Do the monster mash

Review | RP185

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, Historical Materialism and Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 296 pp., £20.00 pb., 978 1 60846 233 9.

It is no longer necessary to begin, as it might have been ten years ago, by pointing out that we live in Gothic times, and going on to detail the Gothic’s many and various manifestations in contemporary culture. Even the bluntest of critical responses have moved beyond ‘mankind’s deepest fears’ – though often not much beyond them – to recognition of more than an idea of unchanging human nature. Part of the problem lies in the sprawling category that Gothic has become, perhaps always was, in its blurry designation of architectural form, novelistic subject matter, visual effect, subcultural style, musical genre and metaphorical trope. Because of the jumbling together of different phenomena, Gothic is everywhere and nowhere. Indeed, this is partly the point of David McNally’s book: that, as he says, ‘the essential features of capitalism, as Marx regularly reminded us, are not immediately visible … we are left to observe things and persons … while the elusive power that grows and multiplies through their deployment remains unseen, uncomprehended.’

Monsters of the Market is part of the now fairly substantial Gothic Marxism that has grown in the two decades since Margaret Cohen’s Profane Illuminations, and in it McNally identifies contemporary manifestations of monstrosity in the familiar figures of Frankenstein’s creature, the vampire and the zombie; arguing that these are all forms of the ‘body panics’ that constitute the ‘cultural phenomena endemic to capitalism, part of the phenomenology of bourgeois life’. He thus recommends a ‘dialectical optics’, indebted to Walter Benjamin and Susan Buck-Morss, as the means by which to effect a new alliance of critical theory with the fantastic in order to be able to read images of occult capitalism and to understand the monster ‘as a necessarily coded form of subversive knowledge whose decoding promises radical insights and transformative energies’.

Monsters of the MarketThere is, however, a flattening effect in this assertion of the uniformly subversive energy available in the figure of the monster akin to McNally’s generalized criticism of what he calls the ‘giddy embrace of monstrosity’ by ‘postmodern theory’. He suggests, I think rightly, that there has been a tendency (though ‘postmodern’ is a typically vague term as it is used here) to mere valorization of monsters as heroically non-conforming markers of marginality. As he notes, the ‘social and historical specificity of distinct forms of experience effectively vanishes in the reduction of all social relations to general categories of us and them’. Weak theory the latter may be, and certainly is in some forms – especially guilty in this respect being the post-Derridean discourses of ‘hauntology’, where spectrality becomes (as it is not in Specters of Marx itself) a monochromatic formalism in which the ‘same conceptual schema is slapped over all phenomena’ – but a better question would be why criticism should have become gripped by the very same metaphors and conventions as the material it attempts to comprehend. For this is not simply a kind of false consciousness as McNally would contend, nor a restaging of a left-liberal accommodation of otherness, but something more complex. If we have to interrogate critical strategies as themselves subject to conditions of social and historical specificity, then the question is: why gothic and why now?

Just as he insists on strict delimitation of the only possible truly critical theory as a Marxist dialectical optics, McNally also dismisses the ‘ceremonial fiends of the culture industry’ as though these are not proper or interesting objects of analysis. For McNally, these are in some way not real monsters, which is really to ignore the fact the Gothic is, and always has been, part of the culture industry. Frankenstein, that text beloved of critical radicals and Hollywood alike, was not a samizdat manuscript produced at the social margins, but a best-seller written by a woman of the leisured class (while on holiday with, among others, an aristocrat and his personal physician). The vampire that Marx knew was not Dracula (which was not published until 1897) but the figure from penny pot-boilers like Varney the Vampire and its theatrical adaptations. One of the weaknesses of McNally’s book is, then, its selectivity and a tendency to romanticize what is imagined to be folkloric or authentically part of the culture of the people. The assertion that Shelley’s novel draws upon images of monstrosity that were the stock-in-trade of the English working class has little sensible foundation – there is very little that is ‘folkloric’ in Frankenstein’s monster, some more but still not much in the vampire, and something quite different in the zombie. Moreover, these are three very different figures, and while McNally does to some extent treat them differently, he falls into many of the usual Gothic traps, principally the bundling up of all weird things as though they are in the same category, but also the uncertain movement between cause and effect – do monstrous forces produce monsters, or do monsters produce monstrosity? Is the monster the revolutionary force, or that which makes it?

The first section of the book, which culminates in a reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a good assembly of a number of examples of anatomizing: readings of Rembrandt and Hogarth, discussion of the history of enclosure, dissection and the 1831 Anatomy Act, as manifestations of the bourgeois appropriation of the proletarian body, both individual and spatial in the cartographic separation of land from the worker and labour from the worker. It also retells the resistance to that appropriation on the part of the working classes: gallows riots to recover the bodies of executed criminals, Luddites, the Gordon Riots. There is a sleight of hand at work, however, in the substitution or sliding together of ideas of dismemberment and abstraction. The appropriation of the body by power is, of course, not new; nor are the various forms of the demonstration of that power, either in life or in death. McNally’s claim to hold together all his examples has to rest on a new form of expression of such power, one peculiar to the construction of the modern capitalist state. That claim is one of equivalence between dismemberment and abstraction in which the worker’s labour is experienced as a separable part of the body, alienable in a manner that is a distinct product of the emergence of capitalism. Of the ‘dismemberments’ performed by power there is no question, and capital does repetitively select certain metonyms (‘hands’ for example). But is abstraction itself metonymic? Alienation from species-being could perhaps be seen as akin to a kind of dismembering of the ‘full’ body, as the early Marx articulates it, but this is not quite the same as abstract labour in Marx’s later terms. It is also not mysterious: this is not one of the occult forces of capital; it is instead rather straightforward. No mysterious powers are at work here: they are the simple operations of power on the body politic.

In the case of Frankenstein, this is not a text, in fact, where much decipherment is needed; it is barely allegorical and it is not at all in the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, concerned as that was with the Catholic past of dynastic, feudal Europe. Frankenstein is set in the present of the centre of the Protestant Reformation, science and the bourgeois family unit, and, as many have noted, the monster speaks for himself as he does not speak again for another 150 years. As such the speech of the monster is the articulation of the political ground of the novel – the positions are obvious, as are the conclusions. Frankenstein was immediately understood in political terms, as is evidenced by the swift appearance of the creature in political cartoons of the period as a figure emblematic of the unintended consequences of the creation of a powerful force (such as a working class). Shelley’s text is not drawing on authentic popular culture, but is a direct contribution to an older and longer deployment of notions of monstrosity as old as Aristotle, but of particular contemporary form in the Burke/Paine contestation of metaphors applied to the French Revolution. Given that the Gothic politics of Frankenstein were noticed at the time of its publication, a much more interesting question would be why so much recent criticism from the resurgence of interest in Gothic since the late 1980s chooses to ignore the political content of the novel almost completely. In this McNally is right that the tendency to read monstrosity as ‘otherness’ defuses the explicitly political charge of the text, but it requires a wilful reading against the grain to ignore that charge.

McNally’s reading of Marx himself is in the tradition of more or less ‘literary’ readings, although he chooses to dismiss this, saying that legions of commentators have failed to appreciate that Marx was seeking ‘a new language, literary as well as theoretical, a radical poetics through which to read capitalism’. He describes Capital as an ‘ethnography of working-class experience, illuminated by extended historical discussions, literary references, copious empirical documentation, and explicitly dramatic constructions’. Identifying the stylistic shifts and changes in register as crucial to Marx’s intention to defamiliarize, he suggests that one of the characteristic shifts is from ‘complex theoretical mappings of the commodity to metaphorically charged descriptions of the crippling effects of capitalist production on workers’ bodies’. In this he comes to the problem of reading Marx in literary terms – that is, in metaphorical terms. This is also manifest in the opening sentence of the chapter: ‘Capitalism is both monstrous and magical.’ Indeed it is, but monstrosity is not magic. Monstrosity is, however contested, dismally literal. It is the description of the body horrors of capitalist production that are, in the end, as visible as the etymology of the word ‘monster’ suggests. Magic is more difficult to show, and is precisely that which is at stake in representation. The representation of the body of the worker either made monstrous or subject to monstrous treatment is not, and cannot be, the same as representing capital itself. Monsters are easy to represent; magic is not.

Taking the famous example of the dancing table from the first chapter of Capital, McNally is caught by this problem. He begins by attempting to read the magic of the commodity and produces a decent summary of approaches to its immateriality, but then makes a switch via the figure of the vampire to what he calls a ‘corporeal turn’ to be found in part 3 of Capital, and thus returns to dismemberment and body-horror – to monsters. There is a long and interesting excursion through the history of Enron and the derivatives market but the analysis still remains unresolved between monsters and magic. The image of the vampire to which he turns is symptomatic of the problem, as the vampire is in many ways a rather poor figure for the purpose, as it pushes in the direction of the individualized, heroic figure of the capitalist/monster, rather than the invisible force of capital/magic.

In Capital the section on the commodity is notable precisely for the absence of images of violence or monstrosity. Its images move between the deliberately prosaic (coats, linen, and so on) and crystals, diamonds, gold, the ‘dazzling’ form of money, the ‘dazzling’ commodities and the mysterious hieroglyph. The only violence suggested is in relation to the owner of the commodity; he can ‘use force’ if the commodity ‘resists’ possession. McNally’s critique of supposed ‘postmodern thinkers’ rests on the accusation that they perpetuate the occult economy by collaborating in the vanishing of the labouring body that capitalism performs (now that’s magic), ‘forfeiting a hermeneutics of suspicion in the face of the preposterous self-representations of late capitalism’. His analysis of Enron and Lehman Brothers points out the predatory activities of Enron in the global South. Yet the problem is that this is now too geographically distant for the discourse of monstrosity to work. It would seem that the monster is an adequate critical figure for industrial capitalism but that the very fact of the recent welcome of the monster into the mainstream of popular culture indicates not just a liberal embrace of otherness but a real defusing of the critical charge of horror in the changed markets of advanced capitalism. As McNally notes, ‘most of us no longer find global capitalist processes bizarre.’ The shift from production to consumption in the North renders the magical dimension dominant, and this requires a more developed critical reading that carries the same power to make visible.

The specificity of the monster is also problematic in McNally’s third section, ‘African Vampires in the Age of Globalization’. There is a complicated tangle of different strands in this section, knotted around the figure of the zombie. The zombie is unlike Frankenstein’s monster or the vampire in being a non-European figure. It has its origins in the peculiar conditions of the West Indies, Haiti in particular and that island’s history as a republic ruled by revolutionary slaves and the geopolitical dimensions of relations with the United States and the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century. McNally acknowledges the mixed bag of multivalent imaginings (race, gender, class, kinship, slavery, colonialism, war, marketized social relations, structural adjustment programmes, corrupt post-colonial elites and the AIDS pandemic) into ‘coherent local discourses’. He also acknowledges the local determinations that elude any ethnographer, but foregrounds what he sees as ‘recurring images of accumulation via corporeal dismemberment and possession’. His assertion is that we should not adopt the ‘cult of the local’ as ‘the global and local are always lived in dialectical unity’. Well, yes and no, and the weakness of this section is that in undervaluing the local, the discussion becomes confused in the heterogeneous mix of varied discourses from all over the African continent. McNally’s difficulty is that he cannot (unlike the zombie-master) make his figures work for him. Switching between vampire, zombie and witch, the claim that vampires and zombies are doubles, the ‘linked poles of a split society’, simply does not hold up because the zombie figuration in Africa or the West Indies is not ‘our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers’, precisely because the US/European zombie figure is radically different from the West Indian zombie with which the shared name apparently associates it. McNally buys too easily the orthodox notion that the transition from the controlled zombie worker of Haitian origin to the post-Romero flesh-eating version in the late 1960s is a simple switch of attention from production to consumption. Although there is some looping back as a result of the circuits of global entertainment, the African and US/European zombie are not the same. As such, not only is it necessary to reinstitute the ‘cult of the local’, it is crucial if there is to be any explosive charge in the zombie figure in a context in which the post-Romero zombie is now seemingly ubiquitous. McNally sees the zombie as the sign of revolutionary potential, but what kind of political agent can the Western zombie be, unable to speak, no longer human and irrecoverable from those conditions? If there are monstrous or magical figures with the insurgent capacity for revelry and revolt in Africa (or anywhere else), then they cannot be the resurrected bodies of a European cultural imaginary. As Marx wrote: ‘Let the dead bury their dead and mourn them. On the other hand, it is enviable to be the first to enter the new life alive; that is to be our lot.’ Alexandra Warwick