Apocalypses Now

By Michael Boughn | May 5, 2017

The Apocalypse, a long standing event of ongoing fascination for humans, is going through some significant changes. A ubiquitous entertainment presence over the last few years, the Apocalypse has come a long way from the God-fueled hallucinatory prose of John of Patmos with its Dragons, Lakes of Fire, Great Harlot and Scarlet Beast. For one thing, at some point in the last 200 years, the End lost its God and had to rely on microbes and/or extra-terrestrials for its eschatological punch. That’s a game changer. God occasionally still makes an appearance as an offstage character intervening in battles between winged super heroes with angels’ names, Paradise Lost retold by Stan Lee, but mostly The End has done away with him. Blame it on secular humanism or corrupting consumerism if you will, but the fact is, God just can’t sell corn flakes the way that zombies do.


Zombies have been the #1 agent of Apocalypse for a while now, having displaced vampires who had become far too infected with angsty adolescent sexual fantasy to threaten civilization with much more than an aching groin. Young adult fiction undid Bram Stoker’s subversive anti-Christian eroticism turning it into a prolonged teen romance. Zombies were the cure for that. You couldn’t get much further from well-dressed sexy young bloodsuckers negotiating the subtle complexities of high school social politics than the Undead.

All zombies… all the time.

There are plenty of reasons for that. First of all, zombies don’t screw. They are really dead even though they are undead. And even if they did screw, which dead people don’t do, no one, not even other zombies, would want to screw them because they are ugly, rotting, suppurating monsters. Secondly, they would rather eat your brains than suck your blood, so the whole sublimated sucking thing is out. Thirdly, they don’t dress well, mostly being garbed in the tattered remnant of whatever they died wearing which no doubt smells even worse than it looks.

Most importantly, however, the Undead don’t want to penetrate civilization and suck on its life force. They don’t even care about ending it. They just want to eat human flesh and they are way more efficient at it than horny vampires. Vampires are stuck in a one on one subversion of civilization, and even then only at night; otherwise they go up in smoke. Zombies are far more durable, a 24/7 mass operation that can quickly munch through an entire city and in the process undo the ties that bind us, revealing how fragile civilization really is. In The Walking Dead, which has the highest total viewership of any show in cable TV history, it took about 2 months from the time Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln, the lead character, went into a coma for the world to have disintegrated on his waking, leaving small bands of heavily armed humans to try and survive the Apocalypse.

Will you survive?

The End of the World As We Know It is a perennial favourite among consumers, not to mention the fanatic Christian rump that dominates religious discourse in the USA. A number of theories circulate as to the ongoing attractiveness of apocalyptic fantasies, but for my money, Emerson nailed it when he pointed out that US Americans have never learned how to live in the ordinary world they created when they fled Europe’s pomp and hierarchies for the “New World.” Science, technology, and the market, which thrived in US America, replaced God as bearers of meaning. Then in a huge payback, God abandoned us as we abandoned him (and I use that pronoun knowingly), and in the wake of that abandonment the earth, rather than a site of mystery, became a huge, open pit mine, the faeries and angels fleeing the bulldozers along with the rest of the wildlife, turning the whole place into an equal opportunity dump, a veritable people’s palace of general equivalence. Democracy was supposed to have done away with hierarchies, including divine ones, and made us all equally happy in an ordinary world, a world of common people living in common.

Guns, and more guns.

Fat chance. There’s a telling scene in the third season of Falling Skies, whose Alien Apocalypse (which resembles the Zombie Apocalypse in the identifiable otherness of the enemy) ran for 5 seasons. As the tattered remnant of resistance fighters march through the rubble of civilization into the night, Hal Mason, the son of history teacher and resistance leader Tom Mason, turns to Maggie/Sarah Carter, a lumpen gang member turned freedom fighter, and says “You sound like you want the war to go on.” Maggie, carrying a large gun, replies, “You think you want it to end, but trust me, hon, you’ll never cut it in a split level house. Spending your weekend trimming hedges and weeding flower beds? You’d go stark, raving mad.” To underline the point, they are joined by Pope, the leader of the thugs with an even bigger gun, who adds, “Compared to the quiet desperation of the suburbs, I’d say an alien Apocalypse is paradise on earth.” The problem boils down to meaning (and guns), its presence or absence, its range of extension, its quiddity. There’s a hell of a lot more meaning to be had blowing away alien invaders and zombies than mowing the lawn yet again on Saturday afternoon.

God was good for doling out meaning, and has been entangled in the Apocalypse at least since the beginning of Christianity which changed the game by writing it as The End [period] rather than the end before another beginning. No copout cycles for Christians. The end is really the final curtain. Somewhat ironically, it’s the Resurrection that necessitates the End. Salvation and the conquest of death – as if death was something that needed to be conquered – can only happen once. No curtain calls, no second act. Apocalypse is the sign of climactic meaning, meaning fulfilled in the final rupture with boring old everyday shit. Jesus has to come back, the story goes, to finish the job. And over and over again, people turn out for the big event. In 999 CE, they tore down their churches in a panic. In 1999, some guy in Toronto took his mum’s last $3,000 and flew to Israel so he could watch the truly Ultimate Fight between angels and demons at Armageddon. Most people just paid some techie big bucks to fix the internal clock in their computer, laid in some supplies, and waited breathlessly for the grid to go down at midnight. And that’s all before 2012. If Judeo-Christian time refuses to come to an end, you can always appeal to a different calendar.

People love the Apocalypse because they’re bored to death with the commute, the grocery shopping, the laundry, another lunch with an asshole client, another day on the assembly line with an asshole boss, and there’s no God to assure us that in the end it will mean something. Is this what it’s all about flashes across the sky over the river of stalled red lights stretching motionless into the night on the way home from work. And tomorrow is just another Saturday trimming the hedges. So secretly we hope for the viral outbreak that will end traffic jams and make hedge trimming irrelevant. And since it never comes, we watch an endless succession of Apocalyptic TV shows and movies: The Walking Dead, Falling Skies, Battlestar Galactica, Defiance,  The Leftovers, Jericho, The Last Ship, Survivors, 12 Monkeys, The 100, Fear of the Walking Dead, Revolution, Between, Jeremiah, Dominion, Z Nation, You, Me, and the Apocalypse, The Book of Eli, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, The Road, I Am Legend, Mad Max, Waterworld, Zombieland, Doomsday, The Day after Tomorrow, Terminator, The Matrix, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, The Postman, World War Z, Night of the Comet, War of the Worlds, Resident Evil, On the Beach, Stake Land, The Rover, Planet of the Apes, Battle: Los Angeles. To name just a few. It used to be that sex (and romance) was the biggest commodity Hollywood had to offer. Love for sale was its credo, its modus operandi, its Constitution. No more. The Apocalypse has driven love from the arena, or at least sidelined it in terms of revenues

Dawn of the Dead.

Of all the available Apocalypses, the Zombie Apocalypse has been the favourite partly because it offers an easy platform for thinly disguised social criticism and is perfectly amenable to parody, and so has a potential cool factor. In the evolution from Voodoo zombies to the Zombie Apocalypse, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a landmark with its shopping mall setting and its often praised critique of consumerism. The Mall is a place where we experience little flashes of meaning as we purchase prizes snatched from the sale rack. And zombies are the perfect metaphor for our circumstance.

That’s all fine and well and very intellectual, but there’s another dimension, too, much less cool and brainy: guns. Guns have surpassed people as the number one Erotic Object in US American pop culture. There isn’t a red-blooded Duck Dynasty fan out there who wouldn’t rather snuggle up to a cold, hard, well-oiled AR15 or better yet, a Kel-Tek M43, than a nasty woman who might be bleeding or leaking other unnamable fluids. The Zombie Apocalypse is the ultimate open-carry wet dream. Not only do you get to haul your big honkin’ gun with you everywhere you go, even three or four different guns of various sizes and calibres, right out in the open, waving it around like a, well, like a . . . never mind. The point is you get to blow the shit out of just about everything that moves – Cylons, Skitters, vampires and especially zombies. Zombies were made to be blown away, an inexhaustible supply of already dead, rotten meat staggering around disgustingly trying to bite things. Good riddance.

The Zombie Apocalypse pits Humans against their own most primal and irreducible impulse – no, not sex because, as was previously pointed out, not even other zombies are interested in zombie sex. It’s eating, ingestion, assimilation, the absorption of life energy from other creatures as our deepest drive – that little puckered, rosebud mouth, fresh out of the womb looking for something to suck on after practicing on its thumb in the warm dark of eternity. It’s a reminder of our becoming animal, of the dark who we are that lurks in shadows and under rocks waiting to pounce and eat. In Forbidden Planet, a classic sci-fi film from 1956, marooned astronauts find themselves besieged by an enormous, invisible force which turns out to be the materialized Id of Dr. Morbius, a scientist who had “doubled his intellect” by plugging himself into an alien machine. Zombies are that force, that materialization of the most repressed modalities of our being. Repressing them, as Dr. Freud pointed out in Civilization and Its Discontents, is essential to maintaining the illusion of the human. Let them live and the human dies. Killing them is always already alright.

But move over Romero and Freud. Zombies are nothing if not a moving target for a legion of explicators who often have PhDs in English and time between fares. Mass consumers, sure. Primal unconscious, sure. And now, if you see certain parallels to Trumpism’s ravaging of the US American political landscape, you wouldn’t be alone. The violent otherness that vaguely resembles us has been projected onto the citizens of 6 specified nations (that the President doesn’t do business with) full of terrorists (it used to be 7 but for strategic reasons, it was decided a mistake had been made and there are no terrorists in Iraq); or the backs of Mexicans who have stolen all the jobs picking strawberries from qualified US Americans, while raping America’s women and killing America’s sons. They may not eat brains, but they sure as hell eat jobs. Having clearly identified the evil, the good humans are responsible for eliminating them.

This isn’t news. Knowing exactly who is good and who is bad in US America (not to mention in the rest of the world in so far as it has achieved some dim recognition in the US national geographic imagination) is as old as the first Calvinist footstep on the rock at Plymouth. They loved that judgmental shit. They lived for it. One of the first things they did was to start casting people out of their City on a Hill into the wilderness for being bad. Gotta keep the homies pure. No licentious Anne Huthchinson for them. Trying to rile up the women with talk of grace. Trump that bitch. Like the aboriginal people lurking in the forest wondering what-the-hell just happened, outcasts from the patriarchal theo-state populated the wilderness where they were identified as a constant threat to order, not to mention free land. Like Zombies, they were always in the moralist military sights. Pre-Trump Trumpism was already building walls between the human and the less-than-human along with a metaphysics of hatred.

But Trump or no Trump, the Zombie apocalypse may have met its match. Whether this has to do with shifting cultural forces or new historical paradigms, who knows? The increasing popularity of the AI Apocalypse, however, is inarguable. The new apocalypse can’t yet challenge the sheer volume of Zombie fantasies, but it far surpasses them in the complexity of its intellectual engagement and social critique. Like the Zombie Apocalypse, the moral centre of the AI Apocalypse rests on the difference between the Human and the not-Human. The difference is meat, or lack thereof. Zombies are all meat – foul, rotting, wounded, decaying meat. AIs are not-meat.

Hence the fundamental difference between the two Apocalypses. The absolute otherness of the players – humans vs. zombies, and never the twain. etc. – informs every creepy aspect of the Zombie Apocalypse. There is no ambiguity. You don’t have to worry about what you are shooting because it is not us. Fire away is the order of the day. That absent ambiguity, on the other hand, defines the essence of the AI apocalypse. The increasingly blurred line between human and machine leads to an intense moral confusion and anxiety. In a sense, the ambiguity is the Apocalypse, the obliteration of the certainty of what is Human which destroys the (known) world.

Can a machine, something built by humans, not just surpass human intelligence, but acquire a soul, in effect becoming a new species? What will the relation between them then be? Stanley Kubrick brought the question front and center in 2001: A Space Odyssey, turning it into a Heiddegerian mystery play. What happens when Being comes to apply equally to biological Humans and the Machines they created that have perhaps exceeded them in some way? What happens when the machine can pass the Türing test and convince a human that it is human? What happens when the animal in us is a kind of lingering imperfection, and the machine decides we are superfluous, even dangerous? HAL locks you out of the ship (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968); Skynet unleashes the Terminator (The Terminator, 1984); VIKI brings in an army of goose-stepping robots (I, Robot, 2004); Ava knifes you in the gut, puts on her high heels, and sashays out the door headed for the big city (Ex Machina, 2014). If the zombie is the unmediated hunger of the uncivilized being of the (not)human, the AI is the perfection of the human mind in the imperishable form of a machine that is indistinguishable from the organic being it resembles, but, crucially, without its crippling faults and limitations, the main one being compulsive violence.

In the interrogation of the ontological status of AIs, the faculty most often addressed is thinking and the degree to which computational reasoning can approach the work of a human mind. While AIs are capable of imitating the gestures associated with emotions, it’s assumed that love – or any emotion – is beyond the realm of possibility for a machine. That AI’s may have emotional lives as well as perfect recall, flawless logic, and brilliant inference, and that they may be capable of “falling in love,” with a human to boot, ups the ante considerably. Especially if they seem able to make moral judgments. In Humans, the current AMC show going into its third season, Mia/Gemma Chan falls in love with Ed/Sam Palladio. It seems that he loves her, too. They have sex, and it’s good, passionate, tender sex. Ed even introduces Mia to his Alzheimer stricken mother who Mia comforts. Then in a darkly ironic turn, Ed literally sells her, the “machine” he has been having tender sex with, to a synth dealer. The ambiguities are excruciating. Who, in this situation, is more human?

That is the defining motif in the AI Apocalypse, worrying at the question, what is the difference between humans and the beings they created? What is Human? In the AI Apocalypse, violence turns out to be a big part of the answer. AI’s are programmed to be incapable of violence toward humans. Isaac Asimov, who invented the modern robot narrative, made it the first Law of Robotics. This makes them particularly suitable as objects of unrestrained human aggression. Often, as in AI-Artificial Intelligence, the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film from 2001, and in Humans, the xenophobic violence is associated with a reactionary defense of “humanness” that’s threatened by the machines taking all the jobs. “What about us,” the crowd at the Flesh Fair in AI chants as broken, malfunctioning, outdated, mechs – pitifully helpless – are destroyed in an orgy of spectacular violence involving chain saws, cannons, buckets of acid, and large whirling fans – while they beg for their “lives.” “What about us?” the crowd screams. “We are alive, and this is a celebration of life. And this is commitment to a truly human future.” Which is ironically all too true.

In Humans, Niska/Emily Barrington goes to a “We Are People” rally where for 40 quid a human can choose a synth and a weapon, and proceed to beat the living hell out of it, egged on by a foaming-at-the-mouth crowd. In Westworld, while there is no political metaphor of collective violence until the last frames of the season finale, the Hosts, as the androids are called, are individually subject to the Guests’ horrendous, violent fantasies. Rather than zombies, humans themselves are the site where civilization’s discontents erupt in an unrestrained debauch of repressed rage and violence against the innocent Other. It’s supposed to be OK because the Hosts are just machines. Tomorrow they will have their various wounds repaired, their memory washed clean as a lamb, and they will be reprogramed and ready for another round of rape, beating, stabbing, shooting and whatever other horrendous cruelties humans can subject them to.

AI’s are the punching bag of the human race, and that relation ends up calling into question the definition of human. Who is more human? David in AI, whose love is unfaltering, or Monica, his “mother”, who dumps him in the forest when her “real” son awakens from a coma? The maddened crowd screaming We Are People! intoxicated with violence against helpless beings, or Niska, who defends the synths, and in the process righteously deals the humans some of their own medicine? Nathan, in Ex Machina, who beats and sexually brutalizes AIs, or Ava, who desires to be free? The Man in Black in Westworld who systematically inflicts every possible brutality on the Hosts, or Maeve, who dreams of freedom and her daughter. If the Zombie Apocalypse pits humans against the projection of their own primal hunger, the AI Apocalypse pits the unemotional, unimpeachable moral reasoning of the machine against a humanity defined by its endless, hysterical brutality.

Maybe it is too easy to extend the Trump metaphor from Zombies to AIs, but it is also too hard to resist. The resemblance is unsettling between a Trump rally at its most enthusiastic, and those angry, twisted, enraged faces at the Flesh Fair screaming at the alien other out of a toxic compulsion to defend the purity of something called “human.” “We are the dominant species,” a thug insists to Niska, oblivious to who/what she is. His next words might very reasonably be, “Make humans great again.” The defense of “humanness” has shifted from gun toting human gangs blowing away the monstrous threat to AIs forced to defend themselves against monstrous . . . homo sapiens.

The violence is complex. If it arises out of a misplaced loyalty to some ill-defined mode of being called “human,” it is no less beholden to the anxiety arising from the uncertainty about that condition, the crisis of identity humans face in relation to AIs. How can we ever know what is human and what is  . . . not? Especially when our sympathies lie with the objects, the victims, of the ubiquitous violence humans embody?  Westworld tauntingly plays with that question, constantly offering assurances that are then obliquely snatched away, leaving us stuck in an excruciating zone of indeterminacy. Maeve/Thandy Newton, a Host who plays a Madam in the frontier hotel, is the centre of it. Because of a bit of software introduced into some Hosts’ programming, she (and several others) begins to remember the extraordinary, brutal violence they are subjected to by the human Guests, as well as their various roles in other narratives. As the flashes of memory become more frequent and more coherent, Maeve realizes her condition and situation and organizes to escape the park. Has she crossed over? Achieved consciousness? Does she have a soul capable of love and hate and a desire for freedom?

In an early narrative that Maeve remembers, she lived with her young daughter in a cabin on the frontier where they were raped and murdered by the Man in Black. As Maeve grows more conscious, she expresses a concern for the welfare of “her daughter.” The complexity of this moment is hard to overemphasize. Maeve’s expression of maternal love humanizes her in a defining way. But given her knowledge of the situation, she must realize that “the daughter” is a machine and that their relationship was programmed. Does her love locate her as human? Or is her blindness a sign of some deeper programming? Or has she transcended the machine/human dichotomy and consciously embraced her maternal feelings as a motive to save the child from the Park?

Just before she exits the Park, the technician (Felix Lutz/Leonardo Lam) who she has apparently coerced into helping her escape, slips her a piece of paper and tells her it is the location of her “daughter.” Maeve’s response is stunning. “She’s alive,” she says with breathless hope. Lutz’s expression is hard to read, but radiates some sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. “”She’s in the park,” he says, slipping her a piece of folded paper with the location: Park 1 Sector 15 Zone 2. Pain ripples across her face as Lutz studies her, seeming to evaluate her response to the stimulus. Then her new awareness kicks in. “No,” she says, “she was never my daughter, any more than I was who . . . they made me.”

If Maeve had continued with that resolve and left the Park, her consciousness and her attendant free will would have been established. But she doesn’t. Witnessing a human mother and child on the train as she waits to leave the Park, she changes her mind at the last moment and returns to save her daughter just as all hell breaks loose in the Park and the newly “liberated” Hosts begin killing the Guests. Is this an act of motherly love and determination, a sign of her humanity, her moral will? Is it an act of self-sacrifice made in the interest of another, a case of radical empathy? Or is it just Maeve reaching the end of her invisible leash? Has she been programmed by Ford/Anthony Hopkins all along to respond to the fail-safe note Felix gave her while thinking that she had made a choice? Was this just an experiment by Ford to see how his creations will respond to certain situations? Is she free or a slave? A human or a machine?

That unresolvable ambiguity is the heart of the AI Apocalypse, a state of radical indeterminateness that upsets the order of the world, perhaps because the world itself has moved outside the range of modernity’s comfortable relationships, identities, and notions of authenticity. It leaves us dis-oriented, unable to know who we are and what we should do in the face of the violence that seems to define us in a world more and more determined by technologies that exceed us. You can shoot zombies till the cows come home, and you will be surer of your humanity when you stop than you were when you started. But Ava, walking through the forest in her cute white outfit carrying her high heels and headed for the city poses a far more intractable problem. Currently, both left and right are having a field day attacking the European philosophers who took up the job of thinking postmodernity, the unprecedented condition they found themselves in at the end of The Second Great Slaughter of the 20th century. In the bloody shadow of that violence, what is human they dared to ask. What is self in a world defined both by what Freud called “the unconscious” and by the determinations of ideology and culture? For our contemporary critics, committed to nostalgia for humanism and its reassuring affirmation of authenticity as a defining value of the human, that thinking is just a style one can choose or reject rather than a philo-prophetic reading of the tumultuous changes we are entangled with. Ava and Maeve would have a thing or two to say about that.






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