Book review

Pretend we're dead: Capitalist monsters in American pop culture, by Annalee Newitz

Christopher M. Moreman

California State University, East Bay, Hayward, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Feminism; Film studies; Horror; Robot; Women's studies; Zombie

Moreman, Christopher M. 2010. Pretend we're dead: Capitalist monsters in American pop culture, by Annalee Newitz [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.


Annalee Newitz. Pretend we're dead: Capitalist monsters in American pop culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, paperback, $22.95 (223p) ISBN 978-0822337454.

[1] In Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz applies Marxist, postcolonial, feminist, and postmodern theories to an assorted collection of monsters (loosely defined) in film and fiction. In this effort, her coverage is broad, as she aims to discuss the monstrous in America (with some Canadian content allowed) from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries. Essentially, Newitz's rather simple thesis is that "capitalism creates monsters who want to kill you" (3). Within this thesis, Newitz also seeks to define monsters as specifically capitalist monsters. That she then ultimately aims to prove that "capitalism creates [capitalist] monsters" makes her argument seem rather obvious. Still, the paths that she takes as she pursues this relatively well-trod road take some interesting turns along the way.

[2] Newitz explains the title of her book in relation to Marx's notion that "capital is dead labor," which sucks the lifeblood from the worker, transforming the latter into "an appendage of a machine" (6), a kind of not-living, inhuman monster. She emphasizes the "made" aspect of the monsters that she wishes to consider, as opposed to "born" monsters. Given the social constructedness of the monstrous, one might argue that all monsters are made, whether born that way or not. Certainly within the parameters set out by Newitz, her monsters are all created by capitalist forces. Newitz posits a paradox, one that she unfortunately does not dissect but rather simply exposes. Her book, she says, "is ultimately an extended meditation on how works about monsters represent economic crisis" (12). The monsters appear, however, within the constructs of "the capitalist culture industry" of Hollywood (12). Why the capitalist machine should offer criticism of itself is a question that Newitz makes no attempt to answer, though it is obvious from her book that the cultural artifacts of Hollywood can be read as self-critical, if not self-awarely so.

[3] After a short introduction, Newitz's first chapter explores the connection between serial killers and the capitalist work ethos. This chapter draws together ideas of masculinity, corporate productivity, and violence in interesting ways, though sometimes to the point of straining credulity. For instance, her notion that modern images of violence can be traced to the Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, sounds hollow in the face of centuries of Western apocalyptic imagery and even the gore of Homer's Iliad. Her discussion of the modern serial killer as an extreme example of the laborer who produces literally dead commodities is definitely worth consideration, however. Her discussion reveals the way Marxist theory can be broadly applied: anything can be seen as a veritable workplace, thus leaving open the possibility of production in any context. Turning to the Civil War, Newitz depicts it not as a series of military engagements but rather as a workplace in which soldiers as laborers become the appendage of a military machine producing literally dead capital in the mass of corpses. The serial killer, for Newitz, "acts out the enraged confusion" (27) of redefined masculine identity in the context of modern capitalism wherein laborers produce no tangible goods. Further, the connection between masculinity and productive economy is drawn out in fascinating detail.

[4] The second chapter, dealing with mad scientists, follows on some themes present in the first chapter and moves along the lines of redefined labor. Here, a staple of B horror is compared to the modern-day professional whose mental labor results in the alienation of the professional from his or her mind. The result is depicted, according to Newitz, as early as Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and continues in a variety of forms today. Most interesting is the argument that "mental labor…alienates workers from their own minds," leading to a "proletarianization" of professionals (55). Newitz also muses on the image of the disembodied brain as a sexual fetish, allowing the alienation of self from mind to be viewed along gender lines. Newitz repeats observations on gender and sexuality alongside the major narrative of capitalist control. Though the reader can make the connections, a more sustained argument would have been valuable.

[5] The third chapter, nominally about the undead, marks a weak point, although this is perhaps the result of my own high expectations. The undead, especially zombies, have been regularly associated with Marxist interpretations, not only by critics but also by filmmakers themselves. Given the title of the book, one expects to find at least an overview of this history. Instead, Newitz engages with the appearance of racism in horror, again a topic regularly associated with the zombie from its origins in Haitian folklore. Rather than discussing the zombie in this context, however, Newitz spends half of the chapter on the work of H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos. Certainly a discussion of Lovecraft is worthwhile, but it is out of place given his work's limited connection to the undead as normally defined. Newitz idiosyncratically interprets, for instance, Lovecraft's Great Old One, Cthulhu, a cosmic deity, as an undead creature. On the other hand, Lovecraft's pronounced racism lends him to her chosen topic in this particular chapter. Further, once turning away from Lovecraft, Newitz passes over the zombie only briefly in discussing the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie alongside the 1915 Civil War film Birth of a Nation before moving onto 1972 blaxploitation vampire film Blacula. Again, her examples present obvious racial interpretations, though Newitz fails to recognize the breadth of alternate interpretations that present themselves. Film critic Robin Wood, for instance, goes without mention despite the usefulness of his discussions of the return of the repressed in horror, some examples of which align closely with Newitz's own arguments. Newitz may have wished to avoid rehashing previous discussions of vampires and zombies (of which there are a great many) in this chapter, but it is clear that she applies a Procrustean bed, selecting her examples carefully and then overgeneralizing her claims—a long-standing problem with Marxist (among other) interpretations.

[6] Chapter 4 engages with robots and cyborgs. Newitz grants for the purposes of her argument that the robots in the films she will consider are taken to be alive, or at least sentient in some way. Essentially, then, she will only consider robots that are people. Thus limiting her discussion, Newitz again applies the Procrustean bed, as those robots that are clearly people can obviously be seen as having become appendages of a literal machine. Still, Newitz believes that these robot people can be viewed as blurring a line of consensuality because they are often at least partially enslaved by their programming, just as modern humans are not entirely free to decide the course of their own labor and production. Of particular interest for the film buff are the number of relatively obscure films that are discussed.

[7] Finally, Newitz concludes with a chapter discussing the "corporate monsters" of the capitalist movie industry. This chapter, which lacks a clear focus, ranges from aged actress-monsters to Jean Baudrillard's simulacra devouring the masses through modern media. It presents no clear conclusion, except the vague hope that "perhaps, one day, our monster stories will not express the grief of a nation whose people pretend to be dead in order to live" (183). This chapter might have been the locus for a sustained discussion of why the monstrous industry might elect to depict itself as monstrous rather than attempting to hide itself from public scrutiny. That no answer to this question is attempted, except to simply suggest that "the media are also infected" (182), weakens the overall argument.

[8] Overall, Newitz effectively and deftly manipulates some diverse theories. The likes of Baudrillard, Žižek, Gramsci, and Girard all find homes in this discussion. On the other hand, some notable omissions with bearing on the specific topic of this book include Robin Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond (2003), Barbara Creed's The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993), Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), and Noël Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990). The structure, specifically its lack of a precise conclusion, leaves the reader unsatisfied. Indeed, several questions beg answers. In the concluding chapter in particular, Newitz observes that while horror films point to the monstrosity of corporate cultural control, and so serve as a warning against it, the fact that corporate filmmakers produce such films does not pose a problem for her thesis, but instead illustrates that they too are infected by some even greater force that instills the same sense of dread in them.

[9] Despite the weakness in the overall argument, Newitz does demonstrate a flexibility in her application of a range of theories to a number of films, often obscure ones, that gives one pause for reflection. The strength of the text is in the various discussions of specific films, or of groups of films brought together in new and interesting ways. As a collection of essays, as opposed to a book of chapters moving toward a clear conclusion, Pretend We're Dead will provide an engaging read for scholars as well as horror fans. In fact, the latter will be especially pleased with some of Newitz's choices of literature and film, many of which have received little or no previous scholarly attention. The book will be most interesting to those readers who are not already familiar with Marxist interpretations of horror or to those interested in applications of Marxist theory to specific films that have not already received such treatment elsewhere.

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