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One of the many carnivalesque aspects of consumer society is the popular fascination — and fashion — oriented around various types of monsters. As with previous groups that rebelled via a parodic inversion against the regulatory demands of official culture — such as hippies in the 1960s, skinheads in the 1980s and the occasional cyborg in the 1990s — today’s zombie and vampire enthusiasts present themselves in opposition to mainstream, bourgeois style, costume and aesthetics.
Academic research on this type of social phenomena tends to focus on its Global Northern manifestations as opposed to its Southern ones, and emphasizes its cultural significance rather than its economic conditions. In contrast to the norm, David McNally, a professor in the Political Science department at York University in Toronto, has written an excellent book — Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism — that approaches the topic from a more comprehensive framework. Unlike other works of “monsterology,” he links the production of meaning with the economic mode of production while also researching its manifestations across the world: the book looks at popular and literary resistance to anatomists in 19th-century England — captured in texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — as well as vampire and zombie tales in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. McNally contends that stories about monsters are modern fables that express the apprehension around corporeal deformation in societies where the commercialization of the body and craft are pervasive.
One of the book’s most interesting inquiries concerns African zombies and vampires in the era of globalization. The section presents the reader with a number of evocative anecdotes especially from Nigeria: tales of abduction in which the blood of children is transformed into medicine that produces riches, voodoo-horror films that explain wealth inequality, and stories of commuters on motorcycle-taxis who mutate into zombies that vomit money. McNally comments that vampires and zombies are linked images, with the former representing the subject who might turn us into its object and the latter embodying the possibility that we might already be objects of greater forces. The zombie, for McNally, generally symbolizes the social dread that overarching economic imperatives will transform us all into the living dead; for example, the zombie-labourer is a persistent image in sub-Saharan Africa. McNally notes that reports of vampires and blood-sucking only emerged in the world’s most exploited continent in the 20th century and he argues that these accounts are attempts at explaining capitalism’s forced entry into African societies.
Monsters of the Market is well worth reading: it demonstrates that the marginalized — those who inevitably become the misshapen — have a long history across different cultures of articulating narratives of resistance to the various modes of night thrown up by a pitiless global system.
Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.
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