in the North Atlantic in 2016—a floating wax museum. What will its wealthy passengers seek? The repetition of an age as an expression of style? A brush with fatality? The gift of following Jack Dawson to his watery grave…and then return!
We pass closely here to the problem of expiation—the expiation of our history, even if our only knowledge of history is that of the cinema. We are divided between the treacherous act of survival (our actions) and the sacrificial liberation of joining the victims (our sentiments). Perhaps nothing would delight us more than to re-enact all the electrocutions and crimes and extinctions of our history, in a virtual theater, reliving them first as innocent victim, then as the condemned, hoping that by the accrual of virtual experience we might transcend ourselves.
But the elite incubate themselves within the mothership not to expiate but to travel beyond the issue of expiation. They seek to begin anew, or at least to continue as they were, without the detritus of death and mourning. A kind of neurasthenic memory loss accompanies life in the mother-ship. The purpose of the ship’s ecosphere is to maintain an environment that is cyclic and homeostatic in relation to events. If the ship is functioning maximally—no events occur. Nothing intrudes that is not the cyclic return of the same. The incubated inhabitants are simultaneously fetal and corpse-like. Hermetic incubation threatens the immune system. The incubated elite become like the castle-bound nobles in a time of plague—alive, but progressively vulnerable to the slightest perturbation. Even the dust might infect them. The vitality of memory is similarly threatened. Memory weakens in the absence of events. In an amniotic environs, memory becomes delirious and onanistic. Memory is tied not merely to the archiving of time but also to the precession of events, events that mark or are marked by a trace of the Other. Sameness and identity refuse memory. Memory inscribes the near passes of the Other as an essential topography of the gap between being and being nothing—our stake as individuals thrown into finitude. Memory only exists as memory of the Other, and it can only be exchanged for a dubious autistic freedom.
When Narcissus gazes rapturously at his reflection the possibility of the Other is lost. Time stops. Nothing further occurs aside from a mutual wasting away of image and thing. The melancholy of his impossible longing is not an event. Events take the form of something that strikes, then disappears. Narcissus’s self-same gaze merely persists. In this it is very much like the ahistorical self-same gaze of our media, which indeed serves as an incubation shell to separate us from the possibility of events.
In Philip K. Dick’s short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” Victor Kemmings follows the exodus and emigrates from Earth to a colony world (Dick, 1985: 180). Middle-aged, he is filled with the cautious hope that he will not relive his self-same failures on Earth in the new world. His name sounds to me like an ironic play on the words ‘victorious lemming.’ Onboard the ship all the emigrants are placed in a deep cryonic sleep by the ship’s computer in order to endure the long empty time of a voyage to a new star system. But among all passengers onboard the ship only Victor Kemming’s cryonic suspension fails. He remains conscious, completely alone, cogitating within his immobilized frozen body. He will remain like this for the entire voyage, and the ship’s master circuit, who plays something of a hovering but impotent mother figure, knows he will lose mind completely and suffer hideous agonies throughout the interminable flight unless something is done. Victor Kemmings realizes this, too, and begins to panic. He asks to be put back under in unconscious cryonic sleep but the ship cannot accomplish this now. Instead it attempts to place Kemmings within a virtual world built upon his scant pleasant memories and his hope of arriving in a new world. But in this situation of autistic techno-feedback nothing truly new can happen to him, even in the virtual world given to him by the master circuit. Kemming’s mind keeps falling into the abysmal despair he felt back on earth. He becomes acutely aware that his virtual world is unreal, that people he meets are phantoms, and that he is miserable alone. Each scenario begins pleasantly but ends in despair. He reenacts the traumas and failures and cruel coincidences of his life in almost a parody of the Eternal Return, until guilt crushes him and forgiveness is impossible. No one is present within this autistic world to forgive him.
One would like to believe that this is the fate of the global elite as they orbit far above earth in their biospheres. But is it possible that they have desensitized guilt and suffer not all? Instead of the Randian schism of takers and makers, we have perhaps a final humanoid schism between psychopaths and depressives. Or perhaps the race cannot be severed from itself but retains a fractal mirror-like quality. The disavowed guilt of the favored contorts them into parodic celestial forms (Donald Trump as a constellation of winter) that spin ecstatically in the night as entertainment for earth’s myriad eyes.
The conception of a singular end to history, or a singular fate, belongs to the hangover effect of a singular god. We do not live out an imaginary astral destiny without also enduring an imaginary chthonic fate.
Nothing is more popular now than the zombie apocalypse. The chthonic dead rise from their graves to destroy consume the last of the living. As civilization collapses the possibility of escape to a celestial realm is foreclosed. This is the unbalanced cosmogony of the modern world—heaven is gone, earth and hell remain. And the chthonic seeps upward and pours out from earth’s orifices: caves and catacombs and graves.
Without heaven, humanity has no claim to anything but flesh, and this suffering flesh must twice descend into death. First when the mortal dies in the usual fashion to become a corpse. And then, after the cruel hoax of its resurrection into a craven ghoul, it must die again when its fouled brain is destroyed. This allows for that marvelous interlude of the walking dead, who are released from all primary and secondary drives, and also the burdens of thought, decision, memory, and will, aside from the most basal and transgressive hunger for which they never suffer doubt or hesitation or weariness. That is the terror of the zombie—like any death machine or death network they cannot be appealed to. They are the image of the fouled human body, stripped of mercy and intelligence, propelled beyond its limits. Their cannibalistic onslaught is reminiscent of any 21st Century consumer or migrant onslaught suffered in the throes of late capitalism—a kind of Black Friday shopping spree of the flesh. They parody civilization as they destroy it. Oddly, they remain cortical beings. The only way to kill them is to smash through their eggshell skulls and root out the brain, as if it were the last presence of a network connection.
The stupidity of zombies, the stupidity of their farcical biology, is re-assuring. They will never out-think us. They are media descendants of the Three Stooges, a sophisticated form of regression, the subjugated horde of a fading empire rising against itself as the empire falls into its mirror. We, the most generous of cultures in our violence, and yet also the most voyeuristic and moralizing, seek to reappropriate the act of ethical murder in this serial repetition of zombie slashing, while rendering a horror of the physical as a comic paradox. If vampirism is a perverse re-imagining of the astral, then the cannibalism of zombies is the de-sublimated real of hyper-capitalism. The dead rise when history ends. An ironic objectification—only our appetite is immortal, not our intelligence, not our souls.
About the Author
William Purcell is from the Department of Humanities and Human Sciences, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, USA.
Jean Baudrillard. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? New York: Seagull, 2009: 68.
Phillip K. Dick (1985). I Hope I shall Arrive Soon. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Charles Strauss (2009). Saturn’s Children. New York: Ace.
Tiffany Hsu (2012). Los Angeles Times (April 30).