Learning from the Undead

I’m in the process of tying up some loose ends before I depart on a period of research leave to finish up a book on Benjamin and Goethe, and this involved sifting through some previous research projects as well as working through some notes on a new project for a chapter in the book. Since I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, this seemed like a good excuse to write a little about the intersection between the different projects of my research, but it is has also been interesting to reflect on the interaction between my conference talks, my publications and my infrequent posts on this blog itself.

The title of this blog, Pedagogy and the Inhumanities, brings together two strands of my research interests and writing: the first relates to a critical theory of modern and contemporary education that focuses, in particular, on the intersection between human capital theory (neoliberalism) and the humanities (classical liberalism); the second relates to the aesthetics of historical representation, focusing on the dialectical relation between utopianism and dystopian. To the extent the two tend to come together, I utilize an idea of what I call the inhumanities as the critical negation of (neoliberal and classical liberal) formulations of the pedagogic role of the humanities, and an idea of what I call the catastrophic function of modern and contemporary art and culture that, I have suggested, is recognized and resisted in horror’s attempt to imaginatively master the inhuman and the undead. An alternative title for the blog could therefore have been: learning from the undead… .

In a 2010 conference paper, ‘Utopia and Its Discontents: Dreams of Catastrophe and the End of “the End of History”,’ subsequently included in the conference proceedings published in Social and Political Thought (Winter 2010), I offered a critique of the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of utopia taken up within the contemporary field of Utopian Studies. I argued that the latter was based on an aesthetic and limited recuperation of Ernst Bloch’s work in the 1980s, in the context of a postmodern suspicion of the totalizing project of historical meta-narratives, that was used to construct an account of the utopian imagination – without any political utopia – in order to analyse American science-fiction of the previous decades, conceived as a sub-genre of ‘critical utopian’ writing. My suggestion was that, under certain historical and political conditions in the late 1970s and 1980s (that I have analysed more fully elsewhere in terms of neoliberalism, post-Fordism and human capital theory), Utopian Studies sought to recuperate the academic respectability of both the concept of the utopian and the genre of science fiction, which shared – I conjectured – a similar phenomenological temporality of the anticipatory or not-yet. Against this, I proposed, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image and its links to his earlier notion of criticism as ruination, a dialectical conception of the catastrophic that was neither the utopian nor dystopian but, rather, the manifestation of the utopian within the dystopian. In a coda to the final article, I suggested that the ‘dialectical conception of catastrophe expounded above would have the appearance not of some utopian or dystopian possibility, but the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present. This manifests itself not in the appearance of the new, but of the archaic and primal.’


In an unpublished keynote talk at the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference in 2013, titled ‘Not Even the Dead Will be Safe: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture,’  I developed this idea in more detail in the context of Marx and Engels, Bloch, Adorno and Benjamin in terms of what I called the catastrophic function in contemporary culture (playing on the title given to Bloch’s collected essays on The Utopian Function of Art and Literature). Drawing on Adorno’s radio discussion with Bloch, published in English as ‘Something’s Missing,’ I connected Adorno’s claim that our current aversion to the utopian elimination of death is symptomatic of an ‘identification with death …which goes beyond the identification of people with the existing social conditions’ with the anthropological materialism developed in Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Although there wasn’t time to develop the idea in the talk, which focused more on what I described as a ‘politics of the dead’ found in esoteric strands of the utopian socialism of the 19th century Paris illuminated in the Arcades Project, I was thinking specifically in terms of Benjamin’s distinction between a utopianism of first nature (the biological limits of the human body) and that of second nature (the social and technological limits of collective humanity). Whereas famously Jameson and Zizek discover contemporary ideology in the limitations of our political imagination  – “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of existing social conditions” – Adorno discovers in this situation not in our immediate attachment to capitalism but our ideological identification, under the present social conditions, with death (eternal life under capitalism as unthinkable).

This catastrophic function does not stand in simple opposition to the utopian, but serves as a critical corrective and deepening of the latter. In relation to the dialectical image, Benjamin’s temporal category of Jetztzeit – identified by Benjamin, like Nietzsche, with the socialist egalitarianism of the Paris Commune – corresponds to the not-Not-Yet. It involves a transhistorical remembrance, encapsulated in Benjamin’s injunction that ‘only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope,’ which entails that our most profound hope is never for ourselves or our present situation, since to be capable of hoping disqualifies us from being the true object of hope. It is only ever reserved for those incapable of hoping. The most profound hope is only ever for the dead and therefore hope is absolutized to encompass the redemption of the whole of history, including all past suffering. From this perspective, redemption can therefore only take place from a position outside of history and not as some future moment within history: true redemption must bear the structure of a catastrophic intervention or interruption. This absolutized hope does not dream of the future, but dream of destroying the present and thus the present’s future. To dream or fantasize is – according to Bloch – utopian; to refuse or be incapable of dreaming is the anti-utopian injunction of the “reality principle”; but to dream of annihilation is to blast open the utopian imagination by immanently absolutizing it, via a disjunction of extremes, to the point of its own annihilation (it thus has more in common with the “death drive” than either “fantasizing” or the “reality principle”).

In culture, this function expresses its political content not as content (revolution, general strikes, protest) but, negatively, as the formal ruination of the work. In the coda to the 2010 article I suggested that, in contrast to the utopian function in science fiction, the catastrophic function – the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present, manifested in the appearance of the archaic and primal as the new – would, presumably, possess the theological or supernatural simultaneity familiar from horror. In the 2013 talk, I briefly developed this idea in relation to the Arcades Project‘s fascination with the esoteric and mortuary undercurrents of Parisian socialism: Benjamin’s reading of the spleen poems of Baudelaire, the spiritualism of Victor Hugo, and the fusionism of Louis-Jean Baptise Tourreil (for whom, influenced by Auguste Comte, himself influenced by Saint-Simon, ‘The dead are “multiform” and exist in many places on the earth at the same time. For this reason, people must very seriously concern themselves …with the betterment of the earth’ (Benjamin AP, 5).


This relation between the utopian, the dead and catastrophe was explored more fully in the 2013 talk in the context of the alternative endings of the 2007 cinematic remake of I Am Legend. Specifically, I returned to the issue of semiotics (addressed in the 2010 talk in relation to Bloch and Benjamin’s differing understanding of phenomenological accounts of consciousness, intentionality and conceptual meaning as the philosophical bases of their distinct understanding of historical representation) and the differing production and meaning of the signs of the butterfly crucial to the film’s alternative endings, to discuss the motifs of the afterlife and undead in the film. These alternative signs and alternative endings constitute, I suggested there, a deeper antinomy of utopianism that can be transversed and structurally transcended only, as it is in the original 1954 novel, by adopting the perspective of the undead as the revolutionary nonsubject of history: zombie narratives as socialist revolutions in slow motion.

In an unpublished talk, ‘Capitalist Life and the Metamorphosis of the Undead in I Am Legend,’ at the ‘Fiction and The Social Imaginary’ symposium in 2016, I returned to my interpretation of the undead in I Am Legend in this broader contexts of neoliberalism and human capital theory and the longer history of alternative endings within multiple adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel. Building on my proposal of understanding the dead as a socio-political category from the 2013 talk and connecting this to the different (Jameson-Zizekian vs. Adorno-Benjaminian) accounts of the limitations of the social imaginary (capitalism vs. death), I utilized the principle of the catastrophic function of culture to analyse the growing humanization of the undead in the post-war context of the emergence of human capital theory as an attempt to re-integrate the monstrous figures of the undead back into the limits of the capitalist social imaginary (looking at the metamorphosis of the undead in adaptations of I Am Legend, as well as more recent depictions of the zombie-esque undead in film and television series like Les Revenants/The Returned and In the Flesh).

This brings us back to the original ending of Matheson’s novel, where the last surviving human, Neville, comes to a recognition and understanding of his capture and execution by the living dead (simultaneously the residual remnants of the old world, who acquire the status of something primal and archaic to Neville, and the avant-garde of the new world, for whom Neville acquires the stats of something primal and archaic). In contrast to the alternative endings of the 2007 remake, where Neville either recognizes his divine nature and performs the Christ-like act of particular self-sacrifice that redeems humanity or reflects on his monstrous nature and so recognizes the humanity of the undead who spare him, Zizek, in Living in the End Times, describes Matheson’s original 1954 ending as entailing a transcritical perspective – humanity reconsidered from the inhuman perspective of the living dead – omitted from nearly all subsequent adaptations. Here, Zizek introduces the position of transcritique, earlier elaborated in his Parallax View and based upon Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, which involves what Karatani describes as the “parallax view”: ‘confronted with an antinomic stance in the precise Kantian sense of the term, we should renounce all attempts to reduce one aspect to the other …[but] assert antinomy as irreducible, and conceive the point of radical critique not as a certain determinate position as opposed to another position, but as the irreducible gap between the positions itself, the purely structural interstice between them’. Kant’s stance is thus ‘to see things neither from his own viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face the reality that is exposed through difference (parallax).’

In my forthcoming book on Benjamin and Goethe I explore Benjamin’s philosophical relation to Goethe via an exploration of their shared response to and critique of Kant and of German Romanticism. Goethe is intellectually significant for Benjamin, I argue, because he represents the recuperation of a post-Romantic classicism. The book is focused on elaborating the modernism of their shared critique and charting the wider influence of this Goethean strand of modernism on a diverse range of thinkers on both the right and left. I intend to draw on Karatani’s notion of transcritique – as well as his earlier work on literature and modernity – as a way of framing the project, constructing a reading of modernism between Benjamin and Goethe, one that has affinities with Karatani’s own practice of reading Kant through Marx and Marx through Kant, but also using the perspective of transcritique to examine the productive oscillation between a series of opposed positions (right and left, conservative and revolutionary, West (Germany) and East (Russia), sensibility and understanding, art and technology, etc.).

I am currently in the process of writing a discussion of Karatani that projects his later writings on Kant, the parallax view and transcritique back, via his comments on the significance of mid-eighteenth century literary criticism, journalism and the problem of the judgement of taste in Kant’s work, into his earlier work on the Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. In doing so I aim to recover modernism as a literary transcriticism founded on the antinomy – the transversal oscillation and transcendental deepening – between classicism and romanticism; this can be seen in the familiar (and not unproblematic) claims for classicism in, for example, Anglophone modernists such as T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound – and their readings of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting and the modernism of Joyce  – as well as the practice of parallax in, for example, Joyce, H.D., Nancy Cunard and others).

In the course of this research, I am coming to rethink my earlier discussion of the catastrophic function and its relationship to the utopian and dystopian more directly through this lens, less in terms of a dialectical relationship than a antinomical one, in the transcritical sense of a parallax view. This obviously accords more closely with Zizek’s borrowing of Karatani’s transcritique in his analysis of I Am Legend and with my own reframing of Benjamin’s philosophical method in the forthcoming book and it would be nice to return to my talks on Benjamin, Bloch, Adorno and the catastrophic function of contemporary culture once the book is finished later this year, in light of this quotation from Zizek’s The Parallax View:

Perhaps the best way to describe the Kantian break toward this new dimension [of the transcendental subject] is with regard to the changed status of the notion of the “inhuman.” Kant introduced a key distinction between negative and indefinite judgment: the positive judgment “the soul is mortal” can be negated in two ways: when a predicate is denied to the subject (“the soul is not mortal”), and when a non-predicate is affirmed (“the soul is nonmortal”)— the difference is exactly the same as the one, known to every reader of Stephen King, between “he is not dead” and “he is un-dead.” The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the “undead” are neither alive nor dead, they are precisely the monstrous “living dead.” And the same goes for “inhuman”: “he is not human” is not the same as “he is inhuman”—“he is not human” means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while “he is inhuman” means something completely different: the fact that he is neither human nor inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as “humanity,” in inherent to being-human. And, perhaps, we should risk the hypothesis that this is what changes with the Kantian revolution: in the pre-Kantian universe, humans were simply humans, beings of reason, fighting the excesses of animal lusts and divine madness, while only with Kant and German Idealism is the excess to be fought absolutely immanent, the very core of subjectivity itself …So when, in the pre-Kantian universe, a hero goes mad, it means he is deprived of his humanity—that is, animal passions or divine madness have taken over—while with Kant, madness implies the unconstrained explosion of the very core of a human being. (In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s sister Grete calls her brother-turned-insect a monster—the German word used is “ein Untier,” an inanimal, in strict symmetry to inhuman. What we get here is the opposite of inhuman: an animal which, while remaining animal, is not really animal—the excess over the animal in animal, the traumatic core of animality, which can emerge “as such” only in a human who has become an animal.)

What, then, is this new dimension that emerges in the gap itself? It is that of the transcendental I itself, of its “spontaneity”: the ultimate parallax, the third space between phenomena and the noumenon itself, is the subject’s freedom/spontaneity…(Zizek PV, 21-22)


Finally, the concept of spontaneity evoked here, in the gap between the human – (inhuman) – non-human, and which might be related to Lyotard’s own discussion of the inhuman, touches upon the consequences of Benjamin’s own transformation of Kant’s concept of freedom, developed in his politics of pure means in essays like the Critique of Violence, and the possibility of educative violence that has disturbing but profound ramifications for rethinking the role of the humanities in the contemporary (post-Kantian and post-Nietzschean) university, outlined in my chapter on ‘Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism’ in the conference proceedings of the Pedagogies of Disaster conference which took place in Tirana in 2013 and developed in my article, ‘Towards a Critique of Educative Violence: Walter Benjamin and “second education”, a revised version of a paper presented to the ‘Walter Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy’ symposium in 2015.

This would connect together the non-intentionality of Benjamin’s utopian version of dystopianism, in the work on Bloch and the catastrophic function, with the politics of pure means connected to work on educative violence and ‘second education,’ to the notion of a transcritical modernism as the model of such a pedagogy, a project initiated in the Avant-Garde Pedagogies conference I helped organize in 2016. In the final section of a conference report on Pedagogies of Disaster I published on this blog, I wrote about learning from the undead:

Against this contemporary “de-schooling of society,” [Oliver] Feltham proposed a “desocializing of the school”, recalling the performative and theatrical aspects inherent to the philosophical School’s original entanglement with Theatre. This involves subtracting school from the society, not into a void of individualism but a “zone of action”. The latter is developed in his Anatomy of Failure: Philosophy and Political Action (2013) as the space of multiple, incomplete, and overlapping agents and actions with unintended consequences …theorized through Aristotle’s conception of phronesis or practical “prudence” …Rejecting the predominant narrative of zombie fiction in which the “soft values” associated with the humanities are considered useless against the hard-nosed survival skills imbued by technical expertise and unsentimental pragmatism, [John] Van Houdt expanded on and reversed this theme, calling for our own “survival manual” for the end of the humanities. I would add that given that most recent zombie fiction represents the contemporary re-imagining of the State of Nature, which – as Marx pointed out in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy – largely provides creation myths for the individualism of emerging bourgeois liberalism, the fear of the supposedly mindless and violent masses makes some ironic sense in the context of contemporary Higher Education …If the price to pay for “surviving” this educational State of Nature is a commitment to the (bourgeois/liberal) humanities, it is pertinent to point out that the alternative is not necessarily that of “dying” but becoming transformed into a member of the undead masses, whose thinking so little resembles that of solitary, academic thought…

To point out, however, that the university continues to exist as a principle site of the production of social inequality, and that para-academic activity is parasitic upon it, demands not so much a transcending (which might always leave the boundaries intact) as a dissolving: the Humanities (or something like the Inhumanities) as a peripheral zone expanding outwards, incorporating inwards, destabilizing itself and its disciplines in such a movement…

“The task of students is to rally round the university, which itself would be in a position to impart the systematic state of knowledge, together with the cautious and precise but daring applications of new methodologies. Students who conceived their role in this way would greatly resemble the amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace, which serves as the space for an unceasing spiritual revolution – a point from which new questions would be incubated, in a more ambitious, less clear, less precise way, but perhaps with greater profundity than the traditional scientific questions” (Benjamin SW1, 43)

…read in conjunction with his later writings on a more radically politicized pedagogy, it is possible to interpret these “amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace” as intent on its revolutionary overthrow. In this context, “rallying round the university” becomes far more ironic: if this is what Oliver Feltham means by “desocializing” perhaps we might push the image even further and try to imagine zombie zones of actions.

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