i was prepared to be annoyed by David McNally’s Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, and was pleasantly surprised that i was not. This book was much more nuanced and interesting than i had expected. (i had been somewhat mislead by his very short essay on the same subject in the PM Press book Catastrophism, which i found overly simplistic.)
i still don’t know if i agree with McNally’s thesis. That’s because he is mainly looking at modern day myths and stories about zombies and (to a much lesser extent) vampires in Africa – something i know nothing about. Tracing the contemporary zombie back to the Haitian “zombie labourer”, he argues that,
It is this view of zombies – as mindless labourers – that entered the American culture-industry in the 1930s and 1940s, a point to which i return in the Conclusion. But, as I show there, the idea of the zombie as a living-dead labourer was displaced in American cultural production in the late 1960s by that of the ghoulish consumer. While this is an intriguing cultural shift, it moved the image away from those features that are particularly resonant in the African context in the neoliberal era. To put it plainly, if Hollywood’s zombies today are largely mindless consumers, in Africa they are mindless workers. This is why, as one of the most sensitive commentators on Haitian zombies has put it, the zombie is a “mythic symbol of alienation; of a spiritual reduction of the self to a mere source of labour.” Those passingly familiar with Marx’s accounts of alienated labour and reification will recognise profound intersections between those texts and this image of the zombie, the very imagery that has been reactivated across so much of the African subcontinent today. I shall return to these intersections in the Conclusion, where I will also explore the notion of zombie-rebels. But, for the moment, we ought to appreciate that, rather than mere rehearsals of Hollywood’s mythologies, contemporary African zombie-legends carry a much more powerfully critical charge – one that brings us back to the question of labouring bodies in the age of capitalist globalisation. (213)
Sounds plausible, though like i said, it’s not something i know anything about.
McNally does usefully explain why it makes more sense to look at global capitalism right now in order to explain the stories people are crafting, repeating, and in some cases believing, today, rather than to ascribe these stories to “tradition” or to fall back on racist explanations about how superstitious or “backwards” the people labouring on neocolonial capitalism’s most intense centers of exploitation are. As he puts it:
Rather than literally invent a world in its image, capitalism exhibits a unique dialectic of incorporation, in which it accommodates the particular at the very moment it absorbs and refashions it. As a result, local cultural idioms are replete with knowledge of the global.
Narrating experiences of incorporation into the circuits of capitalism, local idioms subtend the cacophonous language of capitalist modernity. Rather than expressing “traditional” values and meanings outside of modernity, these idioms capture the concrete enactment of the global at the level of lived experience, as well as the counter-narratives that probe the prospects for other histories, for social projects outside the logics of global capital. (183)
A far more fancy way of saying it than i would normally like, but i think i get what he means. McNally examines and interprets stories about zombies (and to a lesser extent, vampires and witches) as ways that people are coming to grips with and processing the constant encroachment of neoliberal capitalism in their lives, as it tears apart their communities, and makes people act monstrously to one another.
On my facebook wall this morning, someone had posted a quote by the late P.K. Dick: “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” Of course, when Dick say “words” he’s oversimplifying, the real key is not just words, but language itself, the way stories are told, the meanings inferred and implied in the way a plot twists or twirls.
The importance given to things like literary styles and how people write about things is in line with this observation. And yes, probably because reading fiction and watching movies is fun, far too many people engage in this kind of analysis as their principal form of political intervention. A lazy thing.
Nonetheless, taking it to a very deep level, McNally usefully goes back to 19th century Victorian literature (esp. Shelley’s Frankenstein), and argues that tales of the fantastic – esp. gothic horror stories – are particularly effective and appropriate ways to examine and discuss capitalism. The flipside of the coin, is that he also shows how supernatural metaphors and inventive use of language were adopted by Marx and others as they tried to cast light on the workings of the capitalist world around them,
Because capitalism constitutes an alienated, topsy-turvy world, one in which phenomena regularly appear upside-down, the theoretical discourse that maps it needs to mimic the wild movement of things so as to better expose it. This is especially important, given the way that capitalist inversions become normalised for everyday thought and action. As a result, like Brecht, Marx seeks to estrange us from the familiar so that we might actually see it for what it is. To this end, he requires a dialectical language of doublings and reversals. (116)
There’s a lot in this book, and i am really just scratching the surface. Political analysis by way of literary criticism, i think i’d have gotten more out of it if i were more familiar with the novels being discussed, and with Marx’s own writings. i had expected (wrongly) a book largely dealing with the hollywood zombies, perhaps starting with Romero’s; in fact, Romero servers as a borderline for McNally’s discussion, the point at which he turns away from North American zombie lore, moving his focus at that point to Africa. Which is legit, though it left me at a bit of a disadvantage.
Still, a book worth reading, if the subject matter interests you.