Tag Archives: adaptation

Aside

I made two mistakes last night in watching Julie Taymor’s gorgeous 1999 film version of Shakespeare’s atrocious Titus Andronicus: waiting so long to watch it; & making a drinking game of having a sip every time there’s bloodshed. #BearThouMyHandSweetWenchBetweenThyTeeth #ShakespeareMakesTarantinoLookLikeDisney

Science fiction TV and partisan politics

I’ve made an accidental observation while searching for images to use in a slideshow for an upcoming conference talk.
A Google image search for “the borg” shows results that include several images of the US president Barack Obama as a member of the Borg. E.g.:

Sample remixed image of Obama as the Borg


But a Google image search for “cylons” shows results that include images of Mitt Romney and John McCain (and to a lesser extent Sarah Palin). E.g.:

Sample image of Romney that refers to Cylons


It’s a strangely consistent polarization of two major Hollywood science fiction franchises, each used as instruments of partisan political satire: for reasons that may deserve closer analysis, right-leaning audiences on the right appear to be appropriating the Borg to satirize Obama, and centre-leaning audiences appear to be appropriating the Cylons to satirize Republicans.

Format-shifting and fidelity: on reading and adaptation

Recent work on adaptation studies (the study of novels turned into movies, and so on) suggests that the ideas the field was founded on – like how “faithful” a movie is to its source – have been superseded, left behind as passé or outmoded. That’s the state of the field according to Linda Hutcheon’s 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation, for instance.

So reading Jamie Lee Wallace’s blog post about how “audio books are not cheating” – to gether with its comments – is a useful reminder that ideas about fidelity to source texts and authenticity in original versions are alive and well in everyday language and popular culture. Wallace is responding to criticisms that reading audio rather than print editions of books is a kind of “cheating.” She makes solid, practical arguments: that the text is the same; that audiobooks make reading possible for otherwise busy schedules; and, most interestingly, that the speaking voice adds presence (what Walter Benjamin calls “aura”) and, sometimes, additional interpretive layers.

My main criticism of the post was going to be that she doesn’t name those who think audiobooks are cheating: who are the “bibliophile purists” she’s responding to?

Then I started reading the comments. The overwhelming majority agree with the blogger (not surprising, since the blog medium itself would filter out a lot of print purists). But the dissenting comments are revealing. (I admit I’m taking some of these out of context.)

“I don’t listen to books — I read them.”
“I’m still just purist enough to be annoyed by eBooks. I still think nothing beats the feeling of actually holding the book and turning the pages.”
“I am totally one of those people who wouldn’t be caught dead with a kindle or any fandangled technology device that’s trying to replace books.”
“I felt dirty for listening to it. I was cheating myself of the experience of cradling a book in my hands and being curled up on the couch with it, but it freed my hands up to do other things..granted there was a few sound effects added into the story, which helped enhance the experience but I don’t think I can really say I’ve “read” that book because I didn’t physically hold it in my hands.”
“I still insist that books are meant to be read. However, I do not consider audio-books or kindle versions to be cheating, with one condition: That the book is intact. That is all summaries, short versions and most obviously movie adaptations are cheating. Mostly because they give everything in bite size, easily digested pieces. The point about a book is to let your imagination go wild and enjoy the imagery the author so carefully created.”

As you can see, the discussion ends up encompassing not just audiobooks but e-books as formats seen to compete with print as more people shift to them. But the shift isn’t one-way, just as adaptation isn’t one-way. (Hutcheon discusses how novels changed over the 20th century to adopt more “cinematic” techniques.) In this light, the last quoted comment’s point about abridgments is well taken – I read unabridged audio editions – but to call a film adaptation “cheating” is to misconstrue what films do (unless you’re talking about films that cheat estates out of their royalties), and yet it’s a widely held opinion. I myself confess to having felt vaguely like I was taking a shortcut by reading Ulysses (unabridged) as an audiobook; but that feeling was easily trumped by a rewarding feeling of accomplishment: I’ve read Ulysses!

Ulysses, by James Joyce

What this blog post suggests for adaptation studies is that it needs to engage critically with the popular romance of fidelity: the fetishes of authenticity and aura that we have inherited from Romantic tradition and that clearly continue to inform popular receptions and understandings of popular culture. (There’s also, among this post’s comments, a recurring sense that new media simply replace old – as I discussed last week.)

But by the same token, “purists” need to ask themselves what purity they are defending, and what that defence serves. Discourses of purity, for instance, are historically bound up in pernicious practices and institutions of race and nation. And defences of purity are one of the main ideological weapons still deployed by multinational media conglomerates to sell the public on increasingly restrictive, censorious, and invasive copyright regulation. In addition, media today are so diverse and multi-directional in their mutual appropriations and cross-pollinations that more pertinent and productive questions beg to be asked than whether audio editions are more real or more readable than paper, or whether Clueless is “faithful” to Austen.

Take Canadian poet Christian Bok’s Xenotext Experiment, for instance: a poem transcribed into a bacterium’s genome, for it to replicate and mutate – literally re-writing Bok’s poem – ad infinitum. What might readers attached to print make of this writing? How does one read the “original” text of a bacterial genome?

New media to old (and vice versa): Om nom nom

The “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech. (31)

This passage occurs towards the end of the first chapter of McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) – the chapter that details his most famous statement: “The medium is the message.” In the context of explicating that statement (explication that, for McLuhan, entails both explanation and further encryption), he makes the above comment about content – or message – as both a distraction from the real issue, form – or medium – and, at the same time, a kind of palimpsest or accretion of legacy media.

McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” became famous as a well-worded, soundbite-friendly wake-up call to pay attention not to the “content” of cultural production but to its “form.” In addition, the way it’s worded suggests that form and content, medium and message, can’t be easily distinguished from each other – they are mutually entangled, mutually constitutive of each other. Treating form and content as separate and opposed tends to oversimplify how cultural production works.

Other scholars and artists have made this point too. As Slavoj Žižek puts it: “form is not the neutral frame of particular contents, but the very principle of concretion” (190). “We need to do more than explain what our texts are saying,” says Romantic literary scholar Jerome McGann; “we need to understand what they are doing in saying what they say” (viii). Henry James, in a personal letter from 1912, anticipates McLuhan’s own statement: “Form is substance,” he writes. “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance” (235).

Understanding this admittedly complicated statement of McLuhan’s is a priority for the student who would succeed in literary, cultural, or media studies. Rutgers U English professor Jack Lynch translates the idea into practical terms: “in an English paper, don’t talk about the ‘real world.’ Talk about writing.”

Don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world – it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it.

Or as I’ve put it, in my own discussions with students, the focus in literary study shouldn’t be on what the text says, but rather on how it says it. Write about the literary work not as though it’s a “window” you can ignore while you watch the scene through it, but instead as though it’s a tapestry: a dense network of textual threads that have as much interest – or more – for their intricate interweaving and connections, as for the scene they show.

So one way McLuhan suggests the mutual constitution of medium and message, as well as the socially determining power of the former, is by giving examples of how new media interact with old. To call old media the content of new media is, first, to describe cultural production as more of a practice of adaptation. While we are accustomed to thinking of art-making as “creation” (according to traditions inherited from Romanticism and the reproduced in the rhetoric of the entertainment industry) – as, instead, more accurately understood as a practice of appropriating and transformatively re-working existing texts, genres, and discourses. As McLuhan’s colleague at the U of Toronto also observed, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97). Hence, Linda Hutcheon appropriates this very passage from McLuhan as a fitting epigraph for A Theory of Adaptation (2006).

“The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.” Any text you can think of – and by “text” I mean any kind of cultural production (movie, novel, play, opera, etc.) – is to a greater or lesser extent an adaptation of other existing texts and conventions; nothing gets created out of nothing. Even William Wordsworth, exemplar of Romantic originality, wrote his celebrated poetry by responding to and reworking an extensive repertoire of earlier literature (Hayden 215).

Here’s an example from one of Western culture’s most adapted – and adaptive – playwrights, Shakespeare. His play King Lear – itself an adaptation of a story from medieval Anglo-Celtic folklore – provides source material adapted by Japanese director Akiro Kurasawa, for the feudal epic Ran; or by Margaret Atwood, for the novel Cat’s Eye, whose beleaguered protagonist is named after Lear’s dutiful but persecuted daughter Cordelia. And every production of a dramatic script is is own adaptation. The 1993 staging of Lear by London’s Royal Shakespeare Company presented a postmodern historical pastiche, with characters starting out in period costume but then appearing in progressively more modern garb. By the ultraviolent finale, characters looked like they had arrived onstage from the killing fields of Serbia and Croatia. The production’s ironic costuming and prop strategies thus turned Shakespeare’s play into a critique of ethnic nationalism, and even of modernity’s master narrative, progress.

Now, McLuhan, for his part, isn’t interested so much in adaptations of texts and genres but in adaptations of media, as institutions, to one another. The point of observing that the content of a movie is a play is to illustrate how new media adapt, interact with, and – as he tends to see it – integrate and assimilate older media. The content of commercial radio in its early days was a compbination of drama adapted from stage, journalism adapted from print, performed music, and recorded music. The tiny iPod has eaten the giant jukebox. The tablet screen I’m typing these words on is also the typewriter. The desktop computer is often cited as the apotheosis of media convergence (I’ll get back to the example pictured here).

20111117-144930.jpg

From left: tube amp, iMac, scanner, printer on speaker

McLuhan, deeply engaged with issues of modernity, tended to see media change and development in terms of epochs and revolutions, as though they succeed one another and make each other obsolete: video killed the radio star. He was surrounded by kids who took to television in a way that books seemed unable to compete with. McLuhan’s comment aout old media as the content of new implies something of this sense of turnover and perennila obsolescence: if a play is the content of a movie, then plays are on the way out. This is patently false, of course, and more recent scholarship has both critiqued this premise of McLuhan’s work (among others) and extended McLuhan’s investigatons of how new and old media interact, suggesting instead that emergent media negotiate and make accommodations with existing media. Bolter and Grusin suggest the term “remediation” to describe how new media both incorporate old media and strive to seem “immediate,” or transparent. Henry Jenkins’ term for the interaction of new and old media, and the consequent blurring of distinctions between producers and consumers, is convergence culture.

To give a few examples: The novel’s conventions changed after the advent of film, plays as easily incorporate video as video adapts drama, and video games and movies are constantly turning into each other. A decade’s worth of file-sharing has also been a decade of growing and sometimes record profits for big entertainment industries. The popularization of computing has entailed not the paperless office or ubiquitous telecommuting, but more paperwork (literally) and new laws to regulate computing while commuting. My family computer functions as a radio, a CD player, a DVD player, a TV, a game console, a photo album, and a film studio. It also, sometimes, serves as a computer. But this is a two-way street: as far as my big old vacuum-tube amplifier is concerned, the computer is just one input channel, no different than the cassette deck also hooked up to it. serves as just one input for my big old vacuum-tube amplifier and vegetable-crate sized speakers.

McLuhan himself later “discovered a better way of saying the medium is the message,” as follows: “Each technology creates a new environment” (qtd. in Gordon 175). He thought this wording better addresses how media strive for “immediacy,” how they become taken for granted, invisible, and natural in their social implementation – and thus how they effect their most profound transformations on subjectivity and society, time and space.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT P, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gordon, W. Terrence. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997.

Hayden, John O. “The Road to Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth Circle 12.4 (1981): 211-16.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

James, Henry. Letter to Hugh Walpole (19 May 1912). Rpt. in Novelists on the Novel. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ca. 1959. 235.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Lynch, Jack. “Writing about the Real World.” Getting an A on an English Paper. Rutgers U, n.d.

McGann, Jerome. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Corte Madera: Gingko P, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Afterword,” in Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London: Verso, 2002.

Time of the sign; or, détournement as nuclear criticism

Photograph by takomabibelot, from http://www.thewip.net

Once upon a summertime in a certain southwestern Ontario town, an unknown group of youths encountered, on the town’s outskirts, a sign that welcomed visitors with assurances that this town was a “nuclear weapons free zone.” This pacifistic allure the town shares with other towns around the world, towns that — without such helpful signs — would otherwise surely be presumed to possess silo-sunk stockpiles of ICBMs. Towns like Vancouver, for example. The sign that boasted this town’s lack of an atomic arsenal depicted a dove in flight, as do many such signs, like this one at right, from somewhere in the United States of America.

An architectural peculiarity of the town’s central square had inspired the designer of the sign in question to frame the dove, an olive branch in its beak, winging its way out of an octagon, and over watery waves. Some of these details may be observed in the photograph at left.

Possibly inspired by mind-altering influences like French literary theory, or perhaps by the penchant of engineering students for situationist mischief, the youths relieved it from its post. However, clearly not content to leave their vandalism of the cliché, kleptomanic kind, the youths decided — upon making certain discoveries about the physical properties of the sign, and in particular its paint — to put the sign back.
Edited.

Evidently, the town liked the edited version so much, it stayed up well into the winter. The youths’ motive in producing this gentle guerrilla art installation remains as profoundly unknown as do their present whereabouts. This critic’s best guess — beyond chalking it up to young people’s natural fondness for pushing the public’s buttons — is that the installation implies no place on Earth can yet claim freedom from nuclear weapons, while their buttons still exist to be pushed.

Lady Gaga, copyfighter?

Google search results for “Lady Gaga infringement”: 630,000
For “Lady Gaga copyright”: 270,000,000

That’s a lot of Intertubes about Lady Gaga and copyright. Sifting the results, though, turns up little by way of actual actions. She threatened to sue the maker of a “Lady Gag Gag” sex doll, for instance; and action against her has been threatened by an alleged co-writer.

(If anyone knows of other actions, please comment — I just haven’t time to sift all two hundred and seventy million results!)

Rather more of the results have to do instead with Gaga’s perceived lack of originality, pointing out rather obvious similarities between her image and music and those of Madonna, or, say, between her meat dress and Canadian sculptor Jana Sterbak’s 1987 meat dress.

I had bristled at first that Lady Gaga so nakedly plagiarized the meat dress. But it now occurs to me that what she’s doing in music and fashion combined is oddly representative of today’s remix culture, in a political climate of ever more restrictive IP regulation. Lady Gaga, a major presence in both fashion and music now, is, in a way, bringing something of the copyright-indifferent business practices of the former — in which “there’s very little intellectual property protection” — to bear on the copyright-mad business practices of the latter.

Maybe not intentionally, maybe just inadvertently.

In any case, the various productions and performances of Lady Gaga stand open to some very suggestive interpretation, as critical statements on the present state of tensions and negotiations between the corporate-backed hegemony of “originality” and the creativity of open appropriation.

Update: I’ll take this story about Lady GaGa’s endorsement of a little Canadian girl who covered “Born this way” on Youtube as some solid evidence supporting my hunch here.
The Youtube vid in question is pretty excellent.

UPDATE 2.0! TorrentFreak confirms that “Lady Gaga Is a BitTorrent Loving Pirate.”
Apparently “she asked her fans to send a torrent (or YouTube) link of the Top Chef Just Desserts finale.”
Now, about that thing with the photographers

A Romeo & Juliet mix. Happy Love Day!

In a grad class on Shakespearean adaptations, I presented a DJ mix as my seminar on Lorca’s El Publico: a Surrealist adaptation of a seminar seemed appropriate for Lorca’s Surrealist adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. (The seminar was a success: everybody danced.) In time for Happy Love Day* I’ve posted the set online, in two “acts.” (Seminar details and annotated playlist are housed at the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 1) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

PA System: A Romeo & Juliet mix (Act 2) cloudcast by sonicfiction.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

* “Happy Love Day” is a spoof of “Valentine’s Day” in an episode of The Simpsons (“Trash of the Titans” [S9E22]. Fox, 26 Apr. 1998):

“Come on, Mom, The stores just invented this holiday to make money.”

Glenn Gould, copyfighter

“The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture.”
–Glenn Gould, 1964 (343)

In the mid-1960s, the virtuoso Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, caused a sensation by abandoning live concert performances and tours, as well as speaking engagements, to focus strictly on recording and broadcasting. Gould had quickly tired of touring performances and the concert-hall economy that demanded them. His profession had ensconced concerts as the test and affirmation of authentic virtuosity. Gould not only dropped them, retiring to the studio and the radio booth; he also began to attack them, in thoughtful — and prescient — critiques, as the antithesis of artistic achievement in an age of mechanical reproduction.

Gould’s major statement of his thesis on recording as the future of music is his 1965 CBC radio documentary, “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording”. Gould’s argument uncannily echoed Walter Benjamin’s, on art and mechanical reproduction, of which, as far as I know, Gould was unaware; his position was more specifically influenced by Marshall McLuhan. Gould argues that new electronic media represent a more private, individualized, and aesthetically satisfying future of music in contrast to the outmoded public “museums” of
live performance that, for him, no longer lay claim to the optimal appreciation of music. Gould echoes Benjamin in criticizing the romanticization (what Benjamin would call the aura) of the artist at the expense of appreciating the artwork: “the determination of the value of the work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent for of aesthetic appraisal” (“Prospects” 341). To illustrate his case, Gould tells the story of a wartime forger of Vermeer paintings, Hans van Meegeren. Van Meergen was reviled as a forger who had fooled expert art historians; he got only momentary reprieve after the war when it became apparent that the Vermeers he had sold to Nazis for enormous sums were in fact forgeries. Gould hails van Meergen as a “private hero” whose case “perfectly epitomizes the confrontation between those values of identity and of personal-responsibility-for-authorship which post-Renaissance art has until recently accepted and those pluralistic values which electronic forms assert” (341).

Gould’s elaboration on the “pluralistic values” of electronic forms centres on “a new kind of listener — a listener more participant in the musical experience” — indeed, a “listener [who] can ultimately become his own composer” (347). For Gould’s new kind of listener, private listening eclipses public listening. The intimacy and clarity of home listening lends the music higher definition and opens it not only to more involved appreciation, but also to transformation by the listener: “It may well be that the very near future will produce a do-it-yourself laboratory of home recording techniques…We already see this happening in the case of the hi-fi bug, the fellow who places his own interpretative notions of questions of dynamics, of balance, of separation, of textural preferences [on] the recording which he plays on his home stereo” (“Forgery” 219). Gould is extrapolating from the increasing availability of home stereo EQ controls and home audiotape systems, in 1964, to accurately project new, participatory forms of music production-consumption (prosumption) that have since materialized: a decade later, in the vinyl-synching, cassette splicing foundations of hip hop music; forty years later, in the digital redistributions and remix forms enabled by CD, MP3, and P2P.

What’s more: Gould recognizes the symbolic and material threat that DIY listening-composing would pose to music critics, concert halls, and record labels alike. “To those who insist that the relation of audience to the performing act be a passive one, it already constitutes licentious interpretative interference” (219). Echoing Benjamin’s argument about aura, Gould identifies the “controversy [of] the tape splice” as a target of “the antirecord lobby [which] proclaims splicing a dishonest and dehumanizing technique” (337). As for the emerging pro-record (but anti-recording) lobby, Gould imagines a “local club of spare-time mechanics … concentrating upon the project of producing a master tape amalgamating the perfect virtues of the Beethoven Fifth as rendered by Klemperer, Karajan and Bruno Walter,” and then reflects that “there may be certain contractual difficulties here. Perhaps EMI, Deutsche Grammophon and Columbia Records will be less warmly disposed than I to this idea” (“Forgery” 219-20).

Gould even nods inadvertently to the discourse of intellectual property regulation in reflecting on the audience’s departure from public performance scenes to private home listening. “Those experiences through which the listener encounters music electronically transmitted are not within the public domain” (“Prospects” 347, my emphasis). For his purposes, Gould simply means that electronic media encourage domestic, individualized, and customizable music appreciation; yet by unwittingly referring to the “public domain” of copyright law, Gould ironically describes what has since become one of the most hotly contested issues in the copyfight today: the gradual disappearance of the public domain amidst the “new enclosures” of corporate copyright exploitation and entrenchment. On this account, Gould’s remark that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbably that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity” (352) is similarly right on the money, both in terms of the technics and the legalities now involved.

Yet despite his incisive (and sometimes inadvertent) recognitions of Big Media’s impositions, Gould remained consistently optimistic about the implications “that the mechanics of electronic creation and preservation will determine the large part of the future of artistically ordered sound — if that is a safe word than music” (“Forgery” 218).

In the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly … The audience would be the artist and their life would be art. (“Prospects” 353)

As an iconoclastic icon of Canadian culture, Gould shared important insights about art, adaptation, and appropriation — not to mention “pluralistic values” — that have proven prescient and urgently critical to current debates over intellectual property, and how best to define and regulate it, among the fast-changing technoscapes of electronic media. In the face of the attempted lockdowns, confiscations, and extortions of Access Copyright, Bill C-32, ACTA, and so on, I take as a heartening affirmation Gould’s assertion that “there is, in fact, nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape editor … exercising such interpretive predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance” (348, my emphasis).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Rpt. in Marxists Internet Archive, 2005.
Gould, Glenn. “Dialogue on the Prospects of Recording.” CBC Radio, 10 Jan. 1965. Rpt. in Time 4 Time [blog], 7 Oct. 2008.
—. “Forgery and imitation in the creative process” (1963). The Art of Glenn Gould: Reflections of a Musical Genius. Ed. John P.L. Roberts. Toronto: Malcolm Lester, 1999. 204-221.
—. “The Prospects of Recording.” The Glenn Gould Reader. Ed. Tim Page. New York: Knopf, 1984. 331-53.

See also:
“Glenn Gould on recording.” The Music of Man. Perf. Yehudi Menuhin, ,Glenn Gould. CBC et al, 1987. Rpt. at Youtube.

Zombies and the political economy of precarity

The blood-smeared public-radio booth in Pontypool (2008), the great Canadian zombie movie

The zombie has been a tenacious mainstay of popular entertainment for decades. But this soon-turning decade seems more plagued than most, of late, by hordes of zombie pop cultural productions: movies (28 Days Later, Pontypool, Zombieland, as well as remakes like Dawn of the Dead); books, especially in the booming genre of mashed-up “monster classics” (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter); television (the forthcoming Walking Dead miniseries); pop music (e.g. Major Lazer’s “Zumbi”); new media, teeming with parodies; and “live” performances like the so many big cities now host. And it gets weirder: last year, Ottawa mathematicians published a study using zombie attack to model infectious outbreak. This fall, the U of Baltimore’s “Media genres: Zombies” undergrad course has been getting a degree of press coverage that would seem inordinate…if zombies weren’t the It monster just now. Even my toddler — who, let me assure you, has never watched a zombie movie (although we have read Wake the Dead, come to think of it) — is onto it, battling imaginary zombies at the bedroom window last weekend. (Zombies conveniently vulnerable to pinching, apparently: “Pinch the zombies! Pinch the zombies!”)

Why zombies? Why now? These questions came up recently over breakfast with colleagues at Athabasca U. But none of us had ready answers. Surely some of the blockbuster zombie activity can be attributed to the rejuvenation of pop cultural narratives of the undead that the Twilight franchise catalyzed. (This theory can be reduced to an observation on market trends: “Zombies are the new vampires.”) And some of the DIY material made by consumer-producers (conducers? prosumers) — the fan fiction, the Youtube parodies, the street theatre events — can be attributed to the ubiquity of digital media, and especially social networks, where pop-culture references mix, mutate, go viral, and spin off in all kinds of creative, hyper-mediated and performative directions.

But while watching 28 Weeks Later last weekend, just to get into the Hallowe’en spirit, I noticed some formulaic features of the zombie movie genre that suggested a tentative hypothesis. The zombies usually attack in a horde. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed. They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast.

As Susan Tyler Hitchcock observes, in her Cultural History of Frankenstein, the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein (like the earlier and successful film version of Dracula) did brisk box-office business not despite but because of the Depression in which it debuted. Desperate economic times made horror and monster movies particularly suitable flights of fancy, allowing those who could afford the tickets to live vicariously through horrific, apocalyptic tragedies that afforded a perverse but fitting escape from their real-world worries and woes.

Last week, too, my AU colleague Paul Kellogg gave a fascinating talk about the use of the Great Depression as an analogy in more recent economic crises. Using Time Magazine as an archival index of the mass-media Zeitgeist, Kellogg pointed out that the most frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression occurred in the mid-1980s, the height of Reaganomics. And the next most-frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression is happening, as you may have guessed, right now. But Kellogg sees a contradiction: during the Depression, the statistical drop in real full-time wages plummeted. Now, stats show that real full-time wages are, gradually, climbing. The problem, he maintains, is that the numbers on full-time wages don’t reflect the representative sample of the work force they once did. That is to say, not nearly as many people now have full-time employment. Even if they work forty or more hours per week. Major sectors of the work force have been reconfigured for flexibility and disposability. In Canadian universities, for example, the bulk of undergraduate teaching is no longer done by tenured or tenure-track professors; it’s done by “sessional” or “adjunct” instructors — or, increasingly, by graduate students — who have no job security from one semester to the next, though they may go on teaching at one institution for years or even decades. Such are the norms of labour and its exploitation under the globalized, financialized, and flexibly mobile world-system of neoliberal capital that’s been taking shape since the late 1970s. Such are the labour conditions of the work force we call “the precariat.”

So. What’s this detour into history and political economy got to do with zombies? It occurs to me that the pop-culture zombie today is a figure of the precariat and the poverty-stricken, and the zombie narrative is an allegory of mass impoverishment and middle-class retreat. I don’t mean this as any kind of insult to labourers without job security. I’m trying to sort out the cultural function of the zombie figure in texts that are, for the most part, products of a culture industry and the implicit hegemony of values, norms, and perspectives that it imposes.

"Don't talk": the radio talk-show host tells you so. Pontypool, 2008

The zombies usually attack in a horde; the precariat labours as a fast-growing multitude, simultaneously grouped in social environments and subjectively isolated by the conditions and technologies of work. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space; the dwindling middle class retreats to gated communities, rural properties, condominiums, dwellings that maximize architectural and social distance from the multitude. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed; in an economic downturn, society becomes more unequal and more unstable: crime escalates, criminals get creative, weary and beaten scapegoats (immigrant workers, ethnic and other minorities) are hauled before a public conditioned by increasingly neoliberal media, and job security becomes a constant concern, easily smashed at any time by any number of instrumentally rationalized management decisions. (As Ed Broadbent discussed at Congress, with reference to the social study The Spirit Level, the more unequal societies become, as social services and safety nets are scaled back or ripped away in favour of “austerity measures,” the more dysfunctional and volatile they become.) They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. The precariat and the impoverished have no tools or technologies at their disposal, they are reduced to “bare life.” They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. The precariat and the impoverished not only become demonized themselves but become instruments for demonizing education: the public sector most critically resistant to neoliberal hegemony. The zombie is a middle-class image of the precariat or the poverty-stricken, a figure instrumentalized by the culture industry to represent a certain kind of ideal consumer (fast-acting, unreflective, bent on consuming only other consumers), and weaponized to assault the institutions that raise critical consciousness about labour, exploitation, and ideology today: educational and intellectual institutions. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie; nobody’s job is secure enough not to get fired. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast; just like getting fired.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, then, on the ways in which the current popularity of all things zombie might be used not just to model infectious outbreaks (the adequacy of which modelling, I have to say, leaves me skeptical), but also to stand (or maybe stagger) as a cultural symptom of the globalized political economy that has dispossessed and continues to dispossess so many, leaving them ravenous, their hands outstretched, grasping at any purchase, crazed with rage and frustration, clamouring at the doors and windows of the dwindling few who survive the layoffs and cutbacks — the embattled few who — just like in the movies — usually harbour, whether knowingly or unwittingly, the selfish and treacherous individuals who are responsible for the plague in the first place.

The multitude outside. Pontypool, 2008.

Works Cited
Agamben, Giogio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (2008)
Adorno, Theodor. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Rpt. in Soundscapes 2 (2000) http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/Culture_industry_reconsidered.shtml
Broadbent, Ed. “The Rise and Fall of Economic and Social Rights — What Next?” Congress, Concordia U, 29 May 2010.
Hardt, Michale and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004).
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History (2007).
Kellogg, Paul. “The great recession, the North American workplace, and the 1930’s ‘analogy trap’.” MA-IS Faculty Symposium, 15 Oct. 2010.
Pontypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Shadow Show / Maple Pictures, 2008.