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Recurring Cultural Work of the Gothic and Zombie Fiction

Recurring Cultural Work of the Gothic and Zombie Fiction
© Photograph by Manu Head

I would argue that it is no accident of history or coincidence that these two cultural artefacts, whilst wildly separate in time and space, seem to share a commonality: according to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses) (1996), we can “understand cultures through the monsters they bear”, but why are the monsters so similar when the cultural, geographical and temporal locations are so different? I will demonstrate how analogous points in global economic patterns bear similar cultural production and thus can be better understood by my drawing parallels between them, here in a case study of the Gothic genre.

Comparative literary and cultural studies are in a state of crisis: ordering and classifying materials by period, language, region, and so on proves unsatisfying for theorists such as Franco Moretti.

Franco Moretti calls the traditional practice of examining texts “close reading” (Conjectures on World Literature (2000) which, whilst still a reasonable enough method of managing literature, it “necessarily depends on an extremely small canon… [where] you invest… in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter” (Conjectures 162).

How do we decide which texts “really matter” while others do not? The world literature debate, or world-systems perspective, from which Moretti and others like him are writing places this erasure and canonisation within the context of a competitive (cultural) market, and thus offers a theoretical perspective by which we can evaluate cultural production.

Franco Moretti suggests instead performing a “distance reading: where distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems” (Conjectures 162). It is the project of this discussion to continue and refine the process which Moretti sets out in Graphs, Maps and Trees – Abstract Models for Literary History (2005) where he tries “to imagine what would happen if we… shifted our focus from exceptional texts to ‘the large mass of [literary] facts’”, focusing on Moretti’s model of “quantitative history”. Franco Moretti understands that literary history is “a collective system, that should be grasped… as a whole” and thus uses graph drawing as a way of developing a “quantitative approach to literature”. Moretti notices that genres rise in popularity with some regularity, and then disappear again when they have “outlived its artistic usefulness”. Moretti acknowledges that the popularity of genres is subject to how “the internal composition of the market changes”. Moretti goes on to identify how “the [cycle] has remained somewhat unexplored by literary historians…”.

A crucial point: however, he notices that “(almost) all genres… seem to arise and disappear together according to some hidden rhythm,” a rhythm which seems to allude him other than an informed conjecture on generations of readers accounting for a regular change in generic popularity. However, Moretti says “‘generation’ is itself a very questionable concept”. Moretti’s model almost works here: he realises that he must “abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, to explain figures”, whilst also realising that “‘a generation [can be understood as]… a concrete bond… between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of… a process of dynamic destabilization”. If one were to combine the notion of cycles, with analysis which attends to how the form and content are bolstering or subverting historically specific ideologies, then reading this way would work. However, what we resolve them is to read by periodising, which of course is exactly what Moretti is resisting: instead, I would make a few alterations.

I would ask instead why one would consider genre as a single phase, why not look at “not just one of its phases, but for a cycle of one genre reappearing in different iterations? Or rather, if there is the possibility of cycles within literary history then I wish to make the case for understanding the work of genre across several analogous moments in history. Perhaps the same genre does not appear exactly, but the cultural work genres do across analogous moments in time (economic cycles here are one way of organising history) may prove analogous also. As Moretti writes: “it is fascinating to see how researchers are convinced that they are all describing something unique (the gender shift, the elevation of the novel, [etc]… ) whereas in all likelihood they are all observing the same comet that keeps crossing and recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle”.

How to decide which moments are analogous goes hand in hand with which generic form to observe. First, genre: Moretti talks about the rise of the Gothic, he categorises the genre as one which is published almost exclusively between around 1790 until 18302. However, a recent trip to the British Library’s exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (2014) suggested otherwise, a wall placard read: “the final decades on the 19th century heralded a dark renaissance in Gothic fiction. The 1880s and 1890s…” saw Gothic fiction return. Why is there a discrepancy between which time period best describes the Gothic period, or at least why does Moretti not acknowledge the renaissance of cultural forms? A glib answer is that it problematises several of Moretti’s drawn graphs, a better one is that he is more interested in the rise and fall of forms than their reappearance. Instead, I will demonstrate that reading why forms reappear will make their cultural purpose clear.

The Gothic genre’s appeal is that it can be regarded as one of the most morphological. One may be familiar with the variety of sub-genres: the family Gothic, the romantic Gothic, Gothic horror, and even the Imperial Gothic according to Patrick Brantlinger (Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880-1914 (1988)). This morphology tells us something important about the nature of the Gothic itself: the second thesis of Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses) is that “the monster always escapes… we see the damage the monster wreaks… but the monster itself turns immaterial and vanishes to reappear someplace else” (4). Although Cohen is discussing the monsters which might appear in the Gothic, I would argue that this can be applied to the genre itself. Among scholars of the Gothic a notion of Gothic’s contingency on historically specific social fears seems to be the consensus: Mark Madoff writes that Gothic “flourished in response to current anxieties and desires, taking its mythic substance from their objects…” (The Useful Myth of Gothic Ancestry (1979) 28).

We note that the Gothic is contingent on the subjectivity of its audience, and is functional in the ways it conjures fear, yet, it appears in partially rearranged forms at least twice as we have 5 seen so far. Are these the only moments? I would argue no: firstly, the Gothic genre was an appeal to a medieval and Renaissance past (Terror and Wonder), as Barbara W. Tuchman writes in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978) “the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man,” (123) thus it makes sense to consider the medieval origins of the genre. Moreover, some criticisms of the Gothic put one in mind of a more modern phenomenon: the zombie horror. Take for example Madoff’s notion that the Gothic attempts to answer “two crucial questions: What was the previous state of society? What is the essential, primal condition of man?” (27). Another, Brantlinger states that “Gothic expresses anxieties… about the ease with which civilization can revert to barbarism or savagery” (235). It would be easy to mistake these for anxieties which zombie fiction confronts. This works the other way also: Kyle William Bishop in Zombie Gothic – The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (2010) advocates for “the place zombie narratives… have in the Gothic literary tradition” (6). Bishop goes on to note how “wars, natural disasters, financial crises, and other political and social tragedies affect cultural consciousness,” (9) a list which echoes Graham-Dixon’s anxieties of the Georgian and Victorian Gothic detailed by BBC television documentary series The Art of Gothic (2014): “it is no coincidence that Gothic marked a midnight moment in British history, when all kinds of terrors were going bump in the night: abroad – revolution in France, at home – new industry with its dark satanic mills, new science – with its Frankenstien menace”. It is easy to read zombie fiction as Gothic: indeed, the first zombie film which moves away from its Haitian voodoo beginnings popularising the modern zombie genre in America, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), plays obvious homage to the Victorian Gothic. Filmed in black and white the film begins in a graveyard, a staple of the Gothic. Barbra, whom we follow, wilts towards an abandoned house: the house itself frightens her as much as, if not more than, the “ghouls”. The house, although reasonably sized and situated in America signifies the aristocratic English mansion one might see in Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre (1847): deer heads and animal skins are mounted on the walls, there are dark imposing wood furnishings, including an out of place grandiose fireplace; she accidentally stumbles upon a music box with secret panels, harking to the dark secrets kept in the ornate castles of Gothic fiction. Whether these are conscious homages or not, Romero brings the Gothic into the American consciousness. Zombies, as opposed to other Gothic ghouls, have a quality which makes them pertinent to current popular cultural needs, and the needs of the 1960s, a need which we will examine.

A necessary alteration must be made to Moretti’s approach to investigate the cultural work the Gothic is doing, whereby we use the history of the market to decide which moments are analogous, as there is a sign of how “internal composition of the market changes” (Moretti Graphs – 1 71). For this discussion, I will use Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Time (1994). Arrighi’s use of ‘Long Centuries and Systemic Cycles of Accumulation’, one notices, falls rather neatly over the moments where the Gothic appears (see Figure 2 (Arrighi’s ‘Figure 10’)). The Gothic appears at four distinct moments3: the mid-to-late 1700s at its conception, in the midst of where Arrighi places the overlap between the “Long 17th Century” and the “Long 19th Century”, then in the Victorian Renaissance around the end of the 1800s, between the “Long 19th Century” and the “Long 20th Century” (Figure 2). It then reappears in the zombie form at the beginning of the “US Systemic Cycle of Accumulation” which, according to Arrighi, begins in 1968 (301): the exact year Night of the Living Dead was released. Finally, the zombie renaissance in the last few decades, perhaps indicating, although not detailed by Arrighi, a time of economic shift and turbulence.

David McNally writes in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2011) that “we live in an age of monsters and of the body-panics, they excite. The global economic crisis that broke over the world in 2008–9 certainly gave an exclamation-mark to this claim… seemingly endless numbers of…zombie films and novels flooded the market. As banks collapsed… and millions were thrown out of work” (1). What makes these moments analogous, Arrighi writes, is that these periods are “phases of discontinuous change during which growth along the established path has attained or is attaining its limits, and the capitalist world-economy “shifts” through radical restructurings and reorganizations onto another path” (9). In other words, the conditions of social order are in flux in these moments, where one way of existing, making money, and possibly cultural consciousness must be abandoned and replaced with a new one. Bishop notes that “… the frequency of these movies has noticeably increased during periods of social and political unrest… The initial wave of zombie films… reveals imperialist anxieties associated with colonialism and slavery,” (13) dealing with similar imperialist anxieties that the Victorians were facing. Arrighi demonstrates an overlap in cycles of accumulation, which is a way, in this discussion, of using financial data to show the dissonance between generational cultural differences4. Terror and Wonder demonstrated that “Gothic dealt imaginatively with… the younger generation attempting to free itself from the constraints and injustices of the past”. Moretti nearly picks up on the relevance of this when he notices that genre is “historically specific: amorous epistolary fiction being ill-equipped to capture the traumas of the revolutionary years, say—and gothic novels being particularly good at it” (82). So why not, then, cast one’s gaze across moments of revolution (in both the socio-political sense and the revolution of a cycle of culture)? By using analogous moments we can analyse the cultural work (similar) genres are doing at similar moments, which for all they may be short-lived could become clearer because, to turn back to the beginning of Moretti’s argument, we would have “shifted our focus… ‘[a larger] mass of [literary] facts’” (67).

In this case Arrighi’s cycles are a useful way of looking at the patterns that Moretti picks up on, however, Moretti found that “quantification poses the problem, then, and form offers the solution…. if you are lucky” (Moretti Graphs – 1 86). Thus, we turn back to the genre to reveal the cultural work at times of “discontinuous change” (Arrighi 9).

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