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Amnesia of Death: The Unsettled Endings of the Dead Who Don’t Know They’re Dead

Richard Hardack


Cet article essaye d’expliquer le succès récent de textes et de films mettant en scène des personnages dont la mémoire a été effacée et, plus spécifiquement, ceux qui ne se rappellent plus de leurs histoires et en particulier leur propre mort. Ces figures souvent traumatisées – que l’on désignera ici sous le nom de « nescient dead » (« ND ») – ne sont pas des zombies. Ils ne se rendent pas compte qu’ils sont morts ou qu’ils existent dans un état transitionnel mais répétitif, pris dans ce que Lacan nomme « l’entre-deux morts ». Une grande partie de ces récits mettent à jour le sentiment moderniste de retard, qui fait écho l’angoisse face à quelque chose de déjà fini mais que nous n’avons pas encore reconnu.

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1What does it say about our sense of historical teleology when the subjectivities of an increasing number of emblematic texts and films are predicated on an ignorance of their own deaths? In this article, I try to assess and explicate contemporary cultures’ obsession with the dead who do not know they are dead. These beings—who need a designation, and whom we might call the nescient dead (“ND”)—are not zombies, vampires or walking corpses; they simply don’t realize that they are dead or exist in a liminal state of repetition caught between what Lacan terms two deaths.. (I use this neologism because these figures—whom we need to distinguish from familiar avatars of the “post-living”—are characterized by their lack of awareness, or repression of the knowledge, of their condition, and because the term encapsulates the singular paradox of their “existence”; the dead should have no subjectivity with which to forget or recuperate their status). Subjectivities that somehow continue to exist after death, the ND are created or transformed by their initial ignorance and eventual discovery of their status. Put simply, they continue to live—sometimes in a false state of consciousness—because they have not discovered or accepted the knowledge of their “death” and its implications. These beings often maintain some form of altered existence after they seem to have died, or exist in a permanent present infinitely repeating the same day or events. According to Žižek, subjectivity itself requires a “dialectical mediation of knowing and being in which being hinges on (not-) knowing. As Lacan put it long ago, God does not know he is dead (that’s why he is alive)” (A 273). A similar formula applies to many ND (though knowledge can be conflated with faith in the context of a father/god who does not grasp he is dead): “we are dealing here with belief, not knowledge,” a situation in which God faces an impossible choice between being proven to exist—and a deity whose existence must be empirically verified is already dead and no longer divine—and “existing but [being] dead” (A 274). The Lacanian name/law of the father functions only if the father is unwittingly dead—if the emperor has no closure. Throughout the article, I treat this disruption of death as a short-circuit of the process of ending itself—as a rupture of rapture, or a perturbation of the most significant and ineluctable of all endings, personal and ultimately collectively. The ND function in part as emissaries of one formulation of the end of history, messengers who enact a stuttering repetition of impasses, traumas, amnesias and repetitions themselves as a manifestation of closure that functions as a loop—that is, of endings that do not comprise terminal points, but endless and inescapable replays.

  • 1 See, e.g., Stacey Abbott’s Undead Apocalypse; Christie and Lauro’s collection Better off Dead: the (...)
  • 2 Many ND virtually embody and dramatize psychoanalytic theories of trauma. Jim Byatt, for example, a (...)

2While critics have scrutinized the cultural significance of the “undead,” few have considered this relatively overlooked subgenre, whose central conceit has some generic and ahistorical components, but which also encapsulates a kind of belated modernity or postmodernity.1 The ND are demarcated not just by their hybrid status—the condition of being neither alive nor dead—but destabilized temporal and causal sequences; traumatic impasses; paranoia; postponed awareness; and belatedness. Paradoxically, the ND are often highly-specific (most recently, existential, Modernist, postmodern, and posthuman) atemporal figures who are defined by unsettled endings. Because of space constraints, and because I begin this analysis in “The Posthumous and the Posthuman: Living With the Nescient Dead,” I here provide a preliminary introduction to several nodes related to this trope: what it means in psychoanalytic and especially Lacanian terms to “survive” your death as a form of trauma, or what Jim Byatt situates as peritraumatic dissociation in the face of death; an overview of recent ND texts and films whose protagonists live in a void of repetitions and (un)deadlocks; a discussion of how the ND might be periodized; and, in my last section, an analysis of how the condition of living between two deaths, particularly in terms of liminality and the inversion of categories, changes in relation to race, slavery and the diasporic.2

  • 3 I argue in “The Posthumous and the Posthuman,” for example, that nescience of endings often reflect (...)

3As evidenced in many of the most familiar or representative recent examples of the genre, the standard conceit in mainstream ND texts is that the protagonist—prototypically a psychoanalyst or a detective—remains paradoxically unaware, or has suppressed the knowledge, of his own death. I focus in part on the approach of Lacan, and hence of Žižek, to the anomalous endings the ND represent because their works represent both primary texts—i.e., performative fictions that exhibit some of the genre’s defining traits and tropes—and theoretical touchstones for interpreting the ND field. For Žižek, God himself has been dead from the beginning, but did not know it until he confronted his status when Christ died on the cross (e.g., Less 102). Žižek continually retells “the famous Freudian dream” of “a father who didn’t not know he is dead” and the anecdote of the god who also doesn’t realize he doesn’t exist: god/authority/the Big Other is alive as long as he, like Žižek’s proverbial cat running past a cliff’s edge, never looks down or is told he is dead (e.g., Remainder 152; Less 104). This state of symbolic death is characterized by unawareness: according to Žižek, for example, “Kafka’s universe is eminently that of the superego. The Other of the symbolic law is not only dead, it [like the figure in Freud’s dream] doesn’t even know that it is dead” (LA 150, eio: I 258). Those who suffer from this typically male phobia or paranoia experience a series of effects or variations related to their condition: paradox (the ND who still exists so as not to realize s/he is dead); retroactivity (the ND whose death helps constitute his prior subjectivity); self-alienation (the ND who commits suicide or is split from himself and cannot recognize some of his own thoughts or acts); and amnesia (the suicide who forgets he has killed himself, or the trauma victim whose death is temporarily blocked from himself and the viewer).3 In Žižek’s estimation,

the position of an enunciator who clearly assumes that he is dead—is structurally impossible for a human subject. Is it the case then that only a god can know he is dead? Lacan claims the opposite; the same paradox holds for God, who was always already dead, but just didn’t know it. […] of course, nobody knows that I am dead—which is why I am still alive. (A 215, eio)

4Žižek notes via Chesterton that if God is fighting within himself, “the division is purely formal; there is substantially only one God, the twoness is that of the Hegelian “coincidence of opposites” [….] The particular agents do not know [….] that the supreme Good is split within itself” (A 266-68). In these contexts, the plotter plots against himself.

5In virtually all these works, the self is the greatest Other: a character must acknowledge that he or she has been killed, and, in some cases, that those she or he interacts with are actually the living. As Žižek proposes, “An encounter with one’s double would be the extreme case here: I see myself outside myself, in an object (another human body), which implies that I if am outside myself as a living body, then I myself must already be dead” (A 216). The “already” connotes not just the formulaic always already, but a predicate of subjectivization. But what difference does it make to be dead without knowing it? What happens when these narratives end? In some instances, people finally “die”: in others, they reach some epiphany regarding their new conditions. Critical here is the character’s growing suspicion regarding his or her death, which precipitates an epistemology and ontology of the second death. The ND unsettle the relationship between knowing and being; they embody the paradox of being consciousnesses who can (still) know or not know they are already dead. In that state, many of these figures must try to assess whether ontology generates epistemology or the reverse—whether (not) knowing one is dead sustains (is the predicate of) being, or is a condition to be traversed so that one can truly die.

  • 4 When I invoke transcendentalism, I refer to antebellum U.S. discourse; for a discussion of how the (...)

6I preface my subsequent analysis with a brief discussion of Melville because his interest in transcendental pantheism, parthenogenesis, and severed body parts that move of their own accord led him frequently to depict an uncontainable excess of life and will that exists before and after we do—that is, a form of life that persists separately from the being that lives, an excess or remainder that predates and survives its “host.” The transcendentalism Melville correlates with the transcendence of the self serves as a touchstone for some modern and postmodern depictions of the ND because it proleptically treats life as impersonal, and external to and hence a surplus of individual life. Because the “undead” aspects of life remain beyond individual consciousness or control, the imminent, the unconscious, and non-dead figures often have transcendental attributes—they bear qualities that transcend individual subjectivity, but are also progressively reflexive.4

7In Melville’s novel Pierre, for example, the central characters are almost pathologically unable to conceptualize beginnings and endings, leaving them unable to determine whether they are alive. The would-be pantheist’s Pierre’s half-sister/wife Isabel desires to be a “thing,” or animated by the spirit of all things (i.e., a deified All of Nature). Brought up in a “world of horrible and inscrutable inhumanities,” Isabel comes to worship “the bright human summer, and the joyful human sun”—i.e., to merge pantheistically into nature (123). In Pierre, this dream of non-individuation or non-self-reliance is exigently related to the fantasy of incest, of a merger that comes perilously close to fulfilling a death-drive. Isabel’s desire is to disindividuate and cease moving—to be reabsorbed into the world, or regain a pre-conscious existence in a Lacanian Real that blurs the distinction between life and death. As Isabel asks, “What is it to be living? Wherein lies the difference between the word Death and Life? Had I ever been dead? Was I living?” (124). Little Pierre too repeatedly wonders, was he ever not alive, was there a time when others existed but he did not; he implores his aunt, “don’t tell me again that once upon a time I was not little Pierre at all, and yet my father was alive” (74).

8Like characters in Melville’s Mardi—who similarly declare “‘truly, who can recall when he was not? To ourselves, we all seem coeval with creation” (12)—Pierre is an amnesiac regarding aspects of his otherwise well-known origins; his inability to conceive of a time when he did not exist is, of course, coterminous with his inability to imagine an ending. Such declarations, and the equivalently paradoxical temporal status of many ND, seem to reflect Emersonian and proto-Žižekian fantasies that one could observe a scene at which one is not only not present (such as one’s conception, birth or death), but during which one does not exist (see, e.g., Žižek “In” 243). Such fantasies comport with what Carolyn Porter situates as the desire to see and not be, as manifested in Emerson’s self-configuration as the transparent eyeball, or what I would here consider a disembodied gaze that survives itself (106). The non-dead have become a commonplace of contemporary fiction, but retain affinities with some of these antebellum transcendental characters and ideation. Many of the recent texts and films I address approach death as a kind of zero sum game whose rules have affinities with Emerson’s theory of compensation—you can either know (see) or be, but not both, and someone (or some part of yourself) must be dead for you to be alive.

9Conventional close readings of individual ND texts in the context of genre often will not yield novel insights, and many ND works don’t warrant scrutiny in isolation. What is notable about most ND texts is their cumulative weight and effect when taken together. But what is perhaps the most memorable twentieth-century exemplar of the ND genre, Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, is worth addressing in more detail because it is an unusually rich as well as anomalous text, and in some ways tells us a good deal about more generic ND narratives by contrast. Ubik’s protagonist, Joe Chip, has developed unearthly conceits regarding the transcendental, impersonal immortality of corporate products, yet does not realize he was killed (halfway through the narrative), and that everything he experiences thereafter is the product of cryogenic half-life (a conceit partly developed from Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron-3 and reprised in Vanilla Sky—the tepid Hollywood remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos—and dozens of other variations). The novel then paradoxically narrates how Chip gradually accepts the prospect that he is already at least symbolically dead. Emblematically, a character describes the experience of half-life, of being “outside of time entirely,” as involving processes “going in opposite directions. One is a going-away, so to speak. A going out-of-existence. […] The second process is a coming into existence” (143, 96).

  • 5 For example, Dick’s frequent references to such putatively transcendental products as “UBIK LIVER A (...)

10In Ubik, Dick is as concerned with the relationship between corporate power; specific formulations of mental illness (especially schizophrenia and the loss or fusion of individual identities); telepathy and mind-control; advertising and popular culture; the literature of deception; and Melvillean arcana as he is with ND tropes.5 Much of the novel concerns “the reversion of matter to earlier forms,” or time running backward from endings, leaving the characters, and the objects around them, regressing to earlier decades (115). Dick’s typically Gnostic deity in Ubik, who seems to preside over this alternate world, is either an imposter or a hallucination, or too weak and ineffectual to intervene on the plane Chip now inhabits. But that entity repeatedly admonishes Chip that he is no longer living, sometimes through his immanent inhabitation of products and sometimes through inappropriately profane messages: as part of a series of similar declarations, Ubik tells Chip, “LEAN OVER THE BOWL. AND THEN TAKE A DIVE. ALL OF YOU ARE DEAD. I AM ALIVE” (111). As he realizes he is deceased and, along with those around him, still exists only in a form of suspended animation, Chip must also confront the prospect that if his boss, Glen “Runciter were alive, then not one but two Runciters existed: the genuine one in the real world who was striving to reach them [in half-life] and the phantasmagoric Runciter who had become a corpse in this half-life world” (117). As such passages intimate, Dick’s use of ND tropes is idiosyncratically connected to his interest in whether multiple and simultaneous realities, or illusory worlds within worlds, are the causes or effects of manifold aspects of self-division. Ubik does, however, directly engage with protracted psychological and narratological inabilities to process endings; and it closes with the realization of Runciter himself, who also had been trying to explain to Chip from the real world that Chip was dead, that he has now entered the same realm as his former employee. Dick’s novel is here also atypical in situating the ND (and their possible mental illness) as effectively contagious in a more literal than figurative sense. The fate of the ND in Dick’s text suggests a kind of perpetual, never-ending spiral of revelations that loop back on themselves, and the novel ends with “This was just the beginning” (191).

  • 6 I provide a more comprehensive overview of recent texts in this genre in “The Posthumous and the Po (...)

11More people, however, likely will be familiar with the conceit of the ND from The Sixth Sense, whose therapist protagonist fails to realize that he is the patient he has been trying to treat—the subjectivity that cannot acknowledge its own gap/lack, or its own death. Some form of this premise—the (un)bildungsroman of a character whose crisis allows viewers to see a staged pilgrimage, or a “becoming,” between two deaths—serves as a central plot device in more than seventy relatively recent films and TV shows, including Jacob’s Ladder; Giuseppe Tornatore’s A Pure Formality; the Ewan McGregor movie Stay; the Spanish film Fin (a variation of The Langoliers); and to some extent the Matrix series (a rewrite of Fassbinder’s exceptional 1973 German TV film Welt am Draht, whose source material was again Simulacron-3, which also served as the basis for The Thirteenth Floor).6 The Hollywood version of the ND’s perpetual repetition is the remake, which in a parallel way reflects and foments the impression that we in this culture can no longer end correctly, or come up with anything original to say. (Episodes of film-franchise series such as Spider-Man are being remade with escalating and almost hystericized frequency, reinforcing one’s sense that they are being shown in a perpetual, ritualistic loop in which their archetypal characters are less immortal than doomed to suffer the suspension of linear or progressive time). The ND not only do not realize they are dead, but, as survivors of that death, cannot die and endlessly repeat their dead-lock.

12Žižek contends that in popular culture, we glimpse

this low immortality [the presence of memory] in the obscene figure of the “undead,” those who cannot even die properly, but continue to haunt the living. In psychoanalytic theory, the name for this immortality is the “death drive,” the obscene persistence of life just going on. […] The properly comical effect resides in this ridiculous sublime surviving its own demise […] the most extreme comical moment is that of a subject’s failed suicide attempt(s). (A 340)

13Most of these elements apply to the comedy (tragedy) of the prototypical Groundhog Day, whose protagonist in a sense does not realize he’s dead, and lives the same day over for eternity, and endlessly survives his own bathetic and increasingly desperate suicide attempts. Hollywood often turns tragic ND into seemingly more palatable (but actually more disturbing) comedic figures. (In Groundhog Day, the amnesia of the ND was transposed onto everyone else in the narrative, who don’t remember or experience the repetition).

14This “weird kind of immortality”—the “weird immortality of […] those who survive a suicide attempt”—which is “ontologically” common in ND texts, is “imbued with the inertia of the Real, a lack of resolution” (A 340, 336). (I repeat Žižek’s terms here to emphasize how often, even in short spaces, he iterates such phrases—this “sui-echolalia” reflects a formal, and he might claim performative, aspect of his methodology). But the Lacanian subject emerges only through such loss—in fact the loss of itself—a process, in other words, of going out of/into existence (346). The self’s unity or subjectivity is retroactively asserted/constituted through its death or form of suicide, or as Žižek puts it, “the Fall itself creates that from which we fall” (40). The ND are figures of such retroactive self-suturing. Experiencing a traumatic loss of identity, the ND often become “effect[s that] retroactively posit (over-determine) the very causes” of their meaning; their self “does not come first [… but is] something posited which retroactively posits its presuppositions” (A 30).

15Being “always already” dead precipitates and depends on repetition that triggers revision: the second death enacts “the retroactive effect of meaning” (A 21). In such passages, Žižek insists that ideological victory entails having one’s adversary adapt one’s language “without being aware of it”; that the battle “is really already over”; that the convert “already believes, though he doesn’t know it yet”: and that things ““become what they are”” or, more precisely, “become what they always already were” (Less 218; F 66-7; P 77, etc., eio). Such retroactive realignment represents another form of transcendental reflexivity, which correlates closely with the ND: becoming “always already” dead means becoming what you always already were but didn’t yet know. Like little Pierre, who cannot conceive of a time without himself there to clock it, the ND act as if “there is nothing and then, all of a sudden, it is as if the symbolic order was always-already here, as if there was never a time without it” (E 135).

  • 7 To repurpose a passage from David Leahy, through the ND “the barrier separating the living from the (...)

16Žižek often terms the condition of being caught between two deaths a “pure formality,” a designation that echoes in the texts themselves, but conjures not just a static formal structure, but a dynamic in which the self must undo itself by acknowledging it was formally and formerly never there (e.g., F 65-7: S 134). Suicide, as intimated, here represents the doubling of the self as both killer and victim; many ND texts feature the suicide who doesn’t realize he’s killed himself, who is keeping not his dark side or unconscious desire from himself, but the fact that his self is constitutively split, and whose ignorance of his death represents both its own form of alienation and a homology for the inherent lack that, for Lacan, both precludes and generates subjectivity. Cesar, the sole persona in Abre, frames his story in talking to an imagined analyst, and commits a form of suicide by becoming cryogenically frozen; he can escape from that overdetermined atemporal stasis only by committing suicide a second time—which he unknowingly is told by himself he has already done, and “Now it’ll just be a formality.” (This requirement, which radically revises the imperative to die in Christ, represents a disturbing framing of liberation echoed in Inception, in which, as in The Matrix, one must commit suicide in the virtual world to affect one’s double in the real world). In referring to such scenarios—though he almost never actually discusses ND texts beyond retelling the same Freud jokes and Wiley Coyote narratives—Žižek does not invoke the virtual in terms of virtual reality (though such filmic conceits offer a useful indirect or secondary dramatization of being an ND), but the symbolic order that sustains reality: “in order for the virtual Substance (the Big Other) to die, the price has to be paid in the real of flesh and blood” (Less 104). Roman Polanski plays another analyst/detective to Gerard Depardieu’s suicidal amnesiac writer in A Pure Formality: the [X] is a pure formality, an ahistorical, preexisting condition.7 The analyst catalyzes the suicide’s amnesia as part of the same formal ontological paradox, in which the latter must recall an event that would end his ability to be at all.

17Many ND are detectives unwittingly and reflexively pursuing their own killers. Martin Amis’ Other People—whose protagonist loses her memory after trying to contract someone to kill her (a form of assisted suicide)—ends ambiguously by repeating the book’s opening in ways that leave it unclear whether we are reading about an echo, the past or the present. In the implied formula of many ND texts (and the overt formula of others)—as Alenka Zupančič paraphrases Jacques-Alain Miller in other contexts—“every real act is a ‘suicide of the subject.’ The subject may be born again in this act, but only as a new subject. The act is an act only if afterwards the subject is no longer the same as before. It is always structured as a symbolic suicide” (93). Žižek also emphasizes that if you survive your own death (and in effect come out the other side), you never retain the same subjectivity (e.g., I 200). (Among dozens of recent examples, the “White Bear” episode of the TV series Black Mirror reprises many of the above ND tropes of amnesia, guilt, suicide, and infinite repetition).

18Though he uses the terminology somewhat interchangeably, Žižek stresses that the “living dead” or non-dead differ from the undead: while the undead lose their prior subjectivities, the non-dead lose the qualities of life, but not their identities (T 113). (One can see why such non-dead figures are compelling for Žižek, since they incarnate a spaltung, a form of Lacanian self-difference or non-integration). But the ND are uncanny because they also seem to (dis)incarnate an impossible irruption of the Real into the symbolic, which would represent the death of identity if human consciousness is predicated on their non-coincidence. Scientific discoveries sometimes reinforce our sense that the universe itself has already died, but, as with the ND, the news has not properly reached us yet or reaches us in a perpetual loop; such scientific knowledge also strikes us as uncanny. As Dennis Overbye writes, “It’s “Groundhog Day” in the Cosmos. [… Astronomers] have been watching the same star blow itself to smithereens in a supernova explosion over and over” because “light rays from the star have been bent and magnified by the gravity of an intervening cluster of galaxies”: “A star might die only once, but with Einstein’s telescope, if you know where to look, you can watch it scream forever.” Death itself here appears as a rerun, the star as existing between multiple deaths.

  • 8 Žižek’s dedication in Absolute Recoil acknowledges “a compulsion to repeat,” a Freudian imperative (...)

19It is important to consider why so many ND texts have been produced in the last few decades; once you know the ending of a film such as The Sixth Sense, another exposition in the same vein would seem superfluous, but the repetition of final endings seems to be a formal component of the genre—it ritually dramatizes a trauma or knowledge we haven’t processed.8 The ND figure is pornographic in its fetishized repetition, and the very existence of a corpus of their images should preclude the need for new ones, but repetition is the point; one strain of ND texts reside in a primarily formal genre that ritualistically (and putatively ahistorically in ontological, but of course never epistemological, terms) reenacts the unrepresentable scene of death instead of sex. What these texts cannot show is the ND protagonist’s (first) death, which is either glossed over or rendered partial, or is ob-scene—inaccessible to the character and viewer (at least until the end of minor works in the genre).

20The consequential question in this context is whether specific ND relive events for their own benefit or the benefit of their audience? Discussing classical theater, Zupančič contends “only the presence of the gaze” makes figures on stage come to life, and one might ask whether only the presence of the gaze makes ND (allows them to) die (75). I argue that one can understand these tragic formal repetitions in relation to their only seemingly obverse genre, the Hollywood romantic comedy. Almost all films in that comic vein feature a critical, final crowd approval scene: friends, a general chorus, even the wrongly jilted ex-lover or fiancé must applaud and acknowledge (and thereby create) the new couple. Such too settled endings reflect a need for the authorizing gaze of the Big Other (which is here compatible with an extraordinary, bizarrely unself-conscious narcissism)—for which the audience both doubles and changes places, needing the screen couple to authenticate them. More specifically, it’s as if the couple’s experience doesn’t transpire until spectators record and affirm it. Such nescient couples (who don’t know yet they were always the couple) are like distant, but perhaps incestuous, relatives to the ND. These films also repeat and authorize each other. Though I would argue they are also trauma films, comedic versions of the ND trope—such as Fifty First Dates, 12 Dates of Christmas, and Groundhog Day—perform the mode of repetition internally as much as Dark City, Edge of Tomorrow or Source Code, and are structured around the repetition of the same scenes/day in a kind of infinite loop that also metastasize the atemporal loop of film as a medium. (In this sense, many ND films are hypertrophied variations of ND literary texts, and typically need to rely on visual strategies to keep the viewer in the same condition of nescience as the protagonist, but both forms exaggerate and unsettle genre conventions related to linear exposition, narrative development, and closure). Practice in the art of dying allows the character either to date or die better the next time, except the character no longer exists in time.

  • 9 As Catherine Kellogg observes, rather than a wholly distinct theory of neuronal reconfiguration, we (...)

21Catherine Malabou situates the compulsion to repeat as an aspect of trauma, a mechanical binding that many ND experience (197). Such repetition can represent, in different registers, a way to resolve or pass beyond: for Žižek, “the truly New emerges through narrative, the apparently purely reproductive retelling of what happened–it is this retelling that opens up the space (the possibility) of acting in a new way” (E 133). (Or, in Malabou’s somewhat vague term, we can achieve “plasticity” through repetition, allowing difference to emerge from the retelling, or more realistically, the rewatching, of effectively the same narrative).9 As Zupančič puts it, “we are dealing with the representation of something which is originally (and structurally) missing; with something that can appear only as duplicated and appears already the first time as its own repetition: its only original is this very repetition” (87, eio).

22But in practice, repetition in U.S. popular culture and politics typically represents not a breakthrough but a deadlock—literally the hold of the fantasized dead on the living. In some ways, the U.S. is ruled by a kind of necropolitics, and its constitution has become a mortgage; those responsible for legislating or interpreting legislation often must claim to know what the founders would have thought (and therefore required us to think) about issues that didn’t exist when they lived. At least symbolically, under the doctrine of originalism, U.S. culture is partly overseen by the static intentions of the dead, who can repeat only the same directives forever. The living do not ratify the holy text each generation, but allege to have exclusive knowledge of the souls of the dead, of a future that can only have already been repeated. To the extent those in power, and especially on the Supreme Court, claim to speak for these centuries-dead founders, and the society validates the premise of original constitutional/institutional authority, they too symbolically are already dead without knowing it.

  • 10 One might argue that all depictions of the ND, including those of film, involve forms of ekphrasis, (...)

23ND texts also frequently dramatize the premise that the new/technology has exacerbated (or highlighted) our alienation from “reality” (and “human” identity) beyond any retelling of Plato’s cave allegory: films, recordings, computers and the internet make it harder to distinguish virtual realities, which often represent forms of death, from “non-altered” reality. The ND often encounter systems—cybernetics, cryogenics, AI—that alter human consciousness or life. But while such technologies provide pretexts, they are partly superfluous; most ND experience an abstract condition that is constitutively atemporal. For example, most ND are not wholly dematerialized, even if they live virtually in some sense since they don’t, or think they don’t, have bodies—but they don’t overtly walk through walls, even if those walls exist only in their minds. Some ND are perhaps embodied because they exist in an alternate reality, while others are incorporeal to others but not themselves. They all must maintain the illusion for themselves and their audience that they are in the same condition as that audience (even if they remain ignorant of that audience’s existence). The ND are basically stage characters, and while one can add distracting visual effects in film, they ultimately change little.10 The ND stand foremost for the transcendent proposition that our representation, understanding and experience of death always involves a simulacrum. Virtual reality exacerbates our anxiety that reality itself is virtual, and therefore our fear that we cannot tell if we are genuinely alive or in a dream, simulation, computer program, or other form of half-life.

24According to Žižek, Freud emphasized that “the libidinal unconscious is “undead,” it does not know (cannot represent) its own death,” an ontological as well as aesthetic impasse that Melville’s would-be writer Pierre and most ND cannot resolve (L 301). Here, the principal fear is not of death, but of “the infinity (undeadness, excess of life) in the very core of our being”—for Žižek, the immortality of the death drive, whose endless repetitive cycle reflects not a desire to die, but to relive death (D 344). (Melville frequently dramatizes that impersonal excess in our very core, that lack of ending, in the form of body parts that continue to move after death or dismemberment, emblematized by Ishmael’s invocation of “a sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality [that] seemed to lurk in [sharks’] very joints and bones, after what might be called the individual life has departed” (302)). Both the second death and Žižek’s prose style in describing it are related to this repetition: as Žižek often iterates (in part after Nietzsche and Deleuze), “the [contingent] event that repeats itself retroactively receives, through its repetition, its law,” and achieves its “notional necessity” (I 43; A 21, 333). (In this sense, however, in most static Hollywood-ending versions of ND, we encounter no rupture that alters perceptions, only a reaffirmation of sentimental spirituality). The genre of the ND is also itself highly repetitive in its narrative conventions; we are always already dead, but learn it only after the fact, through repetition that paradoxically creates the initial condition. Žižek typically inverts the meaning of the non-dead figure, emphasizing both the horror of discovering that something we thought inanimate or dead is alive, and that something we thought alive is undead or a kind of automaton (Plague 88).

25Posthumanist theory offers insights into, but also poses limitations in the context of, the ND’s retroactive positing of identity. Though I situate them within mechanistic repetitive frameworks, I do not argue that most ND could be considered as “things” per se, in part because most audiences would not identify with depersonalized personae. (In popular narratives, the non-dead generally serve as central protagonists, rather than undifferentiated nemeses, only when they retain and in some cases heighten key components of the “human” condition). And though they emblematize aspects of the posthuman condition, many ND are also peculiar in not being peculiar to (anything). For example, Ian Buchanan proposes that “all living entities (and few things are not alive in Deleuze’s universe) have always been at once machinic and vital. […] If there are Deleuzian cyborgs, they are not peculiar to either our age or our species, as some have asserted” (61). The same might be said of the lineage of the ND, which highlights some constraints of contemporary critiques of identity. Zombies, vampires, cyborgs, and so on are both gothic and posthuman figures that might transcend the limitations of human beings—but, except for certain specific types of cyborgs, they also express historically and culturally wide-ranging anxieties regarding whether we are now, or ever were, identifiable to ourselves as human (i.e., whether we are controlled by external drives or evil forces beyond our control; are technical simulacra of “real” persons; or are hybridized or alienated figures split from within). Of course, earlier literatures conjuring such figures typically invoked some form of religion or magic rather than technology to explicate the pretext of surviving death or some form of autonomous excess of life—a parasite, drive, St. Vitus, or extrinsic daemon that invades and takes control of its host. The inversion of life and death is matched by or a surrogate for the inversion of speaker and spoken, actor and acted, life-force and living: “the ventriloquist is in fact the dummy, while the dummy is the actual ventriloquist. It is the detachable ‘dead’ organ, the partial object, which is effectively alive, and whose dead puppet is the ‘real’ person; the ‘real’ person is merely alive, a survival machine, a ‘human animal,’ while the actual speaking subject dwells in the apparently ‘dead’ supplement’” (E 81). The real shark is in the dismembered details. (As I later and elsewhere argue, however, the ND also now necessarily function as ghosts of the anthropocene. Life is not only alienated from us as ND subjects—we are hosts to but not identical to life—we are alienated from nature, even as a construct, in ways that also alienate us from time, meaning that our deaths are behind us).

  • 11 A critical supplement would be to examine the flip side of such films, i.e. instances in which know (...)

26Being (non)-dead then represents an extreme form of time-travel past time. According to Žižek, Justine’s loss in “Melancholia is not melancholic: her loss is the absolute loss, the end of the world, and what Justine mourns in advance is this absolute loss—she is literally living in the end time” (E 24).11 For Agamben, melancholia is also a form of anticipatory mourning (20). Many ND emblematize this mourning in advance, and now especially an anthropocene and eschatological sense that the Event has already happened, and we are already dead. In some sense, the form of ND who survive their own death fulfill the fantasy, now institutionalized by Hollywood films, of cultural self-genocide: “In imagining the world without us, we, humans, are reduced to a pure disembodied gaze observing our own absence, and, as Lacan pointed out, this is the fundamental subjective position of fantasy, to observe the world as the condition of the subject’s non-existence,” a fantasy Emerson invokes at the outset of his work and that appears several times in Pierre (E 23). Žižek also considers the anticipation of death, or realization we are already dead, as a way to mourn the loss of something we never had, the lives we never fully possessed—the Hegelian “loss of loss” (I 252).

27Non-dead life represents both an unbearable excess and an abject impoverishment. As Žižek suggests, the non-dead also reproduce only through forms of asexual reproduction (D 437) (and, I would add, through parthenogenesis and other forms of pre and posthuman “unnatural” self-reproduction that are staples of both transcendentalism and science fiction). The second death signifies the annihilation of the symbolic universe, of reality, and of a signifying network (S 132-4; I 33). In Žižek’s work, “the desubjectivized living dead,” the unheimlich, and the undead object-libido (the “dispersed “organs without a body,””) attest to the horrible birth of subjectivity (Ti 51-2): the ““undead” drive in me, the “too much-ness” of life” (L 77, paraphrasing Eric Santner). Knowledge remains outside or beyond us, in the body part that continues to move or the eye that continues to see after detachment. Because we are never wholly ourselves, we are always already dead and only playing hosts to impersonal life.

28In their most recent and prominent visitations, the ND emerge primarily as postmodern and then posthuman figures. Rachel Adams considers postmodernism a

form of avant-garde literary experimentalism during the Cold War, a period [through the late 1980s] marked by the ascendance of transnational corporations, the upheavals of decolonization, fears of nuclear holocaust, and the partitioning of the globe into ideological spheres. […] Jameson describes postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” a periodizing concept, but one with no apparent end in sight. […] an unwieldy category that encompasses such strikingly different historical contexts and expressive forms that it threatens to become incoherent. (250)

29Similar concerns apply to the ND, who typically manifest themselves in popular culture subgenres—to pick four unusual examples that feature female ND: science fiction (Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica); new age spirituals (the therapist in Passengers); the ghost story (The Others); and the mean teen retribution movie (the highly-derivative Before I Die, which transposes Groundhog Day to “Cupid Day” and merges that film’s premise and mechanisms with the new-age sensibility of Passengers). In some of these works, the ND link tropes of postmodernism with those of posthumanism; in effect the ultimate hybrids, they traverse periods, genres, categories and statuses, and the only future they augur is not quite human. Much of the conceptual framework for designating the ND comes from Freud, who proposed that man was becoming “a kind of prosthetic God” (38-9). For Žižek, when such prostheses supplant rather than supplement the person, we encounter “the death of the symbolic”; he traces a direct line “from simple techno-gadget to the undead lamella.” These prosthetic “gadgets” and discourses of deterministic science represent absolute knowledge, an unendurable “noumenal domain” that circumvents representation (A 278, 280, 302).

30Especially in contemporary culture, some ND become posthuman in transgressing social norms, biological constraints, and perhaps the boundaries between the human and the non-human. Categorizations of the ND, which require us to differentiate the dead from the un/non-dead, often implicate questions of posthuman ontology. To Karen Barad,

differentiating the “human” from the “nonhuman,” the “animate” from the “inanimate,” and the “cultural” from the “natural” produce[s] crucial materializing effects that are unaccounted for by starting an analysis after these boundaries are in place. [We need] an account not only of the materialization of “human” bodies but of all matter(ings)/materializations, including the materializing effects of boundary-making practices by which the “human” and the “nonhuman” are differentially constituted. This must include not merely natural forces and social forces but the differential constitution of forces as “natural” or “social.” (124)

Unable to die, yet possibly “already” dead or dematerialized, the ND are, to adapt Hawthorne’s phrase in describing an only putative extinct race, not altogether human, but each historical manifestation also epitomizes specific contemporary anxieties.

31Karl Knausgaard, for example, introduces his autobiographical novels by situating death as the last vestige of atemporal nature outside culture. His narrator begins his text by asserting

there are two kinds of death, or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be [….] our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal. […] transporting bodies upward in buildings seems contrary to the laws of nature . […] [a]s though we possessed some kind of chthonic instinct, something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence we came (5-6, eio).

This evocation of two deaths seems deliberately decontextualized and ahistorical. What’s noteworthy about this elemental description is that Knausgaard ends this text by at least implicitly situating the posthuman as irremediably alien to us:

Death was everywhere. […] there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on [….] For humans are merely one form among many. Which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, in sand, stone, and water. (439, 441).

These two deaths framing his text might seem incommensurate, but they can be mutually defining: death as nature and death as post-human respectively bookend the interim status of humanity in advance and retroactively. Reflecting a tension in much of contemporary literature, the ND, again as hybrids, often serve as a locus for the simultaneous exposition of abstract or pure formalities and specific cultural crises.

32Beyond posthumanism, a classification that can evoke a broad and nebulous set of coordinates for altered or “non-normative” states of being in almost any context, the discourses of postcoloniality and diaspora provide a more “targeted” and determinate formulation of the dead living. These ND often cannot belong to the “above ground” polis, but form a separate, negative polis of their own in an actual or figurative wilderness. As Fanon might suggest, diasporic cultures often represent the colonial repressed in displaced fashion, and thereby locate, implicate and incarnate a violent materialization. (As I argue in “the Posthumous and the Posthuman,” diasporic representations of the ND sometimes reappropriate or amend the generic configuration of the zombie developed from Haitian and African-Caribbean sources). But in most postcolonial and African American representations of the ND, characters have some suspicion or awareness of their status as dead, reflecting a necessary wariness concerning an oppressor culture. Being undead in this context does not connote an a priori ontological condition, or even a contingent manifestation of a formal structure, but a political category.

  • 12 Further, as Houston Baker observes, by the 1960s, “Britain postwar “settlements” [representing the (...)

33Important twentieth-century African American and diasporic texts develop variations of the ND in racial contexts. These texts tend to begin where mainstream ND texts end—with the foregrounding of a group’s internal knowledge of their status (in this sense, these texts, though related to the ND genre, should perhaps be given a separate designation of Diasporic Dead (“DD”) to signal a cognizance that extends beneath, beyond or in opposition to that of “mainstream” culture). Many of these works document an inversion of the normal sequences of beginning and endings, stages of life, and “natural” relationships. Baraka’s Dutchman and The Slave, and Morrison’s Song of Solomon—in which the Dead family serve as a metonym for many of the book’s inversions—invoke numerous reversals connected with the legacy of slavery. As Morrison proposes via the Dead, the history of colonialism, racism and slavery in the U.S. inverts the order of parents and children, and birth and death. Or as Milkman proclaims, “I’m a Dead! My Mother’s a Dead! My sisters” (38)). This nominative-qua-ontological inversion of categories is connected to what Orlando Patterson documented, via Claude Meillassoux, as the social death that attends slavery—in slaves who are desocialized and depersonalized—as well as a more uncanny paradox: the slave “will remain forever an unborn being (non-né)” (38). Like the ND, this unborn being is not dead, and not quite alive, but in a liminal category, here less between two deaths than nascence and non-nescience. Patterson’s temporal descriptor here is crucial; the slave is not only never born, but will forever remain unborn.12

34In the U.S., social death is a momento mori of hundreds of years of slavery. In Stowe’s antebellum novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the orphaned slave-girl Topsy—whose very name suggests an order turned upside down or topsy-turvy—declaims she was raised by a speculator, a thing of racialized nature rather than a person. In numerous writings, Emerson’s Pan/natural instinct is connoted as black/“aboriginal” (a process beginning long before Stowe provides Emerson with the following startling pretext). For Emerson, Pan, who represents an entire system of natural law at the center of his pantheism, is “aboriginal, old as Nature, and saying, like poor Topsy, ‘Never was born; growed’” (XII 35-6). Here I hope the connection to Pierre becomes more apparent; transcendental fantasies of never being born, of being so self-reliant one has either always existed sui-generously or parented oneself in racialized nature—which also apply to the half “Nubian” orphan Isabel, who tells Pierre ““I never knew a mortal mother. […] I seem not of woman born,” and Pierre himself, who, despite his distinct lineage, declares he has no paternity and no past (114)—are laid bare by the fantasies of slavery and African American responses to those fantasies. Instead of being only already dead or unable to die, the slave, the dispossessed, and homo sacer in various ways were never born, or await being born.

35These depictions of lives lived out of natural sequence also recall how Melville sardonically addresses whaling (but also slavery) in Moby-Dick—“as that Egyptian mother [Nut] who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb” (109). The slave child is symbolically born already pregnant, in a chattel system that reifies rape and occludes the role of the master, which, at least from Melville’s white perspective, also means the slave is already dead. Like Topsy, this racialized Egyptian mother parthenogenetically reproduces in a closed male version of Nature. The economy of whaling—which for Melville encapsulated the U.S. economy generally, and its postcolonial practices—is predicated on the self-fertilizing, racialized female body of Nature, which like Topsy and Pan, jes grows. In the society Ishmael—an anonymous white man who takes on (asks you to call him) a racialized name—conjures, the Egyptian mother of whaling performs much of the same cultural function as the black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: they help construct a fantasy in which black bodies materialize from nothing, and are born already pregnant. But from an African American perspective, instead of unsettled endings, slaves had unsettled beginnings; an inversion of surviving one’s own death is parthenogenesis.

  • 13 Žižek invokes an image that extends the unsettled beginnings of Isis and Pilate: “Inside his own mo (...)

36In documenting the legacy of slavery, many African American writers narrate reversals in the natural order of life from a different perspective—especially between endings and beginnings, death and life, parents and children, and social categories related to inclusion and exclusion. Like Topsy, Morrison’s Beloved is in a sense born pregnant, an infant (re)appearing at the age of eighteen and soon herself with child/Wild. Like Pilate in Morrison’s Song of Solomon—who is born orphaned and without a navel to a mother already (multiply) Dead, in a kind of ironic inversion of the Egyptian mother—Beloved reminds us of the way bodies were once “produced” in the U.S.13 These culturally-specific DD materialize and historicize some generic aspects of their “general-ontological,” Lacanian and popular culture versions, or one might say African American writers use the trope to materialize and historicize other issues. Such a conceit “unreifies” the horrors of slavery, in which a child could be incestuously violated as soon as it could bear children; as we are reminded in Beloved, a slave represents “property [that] had reproduced itself without cost” (228). This is the necessary, horrific underside of the white male transcendental fantasy of self-reliance as self-creation. Under slavery, almost everything is subject to a hysteron-proteron that connects to the reversal of life and death: “grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults” (Beloved 180). Throughout Morrison’s works, last names come first; women are named after men; and love turns into to killing; babies into mothers; doctor into not doctor, and the living into the dead. Within the black community, however, these reversals, bottoms turned to tops, are not always negative, and can represent an upending of white values and terminology—as Ishmael Reed proposes, they “stand it on its head. Upside-down the plantation” (119). One might also propose that the experience of middle passage unsettles the sequences of many social processes, rituals and life-cycles for subsequent generations, and that some African American, Black Atlantic and post-slavery postcolonial texts also might be trying to upside-down a variety of endings.

37The other, and one might say final, critical context for the ND pertains to cultural nescience or a repression of eschatology, particularly in the guise of the anthropocene, the knowledge of death we all perhaps now are repressing. In The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s protagonist sardonically laments never encountering “a book called The Right Things to Do and Say as Civilization Dies” (603). Yet Mitchell’s is only one among scores of recent books in a subgenre devoted to the subject, part of whose appeal and aesthetic is to approach mourning in advance as our only option. Climate change turns our entire species into a barred subject, unable cognitively to process the imminence and immanence of the environmental crisis, though that crisis in nature is increasingly difficult to differentiate from that of culture, and our political inability to alter loops of behavior. (In these contexts, the ND function like canaries in a coal mine, a dead metaphor made all too apt again by the current American president’s politically expedient and/or delusional obsession with resuscitating a dying and possibly genocidal industry). A regression to primitive economies is frequently the centerpiece of climate-change narratives, which often contain standard millenarian science fiction motifs found in such novels as Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Richard Powers’ protagonist in Operation Wandering Soul predicts that if we wait “ten years, they’ll be hooking generators up to bicycles to listen to emergency radio,” but soon it becomes unclear when that decade began (330). Appropriately, Miller’s novel and Powers’ image presage not just catastrophic endings, but endings that are on or tethered to a fixed cycle set to repeat, one we are peddling and pedaling ourselves.

38George Steiner’s writing can serve as an unlikely complement to and foil for that of Žižek on this topic. (Steiner is identifying some of the same symptoms and conditions as Žižek, but in consternation and lament). For Steiner, modernity represents a true break in the contract between word and world, and ultimately between I and self—we now come after the logos, and who we are “come[s] after the word” (93). We then exist in the “after-Word,” what Steiner refers to as the epi-logue, the post-Logos, which turns out to dovetail with the end of the anthropocene (94). Even in “the terminal lunge toward totality” of the encyclopedic modernists, Steiner discerns “a peculiar sadness” that “comes from an intimation of the nearing crisis, from a clairvoyance into twilight” (94). The “disjunction of language from external reference” Steiner traces to Rimbaud attends the disjunction of I from self: “compared to this fragmentation, even the political revolutions and great wars in modern European history are […] on the surface” (95). Žižek also advises “there is now a gap which is, strictly considered, infinite” (96); that infinite gap comports with a Lacanian gap between the self and itself, both generating and emblematizing, depending on the text, one’s figurative status as dead. The dismantling of a present self, which Steiner finds demarcates fields from psychology to linguistics to physics, leads to an ontology of “real absence” (97). The implications of this process apply to many discourses and decades.

39In Tom McCarthy’s highly Lacanian novel Remainder, an anonymous amnesiac post-traumatic figure “endlessly repeats” and preenacts events to fill in the space around his central absence (of remembered injury/self); he organizes his life to relive a few scenes in static repetition as if living a variation of Groundhog Day. For McCarthy’s protagonist, “the actions we decided to perform had all happened already. […] In another sense, though, it had never happened,” leaving us with “the echo of an echo of an echo” until there is “no more music, no more loops” (281, 129, 284). (He too faces a going out of existence that is also a coming into existence). Such near-static repetition suggests the convergence of opposites, particularly death and infinity. Offering a proviso McCarthy dramatizes in his version of the indivisible Remainder, Žižek asserts a character can want ““to be less than zero” [….] a remainder that survives its own radical self-annihilation,” a second negation that presupposes a subjectivization/event that never happened, but has to be retroactively presupposed “as a timeless, always already past process” (A 342). In this parodically Žižekian mise en abyme, “the dead are not-living, but the undead are not-not-living” (344). Life here is like jouissance, both “inaccessible and something we can never get rid of” (343). Like many Hollywood films, Žižek oscillates between the comedy and horror of finding out that you cannot die; will relive the same day forever; and are already dead. The Being who does not realize he is already dead is a version of the being who is obscenely immortal, and represents the excess/remainder that inhabits the self beyond the self or its life (objet a)—what Žižek calls the negation of negation or death of death.

40As noted (in yet another iteration), Žižek contends that “the properly Hegelian view is fundamentally static; things become what they always already are, what constantly changes are static totalities” (A 187). After suffering his traumatic, never explained injury—half McGuffin, half stain—McCarthy’s protagonist narrativizes this precept: “recovering from the accident […] understanding before I could act—all this made me become more what I’d always been anyway” (25). His loss of memory is both cause and effect of eternal repetition, a retroactive fulfillment of an ulterior loss. In a world in which, as Zupančič avers, the original subject arises only through repetition, McCarthy’s character pursues “reconstructions, everywhere,” and especially where his subjectivity “should” have been (305). In another going in that is a going out, he ends “turning back, then turning out. Then turning back again” (307). The ND make us become more of what we always have been, unsettled in time. Žižek asserts that Freud’s aforementioned dream about the father who does not know he is dead could be supplemented with “(I, the dreamer, enjoy the fact that) father does not know he is dead” (“In” 250). But what happens at the end of the anthropocene when our entire culture seems to be enjoying the fact that it does not know it is dead?

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1 See, e.g., Stacey Abbott’s Undead Apocalypse; Christie and Lauro’s collection Better off Dead: the Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human; and Moreman and Rushton’s collection, Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition.

2 Many ND virtually embody and dramatize psychoanalytic theories of trauma. Jim Byatt, for example, argues that J. G. Ballard’s Crash and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder narrate the threshold between life and death, and that their protagonists no longer inhabit the actual world of the living, but a subjective reconstruction that postpones the moment of death:

As long as there is a universe in which the (un)dead can exist, the potential to return to that universe persists. When there is no longer a tension between life and death, when there is no tangible space to which to return, only then is the cycle broken and the situation resolved.
Until such a moment of resolution occurs, the narrator is doomed to repeat his fantasy of reconstruction indefinitely, each implicit arrival at the moment of death marking a return to the beginning of a process through which the logic of the event is sought through endless simulation. (257)

In this sense, the ND are quintessential figures of impasse and liminality; however, their recent manifestations more darkly erode the barrier between the reconstruction/simulation and the “original” universe itself.

3 I argue in “The Posthumous and the Posthuman,” for example, that nescience of endings often reflects a (lack of) male issue; most of the men in these texts—such as Willis’ psychiatrist, Murray’s reporter, and Cruise’s cryogenic alter-ego—are pointedly childless, reflecting a crisis of cultural patrimony, as well as perhaps an arrested state of male development.

4 When I invoke transcendentalism, I refer to antebellum U.S. discourse; for a discussion of how the reflexive mechanics of transcendentalism are manifested in images of dismembered and reanimated limbs and unnatural reproduction, see chapter four of my “Not Altogether Human.” I invoke such earlier, largely isolated examples of ND tropes as emblematic primarily of the exposition of some of the genre’s ontological principles. But I argue that ND figures began to proliferate as indices of broader social and technological trends starting in the 1960s, and have accumulated into a kind of red tide or bloom in the last few decades, increasingly cathected to specific issues of cultural and environmental exhaustion.

5 For example, Dick’s frequent references to such putatively transcendental products as “UBIK LIVER AND KIDNEY BALM” and “the elixir of Ubique” (123, 128), which Chip intermittently believes will help resurrect him from the stasis of half-life, at least partly owe their lineage to such items as “the elixir of logwood” and various other potion cures in Melville’s The Confidence-Man, which also anticipates and dramatizes how an increasingly corporate control of the economy and culture will both give rise to and be represented by a kind of surreal, deific or satanic repetition of encounters and experiences almost ritually reenacted (187). Adumbrating Ubik, Melville’s novel closes by telling us, “Something further may follow of this Masquerade,” which effectively advises the reader its narrative cannot end (251). Finally, Dick’s deity Ubik represents a “made up word” derived from ubiquity (117), a quality that putatively defines that figure in the novel, and which Melville’s Ishmael used to define the supernal Moby Dick, invoking “the unearthly conceit that [he] was ubiquitous; that he had been en­coun­tered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant [….] [and was] not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)” (182-83).

6 I provide a more comprehensive overview of recent texts in this genre in “The Posthumous and the Posthuman.” The Truman Show, The Thirteenth Floor, and the current TV series Westworld directly reprise the denouement of the original Star Trek episode, “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”: if you travel to the end of an artificial world—which is a kind of posthuman globe, constructed to look like an organic world—you realize that your life is in some sense artificial, but also that you were never alive in the sense you believed.

7 To repurpose a passage from David Leahy, through the ND “the barrier separating the living from the dead is seen in fact to have been merely death (nothing in essence), a pure formality behind which in essence never simply existed the so-called traversed existential actuality of the dead” (365).

8 Žižek’s dedication in Absolute Recoil acknowledges “a compulsion to repeat,” a Freudian imperative he elsewhere associates with the “Hitchcockian sinthom” (“Hitchcockian” 126).

9 As Catherine Kellogg observes, rather than a wholly distinct theory of neuronal reconfiguration, we might perceive “Malabou’s invocation of the “new wounded” as striking configurations not of the death drive, but of the death of the drive [as] extraordinarily close to Lacan’s own account of living between “two deaths” (123, eio).

10 One might argue that all depictions of the ND, including those of film, involve forms of ekphrasis, because the ND cannot be represented as ND visually; in a way, they materialize an absence, but they cannot be rendered or identified except through indirection. In a way, they perform what Kathy Acker’s post-human narrator Abhor in Empire of the Senseless describes as our always receding and unrepresentable telos: “The only event which any human being can know is the one event he or she can’t perceive, that he or she must die” (55).

11 A critical supplement would be to examine the flip side of such films, i.e. instances in which knowledge of death is foregrounded—to compare eschatological films such as Melancholia or Knowing with comedy-dramas such as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. These are not just doomsday films, but narratives about certain forms of knowledge of the end.

12 Further, as Houston Baker observes, by the 1960s, “Britain postwar “settlements” [representing the Keynesian economic order, but also the old empire] were unsettled,” which led to “moral panic” regarding racial others (4): one could say that the DD further unsettle such unsettlement, and the diasporic histories of peoples often still alleged to have no history. In a different way from those in half-life, some DD exist outside Western time, but reintroduce history.

13 Žižek invokes an image that extends the unsettled beginnings of Isis and Pilate: “Inside his own mother’s body, i.e. before his own birth, the male [worm] copulates with and fecundates his ‘sisters,’ then passes away and is born dead [… passing] directly from the state of foetus to that of corpse” (“In” 268, n42). More generically, for Žižek that fetus “born as a corpse” is a correlative to the barred subject.

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Richard Hardack, « Amnesia of Death: The Unsettled Endings of the Dead Who Don’t Know They’re Dead »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 24 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2018, consulté le 28 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard Hardack

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Richard Hardack received his doctorate in English and J.D. from UC Berkeley. A visiting assistant professor for four years at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, he has published widely in American Studies and Literatures, including articles in ELH, Callaloo, Biography and Textual Practice. His first book, “Not Altogether Human”: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance, was published in 2012 by the University of Massachusetts Press, and he is completing two more books, Coming Between Africa and America: Transcendentalism and the Transcendence of Race, from Emerson to Morrison, and New and Improved: The Zero-Sum Game of Corporate Personhood. He is also project editor for the history of NASA’s Juno Mission to Jupiter.
Richard Hardack est docteur de l’Université de Berkeley, en littérature et en droit. Maître de conférences invité à Bryn Mawr et Haverford College depuis quatre ans, il a publié de nombreux articles sur le domaine culturel et littéraire américain. Son premier livre “Not Altogether Human”: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance, a été publié en 2012 par University of Massachusetts Press. Il achève actuellement deux autres ouvrages; Coming Between Africa and America: Transcendentalism and the Transcendence of Race, from Emerson to Morrison, et New and Improved: The Zero-Sum Game of Corporate Personhood. Il est également rédacteur dans le cadre de l’histoire de la mission spatiale Juno conduite par la NASA.

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