The metaphorical life

From anti-capitalist zombies to existentialist New Orleans, this week’s world of arts brings allegor

Zombies and Brains: The un-dead and the well-read

The living dead are back in cinemas across the UK, bringing a new onslaught of films about flesh-eating zombies and the unintended consequences of scientific experimentation.

First, zombies terrorise a small town in Texas after an experimental biological weapon is accidentally released from a remote US military base in Planet Terror, released in the UK tonight, on 9 November.

Then a few weeks from now we’ll see the UK premiere of I Am Legend on 19 December (with the national release on 4 January). In this film a biological war leaves Will Smith the lone survivor destined to battle against a breed of mutants.

I love zombie films, but perhaps not as much I love the critics who over-intellectualise these flicks as paranoid allegories for capitalism’s automatons who trawl the strip malls of our consumerist culture like the zombies in Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead.

Yes, it’s true that Marx once called the capitalist system "vampire-like," evoking images of blood-sucking middle-managers preying on the working class.

But the intellectual elite seem to have run away with their metaphors, descending deeper and deeper into the theoretical esoteric of the "politico-aesthetic."

Curl up with one of Amazon’s "10 Best Zombie Flicks" and a copy of Mute magazine’s excessively theoretical article Zombie Nation, and see for yourself if the zombie sub-genre is truly a radical satire of capitalists devouring themselves (the ultimate in consumption!).

Meanwhile, the most radical consequence of pop culture’s devouring obsession with zombies is more likely the surprising proliferation of "Zombie walks."

Sprouting up around the world and mixing cultural critique with flash-mob style, Zombie walks – where people dress up like zombies and gather for marches and rallies of the un-dead – have kicked off from New York and Boston to London and Amsterdam.

Check out a video of London’s Zombie Walk from Leicester Square in August 2007. Also, see www.brains4zombies, the parody of Amazon that is "Your online home for Brains and Brain-Related Products."

Related

The web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece on Reason.com this February on "We the Living Dead: The Convoluted Politics of Zombie Cinema."

Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, 2005

"Cowardice, Complicity and the Withering of the Soul of America," Zombie Nation in Counterpunch, 2 November

Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

As US authorities scurry to the rescue of their beloved Golden State, recently scorched by epic forest fires, residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward are still waiting – for their homes to be rebuilt, for their streets to be repaved, and for their neighbourhoods to be repaired and repopulated.

And as the government takes care of their Hollywood stars, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has arrived in New Orleans.

As the time drags on without reprieve, residents of the city will see free, outdoor performances of Godot this weekend. New York’s Creative Time and the Classical Theatre of Harlem are behind the production.

A play with a history of radical performances, Waiting for Godot has been repeatedly staged at San Quentin Prison in California since 1957. Then, in 1976 a mixed-race production was staged in apartheid South Africa, and in 1993 Susan Sontag staged it in wartime Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, the Beckett-acolyte Tom Stoppard’s newest play Rock ‘n’ Roll– about 1960s Czechoslovakia, socialism, and the Plastic People of the Universe – is up on Broadway in New York.

The political possibilities of theatre are then further explored in London this month with the production of The Lady of Burma (on from 7 Nov – 2 Dec at Riverside Studios), about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratically-elected leader of Burma currently under house arrest in her country, amid the unfolding crisis.

Related

NPR’s story on the New Orleans’ productions of Godot

Anthony Minghella on Beckett in New Statesman

Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty, has workers waiting for Lefty, the union’s elected chairman, who never comes.

Bollywood does Dostoevsky

Tonight’s newest Bollyood blockbuster, Saawariya, is based on Dostoevsky’s short story "White Nights".

A love story about a chance encounter between an itinerant musician and a worker in the city’s red-light district, the romantic musical opens in the UK 9 November just in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

But it’s not the first time Bollywood has tackled European classics -- recall the industry’s adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Bride and Prejudice), where "the Bennet family becomes the Bakshis and Mr Darcy becomes a wealthy American." Bollywood has also done numbers on everything from Fight Club to Othello (Omkara) and Macbeth (Maqbool).

See India’s national newspaper, The Hindu on "Shakespeare in Bollywood."

Part of a much larger theme, Bollywood’s adaptations of Western literature and film echoes the similar experience of West Africa, where Greek tragedy in particular has become a model and inspiration for African playwrights. Favourites include: Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Uripides and Sylvain Bemba’s Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone.

Related

The BBC on "Are Bollywood remakes a good idea?" Dec 2006

Kevin Wetmore’s The Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptations of Classical Greek Tragedy, 2001

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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