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Zizek’s method



•2. Žižek’s Method


Žižek is above all a Gothic writer, and the admirers who approach him as though he were Louis CK or Reggie Watts are thus falling into a kind of category error. They’ve got the genre wrong, like the people who go to slasher movies and chortle every time the knife comes out. A Gothic writer: It’s not just that Žižek publishes on the kind of accelerated schedule that we more typically associate with pulp fiction or even comic books, though some still unfriendly readers could probably reconcile themselves to his industrial tempo if they began thinking of The Monstrosity of Christ and First as Tragedy not as free-standing volumes, nor even properly as books, but simply as the latest issues in a long-running title—a single year’s worth of Slavoj Žižek’s Adventures into Weird Worlds. The first-order evidence for Žižek’s Gothicism—the cues and triggers that invite us to read his writing as a kind of Gruselphilosophie—are not hard to find: the frequent encomia to Stephen King, to whom even his beloved Hitchcock is finally assimilated; a tendency to explicate Lacan by summarizing the plots of scary movies; a persistent concern with trauma, cataclysm, and grief. Psychoanalysis’s most fundamental insight, he writes, is that “at any moment, the most common everyday conversation, the most ordinary event can take a dangerous turn, damage can be caused that cannot be undone.” So, yes, Žižek is a magnetic and slobber-voiced goof; he is also the theorist of your life where it is going to be worst, the implacable prognosticator of your distress.

But even once we’ve spotted the jack-o-lantern that Žižek never takes off his porch, it is going to be hard to know what to do with it or how to reckon its consequences. What, after all, does it mean to say that a given philosopher is a kind of horror writer? You might be wondering, for instance, if there is a philosophical argument attached to all of Žižek’s horror-talk. It would be possible at this point to survey the philosophy canon and compile a list of concepts or excerptable positions establishing European thought’s many different accounts of terror, trepidation, and unease. Indeed, for the philosophy graduate student, the language’s fine discriminations between panic’s various grades and modes come as it were with the names of Great Thinkers already attached: Hobbesean fear, Kierkegaardian dread, Freudian Unheimlichkeit, the angst, anxiety, or anguish of your preferred existentialist. And there is nothing stopping you from reading Žižek in this manner and so walking away with yet another philosopheme, in which case you might decide that Žižek is a fairly conventional theorist of the spooky-sublime, like so: All language involves a doubling; whenever we name something, we fashion a doppelganger for it. I open my mouth, and where before there was one thing, the object, there are now two, the object and its name, and if I’m thinking clearly I need to be able to distinguish rigorously between the word “table” and the touchable, breakable, enduring-decaying, eighteenth-century Connecticut batten door upon which I am now typing. Žižek takes the position that language thus severed from its referents is always on the side of fiction, fantasy, and ideology. You can only be sure that you are in the presence of something real if this kind of doubling hasn’t taken place, if, in other words, the object hasn’t been surrounded by verbal shadows of itself. If you can talk about something, then it is by definition untrue; it has already been translated into a kind of derealized chatter. And if it’s true, or if it’s Real—because that’s the philosopheme you are about to pocket: the Real—then you can’t talk about it or can’t talk about it lucidly and coherently. But in that case, the only things that get to count as Real are the things that resist being named—those enormities that daunt our congenital glibness—which is to say the worst things: the torsions, the tearings, the ugliest breaks. Nearly everything can get sucked into the order of language, but some few things can’t. What remains is what’s real: the unspeakable.

But perhaps this too-fluid summary is beside the point. For to call Žižek a Gothic writer is finally to say less about the substance of his arguments than about his way of making those arguments—his philosophical style or Darstellung. It is one thing, I mean, to point out that Žižek gives an account of fear, which we could reflect on and debate at the seminar table and then agree with or not. It is another, rather more interesting thing to observe that Žižek is trying to scare you—not just to explain the uncanny to you, but to raise its pimples in your armflesh: “What unites us is that, in contrast to the classic image of proletariat who have ‘nothing to lose but their chains,’ we are in danger of losing everything.” Critical theory, of course, has always been readable as a mode of Gothic writing, just another subgenre of the dark-fantastic, with Freudianism and Foucauldianism assuming their place on the bookshelf alongside vampire novels and chronicles of crewless ghost ships and other such stories of the damned. Marx describes the commodity as “phantom-like” and calls capital a bloodsucker and attributes to it a “werewolf-hot-hunger.” Freud makes of psychoanalysis a sort of ghost story and instructs his followers to conduct therapy as though it were a séance or an exorcism—a making-the-spirits-walk. In German, the other name for the unconscious is not reassuringly distanced and Latinate, but bluntly, forbiddingly vernacular. The Ego, this is to say, does not share our person with the Id—that’s not how Freud puts it. Das Ich is chained to das Es,the Me” to “the It,” or, if you like, to It. Walter Benjamin, meanwhile, asks us to declare our solidarity with the dead. Adorno requires that you take a shard in the eye. Foucault recasts Left Weberianism as a paranoid thriller, a story about imprisonment and surveillance and the impossibility of outrunning power. Critical theory, this is all to say, needs to be read not only as a teaching or a storehouse of oppositional arguments, but also as a historically inventive crossbreeding of philosophy and genre fiction. The Frankfurt School Reader is, in that sense, one of the twentieth century’s great horror anthologies. If we now insert Žižek into this philosophical-literary timeline, we should feel less awkward naming some of his writing’s schlockier conventions: his direct emotional appeals to the reader; his sudden juxtapositions of opposed argumentative positions, which recall less the patient extrapolations of the dialectic than they do the jump cuts of summer-camp massacre movies; his pervasive intermingling of high and low, which marks Žižek’s arguments as postmodern productions in their own right, against which the genre experiments of Freud or Benjamin will seem, in retrospect, downright Jamesian and understated and belletristic. Das Ding an sich is just about hearable as the name of a B-movie: The Thing In Itself!

But this isn’t yet to say enough. I want you to agree that the Gothic in Žižek is something more than a reasoned-through philosophical position, offered to the reader to adopt as creed or mantra. But it is also something more than a sinister rhetoric or set of literary conventions—more than a palette of gruesome flourishes borrowed from the horror classics. In Žižek’s writing, the Gothic attains the status of a method. This will need to be explained, but it’s worth it: It is a tenet of Lacanianism that things in the world have trouble cohering or maintaining their integrity; this is true of persons, but it is every bit as true of institutions or, indeed, of entire social fields. One of the great Lacanian pastimes is thus to scan a person or a piece of writing or a historical-political scene for evidence of its (her, his) fragmentation or disintegration. To the bit of Sartrean wisdom that says that all identity is performance, the Lacanians add a qualifier: All identity is failed performance, in which case it is our task to stay on the lookout for a person’s protrusions and tells and prostheses, the incongruous features that seemingly put-together persons have not been able to absorb into their specious unity. In what specifiable ways are you least like you claim to be? Where is your Adam’s apple, because it’s probably not on your neck? Now once you get good at asking such questions of people, the challenge will be to figure out how to ask them again of the systems in which people reside. The Real—whatever lies menacingly outside of discourse—can take several different forms: Most obviously, it can name external trauma: assaults upon your person, the bullet in your belly, your harrowing. But it might also name your own disgusting desires, the ones you are least willing to own. Or it might name the totality (of empire, say, or global capitalism). Any concept that we form of the totality is going to be a reification, of course, something theorized, which is to say linguistically devised or even in some sense made up. But the totality-as-such, as distinct from this or that concept of totality, will persist as an unknowable limit to our efforts. It will be, to revise an old phrase, a structure palpable only in its effects, with the key proviso now being that the only effects that matter are the unpleasant ones: a structure palpable only in its humiliations. The world system is the shark in the water. Again, the Real might name a given social order’s fundamental antagonisms—the conflicts that are so basic to a set of institutions that no-one participating in those institutions can stand outside them. Or the Real might name the ungroundedness of those institutions and of our personae, their tenuous anchoring in free choices and changeable practices. So if you want to write political commentary in the style of Žižek, you really only need to do two things: 1) You scan the social scene that interests you in order to identify some absurd element within it, something that by official lights should not be in the room. Political Lacanianism in practice tends to be one big game of “Which one doesn’t belong?” or “One of these things is not like the others.” And 2) You figure out how this incongruity is an index of the Real in any of those varied senses: trauma, the drive, the totality, antagonism, or the void. You describe, in other words, how the Unspeakable is introducing anomalies and distortions into a sphere otherwise governed by speech.

So that’s one version of Žižek’s Gothic method. There are thus three distinct claims we’ll need to be able to tell apart. We can say, first, that Žižek likes to read Gothic fiction and also the eerier reaches of science fiction—and that’s true, though he precisely does not read them the way a literary critic would. It has always been one of the more idiosyncratic features of Žižek’s thought that he is willing to proclaim Pet Sematary a vehicle of genuine analytic insight or to see in horror stories more broadly a spontaneous and vernacular Lacanianism, in much the same way that old-fashioned moral philosophers used to think of Christianity as Kantianism for people without PhDs. To this observation we can easily add a second: that Žižek himself often reads as though he were writing speculative fiction, as in: You are not an upstanding member of society who dreams on occasion that he is a murderer, you are a murderer who dreams every night that he is an upstanding member of society—though keep reading in Žižek and you’ll also find: torture chambers, rape, “strange vibrating noises.” And yet if we’re taking Žižek at his word, then the point is not just to read Gothic novels, nor yet to write them. We must cultivate in ourselves, rather, a determination to read pretty much everything as Gothic. Once we’ve concluded that horror fiction offers a more accurate way of describing the world than do realist novels—that it is the better realism, a literature of the Real—then the only way to defend this insight will be to read the very world as horror show. It will no longer be enough to read Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. The Gothic hops the border and becomes a hermeneutics rather than a genre. Anything—any poem, painting, person, or polity—will, if snuck up upon from the right angle, disclose to you its bony grimace.

This approach should help us further specify Žižek’s place on the philosophical scene. It is often complained that Hegelian thinkers—Adorno, Wallerstein, Jameson—subdue their interlocutors not by proving their arguments false but precisely by agreeing with them. Going up against a Hegelian, you find yourself less refuted than outflanked—absorbed, reduced, assigned some cramped nook in the dialectical apparatus. That’s a point we can now extend to Žižek, in whose writing the Gothic gets weaponized in precisely this Hegelian way. Horror becomes a device, a move, a way of transforming other people’s arguments. When Žižek engages in polemic with some peer, his usual tack is not to controvert his adversary’s arguments, but rather to improvise an eerie riff upon them, to re-state his opponent’s claims in their most unsettling register. You can call this the dialectic, but you might also call it pestilence. Žižek infects his rivals with Lacan and forces them to speak macabre versions of their core positions: undead Heidegger, undead Badiou, undead Judith Butler.

Three of these fiends we will want to single out:

Žižek summons zombie Deleuze. It is often remarked that critical theory in the new century has taken a vitalist turn. The trials-by-epistemology that were the day-to-day business of the long post-structuralist generation have given way to the endless policing of ontologies. Graduate students accuse each other of possessing the wrong cosmology or of performing their obeisance to the object with insufficient fervor. Deleuze and Guattarí can be corrected only by those proposing counter-ontologies. Claims get to be right because Bergson made them. You are scared to admit that you wrote your whole first book without having read Spinoza. Nietzsche is still quotable, but only where he is most ebullient and alpine. You ask which description of the stars, if recited consequently to its last rhyme, will reform the banking system and unmelt the ice caps. Klassenkampf seems less interesting than theomachia. What is less often remarked is that vitalism has only returned to the fore by consenting to a major modification—a fundamental change in its program and priorities—only, that is, by agreeing not to grant precedence to those things we used to call “living.” The achievement of the various neo-vitalisms has been to extend the idiom of the old Lebensphilosophie—its egalitarian cosmos of widely shared powers, its emphasis on mutation and metamorphosis—to entire categories of object that vitalists used to think of themselves as opposing: the inanimate, the inorganic, and the dead. It is in this sense misleading to call Deleuze a Spinozist without immediately noting that his Spinoza has been routed through La Mettrie and the various Industrial Revolutions and the Futurists, which makes of schizoanalysis less a vitalism than a profound updating of the same, such that it no longer has to exclude the machine—a techno-vitalism, then, for which engines are the better organisms, and which takes as its unnamed material prompts epochal innovations in the history of capitalism itself: the emergence of the late twentieth century’s animate industrialisms, flexible manufacturing and biotech, production producing and production produced.

So that’s one vitalism of the unliving, but there are others. Jane Bennett claims for her ontology the authority of her great lebensphilosophische forebears—Spinoza, Bergson, Hans Driesch, Bakhtin—and yet calls matter “vibrant” rather than “vital,” because she wants her list of things living and lifelike to include national electricity grids and the litter thrown from the windows of passing cars. Bennett is trying to imagine a United States that has become in a few key respects more like Japan—an America in which Midwesterners, possessed by an “irrational love of matter,” hold funeral services for their broken DVD players and pay priests to bounce adzuki beans from off the hoods of newly purchased trucks. The phrase “vibrant matter” might hearken back to William Blake’s infinite-in-everything, but Bennett uses it mostly to refer to the consumables and disposables of advanced capitalist societies: to enchanted rubbish dumps and copper tubing and other such late-industrial yōkai. The task, again, is to figure out how to be a vitalist on a planet without nature—a pantheist of the anaerobic or Spinoza for the Anthropocene. Bennett herself says that what interests her is above all the “variability” and “creativity” of “inorganic matter.”  In that context, the achievement of the adjective “vibrant” is to recall the word “vital” without entailing it: not alive, merely pulsating; not vitalist, but vitalish.

What we can now say about Žižek is that he offers his own, rather different way of dialectically revising the older vitalisms. His point is that most people already happen upon the cosmic life force—in their everyday lives and without special philosophical tutoring—and that such encounters are, on balance, terrifying. The élan vital is not your iPod’s morning workout mix; nor is it some metaphysical energy drink. It is the demiurge that makes of you “a link in the chain you serve against your will”—the formulation is Freud’s—“a mere appendage of your germ-plasm,” not life’s theorist and apostle, but its stooge and discardable instrument. Psychoanalysis is the school that takes as its starting point the repugnance that we properly feel towards life—a vitalism still, but one with all the judgments reversed, a necrovitalism, in which bios takes on the attributes that common sense more typically associates with death, its nullity, above all, and its blind stupidity. One of Žižek’s favorite ways of making this point is by reminding you of how you felt when you first saw Ridley Scott’s Alien—movie of cave-wombs and booby-trapped eggs, of male pregnancies and forced blow jobs, which ends when the undressed woman finally lures from his hidey-hole the giant penis monster, the adult alien with the taut, glossy head of an erection. But we might also think of the matter this way: In the early 1950s, Wilhelm Reich—the magus of western Maine, Paracelsus in a lab coat, the ex-Freudian who thought he could capture the cosmic life force in shoeboxes and telephone booths—organized something he called the Oranur Experiment. Reich had by that point begun styling himself the counter-Einstein, foil and counterweight to the Nobel Laureate of Dead Cities, dedicated to building the nuclear age’s new and sorely needed weapons of life. He had to this end procured a single needle of radium; the idea was that he would introduce this shaving of Nagasaki into a room supercharged with élan vital so that he could observe the cosmic forces of death and the cosmic forces of life fighting it out under laboratory conditions. It did not go as he’d planned. Reich panicked when he discovered, not just that the radium was in some sense stronger, but that the radioactivity had contaminated and rendered malevolent the compound’s orgone. The cosmic life force hadn’t been obliterated; it had been turned, made sinister, recruited over to do the work of death. Žižek, we might say, is the theorist of this toxic vitality; the one who thinks that orgone was bad to begin with; the philosopher of rampant and metastatic life.


Žižek summons zombie Levinas. It might be more precise to say that Žižek summons the zombie Other or the Neighbor-Wight. Either way, poring over Žižek’s response to Levinas is your best chance at learning how to replicate his achievement—how, that is, to turn philosophers you dislike into your reanimated thralls. Derrida delivers the funeral oration; Žižek returns with a shovel later that night. The spell you will read from the Lacanian grimoire has three parts:

-First, you seek out the moment in your rival’s system where his thinking is already at its creepiest. Chapbook summaries of Levinas often make him sound like a fairly conventional European moral philosopher, as though he hadn’t done anything more than cut a new path, dottering and roundabout, back to the old Kantian positions about the dignity and autonomy of other people. It is easy, I mean, to make Levinas sound inoffensive and dutiful. The wise man’s hand silently cups the chin of a stranger. It will be important to insist, then, that ethics-as-first-philosophy harbors its proper share of sublimity or even of something akin to dread. We know that Levinas’s first step was to adjust Husserl’s doctrine of intentionality: So consciousness is always consciousness of something—sure enough. And all thinking is directed outward; it cannot not refer—granted. But intention, even as it fans away from me in a wide, curving band, will meet obstacles or opacities, and it is by fixing our attention on these stains in the phenomenological field that Levinas develops what he himself calls “a philosophy of the enigma”—a kind of anti-phenomenology in which thinking begins anew by giving priority to what does not appear and in which it falls to me to sustain and shepherd this strangeness I have just discovered in the Not-I. This is a program whose uncanny and un-Kantian qualities we could restore only if we agreed to set aside Levinas’s own undarnably worn-out language—alterity, the Other, otherness—and to put “the Alien” in its stead: an ethics of the Alien would ask us to look upon the face of the Alien so that we can better understand the tasks of being-for-the-Alien. For current purposes, what we’ll want to keep in mind is that Žižek has no beef with this Levinas. He agrees after a fashion with the doctrines of alterity and can easily translate their claims about the obscurity of other people into Lacanian observations about the modes of appearance of the Real. But again, it’s not the argument that matters; it’s the method: Žižek has to find at least one point of agreement with Levinas, because that’s how the zombie hex gains access to its mark.

-So that’s the first step. You make a point of agreeing with your rival by finding that one argument of his that is already pretty occult. The next step, then, is to show how he nonetheless runs away from the creepiness he has conjured. Žižek’s complaint against Levinas is easily summarized. He thinks that the ethics of alterity, far from demanding difficult encounters with other people, encourages me to keep my relationship to others within strict bounds—to delimit, attenuate, and finally dull such encounters. Totality and Infinity is the handbook for stage-managing a counterfeit otherness, as a moment’s reflection on two of the words we most associate with Levinas should suffice to show. Who, after all, are the people who routinely allow themselves to be “caressed”? A Levinasian ethics takes as its paradigmatic others people with cheeks at the ready: lovers and children and hospice patients. The attitude it means to cultivate in us is accordingly amorous or avuncular or perhaps candy-striping. The moral person is the one in a position to dandle and cosset. The language of “the Neighbor,” meanwhile, forfeits even the slight provocations of the word “Other,” making strangers proximate again, returning outlanders to their position of adjacency. Neighbors aren’t the ones who draw out of you your hitherto unsuspected capacities for righteousness. They are the ones-to-whom-you-loan-cordless-drills, the ones-who-could-afford-to-buy-on-your-block. Psychoanalysis, then, is where Žižek would have us look for a philosophical program that does not housebreak the Other in this way, though the phenomenologists, if they are to follow him there, will have to agree to reinstate the entire, outmoded metaphysics of appearance v. essence, since those who go into analysis are consenting to set aside public facades and facile self-perceptions and are learning instead to speak the secret language of hidden things. The more-than-Levinasian task, at any rate, would be to find a way to live alongside that person, the person whose unspoken desires you would doubtless find ugly. Other people would terrify you if you knew them well—that is the most remorseless, Freudian plain speech—and it is in the dying light of that claim that Levinas’s thinking looks suspiciously like an excuse not to know them. A psychoanalytically robust account of Otherness would therefore have to reintroduce you to the people next door, that “inhuman” family with whom you now share a hedge, where by inhuman Žižek means “irrational, radically evil, capricious, revolting, disgusting.” Can you hew to the ethics of neighborliness even when a vampire buys the bungalow across the street? Are you willing to caress not just an unfamiliar face but a moldering one? Methodologically, the point we will not want to miss is that Levinas now stands accused on his own terms of having replaced the Alien with the Other, of having persuaded you to stuff your ears against your neighbors’ shenanigans, of having evinced once again what he himself once called the “horror of the Other which remains Other.” We put up with other people as long as they put up a face. And here, finally, is the portable technique, which you can bring to bear against any theorist and not just against the radical ethicists: When you read a rival philosopher, you will want to take whatever creepy argument he already proposes and find a way to make it a whole lot creepier. That will be your chance to conduct a kind of body swap, to replace the philosopher with a more consequently unpleasant version of himself.

-So that’s the second step. Step three is: You welcome your rival into the army of the dead, making sure that he realizes that he is just one monster among many such. Here’s where the hoodoo gets tricky. A Levinasian ethics presents itself to us as intimate, a thought nestled between two terms, Me and the Other, where the latter means “the neighbor and his mug at strokable distance.” And yet the term “Other” is incapable of this kind of grazing approach; it is barred in its very constitution from ever rubbing noses with us. For the word indicates no particular second person but only the anonymous and shrouded Autrui. If I speak only of “the Other,” with no further specification, I could be referring to anyone but me. The concept produces no further criterion and calls no-one by name. Behind its sham-individuation there thus lurks the mathematical sublimity of the crowd, impersonal and planet-filling. At this point you have two options: You can decide that the ethics of alterity is ineffectual because self-consuming in this fashion, claiming to preserve the irreducible strangeness of the other while in fact washing such peculiarities away in a bath of equal and undifferentiated otherness. The philosophical system’s organizing term is, as ever, what betrays it. Alternately, you can decide that a Levinasian ethics can survive only by generalizing itself, by accepting its own faceless abstraction as a prompt and so by agreeing to become categorical. If we follow this second route, we will have to say without blushing that Levinas’s thought as it has come down to us was already characterized by a pressure, irregularly heeded, to all-but-universalize. The term Other directs my moral concern recklessly in all directions, sponsoring a universalism to which I am the only exception—a humanism minus one.

But then it should be easy to add the subtracted one back in. It should be easy, I mean, to get the Me to takes its place among those many indistinct others and thereby to make Levinas’s universalism complete. It will be enough, in fact, to call to mind the basic dialectical idea that we do not cognize objects singly, but only relationally or in constellations. This means, among many other things, that the Me and the Other strictly imply one another. If my action in the world didn’t reach a certain limit, if I didn’t routinely knock into other objects and persons, if these latter didn’t reliably humble me, then I wouldn’t even have a sense of myself as a Me, which is to say as something that does not, in fact, coincide with the world. But then the Other and the Me are not fixed positions; they are conceptually unstable and even in some sense interchangeable. I can obviously switch places with the other; I am other to the Other, who, in turn, is a Me in her own right. As soon as I concede this, I have discovered my own alien-ness. Second, and as an intensification of these Hegelian reciprocity games, we can collapse the two terms into a single formation: not the Me and the Other, but the Other-Me or the self as foreign element. This can be managed a few different ways. My experience of becoming—of my own changeability—renders me other to myself, reconstructing the ego as watercourse or Heraclitean series. I do not shake the Other’s hand as though I didn’t know what it was like to be a stranger. But we can also travel a more direct psychoanalytic path to the same insight, simply by noting that I am not transparent to myself, not in charge of my own person, that my own desires and motives are basically incomprehensible to me—that, indeed, I am just another dimness or demonic riddle.

And with that, the terms generated by Levinas’s philosophy mutate beyond recognition. This, in case you missed it, is the culminating step in Žižek’s method: If when reading philosopher X, you hold fast to what is most Gothic in X’s thinking—if you generalize its monstrosities and don’t exempt yourself from them, if you promote Unwesen to the position of Wesen—then other core features of X’s system will break and buckle and shift, until it no longer really looks any more like X’s thinking. To stay with Levinas: The ethics of alterity rotates around a single inviolable prohibition—that I not conclude that all egos are more or less the same; that I not propose a theory of subjectivity that would hold equally for all people; that I not stipulate as the precondition of my welcoming another person that he or she be like me. But if the terms “self” and “other” cannot be maintained in their separateness—and they can’t—then this injunction will be lifted, and Žižek can improvise in its stead a paradoxical argument in which alterity becomes the vehicle of our similarity, in which I realize I am like others in their very otherness, in which the Hegelian homecoming comes to pass after all, but on the terrain of alienation and not of the self, in which what establishes our identity is not some human substance, but our inevitable distance from such substance—which distance, we, however, share. There thus arises the possibility that I will identify with the Alien, not in his humanity, but in his very monstrosity, as long as I have come to the conclusion first that the world’s most obviously damaged people only make public the inhumanity that is our common portion and my own clandestine ferment. And out of such acts of identification—and not of pity or tolerance or aid—Žižek would build, in the place of Levinas’s philosophy à deux, a global alien host or legion of the damned. Radicalize what is creepiest in your rival, in other words, and then make it universal. This brings us to Episode Number Three, in media res, as they say: already in progress…

Levinas zombie

Žižek summons the zombie multitude. I want to point out two more instances of this horror-movie universalism—two more cases, that is, in which Žižek takes one of radical thought’s settled positions and contagiously expands its orbit. What you’ll want to pay attention to is how each position leads to the same conceptual destination, which is the undead horde—Levinas has just led to the horde; and now Rancière will lead to the horde, and then Agamben will, too, like characters in a Lucio Fulci movie getting picked off at twenty-minute intervals. The horde: We’ll want to consider the possibility now that the cadaver-thronged parking lot is a post-political society’s last remaining image of the unmediated collectivity, the term that, having driven from consciousness the gatherings and aggregates posited by classical political philosophy—the assembly, the demos, the populo, the revolutionary crowd—must now be asked to absorb into itself the indispensable political energies we used to expect from these latter. Can we get the walking dead to mill about the barricades?—that is another of Žižek’s driving questions. Will they know to throw rocks?

One path to the horde begins with Rancière’s idea that politics proper belongs to “the part that has no part”—which is the philosopher’s oxymoronic term for the disenfranchised, those who are important to the system’s functioning but who don’t in the usual sense count, who don’t get to take part and who have no party. Rancière’s claim—and sometimes Žižek’s, too—is that only the agitations of such people (refugees, guest workers, the undocumented) so much as deserve to be called “politics,” because it is only at a system’s roiled margins that basic questions about a polity can be raised, questions, that is, about its scope and constitution. Anything that happens in the ordinary course of government takes the state’s functioning for granted and so isn’t really about the polis—is not, in that sense, “political.” On the face of it, this is a terrible idea. Rancière’s position is anti-constitutional and anti-utopian and indeed committed to failure. My actions only get to count as political provided the state does not recognize me, and as soon as I succeed in convincing someone in power to look me in the eye or indeed to act on my behalf, I cede my claim to be a political actor and become just another pawn of policy makers and the police. There is, in this sense, no such thing as getting the state right; every political breakthrough is actually a setback. To frame your program in terms of “the part that has no part” is to show contempt for those parts-with-parts, absolutely any parts, even though some of these portions will be quite meager. This has made Rancière ill-equipped to talk about what we might call the part that has little part: the native-born working classes, the rural poor, the jobless, the ineffectually enfranchised.

So can Rancière’s thinking be Gothically universalized? It is one of the more attractive features of Žižek’s thinking that he corrects Rancière at just this point and in just this fashion, insisting on the instability of the conceptual pair around which the politics of parts usually turns, inclusion-exclusion, as in: Politics is only ever out there; here there is only administration. That last sentence turns out to be untenable, for even the part that has no-part is not simply excluded. It is one of radical thought’s lazier habits to treat the word “margins” as though it meant the outside when it fact it means the space just inside the door, the page’s extremity and not the empty air that surrounds the lifted book. More: Even the word “exclusion” never refers to simple separation or distance. You have to have had some contact with a system for me to be able to say that you are excluded from it; the very concept depends on some thread or temporary node of connection. The gauchos of the Uruguayan plains may not be represented in the Danish Folketing, but they aren’t excluded from it either. “Exclusion” contains the idea of “inclusion” within itself and is not the latter’s simple opposite. Genuine apartness would require a different concept. This observation will allow Žižek to fold the old proletariat back into the category of the part that has no part. Working people and refugees are actually in similar positions of inclusion/exclusion: the grinding, mutilating condition of being swept up in a system whose inner workings nonetheless seem closed off and impossible to fathom.

One way to think about what Žižek is doing here would be to say that he is trying, within the terms dictated by contemporary European philosophy, to get us to shake off our gauchiste habit, picked up over the social democrat decades, of seeing European workers as basically First World and coddled and deleteriously white. He wants to help us retrieve “a more radical notion of the proletarian”—where more radical means not “more militant,” at least not in the first instance, but merely “more abject.” If I say now that the doctrine of we-all-are-refugees might hold the key to the emergence of a new proletariat, you might object, mildly, that this new proletariat sounds a lot like the old one—the really old one, the one that didn’t yet drive oversized Buicks, the working class stump-armed and black-lunged and blind. There is something new, however, about Žižek’s version of the wretched ones, which is that he’s pretty sure that they include us, the people who actually read his books, the people who know who Žižek is: the second-year university students, the middle-aged art historians, the underemployed web designers, the gap-year backpackers. “Today, we are all potentially homo sacer”—and then that’s a second, unusually clear instance of his Gothic universalism right there, now keyed to Agamben, who, once whammied, will produce an image of the concentration camp victim as Everyman or bare life as Ordinary Joe. To be a new-model proletarian is simply to know that your life, if not yet ghastly, is nonetheless exposed and insecure—wholly vincible. In place of Hardt and Negri’s squatters and street-partiers and Glo-Stick communards, Žižek means to fill the streets with a multitude less than human. It might take a minute for this idea to sink in. The new proletariat will be built out of homines sacri.  Žižek’s thrilling and preposterous idea is that having failed to organize fast-food chains or big-box retail, we might yet organize ourselves on the basis of la vita nuda—that the Musselmänner might form a union and yet remain Musselmänner, that those who have lost even the instincts of self-preservation, who have stopped swatting the flies that lay eggs in their open sores, might be made to see the point of collective bargaining.

It has become almost obligatory over the past decade to argue that fear lives on the Right, that terror is a means of social control, that one could defeat Al Qaeda and the Patriot Act at once if only one would resolve to be unafraid, if only we could make ourselves okay with not being safe. It is against the Left machismo of those arguments, so many rehashings of the old Spinozist idea that “fear makes us womanish,” that Žižek’s accomplishment over the last decade can be measured, as he has set about to reclaim terror as one possible platform for emancipation and revolutionary equality, to help us imagine a communism for the screamers and the tearful and the scared. Not that Žižek is offering to make you any less frightened. He will not give you refuge or grab your hand or quietly sing nonsense lyrics into your ear. A politics of militant fear does not begin by offering solace. Quite the contrary: Our task will be to communicate fear and to amplify it. You have a few different options as to how you might go about this. You can issue reasoned admonitions, explain to us soberly about the threats and the thresholds and the no-going-back: two degrees Celsius, go ahead tell us again. Or you can make us feel your own foreboding, as also the grief that is fear’s come-true aftermath: Show us the photographs of Katrina graffiti—“Destroy this memory,” one picture records, in white paint on a flooded brick house, in good, teacherly cursive, no less. But it has been left to Žižek to propose a radically darkened politics, a politics that, no longer content to protest the ongoing catastrophe, has taken the disaster into itself and begun to root for ruin. We are the ones they were supposed to be afraid of. In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the zombies are for once oddly purposeful, these animate corpses with faces torn into tragic masks, whose first, returning memories are of what it was like once to work and when not working march. You are probably already hurting. A just politics is going to hurt a whole lot worse.

Land of the Dead


Staying Alive, Part 2.3



Three Theses on Fright Night






•THESIS #3: John Travolta must die.

There are three bits of evidence we need to line up. First, the vampire in Fright Night is played by Chris Sarandon, given name Sarondonethes, which means he’s Greek, the darker side of white, not easily confused with Robert Redford or Owen Wilson. Second, the vampire ensnares the hero’s young girlfriend on the main floor of a throbbing disco, wading into the crowd to dance his gorgon’s boogaloo. Third, he is almost always wearing a man’s dress scarf, which generically marks him out as a swell and specifically, in 1985, seemed to insinuate the ultra-wide collars that had just gone out of style: an amplitude of color spreading out from the neck.

More precisely, it was the combination of scarf and popped collar that approximated the polyester wingspan of a few years back. And approximation is very much the point, since Chris Sarandon was plainly cast in Fright Night because he made a passable surrogate for John Travolta. One of the names for the demon-seducer who engrosses to himself all the women is “father,” but his other is “Tony Manero.” And you can, if you like, think of this figure—the Travolta vampire-dad—in terms of a precise historical moment: The entire movie takes shape in the headspace of a child of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, someone who has grown up under the strains of “You Should Be Dancing” and “If I Can’t Have You” and who has therefore latched onto Vinnie Barbarino and Danny Zuko as the standard of the masculinity that he will never meet. All of Fright Night is premised on a bowel-shaking fear of John Travolta, the dreadful realization that no American man will ever have sex again until Travolta is destroyed. The struggle that Fright Night stages is in this sense something more than Oedipal; it isn’t just a conflict between an under-ripe masculinity and a fully adult one, since its junk Freudianism has been given such an obvious ethnic overlay: a whitebread masculinity squares off against sheerest Ionian potency. The movie’s adolescent fear of older men is intensified by a worry that a preppy, suburban kid—a 15-year old in a tweed jacket!?—is never going to be able to compete with Travolta’s goombah swank. And this obviously brings us back to Valentino and the Lugosi Dracula. Something we said earlier we’ll want to repeat now as a general point: Not just that Lugosi tapped into a fear of Valentino, but that vampire movies as a genre periodically inculcate a fear of Italian actors. And with this in mind, we can return to the clip from Ken Russell’s Valentino and gawp again at its unlikeliness: Nureyev is playing Valentino as Dracula, but Travolta is the scene’s third term, or, if you like, he is proximate double to its devil-sheikh. Lugosi gives us Dracula + Valentino, and Chris Sarandon Dracula + Travolta, but only Nureyev delivers Dracula + Valentino + Travolta in one. The Russell biopic came out in October of 1977, Saturday Night Fever two months later. And Fright Night, at eight years remove, is Disco Demolition Night restaged as a vampire story: A Mediterranean fop dies so that his WASP neighbors will sleep better. A crate of records explodes on a baseball field.

Staying Alive, Part 2.2

Three Theses on Fright Night 





•THESIS #2: The Oedipus complex isn’t quite as stupid as you probably think it is.

Of course, there is a stupid version, the one-sentence rendering, the one that says that you want to sleep with your mother and kill your father. You can put that truncation to one side without much cost. But then there is a slightly less dumb version, which argues that almost every boy child is initially close to his mother, close to her body, at her breast, pressed up against the mother’s nakedness, forming some kind of primal emotional bond against which all others will subsequently be measured. And in this utterly common scenario, the father will usually figure in the child’s mind at some point as a rival, especially if the father sends out any kind of jealous vibe, which often happens, at least in subtle ways: You have to sleep in your own bed. Freud’s point is that this family triangle is a recipe for psychic trouble—and the best thing that could happen for a boy child is to learn to separate from the mother (at least physically and quasi-erotically) and identify with the father instead—and the cleaner the break and the cleaner the identification, the better. So maybe you think that still sounds goofy. But it won’t sound as goofy if you don’t make it a chamber drama with only three players. Maybe the Oedipus complex makes more sense as a general point about anxiety between generations. We could say that Freud is trying to describe the puzzlement and fear that boys feel when looking up at adult men, unsure how to measure up, unsure that they will ever measure up. Young men have to establish their masculinity in competition with older males and father figures. It doesn’t much matter, for our purposes, whether you buy any of this. Even if in your thinking life, you consider the Oedipus complex  just a twentieth-century psychosexual myth, the point is that Fright Night is trying to get you to experience it as compelling—to stage the myth in all its corny grandeur. The central conflict in this movie is as entertainingly overdrawn an example of the Oedipal scenario as you are ever going to find, as witness one more piece of evidence: The teenaged hero in the movie doesn’t have a father—he’s never even mentioned, not even as dead or absent—which creates a pristinely empty slot into which the vampire can slink. In Fright Night, Dracula simply is the father figure. And in this sense, the entire movie occupies—and wants you to share—the mental universe of a befuddled thirteen-year-old boy, psychotically lashing out against an older man whose cocksmanship he both dreads and envies. The vampire is the Oedipal nightmare father who wants all the women for himself—the Father of Enjoyment, some of the Freudians call him. This is hardly the most novel feature of Fright Night — rather more important is its outrageous specification, which we’ll get to next — but it is a step we won’t want to skip: The other name for the Byronic vampire seducer of Gothic fiction is “Dad.”



If you think you’ve got it bad
Try having Dracula for your dad
See how that looks on you!

The Decemberists, “Dracula’s Daughter”





Staying Alive, Part 2.1




Three Theses on Fright Night


•THESIS #1: It’s harder than you might think to script a straight vampire.

I don’t normally go in for literary biography, but here’s one case where it can actually help us refine an argument. Some background: Bram Stoker grew up in the same circles as Oscar Wilde, on the fancy side of Dublin, and the two were roughly the same age, close enough at least to evidence an affinity. One year, after Wilde left to go study in England, his parents invited Stoker to spend Christmas Day with them, as though he were a substitute son—as though, that is, Stoker were a plausible stand-in for Wilde. And the Wildes clearly weren’t the only ones who thought this: Stoker went on to marry a woman, a legendary local beauty, whom Wilde had already courted. That Stoker’s most famous novel is by any ordinary measure anti-queer—the sexually peculiar characters are hunted down and killed; it doesn’t get much more anti-queer than that—would seem to give us the key to interpreting the relationship between these men. We would want to say that they were rivals, and this in some sharp and antithetical key: the queer and anti-queer alternatives in the same Anglo-Irish scene, though if that’s the case, then it becomes harder to see how they could so effectively pinch-hit for one another. Here, at any rate, is Oscar Wilde, looking like one of Virginia Woolf’s sisters…

…and here is Bram Stoker, whom one could easily mistake for Ulysses S. Grant.

The eye, in other words, tells us that these were very different men. One begins to suspect that the Dracula story was locked in a death struggle with Oscar Wilde; that the original novel already had its own vexed relationship with male celebrity; and that its plot is at some level an unedifying fantasy about people like Stoker eliminating people like Wilde. But then what do we do with the information that the grown-up Stoker was obsessed with Walt Whitman, writing the poet long letters in which he described himself as a “strong healthy man with a woman’s eyes and a child’s wishes,” confessing to Whitman his longing for a man who could play wife to his soul? Or that the adult Stoker eventually found such a man, a special friend and soul-wife, the alliance with whom was, he said, “as close, as lasting as can be between two men”? Or that he quit his day job to take a position in the London theater, in order to be near this companion, who was an actor? In the wake of those questions, a rather different rendering of Dracula becomes available—not that vampire stories are homicidal fantasies about eradicating queer people, but that it is in vampire stories that queer people begin working out their complicated feelings about their own outlandishness.

I’ve already said that vampire movies are an ongoing meditation on Nietzsche; if I say now that they have been, from the very start, an open-ended reflection on queerness, then that’s almost the same thing anyway. In the 1931 Dracula, the vampire takes as his minion a trim, flustered Englishman who spends much of the movie gazing longingly at the Count; he describes how the handsome foreigner “came and stood below my window in the moonlight,” as though carrying a lute or a dubbed copy of “In Your Eyes”; he goes to pieces when he finds his master carrying a woman matrimonially down a long flight of stairs. Around 1970, there was a bubble of lesbian vampire movies, of which a Belgian joint called Daughters of Darkness, from 1971, is easily the best. Tony Scott’s The Hunger, from 1983, is in this sense a rather belated contribution to the form, and True Blood, which is probably the most extravagant, extended queer allegory that pop culture has ever produced, in which the male vampires gloss as gay even when they’re dating women, achieves its effects only by compiling and concentrating in a single arena eight decades’ worth of camp and code and capes: “God hates fangs.”

So ask yourself again: Could you, even if you wanted to, make a vampire straight? The question is worth lingering over, because Fright Night is an easy movie to underestimate, and that question names the funny little task it has set itself. For Fright Night has, indeed, figured out a way to (mostly) straighten its Dracula figure; it has sent the vampire movie into conversion therapy. The movie devises at least three techniques to this end:

i. It makes the vampire killers queer in place of the vampire. Or if not outright queer, then at least scrawny and boyish and sissified. We’ll want to bear in mind: The movie is remarkably faithful to the Dracula plot, which it self-consciously restages in suburban Los Angeles. A teenaged boy works out that a vampire has moved into the creepy house next door, and he spends the length of the movie recruiting a gang of hunters to help him chase the demon back to its lair, overcoming the skepticism of potential allies, parrying Belial’s preemptive attacks, &c. It’s the devil-tracking posse that most pointedly recalls Dracula, though with a difference. Stoker’s band of brothers were, of course, all kinds of sturdy and sea-captain-ish, but the movie has assembled a team of milksops and pencildicks in their stead. Fright Night’s opening scene shows its main character failing to get his girlfriend into bed—or worse. He eventually does get the girl into bed and then loses interest. First: “Charlie, I said stop it!” Then: “Charlie, I’m ready. … Charlie? … Charlie???” The very first thing the movie wants us to know about its protagonist is that his sexuality is unsteady. That point is then reinforced by two other characters: first, by his best friend—short, twerpish, with a tweedly, still-breaking voice and the shrieking laugh of a girl on a playground; and then by the group’s eldest member and nominal leader: The film’s affectionate joke is that its Van Helsing figure, sought out by our young protagonist, is an aging English actor who used to play a vampire hunter in bad horror movies. Fright Night thus has a certain null value in its central position—not a hero, just a man paid to mime heroism; not a man of action, just an actor—and the movie effortlessly compounds that idea by making the actor a coward to boot. More interesting: The character is clearly modeled on Peter Cushing, who played Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula series and whose first name Fright Night has lovingly borrowed—Peter Vincent. And yet here Cushing’s place is taken by Roddy McDowell, who is a different actor altogether, entirely devoid of the former’s sonorous and hatchet-faced English machismo. Cushing played Van Helsing the same way he played all his roles, as an ill-tempered headmaster, wielding a wooden stake the way one might a pandybat or a birch switch. But McDowell, from his very first appearance, projects shades of the old queen, dandified and elfin, and he sounds like no-one so much as Winnie the Pooh. The movie thus manages to attribute a functioning heterosexuality to its vampire simply by rejigging the other end of the antithesis. The Dracula figure is a seducer and loverboy, but then that’s almost always been true in vampire movies—nothing remarkable there—and nothing about that role has ever prevented a vampire from functioning as queer. The position, indeed, usually spills over with excess and omnisexual energies. Strictly speaking, this is true even of Fright Night. The vampire lives with another man; we watch him intergenerationally recruit at least one teenaged boy over to his way of life. It’s just that the obtrusively fractured masculinity of the vampire’s enemies will tend, in this one case, to muffle our perception of the monster as queer. None of the men in this movie are typical guys. The vampire, unusually, comes closest.

ii. It borrows from werewolf movies. It’s tempting to put this point in technological terms: The movie was produced in the golden age of the bladder effect, in the aftermath of The Howling and Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London, all of which came out in 1981, the Year the Moon Never Waned, and Fright Night cannot resist the temptation to wrap its actors in hairy, bubbling latex, delivering not just one, but two distinct transformation scenes—werewolf scenes in a movie that isn’t about werewolves. One recently bit human simply metamorphizes into a wolf, and even the Dracula figure, when preparing to feast, turns demonic and feral and at least demi-lupine.


I don’t need to tell you: More recent movies typically conceive of vampires and werewolves as sworn enemies. What’s distinctive about Fright Night, then, is that it completely collapses them together, and this involves rather more than special effects. Werewolves, after all, are the butchest of the canonical movie monsters; they put on display a beserking, hungry, animal male sexuality, brawny and comprehensively bearded. Fright Night is, in effect, trying to borrow the werewolves’ unbridled heterosexuality and re-assign it to the vampires.

iii. It borrows from ‘80s teen sex comedies. Fright Night’s teenaged hero stands at a window watching through binoculars as a bra unclasps. The camera pans over his cluttered bedroom, disclosing a Playboy casually spread across the floor. He is made to speak lines like: “Jesus, Amy, we’ve been going together for a year, and all I ever hear is ‘Stop it!’” The movie lets its viewers briefly think that it’s going to be another Losin’ It or Last American Virgin and then maliciously mutates into a horror movie instead. But then there was always something malicious about teen sex comedies, which were routinely marketed as raunchy and semi-pornographic, but were, in fact, the opposite of porn, precisely so: movies about people not having sex. The shared plot of all these film is that some men want to have sex but can’t, and if you’re going to find such a story diverting, you will have to be able to sign onto a certain understanding of sex: that it’s really hard to get laid—or, more precisely, that some versions of male sexuality are so stunted and hapless as to be a kind of acquired infertility. Sex eludes us. The point is clearer still in the throwback movies that have been made since the ‘80s, like American Pie and Superbad, since in those later films, the women are even willing—eager and squirmy—no longer the self-chaperoning matronettes of the Reagan-era—and the boys still can’t hack it. It will matter, of course, that we’re talking about a particular kind of boy: American Pie wants you to stand up and sing the Hallelujah chorus every time a middle-class white guy manages to maintain his erection.

This matters. If you work out the ways in which Fright Night is and isn’t like Spring Break or Private Resort, you should be able to specify what’s at issue with this particular vampire, what it is that makes this one monster so terrifying—his own singular brand of menace. At the beginning of the movie, our teen hero gawks shyly as a hooker in a mini-dress pulls up in front of his new neighbor’s house—that’s another one of those scenes pilfered from sex comedies—something out of Risky Business or The Girl Next Door. But then the neighbor moves in on the hero’s tenth-grade girlfriend, who has already sized up this new arrival and said: “God, he’s neat.” And worse, his mother, with the keen stammer of an aging lonelyheart, has already said the same thing: “It’s so nice to finally have somebody interesting move into the neighborhood.” Fright Night, in other words, turns the neighbor into the hero’s sexual competitor, and this to an almost ludicrous degree. Your typical teen sex comedy doesn’t feature any enemies; the pipsqueaks just keep getting in their own way. But Fright Night is, as it were, a teen sex comedy with a vampire-werewolf in the middle, which means that it has furnished the virgin with a nemesis, someone he can blame for his sexual impasse. Such is the movie’s particular construction of the vampire, the reason its gives you to beware the fiend: Vampires are to be feared because they hog all the women. The film hijacks the fear that has typically been directed against queer people and directs instead at a certain exorbitant straightness, a heterosexuality so consuming that it has become indistinguishable from its opposite. Fright Night is the movie in which the stud gets f*g-bashed, and how you feel about this is going to depend entirely on your tolerance for turnabout. Dracula, we need to keep in mind, is the guy who will bang your mother and then steal your girlfriend.





Staying Alive, Part One


What I have to explain this time round is a little strange, and the road we’ll have to walk to get there is, I think, even stranger. I should note first that I’ve been thinking a lot about vampire movies, about which we might, after rooting around, be able to say something that no-one else has ever said. And if you are to understand this New Thing About Vampire Movies—except it’s not a New Thing; it’s an Old and Secret Thing—then you are going to need to watch a short clip from a movie you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and when you watch it, you’re not going to think that it could possibly hold the key to anything. The movie is so obscure that I could only find the relevant scene dubbed into Russian, and even that sentence, once written, requires two intensifying corrections: I didn’t find the clip so much as fluke upon it while chasing down some other hunch. And the movie isn’t exactly dubbed into anything. It features some Russian language-school dropout—one guy; alone; an unaided Petersburg grumble—spot-translating all the dialogue, with the original soundtrack still running audibly in the background, such that he has to shout. Running this clip will be like trying to watch television in the company of a mean drunk. Plus it’s not even a vampire movie, which is what you were just promised. This is all pretty discouraging, I realize, but you’ll see: The clip does weirdly speak.

The film is Ken Russell’s Valentino, as in Rudy, as in hair anointed with jelly and liniment. It’s a biopic released in 1977, and starring Rudolph Nureyev as Rudolph V. At issue is a short scene in which Nureyev takes Carol Kane out onto a ballroom floor to dance the tango. Give it sixty seconds, and you’ll have seen everything important:

A spare cinematic minute—and yet the clip demands our attention by putting on display three things at once, three things that are intertwined even outside of this movie but whose intertwining is here oddly visible, as though lifted up for our examination. I’ll just count them off.

#1) The first thing you’ll want to bear in mind is who Valentino was. The basic facts will do: that he was Hollywood’s first superstar; that he was considered the prettiest man of his generation; and that he wasn’t American—he was born in Italy. The important point is that nothing in this thumbnail is wholly innocuous. A lot of people were unnerved by Valentino. Each of those bare data can and did yield something uncanny. That he struck so many American women as desirable was unusual precisely because he was Italian. He was the first non-Anglo man, after the big wave of southern and eastern European immigration, that large numbers of Americans deigned to think of as beautiful. People remarked on that a lot; the term “Latin lover” was apparently coined for him, even though, given the racial ductility of early Hollywood, he was most famous for playing an Arab. And there was if anything even more handwringing about Valentino the lover than there was about Valentino the Latin. Lots of male commentators said he wasn’t manly enough to represent their kind: that he was a dandy; that he was too polished; that he looked too soft; that he was a screen David sculpted out of talcum and pomade—and this, not as compared to John Wayne or Clint Eastwood—but as compared to Douglas Fairbanks, who agreed not to wear tights only when offered pantaloons.

But then the resentment of the nation’s swashbucklers did nothing to dent Valentino’s popularity. We’ve become accustomed, I guess, to how overtly libidinal the culture of female fandom is; we don’t much pause to remark on the orgiastic qualities of Justin Bieber’s every public appearance, their improbable pre-teen staging of the Dionysian Mysteries, but it might help to pretend that you’ve never seen archival footage of the Beatles and are thus having to face the squalling girl-crowds for the first time. When Valentino died unexpectedly in 1926—he was 31—there were riots in the streets of New York City. Lady fans started smashing windows and battling the hundred or so cops who were called out to restore order. Reports went out that women were killing themselves. That someone also ordered four actors to dress up as Italian blackshirts and tromp around the Upper East Side, to make it seem as though Mussolini himself had personally sent over an honor guard in Valentino’s memory, begins to sound like one of the day’s more pedestrian details.

#2) This should all help explain what anybody who’s just watched the clip will already have noticed, which is that Ken Russell has plainly instructed Nureyev to play Valentino as though he were Dracula: He silences the band just by raising his magical, mesmeric hand, tearing the sound from the very air…

…he activates what seem to be laser eyes; he leads a transfixed woman away from her circle of helpless male guardians and onto the dance floor, where he strut-hunches over her, arcing his shoulders into an insinuated cape…

…he mimes various attacks upon her neck.

A complicated series of observations follows on from this: We’ll want to say that the figure of Valentino has been filtered back through Dracula, and we can feel the force of that revision if we point out that Valentino was actually half-French and generically Continental-looking—you would not pause if someone told you he was German—and seems to have been typecast in Moorish roles only on account of a Mediterranean accent that no silent-moviegoer would ever hear anyway. Nureyev, on the other hand, is sweltering and Slavic and basically looks way more vampiric than the man he’s playing ever did. This could all easily seem like Ken Russell’s inspiration—to recreate, for audiences in the 1970s, the lost effect of Valentino’s magnetism by wrapping it in the easily read conventions of the vampire movie, with which, after all, it was roughly contemporaneous. You make one icon of early Hollywood intelligible by translating him into a second. It would be like deciding to make a movie about Greta Garbo, but then scripting her as Steamboat Willie.

There’s clearly something to this. But if we adhere tenaciously to that line, what are we going to say about the following images?

There is no mistaking the issue. Tod Browning’s Dracula came out in 1931, just five years after the Sheikh’s passing, and the stage versions that the movie was based on were running throughout the 1920s, when the oversized head of Valentino was first smoldering greyly down upon the bodies of American women. We can say that Nureyev was, in 1977, playing Valentino as Dracula, but we have to set against this the observation that Lugosi was already, in 1931, playing Dracula as Valentino. This is itself strong evidence that people were once scared of Valentino, but then we already knew that people—some people—were scared of Valentino, because he flaunted that off-white and insufficiently rugged form of masculinity, and because American women were really into it—or they weren’t just into it—they seemed hypnotized and made freaky by it. So the 1977 movie makes Valentino look more like a vampire than the real man actually did, but that’s because someone involved in the production intuited that Valentino had been one of the inspirations for the screen vampire to begin with. Heartthrob could be the name of a horror movie.

This all matters, because it helps us specify the contribution of Lugosi’s Dracula to the vampire mythos. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Nearly everything that makes the 1931 movie tick was taken over directly from Stoker’s 1897 novel, and for most purposes, you would be better off bypassing the movie and going straight to the source. The most efficient, if not perhaps the most perspicuous, way of naming Stoker’s achievement would be to say that he turned the vampire story into an ongoing referendum on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. For real: Nearly every vampire movie that has ever been made is in one way or another a meditation on Nietzscheanism, deliberating on the idea that some people, the rare ones, might yet overcome morality and thereby form a new caste—or race or even species—a breed that never even pauses to consider what ordinary people think of as right and wrong.  Here’s all the Nietzsche you need:

•The great epochs of our lives come when we gather the courage to reconceive our evils as what is best in us.

•Every exquisite person strives instinctively for a castle and a secrecy where he is rescued from the crowds, the many, the vast majority; where, as the exception, he can forget the norm called “human.”

•We think that harshness, violence, slavery, danger in the streets and in the heart, concealment, Stoicism, the art of seduction and experiment, and devilry of every sort; that everything evil, terrible, tyrannical, predatory, and snakelike in humanity serves just as well as its opposite to enhance the species of “man.”

Enhanced and predatory un-humans living in castles, exquisite people who have turned wickedness into a virtue or an accomplishment—if you’re in an intro philosophy class, and you’re trying to make sense of The Genealogy of Morals for the first time, the easiest way to get a handle on Nietzsche will be to realize that he wants to turn you into a vampire, which is superman’s nearest synonym, another word for Übermensch. Or other way around now: Modern vampire stories work by mulishly literalizing Nietzsche’s language, making you stare the superman in the face on the expectation that you will be sent running by his anaconda grin.

This should all become clearer if we break Stoker’s Dracula back into his component parts. What are the several things that the classic vampire story wants you to be scared of?

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of aristocracy. This is perhaps the most glaring point—that vampire stories are the one horror genre driven by naked class animus. The novel makes Dracula seem wiggy even before he starts doing anything supernatural, and it does this simply by making him lord of the manor. His comportment is excessively formal. He is, the first-time reader is surprised to note, seldom referred to as Dracula; the novel almost only ever calls him “the Count,” as though the key to understanding the character lay in his title. It is the very existence of the old-fashioned nobleman that has come to seem unnatural, which no doubt has something to do with his literally feeding upon the blood of the poor, peasant children stuffed into sacks. The movie updates all this, in some pleasingly goofy way, by putting the vampire in ’20s-era evening wear, the lost joke being that he never wears anything else, that he sports white tie everywhere—a tail-coat to play softball in, an opera cloak for when he’s bathing the dog—as though tuxedos were the only threads he owned. Dracula is the character who, having once put on the Ritz, can never again remove it. The vampire, we are licensed to conclude, is our most enduring image of aristocratic tyranny, generated by a paradigmatically liberal and middle-class fever-dream about the character of the old peerage, and anchored in the simple idea that it isn’t even safe to be in the same room as an aristocrat, so driven are such people to dominate others, so unwilling to tolerate a partner or co-equal. “Come here!”: A duke is the name for the kind of person who barks orders at free men as though they were his subordinates. That’s a routine observation, and it’s what ties Dracula back to the early Gothic novel or even to Richardson’s Pamela. But what’s peculiar all the same about Stoker’s novel is its timing, since by the 1890s, the traditional aristocracy in England was, if not exactly obsolete, then at least much weakened. The novel actually registers this historical turn, since the vampire famously lives not in a castle, but in the ruins of a castle, in the rubble of a superannuated class hierarchy, and—this really is an inspired flourish—he has no servants: he drives his own coach, carries his own bags. The Count is what they used to call come-down gentry, accustomed to apologizing to guests for serving them dinner on chipped porcelain. And the threat he poses is therefore not the menace of one who actually possesses power—this is how he is unlike Richardson’s Mr B or William Godwin’s Falkland—but of one who might yet regain it, the name for which regaining would be “reaction” or “counter-revolution.” Stoker’s Dracula is the greatest of right-wing horror stories, scared of foreigners and queer people and women and sex in general, but it nonetheless harbors a certain curdled Jacobinism, the exasperated sense that the European aristocracy should be dead but aren’t, and that the French Revolution is going to have to be staged over and over again.

So much for aristocracy. About those others…

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of foreigners. This goes back to a simple plot point: Dracula sneaks into England from abroad—hides on a ship—slips past customs officers and curious locals. The vampire, in other words, is an illegal immigrant. You might object that this last is a late twentieth-century category, illicitly projected back onto the 1890s, and that’s true—but “stowaway” isn’t an anachronism, and neither is “smuggling.” What’s more, Stoker expressly aligns vampires, via their bats, with colonies and the Third World. Such creatures come from the “islands of the Western seas” or from South America. One character is pretty sure that this is no English bat! It “may be some wild specimen from the South of a more malignant species.” Perhaps most important, the screen Dracula is the figure who has single-handedly made life miserable for generations of Eastern European immigrants, who have had to endure endless rounds of “I vant … to sahk … your bludd!” in roughly the same way that teenaged Asian-American girls have been, since 1987, routinely subjected to obnoxious white boys quoting “Me so horny.”

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sex in general, though we can also make the point via the film: The first time we see Dracula attack a woman, all he really does is lean in for a kiss, though the street is dim and London-ish, and his victim is a flower-girl-for-which-read-prostitute, and these details inevitably summon overtones of Jack the Ripper, especially if you think Jack was a gentleman or the Prince of Wales.

The point is extended when, later in the film, one weeping survivor uses rape language to describe her evening with the Count:

Survivor: After what’s happened, I can’t…

Fiancé: What’s happened? What’s happened?!

Survivor: I can’t bear to tell you. I can’t.

At this point we need to make a careful distinction. Those scenes both trigger images of sexual violence. And yet one of the vampire story’s more remarkable features is that it communicates a fear of sex even when that violence is largely removed. Indeed, an encompassing fear of sex—and not just of rape—is coded into some of the genre’s most basic conventions. Nothing in the entire history of the horror film is more iconic than the vampire bite, which, if you pause to think about it, is entirely peculiar: Imagine that vampire stories didn’t already exist … and now imagine trying to convince a Hollywood executive to greenlight your new movie about a creature who kills people by giving them hickeys, an honest-to-Christ Cuddle Monster, but scary, you promise him, enemy of scarves and turtlenecks. Or ask yourself for once why so many movies allow vampires to be repelled by garlic. That’s a simple extrapolation from the idea that if you eat too much spicy food—if you go to bed fetid, the reek of sofrito still on your ungargled breath—no-one will want to sleep with you.

But there’s more…

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of sexual women in particular. There’s an underlying point here that is worth reviewing first: Most viewers think that vampires are foxy, which makes them really unlike other classic monsters. If that point is the least bit unclear to you, you might take a moment now to close your eyes and pretend briefly that you are making out with a zombie. But the most clarifying difference is the one we can draw between the vampire and the werewolf, both of whom are canonically shown perpetrating savage violence upon the bodies of women. What I’d like to bring into view is that both werewolf movies and vampire movies deviate from what is perhaps the most routine scenario in a horror movie—a rampaging monster lumbering after a panicked victim—but they deviate in opposite directions. Werewolf stories are the one horror genre that has a certain reluctance or regret or stop-me-before-I-kill-again shame built right into them. Slashers, who otherwise resemble werewolves, never wake up the next morning hating themselves for what they’ve done. No-one casts a chainsaw to one side in self-loathing. But in a werewolf movie, not even the monster is wholly willing. In a vampire movie, then, the point just gets flipped, in that not even the victim is wholly unwilling. Vampire victims collaborate in their own destruction, for the simple reason that men in capes have game. This means that certain types of utterly common horror sequences are largely excluded from the vampire film: People almost never flee from vampires, which means that the vampire flick is the horror subgenre least likely to borrow from action movies; most likely, in other words, to commit to a languid pacing—no chase scenes!—or rather, if a vampire movie does for once break out into a chase scene, you can be pretty sure it’s the vamp and not the victim who is on the run.

What we can now say is that this little myth about willing victims is most often told, in the vampire classics themselves, about women. The form’s conviction that highborn men are predators is counterbalanced by its confidence that this is exactly what many women want—to be preyed upon. The he-vamp awakens the woman to sexual rapaciousness, and the audience is expected to find this creepy. The survivor does sob and say “I can’t bear to tell you what happened,” but she has also just said: “I feel wonderful. I’ve never felt better in my life.” In Stoker, the woman who proves most susceptible to Dracula’s advances is the one who has already asked, even before the vampire has made his move: “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her?” More important, the novel makes it clear that becoming a vampire is one good way of getting that wish granted. Once she turns, the sexual woman does indeed get all the men—every major male character in the novel willingly opens his veins to give her blood transfusions—she becomes a kind of sponge, allegorically loose, soaking up all this male donation: a “polyandrist,” one of the men calls her. When the men, bearing whale-oil candles, go to visit her in her crypt, they “drop sperm in white patches” across the floor, like pornographic bread crumbs. They finally put her to rest by assaulting her as a group, standing in a circle while one of their number “drives deeper into deeper” into the “dint in [her] white flesh.” In the novel’s opening sections, three women stand over a young Englishman in the Carpathians: “He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.”

•Stoker’s novel wants you to be scared of deviant sex above all. One point can be made without qualification: All the vampires in the original Dracula are gender-benders. That this is true of those kiss-hungry Transylvaniennes should be immediately apparent, since it will be true of nearly any she-vamp—these lady-penetrators busting the jugular cherries of straight men.

The vampiress is how the very possibility of a certain rather sweeping gender reversal comes out into the open—becomes visible in everyday life, available for the contemplation of suburbanites and middle schoolers. She and her male victims are pop culture’s only iconic image of pegging. In Stoker, the man “waits in languorous ecstasy” while he assesses for the first time the feeling of “hard dents” against his “super sensitive skin.” The point will seem accordingly less clear with regards to Dracula himself, since a man-vamp sinking into a crumpled woman preserves orthodox sexual roles. That Dracula’s manhood is nonetheless unstable discloses the intensity of the novel’s preoccupation with sexual confusion: In one of the book’s more striking scenes, its several heroes bust into the bedroom of a woman they’ve been guarding and find Dracula clasping her head to his naked breast, which he has just gashed open so that she can lap at his blood. The image is not only a riff on oral rape—though it is that, too: a forced blow job. It is also—and rather more literally—a breast feeding, a demonic nursing, with the vampire willing to set aside all his usual male roles in order to take up the position of the monstrous mother, with a chest that runs red and a child at his bosom struggling to be reborn.

So that’s a dense set of associations—aristocracy, foreigners, sex, women, and queer people—and the film does a reasonably good job of preserving this tissue of meaning, a much better job than, say, Whalen’s Frankenstein does at protecting the many-sided allegory that had originally been built up around its monster. But the movie isn’t just a translation, because to those established associations it adds one of its own. The screen Dracula isn’t just an aristocratic holdover. The vampire is the movie star himself, and in all the famous images of Lugosi we see early film beginning to mediate on itself and on its own eerie power. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not that Browning’s Dracula has simply added a new association to Stoker’s list, but that it has found an innovative way of encapsulating that list’s concerns. The Valentino vampire isn’t just a supplement to or replacement for the queer and foreign aristocrat; he is the queer and foreign aristocrat, issued in a new format. What we see in Dracula is film recoiling from its new modes of supercharged male charisma, and you can begin to make sense of Lugosi’s performance if you think of it in terms of any film set’s hierarchy of actors: Van Helsing kills Dracula; Edward Van Sloan, who you’ve never heard of, kills Bela Lugosi; a character actor kills the leading man on behalf of the drab, male masses for the overriding reason that the women who’ve come to the theater with them find him too dishy.

#3) So those are two of the things that the Nureyev clip intertwines: Valentino and vampires. The third thing has everything to do with Carol Kane’s hair.

There’s real a problem here. The movie has been careful to give Nureyev a tallowy comb-back; he would hardly be credible as Valentino without it. But what’s striking about his partner’s tresses is that they are so obviously of the 1970s. The movie, after all, is set in the 1920s, whose iconic hairstyles for women were all short—bobs and Dutch boys and such—but Carol Kane’s hair has been frizzed and teased into fiberglass—it is simultaneously long and fro-like, a headdress of cotton candy. For comparison…

Valentino with Natacha Rambova

The biopic dancer’s most unflapperish do, in other words, breaks the movie’s historical frame, anchoring the production in its own present of 1977 and allowing that decade to worm back into the Coolidge era. More precisely, it tends to transform the ballroom into a disco and the tango into a proto-Hustle. Look again at that shot of Carol Kane and especially at the lighting: One doesn’t typically think of the 1920s as spangly. What we can say now is that Nureyev isn’t just playing Valentino as a vampire—that idea, at least, we’ve been able to explain; he is playing Valentino as a disco vampire, and this is going to reopen the puzzle of the clip. We know that some people really hated disco, but was anybody actually scared of it? This brings us to another movie—the movie we actually need to be thinking about—which is 1985’s Fright Night. Disco, they once said, sucks.



Telling Stories about Superweapons; or, There’s Only One Way This Can End



The only way I know how to make sense of the Iron Man sequel is to talk first about the original Godzilla, which is, in some complicated way, the later movie’s model and second precursor. Everyone knows that Godzilla had something to do with the nuclear bomb—that it was, like rocket-styled Chevys and bomb-expectant country gospel tunes, one of the key artifacts of atomic-age pop—but the point nonetheless needs to be clarified. So let yourself say the obvious: Without Hiroshima and Nagasaki there would have been no Godzilla. But then let me chime in that this is true in a way that is at once more straightforward and more complicated than you think.

A simple plot point gets us going: In Godzilla, the beast’s emergence is openly linked to nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nothing unusual there—variants on this conceit remained popular in horror movies throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s: that x-and-such a monster was caused by radiation. Usually, though, the idea had the character of a MacGuffin, a vacuous pseudo-explanation about which a given movie mostly didn’t care. And it turns out that this observation will hold for lots of different horror movies, in fact, and not just the radiated ones, since horror cinema has never been all that interested in what it is that makes its monsters walk: nuclear fallout, gypsy curses, chemical spills, ancient spells, passing comets, viruses, all of them more or less cursory and pretextual. This is what makes the ongoing debate among the fanboys over whether viral zombies are, because not technically dead, really zombies so inane, because in cinematic terms, back-from-the-crypt zombies and disease-bred zombies share pretty much everything but their pseudo-science, including the exponential logic of infection. Noting as much should make clear one of the things that is most unusual about Godzilla: It is one of those rare horror movies that really does care about origins. In lots of ways, it cares more about its atomic backstory than it does about the reptile’s morphology, which carries almost none of the former’s ideological charge. One way to start registering this point is to notice that the movie spends quite a long time allowing its characters to work through the nuclear explanation, showing Japanese people reacting to the news, following their debate about how to respond to this latest atomic threat. One man advocates keeping the information secret—not letting the world know that the country is still stalked by nuclear destruction—so as not to alarm Japan’s trading partners and political allies. The movie thereby registers the real Japan’s moment of nuclear repression or willed historical oblivion, its strenuous insistence, in the 1950s, on a Westernizing and post-atomic normalcy.

But then the movie itself serves to counter that very repression. The single most important thing about the monster is that he himself possesses the powers of nuclear destruction, and the movie’s most famous scenes are essentially one long re-staging of the Catastrophe: buildings tumble, entire cityscapes burn, medical workers check children with Geiger counters. When the monster breathes fire, the screen flashes and people shriek as they burst into flame. Refugees huddle. The movie seems determined, in some utterly straightforward way, to get on screen images from 1945, when this very directness would otherwise have been difficult just eight years after the war, setting out, as it were, to circumvent the psychic censorship that remained even after various official American bans had been lifted, performing the kind of end-run around repression that popular culture often undertakes—the service that stupid movies reliably perform for the political unconscious. The movie’s motivating fear, then, is easily named, which is simply that the bombs could hit again; that peace could evaporate; that it’s not over; eight years later and here we go again. The next time you hear someone say that horror movies traffic in “our fear of the unknown,” Godzilla is how you tell them that they’re wrong. When the movie came out, Nagasaki and Hiroshima weren’t even a decade back. Some people live in fear of the entirely known.

This is the sense in which the movie’s incorporation of its historical materials is almost alarmingly direct, without the intricacies and displacements that are otherwise the hallmark of allegory. And yet that allegory harbors a certain difficulty all the same. For Gojira, though unleashed by the atomic bomb, is not in fact a mutation, which is how you might have remembered the story. He seems, rather, to have been flushed out of some ecological hidey-hole when his coral reef got torched; he absorbed the bomb’s radiation and lived, like some indomitable and mountainous cockroach. But then what does it mean to turn the nuclear threat into a dinosaur or to let a prehistoric creature be the allegorical stand-in for the Enola Gay? This is all a little odd; odd first because it sutures together twentieth- century hyper-technology with something utterly primal; and odd, too, because the figure of the dinosaur—any dinosaur—calls to mind extinction, which in a nuclear movie means Our Possible Fate, but only if we think of the thunder lizard as a casualty (of a meteor, say, or volcanic gas from India) and not as the annihilating force. This peculiarity is evident in the movie in a small subplot concerning a paleontologist who doesn’t want the government to kill Godzilla; who wants time, rather, to study him, to work out how he has survived across the millennia. In one sense, this can be read as the movie’s meditation on “pure science,” in which the paleontologist appears as cousin to those real-world physicists who become fixated on the problem of fission in the abstract and don’t care that the nuclear winds are blowing across Nevada. And yet by allegorically making Godzilla a living creature, the movie generates a kind of eco-pathos for him that one couldn’t possibly feel for a warhead and indeed transfers to the Bomb itself some of the sympathy we might feel for its eventual species victims.

But then the movie also features a second scientist who also has marked affinities to Oppenheimer and Fermi, and it is with regards to him that the movie turns curious for real. The film’s inevitable question is: How can Gojira be defeated?—which we have to imagine also means something like: Can we imagine the overcoming of nuclear destruction? What is going to stop Japanese cities from burning again? And to this end, the film introduces a young physicist who has invented a fearsome technology, a small machine with the ability to suck all the oxygen from vast reaches of the ocean. He calls it an Oxygen Destroyer—and tellingly, he only ever says the words in English, even in the undubbed original, which phrasing associates the weapon with the US and so marks it as the-kind-of-infernal-device-the-Americans-might-have.

Here, then, is an unsurprising point: The movie features an unusually long debate about the ethics of using the machine—fifteen minutes that seem to have been scripted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. We can discern in this interlude a certain fantasy or thought experiment: a Japanese movie staging the debate that the Americans should have had with themselves and plainly didn’t. The local scientist, in fact, is determined not to hand over the technology—make a note of this, because that’s where Tony Stark comes in—and he seems to be modeling a moral relationship to science, a willingness to withhold destructive knowledge. In genre terms, this is rather fascinating: The physicist is plainly a Victor Frankenstein figure; the completely unexplained eye patch that he wears means that the movie wants us to see him as cracked and Gothic. But when he opens his mouth, he does not rave; he speaks instead with clarity, restraint, and concern, even as he stands there looking like a pirate in a lab coat. The mad scientist reflects on the ethics of technology and so crawls back from his genre-dictated insanity.

And now here’s the really surprising point: Having convincingly made the case for disarmament, the scientist then relents and agrees to press the death-button, and the movie mutates in an instant from an anti-nuclear broadside into an argued defense of mad science. I want to say this again, because I still don’t really believe it myself: The original Japanese Godzilla is not an anti-nuclear movie; it is in its own way entirely pro-bomb, rehearsing the agonized conversation over deploying such technology only to conclude that, yes, mass destruction is sometimes necessary to overcome threats that can’t be defeated by conventional armies.

But then it must be allowed that this decision is carefully framed and hedged. The scenario that the movie has identified has the character of an arms race or military competition or the structural compulsion to adopt the force of annihilation, and this is true because the readiest referent for “a threat that can’t be defeated by conventional military means” is itself nuclear weaponry. Godzilla is a stand in for the nukes, and so is the Oxygen Destroyer. The allegorical rebus reveals the same term on both sides of the equation. Dangerous technology can only be countered by dangerous technology. It’s the feeling one often gets watching Japanese movies or reading manga—that everything, once decoded, refers back to the bomb, every last robot and pixie and smurf. Hence the movie’s melancholy and its repetition compulsion: It is replaying images from war’s end because it can’t imagine a clear alternative in the present to the nuclear arsenal and is to that extent convinced that 1945 will ever be with us. It can’t imagine how to stand up to a nuclear power in a way that wouldn’t involve nuclear weapons.

So there is in the movie no authentically Japanese refusal of the atom. And yet Godzilla does nonetheless attempt a certain national solution: The scientist agrees that the weapon has to be used against Godzilla; but there is only one such device and he won’t share the blueprints; and then he dives into the ocean to confront Godzilla himself and refuses to resurface, thus ensuring that the oxygen destroyed will include his own. The movie, in other words, is trying to imagine the conditions in which a nuclear weapon could be used ethically, and its provisions are two: 1) That the weapon be utterly singular, not just single-use, since no bomb bangs twice, but irreproducible, incapable of being spread; and 2) that Oppenheimer be willing to strap himself to the bomb and ride it Kubrick-like to his own destruction. The notion that the Japanese have a more ethical relationship to destructive technology is thereby preserved in the movie, though in much modified form and not in the direction of a pacifism—just the contrary, rather—by resurrecting a few hallowed images from Japanese military history: the honor suicide, mostly. What the Manhattan Project lacked was the samurai code. The Japanese are more moral because they still have kamikaze.


It is important to keep Godzilla in front of us, because doing so is our best shot at noticing how fretful a movie Iron Man 2 really is, when we might otherwise mistake it for just another round of Downey-doing-his-thing: impish, blithe, getting by on muttery charm, a $200 million action movie with the cadences of screwball comedy—that’s what a lot of the critics said, and they were basically wrong. It’s the tone of the movie that the reviewers consistently bungled. “To find a comic-book hero who doesn’t agonize over his supergifts”—this is The New Yorker—“and would defend his constitutional right to get a kick out of them, is frankly a relief.” But nothing in Iron Man 2 breathes relief, and agony is in fact its prevailing mode, in a manner that is entirely at odds with the hero’s jive and patter, itself suspended for long stretches of the movie anyway. For Tony Stark is the Japanese scientist of the American Empire, the inventor who will not share his invention, the engineer who withholds the newest technology of death so that only he can command it: “You can’t have the suit. … I’m not giving you the suit. … You’re not getting the suit.” What the new movie shares with Godzilla is the notion that the perfect and ethical weapon would have to be entirely singular—there would literally only be one of them—and so would not be available for manufacture: a permanent prototype, forever in beta. Such is the importance of the many workshop scenes in both Iron Man installments, those oddly protracted sequences in which we watch our hero sketch and solder and glue. By investing the killer armor with artisanal qualities, as though ICBMs could be blacksmithed, they suggest that the weapon’s uniqueness could be maintained into the future, since it is the hallmark of any handcrafted object that it is in some strict sense unrepeatable. That’s a fantasy, yes, but it’s an unsettled one; unease is simply built into its scenario. The conceit of an unshareable weapon comes with a worry automatically attached, which is simply that one will become two. Arms proliferate, and then so do anxieties, in their wake.

It is this apprehension that Godzilla explores in its dialogue and that Iron Man 2 builds an entire plot around, which isn’t to say that the movies aren’t actually quite different. For the two Iron Men are both trying to imagine the imperial monopoly on violence, sovereignty at the level of the globe, force concentrated in American hands. This is the big difference between the old Japanese movie and its recent Hollywood counterparts, and it’s also why we can’t imagine Tony Stark heroically sacrificing himself—because imperial sovereignty requires that technological superiority be indefinitely preserved, on the understanding that it has desirable political effects, that it fosters order and lawfulness across the planet. Early on in the sequel, Tony calls this order by its proper name, which is the pax Americana. What’s remarkable, then, is that the movie can’t actually envision how the American peace is to be kept, even by its superhero and unofficial sovereign, to the point where either we have to think of IM2 as scrambling to keep its imperial fantasy running, and this in increasingly frantic and unconvincing ways, or we have to think of it as providing a spontaneous and unexpected dissent from that very fantasy.

Let’s just count the problems:

The most obvious threat in the movie is multipolarity, the simple idea that other actors in rival nations might have access to the suit and so might limit the American peacekeeper’s scope of action. Here the menace of a post-American world takes the form of Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, whose very body announces a Russia tattooed and resurgent, even as his mock-Ukrainian name smuggles into the movie memories of Dolph Lundgren and the Cold War inanities of Rocky IV. The Vanko-plot also provides the first good indication of just how nervous this movie is, because the Russian’s ability to improvise a pretty good facsimile of the Iron Man suit—to pirate, as it were, Tony Stark’s best handbag—means that the American is, in the movie’s own terms, just plain wrong, because he claims that other countries are years away from acquiring the technology, and they aren’t. The movie starts out from the premise that Tony Stark doesn’t fully understand the dangers of his own invention.

He understands some of them though, and from that perspective the movie is wary not only of foreign governments but also, and much more curiously, of the American one. This again goes back to a plot point: The people we most often see Tony Stark refusing to share the suit with are politicians and military officers. The anxiety here is in some sense easy to gloss, because it really is the Oxygen Destroyer all over again: Sharing the technology with the government would make it replicable and would put the design in the hands of the unreliable many. Indeed, to redesign the suit for combat would inevitably be to put it into mass production and so to make the weapon studiable by every battlefield scavenger and enemy spy. Committed to sovereignty at the level of the globe, the movie nonetheless resists centralization at the level of the nation—it doesn’t trust the U.S. government to inhabit its sovereignty well and worthily—which leaves it trying to conceive of an American imperialism without a strong American state. The empire can only perform its functions if there are private actors stronger than Washington.

That last point is going to have a certain type of reader crying Capitalism!—but you anarcho-socialists can just zip it, because the movie is every bit as wary of the market, which is, of course, the true vector of arms proliferation, the kindergarten classroom in which the nuclear flu spreads. It’s true that IM2 is a little muddy on this score, exaggerating an ambiguity that was already present in the first film. Initially, the movie fully commits to a vision of corporate rule and hence to a kind of Haliburton-speak: Tony boasts within the first ten minutes that Stark Industries has “successfully privatized world peace.” But the movie then shows him resigning from his own company and has him spend the balance of its running time fighting a rival arms manufacturer who wants his factories to start turning out suits in quantity, as though they were bike locks. Many of the newspaper critics complained that the movie was, in the usual manner of sequels, overstuffed or unwieldy; they accused the movie in particular of having too many villains. This makes the plot a little hard to keep up with, it’s true, but for once too-many-villains is very much the point, since Iron Man 2 is tracing out a certain problem, in the form of a network, whatever it is that connects the U.S. military to arms manufacturers to the foreign powers who also buy the Yankee guns. It is to this extent misleading to call Tony Stark a “supercapitalist,” as some of the reviews did, since he spends the entire film trying to keep his most important discovery off the market. The movie has as its center of gravity the notion that a certain class of objects should not become commodities.

But then—and here’s the real kicker—the movie doesn’t really trust Tony Stark either. If the first movie was telling a story about how a middle-aged playboy reinvented himself as a man of imperial purpose, then the sequel, which is careful to insert scenes of its superhero drunk, boastful, and reckless, is haunted by Tony’s bad behavior, hence by the possibility that the empire might backslide into loutishness. It’s a remarkable scene—the one in which Tony staggers around his Malibu house, suit on, visor up, laser-blasting holes into his own walls, recalling as it does, despite being set in civilian California, bad memories of some Manila bar, hooched-up sailors in port carrying their still loaded sidearms. The movie is thus able to internalize a dissenting view of US superpower, the perspective that colonized peoples have ever had of their occupiers, by allowing Iron Man to act out some of the American empire’s more minor crimes: U.S. soldiers taunting Iraqi children with bottled water; an American sergeant asking two uncomprehending Arab boys if they are going to grow up to be terrorist and gay.

So foreign powers can’t be trusted with the suit; and the US government can’t be trusted with the suit; and arms manufacturers can’t be trusted with the suit; and even Tony Stark probably can’t be trusted with the suit. A certain rift thus runs all the way through Iron Man 2. Visually, the movie continues to treat the suit as a techno-fetish or bucket full of whizbang, staging its best action scene in Monte Carlo and thereby ensuring we will spend the remainder of the movie seeing its hero as a kind of human Lamborghini. But in plot terms, the suit is less magic armor than monkey’s paw, a cursed object that produces more instability than it prevents. Iron Man 2 simply cannot work out a good relationship to its super-technology or to the dominion that such technology conveys.

…which isn’t to say that it doesn’t try. Its attempted solutions are two, one of which is easy to read but dumb, the other of which is much harder to specify—and also pretty dumb.

1) The business with Tony’s heart—the battery in his chest is poisoning him and he has to engineer a new one—is a tidy parable of recent oil politics and the search for renewable energy. The thing that fuels you will also kill you, and you will only survive if you can invent an alternate energy source. The idea is puzzling in many ways, all of which suggest how stuck the movie really is. First, Iron Man 2 tries to assure its audience that sovereignty has been restored to the American entrepreneur because in the battle for technological superiority he has acquired the next-generation model, the key to which is clean energy. This is something like the Obama-esque claim, endlessly repeated in the press over the last few years, that the US will maintain its global supremacy only if it can make (and patent) the breakthroughs that will lead the planet to renewable energy, if, that is, it can figure out how to run golf carts on eggshells and sewage plants on moonbeams. The movie’s version of the program is notable because it takes this run-of-the-mill futurism, which usually involves speculation about the American economy, and shifts it over into an openly military register, in the process laying bare the lethal dimensions of this green-capitalist fantasy, in which visions of ecological balance are yoked together with visions of permanent American ascendancy. But then this fantasy is hapless as it is lethal: the movie attempts a technological solution to its political problems having already conceded that technological monopolies of this kind cannot be preserved. Stranger still, Tony Stark only discovers clean energy because his dead father has left him its secret (in code!). American technological preeminence is thus framed as a passing of the generational baton, a paternal bequest, which invites us to think of  sun- and wind-power not as an innovation—which is how we more typically conceive of it: the Solar Revolution—but as a simple extension of the past, a way of keeping the American Century going—and this from the position of 1974, the date on the message-bearing movie-within-the-movie that Papa Stark has left behind—a date here designated as the age of American hope … 1974 now, the year of Watergate and the oil crisis, with the Vietnam War long since turned sour and illegal. Iron Man 2 wants us to recapture the can-do spirit of the Nixon administration’s final months.

2) Late in the movie, Tony Stark says “I need a sidekick” and then addresses another character as “partner.” Lines such as these would require no comment in any other superhero movie, but in IM2 they announce a program, because the very word “partner” means that power is being shared, and if power is being shared, then Tony is no longer functioning as the classic sovereign. This gets us to the movie’s preferred solution, which is to provide Tony Stark with allies and collaborators, an extended support network, arriving in the form of cameos and subplots and independent action sequences, all of which contribute, no less than the multiple and redundant desperadoes, to the movie’s sense of overload. Scarlett Johansson is on hand, strangely doubling Gwyneth Paltrow, whose own role is nonetheless expanded and not diminished, and then Samuel L. Jackson appears out of nowhere, and Don Cheadle starts getting more lines. The movie is trying, in other words, to craft a situation in which the sovereign, the proprietor of the peace-creating superweapon, need not stand alone, in which he can count on others—buddies and semi-heroes—to back him up and keep him in check: a civil society of comic-book characters. But then perhaps “civil society” isn’t quite right, because the role of the state in this new justice league remains unclear to the end and is in fact adorned by a set a elaborate hedges and ambiguities. Let me just list the uncertainties:

a) Johansson and Jackson both play agents from something called SHIELD, but there is no way of knowing, on the basis of the movie alone, without separate consultation of Wikipedia or a fanboy, what kind of agency SHIELD is. Is it an independent superheroes’ union? Does the D stand for “department” or “division”? Division of what? The US government? The United Nations? Please tell me the H doesn’t stand for “Homeland.” When we learn that the organization is recruiting Iron Man, it’s impossible to say what it is he is being recruited to.

b) And then the movie rescinds this already unclear offer: SHIELD is not recruiting Iron Man after all, though it may occasionally consult with him in any additional sequels. So Tony is and isn’t aligned with an agency that may or may not be governmental.

c) In the movie’s final action sequence, Tony Stark fights alongside a lieutenant colonel from the air force, to whom he has in fact given a second suit, which is a clear sign that the movie has given up on trying to imagine non-proliferation and has gone over to devising scenarios in which shared technology is the solution instead. More: The last scene before the credits roll shows him receiving a medal from a senator at a government function. The movie comes surprisingly close, in other words, to drafting Iron Man into the US government—but then doesn’t. And this might suggest something like the “private-public partnership” that has been at the core of centrist political rhetoric for the last few decades, but that observation would be more convincing if Tony Stark were a properly corporate man, which he isn’t.

d) Even the basic meaning of the expanded cast is unclear. The network of allies could mean that sovereignty has been shared out and to some small degree decentralized, which would of course entirely change its character as sovereignty. Or it could mean that Iron Man is being worked back into some government-military command structure and thus reinserted back into a sovereignty higher than himself. And there is simply no way to tell.

This much I can say: There is no category of film more routinely scorned than the sequel. Sequels are formulaic, yes, and derivative and all but instantly shark-jumping—they import into film, at great expense, some of the worst instincts of network television—and they are of considerable analytic interest all the same—because whatever an original movie’s ideological accomplishment, a sequel will have to undo some portion of this if it is to have any story at all to tell, which means that even a moderately thoughtful follow-up will spontaneously have the character of self-interrogation or auto-critique. It will compulsively pick at whatever in the first movie’s ending was least convincing to begin with. The sequels that extend a hit movie into a franchise are also the agents of that movie’s unmaking. So the first Iron Man entry was as amiable a story about the American empire as Hollywood has yet produced. But Iron Man 2 speaks its doubts about American power and then can’t figure out how to get them unspoken. The film’s final sequence shows a terrorist strike on New York City—a big one, carried through to its ka-bam!, unprevented and set in motion by the arms race around the suit. But Downey kissed Paltrow, and you probably thought it was a happy ending.

The spun sugar of destruction

The task today is to explain a movie that reviewers have described, unvariously, as “gonzo,” “beyond the pale,” “surreal,” “indefinable,” “gone, baby, gone,” and “totally inexplicable.” The movie is Nobuhijo Obayashi’s Hausu, from 1977, a horror film of sorts that has, at last, been playing in American theaters here and there over the past year, and, yes, the damnedest thing, the kind of movie that can turn any hour into midnight. A teenaged girl gets into a kung fu showdown with a wall phone. A stygian fruit stand turns a high-school teacher into a pile of ripe bananas, the bunches heaped high at his steering wheel, still wearing cap and spectacles, as though waiting to speed away, “Bananas everywhere!” his dying words, except you can’t really make them out over the rockabilly and the lounge jazz. The severed head of a recently decapitated young she-glutton chomps the assflesh of another teenaged girl, like a farmer wide-mouthing the season’s first crisp apple, and then tilts back to show a ragged neck packed with watermelon pulp.

And yet Hausu really isn’t all that hard to explain, as long as you’re willing to ask the obvious questions, to start with what is most familiar in the movie and work your way up to what is most bum-biting and outlandish. For Hausu is, at heart, really just a haunted house movie. Its Engrish-language title is telling you as much. A high-school student takes six of her girlfriends out to the countryside to visit her dead aunt, and the house attacks them, one by one, then pairwise, such that none ever returns.

Yes, there’s also a white cat with green laser eyes, but for the moment that will only confuse the issue. For now, we need merely plod, putting to Hausu the questions we would put to almost any ghost story. In some ways ghosts are unusually hard to talk about, because the ghosts one encounters in film and literature are so much more varied than the werewolves and the vampires and the zombies: they come in different shapes; they have different powers; different vulnerabilities. It could seem harder to generalize about them, to find any pattern of meaning amidst all that variation. But one point stands out, and I don’t think it’s hard to grasp. Ghosts are almost always figures for something you think should be gone, but isn’t. That’s it. A haunting just means that a trace of the past has come back. The ghost almost always announces some disruption in the order of time; the ghost is history itself, perceived as a problem; the disturbing persistence of history into the present. It is history that refuses to go away.

So when you watch a ghost movie, your chief task is to figure out how the movie understands the relationship between the past and the present; that is, you need to figure out what the movie has indentified as the salient features of the present; what it has picked out as the salient past; and then you need to figure out what they have to do with one another. Hausu makes this easy, by giving us a few minutes of fake newsreel, in early ‘40s black and white, in which we learn that the undead aunt is a kind of war widow, engaged once to a Japanese airman, who never returned and for whom, having made a pinky promise, she eternally waits. The movie, in other words, nominates its own past by shooting it on a different film stock: We have an older generation that is still pledged, in occult measure, to pre-war Japan, which here means not only thimbly tea cups and a population in fancy pajamas, but the Japanese empire and Japanese militarism. The aunt is witch-priestess of that Japan, endlessly mourning it, awaiting its return or re-rising sun.

The way the movie captures the present is necessarily more diffuse and so a little harder to pin down, though not much. The movie’s main characters are all teenaged girls, seven of them, with dwarflike names to match that number: Gorgeous, Prof, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac. This already gives us a lot to work with. The first thing that leaps out is the total absence of men, so first: a feminized Japan. Two of the girls—Prof and Kung Fu—conspicuously occupy roles customarily allotted to men, as the gang’s braniac and warrior-guardian, respectively, and so suggest a historical transition over to female self-sufficiency: a society that’s all ladies. But then fully four of the girls have English nicknames: “Gorgeous” and “Prof” are the subtitles’ translations of Japanese originals; “Kung Fu” is neither Japanese nor English; but Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, and Mac all are Anglo-monikers, English already in the dialogue, and so register a certain Americanism, except the movie’s subtitlers have gotten ahead of themselves, because “Fantasy” is actually, as spoken, “Fanta,” which means that one girl is named after a soda and another after a hamburger, so: A Japan so Westernized that children nickname themselves after value meals. The other thing to know about Hausu is that its dialogue is all a-titter, effervescent, silly, the opposite of mournful; the movie uses schoolgirl giggling the way Harold Pinter used to use pauses. The bundle of associations is the usual one: a feminized, consumer Japan; given over to the young; post-heroic, maybe even post-masculine. The movie can seem to pitch giddy, pop girl power against the imperial melancholy of their parents and grandparents.

This all makes for a reasonably straightforward ghost story, in which the present is pitted against the past—a generational battle, then. In those terms, the movie puts in front of us a failed present, which is what usually happens in a ghost story—a present that hasn’t extricated itself from the past. The old Japan reasserts itself: This is clearest in the movie’s coda, when we see the ghost-aunt’s niece, Gorgeous, now mistress of the old house, and so spectral in her own right, or atavistic, dressed in a kimono, fluidly opening shoji. In fact, we also see her welcoming—and then killing—her father’s new fiancée, and the important fact here is that at the beginning of the movie, the stepmom was described as “surprisingly good at cooking and other things.” The movie has thereby registered the questionable domesticity of modern Japanese women, and we can understand the house as busy trying to undo that shift, by relegating the powerpuff girls back to the old roles of maid and helpmeet. The movie’s title is in this sense oddly precise; it can dispense with the word “haunted” because it is premised on the observation that all houses are haunted or possessed, because all feed on their members, and especially on their less muscular ones, as this house does literally. The girls are to this extent the unlikely bearers of a feminism, whose defeat the movie will, with horror, recount. In place of fiends and demons, the movie has washrags and feather dusters, which all turn out to be the same anyway: Things that can destroy a carefree girl. One girl gets killed by the bedding.

But the movie is actually more complicated than this, because it also admits of a second reading, which runs concurrently alongside the first. Even as it pits the duty-bound war generation against the pop feminists of the mid-‘70s, the movie establishes a certain vexing continuity between the war widow and the girls and thereby forces us to consider the possibility that the girls are vulnerable to the Japanese past because fully its heirs.

A little background: It will help to know that there has been a lot of Japanese art over the last few decades that condemns its post-war addressees for being too too childish or too girly—a backlash, this, against Japan’s more or less official culture of cuteness: whatever it is that drives grown men to put stickers on their cell phones, or convinces Japan’s governors to assign each political district—they’re called prefectures—a certified cartoon mascot: a walking yellow fire hydrant with parsley on its head or a blue eel with jet engines strapped to its sides. To outsiders, Japan is at this point associated above all with manga and anime and children’s games and cosplay and the jailbait tartans of school uniforms. The point is that some Japanese commentators think that this trend has gotten way out of hand. That idea is most recognizable as a kind of right-wing nationalism—though there are variations—which nationalism holds that Japan’s atomic defeat destroyed the country’s great martial traditions; it destroyed the established forms of Japanese masculinity; it made it impossible for the Japanese to be real men. The military was largely disbanded; the imperial throne was turned into an empty symbol; the country became an American protectorate. Instead of a warrior Japan, one now finds the Neon Archipelago, overrun with women and children and shoppers.

There’s lots of evidence for this backlash. The position was codified in the glut of post-war samurai movies grieving for the vanished Japanese warrior class. But you might also consider Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, from 2004, a movie about children who have literally been abandoned to raise themselves, because no-one in Japan wants to be the adult; the adults in that movie wear cute little backpacks and carry cute little dogs, while their children starve and sit in their own filth and die: a cuteness that kills. Or you could have a look at Big Man Japan, from 2007, a movie about how modern Japanese people don’t even appreciate their own superheroes; a man with superhuman strength can’t get respect from the Japanese any longer, even when all he wants to do is defend Japan, the collective castration has cut so deep. That the superhero in that movie has a reality show is, at this point, a tired joke. The better joke is that nobody watches it.

In some sense, these are the movies that run counter to Hausu, depicting the same generational battle but reversing our allegiances, until we recoil in disgust from a Japan that has allowed itself to be infantilized, a whole country of overgrown kids. So here’s the thing: Hausu partly gives you that other, anti-girl reading of Japan, too. When the movie runs its three minutes of newsreel, from 1941, one of the schoolgirls says in voiceover: “Men were so much manlier back then”—and that at least puts the de-masculinization narrative in play. But the most important detail here is that the girls—and especially Fanta—are in the same position as the war widow, waiting for a man to show. The movie gives you four or five chances to spot the correspondence: The girls are expecting that a man will arrive to save them from the house, and he never comes. The movie, then, has a strong sense of the cycle of traumatic repetition. The ghost-widow is trapped eternally wishing for the return of Japanese manhood, and the girls are made to share her desire. If the teenagers prove unable to overcome the threat of the imperial past, then this is because they are themselves entirely too much like that past—a replica of the war widow and not her antithesis, like her the product of the early ‘40s, endlessly living out Japan’s defeat.

So what interests me about Hausu is that the movie invites a certain feminist reading: Bad-ass girls fight an encroaching domesticity. But it also invites an anti-feminist reading: A nation unhinged by the absence of men. It’s at this point that we have to start accounting for the movie’s fever-dream style, which is what those reviewers were mostly responding to. The movie is a cascade of lo-tech special effects and film tricks: garishly painted backdrops, dancing marionettes, psychedelic wipes, crude animation scratched right onto the negative, every possible lens filter, in seemingly random rotation. This all communicates a certain joie du cinéma, but it also makes the movie feel diabolical, completely cracked, and so unlike ordinary haunted house movies, which have always been the most genteel members of the horror canon—talky, sedate and goreless, with Merchant-Ivory production values—long steady shots of corridors well papered, dolly shots tracking invisible presences, protracted enough that you can pause to admire the sconces. Next to that—next to The Haunting and The Innocents and the aesthetic these share with home-improvement shows—Hausu plays like a stone freak-out.

But there’s a danger here, that in saying this I will make the movie sound experimental or avant-gardist. That would be misleading, because the easiest way to communicate what Hausu is up to would be to say that it has borrowed most of its techniques from children’s television and TV ads. When your cinephile buddy tells you that Hausu reminds him of some Kenneth Anger joint, you need to say in return that it looks like an episode of Captain Kangaroo or an old Peppermint Pattie commercial. If you can imagine a horror movie stitched together out of 200-some 30-second ads, you’ll begin to get a sense of what it’s like to watch Hausu. There’s one detail that is decisive in this regard—one amazingly simply device that transforms a viewer’s experience of the movie and shifts it irretrievably into the realm of the commercial—and that’s the movie’s pop soundtrack, which not only has almost no discernible relationship to what’s happening on screen, but—and this is the important part—is turned up much too high in the audio mix, competing with the dialogue, like music in TV and radio ads, but not like ordinary movie music.

What most matters, then, is that these last two observations mostly coincide: The movie seems demonic and its style is borrowed mostly from children’s television and TV spots. The movie asks you to imagine what it would be like to live inside a kiddie show and decides that it would be terrifying. This shunts us straight back to the movie’s doubleness. At the end of Hausu, you have to ask yourself, does the movie’s insistent, camp cuteness distract from the horror or merely add to it? The slapstick and the dumb jokes and the storybook cartoonishness—do these counteract the film’s Gothic qualities—or do they amplify the horror in a new direction?—such that Japan seems completely mad even before the haunted house starts exacting its toll. In other words, you might choose to see this as a movie in which cuteness squares off against horror (and then cuteness tragically loses)—and that reading just about makes sense. But you might also see it as a movie in which cuteness and horror get grafted onto one another, in which case you end up with cute horror or a horrible cuteness—in which case Hausu would be like a hundred other movies that wish the Japanese would just sack up. Check the poster: The movie’s presiding demon is a white cat, Hello Kitty as hell’s familiar. And at one point, the movie, for no apparent reason, runs maybe two seconds of nuclear footage, the mushroom cloud, and one of the girls chimes, in voiceover: “Oh, look, it’s cotton candy”—and you think: Wait … was that…? Did I see…? Atrocity? Candyfloss? Atrocity? Candyfloss? In an alternate history, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was called Little Girl.

A Passage to What?


If you stick with this one, I think I’ll be able to explain how it is that fascism can be made appealing to ordinary Americans, and no fooling. I want to be clear that by “ordinary Americans,” I do not mean Birthers and Teabaggers. I mean the rest of us: suburbanites, semi-sophisticates, people who sometimes vote for Democrats, carriers of canvas tote bags. And by “fascism” I don’t mean any politics to the right of my own; I don’t mean traffic cops and my gym coach. I mean unpleasant Italians in the 1920s, Teutonic ghastliness, the Spanish clampdown. I’m not saying that I can show you how a generically right-wing politics appeals to the American Right; there’s not much that needs explaining on that front. I’m saying, rather, that I can show how something rather like National Socialism can be made appealing to you.

It all starts with Salon.com, which is, I grant, an unlikely place to begin a conversation about fascism. Salon, after all, is an unmistakably “progressive” undertaking: based in San Francisco, founded by a former editor at Mother Jones, temperately anti-war, feminist, queer-friendly, &c. The site represents a kind of publication that has never really existed in print form or on glossy paper: a lifestyle magazine for middle-class liberals, a site where you can get in one click from some fairly trenchant analysis of the US government’s misplaced “imperial priorities” to recipes for “the best burger I ever had” (and in the event, also pretty good). Salon is perhaps the closest thing Statesiders now have to an American version of the UK Guardian, the sort of magazine that will occasionally let itself engage in utopian speculation, when no idiom is more foreign to official writing about politics than that. One recent article introduced its argument with a brief thought experiment about an “imaginary classless society.” But if you look just a little bit harder at that same article, it turns out that such a society would have a “universal middle class.” Socialism as the apotheosis of the middle classes, their driving of all other players from the field: that’s Salon.

Earlier this summer, Salon decided to start a book club: the magazine’s readers would all read the same long novel, at roughly the same time, and would have a public, on-line discussion about it over the course of three weeks. The first book that Salon chose was The Passage, a new vampire apocalypse by a writer who teaches at Rice named Justin Cronin. It’s a little misleading to single out Salon for pushing The Passage this way. The novel has been getting all sorts of attention: declarations of love from Time and The Guardian, a book deal so big that it was reported as a news item in its own right in 2007. Ridley Scott has already bought the rights. There has been touting. Salon was making sure it kicked things off with a novel lots of people were going to be reading anyway.

They were also making a clean break with Oprah, by throwing boy-readers a book they could gnaw at. There are at least two different ways of telegraphing what it’s like to read The Passage. One way is to note its literary affiliations: The novel basically just takes the premise of Richard Matheson’s slender, economical I Am Legend—vampires have taken over the world—and bulks it out to a length that is prolix and Tolkienian: so not just one survivor, as in Matheson, but an entire village of survivors, then a quest narrative, which eventually ramps up into an out-and-out war story, a cage match cosmic and Manichean, between the men of the West and what are really just bioluminescent orcs.

The other way is easier: The Passage is a fast-zombie movie in prose. One suspects that Cronin has called his monsters “vampires” only because, in the fashion cycle of collective dread, vampires are back. Gone, mostly, are the zombies of the last decade—the dilatory, the dawdling, the pointlessly milling dead. Pop culture once again prefers its ghouls to have purpose and penetrating stares. Cronin’s cannibals resemble bloodsuckers in some respects, and the walking dead in others; five years ago he would have called them zombies; but it’s 2010, so he calls them vampires. I want to be careful here. At some level, it’s pointless to try to segregate out from one another Hollywood’s vampire and zombie populations. Monsters routinely intermarry. There have been lots of vampire-zombie splicings, not the least of which is I Am Legend itself. Or rather: I Am Legend was, via its first film version—not 1971’s The Omega Man, but a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price—one of the major sources for Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which means that the zombie movie as we know it actually began as a mutation in the vampire code. But we can just as well leave that history aside. The broader point is that any time a movie, 30 Days of Night, say, has its vampires attack in numbers—any time it deploys them against humans in formations larger than three or four—it’s going to start looking, whether it means to or not, like a zombie pic. Humans will board up their windows and huddle in locked rooms. They will fall to multiple, scrabbling hands.

So vampires often look like zombies. And then there’s the simple point that filmmakers and especially novelists have woven so many variations on the vampire that they, like the queer people they are often made to resemble, come in all possible forms: vampire politicians, vampire mechanics, the vampire homeless. It seems useless to insist that vampires are really one way and not another. One wishes to say all the same that the genre’s anchoring works—the stories and novels that have set the horizon for the form: Polidori, Stoker, Anne Rice—have always given special emphasis to aristocracy, etiquette, seduction, intelligence. For a creature to register emphatically as a vampire—for it to be recognizable as something other than a zombie—it needs to seem like a superior being, Luciferous and more than human; and it needs to be something you could possibly make the mistake of falling in love with. All I mean is that a certain Byronism is pretty well wired into the thing.

Cronin’s “vampires,” meanwhile, are dim and scavenging herd animals, not superhuman but rather the opposite: degenerate and cretinous. Rigor commands that I also list the ways they are not like zombies: They are light-sensitive; they don’t turn everyone they bite; a very small number of them emit their memories and commands in a manner extrapolated from antique vampire mind-control or mesmerism; they are fairly hard to kill. But these are secondary characteristics, whereas the monsters’ zombie traits are central to one’s experience of the novel: They don’t have manners, and they (mostly) don’t have minds. Most important: They come in nests and pods and swarms and packs and scourges and hordes.

I want to stick with “hordes.” It’s important to get the matter of genre right, because to opt for the fast zombie, as your particular horror niche, is to place in front of a readership a distinctive set of historical or sociopolitical concerns, concerns that are at this point built into those monsters. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: Fast zombies, as cinematic and now literary figures, are built almost entirely out of perceptions of Asians and Middle Easterners and Africans and native Americans, some of them new—fast zombies sometimes get framed as terrorists—most of them old: they are above all savages. (They are in this sense unlike slow zombies. I’ve argued out the distinction here.) This was already true of the landmark fast-zombie movies—28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake—and Cronin simply follows suit on this front. When the zombie epidemic erupts, the novel begins to incorporate all sorts of Bush-era GWOT-speak, which means that its vampire apocalypse is at some level nothing more than the War on Terror imagined as lost. But then Cronin has at the same time found a way to reactivate some very old colonial nightmares: One scene has a settlement of human survivors—the creepy survivors; the bad survivors—readying a human sacrifice, to placate the vampire-zombies, in what is clearly a replay of early Spanish lore about the Aztecs. This association is then cemented by Cronin’s notion of where vampirism comes from: It is a virus, let loose from deepest Bolivia, a kind of bat-Ebola, and its sinister work will be to make the United States equatorial. Fast-zombie stories take civilization as their highest good—that might sound like an uncontroversial proposition, but it isn’t—lots of stories don’t. They then designate the zombies as that-which-can-cancel-civilization, a baggy category that can include both al Qaeda and Zulus. Or to put this another way: Fast-zombie stories are devices for making palatable some of the old imperial beliefs, or, if you like, for manufacturing neo-imperial anxieties, though they have their own distinctive way of doing this, one that rather than flaunting the sturdy supremacy of civilization, emphasizes instead the latter’s tenuousness and so the possibility that culture and progress and refinement could collapse in their very hubs and capitals.

What I want to do at this point is list a number of things that early reviewers have said about The Passage; itemize this generic praise back into its commonplaces; and then work out what those vague and blurbish abstractions, with particular reference to this specific novel, actually mean.

•1) Reviewers have routinely described the book as “epic.” This was inevitable, because the book is long, 750 pages and counting. But for once that tag seems appropriate; it seems to indicate something more than just length. The Passage shares with the classical epics—Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the like—techniques and scenes that one doesn’t typically find even in other big, multiplot novels: above all, a vast and prophetic time scheme that, strictly tallied, covers more than a thousand years. The novel falls roughly into three sections: The first part recounts the outbreak of the zombie contagion and the collapse of the US government and American society; the second part jumps ahead a century and describes the workings of a survivor colony living behind walls in the interior of California; the third part follows a band of adventurers as they peel away from that colony and march across the American West, battling zombies, briefly joining a sinister counter-colony, and then enrolling, some of them, in the rump US Army—or rather the Army of the Republic of Texas, which it turns out has been on the ground all along and is the novel’s rootin’-tootin’ deus.

What Cronin shares with the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style epics, in other words, is their long-durée concern with the Fate of Civilizations, a concern that requires his distended and decidedly non-novelistic narrative canvas, the span of generations. It is from the epic, too, that he has borrowed his descriptions of the zombie armies, though perhaps unwittingly and at two or three removes. Epics are utterly fixated on the distinction between fully settled people and still tribal or semi-nomadic ones. The final books of The Aeneid describe a small army of Trojan survivors as they invade Italy and conquer its indigenous people. Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Adam and Eve as two dwellers in the wilderness, naked foragers in “the new world.” The first American epic, Timothy Dwight’s Conquest of Canaan, recounts in heroic terms a righteous people’s war of extermination against a nation of savages whose land they regard as earmarked. The affinity matters because it is in some of its epic qualities that The Passage is least like a fast-zombie movie, since the films generally have compressed time-frames; are interested only in the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath; and almost never show survivors successfully fighting back. This is how we know that Cronin is not just cashing in—because to write a fast-zombie epic is something entirely different from, say, just novelizing Dead Alive, simply by virtue of letting the novel proceed past page 250, past the nuclear explosions over Boise and Bend, Oregon—simply, that is, by allowing that there might be, even after the swarming, story left to tell.

This then brings us to the next claim that reviewers have been making, which is that…

•2) The Passage is a wonderfully hopeful book.  Time magazine called it “a story about human beings trying to generate new hope.” One of Salon’s readers remarked that “the post-apocalyptic world feels more hopeful than what preceded it.” Another reader agreed that the book’s middle and late sections are “immensely hopeful.” This hope is one of the things in the novel that most needs specifying, because Cronin has produced a full-on reconstruction narrative. It is hard to stress this point with the banging emphasis it deserves. The mood is one of settler expectancy, of pilgrims surveying a land whose savage inhabitants are dying of an introduced disease, though they still lurk ferociously in forests and canyons. The Passage, in other words, is trying to counter the despondent vibe of the long Iraq-Afghanistan decade by retelling the old America myth the way that public school textbooks are no longer allowed to tell it; by trying to get you to occupy the valiant position of the embattled pioneer, to imaginatively inhabit the geography of early settlement, what we used to call the frontier.

There are actually two major historical models that Cronin has incorporated into his book. The first is medieval Europe, especially in its early stages, the systole and diastole of contraction and expansion, the post-Roman heartbeat: villages in Normandy gathering in their borders like so much extra fabric; towns building walls; lords building castles; and then—back out into the wastelands; the outgrowth of an armed agrarianism; planned settlements for serfs beyond the Elbe, generous terms, no labor service, five years rent-free!; Teutonic Knights; Frankish machine-men with their monster-horses and their death-arrows; northern crusades into the heathen Baltic; the Spanish Reconquista—and no historical meme looms larger in The Passage than that: the Reconquest of America. The book’s survivors live in a walled city and have something like guilds and wear tunics and have all but abandoned books and carry crossbows, which were the tenth century’s great advance in military technology, a weapon  so unsportingly good at killing people that the Church tried to limit its use. Crossbowmen were briefly pariahs.

The survivors also ride horses, though this image obviously does double duty. For beyond its medievalism, The Passage is most obviously a zombie Western—Cronin himself has said as much—subcategory siege, with the California settlement doubling as fort. Survivors trek across Nevada and Colorado. They cook jonnycake. A man in a remote house pours boiling water into a tub for his pregnant woman and sits watch at night, shotgun across his lap, armed against whatever might come stalking out of the woods.

The Passage, then, generates “hope” only because it’s underlying notion is that we’ve been through this all before; it is telling, through proxies and vampire-puppets, a history whose ending we already know; and so reassuring us of a certain cycle or historical repetition. Cronin’s answer to our usual bum and apocalyptic trip is to help us envision another round of colonization. North America will get to resettle itself. Indian Wars will be refought. To this end, the novel works in five or six documents form the distant future—conference papers from some symposium a millennium down the line—which is our guarantee, from an early point in our reading, that civilization has survived somewhere and in some form.

Another claim out of the reviews…

•3) The Passage is especially interested in what one reader calls “the civic structure of the colony.” This is true—and it’s an extension of the last point—because it involves “hope” again—and not just hope, but this horror novel’s unexpected interest in hope’s proper literary form and vehicle, which is utopia. Absolutely nothing about The Passage is more surprising than the moment that comes about a third of the way through, after you’ve read hundreds of pages of an utterly routine X-Files/outbreak plot, and you turn the page, and that plot is gone, and a full-blown utopia has taken its place, which is another way of gauging Cronin’s sense of his own writerliness, since the genre-swap—from apocalypse to utopia—is among other things a shift over from a heavily cinematic form to a quite peculiarly literary one. I don’t know that film is structurally barred from attempting outright utopias; I do know that it almost never does. Cronin, for his part, goes so far as to reproduce in its entirety the survivor colony’s written constitution, which is how you know that he has the genre’s canonical texts in mind—Thomas More, William Morris, and the like—that he is actually speculating about the daily workings of an alternate political order. That list of basic laws is the token of Cronin’s utopian seriousness (and is one of the feature’s of utopian writing that a commercial film would have the hardest time reproducing). Salon’s book critic, Laura Miller, said that the utopia was her favorite section of the book, but she is professionally disallowed from using that word, so what she actually said was that she “loves stories about how people form and sustain communities.” “Isn’t life in this last city kind of ideal?” a reader asked, “—if you ignore the vampire bit.”

It is under cover of phrases like these—“sustaining community,” “ideal city life”—that the novel’s fascism rides in. This is itself rather fascinating, since utopia often seems like the special province of the political Left, in some another-world-is-possible kind of way. The term itself, officially neutral, nominally harnessed to no particular ideology, was claimed by socialist thinkers early on. Fredric Jameson continues to use it as a euphemism for “communism.” So it is all the more remarkable to watch an American novelist, in apparent sincerity, attempt a utopia with strong fascist elements. There are at least three:

a) The first thing the constitution does is establish sovereignty, a “final authority” charged with “safeguarding DOMESTIC ORDER” and empowered to declare “CIVIL EMERGENCY.” This is Schmittian boilerplate, and generically authoritarian rather than specifically fascist, but it is worth noting that Cronin’s California does, in fact, break with the main lines of Anglo-American political thought, which—with their doctrines of mixed monarchy, the division of powers, check-and-balances, institutional cantilevers and counterweights, programmed-in gridlock and indecision—have always been hostile to sovereignty of precisely this kind. Montesquieu and Madison are among the books that no-one in the future will be reading.

b) This second one will take a little more explaining. Some social historians think that modern politics came into being in the seventeenth century when European governments began allowing themselves to worry about demography, which is to say to worry about the size and health of their populations. This led, in a hundred different ways, to a politics of the body; a medicalized politics of health and hygiene and sanitation; new political initiatives around birth and death; &c. One way of thinking about fascism is that it marked the culmination and cancerous transformation of this centuries-old development, which, however, continues to shape all modern governments, and especially the social democracies, to some greater or lesser degree. The important point about Cronin, then, is that his utopian colony is nakedly biopolitical in just this way, a utopia of eugenics and euthanasia. Fully a third of the constitution’s provisions involve quarantine. There are entire chapters devoted to mercy killings; when colonists are dragged away by vampires, their closest family have to ritually keep watch on the colony’s walls and cut them down if they return. Cronin calls this “standing the mercy.” Women in his utopia are taught trades, but then forced to abandon them when they become pregnant, relegated into compulsory motherhood, in a special building they are not allowed to leave. It is Cronin’s bleak gift to make such a scenario seem reasonable to an ordinary American reader—to make plausible that old physiocratic preoccupation with demography, with keeping the numbers up—by forcing us to imagine a human population reduced to some few hundreds.

c) The colony is also pervasively militarized, which is one of the ways its order is most like a fascism and least like an ordinary authoritarianism, since yer run-of-the-mill authoritarian wants the leadership to preserve a monopoly on force. In Cronin’s future, everyone is taught how to fight. There are weapons ready in every room. This is an ethos of war and blood, a society that has regenerated itself by abandoning the pacifism and potbellies of liberal society, though on a casual read, this all registers only as a low-level Spartanism. Nine-year olds get put through their daily samurai drills: “Where do they come from?” “THEY COME FROM ABOVE!” “And what do we get?” “WE GET ONE SHOT!”

That’s how The Passage looks if you emphasize its utopian qualities, hence its imagined innovations, its breaks with the established order of 2010—and it’s worth underscoring that these add up to a kind of political argument, since Cronin is trying to explain the difference between a society that knows how to survive a terrorist-savage threat and the United States, which, in the novel’s terms, mostly doesn’t. To that extent, these breaks all have the force of recommendations, what the U.S. could have done, but failed to do, to keep itself intact: Streamline the political chain of command, make sure pregnant women stop working, strictly limit the rights of immigrants, lie to the children, seal the borders, build a wall around them, shoot anyone who gets close.

But we can also run the argument in the other direction, and emphasize instead those features of our readerly present that Cronin’s settler-utopians would preserve. The novel’s medievalism, reconsidered from this angle, turns out to be something of a red herring, since its survivors see themselves as the keepers of American techno-civilization; the guardians of illumination in a vampire dark age, though that word, illumination, now refers to halogen lamps and not manuscripts; the ones who can keep running—literally; this is in the novel—the Humvees of the lost world. The novel’s premise is that civilization has collapsed, and yet it remains most interested in the people who have inherited American achievement. Civilization will only be possible again when people figure out how to re-activate its machinery. The middle sections of the novel are accordingly made up of three stock scenes regularly repeated: Characters try to improvise a patch on some machine they consider essential but no longer know, curved-arch-like, how to manufacture. Characters leave the colony to scavenge century-old goods from decaying strip malls and military bases, hunter-gatherers foraging for high-tops like they’re loganberries. Characters encounter some forgotten or never-before-seen device and wonder what it is and how to use it. This aspect of the novel becomes more and more important until it effectively takes over, since the novel’s final order of business is to fold the colonist-survivors into the U.S. Army, which is a techno-survival of an entirely different order, the novel’s strange belated admission that civilization didn’t really collapse after all, certainly not to some zero point. What destroys the first host of vampire-zombies, then, is a nuclear bomb left over from the military—a military solution, then, to a problem created by the military. Salon’s Laura Miller says she likes that the colonists come to the realization that they “need the outside world,” but taken on its own the phrase “outside world” could mean just about anything, when the novel is by necessity much more specific: The colonists need a modern military and heavy ordnance.

The one observation that Miller makes that is flat out wrong is that the novel’s idiom is not ethical or religious. She has said this more than once: “Cronin’s novel isn’t about the clash between good and evil, but about humanity’s struggle to forge a better world.” “Cronin’s characters, unlike [Stephen] King’s [in The Stand], are not caught up in a struggle between Good and Evil.” It’s true that Cronin is being a little sneaky on this front. The survivor colony is nominally post-Christian; they remember Christmas only as a rumor or a legend; they have adopted a new calendar that makes no reference to Domini. But then Cronin makes it his business, in the novel’s final chapters, to smuggle back in all the Christian language that he has up to that point carefully withheld. The Passage, indeed, is so stupidly ethical that it features not only a demonic head vampire whose name contains the word cock, but two supernaturally good characters, as well, the more important of whom is a pre-pubescent girl, and cock and girl appear to one character by turns in a dream and tell him respectively to murder and not to murder a woman in that dream, as in: Cartoon devil on your left shoulder, cartoon angel on your right. That the other radiantly moral figure is a Catholic nun should sufficiently confirm the point. In fact, by the time the novel ends, readers will have to swallow: an immortal nun, an act of heroic martyrdom, characters galvanized upon hearing Bible stories, a set of fiendish counter-apostles called “the Twelve,” and a group fighting these hellhounds led by a man named Peter, about whom sentences like this are written: “He inched his way forward, each step an act of faith.”

More generally, The Passage is packed with writing borrowed from the traditions of sentimental and domestic writing, and this, too, adds up to a kind of shadow Christianity or orthodox morality. It is also another of the ways—indeed, the most pervasive way—in which The Passage tries to make literature out of its cinematic scenario. Everything is POV, free indirect discourse, interior monologue. Events are endlessly focalized, and an intimacy is thereby obtruded on this Gibbonesque-Hobbsean story of civilizations falling and original contracts being formed. It is hard to overstate just how much family writing there is in this book, paragraph upon paragraph describing the ferocious attachments one feels to one’s closest kin: The only moment of love the colony’s leader ever felt was when his daughter was born. One woman reflects at length on how “wonderful” it was “to feel a baby moving inside her.” A tough warrior out on the quest confesses that what he misses most are “the littles.” Time praised the book for its “psychological insight.” Laura Miller said it was a vampire-zombie story “with heart.” In sentences like those we see a hard Right politics being made psychologically credible to a contemporary readership—and the psychology in play is a reassuringly familiar one, the psychology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a PTA meeting, the known term that carries you to an unknown place. Fascism is something you do for the kids.

What we can say now, then, is that Cronin’s utopio-fascism is tempered by a certain conservatism. But then fascism, of course, came in all sorts of different forms; it had national variants for one; and each fascist intellectual dreamed up a slightly different fascism, none of which corresponded precisely to any of the fascisms that actually existed on the ground. In the interests of precision, then: Cronin is helping us make our peace with an American fascism, but his is not the fascism of the intellectuals and the avant gardists, not a Nietzschean and anti-bourgeois fascism, which would, let’s face it, probably prefer the vampires. His is a fascism that has in certain key tenets—respect for Christianity and a conventional military hierarchy—joined forces with the conventional Right: a Spanish fascism, if you follow me, rather than a German one.

But then it’s not enough to name, however precisely, which particular historical variant of fascism Cronin is trying to resurrect. The important point, rather, is that Cronin is trying to imagine a version of fascism that has never existed, and this gets us to the crux of the matter: How, after all, do you engineer a fascism that will be palatable to a contemporary American audience, and not just to any audience, but to a Salon audience, a bunch of literate Lefties, the type of people who participate in book clubs? The answer, I think, is quickly given: You subtract race from the equation. For Cronin’s colonists are all multi-racial; the novel makes a big deal of this early on. Racial categories are, like the Jesus story, one of those things from Before that the survivors have heard about but barely understand. The novel is more cunning than this even. The utopian section begins with a kind of oral history recorded by the last person who was born before the vampire apocalypse. And she’s an old black woman, although the novel never out and tells you this; it expects you to hear it in her cadences. That’s a far cry from, say, Tolkien, who is sheerest poison, Wagnerite Anglo-fascism without the tunes. Tolkien’s racialism was always all but overt, just under the surface, like Norplant: all those Celtic-Viking heroes and elephant-riding bad men from the East; that scheming, greedy golem-Jew; those monstrous Urak-hai-sounds-like-Iroquois. So whatever Cronin is up to, it’s not that. Instead, he has worked out a more subtle kind of racial feint; he makes a black woman our gateway into the fascist utopia. The novel actually does something similar in matters of gender, since our colonist-heroes end up visiting two other survivor compounds, each of which treats women much worse than the novel’s central settlement, which means that readers can tell themselves that the colony, whatever its policies on pregnant women, has achieved a fair degree of gender equity. And then that’s it right there: A fascism in which people of all races and genders can participate more or less equally—that’s how one creates a fascism that will pass first-line liberal scrutiny. If you make it so that fascism isn’t primarily racial, an American reader won’t even recognize it as fascism. But then, of course, Cronin can only produce this de-racialized version of fascism because he has transferred the entire apparatus of race onto the zombies, who are sometimes just called “the Many” and who are, of course, a population of the killable. He can loosen racial categories among the survivors, because he has preserved the lethality of race at a higher and more abstract level. Not that any of this is buried in the novel, exactly, since the survivors have a series of different racial epithets for the zombies, one of which is “smokes,” which, well, if you don’t know, you should probably look it up, is all I’m saying. One of Salon’s readers said that “smokes” was “invented language” —and thought it was neat. And it just ain’t … neat, I mean … or invented.

The Running of the Dead, Part 4




28 Days Later: The Set-up, continued

Let’s rewind a few sentences:

Occasionally, a young woman catches herself daydreaming about someone really close to her dying—not because she wishes it—not at all—but because she is compulsively rehearsing in her head how terrible it would be. So she daydreams, despite herself, that her boyfriend is dead and then she rushes to the living boy and surprises him by saying: I love you so much! 28 Days Later is like that, except it’s the government, and not your boyfriend, who has died in the daydream’s car crash or cancer bed. The movie opens up for you the morbid headspace to mourn the government, even though we currently still have one.

There’s a variation on that same sinister reverie that zombie movies regularly spin; we can call it Having to Kill Someone You Love. In 28 Days Later, the harsh lesson goes like this: If a living person turns in your presence, “you have ten or twenty seconds to kill them. It can be your father or your sister or your best friend.” Scenes of this kind, in which intimates get euthanized, are all over the zombie film. They are as basic to the genre as transformation scenes are to werewolf movies. They are, indeed, an adaption of those very scenes: accelerated and moonless turnings in which the dog never makes it out of the vet’s office; lycanthropic kittens drowned in sacks.

But then what we’ve just spotted is a continuity, a convention that carries over from slow zombies to fast. Both types of zombie movies go in for transformation scenes; nothing has changed on that front. And this, in turn, prompts a rather interesting question: How does the Hobbsean orientation of the fast-zombie movie reframe the genre’s usual conventions? 28 Days Later may break with the Romero-era zombie movie in a few basic ways, but most of Romero’s conventions it actually takes over intact. The possibility we now need to consider is that those innovations are so drastic that they change the meanings even of those features that the movies most obviously share, simply by supplying them with a new context.

The best way to follow this out is simply to watch 28’s first mercy killing: A survivor gets infected, looks left, imploringly, past the camera; one of his comrades immediately leaps across the screen—to put him down—except all she has is a machete, and the viewer has to sit through seven sharp, moist swats. That the woman is black and the man white brings to the surface the scene’s historical provocation: A black woman hacks a white guy to death with the Third World’s iconic weapon, the curved blade that Africans and Caribbean islanders have lying around, the knife for whacking bush and coconuts and political rivals. In 2002, the image might still have brought Rwanda to mind, which reference-point is not wholly irrelevant, since one way of summarizing 28 Days Later would be to say that it is asking you to imagine Britain as a “failed state,” when that last is the current Hobbsean term of art.

Now the important point is that if we were watching this scene in a Romero movie, we could probably guess its effects, since Romero specializes in setting up equivalences between zombies and human survivors; in forcing viewers, that is, to conclude that there isn’t very much difference between people and zombies after all (since the condition of zombism is the condition of our stupid, little lives, &c). We could say something similar of 28 Days Later: the scene is quite conspicuously brutal, and the woman with the blade manifestly displays the ferocity of her zombie-opponents, and though this familiar line wouldn’t exactly be wrong, it wouldn’t really be right either. The scene presents an unusually good opportunity, in fact, to specify the fast-zombie movie’s Hobbsean labor: When the living people in Romero start acting like zombies, this discredits them; it makes them scary. And that’s not true of 28 Days Later. The woman commits murder right in front of us, and that act doesn’t discredit her, doesn’t make her scary. Her situation is scary, but she isn’t, because the killing has been explained in advance by the movie’s Hobbsean frame, to the effect that people living without a government don’t have any choice but to act like zombies or savages. The obligation to kill is part of the horror. Hobbes’s entire point is that people living in a stateless condition don’t get to choose to be good people; life without a government requires brutality from everybody. When you slowly realize, watching Night of the Living Dead, that nearly all of the survivors are as violently brain-dead as the zombies, it’s a crushing experience—anyone who remembers that movie’s final credits will know what I mean: They force you to reevaluate everything that’s come before. But in 28 Days Later, the realization comes early and is no kind of surprise; it is simply built into the scenario.

This point is then amplified in a bit of a dialogue a few scenes later. The hero and the woman with the machete are looking at an old photograph, from Before, a smiling middle-class family, cinched in close together, laughing father, beaming mother, ungrudging teenager caught in a group hug. The hero remarks that they look like “good people.”

MACHETE: Good people? … Well, that’s nice, but you should be more concerned about whether they’re going to slow you down.

HERO: Right, because if they slowed you down…

MACHETE: …I’d leave them behind…

HERO: …in a heartbeat…

MACHETE: …yeah.

HERO: I wouldn’t.

MACHETE: Then you’re going to wind up getting yourself killed.

The movie, in other words, turns the photograph into an occasion for a colloquium on the domestic virtues: sentiment, fellow feeling, and the like. The hero is talking like a Christian or benevolent liberal, and it is another one of the distinctive features of zombie movies as a form that they render that position—the position of a generic goodness—utterly impossible. The hero has to be weaned of his decency, and we will know that he has achieved this new moral consciousness when we witness him kill a (zombie) child.

The point is complicated, though. By the time the movie ends, the liberal and the killer will have moved in together, into a northern cottage, with the girl in the photograph as their adopted daughter, and so have reinstituted a humanist ethics or at least a coziness; their values get un-transvaluated. This gets us back to Hobbes and the authoritarian Right, whom we can now distinguish from the Nietzscheans by pointing out that they precisely don’t want the condition of pre- or post-humanist savagery to persist. They don’t want people to have to be beasts. Indeed, they want people to be able to act like Christians or benevolent liberals, but in order for this to happen—and this is the properly political, which is to say structural and so anti-ethical moment in Hobbes’s thinking—in order for this to happen, in order for you to be a decent person, there has to be some fundamental shift in the political order, or rather, politics as such has to be born. Political society has to constitute itself. The problem, then, for a Hobbsean is that liberals and Christians fail to grap the close conjunction between their decency and the exercise of force, fail to grasp that kindness and the police go together, that the police make kindness possible, which means that kindness will never be able to substitute for the police.

28 Days Later has worked out a way of telegraph this idea visually, in what is probably  the most clever sequence in the entire movie. The two survivors—the Hero and Lady Machete—have worked out that there are other living humans in London, at least a few of them, hiding in an apartment high above the city. They sneaky-pete their way up the building’s stairwell and down the corridor toward the apartment’s door, where they see this figure…

…who turns into this figure…

…who turns into this figure…

It’s all something of a sick joke: First we encounter an unmovable paramilitary cop; he mutates into a balaclav’d thug, marching straight for the camera, in a shot borrowed directly from slasher movies; and this killer then peels off his mask and reveals himself to be … Brendan Gleeson, an actor of excellent good cheer, boozy and lummoxing, a kind of human wassail. The idea here is that open-hearted, hospitable middle-class people and the riot police actually go together, though not usually in a single person. Such, at least, is the Hobbsean take on the issue. What the movie has done is taken the two sides of bourgeois society, usually experienced at a confusing distance from one another, and welded them back into a single figure—the softie and the cop, the teddy bear and the guy who’ll push your face in—and thereby bodied forth the interdependence of those positions, which is what liberals putatively never get.

•28 Days Later: The switcheroo

So we can say that 28 Days Later forces us to imagine a certain crisis, the complete breakdown of political order into terrorism and savagery. And in the history of political thought that idea comes with a built-in solution: Strengthen the state, strengthen the police, the military, the executive. Expand the emergency powers of the central authorities. It is this fantasy that the movie puts into play. The first half of the movie follows a group of survivors as they straggle across a de-populated England trying to get to whatever is left of the state: the Army’s last uninfected platoon, garrisoned in an old manor house, chanting the Hobbsean mantra: “We are soldiers. … Salvation is here. … We can protect you.” One of the civilians has preemptively echoed the point: “The soldiers could keep us safe.”

At this point I might as well just out and say what the movie does to this fantasy, which is that it explodes it into little bits. That is the single most important fact about 28 Days Later, that it drives you into the arms of the soldiers, convinces you to look to them for refuge, and then turns the soldiers into monsters in their own right, mostly because they plan to begin a breeding program upon the bodies of the two surviving women and so immediately default on their promises of asylum. There are obvious precedents for this: In the later stages of the movie, Boyle begins borrowing shots from Apocalypse Now, and these are so many visual nudges, reminders that the underlying scenario is straight out of Heart of Darkness: The last outpost of civilization turns out to be a whirring freak show. So a borrowed plot, though it is fascinating all the same to watch a certain Conradianism well up unexpectedly within the horror movie. For Colonel substitute “Major” and for Kurtz substitute “West”—that’s the movie’s human villain—“He’s insane!” someone shouts—Major West, which name is of course allegory reverting back to plain-speech.

But then most people aren’t going to be chasing down the literary history while watching a movie, so perhaps it’s more appropriate to explain 28 Days Later as a basic exercise in emotional manipulation: It sets you up to want the soldiers, to be desperately pro-military, and then once you get your wish and end up face to face with the Tommies, it makes them creepy—not exactly like the monsters—the distinction will matter—but in their own way fiendish. It forces you to experience them as oppressive. No-one calls soldiers “grunts” because they’re polished. And to call them “dogfaces” suggests only that the enemy had better be shooting silver ammo. Such, anyway, is Boyle’s con, his trick. He seems to be making all of the Right’s moves—and just when the time comes to put the Right’s solution in place, he undoes it instead—and thereby makes clear that he was playing a different game all along.

Let me take another crack at it: 28 Days Later swaps out the problem of sovereignty or political order and puts another, entirely different problem in its place. At its most basic level, this is a point about the plot, and so about your actual, minute-by-minute experience of the movie, if you’re watching it for the first time. It looks like it’s going to be a straightforward trek movie, in which the credits will roll once our heroes find the army unit. In a different kind of movie—the kind of movie that Boyle lets you think for a while he has made—the soldiers would constitute a happy ending. But as soon as the survivors arrive at the army’s aristocratic headquarters, the soldiers mutate into a new problem. Authority stops being the solution and becomes instead the crisis. The hero, in other words, will have to learn to fight the soldiers—and not the zombies he thought he was fighting all along. Here’s another way of gauging how curious 28 Days Later is: The movie’s longest fight sequence, its protracted-final-action-horror showdown, involves the zombies barely at all; it pushes them to the periphery, in a clear indication to the audience that they should stop worrying so much about the goddamned zombies already. More: By that point, the hero is, if anything, aligned with the zombies; he is literally fighting alongside them. Boyle, having carefully tutored you into the statist position, is violently reversing course, and will now insist that you take up the anti-statist position. 28 Days Later has the structure of a movie arguing with itself; it is a grindhouse paradox or splattery antinomy.

This plot point—expectations established, then violated—in turn houses a rather sly visual puzzle. It’s a variant of the machete problem: That final fight is spiked with a series of uncanny shots in which it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether the hero has been infected or not, whether or not he has turned zombie.

•The camera pans slowly around an army truck, and catches the hero pressed up against its slats, still and seething, his eyes blotted out by shadow. The sound track supplies what is either a loud wheeze or a soft grunt: a growl. From this point on, we are watching a horror movie run in reverse, in which the hero is inserted into the shots typically reserved for the monsters and the soldier-villains are tricked out with all the visual conventions of victimhood.

•The hero flits past the camera, barely more than a shadow himself, which is another monster shot: two seconds borrowed from an Alien movie. And by bringing in an actual raging zombie just a little after that, the movie makes you wonder for real whether the hero hasn’t been infected, because it puts the contagion on the scene, dangerously close.

•The fight moves to the manor house, where there are two figures on the rampage: the hero and the zombie who doesn’t bake, now unchained. The hero spends the entire sequence wet, bloodied, and shirtless, his face distorting in the old building’s blown glass windows.

The eye’s confusion is actually a political test. The hero is trying to destroy the bearers of authority; our ordinary word for that is revolution. So by the end of 28 Days Later there are three positions available to the characters where earlier there were only two: 1) The savage or the terrorist; 2) the state and its protections; and now 3) the revolutionary. So in these shots the movie is posing another tough question: Is the hero zombie or human? Can you tell the difference between a savage and a revolutionary? Or more to the point: Can you tell the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary? That’s a profound question, one that has lost none of its moment.

You can also pose a version of that question from inside the revolutionary’s head. The revolutionary has to ask himself what he is doing when he unleashes his own rage or taps into the rage of other people. Can you set that violence loose, direct it, and still rein it in once it has done what you needed it to do? The movie becomes a meditation on the basic problem of revolutionary violence. And the movie doesn’t stay up in the air on this issue. It resolves the paradox by deciding, via its own writerly dictates, that you can do this—you can direct violence to good ends. It comes down on the side of the revolutionary, although revolution is depicted here as a good old-fashioned quest to rescue the maiden from the lair.

It all comes down to this: 28 Days Later, the movie that for all intents and purposes created fast zombies, was already the movie that demystified them. The subgenre stands permanently indicted by its own author and source. Boyle’s movie is not the progenitor to [REC] and Quarantine and the Dawn remake and Justin Cronin’s vampire-zombie novel The Passage; it is their accuser, the one that calls them out on their despotism and aufgehobener race-hate.

A movie that initially expends all of its ingenuity getting us to love sovereignty ends by getting us to love instead sovereignty’s overturning. And there is one more gotcha secreted away inside of that big one: Boyle is an Irish director born in England. All we have to do is keep that in mind and then think about who survives in this movie. At first, there are three adult survivors: an Englishman, a black woman, and an Irishman. The hero is Irish, though the dialogue never once pauses to remind you of this. The first word he speaks, other than “hello,” is “Fadder” — hesitantly addressed to a zombie priest, both question and greeting: “Fadder?” In fact, the actor playing the Englishman is also Irish, so he’s nearly a Dubliner in disguise. The more important point is that the movie kills him off, but then it’s already killed off all the adult English, which means that the people left to repopulate England are the Jamaican woman and the man from Cork, and that the seeds of the new nation will barely include Angles, Saxon, Normans, or anyone else who has typically kept that land in copyhold.

The Running of the Dead, Part 3



28 Days Later: The Set-Up

28 Days Later was a key moment in the history of the zombie movie—the moment when the genre reorganized itself around a taut antithesis, such that its monsters could henceforth march as the avatars either of consumerist hyper-civilization or of that civilization’s very negation, its sacking, though, of course, even Romero’s middle-class zombies were cannibals and so suggested a certain preemptive undoing of the antithesis, a welling up of savagery in the North American heartlands of consumer society, in some socialisme-ou-zombiïsme kind of way. It’s the kind of complexity at which horror movies excel, a sociohistorical rabbit-duck operation in which you can look at a figure and not be sure whether you’re seeing Martha Stewart or an Ostrogoth.

It should be easy, at any rate, to say what kind of associations the zombies carry in 28 Days Later. Boyle’s zombies are fast; that’s really all we need to know in order to guess that they’ll generate the same meanings as Snyder’s terrorist-savage dead. But we don’t have to guess; 28 Days Later comes with a decoder ring.

We know that Boyle’s zombies are terrorists, because his movie has almost exactly the same opening as the Dawn remake: video footage of riot police, Muslim street violence, European protestors getting rowdy. The movie’s sequel, meanwhile, will narrow that range of associations, arranging a full-bore Iraq War allegory in which the zombies are the insurgents.

We know that they are savage because the dialogue says as much: Late in 28 Days Later, one of the characters contemplates a zombie he’s captured and chained—for study—and says: “He’s telling me he’ll never bake bread; plant crops; raise livestock.” The movie’s idiom is overtly civilizational: Zombies, like Huns or the Inuit, are people incapable of settled life. Here, then, is a picture of these Other People, the Loaf- and Lambless:

Sociologically, of course, the correlation posited here—in the feral, careening body of the fast zombie—is bunk. Terrorists do not come from the world’s pre-agrarian populations. Hunter-gatherers do not have access to car bombs. The Taliban fund their operations by selling some entirely successful crops. But allegory can take whatever shortcuts it likes; bundling is one of its great tricks … so the Khoi-San Al-Qaeda it is … the Arctic Circle Hezbollah. And to this already doubtful pairing, 28 Days Later will add a third term, since the movie’s initial villains—or not villains, exactly, but the fuck-ups who precipitate the great catastrophe—are animal-rights activists, the stupid Left, which doesn’t understand animality, doesn’t understand violence, doesn’t understand “rage”—the movie’s key word, that one—doesn’t understand the dangers of freedom. The Left doesn’t understand that if one breaks down too many barriers, everything will spin out of control. Such is the alliance that the movie brings into view and demands that we fear, the standing threat to our ordinary lives: angry Muslims, obtuse student-activist types, and Hottentots.

But then we’ll also want to say what counts as “our ordinary lives.” Just what is it that these aboriginal suicide-bombers and their hippie dupes are out to destroy? Dystopian science fiction typically forces us to imagine the totalitarian thickening of some institution or another—either the state or corporate capitalism or the corporate-capitalist state—but zombie movies are in this respect oddly like utopias in that they are more interested in subtraction, in what society would look like if one peeled away this or that seemingly basic thing. 28 Days Later begins, accordingly, with a long sequence in which we are asked to contemplate a world from which various institutions have vanished.

The end of the family: Very early on, the movie shows a large, street-side message board, entirely papered over with flyers, Xeroxed photographs, hand-drawn pleas to the missing, all clearly modeled on the post-traumatic Litfaßsäulen of Manhattan. And the last flap of paper we see tacked up to this 9/11-wall is a child’s drawing, something that looks a lot like art therapy for abused kids: A scrawled house, two stick figures in pools of paraffin blood, as though Crayola had begun marketing a crayon called “major artery,” and the blocky caption: MommyDaddy.

The end of religion: The first place the movie’s hero seeks refuge is a church, which is also the first place he is attacked by zombies.

The end of Britain: As the hero wanders through the abandoned streets, he steps over scattered heaps of Union Jacks and Big Ben souvenirs. Those patriotic icons catch the eye, but the negative space around them is just as important, since the emptied-out city has become a commonplace of the New Zombie Movie, the visual summation of its various excisions and sociopolitical loppings: the major metropolis as ghost town. For a production company, that’s an expensive stillness to get on film, laborious to stage even in morning’s early, pre-commuter light. And it’s a little bit of a red herring all the same, since movies like 28 Days Later don’t trust cities to begin with. “It started as rioting,” is how one of the characters recounts the zombie outbreak. “Except it was different this time, because it was happening in villages. It was happening in market towns.” It’s the phrase “this time” that we’ll want to pause over, suggesting as it does that the fast zombies had precedence, but only in the cities. London and Manchester have always housed the Furies. What is new is the extension of Brixton tumult into the shires and the B&Bs. The dead, when angry, will make of any city a Baghdad, and of any hamlet a city.

If you’ve gotten even this far into 28 Days Later, fifteen or twenty minutes, you no longer even need to read Hobbes. The movie has already spared you that effort. But the clearest Hobbsean moment in the film comes just a few minutes later, when a guerrilla band of human survivors is breaking the very bad news to the movie’s hero and Rip Van Winkle, who was in a coma and so slept through the Fall of Civilization.

Hero: What about the government? What are they doing?

Survivor: There’s no government.

Hero: What do you mean? Of course there’s a government. There’s always a government.

The oddly pungent quality of that exchange—the thing that pushes it decisively over into Hobbes’s territory—is the sense of complacency in what the hero says: “There’s always a government.” The movie wants to snap you out of your usual blithe confidence in the government as the sun-that-will-always-rise. It wants you to stop taking the government for granted. That is how a movie can give you a crash course in seventeenth-century political philosophy, at least at the level of your gut. Fast-zombie movies offer up emotional lessons in Hobbesean thought, forcing you to contemplate the state of nature more effectively than Hobbes ever managed to, simply by bringing it to life before your eyes. The idea, I think, is that once you have had to play that scenario out in your heads—life without government—then you should learn to love government, love the government that promises to keep you safe, love it deep down, learn to feel grateful for it, learn not to question it, because you have had to imagine how sad you would be if it were gone. Occasionally, a young woman catches herself daydreaming about someone really close to her dying—not because she wishes it—not at all—but because she is compulsively rehearsing in her head how terrible the loss would be. So she envisions, despite herself, that her boyfriend is dead, and then she rushes over to the living boy and surprises him by saying: I love you so much! 28 Days Later is like that, except it’s the government who has died in the daydream’s car crash or cancer bed. The movie opens up for you the morbid headspace to mourn the government, even though we currently still have one.