In conjunction with our photo shoot, Degeneration: The All American Nightmare, Jennie Watson has contributed with an article on consumerism and zombie culture. Jennie graduated with a BA Honours in English and Drama and is currently studying an MA in English Studies. She also works closely with Spectral Visions Press as Deputy Editorial Team Leader.
The American Dream is the ethos of the Land of the Free, but what does it really represent? Does it mean prosperity for all who work hard regardless of social order, or is it a materialistic ideology that enslaves rather than emancipates? Are the fast cars and the big house with the white picket fence really just around the corner? In truth, the representation of the American Dream is different for every American. With racial discrimination still rife, is the American Dream not a meaningless platitude used by the middle-class white American to give others hope of attaining the unattainable? Does it encourage the unfortunate to reach out for wealth, then place chains around their grasping hands? The picket fences cannot protect those dwelling inside from the decay at the very core of this mindless ideology.
Three students from the University of Sunderland: Rosie Hordon-Clark, Rachael Coady, and James Hogg were able to capture the essence of this ideology in their photo shoot Degeneration: The All American Nightmare, with photographer David Newton. Jenah Colledge, the Creative Director, wanted to bring the perception of the all-American Dream to life, with a Stepford Wife 1940’s ideology, juxtaposed with a horrifying zombie reality.
When you study the photos of our 1940’s models in the image above, it is disturbing for two reasons: firstly, because of the grotesque nature of the two juxtaposing images that exhibit the idyllic all-American family with the horror of the Zombie. Secondly, it highlights the real social anxieties that decay the ethos idea mentioned earlier, that strives for progress. These social anxieties created a society in which the aimless, wandering, zombie became the terrifying, yet pertinent monster prevalent in today’s culture. This capitalist ideology thrusts the zombie metaphor into twentieth and twenty-first century culture.
Whenever there is a time of social unrest or change, or when great accomplishments are made in science and medicine, this progress is often haunted by the ever-resurgent gothic monster. The fin de siècle, for instance, was a progressive era, and here we see the creation of monsters like Dracula and Mr Hyde, whereas the twentieth century brought us the zombie. The zombie narrative exploded into twentieth century culture and spread its pervasive infection into literature, media and academia. We need not look far to see it in action. We turn on the television or open a newspaper and all around us the capitalist and consumerist ideology is forced upon us. The media drives us to consume, to want a faster car, a bigger house, and a higher fence. The potential prosperity of the individual is now the driving factor. Community cohesion and solidarity is no longer of value. Marx (1992) says that ‘In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality while the living person is dependent and has no individuality’. The zombie is the conspicuous consumer, yet it is also the victim of consumption. Capitalism and consumerism work hand in hand to produce the ideal society and the zombie metaphor thrives on this. ‘Capital is dead labour, which vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour and lives more, the more labour it sucks’ (Marx 1976). The zombie metaphor depicts the struggle of the proletariat against the culture which consumes it.
George Romero exhibits this culture in his 1978 movie, Dawn of the Dead. The zombies have an intrinsic instinct leading them to the shopping mall, which in turn is where the survivors run for refuge. The movie questions our own sense of individuality; has the society of control insidiously altered our instincts to such an extent that we now instinctively consume? If so, the driving force of capitalism is not merely shown to be individual monetary gains, but forced consumption brought about by subliminal control. The zombies are not only the proletariat, they are the state themselves, and they are a superstructure embodying the vicious circle of the capitalist world and man’s perpetual thirst for power. The zombie is the monster that mirrors the failings of the twenty-first century. It serves as a stark reminder of the consequence of capitalism and mindless consumers.
The notion of control is prolific in Stephen King’s Cell. King’s first real venture into the zombie genre comes at a time of great technological advancements in mobile phone technology and the rise of the social media monster. Cell depicts a virus that infects the victim through their cell phone. Technology is another area of progress in the twentieth century, and thus a cause of social anxiety. The differing changes create contraptions which free us from the burden of thought. We no longer need to think for ourselves because the answer to any question is at the end of a 9-inch screen. The desensitisation of human beings towards each other and their surroundings are shown through the new forms of media, which are a kind of technological anaesthetic. This itself, is another form of control and consumption. Even the most basic human function of communication is now reliant on the newest technology.
When looking at the zombie culture, we must also look at the survivors and what they represent. These fortunate few are the proletariat fighting back against the exploitative system, as Marx exhorts them to do: ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite!’ (Marx 1992). The band of survivors are fighting against consumption and live in a world of political and social freedom. As we see in the majority of zombie apocalypse literature and movies, the survivors always regress to a more primitive society.
In Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, the survivors form their own societies within a farm. Living off the land is imperative to their survival. We see small communities such as Alexandria and The Hilltop striving to build a small society where there is no forced labour. Those who work, work to build up a community. They know if mankind is to genuinely prosper, it must be as a collective. Rather than compete with one another, members of these societies work for the benefit of all. The idea of this communal living is in stark contrast to the culture of individualism we find ourselves in today. Although it is the survivors who are judged to be living the primitive lifestyle, the pernicious all-consuming ideology rife in today’s society is arguably more primitive as it highlights selfishness, not befitting a social animal such as man. What makes a society a peaceful and righteous one is its return to communal living, where people live in small communities without forced labour. The democratic societies that profess a belief in the modern notion of freedom, free speech and free will are the very societies that enslave us into the mass of mindless controlled zombies, that society has become.
Degeneration: The All American Nightmare – Photo shoot (x)
A full album of the photo shoot can be found here (x)
MARX, K., ENGELS, F., MOORE, S., & MCLELLAN, D. (1992). The Communist manifesto. Ox-ford, Oxford University Press.
Marx, K Mandel, E (1976). Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 . London: Penguin Books Ltd.