- Pure Formalities: Living With the Nescient Dead, or the Dead Who Don’t Know They Are Dead
The world came to an end in 1914. Like the mindless dead, who don’t know they’re dead, we are as little aware as they of having been in Hell ever since that terrible August.Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Spoiler alert: We are already dead. In this essay, I assess and explicate a contemporary genre of writing about the dead who do not know they are dead. In these works, such characters do not necessarily speak from the grave (a hoary conceit Alan Ball refurbished in American Beauty and Six Feet Under), but fail to realize they have died. While critics have scrutinized the cultural significance of zombies and the undead, the related but distinct condition of being dead without knowing it has remained largely un explored. For Slavoj Žižek, the “fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture” is “the return of the living dead” (Looking 22). But the most important variation of that fantasy pertains not to the condition of being undead, but to our ignorance of it.
These “mindless” figures―whom we might call the nescient dead (ND)―are not inhuman zombies reduced to cannibalism or [End Page 161] animal drive; they simply don’t realize that they are dead or exist in a repetitive flux between two deaths. Beings that “depend on not-knowing,” they have repressed or are kept from that knowledge; paradoxically, as inverted revenants, they continue to exist in liminal form until they confront it (Žižek, Recoil 5). The ND raise questions about periodization and historicity that can be contextualized around issues of genre, knowledge, technology, diaspora, and race. Lyotard contended that the basic “status of knowledge is altered” as cultures enter the postmodern age (3). In the post-human era, many ND suggest that ontology no longer recapitulates epistemology, but retroactively posits it. The ND’s blind spot is critical―the ND cannot initially know their condition, relegating knowledge to the periphery of critical enterprise and subjectivity.
The genre of the ND falls between, but helps define, the ontological cracks of contemporary fictions that focus on marginal and post-human states of life. Under the conceit of the two deaths, the ND are always avant la lettre and often undermine notions of periodization; they presuppose events that haven’t happened yet and that can be understood only retroactively. The ND also confirm that periods can bleed into each other and re-emerge as ghosts, traces, and remainders. In part because they almost ritually repeat the same formal elements, many ND texts do not warrant sustained close readings, especially in terms of the issues I want to bring to light; their interest emerges in their cumulative choices and effects, and in this sense in terms of the repetitions of the genre. Therefore, rather than develop close readings of a few texts, I focus initially on categorizing and analyzing this subgenre. After first surveying the field, I discuss periodization and the ontological effects of oscillating between two deaths. Nescience of endings often also reflects a (lack of) male issue; virtually all men in these texts are notably childless, reflecting a crisis regarding cultural patrimony. In The Sixth Sense, one of the few children who appear in the genre has to inform the surrogate father/analyst that he is dead. The way we read ND texts, however, is increasingly inflected by our belated grappling with an anthropocene that is already behind us. Unexpectedly, The Sixth Sense, or what it represents, anticipates The Sixth Extinction, and ignorance of our undead condition emerges as both cause and effect of an eschatology of repetitions. [End Page 162]
I invoke Žižek throughout this essay, and treat his works as primary texts of the genre as well as of Lacanian theory, because he systematically engages with the premise that we are already, unknowingly dead. Žižek fully theorizes this un/dead figure but, despite his polymorphous range of reference, considers virtually none of the narratives I address. Nor does he interrogate the issue of genre, which in part is why I explore its parameters. In Ži...