Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture
(University of Illinois Press)
US: Mar 2017
In her new critical study, Zombies, Migrants, and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture, Camilla Fojas surveys a vast terrain of US popular culture—including movies, television shows, advertising, memoirs, and novels— to analyze, historicize, and theorize the representations of “vulnerable populations”, including migrant workers, incarcerated and institutionalized subjects, trans/queer individuals, and people of color in the age of neoliberalism. As Fojas insightfully and importantly argues, these vulnerable subjects, frequently at the margins of mainstream US narratives, are complex signifiers that help specify the monstrous neoliberal order, and moreover, signifiers of revolutionary possibilities.
Fojas explores mass-mediated representations of such vulnerable populations during the (dis)order of neoliberalism, the current chapter of capitalism in which economic vulnerability is widespread and financial debt is pervasive and suffocating for all. While this capitalist order has been destructive for decades, in 2008, the bottom fell out. One of the many gifts of Fojas’s critical study is how the Great Recession, in particular, profoundly marks and shapes popular American culture, engendering new capitalist narratives and metaphorics, including, most prominently, the “storyform” of “freefall”.
In contrast to previous chapters of capitalist development in which the illusion of class stability is maintained, one of the defining features of neoliberalism is that all capitalist subjects—even the super rich—either experience or feel that they are on the precipice of experiencing a freefall. In this new capitalist order, no one is secure or stable. This widely shared experience of precarity, as Fojas argues, can be witnessed across a wide-range of American popular culture throughout the neoliberal era, such as Arrested Development (about the economic freefall of a once wealthy real estate family), Breaking Bad (about the economic freefall of a teacher), and Weeds (about the economic freefall of a wealthy widow who lives in a giant suburban home).
And yet, in all of these examples, the protagonists are able to bounce back and recover. Not coincidentally, all these protagonists are white. As Fojas argues, one of the most dominant story forms developed during the Great Recession is the ability of white protagonists to recover and even profit from an economic freefall. For example, as Fojas explores, Piper Kerman, the author of Orange is the New Black, used her experience in prison to procure “new knowledge” which became the basis of her memoir and her deal with Netflix. As Fojas analyzes, when white protagonists experience economic freefall, they are forced into communities they would otherwise never experience in hyper-segregated America and they learn to profit from such experiences.
As Orange is the New Black exemplifies, the seemingly neutral category of neoliberalism remains a form of “racial capitalism”. And here is where Zombies, Migrants, and Queers becomes extraordinary. While the popular culture explored by Fojas may be familiar to many, her reading practice is stunning, focusing on individuals marginalized within American popular culture and historicizing and theorizing their complex social positions and lifeworlds. For example, in her chapter “Migrant Domestics and the Fictions of Imperial Capitalism”, Fojas focuses on The Real Housewives of New York City (Bravo 2008-) and The Queen of Versailles (2012) . Although both shows foreground wealthy white protagonists, Fojas follows and analyzes the Filipina domestic workers whose labor is essential to the maintenance and reproduction of the wealth on-screen. Rather than remaining within the frame of popular culture, Fojas traverses beyond such artificial borders to detail the imperial, racist history that has enabled a global system that racializes, feminizes, and essentializes Filipina labor.
One of the intellectual strengths of Fojas’ book is how she consistently surprises in historicizing and theorizing neoliberalism. For example, Fojas traces how Count de Lesseps, the wealthy husband mostly off-screen on the Bravo show that fetishizes housewives, “earns” his wealth as co-owner of a large investment firm that was central to expanding microfinancing to developing countries. This becomes an opportunity for Fojas to puncture the illusion of charity and goodwill that ideologically animates microfinancing. As Fojas argues, this new form of financialization preys on women in the developing world and thrusts them into a structure of debt pervasive in the developed world. Rather than wealthy financial firms investing in developing countries—a social relation that doesn’t expect any form of payback—such firms have found a new market to exploit and entrap individuals within a system of endless debt. This recent market expansion is predicated on essentialized ideas about women (dependable, responsible, predictable) and follows an imperial logic that attempts to mask its imperial identity through the language of benevolent paternalism.
The conceptual complexity of Fojas’ book is evident throughout and signified by its title, Zombies, Migrants, and Queers. To recognize migrants and queers as vulnerable populations fits within established paradigms of progressive thinking. What throws this configuration off balance, though, is the third term: “zombies”. This configuration encapsulates Fojas’ synthesizing method of bringing together diverse and disparate texts, and moreover, it gestures towards Fojas’ strength of recognizing and elaborating upon the important theoretical energies embodied by metaphoric figures such as zombies.
In the chapter, “Zombie Capitalism: Night of the Living Debt”, for example, Fojas reads the zombie as an “overarching metaphor” for understanding “the destructiveness of capitalism through debt, indebtedness, and forms of indentured servitude”. In the chapter, Fojas reads multiple zombie texts, including The Walking Dead (2010-), World War Z (2013), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Land of the Dead (2005) in relation to various theories on debt and the formation of the “indebted man”, including David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years) and Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man). In the age of neoliberalism, zombies are no longer signifiers of a revolutionary class, but rather, metaphoric monsters that give form to the anxieties and fears experienced by millions of working-class Americans drowning in life-crushing debt.
In conjunction with her rich, insightful critiques, Fojas also finds moments of resistance in popular culture and teases out the seeds of revolution that make her study both a critique and possible guide beyond the monstrous present. For example, while looking at various prison memoirs and television shows, Fojas writes, “While the prison system is a consequence of capitalism and a major part of its machinery, the narrative production of the prison space accords with a vision of a different social order”. It is a space, Fojas elaborates, of “queer” possibilities that refuses the hierarchical relations intrinsic to capitalism’s “heteropatriarchal”, racial order, and a space where new social relations and imaginaries are practiced.
Despite such glimpsed utopian possibilities, Fojas illustrates how popular US culture remains complicit in maintaining and perpetuating the dominant neoliberal order. My one critique is that Fojas predominately analyzes corporate cultural productions from the heart of the US empire. I wish such a brilliant thinker and writer turned her attention to texts from smaller production companies engaging in the necessary critical and creative work that the corporate-cultural industry refuse to underwrite. Still, for understanding the tragedies engendered by neoliberal capitalism and how such tragedies become narrated and symbolized in popular culture, Fojas’s book remains essential.
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