This review of Annalee Newitz’s book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters In American Pop Culture appeared in issue 124 of the academic journal Media International Australia in August 2007.
Newitz, Annalee, Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Duke University Press, Durham, 2006, ISBN 0-8223-3745-2, 232 pp., US$21.50.
It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes at the sight of another book about allegory in horror. But despite taking its title from a song by 90s grrl-grunge band L7, Annalee Newitz’s engagingly written and accessible Pretend We’re Dead takes a very different approach to the feminist psychoanalysis of such benchmark studies as Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine and Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws. In an explicitly Marxist analysis, Newitz has her sights set on capitalism.
At their least thoughtful, pop-culture texts of this sort revel in the intellectual gymnastics of squeezing cultural significance from a topic without explaining why it even merits critical attention. Readers are left with the uncomfortable suspicion that the author is first and foremost a fan. Pleasingly, Newitz skewers from the outset why she’s looking at monster stories, and why capitalism. As she explains, “capitalist monsters embody to the contradictions of a culture where making a living often feels like dying” (2). If capital means the symbolic death of individual freedom and sociability to the point where we willingly sacrifice life’s pleasures simply to earn money – then capitalist monsters literalise the idea that as workers, we “pretend we’re dead in order to live” (6). And unlike the ghosts and demons of other countries, the fantastical creatures imagined by American popular culture reflect that in the United States, capital is not only an economic logic but also a moral framework.
To elaborate, Newitz deftly assembles a mass of ostensibly unlikely case studies. Chapters are devoted to serial killers who treat murder as work, mad doctors who dramatise the loss of intellectual property among the professional class, the undead as a reflection of race relations, robots as love slaves, and the monsters that the culture industries create – both among media producers and audiences. Analysing literature as well as cinema affords a far richer terrain than cinema alone, both chronologically and thematically, and yields some surprising and rewarding conclusions. Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage may not immediately seem like a serial killer narrative, nor notoriously racist Klan film Birth of a Nation like a zombie flick, but Newitz mounts convincing and provocative arguments for these and many more texts.
This said, the book could have worked just as well with fewer case studies. Novels and films were mentioned, plots sketched and slots found for them in Newitz’s thesis with such frequency that at times I suspected it was done as a kind of intellectual sleight-of-hand – if we’d been permitted to consider them a little longer, we might have questioned their relevance. The final chapter on mass media monsters, in particular, was conceptually dense enough to have merited a book of its own. It sat a little oddly with the other material, which focused on corporeal and mental monstrosity. An additional and relatively minor gripe is that I would have liked a release date in brackets after the first mention of each text – such consistency would help orient the reader.
But on the whole, Pretend We’re Dead is a thoughtful and well-argued critique of capitalist fantasies that does not content itself with pessimism and hand-wringing. Rather, it shows how American pop culture can also conjure “hopeful” monsters who reveal social and economic paths to a more human future.