Monday, January 31, 2011

Myth, Undead: The Apocalyptic Imaginary, Vol. 1

By Rowan G. Tepper

The apocalypse is sublime – this is no great leap of thought, for not long after he wrote the Critique of Judgment, from which I derive my understanding of the term “sublime,” Kant wrote an essay entitled “The End of All Things.” A direct translation of the Greek ἀποκάλυψις as “lifting the veil,” or as “revelation” suggests that the concept of the sublime may help shed light upon the persistence of this eschatological myth in secular, (post-) modern culture. Apocalypse was always something more than a theological concept – the object of our fascination, anticipation and even desire has only taken new forms throughout history: the Bomb, unprecedented epidemics, “the end of history,” the ultimate fate of the universe, the end of the Mayan calendar.. even the zombie apocalypse. The apocalypse is attractive – a sublime surpassing nature:
Compared to any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul's fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover within ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage to believe that we could be a match for [their] seeming omnipotence. [2]
He sure seems either excited or aroused.

The apocalypse is immanent – as more-or-less disguised myth. The apocalypse is always imminent – as an event ever on the horizon. Always yet to come, this imminence signifies our safety – it is a formal structure of eschatological myth: nothing that happens can be the apocalypse, rather the apocalypse is fundamentally what does not happen – immanence itself revealed, unveiled and disclosed (Georges Bataille [3]). In what time I have today, I shall speak of apocalyptic myth as not only “our symbolic interface with the world, often but not always presented in allegorical or metaphorical form,” [4] but as a narrative form that functions, as it were, as the plot (μύθοσ) of history. The apocalypse would be the climax, dénouement and closure of history: judgment, revelation and end.

This is of course the first installment of a series on the topic of eschatological myth today – by means of examining the various forms it can take, eschatological myth as a whole will come into view.

An Undead Myth

Today, all you can find in a mall is a bunch of zombies
The zombie apocalypse is trendy – Facebook tells us that 599,332 people have RSVP-ed. [5] It is the latest form of the apocalypse – a postmodern incarnation of the myth with modern zombies. While folkloric zombies have a long history and various cultural forms, “modern zombies are often related to an apocalypse, where civilization could collapse due to a plague of the undead” (Munz, Hudea, Imad & Smith, When Zombies Attack!, pg. 134). [6] This was an entirely new vision of the end when Night of the Living Dead appeared in 1968, the year during which post-industrial, post-modern capitalism attained undisputed ascendancy after the failed revolts of May.

The zombie apocalypse is the eschatological event proper to post-modernity – being tongue-in-cheek and altogether lacking in seriousness, we can laugh off the very real anxieties it nevertheless signifies. While it is doubtless true that the obvious sources of anxiety – our mortality and the very real capacity of our civilization to annihilate itself (attained with the advent of the Bomb, object of other forms of the eschatological myth, enduring element of the contemporary apocalyptic imaginary) – are inextricably bound up in every such myth, others appear to be more significant.

Modern zombies are American – the largely interchangeable zombie flick settings signify an automated, atomized and alienated society. Modern zombies embody the undead afterlife of modernity and its myths – the alienated, atomized subject, no longer properly an “individual,” lives and labors like an automaton. The ideologies of post-modern liberal capitalism produce and rely upon subjects such as these – zombies with a pulse.

Descartes of the Dead
The modern zombie is the apotheosis of the Cartesian subject in a world in which the Enlightenment project and modernity have revealed themselves in the end to be bankrupt. Atomization and alienation are not merely the result of ideological operations – for, with the flight of the divine of which Hölderlin was prophet and Nietzsche apostle, the subject can no longer have any certainty concerning the world and others. The (post-) modern subject has never since free of false consciousness.

The zombie apocalypse is an allegory of the final triumph of the ideologies of post-modern capitalism. What leaves us in fear and trembling is the possibility of becoming a working zombie with a pulse in a monkey suit. The apocalyptic sublime serves both as a call to arms – vive la Résistance– and as a promised, imminent return of mythic lost immanence.

Killing zombies is just plain fun, too. I want to go out and splatter Zombie Descartes' brain on the wall...

[1] Immanuel Kant, “The End of All Things (1794),” in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, Trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), pp. 93-106.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pg. 120.

[3] Georges Bataille, “Beyond Seriousness,” in The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, Trans. Michelle Kendall & Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 212-218.

[4] James Curcio, “The Immanence of Myth – an Anthology,” Escape Into Life, January 27th 2011.

[5] As of January 31st, 2011, around noon.

[6] Wehen Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection", by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad and Robert J, Smith?. In Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, eds. J.M. Tchuenche and C. Chiyaka, Nova Science Publishers, Inc. pp. 133-150, 2009.

Rowan G. Tepper is Instructor of Comparative Literature at Binghamton University. He is the author of the essay "After God: The Revolutionary Absolute," forthcoming in The Immanence of Myth, and previously of Michel Foucault: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of the Event (2010). Somehow they let this loon teach. He considers it his job to corrupt the youth of various parts of New York State. For reasons unknown, he has decided to publish this series bi-weekly on Mondays. And what a pleasant surprise, his next contribution should appear on Feb 14...

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...