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Game Of Thrones isn’t escapist, it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism

“Old-fashioned escapism”? | Definitions | Win or die | Brands and circuses | “The slavery of being a girl” | “Winter is coming” | A “cracked-mirror” Europe | A critical or ideological fantasy? | Notes | Works Cited

“Old-fashioned escapism”?

Fantasy may think of itself as escapist, but it of course escapes nothing, and the idea that it therefore does not have anything to say about ‘reality’ is wildly simplistic. (Miéville ¶40)

Game Of Thrones season 1 screenshotThe HBO TV series Game Of Thrones is one of today’s most popular TV shows. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, Game Of Thrones is set in a fictional world “like a cracked-mirror reflection of medieval Europe” (Tucker ¶2), and its plot concerns a struggle among several aristocratic families, or “Houses,” for the monarchy of a realm called Westeros. Game is mainly a character drama about these “high-born” families embroiled in this war for the realm’s “Iron Throne,” but it belongs to the fantasy genre that was innovated by J.R.R. Tolkein. The setting is a feudal, agrarian society; battles are fought with blades and bows among castles, cavalry, and catapults; and there are fantastic elements like magic, and monsters: dragons, giants, and, yes, zombies too.

In the popular press, Game is often described as “escapism” – whether for better or worse. In the UK’s Independent, Sarah Hughes attributes the popularity of Game to audience demand for “fantasy and escapism, which tends to happen when times are hard” (Hughes ¶11). Critic Navneet Alang praises violent shows like Game and The Walking Dead for their “brutal escapism”: Martin_STFUaboutGoT“both shows are escapist dreams,” he writes; “[w]hile The Walking Dead is a look into an imaginary future … Game of Thrones is a look back into an imaginary past” (¶3). BBC journalist Ken Tucker applauds Game for its “old-fashioned escapism … invit[ing] you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and a saddle” (¶2). In contrast, Vice columnist Clive Martin states his “aversion to anything that could be described as fantasy” and categorically dismisses Game – together with the whole fantasy genre – for its escapism: “I’ve always seen it as a culture that tends to be adored by people who can’t quite deal with the chaos of the real world” (¶8).

Nevertheless, some of the critics who call Game escapist still point to elements of social relevance from which they would otherwise distance the show (or fantasy in general). The Independent‘s Hughes mentions “hard times”; and the BBC’s Tucker notes that “at a time when people fear upsetting the boss lest they find themselves tossed into a frighteningly small job market … the escapism of a programme in which bosses can be cut down to size with one precise slash of a sword exerts a gut-level allure” (¶6). Other critics question the supposed escapism of Game. In The Nation, Michelle Dean asks if Game is “escapist enough”: “typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals … utopian dreams and escapist fantasias … about … the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones … isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils” (¶ 4, ¶8). Dean suggests that Game’s “postmodern approach to power” signals a “politically interesting shift” in how popular culture “imagin[es] alternate worlds” (¶7-8).

Detail of "Realms of GAFA" by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Detail of “Realms of GAFA” by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Likewise, in 2012, The Economist commented that, for Silicon Valley audiences, “the escapism [Game] offer[s] may be tinged with … recognition. … [Its] tales of a world that has lost its king echoes the reality of today’s technology industry, where the battle lines between the four large companies seen as dominating the consumer internet … are in furious flux” (¶2). The Economist article compares Game’s contenders for the “Iron Throne” to Silicon Valley’s competitors for “the iron phone”:

Their lordships Page, Cook, Zuckerberg and Bezos thus need to map a course for their respective firms through dangerous legal and regulatory territory. At the same time they have to avoid being distracted from fighting their rivals; the mad emperors of Microsoft … And the shareholders, hungry for returns in a moribund global economy, need to be kept happy. (¶28)

Connections like these, between the feudal world of Game and today’s capitalist world, are what the Vice columist alludes to, when he ridicules fans of the show who claim “it’s about politics” (¶4). In what follows, I want to challenge “escapist” readings of Game – which mystify the show’s social relevance – by elaborating on its relevance, on how, exactly, “it’s about politics.” Game is not “escapist,” it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism.1 (Fans should note that what follows is only about the TV series only, not the books it is based on.)


Some definitions are now in order, for my key terms: allegory, neoliberalism, and new feudalism. First, allegory can be summarized as “the concrete presentation of an abstract idea, typically in a narrative – whether prose, verse, or drama – with at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story line, which can be summed up by stating who did what to whom when. The second level is typically moral, political, philosophical, or religious” (Murfin and Ray 10).

This meme made Game Of Thrones an allegory for the 2012 US presidential election: it’s illustrative, but parochial. We can think bigger.

That is, allegory is “an extended metaphor” – extended, sometimes, to the length of an entire narrative (10), and involving extensive and often subtle use of tropes – figurative language and images – to convey multiple meanings, to convey irony and subtext. And irony and subtext need have nothing to do with the intention of a text’s creator, but are equally valuable (if not moreso) as acts of reading. I read Game as an allegory of what has been called the “new feudalism” of neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberalism basically describes a free-market ideology that masks a globalized economy of governments controlled by corporations. David Harvey calls neoliberalism “an elite-political project that ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’” (qtd. in Smith ¶4). That’s the free-market ideology part; however, as Peter Jay Smith writes, “[f]ree enterprise does not mean free competition as depicted in neoclassical theory.” Instead, this “free-market fundamentalist” ideology conceals the real operations of global capital as an oligarchy – a system of elite rule by corporations, with state leaders as their servants, which means “protection for the strong and socialization of their risks, market and discipline for the weak’” (Smith ¶15). In other words, neoliberalism means, in practice, “socialized costs” and “privatized gains” (Hjersted ¶8) – for the rich, the “socialism” of generous tax breaks and subsidies, and, for everyone else, the cut-throat capitalism of the “free market.” The demonstrable result of neoliberalism has been the impoverishment of the public good, and a corresponding, sharp increase in wealth inequality.

The dog-eat-dog neoliberal ethos, together with its resulting wealth gap and financial crises, has led some artists, thinkers, and even businesspeople to understand capitalism today as a return to feudal society: a new feudalism. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” novels from the 1980s envision a near future ruled by heavily fortified corporations. For political scientist Tim Duvall, writing in 2003:

The New Feudalism is much like the Old Feudalism. We call it ‘liberalism’ now, we think of it as ‘democracy,’ but it is really what it always was: the freedom of the economic elite to dispose of their property at will. (83)

The “serfs” of our New Feudalism are the shrinking middle classes and the growing working classes and under-classes of poor and precarious labourers, all redefined as consumers. The “lords” of our New Feudalism are corporations that have annexed the state and the media, to enforce business interests by any means necessary, persuading us that business interests are society’s interests, and attacking as heresy any questioning of “the deified Market” (87).

Occupy LA photo courtesy of ringospictures.com

Occupy LA photo courtesy of ringospictures.com

The 2008 “Great Recession” has breathed new life into feudal analogies of the modern world’s economy, amidst the “economic awakening” of Occupy Wall Street and related movements. US journalist Chris Hedges writes: “a slow-motion coup by a corporate state has cemented into place a neofeudalism in which there are only masters and serfs” (¶3). UK blogger C.J. Stone writes: “we are in the midst of … a return to feudalism. … The new Feudal Lords use financial rent – indebtedness – [for] living off the back of a servant class” (“Empire”). The comparison of late capitalism to feudalism recurs often enough in the Huffington Post that the term “neo-feudalism” is a searchable tag on the Huffington Post website (see “Neo-feudalism”, Pederson, and Whitehead). And even a US venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, makes the same point: “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. … If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us” (¶6-8).

We see the feudal character of neoliberal capitalism in the ways that corporations cultivate consumers’ “brand loyalty”; in the ways that workers toil like serfs in a globally distributed and fortified gulag of “export processing zones”; in the ways that corporations enjoy more rights and representation than citizens. Corporations are the new aristocratic “Houses,” while workers are being disciplined or coerced to work under conditions of serfdom, indentured servitude, or guild apprenticeship (e.g. unpaid internships), if not outright slavery.

Win or die

In this context, Game allegorizes the new feudal society that has been built by neoliberal policies (and it is far from the only TV series to give allegorical form to neoliberal capitalism2). The show dramatizes the competition among an aristocratic elite for “the Iron Throne,” object and symbol of a monopoly on power and wealth; this dramatization includes forceful scenes of the wealth inequality, militarization, corruption, and patriarchal violence on which that power and wealth depend. The “high-born” Houses of Westeros echo those of feudal Europe. As the creators acknowledge, Game borrows from many historical sources, mainly the 1455-85 War of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York; in the series, they are “Lannister” and “Stark” (“Plot”). But these Houses are also figures of corporate business. Many corporations are family dynasties that rely for their sustenance and reproduction on kinship, a patriarchal division of labour, and ties of loyalty (chiefly the loyalty of their client governments, and also that of consumers). Among the Houses, the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism characterize the contest for the throne as a “war of all against all” (Vint 139, 141). Early in the series, the queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister, expresses this ethos with her characteristic economy of words: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Claims to the Throne that base their legitimacy in anything but violence and guile are ridiculed as naïve: among Westeros’ noble Houses, as among today’s corporations and investors, lofty claims to legitimate rule are most often a smokescreen for force and cunning.

In Game’s world, only might makes right, as we also see in the summit meetings of state leaders and corporate lobbyists (like the routine show of elite force and narrow interests at Davos, Switzerland, which is happening as of this writing). Since the 1990s, such summits have been met by escalating public protests, and accompanied (and sometimes sabotaged) by disproportionately growing security forces. Corporate capital routinely presses its entrenched advantage with state leaders in closed-door meetings that, like sites of capitalist production, are hidden and militarized zones.

The main reason we never see the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market is because it’s hidden behind the pointy end of the weapon it’s pointing at us.


Stannis Baratheon asks for a loan in Davos. I mean Braavos.

Game features many characters who are “sellswords,” or mercenaries – the realm’s private security contractors, as it were. The loyalty of these characters, like that of their cynical “high-born” lords, is always for sale to the highest bidder, and self-preservation trumps all bids. Likewise for its financiers, as seen when Stannis Baratheon, brother of King Robert Baratheon whose death precipitates the war for the Throne, gets a loan for his war campaign from the “Iron Bank” of Braavos, a city-state in Essos. Scenes like this also present an alleogorical image of the familiar link between force and finance: as it turns out, the monarchy is running a deficit. In the first season, we learn that the realm’s finances are badly managed; in season three, we learn that the monarchy is in debt to the Iron Bank. The fact that the Westeros government is indebted to a foreign eastern power is a detail that resonates with the present financial relationship between western powers like the USA and eastern powers like China.

Brands and circuses

The ruling elite also spends conspicuously, not just on repressive apparatuses, like armies, but also on ideological apparatuses, like displays of leadership and charity. We learn the monarchy is in debt amidst the Throne-occupying Lannister family’s planning for King Joffrey’s royal wedding. circusesThe expense of the wedding is justified as a nation-building spectacle for the masses, a spectacle of conspicuous consumption calculated to inspire the poor with a circus, not give them bread. This subplot resonates with the media attention and public finance spent on British royal weddings – amidst the neoliberal dismantling of Britain’s welfare state that has continued steadily since the “iron” rule of Margaret Thatcher. Westeros’ Houses are as concerned with their subjects’ loyalty as corporations are concerned with consumers’ “brand loyalty.” Each House has its own distinct heraldry and “words,” which together function as brand and trademark.

Significantly, “low-born” and poor characters are mostly marginal to the plot. Where poor characters do appear – as servants, soldiers, sellswords, serfs or slaves – they are shown to be abject, exploited, and yet still loyal to their lords. mobWhen depicted as crowds, the poor become a stereotypical menace. A scene in season one shows a royal parade get mobbed in a poor quarter of the capitol. This mob, with its bare hands, dismembers a royal priest, and some men threaten to sexually assault the young girl Sansa Stark. She is rescued by a royal bodyguard, who kills her attackers. With very few exceptions, the low-born, labouring, and poor characters in Game tend to be depicted either as virtuous individuals who are unquestioningly loyal to their lords, or as wretched masses always ready to riot.

“The slavery of being a girl”

Game‘s allegory of capitalism as new feudalism also becomes apparent in its images not just of class inequality, but also of gender and sexual inequalities. The series has become controversial for its harrowing and graphic scenes of sexual assault, abuse, torture, incest, and other kinds of gendered and sexual violence. takeordersMen in the show constantly subject women of all classes and ranks to violence and humiliation; one of the most striking and distressing details of the show is the frequency (and sometimes even the tone of resignation or boredom) with which the word “rape” gets used. In Game, women are commodities and objects; and the complicity between feudal rule and patriarchal oppression is shown as clearly in the expectations of aristocratic women characters as it is shown horrifically in the all-too-predictable fates of prostitute women characters. These representations have prompted some important feminist critiques in their own right (see Murphy and Zeisler)3 – especially since some of the show’s most compelling main characters subvert or oppose these strict and exploitative gender and sexual norms – but these representations are also integral to Game’s allegory of our economic world-system, which bell hooks describes, bluntly, as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (46). Corporations and feudal Houses alike traffic in gendered divisions of labour for their reproduction, by consolidating family fortunes through bloodline succession and marriage, and by exploiting women in all kinds of precarious service work (Rogan 77). Game’s “high-born” women protagonists are constantly reminded of their one job: to produce future kings. Girl children are traded and bartered to strengthen ties – and treasuries – among the aristocracy; or they are exiled or abandoned; or they are imprisoned; or they are assaulted and killed outright.

The complicity between capital and male privilege may be highly stylized and sensationally depicted in Game, but it accords with the intersectional critiques of this complicity in our own world, critiques well expressed in the work of feminists like hooks, Donna Haraway, Adrienne Rich, Dionne Brand, and Jasbir Puar – to name just a few among so many others who remind us that we are nowhere near living in anything like a “post-patriarchy,” but instead are living through something more like a “war against women” (Mallick ¶11). This gender aspect of Game’s allegory is memorably captured in a scene between Cersei and a Prince from an eastern land, Dorne, where Cersei’s daughter has been sent. Bristling at the “barbarism” he finds in Westeros, the Prince tries to assure Cersei:
Cersei’s reply is a curt but unflinching condemnation of patriarchy:

“Winter is coming”

Just in case the economic and gender parallels between Game’s world and our own aren’t striking enough, the story also includes extreme weather and characters’ preoccupation with weather – both of which are uncharacteristic for the fantasy genre. whitewalkerIn the world of Game, seasons do not turn with the years; instead, seasons themselves last years, sometimes generations. Game’s plot begins as “the long summer” is ending; and as we constantly hear, “winter is coming.” The descriptions of winter, given early in the series, evoke grim images of snowdrifts high as houses, of mothers murdering newborns to spare them from being raised in darkness and starvation. The onset of winter, in other words, amounts to climate catastrophe.

In an io9 article (which piqued my initial interest in watching the show), George Dvorsky offers five scientific hypotheses that could account for such “messed-up seasons.” Climate change is not one of these hypotheses, but it is mentioned as a factor in how “oceans, currents, and winds” could make for unpredictable seasonal change and “long-term weather trends” (¶24-25). The very mention of climate change in an article about Game highlights how the show resonates with current concerns; what’s more, while Game leaves largely unexplained the reasons for Westeros’ unpredictable climate, it does hint at one large-scale human intervention in the natural environment that is strongly associated with – and may even have influenced – weather: the continent-barricading Wall, said to have been raised by magic in ancient times to protect Westeros from dangers lurking in “the North” such as “wildlings” (read: indigenous peoples) and fantastic creatures (mammoths, giants, and zombies). The Wall often stands as a sharp spatial division between winter and summer, and the story’s consistent preoccupation with weather augments Game’s overall relevance to the real world that has been wrought by neoliberal capitalism.

A “cracked-mirror” Europe

The Wall is one of several geographical details that further build Game’s allegorical relevance. Patrolled by a conscript army recruited from bastards, criminals, and the poor, the Wall exists to keep “the wildlings” out of Westeros. One subplot involving these wildlings represents them as a colonized, indigenous people who engage in anti-colonial resistance against Westeros. The Wall thus resonates with the real-world wall erected by Israel, the wall that US conservatives perennially want to raise against Mexico, and the overall sharp rise in wall-building that has followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, as found by Elisabeth Vallet’s research on “democraties fortifiées” – fortified democracies. Whereas in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, some fifteen state or territorial walls stood to divide a supposedly “globalizing” world, by 2011 over fifty such walls could be found (“Des murs d’argent”).

Élisabeth Vallet: “Toujours plus de murs dans un monde sans frontières : nombre de murs frontaliers, 1945-2012” (“Always more walls in a borderless world: number of territorial walls, 1945-2012”).
Note especially the dramatic increase after 11 Sept. 2001.

Other geographical cues to Game’s allegory appear in the map that is shown in the series’ opening title sequence, a clever TV adaptation of the fantasy novel’s convention of introducing its with a map. In this map, Westeros looks like the UK: the capitol, King’s Landing, looks like London on the Thames; and the Starks’ House, Winterfell, is in the north, like England’s York. Westeros is separated from the continent of Essos by a “Narrow Sea,” or channel; Essos looks like Europe, and the specific area of “Slavers’ Bay” – where the subplot involving the exiled princess Danaerys Targerian takes place – closely resembles the rim of the Mediterranean. Westeros map, Game Of Thrones titlesPredictably enough, then, the people of Westeros are quite English looking and sounding, while the various peoples of Essos are ambiguously “ethnic” in their darker complexions and vaguely Slavic and Arabic sounding languages. The map of the opening titles looks very much like a “cracked-mirror” map of Europe.

A critical or ideological fantasy?

So, among with its depictions of feudal economy, patriarchal oppression, climate change, and Eurocentric geography, Game constructs an allegory of the new feudalism that is resurgent today, a new feudalism brought about by free-market ideology and corporate-controlled governance. The point of my allegorical reading is not whether the show depicts feudalism with precise historical accuracy, or even whether Game’s feudalism maps precisely onto the social systems of globalized capitalism. Rather, my point is that Game’s image of feudalism provides an apt and timely metaphor for today’s wealth inequality, the economic and political structures that support it, and the social effects – and side effects – that it has produced. This allegorical reading challenges capitalism’s claims to modernity, progress, and above all democracy; it challenges the tired capitalist hype about “the end of history” – which Game shows, instead, to be something more like history’s rewinding, or its barbarous revenge. In this way, Game can be read as what leftist fantasy author China Miéville calls “critical fantasy,” in which

the realism of concern and the weird of expression are each their own end, but through metaphor, that magic dialectical glue, they are also … functions of each other. (¶11)

But to read Game as critical fantasy is to miss some key aspects of its narrative strategy: Game might create a critical allegory of the new feudalism in certain details of its setting, imagery, and tone; but in its plot and characters, Game also reproduces the dominant neoliberal ideology that has brokered feudalism’s return.

The plot reproduces neoliberal ideology in the main story’s constant focus on competition and conflict among the noble Houses. The plot of traditional fantasy, after the fashion formulated by Tolkein, is a quest story, in which an individual or group attempts to achieve an arduous or impossible task: the main story of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga is the fellowship’s daunting quest to infiltrate Mordor and destroy Sauron’s ring. Quests provide the plot structure of most popular fantasy plots, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, to Dungeons and Dragons franchise pulp, to Harry Potter’s long struggle to solve and exorcise the enigmatic scourge that is Voldemort. Game does include some sub-plots that could be construed as heroic quests: the travels and travails of Arya Stark and her brother Bram Stark are both individual voyages of apprenticeship and self-discovery. But the main plot that drives most of the character drama is a story of vicious, no-holds-barred fighting and treachery among elite families in pursuit of the monopoly on power promised by monarchical rule. This is a kind of decentralized plot, in that it is not organized around any one specific quest, and in the way the early episodes establish all families’ claims to the throne as more or less equally pretentious.

So the plot of Game differs sharply from that of most fantasy. The quest plot is linear, monumental, with a fixed end in view; but the contest-for-supremacy plot is lateral, and this kind of decentralized plot works better for the television serial drama format: it more effectively deals in suspense and continuation than in beginnings and endings, as scene changes sustain the viewers’ interest in several families and individuals at once. The way that Game privileges multiple points of view and choreographs them around the pursuit and achievement of monopolistic power, the way each viewpoint commands our sympathy in greater or lesser degrees – these elements of the show’s plot depart significantly from the traditional fantasy genre and are legible as symptoms of the neoliberal ideology that is creating a neo-feudal world.

Furthermore, Game makes this ceaseless competition – this feuding – of the new feudalism seem not only like the only story worth telling, but also normal, even natural, by anchoring the plot action among “high-born” aristocrats as the characters who we viewers are supposed to relate to. We are invited to identify with protagonists who are monarchs, royal family members, and nobles of Westeros’ ruling elite. In this focus on elite charactes and their concerns, Game promotes the interests and values of the ruling elite, and, moreover, misrepresents such values as the values of society in general (Duvall 85). This is nothing new in culture, literature, or media, from Jane Austen’s dramas of leisure-class match-making, to Fox News’ constant pleas of sympathy for beleaguered, persecuted big business. Such invitations to identify with the elite are long-standing symptoms of culture and entertainment under capitalism, a powerful strategy with which the elite continues to persuade us “low-borns” that the interests of the “high-born” are our own interests too.

Moreover, the construction of elite characters as the most “relatable” characters belongs to the same ideological system that encourages audiences to interpret a show like Game as merely “escapist,” as irrelevant to contemporary everyday life. mastersCritics who read Game as “escapist” (whether positively or negatively) fail (whether by deficiency or design) to pay attention to the uses of allegory and metaphor, and such critics are either underestimating the interpretive powers of the viewing audience, or they are actively mystifying the metaphorical work that fantastic and non-realist narratives can do. In this work, much of the political power of these narratives can be found, if we exercise the critical imagination to detect it, raiding the stories of the rich to make them speak for the rest of us.


1. While chasing down some last research details for this essay, I stumbled upon David Stubbs’ article on Game as an allegory of “modern times”; his argument is similar in premise, but it’s briefer, attuned to different details, and overall rather vague about how exactly Game relates to “modern times” (a side effect, perhaps, of understandably wishing to avoid sharing spoilers).

2. Several TV serial dramas have developed extensive allegories of neoliberal capitalism, economic globalization, and the market society. As I wrote in 2009, of the re-made Battlestar Galactica series:

Battlestar belongs to a recent trend in specialty cable programmes about the US as an increasingly deregulated and/or underground market society – such as Showtime’s Dead Like Me (Canada/US 2003-04), in which the grim reaper’s work is all outsourced to undead sub-contractors; Showtime’s Weeds (US 2005- ), in which a single mother tries to maintain her gated-community lifestyle by dealing drugs; and HBO’s Deadwood (US 2004-06), a Western which, like Battlestar, works as a frontier allegory of diasporic migration, militarised public space, technologised security threats and unregulated enterprise in a society characterised less by democracy than ‘adhocracy’ (Doctorow qtd. in Jenkins 251). Among these series, Battlestar most stridently articulates questions of market-society culture, technologies of reproduction and political-economic ethics to a military problematic. (21)

More recently, AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead has generated widespread interpretations as an allegory of the neoliberal market society – and some compelling interpretations as an allegory of settler-invader colonialism, as in Cutcha Risling Baldy‘s must-read post about teaching The Walking Dead in Native Studies courses:

for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. (Zombies. But even worse, living, breathing, people Zombies…) (¶18)

In the wake of the burgeoning popularity of zombie texts, the increasing volatility of global economics, and a corresponding boom of critical and scholarly interest in “zombie economics” (e.g. Quiggin and McNally), The Walking Dead has become a cultural lightning rod for critiques of neoliberalism in culture and society. For just a few examples, see Clitheroe, Powers, and Sherryl Vint, who reads the series as “an extended meditation on the problems of community and individuality” (139), “in a world understood to have peeled away the veneer of community and revealed the ‘true’ state of nature as a war of all against all” (141). This understanding, for Vint, represents the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism, “a discourse that acts on the population to ‘make survive’ … but one that simultaneously dehumanizes and makes monstrous these survivors”- who, like the zombies they flee, are also, ironically, “reduced to endless walking and consuming” (141). As Gerry Canavan sums up readings like Vint’s, “narratives like The Walking Dead map onto a form of capitalism that has itself become completely monstrous” (143).

3. More than I’d have expected of the online discussion of Game Of Thrones and feminism seems unduly concerned with whether the show, or its creator, “is” feminist in and of itself. I agree with Zeisler’s suggestion that such a concern seems misplaced, neglecting the interpretive powers of audience response to search instead for the creators’ intent (and doing so well after Roland Barthes’ famous 1967 declaration of “the death of the author,” the idea that every reading is a new re-writing). As Zeisler puts it: “does it matter if Game of Thrones is feminist? Maybe not. But what does matter that it’s one of few shows to give us a reason to even argue the case.” Whether a given cultural text itself “is” feminist seems to me a less urgent question than how a feminist reading of that text is productive for feminism.


This essay is a revision of a talk I gave at the Fourth Research Forum of the Centre for Humanities at Athabasca University, on 28 Nov. 2014; I want to thank the audience for their questions and comments. I also want to thank AU alumni Sarah Mann and Heather Clitheroe, who, in reading courses I supervised, found and built on key studies of the new feudalism and of neoliberalism in pop culture.

Works Cited

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Baldy, Cutcha Risling. “On telling Native people to just ‘get over it’ or why I teach about the Walking Dead in my Native Studies classes.” Cutcha Risling Baldy [blog] 11 Dec. 2013

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Canavan, Gerry. Rev. of Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism and Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Science Fiction Film and Television 5.1 (2012): 143-46.

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Hanauer, Nick. “Ultra-rich man’s letter: ‘To My Fellow Filthy Rich Americans: The Pitchforks Are Coming’.” TIP News 30 Jun. 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.

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Hjersted, Tim. “Profit is Theft: It Sounds Absurd but Here’s Why.” Films For Action 3 Jul. 2012.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End P, 2000.

Hughes, Sarah. “Living in a fantasy world with Game of Thrones.” The Independent 31 Mar. 2013.

Mallick, Heather. “Women’s abortion rights may vanish if the NDP doesn’t choose a fiery leader.” The Toronto Star 23 Mar. 2012.

Martin, Clive. “Please Shut the Fuck Up About ‘Game Of Thrones’.” Vice 9 Apr. 2014 http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/why-i-wont-be-watching-game-of-thrones

McCutcheon, Mark A. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.

Miéville, China. “With One Bound We Are Free: Pulp Fantasy and Revolution.” Crooked Timber 11 Jan. 2005.

Murfin, Ross and Supriya M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford, 1997.

Murphy, Meghan. “Just because you like it, doesn’t make it feminist: On Game Of Thrones’ imagined feminism.” Feminist Current 26 Apr. 2013

“Neo-feudalism” [search tag]. Huffington Post.

Pederson, Dave. “America: Home of the Bewildered Serf and Land of the Feudal Lords.” Huffington Post 4 May 2012.

Game of Thrones: Plot.” Wikipedia 12 Jan. 2015.

Powers, John. “The Political Economy of Zombies.” Airship n.d. (circa 2013).

Puar, Jasbir. “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics.” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. January 2011.

Quiggin, John. Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.

Rich, Adrienne. “Notes Towards a Politics of Location.” Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. London: Little, Brown & Co., 1984. 210-31.

Rogan, Alcena Madeline Davis. “Tanarive Due and Nalo Hopkinson Revisit the Reproduction of Mothering: Legacies of the Past and Strategies for the Future.” Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. 75-99.

Smith, Peter Jay. “The Rise, Fall, and Rise of ACTA?” New Fronts in the Copyfight: Multidisciplinary Directions in Critical Copyright Studies. Ed. Mark A. McCutcheon. Spec. series of Digital Studies/Le champ numérique 4 (2014).

Stone C.J. “The Empire of Things.” Think Left 26 Aug. 2011.

Stubbs, David. “No Myth: Why Game Of Thrones Is An Allegory For Our Times.” The Quietus 4 Jun. 2013.

Tucker, Ken. “Why is Game Of Thrones so popular?” BBC Culture 7 Apr. 2014.

Vallet, Elisabeth. “Des murs d’argent: Et la frontière devint un marché prospère et militarisé…” Visions Cartographiques 29 Nov. 2013.

Vint, Sherryl. “Abject Posthumanism: Neoliberalism, biopolitics, and zombies.” Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader. Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 133-46.

Whitehead, John W. “The Age of Neo-feudalism: A government of the Rich, by the Rich and for Corporations.” Huffington Post 28 Jan. 2013.

Zeisler, Andi. “Does it matter whether Game Of Thrones is feminist?” Bitch 7 Jun. 2013.

Further Reading

Larrington, Carolyne. “Game of Loans.” 1843 Magazine, ca. 2016.

Quoting Scripture to support organized labour

From the something-you-don’t-see-every-day files

Having recently read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and blogged about its images of corporate monstrosity, I have worked to identify some of the novel’s other related textual details and references. One reference has proven especially tricky to source – and especially rewarding. In the last scene in which Tom Joad appears, he talks with his Ma about his plans for the future. Tom hints at – but stops short of spelling out – his plans for organizing workers: “why we can’t do that all over. … All work together for our own thing – all farm our own lan’.” (536). Tom also reflects on the lapsed Reverend Casy, whose loss Tom laments, and from whose wisdom he works out his plans. Casy’s wisdom, throughout the novel, is consistently critical, and is crystallized in Tom’s recollection here, via a specific biblical allusion:

Tom went on, “He [Casy] spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.”
“How’s it go, Tom?”
“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’ That’s part of her.”
“Go on,” Ma said. “Go on, Tom.”
“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.'”
“An’ that’s Scripture?”
“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.” (535-36)

In this exchange, Steinbeck frames a resonant Biblical quotation in a curiously coded gesture: he doesn’t clearly cite the text’s source, he just alludes to it (who is “the Preacher”?); he also repeats this allusion, and has Ma doubt the veracity of the source: “An’ that’s Scripture?” The exchange invites – or provokes – the reader to identify the biblical excerpt in question, given here as if it were both common knowledge, via the folksy figure of “the Preacher,” and hidden wisdom: “that’s Scripture?”

It is Scripture, of course, quoted almost verbatim from the King James version of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: chapter 4, verses 9 to 12. Chapter 4 is a short chapter of meditations on work and hubris, humility and cooperation – and it opens with this suggestive contextualization: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.” According to the way verses 4-9 are placed and discussed in the novel, Steinbeck makes it abundantly clear who the oppressors are.

Language: what's got you covered

Language: what’s got you covered

So in this passage we encounter one of the most popular and widely taught American novels quoting Scripture to support organized labour, thereby suggesting labour’s legitimacy in Christian teaching and theology. Perhaps symptomatically, a Google search for biblical allusions and quotations in The Grapes of Wrath nowhere includes this rather remarkable detail. (I don’t think it made it into the 1940 film adaptation, either.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conspiracy – and there is no doubt an extensive research literature documenting the novel’s biblical intertexts – but the omission of this detail (which is important for the novel not only thematically but structurally) from readily available public Internet sources does seem a conspicuous absence.

I should add, too, that – as everybody knows – Scripture is promiscuously available to furnish quotations that support or condemn any number of social practices, as dramatized in a scene from the West Wing TV series that has gone viral. It may simply be valuable to recognize here a biblical passage that features significantly in a canonical American novel, and that lends organized labour some authoritative cultural support from an unexpected quarter, in the plain truth it speaks about the social and economic benefits of organizing, which economic studies confirm and which working people everywhere can recognize.

Works Cited
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939). New York: Penguin, 1976.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: not in Canada’s interests

As Ottawa trade expert Peter Clark observes of the Harper government’s neoliberal agenda, when it comes to international trade – in CETA, FIPPA, and the TPP – “everything is on the table” (69, my emphasis).

Clark has posted a detailed, plain-speaking, and highly critical analysis of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a USA-led, Pacific-rim trade negotiation to which Canada has been admitted … as a “second-tier” participant with no say in whatever the deal ends up demanding. A self-professed advocate of free trade, Clark nevertheless roundly criticizes the TPP here, mainly for its considerable imbalance – in favour of interests that are not Canada’s own (24).

In trade agreements, the devil is always in the details – and when it comes to the TPP, the devils travel in packs.

The TPP has been widely criticized by copyright experts (like Michael Geist) for leaked draft chapters concerning its intellectual property regulations: “The TPP could result in extra-territorial application of U.S. laws, particularly in the Intellectual Property area, including criminalization of non-commercial infringement” (Clark 26). The TPP has also been criticized for its extreme and anti-democratic but all too typical secrecy, and for the uncertainty over what exactly Canada stands to gain at the table here – relative to what it stands to lose.

The TPP is not all about sandals, diapers, detergents and cucumbers. In some ways it is about how we live, our healthcare, access to medicare and our way of life. It is about how we preserve our heritage and culture. And it is about how those whose ideas shape so many things are properly compensated for their achievements. … At this point, participation in the TPP raises more questions for Canada than it answers. As noted, with Japan as a participant there could be real gains. Without it, TPP as currently envisaged would more likely be a gift to Washington with benefits to Canada being marginal and illusory. Fortunately for Canada, Trade Minister Ed Fast has made it clear that Canada will not accept bad or unbalanced trade deals. Break a leg, Minister. (13, 18, my emphasis)

Critiques aside, there are a number of resources to take action against the TPP. There’s a Facebook Stop the TPPA page, and the Stop The Trap website, which focuses on the TPP’s copyright chapters, features a petition that now shows over 120,000 signatures.

As Canada’s neoliberal government ramps up its ecologically hazardous sell-out of Canadian resources, its Orwellian rewriting of Canadian history, its systematic attack on working people, and its dismantling of Canadian sovereignty, Canadians need to do all we can to send the message to Parliament that these are massive political risks it takes at the price, ultimately, of its own credibility and power to govern.

Open letter to #HOC International Trade Committee: The #FIPA Canada-China trade deal needs study and debate

To: House of Commons International Trade Committee – Rob Merrifield (rob.merrifield@parl.gc.ca), Ron Cannan (ron.cannan@parl.gc.ca), Russ Hiebert (russ.hiebert@parl.gc.ca), Ed Holder (ed.holder@parl.gc.ca), Gerald Keddy (gerald.keddy@parl.gc.ca), Bev Shipley (bev.shipley@parl.gc.ca), Devinder Shory (devinder.shory@parl.gc.ca)

Subject: Please support MP Don Davies’ motion to study and debate the Canada-China FIPA treaty

Dear Members of the House of Commons International Trade Committee,

This Thursday, October 25th, NDP International Trade Critic Don Davies will put forward an important motion to conduct a full study of the Canada-China FIPA trade treaty, and to call for postponing its ratification until it gets proper study and parliamentary debate. I am writing to ask you to support that motion.

I understand the House has been debating a trade deal with Panama, worth $213 million, since the spring. This FIPA treaty, worth an estimated $64 billion and to be in force for decades, demands study and debate in its own right.[1] FIPA could compromise the Canadian government’s ability to set policies in the public interest; it exposes taxpayers to expensive litigation and damages; and international investment treaty expert Gus Van Harten suggests that it may even be unconstitutional.[2] A recent Angus-Reid poll shows three of four Canadians oppose foreign governmental control of our resources.[3]

I urge you to support Mr. Davies’ motion, in the interests of Canadian democracy and resource sovereignty.

Thank you for considering this encouragement from a concerned citizen.

Sincerely, [YT]


[1] May, Elizabeth. “The threat to Canada’s sovereignty – what we are giving to China.” Island Tides. 18 Oct. 2012. Web.

[2] Van Harten, Gus. “Canada-China FIPPA agreement may be unconstitutional, treaty law expert says.” Vancouver Observer 17 Oct. 2012. Web.

[3] Beers, David. “Three of four Canadians against ceding control of resources to foreign governments: poll.” The Hook 20 Oct. 2012. Web.

(Thanks to Thomas Mulcair for today’s #FIPA update e-mail, from which I’ve adapted some wording here.)

Open letter to my MP about #FIPA, the un-debated Canada-China trade deal

This is the e-mail I sent to my MP this week about the imminent #FIPA (or #FIPPA) trade pact the government plans to pass by November 1. I have adapted some of the text from a form letter provided by the Council of Canadians.

Subject: Please push for debate on Canada-China corporate rights pact (FIPA)

Dear [MP],
I am opposed to the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA). These investment agreements are nothing but corporate rights pacts that put public policy at risk from costly, secretive lawsuits. They undermine democracy. And the particular interests of parties to this deal stand to gravely extend the corporate extraction industry’s environmental harms too.
At the very least, Parliament should have the opportunity to debate and make changes to the treaty, or to eventually reject it if MPs determine it is not in Canada’s best interests.
Australia has discontinued the practice of including investor protection dispute mechanisms in trade deals like this; that is an approach Canada should consider. (Ideally, I would like to see a plebiscite mechanism implemented to debate and publicly ratify deals like this, but Canada at present is far from an ideal democracy.)
I look forward to your response and thank you for your hard work on behalf of our riding.

– [YT]

The #FIPA deal compromises Canadian democracy and resource sovereignty, and is arguably unconstitutional. Yet it has received very little media attention, will commit Canada to at least fifteen years, and stands to pass entirely without debate in little over a week. As Elizabeth May writes:

the House has been debating C-42, the Canada-Panama trade agreement since last spring (total volume of trade $213 million.) and we had six days debate in the House and 6 days in Committee before passing C-23, the Canada-Jordan trade agreement (volume of trade $90 million.) This sweeping deal with China is not due for a single hour of debate before passage (trade volume $64 billion.)

If you are concerned – alarmed – about this trade treaty, write to your MP to demand the Opposition make it a debate topic on Opposition Day. There’s also a petition you can sign – as nearly 50,000 Canadians already have done.
Trade deals like this clearly show what Chris Hedges calls “the hollowness of electoral politics”: the neoliberal governments of the (over)developed world today act less to serve and protect the public interest than to facilitate the extractions and exploitations of multinational corporations, the imperial powers that have colonized us. We need to look as closely at trade treaties as we look at formal legislation, as more and more machinations of ruling power retreat into their Byzantine shadows.

For Labour Day: diagnoses of neoliberalism

To observe Labour Day at a time when labour is being aggressively demonized by business and its political enablers, I’ll share this shrewd and concise diagnosis of neoliberalism, and its core contradiction, by David Harvey:

To guard against their greatest fears––fascism, communism, socialism, authoritarian populism, and even majority rule––the neoliberals have to put strong limits on democratic governance, relying instead upon undemocratic and unaccountable institutions (such as the Federal Reserve or the IMF) to make key decisions. This creates the paradox of intense state interventions and government by elites and ‘experts’ in a world where the state is supposed not to be interventionist. […] Faced with social movements that seek collective interventions, therefore, the neoliberal state is itself forced to intervene, sometimes repressively, thus denying the very freedoms it is supposed to uphold. (A Brief History of Neoliberalism [2007], 69-70)

While I’m at it, I’ll share Roseanne’s diagnosis too:

I’m pleased to say I’m indebted to student work for directing me to these instructive illuminations.

Casino capital’s frontier forays

Discussion with students in this term’s grad course on theory has been educational for instructor and students alike: for the former, in developing a critical vocabulary for contemporary capitalism that foregrounds its postcolonial contexts.

1. Frontiers and futures
In discussing the documentary The Corporation, two students wrote:

As opposed to traditional colonialism … corporate colonizers no longer require the local population to give up their beliefs in order to change their loyalty. They simply have to spend their dollars, pesos, euros etc., and with no value system outside of a growing bottom line, corporations are free to change their identity to adapt to the culture and beliefs of any market. … advancing capitalism pays a special eye to frontier thought, behaviour, and organization as these spaces create new areas to be exploited and appropriated by the system. (my emphasis)

In comparing corporate business to colonialism, the students referred to the work of Andrew Potter, who with Joseph Heath wrote The Rebel Sell, which investigates the frontier prospecting of capitalism, its ability to commoditize even the most resistant counter-cultural forms (e.g. Adbusters): “there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations … In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers.” (Potter qtd. in MacLean)

Potter and Heath’s argument relates to Fisher’s idea of SF capital, mentioned in my last post, in which futuristic speculation in culture becomes a renewable resource for economic exploitation by capital. But if the “rebel sell” thesis reproduces something of the core-periphery model of capitalist growth, in which the imperial core co-opts the “authentic” periphery, it also problematizes this model by assigning some responsibility for co-optation to consumers — the co-opted — themselves.

2. Casino capitalism: wheel of misfortune
After I mentioned “casino capitalism” with reference to a student’s commentary on Max Weber’s idea of the “spirit of capitalism,” the student asked, understandably, what I meant. Which made me realize I didn’t, actually, know precisely what I meant; so I did a bit of digging, then replied:

It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the past two years with reference to the US sub-prime mortgage bubble and the ensuing global financial chaos, and it made sense, on a broader historical view, as a characterization of the postwar global economic dispensation of postmodernity … a dispensation characterized by rapidly changing IT in the service of increasingly mobile, flexible, and “financialized” capitalism.
Turns out it dates from 1986, in a book of the same title by Susan Strange:
“The instability and volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional economies. Susan Strange (1986) calls this instability ‘casino capitalism,’ a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and the shift to self-regulation by banks (pp.9-10). (“Shifting”)
Maybe the term’s been re-circulating with a vengeance in the wake of the global economic turmoil, evoking not just the infrastructural features of the postwar global economy but also, now, the widespread sense that postmodern capital has indeed been running like a casino — meaning that most who go there to play will lose.

In addition to the scholarly literature on the casino capital thesis, it recurs from time to time in popular discourse, like editorials, about actual casinos. A decade ago, Toronto playwright and former Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin shared a problematic, provocative postcolonial angle on “lotteries and gambling” as a “sign of the times,”

a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life’s normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we’re seeing its spread as a way of life — and hope. The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in native-run casinos such as Ontario’s Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair. (“Who owes”)

Salutin was writing of casinos as a then-recently legitimized socioeconomic institution; since then casinos have moved from legitimacy to centrality as a staple source of government revenue, and an ever more symptomatic “sign” of neoliberal hegemony’s dominion). Gambling and casinos fund all kinds of public programs in Alberta, and it’s money many see as ill-got from the exploitation of people with addictive disorders. In 2005, Salutin followed up:

Governments of all stripes are hip-deep in promoting and advertising gambling and in effect encouraging addiction to it. Of course, not all gamblers are addicted, though addicts are central, since a huge cut of the revenue comes from a small tranche of heavy gamblers. But the real addiction problem belongs to governments, who’ve grown addicted to the returns, and turned into pimps and pushers. … the job of an institution like government should be to increase the odds — if you’ll pardon the expression — of hard work receiving a fair return, rather than reinforcing the message that you have to be rich or lucky to succeed. (“My gambling problem”)

3. The weirdest Western?
These critical models of late capital, with their disjunctive postcolonial contexts, together start to make the interlocking institutions of global capital seem a lot like a weird Western. As one film critic argues, the globalized culture industry of Hollywood has not shown itself to know how to make this kind of movie well. When it does, in films like Serenity — to say nothing of non-weird, ultra-naturalist Westerns like Deadwood, for that matter — what I’d suggest we encounter is an image of late global capital, in all its frontier freewheeling and monopolizing machinations: “The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets … in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there’s something out there, but chances are it doesn’t care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train.”

Just the laws of infinite growth and the bottom line.

Works Cited

Lamar, Cyriaque. “Dear Hollywood, you absolutely suck at making weird Westerns.” io9 19 Jun. 2010 http://io9.com/#!5567908/dear-hollywood-you-absolutely-suck-at-making-weird-westerns?comment=24778688

MacLean, C. “Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell.” Torontoist Nov. 2006 http://torontoist.com/2006/11/tall_poppy_andr.php

MAIS 601 Group Two. “The Group TwoPoration” (group response to The Corporation). MAIS 601, Athabasca U, 23 Mar. 2011.

Salutin, Rick. “My gambling problem, and ours.” Globe & Mail 5 Aug. 2005: A15.

—. “Who owes what in a racist world?” Globe & Mail 24 Aug. 2001: A15.

“The shifting nature of capital: exhilaration and anxiety.” Representations of Global Capital. Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Portland. n.d. http://legacy.lclark.edu/~soan370/global/casino.html

Science fiction means business

The US-based Creative Science Foundation is hosting its second annual workshop in the UK this summer. According to the call for papers:

This workshop will explore the use of science fiction as a means to motivate and direct research into new technologies and consumer products. It does this by creating science fiction stories grounded in current science and engineering research that are written for the explicit purpose of acting as prototypes for people to explore a wide variety of futures. […] In this way fictional prototypes provide a powerful interdisciplinary tool to enhance the traditional practices of research, design and market research.

The relationship between fiction and fact here is familiar enough to science fiction. In popular and fan discourses, this relationship tends to be mystified in terms of “uncanny prediction”: recent popular magazine articles detail “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction” and “11 astounding sci-fi predictions that came true.” In criticism and research, we find demystifications that investigate the material conditions linking science fiction to fact, extrapolation to production. Mark Fisher has helpfully coined the term “SF capital” to describe how science fiction works as a literary laboratory for real-world R&D, a resource for what Henry Jenkins calls “the military-entertainment complex” (75). A generation before Fisher, Marshall McLuhan — who was ambivalent about science fiction, and sometimes criticized for writing it -– had a firm, proleptic grasp on the idea of SF capital, which he well understood in his dual capacities as maverick scholar and corporate consultant:

Big Business has learned to tap the s-f writer. (124)

What’s striking in the CSF is perhaps the boldness of business’ courtship of SF: how frankly SF capital is being recognized and instituted, in a peculiarly Utilitarian program to enlist SF production specifically for “consumer products” and “market research.” The CSF is, in a way, simply spelling out the terms of a long-standing if somewhat asymmetrical partnership. SF’s command of both a popular market and a certain counter-cultural cachet has positioned it, since its inception (in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), as more commodity than culture, hence its exile to the peripheries of legitimate “Literature,” according to a cultural-economic history provocatively explained by Samuel R. Delany (195). But is its future to be increasingly channeled into and defined by the speculations and futures we associate more with high finance and global capital than with cultural commentary and social progress?

Putting the question this way, of course, oversimplifies the numerous trajectories, formations, allegiances, and even definitions of science fiction; this is perhaps more an issue of science fiction studies, of the genre’s role in and relation to research: will a program like that of the CSF represent a route for delivering SF out of its encampment on the fringes of literary studies, towards more interdisciplinary and more broad-based social engagements, or will it merely transport it from one camp to another?

Works Cited
Creative Science Foundation. Intel Labs, Hillsboro, 2011.
Delany, Samuel R. and Carl Freedman. “A Conversation with Samuel R. Delany about Sex, Gender, Race, Writing — and Science Fiction.” Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. 191-235.
Fisher, Mark. “SF Capital.” Transmat: Resources in Transcendent Materialism (2001).
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.
Kessler, Sarah. “11 Astounding Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True.” Mashable 25 Sept. 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967.
Murdock, Colin. “6 eerily specific inventions predicted by science fiction.” Cracked 19 Nov. 2010.

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.