Uses of the Undead: Part 4

Last week we looked at an exemplary monster of our times, Hannibal Lecter, who combines in one person both vampire and zombie, both predatory capitalism and coercive collectivism. After a recapitulation of the discourse so far, we’ll move on to the importance of story (narrative) in opposing oppression.

The Charging Bull statue on Wall Street

The Idol of the Market

The Story So Far

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that those who feel helpless, must be in want of a monster. Monster-making is an ancient response to helplessness, a simplification engine for making sense of complex systems with many hidden parts. It is based on a psychological defense mechanism, projection, that is one of the earliest to emerge in childhood, and which is therefore a kind of default or fallback when more complex strategies fail. Examples of monsters in American life include everything from pedophiles, terrorists, and illegal immigrants to the florid imaginings of the likes of Alex Jones and David Ickes.

Monsters are quite dangerous: immortal, powerful, and tools of social control. They rank among the Powers referred to by Paul and reinterpreted by Walter Wink as the “insides” of systems or institutions, by which they develop their own ends; these are often not those of the people involved. The interlocking set of Powers that inform today’s world make up what Wink calls the “Domination System,” in which the manufacture and maintenance of monsters plays a major role.

Unfortunately, monsters considered as an instrument of political action make poor servants and worse masters: when they become the dominant currency of political discourse, as today, blind Justice becomes deaf, dumb, and palsied as well. The problem is that monsters cannot be fought in the political arena, for government is itself a Power; the result is either that the rulers end up with an even firmer grip on the reins, or an eruption of monsters from the culture-id bloodily sweeps them away along with a host of innocent, or at least less culpable, victims.

The proper battleground is popular culture, which is Antaean, anarchic, and subversive: Antaean in the sense that popular culture is more deeply rooted in the collective unconscious where the archetypes swim; anarchic because it is a world in which coercion—the political power that grows out of the barrel of a gun—is impossible; and subversive—like the caganer of Catalonia—because it can undermine any authority by redefining the stories (and monsters) that support it.

Finally, as an example of a popular monster who represents two of the greatest fears in American culture, predatory corporatism and coercive collectivism, we considered Hannibal Lecter, the cultured, erudite, serial-killer cannibal psychologist brought to life in The Silence of the Lambs and other books and movies. His charisma and apparent invulnerability recall the vampire, the perfect image of predatory corporatist behavior. His serial killing and cannibalism conjure up the zombie, a shambling collectivist nightmare that is the “ideal other,” defined as a being that may be slaughtered without any guilt at all.

Atomic Theory for Monsters

According to Muriel Rukheyser, “[t]he material universe is made up of atoms; the spiritual universe is made up of stories.” It follows then that the “war in heaven,” the attempt to wrest control of the monsters from oppressive Powers, will be fought by storytellers. That’s all of us, of course, because narrative is the engine of the fiction—”made thing”—that is our memory and thus our lives.

Not surprisingly, since the power called Empire is a primary foe, the fight can be viewed as a kind of anti-colonial struggle. “Colonization,” says Davidson Loehr, “…takes people’s stories away, and assigns them supportive roles in stories that empower others at their expense.” One might add that it also tries to forbid the reinterpretation of official stories; in my opinion, this is what lies behind much of the struggle over copyrights and intellectual property. Disney is just one of the more visible Powers striving for control of their preferred narrative.

One can also analyze this struggle in terms of re-framing dominant narratives, as explained by George Lakoff among others, or in terms of opposing the “manufacture of consent,”, as did Herman and Chomsky, following Walter Lippman, who coined the phrase almost 100 years ago.

The Herman and Chomsky’s analysis of the role of mass media in controlling dissent offers a clue as to the Achilles Heel of any official narrative in American life: the Idol of the Market, which requires that the media deliver the stories vox populi demands or starve. As Isaiah noted, those who worship idols are as blind as the stones they set up as gods; the media followers of the Golden Bull so blatantly celebrated in Bowling Green Park often find that what they intended as an opiate of the people becomes an emetic.

Opiates and Their Antidote

Of course, there will always be plenty of popular “opiates” out there: books, movies, and TV series that replay what Wink calls the “Myth of Redemptive Violence,” the ideological underpinning of the Domination System, which he traces back to Babylonian times. Characterized by a violent eucatastrophe, this is the organizing myth of the “real world,” enforcing its foundational belief that the only effective solution to social problems is violence.

A perfect example of an ancient opiate of this sort is the Biblical book of Revelation, which almost didn’t make it into the canon, nor should it have, as it represents a surrender of the gospel to the violent paradigms of Empire. I think that much of the violence in entertainment serves a similar purpose in American culture today, taking the strengths we associate with America, such as liberty and responsibility, the moral authority of the common man, and the strength of community, and representing them instead in terms of atomic individualism, know-nothing certainty, and raw tribalism.

However, this opiate works best on people infected by fear, of which monsters are perhaps the major vector. If it’s true that perfect love casts out fear, then a strategy for opposing the dominant narrative presents itself, which I call subversive agape. Next week we’ll look at one example of how subversive agape is operating in popular culture: de-othering the Undead.


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


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