Mindless Academics

| October 19, 2011

Žižek quoting Malabou in his essay, Descartes and the Post-Traumatic Subject:

These figures [of death in life] are “not so much figures of those who want to die as figures of those who are already dead, or, rather, to put it in a strange and terrible grammatical twist, who have already been dead, who ‘experienced’ death.”

But what does this mean? Re-framing it through the somewhat mindlessly theorized realm of zombies: it is not that the undead trouble us because they are mindless, but because they frighteningly remind us that we can experience mindlessness, that we are, survivors and zombies alike, somehow mindful of it.

And yet, put the other way around, Zizek writes, “The properly philosophical dimension of the study of post-traumatic subject resides in this recognition that what appears as the brutal destruction of the subject’s very (narrative) substantial identity is the moment of its birth.” The post-traumatic subject is not the same (now traumatized) person they were before. They are born out of the assemblages of the fractured self.

Seen in this light, perhaps the continuous fear and activity of the zombie movie—the constant effort to not become a zombie—is not what it seems. Displacing mindlessness onto those around them, (and ironically authorizing the most mindless violence), the survivor does not fight for life or for humanity, but to silence the traumatic birth of others and defend against change. This is the essential conservatism of the genre. More difficult to think is the way in which the survivor performs mindfulness, humanity, compassion, regret, choice, and so on. (Flat acting, as one of the hallmarks of the genre, affords us the pleasure of witnessing this staging of humanity.) This desperate enactment of living, seen in the ways in which normality and tradition are frequently mimicked and preserved, become a way to avoid recognizing, as Malibou put it, that they “have already been dead.” We would prefer not to experience it.

Paradoxically, it is the zombie that embraces life, continuing to live, while the survivor resorts to the mindless denial of death, the empty rituals of living.

And what if, in education, we are forced to survive? Forced to fight for life by bashing zombies? What if the very thing that the discourse of second births—of our proper educational birth into a world, which is to say, non-biological and bloodless—what if what this expressly prohibits is dying?

As Žižek points out, the decidedly modern trauma blindsides us: even experiencing it, it appears to be meaningless, to come from nowhere. But then is not the most properly modern trauma the inability to be traumatized at all, the banality of living, the insistence on keeping on the run? If zombies never stop, neither can the survivor. The difference hinges, as in the movie Zombieland, on a simple differential in cardio. No Child Left Behind meets Race to the Top.

Could it be that in education we are afraid to confront the shared experience of already being dead, avoiding it through our insistence on the performance of barely living?