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Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture

by Annalee Newitz
Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, USA, 2006
223 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $74.95; paper, $21.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3745-2.

Reviewed by Nick Cronbach


While the monster genres of horror and science fiction have obviously been good for business in America, Annalee Newitz's book argues that the reverse is true as well. It stands to reason that a society's economic system and its ideology will be implicated in its nightmares, but this is not an angle usually explored in influential accounts of horror and sci-fi. It is generally accepted, and insisted upon, in most public forums that Americans are, or should be, satisfied with the country's current economic order. Direct confrontation with the issue in entertainment media is likely to cause discomfort (and to scare away industry support), as Newitz notes in her Introduction. Therefore, the distractions of the gory and slimy genres can be highly effective devices for bringing class and capital in beneath the surface mayhem.

Newitz explores the development in modern North American popular culture of five forms of monstrosity: the serial killer, the mad doctor, the undead, the robot and the entertainment media themselves. Serial killers, as understood in both slasher movies and true-crime novels, are extreme examples of the American obsession with work and productivity. "They kill," Newitz argues, "after reaching a point when they confuse living people with the inanimate objects they produce and consume as workers" (p. 31). Mad doctors act out the ambiguous relationship of professionals to capital and confront (insanely) the need to convert the pursuit of knowledge into economically meaningful labor (Newitz describes the plot of Re-Animator as a study in "upward mobility through madness" [p. 81]). Most intrepid is Newitz's reading of the undead subgenre. She sees it as originating in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Lovecraft's dead but dreaming monstrosities are almost-living memorials of a world before white colonial conquest, with the stories' intermixture of nonhumans with humankind underlining an already obvious dread of racial impurity. This anxious legacy and its transformations are then traced through I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Blacula and beyond. Newitz finds the cyborg subgenre, on the other hand, to begin with Chaplin's Modern Times. Robots and cyborgs, half worker machine and half thinking being, serve to explore the possibilities of freedom, including love, in a world centered on labor for others. Finally, Newitz discusses the culture industry and the monster stories featuring its products, its workers and its audiences, including the cases of viewers themselves consumed by media worlds or taken over by insidious messages and signals.

Newitz's accounts of scientific and technological monstrosity bring to mind that what is often described as the irrational popular fear and rejection of science and technology is arguably better seen as resistance to their control and manipulation (and through them that of humanity) by those who own and profit from the work. For example, in debates over copyright law, drug patents, genetic engineering, open-source programming and network neutrality, special corporate interests market themselves as visionaries selflessly bringing society into the future, while others see greater progress possible outside of monopolistic arrangements. The particular objections to these arrangements in each case, however, face a mobilized array of corporate spokespeople and other well-funded ideologues deploying a narrative of "free-market" progress across all such debates. The resulting effect gives resonance to Newitz's take on the Matrix trilogy and its climactic showdown against a replicated multitude of business-suited artificial intelligences. It also promotes the misapprehension of science and technology as wholly inseparable from corporate interests.

Given the effectively marginal status of Newitz's position, a great point in her favor is the straightforwardness of her arguments. She does not complicate them unnecessarily by resorting to obscure language or taking long detours through theoretical debate. A working journalist as well as an academic, she is precise and direct in assimilating complex ideas into her discussion, taking scant paragraphs to introduce the relevant theories of Gramsci or Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, where some would use several pages to say less. Newitz's style is pitched much more toward intellectually inclined general readers and fans than other scholars, which is perfectly in keeping with her politics (so many other supposedly radical writers seem much more concerned with engaging experts in their fields than with making their ideas accessible to the uninitiated).

Often books that delineate ideological dominance leave no room for optimism. Newitz, in contrast, concludes by emphasizing the grounds for hope in the viral, subtextual protests that these monster stories pass along. On the other hand, conventional public discourse in the United States being so degraded, it seems as discouraging as it is understandable that some of the most crucial issues facing our society are engaged more in midnight movies than on the nightly news and talk shows.



Updated 1st March 2007

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