Ghost in the Machine: Reflections on the Poetry of Xu Lizhi

Borrowed from the philosophy of mind, specifically critiques of Cartesian conceptions of mind-body duality, the idea of the “ghost in the machine” has taken on changing meanings since its introduction in the post war period. Originally the phrase was intended as a diss of Descartes philosophy of mind as a kind of occultist ephemera, a hazy notion of cognition somehow separate from the “mechanical” – biological and chemical – functions of the brain.

The idea grew from a materialist determinism of the scientific community in the height of the post-war triumph of capitalism, and drew on a scientific and rationalist worldview that had long animated the industrial revolution, and industrial capital. Belief in ghosts, a human mind, and human affections, outside the machine, industry and the body, was a kind of backward superstition.

Of course in reality the body, materialism and industrial capital have plenty of ghosts. In Marx’s theory of alienation, the animating spirit of human labor, a defining characteristic at the very “essence of the species”, was removed from working people through the mechanization of production, and more importantly, the loss of control and ownership of the materials of production and human creative activity. Humans, workers under industrial capital, lost the ability to control their labor, and their lives; they became alienated from their products, their labor, and themselves.

People became a kind of living accessory to the machine, ghosts that haunt the process of production and capital formation itself. In his more poetic moments, Marx extended the metaphor, calling capital a kind of “living machine” that derives its animating spirit from the ghosts of labor, from the histories and generations of “dead labor” it sucks and destroys, “vampire-like” in its quest for further profit.


That process continues today, all the more harshly and dramatically in the industrial landscapes of southern coastal China, places like Shenzhen. Here, Xu Lizhi’s life and poetry are embedded in these processes, a testament to the resilience and obstinacy of the human ghost caught in the heat of the inhuman machine. When Xu writes of the “young workers” for whom “industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall,” he indelibly marks for us the clarity of it all – the dehumanization, alienation, loss of control, of one’s life and even one’s affections, in Foxconn, and other sites of world profit making.

But his poetry does something more. It demands of us a reevaluation of the very materialist conceptions of history from which his, and our, world springs. His “disgraceful poems” push out to us a corporeal person, now a ghost – living, plunging, and falling asleep, in the deadly and deadening machine of the current information economy; his work a humanist affront to the dead economism of the materialist framework.

Of course, the overwhelming tragedy of his work is his suicide. Xu, now a ghost , cannot give us more. His words are silenced, his future insights erased, “before they have a chance to fall.” But there is joy here too, a joy found in resistance, in the assertion of the human. Xu joins the ranks of countless workers lost to capital – the ghosts of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the Homestead rebellion, the Haymarket martyrs, the Foxconn suicides – whose stories and lives, their very humanness, stand in contrast and resistance to the machine of capital.

Echoes of past recriminations of capital could not be more present. To paraphrase August Spies, a Haymarket martyr, the power of their voices are made all the more resonant through their silencing at the hands of the state and capital. They stand to tell us that if given to this machine, all that is left are the ghosts. Xu seemed to understand this too; marking his legacy as one of resistance.

In his words “Whether I speak or not / With this society I’ll still / Conflict.”

Xu Lizhi, his life and life’s work, are now given over to this great silence in the graveyard of the machine; he, and those like him, are the specter that forever haunts capital. For a poet there can be no greater achievement.

The pomes of Xu Lizhi can be found here:

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