‘In The Flesh’ Of The Poisonous Gothic Medical Culture

‘In The Flesh’ Of The Poisonous Gothic Medical Culture
Copyright © Photograph by Elisanth

The Gothic seems to be a strong currency in the neoliberal era. Since the mid-1990s, and certainly with the success of series like ‘The Walking Dead,’ and ‘American Horror Story,’ or the more art-house ‘Les Revenants’ and ‘In the Flesh’ — for all their differences — there has been a recognizable surge in narratives about monstrous figures and spectral apparitions in film, television, graphic novels, literature, and music. In a series of articles and in a forthcoming volume, ‘International Gothic in the Neoliberal Age,’ (2017) British critic Linnie Blake has linked the current wave of Gothic productivity to the series of “dislocations that free market economics have inflicted in our own, global-imperial age” and the “trauma wrought to global ecology, society, and selves by the vicissitudes of post-1970s global capitalism”. According to her powerful reading, if Gothic matters today, it is because it is preoccupied with matters of direct political economic relevance to contemporary audiences. In short, the Gothic is omnipresent because it articulates “collective anxieties over resisting and embracing change in the twenty-first-century.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that zombies, vampires, monsters, and ghosts seem to be everywhere in the cultural production of the present day; neoliberal technologies of everyday life appear to be monstrous, Gothic formations in and of themselves, with biotechnology and organ transplant technologies generating new and confusing states and definitions of living and dying, new vampiric economies of organ and biological trade, and new categories of prosthetic and surgical monstrosity versus normality. This is suggestive on the one hand of a link between fictions in the Gothic mode and the material reality from which these texts emerge and are anchored, but it also asks serious questions about the status of the Gothic and Gothic Studies itself today, as there appears to be a migration into and out of Gothic’s once familiar generic and symbolic modes of representation: neoliberal biopolitics and political economy seemingly emerge through uncanny narratives of their own. This is suggestive of a proximity between neoliberal reality and Gothic’s fictional representations which challenge traditional understandings of the Gothic as a mode of cultural representation.

“Gothic Matters” — as the matters of the Gothic — implies what critics have understood to be the relationship between fiction and reality; these matters include a range of issues, the programmatic core of which has comprised — at least according to the discipline of Gothic Studies that has developed since the early 1980s — a critical, and indeed subversive, depiction and radical interrogation of the rationally-based assumptions, envisioned goals and normative dimensions of the twin projects of enlightenment and modernity. The fantastic and grotesque scenarios of Gothic fictions have been construed as mattering because their poisonous mechanisms generate social health by undoing dominant cultural and political narratives as a sly form of cultural therapeutics. Almost from the outset, how Gothic relates to its social environment has been discussed in material terms, concrete matters, and one notable medium in this regard has been pharmacological discourse.

On a thematic level, pharmaceuticals and poisons are a central concern within the Gothic around 1800; narratives such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ or Ann Radcliffe’s novels deploy medicines, drugs, poisoning, and intoxication as some of their most powerful plot devices. While a larger project on Gothic pharmacology would be an interesting topic for future study — and would proceed, for example, through the nineteenth-century and Thomas Penson De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (1821) and Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ (1886) continuing on to look at the psychotic worlds in William Seward Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959) or Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’ (1991) in the twentieth-century — it is notable that several recently successful Gothic graphic novels, films, and television series likewise focus on pharmaceutics as the core of their engagement with contemporary culture. The first film in the ‘Resident Evil’ series starts with an infective agent produced by the shady pharmaceutical concern, the Umbrella Corporation; Channel 4’s ‘Utopia’ is based around a pharmaceutical conspiracy involving not only a pseudo-inoculation which actually racially controls the population by inducing infertility, but also a form of medication for a nervous disorder known as Deel’s Syndrome called Thyroxine which is later revealed to be an opiate causing the symptoms it is purported to control.

Finally, Dominick Mitchell’s ‘In the Flesh’ features a form of medication, Nortriptyline, which reintroduces a state of consciousness into the zombified living dead, returning them to a state of quasi-normality. What these very different Gothic medications and stories have in common is their position within a network of complex biopolitical, economic, psychological, and biomedical issues which are located within a framework of capitalism, with their narratives focusing on the infiltration of political regimes of health by damaging practices of neoliberal privatization and profiteering. They are instances of what Glennis Byron has observed in relation to contemporary discourses of globalization, namely that the processes of expansion and ultimately globalization of neoliberal ideology are “facilitating […] cultural exchanges that [are] producing new forms of Gothic.” The remainder of this article will trace such Gothic cultural exchanges through the lens of pharmacology as a key part of the architecture of neoliberalism.

As the defining political and economic paradigm in the West since the mid-1970s, neoliberalism describes a series of processes whereby free-market policies, privatization, financial deregulation and speculation, and corporate enterprise over government-led decision-making seem apparently without an alternative. Emerging from the Chicago School of economics, first tested in the business — and military — dominated Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte regime in 1970s Chile, and associated primarily in the United States of America and the United Kingdom with Ronald Wilson Reagan and Margaret Hilda Thatcher, neoliberalism holds that if the economy is deregulated, competitive, rational, efficient and fair, then it will produce largesse for all. One key precondition must be met: a supposedly incompetent and bureaucratic government must dismantle all elements of public life that could interfere with corporate practices, including taxation, social welfare, public education, and public health; matters such as resources, production, distribution and social organization will be most effectively determined by market forces if the government would only limit itself to providing legal protection for private property and contracts — all of which of course has actually better serviced the drive for personal profit and the concentration of wealth over any benevolent social programmes.

Promising trickle-down benefits for all through a supposedly efficient free-market while actually rendering a vast proportion of normal mortals into human waste of Dickensian proportions — debtors, exploited workers, medically pacified hordes of clinically depressed and hyperactive consumers, damaged bodies, and damaged youth — the excesses of corporate expansionism negate the cynical promise of a benevolent invisible hand while handing out little more than debt and mortgages, resulting in “the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all.”

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