Tag Archives: depression

Footnote to “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization”: corporate monstrosity in The Grapes of Wrath

In my latest article on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I write that “the Depression prompted … Frankensteinian representations of corporate business” that resonate today, amidst an economic crisis that has prompted references to the Depression. To identify scenes and tropes as Frankensteinian, I rely on Chris Baldick’s theory of Frankenstein’s “skeleton story” as the core of the story’s innumerable popular adaptations, of its status as what Baldick calls a paradoxically “modern myth” (tk). The “skeleton story” consists essentially of just two complementary plot points: 1) a man makes a creature; 2) the creature revolts and runs amok. For evidence of Frankensteinian representations of corporate business in the Depression era, I cited one example, a 1930 piece of journalism called “Frankenstein, Inc.” But I have more recently found a highly significant literary example – one I wished I had known about before the article went to press (hence this footnote) – it’s none other than John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the major literary statement on the Depression, a novel I’m only now reading for the first time.

20120812-162645.jpgThe novel tells the Depression-era story of the Joad family’s forced exodus from Oklahoma to California, and tells this story in a pointedly dialectical form, alternating between chapters about the Joads’ specific scenes and doings, and chapters about the general contexts and crises that condition the Joads’ particular story. The fifth chapter – a general chapter – describes the manouevres, manipulations, and machinations used by the “owner men” to get the “tenant men” off their lands in the process of mechanizing and automating agriculture – turning it into agribusiness. Steinbeck describes the owner men talking about the eviction of the tenants, and the reclamation of the land, with reference to figures of monstrosity that mystify the relations of corporate production and absolve the owner men of responsibility:

If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, the Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. … And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. … these creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. (41)

When the tenant men counter that “the bank is only made of men,” the owner men tell them they’re wrong: “No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. … The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (43, my emphasis).

Following this scene of the owner men rationalizing (and reifying) corporate business – relieving them of responsibility for its cruel externalities – Steinbeck describes an encounter between a soon-to-be-evicted tenant and the driver of a company tractor that is the specific instrument of the “monstrous” corporate reclamation of the farmlands from the tenants: “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat. … The driver could not control it” (45). The tenant who talks to this driver fails to persuade him of his inhuman betrayal of the families he’s mechanically displaced, but ultimately vows, “There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change” (50, my emphasis).

The chapter thus adapts the “skeleton story” of Frankenstein as one of the premises for Steinbeck’s novel: in both the unsuccessfully reassuring words of the owner men and the horrified reactions of the tenant men, the corporate business model is a destructive, superhuman monster – made by humans, but now beyond humans’ control, running amok and wreaking havoc, economic and environmental. This certainly isn’t the only cultural or intertextual premise of Steinbeck’s stern and sweeping saga, but it is a conspicuous and telling one, eatablished very early in the plot of one of America’s definitive critical accounts of the corporate-dominated market society, the robber barons accountable for it, and the multitudes of workers exploited and abandoned by by it.

Works Cited
Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
McCutcheon, Mark A. “Frankenstein as a figure of globalization in Canada’s popular culture.” Continuum 25.5 (2011): 731-42.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.

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.