Fragments on the zombie myth: the mortification of general intellect and the half-life of the cognitariat


Originally published on Through Europe, October 2013


“The only modern myth is the myth of zombies—mortified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason.”

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

The zombie is the point at which power’s domination, the domination of the state and of capital in all its shades – subjective, existential, epistemological, even ontological – has entered so completely into our communities that the unquestioning automaton is the most recurrent and common form-of-life to be encountered. It is the point at which subjectivity has been so deeply infested by the love of power, the micro-facism that is diffused across the global bio-political mass, that life only appears as a half-death, an existence the potential forms of which are predetermined, prelimited, constrained.  The images of loved ones appear, but terrify; intimacy gives way to disgust, and those who break free of their cages of isolation, who demand to reclaim life from its half-death, are confronted by the utter terror that surrounds them.

The zombie is a figure of diffuse terror and diffuse half-death. In its contemporary form, the zombie is never one monster, but a horde, a diffuse mass of more or less infected bodies. This form of terror, and of half-death, sits not only alongside mass production, mass culture, mass subjection, but also along side the diffuse and deterritorialised – biopower, affective labour, cognitive capital. The zombie form appears across the biopolitical mass, its base is spread wide, it does not return to a central power, to a vampire father or master warewolf, but is manifest anywhere. Regularly, the safe and secure companion that stood alongside the hero turns, falls to half-death, becomes the rotting automaton against which they fought in comradeship. The most intimate spaces of human experience and subjectivity are not free from half-death, just as they are not free of domination, of self-executing control and subjection under capital.

“The myth of the zombie, of the living dead, is a work myth and not a war myth”

 Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

 The half-death of the industrial worker, the hours of unliving enforced upon them by the working day, does not disappear with the diffusion of capital to the cerebral, emotional and immaterial. The mortification of existence, duration and experience manifests itself beyond the temporal limits of the working day. The zombie-like automaton experiences the half-death that was once localised within the working day as a generalised phenomenon, as their emotional and subjective detachment, as their reality, their function.

 With the zombie, there is no more need for production, only reproduction and mediation. There is no more need to push the boundaries of production, only to extend the reach of capital. The myth of the avant-garde has been reeled in, and the true artistic practice now lies in the reproduction of creativity, innovation and critique as commodity, as half-dead form.

“In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it … In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself”

 Karl Marx

It is the mass grave of once living-labour that forms the foundation from which the zombie may arise. The dead-labour embodied in the mechanical, technical and scientific, means and modes of production and subjectification provides capital with a fully subsumed corporeality, assemblages of bodies mortified in the machinery of capital. It is this once living corporeality that allows for the subsumption of thought, creativity, emotion and experience through the practices of immaterial labour. The colonisation of the intellect by capital required first the absolute integration of the body to production, the automaton that now arises from this expanse of mummified flesh lives only through capital, thinks only through capital, and increasingly feels only through capital.

“There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being-flesh, blood, skin, hair-but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why-I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Bret Easton Ellis

The figures of the American novels, such as those of Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis, with their false facades and close to total subjective detachment, their non-existent fervently repressed emotional states and forms of experience, are as much zombies as the rotting presences of George A Romero’s films. Indeed, that the likes of Clay and Patrick Bateman have not entirely succumb to the half-death of automation under power, of self-subjecting control, makes them all the more dangerous, their repulsion at their own mortification brings about horrific affect whereas the zombie’s total lack of its own power, of its own control, of its own singular experience, leaves it in no position to enact the same level of malicious, carefully considered, atrocities that the American Psycho(s) are capable of.

“I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living”

 The Epic of Gilgamesh

We can’t pretend that the half-death of the zombie is new, that it is born of bourgeoisie society, or that it is historical specific to capital. The undead are threatened upon the Mesopotamians in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But it is not as infection but as summoning that the undead of Gilgamesh would appear. Contrary to the contemporary Zombie, these undead would follow command, be under a monarchist ruler, rather than being self-creating, self-expanding and self-(dis)organsing. It is the parasitic, infectious nature of diffuse capital that leads to the contemporary zombie, that which sucks the life force from experience, emotion, thought and subjectivity in the form of simulated experience economies, hyper economies of desire, and immaterial labour.

Zombies need no god. They are a manifestation of terror and the-end-of-life after the death of god. When the extension of life after death is no longer promised by religion, by salvation, the only extension of life can be in death or infection, in the rotting, pathological half-death of the zombie. Zombies are not killed by religion, by the crucifix, holy water or the silver bullet, it is the absolute destruction of infected cognitive function that brings their half-life to death. This too shows the cynicism and despair that diffuse domination has resulted in – there are no more utopias to be sought, and even democracy, a pragmatic project aiming towards something better is an impossible ideal, a set of unrealisable religious guidelines.

“… they took on the status of machines: freed of all semblance, freed even from their double, they grew increasingly similar to the system of production of which they were nothing more than the miniaturised equivalent.”

  Jean Baudrillard

No longer just docile bodies, so too docile minds, docile passions, docile expressions. The flows of subjectivity must be malleable and flexible in order to ensure their subsumption, control must come from within. Capital no longer needs to exert disciplinarian, coercive force from above; it is from within and around that automatons expand. Power no longer must strictly regiment bodies, spaces and times – control is reproductive of its own accord. Dispositifs and encasements now spread themselves thinly and subtly across the biopolitical mass.

“No desire, no vitality seems to exist anymore outside the economic enterprise, outside productive labor and business. Capital was able to renew its psychic, ideological and economic energy, specifically thanks to the absorption of creativity, desire and individualistic, libertarian drives for self-realization.”

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

1968 was the year that George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead would first arrive in the cinemas. The film marks a point at which the myth of the undead transforms, and assumes not only a metaphorical, but an allegorical and reflexive importance in relation to the emergent conditions of capital’s dominance over day to day life and experience. Romero’s undead are not bewitched, cursed or possessed. The speculation is that they have been brought to half-life due to a radioactive satellite returning from Venus which has stimulated the brains of the dead. Monsters without a god, without spiritualism, these zombies are a result of human experimentation gone wrong, of the products of general intellect turned against their own creators; they are subjects of a biopolitics that invests itself deep within subjectivity.

1968 it was during this year that industrial workers and students would stand side by side in resistance to capital’s domination over human existence. The cry of the student movements, workers and students united in their fight, manifests the emergence of a different form of capital, the expansion of production lines from the factory to the seminar room, the subsumption of intellect by economic valorisation. Here we find a clear articulation of emerging cognitive labour, of the proletarianisation of the intellect and the crystallisation of the cognitariat. It is the expression of human intellect turned against itself – of general intellect turned against its own creators.

It is in the zombie, the foul, rotting, mound of flesh that serves no other purpose than the accumulation and expansion of is self-destroying pathology, that we are confronted with the most vile aspects of our own subjectivity, of capital’s relentless march against our forms-of-life and communities.

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