Working Group Report
We formed a working group around the theme of death because we thought this would provide an interesting vantage point on apocalypse. Apocalypse as cataclysm obviously entails death, but there are other, less literal points of contact we wanted to pursue.
For example, Judaeo-Christian notions of apocalypse imply a world without time. But could the post-apocalyptic not also be conceived in terms of a world without life, a world of death? And could this not be a fruitful way of thinking of contemporary life, a life lived within a media-technology complex obsessed with immortality? Conversely, what would we do were life not marred by death? What sort of life could one possibly envision in such a context, and what kind of politics might this entail? So we set ourselves the task of thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about life, about death, about life after death, about life without death, and so on.
We began with broad, freewheeling discussion touching on religion, structural anthropology, and literary fiction, but then honed in on a more programmatic approach. This was to focus on work in the humanities that seeks to combine psychoanalytic insights with an attentiveness to social, political, and economic dynamics, the latter being conceived in terms of institutions, technology, and media. We also sought echoes or points of resonance for these ideas in contemporary television shows.
Some of the key questions we asked were:
How can we think the relation between life and death?
Between the life instinct (Eros) and the death drive (Thanatos)?
How does death relate to individuality?
What is the role of the body?
What to make of the desire to overcome death?
How to think the relation between life-denial and death-denial, between nihilism and immortality projects?
How universal is the desire to overcome death?
How does it relate to historically specific institutions, such as those associated with modern technology, economy, and so on?
Our first set of readings were organised around the thought of Lewis Mumford. From Mumford we took up the idea of the megamachine, which is a way to think about technology in social terms. To put it simply, the megamachine is social organisation itself; not an apparatus overlaying society, but “a machine composed of human parts” (Mumford 1967: 11) forming a technological-power complex.
The megamachine has, Mumford argues, always been involved in solidifying class power and helping to achieve the aims of ruling elites. From Egyptian pyramids to Jeff Bezos’ rockets, the megamachine is productive, but this productivity is normally tethered to the immortality projects of the ruling class (Hager 2020).
The significance of death in all this is underlined in a little-known but excellent research article by Gregory Swer (2003), entitled ‘The road to Necropolis: Technics and death in the philosophy of Lewis Mumford’. As Swer points out, the megamachine produces outward destruction, to be sure, but also a mausoleum of social life – a living death that sees the human aspire to the machine state, a seemingly immortal fixity that freezes the flux of life. Being folded into the megamachine thus yields two forms of death drive. We want to annihilate ourselves because living life as part of a machine is stultifying (the inward death drive), and we want to destroy or kill others as an aggressive overflow of a mutilated psyche (the outward death drive).
This led us back to the figure of apocalypse. The capitalist megamachine might one day produce an apocalyptic event in the form of a technology-induced cataclysm, but in the meantime, it already produces a different kind of apocalypse: frozen, immutable, dead life under the sign of immortality.
Mumford’s analysis also raised the question of politics. Can there be a ‘good’ megamachine that serves the life instinct of those who are living participants in technological society, rather than churning out people both outwardly violent and dead inside? If we currently live in a technologically-induced living deadness, then what would it mean to return to life?
To explore the contemporary resonance of these themes, we watched an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, called ‘Be Right Back’ (S02E01). Black Mirror is an anthology series tied together through themes of techno-dystopia. This particular episode puts questions around the uncanniness of artificial life into conversation with death. Would you want a loved one to return in artificial form? Would you want to grieve in this way, to be able to ‘speak’ to a loved one who is deceased? Moreover, what would become of your life if you chose to live in this way, to live with an AI-enabled humanoid replica of your dead partner?
The episode ends precisely this way, with the widow giving up on grieving and choosing instead to live forever with her artificial husband, who she now keeps locked up in the attic. Through a form of technology that denies death, both end up living in a universe of stasis: neither can truly develop or change, and it is the artificial life, the one which cannot die, that ensures this.
This raised a number of questions for us about why the widow would keep her creepy fake husband. Does it have something to do with the lure of technology, the immortality project that her fake husband represents? Does it relate to a fear of ego death, of killing yourself off by killing the entity to which you’ve fed all your memories? And above all, is it not already anticipated by the husband’s heavy use of social media on his smartphone, which was sucking him down into artificial life long before he died?
Our second set of readings juxtaposed key chapters on death in the work of Norman Brown and Jacques Derrida. In particular, we looked at ‘Death, Time, and Eternity’, in Life Against Death, (Brown 1959: 87-109), and ‘Beyond: Giving for the Taking, Teaching and Learning to Give, Death’, in The Gift of Death (Derrida 1995: 35-52). We discovered some unexpected points of intersection.
For example, both cast death as the ultimate source of individuality (Brown) or singularity (Derrida). This raised several interesting questions about Silicon Valley immortality projects. Cryogenics appear in this light as paradoxical: an attempt to sustain individual life that eradicates life’s very source of uniqueness. Meanwhile, Longtermism and effective altruism look very much like a form of death denial through perpetual deferral.
This notion of death denial, in Brown, provided a point of contrast with the reading of Freud provided by Mumford. Mumford wanted to historicise the death drive, casting it as a product of monotechnics. Brown embraces the late Freud’s vision of the universal death drive; what he wants to historicise is our relation to it. What is unique today, he argues, is the denial of death. For Brown, this repression of death means the denial of one’s finitude, individuality, and therefore life.
We wondered whether there was something anachronistic about Brown’s emphasis on autonomy. The thrust of the argument feels almost libertarian at times. But we ended up noting that Brown does not advocate the triumph of the ego. Autonomy from social repression is autonomy from the repression of death, which would amount to something like ego-death.
On this, he aligns with Derrida. Mysteriousness is key to the value of life, and this mysteriousness is pulverised by the force of technology. The singular, unique, or irreplaceable self is lost when technological processes press the human into roles, functions, characters, and so on. Meanwhile, technology as a vector for immortality projects deprives the human of uniqueness through non-death.
All this brought the issue of politics to the fore. What is the relationship between death and politics? What is the role of culture in all of this? These questions remain submerged in Brown and Derrida, albeit in different ways. Perhaps immortality is a way to read this into them? For Derrida, immortality projects threaten uniqueness and therefore responsibility to the other. For Brown, death denial doesn’t just entail life denial in the present, it fuels social-economic immortality projects on the macro scale, of the kind Mumford identified.
The desire to live forever is one thing. The experience of undead life is another altogether. We looked at two contemporary media artefacts that explore the latter explicitly in terms of entertainment.
The first of these was the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (S01E02). The second was Father John Misty’s music video, ‘Total Entertainment Forever’. Both suggest an everyday apocalypse of the self premised on population-wide media damage: ‘undead’ celebrity immortality on the one hand, ‘undead’ mass viewership on the other. Neoliberal media megamachines dispense with narrative endings, offering instead “an excessive reliance on the logics of marketing […] in order to stimulate consumption” (Bonnet 2020: 13). This underscores the hierarchical nature of the entertainment industry; there is a class that sits atop the media complex. It also highlights the peculiar form of capture at work in contemporary, algorithm-enabled streaming platforms, which provide many different ways to choose the same course of action. Perhaps this is a form of undeadness, insofar as it robs us of the uniqueness that Brown and Derrida associated with death?
Both the Black Mirror episode and the music video make use of bright colours and cartoonish set designs to reveal an aspect of Campagna’s Prophetic Culture, at once “funny and disquieting”, a kind of “dream painting” that, in its overt ridiculousness, resembles “the style that is known since the Renaissance as ‘the grotesque’” (Campagna 2021: 110). While the music video suggests we opt-in for a distorted version of ‘reality’, the episode, in contrast, offers viewers the more nihilistic image of a life without any possibility of escape; an abundance of life, if you will.
Returning to the theme of apocalypse, we tried to generate a new set of questions based on our crash course in the psycho-social dimensions of death in Western history and contemporary culture. Perhaps the most significant one we landed on was this: If we cannot imagine the death of civilization, can we really live life? Apocalypse is a means of imagining the end that entails the suggestion of a new beginning. But can we do the former without the latter? Can we imagine the end without an after? Perhaps this is the appeal of apocalypticism – that it denies the death of civilization by always suggesting an aftermath, a post-apocalypse. In so doing, does it not deny life?
Bonnet, François. 2020. After Death. Falmouth: Urbanomic.
Black Mirror, ‘Be Right Back’, Netflix S02E01.
Black Mirror, ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, Netflix S01E02.
Brown, Norman O. 1959. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Campagna, Federico. 2021. Prophetic Culture: Recreation For Adolescents. London: Bloomsbury.
Derrida, Jacques. 1995. The Gift of Death. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Father John Misty, ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ [Music Video].
Hager, Sandy. 2020. ‘Death anxiety and the political economy of power’. August 10, 2020. https://sbhager.com/death-anxiety-and-the-political-economy-of-power/
Mumford, Lewis. 1967. The Myth of the Machine, Vol. I: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Swer, Gregory Morgan. 2003. The road to Necropolis: Technics and death in the philosophy of Lewis Mumford. History of the Human Sciences, 16(4): 39-59.