The Telegraph
Thursday , October 11 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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A trip to the nearest mega-store, any afternoon, will almost always reveal the many accounts and products of newness exhibited spectacularly in dolled-up aisles. From toothpaste to tumble dryers; from fruitcakes to fragrances, almost everything that can be produced under the sun can be put in a dishy package with a price tag that defines its commodity status. The commodity, of course, lies not in the aisle, in the physical space of signification, but in the mind — in psychic space, where the scene of seduction occurs. Of course, one does not need to go to the store in person in order to be a consumer when one can order everything under the sun in the comfort of one’s home on the computer, and in no time the product will be brought to one’s door. From pizzas to encyclopedias, everything can be purchased that way. It’s the consumerist’s utopia.

Yet, the obvious question knocks itself in during the rare moments of contemplation between the assiduous sessions of work and controlled play: does one really need to consume so much in order to survive, progress and prosper; or is it essentially a self-reflexive trap that a part of one’s own self constructs in collusion? The answer is far from straightforward. The tools and toys out there, dished out in a spectacular display, form the phantasmagoria of the commodity fetish; that incessant desire to possess that possesses one as one becomes a compulsive consumer, buying things one would never need except to consummate an ego trip.

It is easy to classify such consumerism as mania, a modern disease of degeneration that ironically eludes one in one’s pursuit of pleasure. But it is not so easy to draw the line between necessity and superfluity and the distance that separates the two is a blurred hazy zone that can quickly dwindle and expand without one’s knowledge at the moment of purchase.

The politics of purchase is rendered more problematic by credit or debit cards that construct the illusion that one is not spending real money. The absence of physical cash at the moment of purchase tightens the trap as one loses the sense of the financial quantum of consumption. A swap of the card and the entering in of a few digits may mean a transaction somewhere, at some imaginary center of signification, but at the real moment of purchase, it looks little more than a digital ritual sans any real loss of cash.

As more and more commodities are poured into the market space, it gets increasingly difficult to demarcate the needful from the maniacal, and different degrees of promise in the same substance further unsettle the decisions and revisions one makes as one steps into the super-space of sale. In a postmodern world, where digitally sexed-up hamburgers on the computer screen entice one to order online, the central issue returns us to the obvious.

How does one break the buyer from the consumer? How does one see through the booby traps in the mega-malls as one is grafted into the commodity pleasure principle that is really a loss? It is interesting to note how the excesses of consumerism and the processes through which human beings are rendered compulsive consumers and infected monsters unleashed across the city are depicted in cinema, especially in the genre of zombie cinema traditionally associated with mindless horrors and necrophilic networks.

In Danny Boyle’s film, 28 Days Later (2002), a coma patient wakes to find London turned into a massive wasteland with no signs of life or human movement. Later, it is revealed that a virus classified as Rage has been unleashed into the metropolis and has spread its poison through the mixing of bodily fluids. Thus human beings have been turned to zombies with monstrous deformations and the disease was blood-borne. The film exemplifies many traits of zombie cinema, including the vampiric transmission of disease and the corresponding formation of networks of the fallen. The film also shows the political condition that informs the transformation. As in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (1897), whose vampirism was an allegory of the flow of capital that forms its unique haematological network of citizens. The blood bites in zombie cinema also exemplify the process of transmission whereby the ‘normal’ citizen is transformed into a monstrosity that is premised on degeneration as well as excess. It is thus no surprise that most zombie films, from Dawn of the Dead (1978) to 28 Days Later, take as their setting the city, the space of the metropolis — the site of various capitalist formations.

The good zombie cinema, exemplified in the works of good filmmakers, with all its blood and gore, is profoundly political inasmuch as it demonstrates the consequence of consumerism gone wrong; the spurious synchronicity gone a step too far, thus unleashing an anarchy that consumes the consumer. The opening shot of Shaun of the Dead (2004), which may be read as an ode to, as well as a parody of, the earlier Dawn of the Dead, is a long shot showing a massive departmental store where the workers go on scanning newly purchased commodities in an almost automatized synchronicity. The formation of the zombie is thus preceded by the formation of the mechanic monster, the human automaton that capitalism sees as its greatest spoil (consider Chaplin’s Modern Times and its wonderful feeding machine).

The leap into being the monster from the consumer is but a short one, and the transition, although dramatized as a physiognomic one in the films, is actually internal. The monster is that which lies within, that which has been constructed and nurtured by the excesses of consumerist capitalism. The physiognomic excess is thus a visual signifier of the monstrosity we carry within as citizens of the metropolis, where every act is determined and overdetermined by the ticking of a clock and the tag of the commodity. The formation of the zombie — a word that originates from the West African ‘zumbie’, meaning ‘fetish’ — is thus a cinematic rendition of the monstrosity of the commodity fetish that drives the pleasure principle of consumerist capitalism, which operates everywhere from T-shirts to tube stations, with its ubiquitous networks of discourse.

As the reanimated corpse of compulsive consumption, the urban zombie is also a leap back into the primal pleasure principle — the anarchic zone where nothing is forbidden. It constitutes a bodily as well as political condition in very close and problematic proximity to the highest places of civilization, the architecture of the metropolis. The zombie is thus not just a body deformed by excess but also the political point in the landscape of desire when the centre cannot hold and anarchy is let loose upon the world.

Zombie cinema presents the grand spectacle of loss through excess, through which is unleashed the urban uncanny. The transformation of law-abiding citizens into grotesque monsters perhaps presents an allegory of consumerist excesses and their repercussions. The massive monstrosity that spreads through infections and infected networks thus becomes ubiquitous and inescapable, consuming every human being through a disease chain.

Consumerism, in its crude excesses, becomes a pathological condition whereby the grammar of consumption is turned on its head and the monstrosity that grows out of it is the progeny of an increasing mindlessness.

Thus, we purchase to consume incessantly, even as what we purchase consumes us back with its spectacular superfluity and its increasing invitation to limitlessness. In these psychosomatic swings between pleasure principles and death drives, between fetishes and fears, consumption is all.