This article was written on 15 Aug 2016, and is filled under Actualities, Film & TV, Science / Technology.

Norbert’s Nightmares: On Zombie Wars, with a Nod to Cybernetics

There is no homeostasis whatsoever. We are in the business of cycles of booms and failure, in the successions of dictatorship and revolution, in wars which everyone loses, which are so real a feature of modern times. –Norbert Weiner (Cybernetics, 159)

(Review of Project Z, written by James Der Derian, directed by Phillip Gera, Bulldog films: 2015, 74 minutes).

Before running through the contours of Norbert Weiner’s nightmares, let’s first establish what this famous World war II researcher, better known as the founder of cybernetics, more optimistically referred to has his “dream.” He writes, “we [mathematicians] dreamed for years of an institution of independent scientists, working . . . not as subordinates of some great executive officer, but joined by the desire . . . to understand the region as a whole” (C 2).   The “region as a whole” is the region covered by cybernetic study, which as the book’s full title indicates, is the fully expanded study of “control and communication in the animal and the machine.” The notion that communication is best thought about along mathematical lines is not a particularly problematic one at a time like the present which is conditioned “as a whole” by cybernetic applications. But perhaps, too, the naturalization of computationally mediated reality is a reason why Weiner’s founding fears are necessary to revisit. Living cybernetically is one thing; dying that way is another. Or is it? Look again at Weiner’s “dream,” already haunted by associations he couldn’t escape despite the desire to break away from “some great executive officer. ” He wishes we could “confine our . . . efforts to those fields . . . most remote from war . . .  (C 29). But he also seems half-consciously to know that the tendency of the first real network-centric science to spread beyond peaceful “confin[ment]” is where the nightmares come in.

Readers of Feedback shouldn’t miss the fully intentional coincidence that the very title of the blogsite you are reading now is also one of the Weiner’s key concepts: “feedback.” In the epigram I’ve used from cybernetic’s Ur-text, feedback is apparent in its perverse moment as system that’s failed to maintain communicative equilibrium. The loss of “homeostasis” is what Wiener mourns and what a properly functioning command and control apparatus should be able to maintain. In its nightmarish version—Weiner also uses the word, “revolution,” to which I’ll have to return—feedback delivers a uniquely contemporary “cycle” of catastrophe and compensation. Better put, compensation in this bad version of feedback only further distorts the rational calculations it also seeks to find. This increasingly desperate form of oscillation between the translation and proliferation of inputs results only in further episodes of systemic collapse: manufactured volatility, financial flash-crashes, climate change, war without end. At his most pessimistic, Weiner adjoins system collapse with the rise of the disposable human, the automaton, where machines deal humans out of the decision loop, what he calls a kind of “Golem” effect (C 39). At its least desirable, feedback can erase the distinction between the living and the dead.

Among the most successful feedback mechanisms that Weiner and his mathematicians invented—and one of the first—was the modern anti-aircraft gun, which helped turn the course of World War II. The most effective way to “swing massive gun turrets” is on the order of “communication and control” (C 39), he writes. And as the locus classicus of feedback in action, the first “ultra-rapid computing machine[s]” focused on the signal as electronic matter—measurable, and therefore, quantifiable and translatable sets of energy frequencies, “electronic networks” that could be put into “differential equations” (C 3-4). In this way, cybernetics was used to “calculate the speed of an airplane . . . such that the missile and target may come together in space at some time in the future” (C 5). Because can now be weaponized, the improvement of anti-aircraft artillery along these lines can be easily construed a forerunner of the UAV. This is so not simply because they are both very effective killers, or that they are largely invisible operations in the sky. What’s key in the network-centric way in which war operates today—inarguably, as a cybernetic affair—is the way in which information becomes a mathematically determined practice of pattern recognition: human terrain systems, super-surveillance, cyber war, GPS, Brain Computer Interface, simply put, the “whole region” of communicative operations as a “fire-control apparatus” (C 6).

Call it, death by TV; or call it film.

James Der Derian and Phillip Gara’s disturbing and provocative documentary, Project Z, oscillates—in the end, with an optimism Weiner does not share—between his nightmare and his dreams. The footage used in Project Z is comprised of a decade or more of rare Hi8 video streams, which includes combat training centers (Germany, California), interviews with prominent military leaders, soldiers, policy wonks, TV news reporters, and war scholars of various political stripes (full disclosure, I’m also featured a few times among the other talking heads).   We zigzag across the professional turfs—now borderless and conjoined after the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs—of information, entertainment, and war.

With a thoroughly planetary overview, from Fallujah to Hollywood (or at least the University of Southern California’s virtual training center), voices from whatever desert-of-the-real celebrate the lucrative opportunities that the information-entertainment-war system now brings. Former California Governor Grey Davis and long-time president of the Motion Picture Association, Jack Valenti, similarly celebrate the “diverse and unusual military opportunities of the future.” From the podium, the state’s highest officer pronounces: “Army, Entertainment, Video, Destination theme parks, [and] the California economy will enhance and be enhanced by [the] weapons acquisition process as one synthetic environment.” Valenti joins the chorus: “not since the Gutenberg Revolution of movable type” have we seen such a far-reaching impact of media qua social and economic change.   Paul Virillio, who is also rightly featured at key moments in Project Z, calls such a moment indicative of “a full mutation in the nature of warfare.”

Thus along side a post-Gutenberg’s “revolution,” and along side Weiner’s, is the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, which reaches all the way through human life and—as we’ll see—still more disturbingly comes out the other side. War isn’t just the state’s exceptional prerogative to wage, as if to protect its civilians from the applications of another state’s violence. War isn’t just an activity to be advanced by new technologies of information control and command.   And war isn’t just for achieving this or that eventuality of peace on one or another state’s terms. Rather, war is the state’s sole and permanent function. It operates now like a feedback system gone rogue which devolves the state itself—precisely like an oscillating cybernetic nightmare—while the state tries to every more desperately to achieve political homeostasis. War is the force that makes the citizen know she is one, which is to say, your status as a citizen is a dead version of its former self. To the extent that civil society has disappeared into war without winners, and to the extent that friend and foe are no longer operationally separable in the eyes of the state, the citizen’s a Golem.

An important point of Project Z is not simply that Governors and Hollywood potentates are playing their own versions of the popular video game Doom. Symptomatic of the “synthesis” of a wide array of social and anti-social systems, these “great executive officers” are the cybernetic helmsman of a war-machine no one controls. They are less identifiable as big players in the game of life-as-death than they are the living-dead are who being played. To recall Weiner once more, the peculiar feedback gone wrong that is the dynamic logic of all war-infotainment gear generates destruction the more it tries to equalize. It’s worth repeating, Weiner’s cycle of feedback gone bad turns emergency into the status quo, or again, oscillates widely between these two poles: the more that homeostasis is sought, the more interference is produced. That interference is writ by math as a matter of incalculable frequencies, what cybernetics calls “noise.”

You can move in interesting ways between the mathematically and the sociological in the sense of the noise, say, of twenty-first-century populism, but only if you are willing to get rid of traditional ways of thinking about sociability—consensus, free and open exchange of ideas, the communicative bracketing of affect, trans-temporal continuity—as such. We’ll see at the end of Project Z how Der Derian and kindred thinkers (me, for one) are trying to sort through our prevailing condition of “noise” in terms of network-centric social movements without sociablity attached. On the flip side, precisely the same recalculation of war as foundational to what contemporary counter-insurgency tacticians are learning to do.

What’s important to emphasize here is a conceptual pivot in Project Z that slips from depicting (and delivering?) weaponized information to the titular problem of the ZZ is for zombie, a kind of re-arranging of the life-and-death distinction brought about by cybernetics’ 1-0 combinations, applications of numbers that animate the dreaded Golem. Such ghouls roam the dead-zones between representation and mathematics, in the same way we humanists stumble when letters get turned to numbers. Virilio and the combat officers who speak along side him, who in turn speak between the film’s more exploratory voice-overs, are clear about big changes in war, and the kinds of unintelligibility that accompanies them. What Virilio calls the “accident” is what General Wesley Clark call a “cascade,” which is what one other commentator calls communicative “witchcraft,” another, the “legal no man’s land” of extra-judicial drone killing, another “a thousand [data?] points of darkness,” and still another, the “Balkanization” of the planet. This is all to introduce the Zombie’s coming to “life,” Project Z‘s intimidating protagonist, and the mascot of our age.

According to a Naval College President in Project Z, the nightmare event within the cybernetic dream is a collapse of the system—or the system of systems—upon which ordinary life depends: there are “some conventions that we have to suspend,” he says. “Privacy rights, some of the fundamentals of the rule of law, even. . . . ” But within our Zombie socius, as we have seen, security generates insecurity. Peace is lived episodically and concurrent with piling episodes of extreme violence. The way we get to have order is precisely to get rid of the law. Such is the “doomsday scenario” currently war-gamed by the Center for Disease Control’s “Zombie Action Plan.” This event, Project Z ultimately discloses, brings disease, war, resource scarcity, poverty, austerity, market crashes, climate change, statelessness, and so on, to one apocalyptic threshold.

The film’s own coverage of other catastrophe coverage—newspapers, TV reports, videos, ticker tape, radio voices—functions at a technical level to mimic a cybernetic war problem. Project Z is perhaps above all of form of media about media, and as such runs along the lines of information command and control. It is a film that ventures beyond simply describing the weaponization of the signal, the ramped up virtualization of violence by war training cum entertainment (on this, see Der Derian’s fine written work). Project Z is also significant as a cybernetic performance.   As a translator of signals into other signals, and from there, one can suppose, to a performance of corresponding though differently mediated forms of action, the film must also tip-toe through the risks and rewards available by working through feedback.

Does this happen roguishly, or with a different moment of homeostasis that can only be alluded to as a kind of aesthetico-scientific, rather than reductively prescriptive kind of message, à la the usual journalistic exposé? This is artistic as well as critical no man’s land, as I’ve already alluded. As tough a challenge as such ground always is to conquer, this much is at least clear: Project Z refuses to absolve cinematic production from the cybernetic moment of which it is a part. The filmmakers, commentators, and one can hope, the viewers, work to find a way around the tendency of critical war studies to come off as so much academic noblesse de robe.   In that sense, the film capitalizes on a cinematic option that may or may not wrestle computational media back from the beastly executives of profit and the morbid commanders of war. Like the warriors it depicts, Gara’s cinematic technique operates in a “grey zone.” The film is literally colored with shadows, grainy, dimly lit, in and out of focus at strategically relevant times, and follows a narrative arc that is decidedly network centric.

So in the end we are invited to follow Project Z forward toward a future and still another enigmatic protagonist, one barely visible and right next to the Zombie, who emerges as the film’s credits role, a figure presently haunting the original haunter. That figure conjured by Walter Benjamin.

There are references to Benjamin in the film, key epigrams or transitional markers, as well as a nice rendition of the well-known “Angel of History” aphorism by Laurie Anderson as Project Z ends and a different project fights to emerge.   Benjamin lived in a “time of terror,” and met his end in exodus crossing out of fascist territory as World War II circled toward its culminating death-dance. It’s at such a “time of terror,” he says, that “everyone is something of a conspirator,” and that “everybody will have to play the role of a detective.” These words appear 34 seconds in to Project Z and foreshadow reference to him at the end. More than a stylistic choice of network-centric storytelling, which is significant on its own terms, this is also kind of repetition-with-a-difference that reenacts the cybernetic dynamic.   It’s the feedback loop itself that tries to operate through informational command and control. Having found a secret set of tapes preparing for the CDC’s Zombie war, it turns out mid-way through that the “detectives” at work in the current “time of terror” are the filmmakers themselves. If the cybernetic hypothesis about information and command control is true—if the dream of progress goes on existing as our present nightmare, and it does—then Project Z is in its clever way a certain kind of war-media “conspirator.”

Thus to Benjamin again: “the imminent awakening is posed like a wooden horse of the Greeks in the Troy of dreams.” What’s so apposite about the “Troy of Dreams” is neither its coincidental echo in the form of Norbert’s later “dream,” nor the fact that the dream this time is another evocation of war.   More interestingly, and to get to the final point about (the) film itself as cybernetic “conspira[cy],” is that “awakening” from war cloaks a another form of (here libratory) violence.   In this sense, and as Project Z ends, what is occasionally referenced by the likes of Sergei Khruschev as a glimmer of hope for world peace after the Cold War was ghostly hope, at best. Instead, the current moment is encapsulated by what former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “a new era . . . [where] the great struggles of the twentieth century…return from the grave.”   In the present, he says, we are “buried alive” by the “ghosts of the Cold War.” Such is progress, Benjamin would say. Zombie history, like Benjamin’s angel, like cinema itself, operates blindly and backwards. In the same way, Project Z‘s allusion toward mass movements occurs provisionally and without pretension, from a hyper-violent present where Zombies herd their human forbearers toward a future that the living cannot know for sure.

One more citation then from Benjamin in Project Z: “dreams have started wars, and from the earliest times have determined the range of dreams.” I think the “determining” word here is neither “dreams” nor “wars,” but is “range.” Norbert’s nightmares are about war on a scale and at an intensity that are both total and without precedent. The more hopeful points that concludes Project Z is that such nightmares nonetheless exist within the larger category of “dream[s].” The Ghanaian playwright Ama Ata Aaidoo defines the Zombie not simply as dead but more accurately as “stuck between life and death,” indicative of “whole populations.” This is where Project Z offers its parting shot, or better, where it presents its own reproduction of the already-reproduced, but now as something at least potentially different than the mere extension of still more Zombie wars. Project Z is too smart a “conspira[tor]” to be trapped fully within the feedback systems of our time. Its reproduction of reproductions (like the additional reproduction that you’re reading now) is repetition designed with an affirmative and critical twist.

So is Project Z therefore at least partly a war effort? Yes, but since war is everywhere, always present, and involves everyone today, we must also ask: Which war? The film ends without ending really, as if to underscore with Norbert Wiener that the cybernetic age “has unbounded possibility for good or evil” (emphasis mine, C 27). Wiener was ultimately less expressive of the “extreme optimism” remarked upon by one of Project Z‘s final commentators, perhaps significantly, a dealer in fiction. (He is Dennis Lehane, author of another cybernetically inflected film, Shutter Island.) But after seeing Project Z, it must be said that while Norbert’s nightmare pops-up anxiously within the dream, the dream itself—call it a Trojan-horse “conspiracy”–leans to the side of what Weiner derided as “values other than buying or selling” (C 28). Such a dream seems not to have completely gone away.

Mike Hill ( teaches at the University at Albany, SUNY.  His most recent book is:  The Other Adam Smith (Stanford:  2015), co-authored with Warren Montag.  At present he is completing a book on twenty-first century warfare for the University of Minnesota Press.  He would like to thank Rick Barney for reading an earlier draft of this post.

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