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August 23-29, 2006

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Grads and Monsters

By Gary Singh


I FIRST MET Annalee Newitz in the summer of 1997 while working on a few crazed treatises in grad school at SJSU. Computer Science professor and science fiction novelist Rudy Rucker sat on my committee, and after I complained to him that no one would listen to all my crazy ideas, he told me to contact Newitz. She had recently interviewed Rucker for her online magazine, Bad Subjects, so he kicked me in her general direction.

"So I'm the one that's supposed to be receptive to all your crazy ideas?" she said over the phone.

"I guess so," I answered.

So I drove my 1970 Plymouth up to Berkeley, where she was working on her Ph.D. dissertation on images of monsters, psychopaths and capitalism in 20th-century American pop culture. Over coffee, we talked about resisting the power of late capitalism by engaging in shadow tactics of ridicule and anonymity inspired by the 19th-century East Indian strangulation cult, the Thugs, in their resistance to authoritarian British colonial rule. Since the Thugs would engage in human sacrifice for the goddess Kali, I suggested using human sacrifice as a metaphor for artistic expression via transgressive ridicule in cyberspace, and Newitz turned me on to René Girard's Violence and the Sacred, a fantastic exploration of the alliance between violence and religion. I still have the notes and flow charts she drew during that conversation. They contain boxes and arrows showing me how to focus the ridicule I was attempting to express in that particular essay. It was precisely this sequence of events—a series of conversations with Rucker and then one with Newitz—that pretty much made me want to be a writer. Yep, it's all their fault.

Why am I weaving this lurid yarn? Because Newitz just published a new book about monsters, apparently the result of her original Ph.D. work. Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture argues that the slimy killers and zombies who grace us with their presence in slasher flicks exemplify the brutal contradictions of capitalist culture. She takes example after example from over a century's worth of film creatures and uses them to contend that our capitalist culture turns every single one of us into absolute monsters. It's an academic work, but not so much as to render it unreadable for the masses.

Here's a morsel from the introduction: "In this book, I deal with five types of monsters: serial killers, mad doctors, the undead, robots, and people involved in the media industry." That alone should tell you all you need to know. Newitz supplies a completely unique analysis, one that should elicit the attention of economists, anthropologists, cinema freaks and serial killers alike. Who else would take F. W. Taylor's methods of rationalizing the labor process—where each part of the body functions by itself to perform some routine factory task—and apply it to autonomous decapitated body parts in the movie Re-Animator?

It doesn't stop there. In the last chapter, she assails the producers and consumers of mass media and declares them hideous monsters: "We find countless stories about how producers, actors, and directors become cruel demigods; how fans are reduced to mindless zombies who live only to consume mass culture or obey its commands; and even how pop narratives gain the monstrous power to suck people inside their dangerous, fictional realms."

With a book like this, just perusing the bibliography is gratifying in itself. The sheer variety of resources Newitz turned to for this thing is impressive indeed. Who would have imagined seeing The Red Badge of Courage in the same bibliography as Michael Heim's The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace? Rudy Rucker even makes an appearance in the chapter on robots, rightfully so. Newitz discusses his original cyberpunk novel Software, which came out, ugh, 26 years ago. To celebrate the release of Pretend We're Dead, I considered sending Rucker an email with the subject line, "You, me and Annalee," but that sounded too much like a country song, so I abandoned the endeavor.


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