Saturday, 24 March 2012

My reply to Jason Colavito

I tried to post my response to Jason, who wrote a lengthy reply to my "Prometheus: The Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology", but I couldn't get it to load on his website, so I figured I had no choice but to put it here instead.

OK I'm back to post my response. Even if you disagree with me, I hope this will at least give a clearer idea of where I'm coming from. Apologies if this sounds a little brusque at times, but I had a few interruptions:

You suggest that Beal, and by extension, myself, have somehow relocated Lovecraft's aliens in the "spirit realm". Frankly, I'm baffled by this interpretation. I can see no evidence for this in Beal's work or in my post. Beal even goes so far as to write that "Lovecraft's own use of mythology, however, could not be further from...nostalgic religious longing" (p191). Regardless, you insist on taking issue with Beal's claim that Lovecraft's aliens are "reminiscent" of theological language about the "paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God", arguing instead that Lovecraft's intentions were to "mirror" for the sake of parody. I disagree as I think this is attaching too much weight to what Beal means by "reminiscent." Beal's purpose is not to use Lovecraft to shore up a Biblical exegesis in accord with strict doctrine. Speaking more in terms of an analogy or an elective affinity in this instance, it seems clear to me instead that all he means to evoke by his description is a sense of how the entities in question are "intimately near and yet wholly other". There's no conflation of God and aliens. There is nothing here that presupposes a shared spirit realm, with the emphasis falling instead on the paradoxically, to use Lovecraft's term, "undimensioned". Beal notes how Lovecraft DOES NOT have a theology (as per the "theologian without a theology" quote), so it can be taken as read that Lovecraft's aliens are, in Beal's eyes-- to quote your Nietzschean expression (which I seem to recall Lovecraft applied to the Great Old Ones)-- "beyond good and evil". This point is reinforced with reference to Derleth's  attempt to turn the Mythos into "cathedral windows", which Beal dutifully notes has been criticised by Lovecraftians for its simplistic portrayal of a struggle between good and evil (p187). It is noteworthy that Beal makes no attempt whatsoever to defend Derleth from these charges.

I don't know if other more specific theological terms, such as panentheism for example, could be compared and contrasted with what Lovecraft may have meant by "undimensioned", especially once "spirit" is not even really at issue in Beal's analogy. This is probably also the reason why Beal doesn't develop his theory as an apophatic theology and cataphasis by arguing, say, that Lovecraft favored various rhetorical devices, such as occultatio, because the Mythos somehow "covertly" expressed a negative theology. Thus I decided instead to base my evaluation of Beal's work solely on what he explicitly set out to achieve. For me it follows that, while your comments about "The Dunwich Horror" are perhaps of some general interest to Lovecraftians, I can't see how they're really applicable to Beal at all, not least because he does not even refer to Christ in his Lovecraft chapter (and the same is true of the book as a whole, with the exception of one page). He's clearly more interested in the Hebrew Bible (there's also no mention of the Jewish messianism in the book). It's a moot point then whether Lovecraft's "parody" of Christ lends much "weight" to his fiction at Beal's expense, in the manner which you suggest.

It's surely no accident either that Beal decided to call his book "Religion and Its Monsters", as opposed to say, "Biblical Monsters". I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with your point that Beal is claiming that Lovecraft's aliens are "essentially biblical". You suggest that Beal,  "overestimates the biblical echoes in the Cthulhu Mythos at the expense of the pagan religions that were more explicitly the monsters’ model. (Not to mention that the Bible’s monsters were themselves reworking of earlier Mesopotamian and Levantine myths, perhaps including Tiamat.)". The fact of the matter though is that Beal contextualizes his discussion by devoting the entire first chapter of his book to the gods of "the ancient Near East", including the Tiamat  you mention, writing, "Behind and around the religious traditions of the Hebrew a rich and varied world of gods, monsters and monster gods". He then develops this line of argument by using as his example the stories about Baal and Anat in Ugaritic narrative that are closely related to the Hebrew Bible (p19). Beal even takes care to include the Hebrew terms, so one can draw the obvious inference that there was a considerable convergence and differentiation of the Israelite religion vis-à-vis its Caanite heritage. True to form, in his Lovecraft chapter, Beal warms to this "reworking" theme, describing how Lovecraft stitched together [a mythology]...from mutually incompatible religious discourses and ritual practices...jamming together theological and mythological categories" and then "from Sumerian to Egyptian to Puritan to Vodou" (p191).  I honestly can't see any inconsistency or "overestimation" here or elsewhere of the biblical influence on Beal's part.

You produce some compelling evidence that complicates how we should read the role that anthropology has played in colonialism (we both understand archaeology as falling under the umbrella term of "anthropology"). But I think that when we examine the discipline's "balance sheet", something can still be said for my argument. I have to concur with Maximilian Forte:

"You’re right, it would be good to hear from other evil colonizers beside myself, the reason for that being that there would be an almost countless number of diverse cases and many different versions of the argument, and disputes. One generalization I would be confident in making is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these different people did not seek out any foreign anthropologist to “share” their worldviews, that many of them are capable of doing so on their own, and that a few would rather keep their cultural knowledge to themselves.
In other words, I don’t think we are indispensable where sharing worldviews is concerned, nor do I think we are wanted, and very little thanks is owing to us."

Moving along, another sticking point for you is that I appear to have mistakenly emphasized the role of "primitive faiths" in Lovecraft's fiction. You are interested to know how modern peoples relate to "primitive religion", "is it to their texts, their rituals, their myths, or their actions?" It's a fair question, and I'll attempt to to answer it in terms of rituals (which here necessarily connote actions). Firstly, I should note that one of the underlying fears expressed in Lovecraft's work is that humanity is in constant danger of reverting to a state of "primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances". This is a quote from The Horror of Red Hook, but it is representative enough for Joshi in his study "H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West," to feature in the context of a discussion of the "curious mixture of an advanced technology and a reversion to primitivism" that pervades Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft was pretty explicit about this point: "We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man...We must realise that man's nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake." This is a fascinating statement because it demonstrates Lovecraft's belief in the essentially primordial unchanging nature of humanity as something continually reinscribed in ritualistic forms.

  Notwithstanding the progress of the West, for Lovecraft the danger is that the actions of humans will in effect merely rework the "ritual observances" of "primitive half-ape savagery", be it through science or any other modern means. Social darwinist that he was, Lovecraft believed that, as you point out, "racially suspect groups" were particularly susceptible to knowledge of the Cthulthu cult, although not exclusively so. The use of advanced mathematics etc, however, need not imply that the rituals are no longer primitive in any sense, but rather that they paradoxically typify a form of "future primitivism". To illustrate what I mean, I point to the intriguing example of the Chaos magicians who borrow so much from Lovecraft. They have seized on this seemingly paradoxical term to evoke the shamanism more often characterized in terms of "primitive" ritual observances:

"As we find with Lovecraft's fictional cults and grimoires, chaos magicians refuse the hierarchical, symbolic and monotheist biases of traditional esotericism. Like most Chaos magicians, the British occultist Peter Carroll gravitates towards the Black, not because he desires a simple Satanic inversion of Christianity but because he seeks the amoral and shamanic core of magical experience—a core that Lovecraft conjures up with his orgies of drums, guttural chants, and screeching horns. At the same time, Chaos mages like Carroll also plumb the weird science of quantum physics, complexity theory and electronic Prometheanism. Some darkside magicians become consumed by the atavistic forces they unleash or addicted to the dark costume of the Satanic anti-hero. But the most sophisticated adopt a balanced mode of gnostic existentialism that calls all constructs into question while refusing the cold comforts of skeptical reason or suicidal nihilism, a pragmatic and empirical shamanism that resonates as much with Lovecraft's hard-headed materialism as with his horrors."

I won't respond to what you've written about At the Mountains of Madness because I can't readily fit it into my blog post or Beal's work which touches more on the ritualistic aspects etc. And besides, I've probably written too much already as it is. I'll close by saying that I was intrigued by your critique of the alleged shortcomings in how Beal portrays Lovecraft's aliens as "chaos monsters". I'm not fully on board though with how you argue that the Bible describes "chaos" only in an absolute sense, especially when Beal talks about how chaos is sometimes portrayed in the Bible as a form of creation, and therefore a new form of order. Beal even relates his discussion (p15) to the prospective heat death of the universe. Lovecraft,"the Copernicus of horror", seemed to think it was merciful that some things remain unknown, so I can only assume he wouldn't have shared Beal's cautious optimism!

Speaking of creation, I don't want to depart on a sour note by giving the impression that I am not a fan of Lovecraft, or the works he's obviously inspired, such as Alien and Prometheus. I love each and every one of them. Yes, I find his racism very disturbing, but I think the philosopher Ben Noys gave all Lovecraftians a great way of understanding how Lovecraft's writings are still paradoxically irreducible to such shortcomings, even though we should remind ourselves of them, as I attempted to do in my post:

 'In the formation of “reactionary novelties” (Badiou) Lovecraft can be aligned with those forms of “High Modernism,” such as T. S. Eliot’s, that constituted themselves, in Peter Nicholls words, as “an attack on modernity” (251). The difficulty, in terms of Badiou’s evental tracings, is how Lovecraft’s “novelty” is something artistically “new” while at the same time “politically” reactionary (and reactionary against other artistic innovations); it suggests the intersection or imbrication of events: in this case art, science, politics.

His reaction against these currents of the new produces a “reactionary novelty,” but actually also a true novelty of disruption that exceeds its primary evental site – Gothic fiction; this may be why that it only outside of the Gothic that we find Lovecraft’s true disciples: William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Michel Houellebecq, artists like H. R. Giger and John Coulthart, and muscians like The Fall and Patti Smith. The Lovecraft event therefore problematises Badiou’s formulation of the artistic event by being a reactionary event that produces something new'.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future..."

Just thought I'd share this inspiring quote from radical historian Howard Zinn (R.I.P):

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. 

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” 

Prometheus: the Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology?

Well, I suppose I might be expected to pass comment on the new trailer for Prometheus (which I watched a couple of days ago but have been slow to respond to). It's noteworthy how much it appears to be foregrounding xenoarchaeological themes through the discovery of pictographs and so forth.

This in turn raises a big question for me: as a science fiction film, does this mean it will break with the discourses of primitivism that have been traditionally applied to ancient religious cultures? Whereas the "official" imperial discourse has attempted to define modernity as a western project in contrast to its alleged primitive "Other", the "poetic primitivism" associated with, for example, the College  de Sociologie, drew on anthropological studies of non-western myths and "primitive" religious practices, to invoke a kind of contretemps (i.e. counter-time) to contrast with Occidental instrumental rationality.

Notwithstanding these superficial differences, the fact remains that each of these discourses were a byproduct of colonialism: remember anthropologists could only write their ethnographies by arriving on the scene after the territories in question had been conquered. I can start to move this discussion a little closer to Prometheus then by referring to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. As is well known by all hardcore Alien fans, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon explicitly drew on Lovecraftian themes. I would argue then that Lovecraft's fiction is "weird" by virtue of its  melding of these twinned discourses of primitivism into what can be described as a kind of "monstrous sublime". My hunch is confirmed by any number of studies of Lovecraft that go to considerable pains to detail his aesthetic in Kantian terms of "transcendental monstrosity". But such authors for the most part fail to provide a genealogy that can critically contextualise either Lovecraft's or their own reading strategy.  This lack of reflexivity makes them complicit with the object in question, which although irreducible to, is by the same token inseparable from, the historical emergence of the sublime as a category of aesthetic judgement that developed as an alternative to beauty in European descriptions of Indian religious iconography from the middle of the eighteenth century onward. I have been drawing on Timothy K Beal's Religion and its Monsters here, which is itself heavily indebted to Partha Mitter's study entitled Much maligned monsters: a history of European reactions to Indian art.

As Beal ruefully notes, by way of Edward J Ingebretson's Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, the irony regarding Lovecraft is that the religion denied so forcefully by his materialism returns with equal force in his fiction, in effect making Lovecraft a "theologian without a theology". His alien races are recognisably "chaos monsters" in biblical terminology--and reminiscent of the paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God--or as Lovecraft put it, "Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen..." However, I hasten to add, Beal is careful to qualify this point with reference to a wide range of religious traditions, so that the reader can understand how chaogony is not exclusively characteristic of  Christianity.

Suffice to say, there is also plenty of material in Beal that could be used to challenge the author who is known as the world's leading authority on Lovecraft, namely, S.T. Joshi. I usually find reading Joshi  a frustrating experience as he is quick to make assertions about Lovecraft's materialism as somehow "disproving" Christianity. Another sticking point for me is that I've never read anything by Joshi on colonialism and non-western chaogony. If indeed he has never engaged with this topic, I suspect it would have to do with the fact that Joshi is so obsessed by writing/editing books on authors who proudly proclaimed their atheism. Mr Joshi himself is of Indian descent, but it would of course be unreasonable (and even bordering on racism) to suggest that this would necessarily make him receptive to Partha Mitter's work. Thus my only point here is that it would be interesting to have those two sitting on the same conference panel and hearing whether they would have any points of agreement about the origins and effects of the discourse of primitivism--especially in relation to Lovecraft's work. I imagine a heated discussion would quickly follow.

To sum up, if I was writing a detailed critical study of xenoarchaeology, you can take it as read that I would be using Beal et al to determine the extent to which the genre does or does not recapitulate the tropes of primitivism. Regarding Prometheus more specifically, of particular interest for me will be seeing if and how the film's "sense of wonder"--which is a defining characteristic of the sci fi genre--bears comparison with the Kantian sublime, in the context of its story of encounters with previously unknown races and possibly also their icons (i.e., art with a religious function). I obviously can't say too much though about Prometheus and primitivism on the basis of a trailer. But there's already plenty of other fascinating material out there, especially representations of "hyperspace as hell". Think the invisible entities that attack the ships in Larry Niven's Ringworld series, Event Horizon (which Warhammer fans describe as "a prequel"), and so forth. In an earlier post on Prometheus I cryptically  alluded to my ideal meld of horror and science fiction, and if you acquaint yourself with what I've mentioned here, you'll soon see where I'm coming from.

After all that, for those who still haven't seen this viral video, here is the new trailer for the film in question.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The 1%
We Know What We Will Do To You This Summer

The Occupy Wall Street movement no longer occupies Wall Street, but the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness. A new Pew Research Center survey of 2,048 adults finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. According to the new survey, three-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

As a result, in the public’s evaluations of divisions within American society, conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension—between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old. Back in 2009, more survey respondents said there were strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born than said the same about the rich and the poor.

"Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor
by Rich Morin

With his re-election campaign in full swing, President Obama faces a series of challenges in the upcoming year: namely a 9.1% unemployment rate and an electorate pessimistic about the country’s current track. Many Americans—with outspoken Tea Party activists at the fore—are calling for smaller government and a decrease in federally backed services. Yet most of the Americans hostile to these programs have at some point relied on them and even valued them. Why? Suzanne Mettler argues that it’s largely because most Americans have no idea that they’re receiving these services. They know they pay taxes, but they don’t realize that they’re also benefiting every single day: from the hidden subsidies, little-known programs, and substantial tax breaks that make up the “submerged state.”

In recent decades, federal policymakers have increasingly shunned the outright disbursing of benefits to individuals and families and favored instead less visible and more indirect incentives and subsidies, from tax breaks to payments for services to private companies. These submerged policies, Mettler shows, obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market. As a result, citizens are unaware of the benefits they receive, nor do they realize that the policies of the submerged state bestow their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans, exacerbating inequality. Mettler analyzes three Obama reforms—student aid, tax relief, and health care—to reveal the submerged state and its consequences, demonstrating how structurally difficult it is to enact policy reforms and even to obtain public recognition for achieving them. She concludes with recommendations for reform to help bring government policies back to the surface and encourage citizens to reclaim their voice in the political process.

The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler

In 2010, average real income per family grew by 2.3% but the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 11.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.2%. Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery. Such an uneven recovery can help explain the recent public demonstrations against inequality. It is likely that this uneven recovery has continued in 2011 as the stock market has continued to recover. National Accounts statistics show that corporate profits and dividends distributed have grown strongly in 2011 while wage and salary accruals have only grown only modestly. Unemployment and non-employment have remained high in 2011.

This suggests that the Great Recession will only depress top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s. Indeed, excluding realized capital gains, the top decile share in 2010 is equal to 46.3%, higher than in 2007.

"Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States(Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates)" by Emmanuel Saez
March 2, 2012

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Control of the Undead

Zizek has made some similar remarks in the past about the contemporary relevance of zombies with respect to biotechnology, but still, I would have loved to have been able to attend this event as I am sure it would have been innovative in many respects. Kudos then to this Life Sciences and Pulp Fiction initiative ...

When does a life begin? When does a life end? And who decides?

Birth and death, the indisputable boundaries of life, over which none but destiny or the gods wield control, have been embedded in cultural activity since the beginning of time. It is not the actual event, but rather the confirmation of birth and death and the repetition through magical rites, religious ceremonies, bureaucratic acts and medical intervention which allow us to enter the community of humankind and leave it again upon our death. In fact, natural or biological factors are just as significant for determining the beginning and end of life as are cultural and historical factors.

The malleability of life’s boundaries through culture (which could have sparked the formation of human culture to begin with) appears to have intensified with the latest cultural and technological developments. In the current biotechnological age, that which is regarded as living finds itself in a never-ending process of negotiation. At the same time, the imaginary arsenal of creatures which exist between life and death continues to grow and diversify. In films, novels, comics, feature pages and bestseller lists, we find dreams (or nightmares) of a world of “undead”. How do the new-found possibilities offered by the “life sciences” and advances in high-tech medicine interrelate with the reproduction of undead fantasies in the imaginary realms of culture?

This event aimed to examine what we regard as “alive” in the biotechnological age. It focused on zones of transition which we haven’t (yet) defined as belonging to the realm of the living, and forms of survival and “underlife” (Erving Goffman) which test the limits of what defines and empowers humans as social and natural creatures. We wanted to examine who exactly is defining the narrative regarding the beginning and end of life and its various stages and what their interests and justification could be. This issue involves ongoing discourse and debate from a variety of fields, including medical ethics, jurisprudence, politics, religion, philosophy, art and popular culture.

The new feasibility

Modern biotechnological advances which enable us to intervene into life processes have led to a revolution which undermines our classical ethical and ontological foundation. As the molecular-biological field forges ahead with “synthesizing” life and “producing” countless embryos (“frozen angels”), the formerly irrefutable boundaries between life and death have become increasingly blurred. Are these “entities” living or dead, not yet alive or not completely dead? Do they deserve our protection? Does this life have intrinsic value beyond its use as mere bio-material, a kind of biotic waste product of technology? Even in other areas of the medical field, especially in intensive care, we are encountering new ontological grey zones. What does it mean when a human supposedly no longer possesses personal traits? How do we convey the state of a patient in a vegetative coma? Or what about the bodies from which we extract organs and tissue – are they truly dead only because a doctor has declared them brain-dead? Furthermore, new biotechnological advances have made forms of “life after death” possible – human organic tissue (cells, organs, blood, bone marrow) can exist in the bodies of others, improving their “quality of life” and postponing their death. Cell lines can be reproduced indefinitely. The possibility of living beyond one’s mortal life in the form of stored information in specialized gene banks is becoming more of a reality every day. “When a person dies nowadays, they’re not really dead.”  (Thomas Lemke)

Whoever establishes the right to define life also controls it. These issues of feasibility are not only negotiated between the scientific community and the political branch. Pop culture plays a key role in a variety of areas – artistic examination, media-based presentation of knowledge and criticism and the drastic narratives of fear and desire. Films, music, comics, illustrations, TV shows and YouTube clips present visions, nightmares, “explanations”, links, myths and parodies of what is conceivable and feasible. The undead must be iconographized in order to stimulate social discourse. Inversely, the imagery-rich discourse strongly contributes to the production of the undead. The science fiction and horror genres have accompanied the development of the life sciences and biotechnology since their inception. And this relationship is by no means one-sided. As much as pop culture delves into science, the scientific field takes advantage of pop culture, not only as a medium, but also as a quarry of ideas, images and rhetoric.

The economic logic of life enhancement

In the differentiation of biotechnologies, we discover a phantasm that claims the bio-body is a perfectible, universally formable, undetermined entity in the current of life. The age-old dream of immortality has returned in the biotechnologically updated and thoroughly materialistic hope that “this bio-body could finally be a deathless body”, as Petra Gehring writes. In view of the logic of optimization that extends to the human body and life itself, the added (economic) value of life is paradoxically rooted in the undead. “From creating ‘good genes’ to acquiring more life time to purchasing euthanasia services for assisted suicide, biotechnologically abstracted life is attractive as a consumer good.” (Gehring)

One could say that our fear of death is what motivates the life enhancement logic of biotechnologies to produce the undead. This also applies to “trans-humanistic” visions of life-enhancement. The triumph over death through biotechnological means serves as a counter programme to other cultural and religious approaches for dealing with death and thus, takes the form of a rejection of death. The ability to “reprogramme our biochemistry” and the prospect of nanotechnology enabling us to “live forever” are among the research objectives pursued by Ray Kurzweil. His work is based on the guarantee that the “biotic substrate” can continue existing using all possible means. But is this life which is made immortal the same as the life we are familiar with?  Will we be confronted with such undead life in the future? Or does undead life already exist today?

In contrast to survival, “undead life” is an unheroic, undefined state of being which is rather uncanny and possesses only limited symbolic depth because it jumbles semiotics and ethical hierarchies. The iconic image for this type of life is the zombie with all its “vital impairments”. Zombies featured for the first time in their modern form in George A. Romero's famous "Night of the Living Dead" of 1968, only one year after the world's first human heart transplant and concurrent to the announcement of brain death criteria which would allow doctors to clinically determine the onset of death. The zombie offers both simple thrills and a subtle connection to archaic-mythical, sociological, historical, technological and even philosophical questions. Its metaphorical significance extends from the slave legends and revolts to modern epidemics. Beyond that, imagining the zombie prevailing over human life in the future certainly represents a worst-case scenario for all the life sciences.

Although the “inability to live or die” confronts us with ontological, philosophical, legal and very concrete, real-life problems, we should never forget that there are places in the world where countless numbers of people are being killed or allowed to die without a thought. The inequality of (medical) resources has also led to an unsettling and unfair economy of death on a global level. In the 20th century, the zombie became a figure of social criticism of the (colonial) exploitation of the body, the dispossession of the soul and the alienation of work. Today, the zombie is very often a post-human entity which exists in a counter-society. Who or what will the zombie become in the 21st century?

Control of the undead

The control of life and death has shifted to the control of the undead. But who determines what is undead? Who stands to profit from the undead? Who will save us from the undead? A starting point of the congress will be the assumption that Foucault’s theoretical model, which he called “biopower”, i.e. a technology of power based on biological and scientifically quantifiable basic functions, such as performance or capability of reproducing, has to be expanded to apply to the category of the undead. While Foucault bases his model on the dichotomy of “living” vs. “dead” (and the bio-political distinction between “that which should live and that which must die”), modern bio-medicine has produced epistemological and political grey zones and ontological border cases, the ambiguity of which is an expression of an ethical dilemma. Normative decisions require clear-cut distinctions and categories – for example, living vs. dead, or someone vs. something. Yet no such category exists for entities that are neither living nor dead. This leads to a sort of regulative limbo; society must take up the task of providing answers to what the undead is and who controls the undead.

One point of contention lies in whether the “new”, “improved”, “prolonged” life, which biotechnology has created with self-congratulatory hype, can even pass as human life. Another is determining who is permitted to use which resources, be it technical, intellectual or cultural in nature. While science and politics struggle to reconcile what is possible and what is permissible, popular culture has already moved on to other questions. What happens to one’s mind in that zone between life and death, of which we know so little about? What happens to a society in which life forms of "varying degrees of vitality" encounter one another? What rights do the undead have?  What about their sexual and emotional lives? Who do they belong to? Must this trend end in a “war” between human and post-human life-forms? Or are (precarious) forms of coexistence possible?
Popular culture has offered answers to such questions long before political and scientific circles even began asking them. It negotiates the divides separating what is feasible, acceptable and imaginable.

The congress

The relationship between science and popular culture is generally acknowledged with embarrassment or irony. What predictions have turned out to be true? What current neuroses determine the prospective image? What sentiments are being produced and conveyed? We wish to take this relationship more seriously. It would be impossible to imagine the “undead” without the interaction of diverse pop-cultural images on scientific image production. Like the images of pop culture, those of science are also serially produced and reproduced for mass-media presentation. The figure of the “undead” haunts our literary and cinematic cultural memory and dramatically focuses our attention to the blurry boundary dividing the living from the dead. This congress examined the reciprocal relationships of theories and images and presented their mass-media dissemination through performance. Biotech experts, bioethicists, philosophers, artists, film and media professionals and pop icons have been invited to attend the congress. They met in various constellations and debated a wide range of issues in the rooms of a film set, constructed specially for the congress inside a former factory hall at Kampnagel, the theatre and cultural performance venue in Hamburg. Visitors could move freely through the rooms of the film set, each of which invokes places where the “undead” are produced. All the discussions, lectures, presentations and experiments were audio- and video-recorded. Wherever the visitors happened to be, they could decide which programme they would like to listen to via portable radio receivers with multiple channels and headphones. A film programme was shown parallel to the live events. In normal life, scientific, political, ethical and pop-cultural debates run concurrently and independently of one another. At the congress they confronted one another and productively work to make the one thing we are all trying to grasp more visible and negotiable – namely the present and future of what we regard as life.

"We are the gods now" Weyland's 2023 Ted Talk

Speaking in terms that David Noble would have understood and been aghast at, here we have a clearer indication of the meaning of the chosen title of the film, Prometheus (Frankenstein 2.0 seems equally applicable though). It will be very interesting to trace any continuities across the series, especially in light of the explicitly religious themes in Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection. As Kile M Ortogo describes the religious impulses behind the series in  "I'm a Stranger Here Myself": Forced Individuation in Alien Resurrection:

"On one level, Alien Resurrection supports Haraway's position that cyborgs (and hybrids) offer an optimistic yet unstable possibility to relinquish the separation between dialectical dualities. On the other hand, the film warns of the consequences of such unnatural and profane forms of individuation. The religious significance of the film lies in its subverting of a secularized spiritual endeavour (i.e., humanistic individuation) that once itself subverted formal, organized religions--an ironic reversal. Hybridity is shown as a dangerous and uncertain, albeit effective, alternative to human individuation. When jacked into a computer port hidden within a Bible, Call echoes Nietzsche, "Father is dead," [65] further signifying the end of traditional religion and possibly sacred spiritual practices. While it is not the first choice, this individuation may become the only option in confronting the future's spiritual degradation" (emphasis mine).

These themes are also examined at length in the edited collection, Alien Woman: Ripley as Cinematic Icon. Vincent Ward's screenplay for Alien 3 of course made the connection more explicit by using a monastery as its setting, which although later replaced by a prison planet, remained readily apparent. Indeed, Ripley's altruistic suicide at the end of the film clearly suggests a Christ-like pose. This image is still used to market the film:

Because Prometheus is a prequel though, we can expect that it will be at some remove from the themes of the later films in the series, particularly in terms of how identity is portrayed. In the later films it emerged that the other was not to be rejected, but was rather to be accepted as a part of the self.

And so once again, here's to our future of gods and monsters...