Ethicists and artists are intensely debating to what extent life is still “fully human” when it is improved or prolonged through biotechnological means. Due to advances in science and technology, drawing the boundary between life and death, and culture and nature, has become more complicated than ever before. And with these advances, the undead have entered our social reality from the anthropological fringe. Georg Seeßlen conducts field research in the zones of the undead.  

by Georg Seeßlen

One word is currently in everyone’s mouth – undead. It conveys a pervasive, outlandish feeling of our times. Being there, but not being there. Existing, but not existing. We think of ghosts, zombies, test-tube creatures or radically degraded beings, of humans living beyond their history and even their own humanity, of RoboCops and pill-poppers, vampires and junkies, bureaucrats and assembly line workers, warfare droids and mechanized soldiers, brain-dopers and flatliners. Of people, who work themselves to death, and people, who party their life away. And the prisoners, sentenced to death, waiting years for their execution, Dead Man Walking. Undead! And the whole time, we can’t help asking ourselves, am I, is my being, already contaminated with the undead?

Undead is a word that describes a newly discovered blurriness.  Define ‘life’! Define ‘death’! It has never been easy and is now becoming even harder. No, it’s better to hang around in the undead zone instead, graphically and semantically, intangible, but with the resolve to face this future unafraid. A new zone has opened before us, between the life we know and scandalous death – prolonged life, modified, improved, expropriated, reduced life, or viewed the other way around – prolonged death, philosophical zombies, creatures who were denied what they were promised (at least in poetry), that is, “their own death”, the film quote uttered by one who has died, but doesn’t know it yet, reborn as a machine, a monster, a mutant – as an undead creature.

Mysterious though the matter is, this expanding zone of uncertainty which we try our best to imagine, either through discourse, images, testing and modelling, there are social forces at work, driven by interests and means of their own, that are addressing the subject and interacting both directly and indirectly with one another.

It’s not that this zone between life and death is something new. It has always existed. At closer inspection, we might even recognize it as the source of cults and cultures, religion and philosophy, the arts and carnival. How otherwise could it be possible for someone (who witnesses death in others) to suddenly realize that he, too, will die, and at the same time, realize that he doesn’t want to die? “Almost everyone loved the world, when given two handfuls of soil,” Brecht said. But hardly anyone wants to give those two handfuls of soil. Where do the dead go? To a better world, to paradise, to the eternal hunting grounds perhaps? Where do they go when we treat them right, when we respect them, remember them, offer them victuals for their journey? But what if none of this happens? (And how can it ever happen in a world where nothing is sacred and everything is about profit and entertainment?) Sometimes they come back...

Long have we implemented the time-honoured strategy of both culturally accepting death and technically combating it, especially whenever culture and technology counterbalance one another. However, panic occasionally erupts along the fault lines dividing culture and technology. At times we fall prey to a cult of the dead (or even a death cult), and at other times, pure technology leads to bizarre experiments. 

From this point of view, the undead come across as symptomatic of the dividing line between the cult of the dead and the technology of life. It’s easy to assert that our current obsession with undead, post-human and trans-human entities is not merely due to the growing feasibility of technology to produce such ‘miracles’, but is also a symptom of the radical predominance of economized natural science and technology over philosophy and culture. Technology and information are constantly being ‘revolutionized’ while the misery of daily life and history has undergone little or no change at all. (Who knows, maybe the reason we want to live longer, or even become immortal, is to increase our chances of surviving this valley of tears of the Boring Age. Unfortunately, it seems we are actually prolonging it by focusing on building a new human instead of making demands on our old consciousness and its history.) Frankenstein flees from boredom; that never works.

We cannot say where the transition lies between social differentiation and social disintegration. We only know that the transition is where the undead flourish. It’s not simply a depiction of fear, rather it has curative quality. Creating and sustaining life through technological means is often a reaction to physical suffering and the threat of death, and to some extent, also mental anguish (I can no longer endure how I look. If I cannot have a child, or the child I wish for, I will die. I can’t stand the stress of my job, of my career, any other way. I have to create something of my own which the rest of the world refuses to grant me, even if it’s within my own body). But this form of the undead not only offers a solution, but causes a problem as well.

 

The media is abuzz with such eerie creatures, life-forms unable to participate in our form of life. One can find any number of examples reported in the gazettes. People “lying in comas” and doctors unable to say whether they’ll ever “wake” up, whether they perceive “anything” of the world around them or whether they exist in an inner world of their own. People, whose brain function has been so damaged by traumatic injury or debilitating illness, they can no longer live “normal” lives. People who have lost touch with their past and their surroundings because of dementia. The most agonizing conflicts arise whenever we’re confronted by people whose minds have left their bodies behind. How do we live with those who no longer live with us? When they’re no longer truly “human”, what are they then? Animals, or “vegetables”, things, parts of machines, to which they must stay connected for “life support”? Our collective imagination demands that we shut the machines off at the right moment. Every decision requires an enormous ethical and philosophical effort. We must constantly redefine life and its value (and Germans are not the only ones with a dark chapter in their history, filled with unscrupulous figures who eliminated life they deemed “unworthy”). The social discourse regarding the undead is especially rampant, far beyond personal responsibility or tragedy, when body and mind are most clearly detached.

 

The second case concerns those who have changed their appearance so radically – for example, with plastic surgery – that neither they nor those around them can claim that they are essentially themselves. The transformations from black to white, old to young, man to woman, etc., are rather preliminary exercises, as are those based on the ideal of beauty (transformation into a picture), an efficiency principle (creation of an “artificial” super athlete), or the outsourcing of ‘decisions’ (microchips implanted in the brain, ‘intelligent’ prostheses, pre-programmed administration of drugs, etc.) . Here we recognize the opposite trend – the first case dealt with unnaturally prolonging the death process, while here in the second, it’s about unnaturally pimping life. Fundamentalists might ask, “Is this morally permissible?” The rest of us pose very different questions when faced with “enhanced humans”, for instance, how do we communicate with someone whose outward appearance and inner being are so clearly divided? To put it simply, someone who has unique capabilities, not as a result of “predisposition” or past experience, but because his/her body has been altered mechanically, chemically or organically? A “sex bomb” residing in the soul of an old woman. A politician unable to wipe away his permanent smile even after the cameras are off, because it has been implanted into his face. A woman who “reinvents” herself every few years with the help of her doctors. This is what we call a slow undeath – people (like characters in horror movies) whose physical appearance reveals nothing of their inner soul, a mask which can no longer be removed (and even worse – a mask no longer distinguishable from one’s face).

Instead of regulating the relationship between closeness and distance (along with hierarchy, order and sexual economy) through visible and tangible alterations to the body (which cannot take place without altering one’s soul if we regard pain as the physical expression of one’s emotional state), we are now literally seeing a deregulation, privatization, yes, a market regulation of the human body. The attempt to use the body to instil new meaning and create new abilities that never existed ‘in life’ (nor in work or love, for that matter).

Where does it begin? In the small corriger la fortune of cosmetology, at the fitness studio, with breast implants and do-it-yourself Botox injections? Or the more or less pleasurable scarification of the body with piercings and tattoos? Or physical or intellectual doping (unfair!), or merging the body with a machine, after which one is unthinkable without the other, or a prosthesis, which unlike Captain Hook’s grappling iron and Ahab’s leg of whalebone, can think for itself and functions better than the extremity it replaced?

There seems to be a certain point when the physical-technical shift becomes more the goal than the means, and such changes are no longer meant to fool others, but the subject himself. People are no longer satisfied at being taken for someone else; they want to become someone else, made irreversible by intervening in the semiotics and machination of the body. In contrast to the man with the mask, the undead have no place of refuge, and a zombie is denied the one thing that even the most horrifying aliens possess – a home. Everything undead is restless, even when bound and shackled, both within and without. It’s as if a person, facing the prospect of death, must decide between dying and never coming home. Or in other words – homelessness is the precondition of the undead.

According to mythology (and despite all our progress, escaping mythology is much harder than undergoing plastic surgery), manipulating our physical form is equivalent to losing our soul, or in more secular terms, our identity. It’s the story of the Portrait of Dorian Gray told backwards – as if outward beauty or mechanical efficiency were traded for emptiness within. For as much fear that the mythos of betraying human wholeness may contain, an important question remains for social practice. Who or what kind of altered, enhanced, humanly-diminished (reinvented) entity can we expect to encounter in the public sphere?  (And here it is again – the nagging fear regarding the spread of the undead in society. The ‘somewhat’ post-human being may no longer participate in the public sphere. His sphere of life will be reduced to the medium and the spectacle. This ‘kind of’ undead person shall live in the spotlight and in the media, unable to ‘return’ to his old self.) This general, conventional and largely controlled post-humanization is problematic, however, when it leaves the spheres of art, politics, sports and entertainment. Is it possible to reinvent oneself and live normally, or does the opposite occur, i.e. normal life becomes a spectacle as a result of the manipulation of one’s body? (For example, can the manager of a discount supermarket require ‘his’ female cashiers to transform themselves into customer-friendly Barbie dolls with artificial joints that never tire and implanted smiles that never fade even when their wages are cut? A wet dream of neoliberalism – we’re getting there.)

 

In the company of those whose death we postpone, and those who improve and reinvent themselves, there are also the socially undead who exist but have no place in society (those superfluous individuals who we keep hearing about) or have relinquished their place due to faults of their own (druggies, TV junkies, workaholics and others who have so completely lost sight of the goal of achieving a ‘rich, fulfilled life’ that people often call them zombies). Behind the decomposition are the ones who could well serve as role models for those zombies of horror iconography, and behind the functioning are the others, the emergence of whom is the result of a growing void which the ‘improved’ middle-class has buried deep within itself. The relationship between outer appearance and inner identity is reversed once again. The decaying body of a homeless man conceals the past of a university professor who suffered a traumatic divorce and a long illness and didn’t receive adequate medical treatment. Within the empty body of a successful banker lies a hidden family history, a terrible injury perhaps, a wound to the soul, abuse. (We are traversing, of course, a sphere of clichés and legends, as if on the run from sheer banality. But we knew from the start that this was all about images and stories. The conscious fuzziness of the word undead has no place in ‘hard-core’ science anyway.)

The sphere of the undead, however, expands beyond such manifestations of incomplete, divided and mechanized life. A media-based dual existence is an inherent part of how it lives. One is an imaginary member of a soap-opera family. One pursues a ‘rich and fulfilled life’ in Second Life, where the somewhat post-human altered form described above already exists as a digital ‘prescript’. One begins a ‘real life’ in performance and extreme sports beyond everyday life, and in contrast to privileged members of middle-class society, one learns to carefully distinguish these spheres from one another – I’m a different person here than I am there. The presence of things far away (on television, for example) and the shift away from what is close and neighbourly, in other words, a lack of social practice which one aims to compensate for by achievements in more or less artificial parallel worlds, appears to be a further betrayal of the wholeness of human life or what we generally designate as the subject (let us leave the philosophical-theoretical nuances of the term aside for the moment). In each of these spheres, one can only live if one has mastered the art of not being completely there; the clever ones of our times know how to remain unfocused and detached. 

We might get the feeling from these initial, careful and external approaches – albeit far from the ‘heated centre’ of debate – that the spread of the term undead as a feeling, rumour, myth, caricature, characteristic, insult, etc., reveals another project of overriding importance: the dismantling of the enlightened (and thus romantic) ideal of wholeness in the subject and his identity. In order to create a new human (newly invented human/the human who reinvents himself), this project does not begin with the transformation of the whole subjective and identical human (as friendly utopians were wont to do), but the complete deconstruction and reassembly of the human.

The undead, a utopian/apocalyptic place, now appears as a communicative element in a system which we can easily identify as a process of civilization (adapting the human to his environment with the goal that they’ll perfectly correspond to each other one day. That, which Marx once regarded as the appropriation and personification of nature and Kant as man’s perception of himself and his surroundings, has now been technologically achieved – we must no longer work to attain it, it is done to us).

In addition to the medical and social forms of the undead, there are many other ways of evading death – all means of life prolongation and enhancement, anti-aging products, new discoveries every day (and new cults which accompany them) on how to live a ‘healthy life’ (an apple a day keeps the doctor away, especially when you get some exercise and fresh air, avoid smoking and drinking, and let’s say, manage stress through simplifying your life and positive thinking). This, of course, leads to the “demographic development” that gives insurance mathematicians and income tax collectors sleepless nights – we simply live too long. And our lives are lasting longer and longer! And what for?

The fortunate circumstance of living longer (television and advertising supply us with images of sprightly retirees, paying customers and enthusiastic readers of the Apotheken-Rundschau [Pharmacy Gazette]) poses an economic problem, puts wear and tear on the foundation of post-middle class society, and destroys not only the identical subject with the solidarity-based society, but also the genealogy (after honouring one’s father and mother, or one’s ancestors in general, started fading noticeably in middle-class society and had to be replaced by artificial cults). Now the generations regard each other as undead. On one hand, it’s the old geezer who just won’t die, deadweight living off “our inheritance”. On the other hand, it’s the mindless, irresponsible member of a disembodied and overembodied fun society, who cares for little else but sex, drugs and Rock’n’Roll (or whatever happens to be in fashion at the time). Cultivated individuals express pity and empathy rather than hate and ridicule, which certainly doesn’t improve matters. Various forms of imperfect and meaningless life are reflected in the division between old and young and the recent infatuation with being young. Punks, junkies, workaholics and careerists gather for a dance of the undead – without touching each other. Consequently undead is not only an inner feeling and an outer project, but also a form of denunciation from afar. It’s usually other people who are the zombies.

 

Another sphere of the undead  is comprised of what a utopian-ideological community of scientists and prophets advanced as post-human life (practically immortal, without the misery of pain or loss) or trans-human life (living on in another form, decoupling the software of the human mind from the hardware of the body) in the discourse of middle-class and post-middle class progressivism. It sounds quite simple, as explained, for example, by Ray Kurzweil: “With what we know today, even those of my own generation [Kurzweil was sixty at the time – ed.] can still be in good health fifteen years from now. In time it will be possible to reprogram our biochemistry and modify our biological programme through biotechnology – that’s bridge two. This in turn will allow us to live long enough to reach bridge three. And then nanotechnology and nanorobots inside our bodies will enable us to live forever.”

From an ethical standpoint, the life sciences have to address completely different entities in the zone between life and non-life more intensively than ever. How much artificiality can life contain? Can we regard what J. Craig Venter created with a cell and computer programme as artificial life? How far are we permitted to separate the hardware from the software, i.e. can we save, sort and combine the ‘software’ of life any which way we desire? When exactly is human life engendered, in other words, at what point may we no longer “kill” it?  Are we already working on clone psychology? Will we someday be overrun by frozen angels? And what is synthetic biology capable of?

The dual forms of undead existence – the prolongation of life into near-death spheres (undead winners) and the anticipation of (social, intellectual and ultimately biological) death in the ‘actual’ full-life spheres (undead losers) – hold a completely different position in the field of life sciences. The condition, perception or attribution of the undead is now a zone, which one must cross to achieve eternal life. In other words, undead is no longer a mere symptom or development, but a post-human space for self-experimentation and creation. And as rational and enlightening the initial situation may be (pain-inflicted human life in need of significant improvement) or the final goal may be (a simply super life), this zone, which we must cross, remains mysterious and threatening. It is no black box (a radical, but extremely short-lived darkness), but indeed a twilight zone, marked by incomplete knowledge, speculation, phantasms, rationalization and carnivalization, to name just a few of the most friendly spectres in the undead zone. One of the most harmless things we could imagine happening to us (at first thought) is a radically and possibly violent complex reduction of human life. Would the new human, for example, have to relinquish some part of his mind after wandering through the valley of the undead and subjecting himself to those all-healing and all-knowing nanorobots which Ray Kurzweil envisioned? What perception or knowledge do we humans stand to lose if we are no longer connected to the world through pain? What would happen if ‘simplified’ humans encountered a complex world – what if the stuff of science fiction novels became reality and we robots, cyborgs and androids not only had to render humans incapable of thinking, but also of feeling, in other words, everything that contributes to complexity? Would the immortal, extremely complex-reduced post-human end up as an eternal infant, feeding at the virtual breast of digital wet nurses? Or a mechanical work-slave fitted with wetware?

Our imagination always seems to run away with us at every twilight zone of progress, as well as every “great upheaval” in human history – from Copernicus to Darwin to Sigmund Freud. Man’s expulsion from the centre of the universe and ultimately from himself – following the solar system, evolution and psychoanalysis, man’s place in the species is now at risk. The human species no longer exists – and if it no longer exists, then it may have never existed. There is a reason why we are so inclined to imagine catastrophe (and no, simply imagining the catastrophe won’t stop it from happening this time).

It’s the intertwining, the interaction between this concrete and blurry discourse, models and visions, numbers and bubbles, which makes the social treatment of the undead subject to what Jacques Rancière calls “soft ethics” – ethics determined less by projects and positions than continual ad hoc repairs and readjustments. Soft ethics constantly attempt to patch up cracks and holes so that they may continue to corroborate the facts (or at least those as conveyed by the media).

These four areas of the undead have been the subject of a truly incredible production of pop-cultural images and stories which often extend to archaic depths – to religion, childlike and animalistic pre-religions and semantically unconstrained post-religions – and highlight the secret capabilities of medicine, science, computer programming and technology. “Particles of reality” are as prevalent in the dream market’s production of images and stories as the fictitious rumours and images which haunt the laboratories of the life sciences. When producers are asked to explain the undead hype in the entertainment industry, they describe their product as a metaphor of real science and technology. When scientists in the field of computer technology, synthetic biology, the life sciences and related areas speak publicly (that is, through the media), they use the language and images of popular culture (which sometimes reinforces the impression that scientists are more like children at play and the sandbox they’ve chosen to play in is nothing less than “our life”).    

This is where the efficiency of economized science and the media’s thirst for entertainment collide. Science in the marketplace has to be loud enough in order to promise world changing advances (and to finance its research, it must produce undead for the market), and in order to get media time, science must employ the language and images used in the entertainment industry (marketing and mythmaking). This results in a paradox in the life sciences regarding the zone of the unknown. Whatever happens in the zone must remain concealed, yet significant, irrational and yet rational, normal and yet fantastic, secret knowledge, yet the talk of the town. (What if, after passing through the zone of the undead, we not only were different, but also our language, that is, the language we use to describe the undead. The zombie is primarily speechless, an entity to which no human value judgements apply, not dead, but deceased, not evil, but dangerous, one who possesses nothing but can be everything). Once again, this discursive muddle is necessary in order to activate soft ethics in a neoliberal society. They can adapt to whatever form the undead takes, because they can both understand and not understand, because they can masterfully organize what they don’t understand (or don’t want to understand).

All of this is accompanied by a social and cultural practice that nourishes the imagination in matters of the undead, which is created in reality by an entirely different source. On one hand, we foster mutual forgetting, the loss of those social contacts and the public space where the promises of the Enlightenment might be redeemed, that of recognizing oneself and interacting with others in a society, creating a coherence of identity and the world through work, personal interest and intelligence. On the other hand, we have created a gulf separating the poor and the rich, the intelligent and the ignorant, the important and the superfluous, which in turn has created a double form of undead – the wealthy individual who survives and sustains his body and mind for pleasure, or at least for the enjoyment of his wealth and power, and the poor individual who merely ‘exists’ and is not permitted to die as long as his body can be exploited for some kind of profit, as a working machine, forced prostitute, spare parts depot, or a consumer on the state payroll, etc. After all, isn’t our economic system paradoxically alive with the spirit of the undead – something we know so little about but enthrals us as much as human, post- or trans-human undead, namely, money?

In future we must try to think of everything at once, or think of everything as one. From the cell created in a laboratory, which may have once been human or something completely different, to a drastic zombie flick. From those who have lost their memory and consciousness to enhanced reality which views reality and fiction, dream and perception, in perfect stereoscopy.

The theatres of discourse, as we see, are so multifaceted that no single undead theory could do justice summarizing them. However, we cannot respond, in all humility, to the demands of uncertainty by merely “drawing the line” by staking out territory with a set of values (which some possess and some don’t), in other words, conceding to rituals of soft ethics. In dealing with this new discourse, we must also critically evaluate the mechanisms of meaning, imagery, narration and rationalization that are involved (within ourselves). Before and now during its technological realization, the undead are recasting the questions that have dogged us for thousands of years. That alone is reason enough to love zombies.