Caught Between Zombies and Chavs? The aesthetics of the crowd in an age of austerity

I love book shops. There are few things in life that give me greater pleasure then entering a book shop to choose a book at random. While I occasionally buy some utter crap through the enthusiastically scattergun approach I take to book buying, it’s much more common for me to stumble across books that I come to love. Or at least ones that intrigue me enough to lead to a purchase but then sit, unread, around my house for a year or two before I finally get round to them. There’s a much smaller, in a weird way rather exclusive, category of books that provokes neither response though. These are ones I have recurrently picked up in a shop, flicked through and yet  have  failed to provoke a degree of interest which would lead me to buy them… nonetheless they are sufficiently interesting that I find myself picking them up again a month or two later though still not buying them. The book of World War Z falls very much into this category and, rather inevitably given I must have picked it up close to 10 times over a number of years without buying it, it’s lodged into my psyche in a way that sits rather incongruously with the fact I was never interested enough to read it. So I was rather intrigued to see the film but nonetheless a bit ambivalent about it:

There are obvious things to dislike about this film. The narrative is disjointed in parts, with occasional gaping holes in the story telling matched by smatterings of dialogue so wooden that it’s a wonder the actors were able to deliver it with straight faces. But nonetheless it was gripping and the spectacle was, well, spectacular. This revolved around two aspects: zombie crowds and the breakdown of social order. The apotheosis of this was reached in the siege of Jerusalem by the zombie armies (!?) before the film got a bit tedious in the second half – Israel was the only state which took the initial reports of zombies seriously, with past history compelling military leaders to respond to even the most far fetched potential threat (there’s a far from subtle moral about the risk modelling of natural security states here). But please do ignore my cynicism because it turns out those walls were useful after all… for a while at least. But eventually the zombie armies, spurred on by the sounds of peaceful interethnic cultural collaboration – literally, it was harmonious singing in the immigration zone of Jerusalem that provoked the attack – soon overwhelmed even these defences and the state of Israel was consumed by the zombie plague. Was anyone else astonished that this bit of the film got made?

Leaving aside the sheer socio-political weirdness of this bit of the film, it also left me thinking about the aesthetics of the crowd which characterised the film as a whole. The film portrays, in its own terms, the beginning of a world war – an established global order, represented throughout by the United Nations, suddenly finds itself under siege by an internal threat and, I’m sad to say, all looks lost, at least until some heroic figures are able to leverage scientific knowledge and military resources into temporary survival and the onset of total war. Who are the enemy? The sheer mass of the human population, those who formerly contributed to the reproduction of the social order each and every day but are now gripped by an inexplicable destructive urge, constituting an existential threat to the established order through their sheer numbers and violent reaction to the remaining organs of power. How terrifying a spectacle, to see a crowd so blood thirsty, plagued by such malevolent demons that too much contact with soldiers can leave the security forces equally consumed by the nihilism of the mob! Who are the heroes? Special forces, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the IDF and the US Military. The thought that kept returning to me through the film was the extent to which it portrayed the mirror image of what China Mieville describes as ‘floating utopias’ – in a kinder and gentler age of pre-austerity neoliberalism, the libertarian imaginary found its expression in fantasies of liberation from the state in floating paradises of consumption and free enterprise. In an age of austerity, this utopian impulse finds it counter-image in nightmares of being eaten alive by a feral crowd, with dark hopes of malthusian salvation necessitating a militarization of social life and total war against the mass of humanity. Only through embracing death and destruction (by literally internalising it in the form of the viruses which render one oblivious to the teeming destructive hoards)  can the forces of social order stand a chance against the nihilistic fever which has gripped the mass of humanity and eviscerated the capitalist world system.

The portrayal of the zombies isn’t a million miles away from that of the murderous chavs in Eden Lake:

But in that case the murderous crowd amounted to a few insecure, though deadly, teenage boys. The social pathology did not yet extend (in 2008) to the population at large. While a fashionable London couple found themself murdered by the locals when visiting the future site of an exclusive gated development in the West Midlands, the film nonetheless conveyed a vision of a controlled future in which these marginal predators would be kept at bay by increased social order – in other words, the gates were going to be put up around Eden Lake. So, if we want to avoid north London couples being massacred by West Midlands chavs, we’d better embrace this process. But World War Z portrays a time where even the world’s biggest gate cannot keep out the murderous masses. So what hope for our collective futures? Well it seems we can either retreat into militarised communes, hiding from the world while the remaining forces of political order slaughter the mass of the earth’s population, or we can begin to look more closely at the constitution of the feral crowd and begin to wonder if ‘zombies’ and ‘chavs’ are ideological fictions that serve a nefarious political purpose.

2 thoughts on “Caught Between Zombies and Chavs? The aesthetics of the crowd in an age of austerity

  1. Great piece, makes me *really* not want to see the film – reminds me of Lisa Blackman and Valerie Walkerdine’s brilliant analysis of masses and crowds in their book Mass Hysteria.

  2. Oh I’ll have a look at that, sounds really interesting – i realised when writing that post that the portrayal in films of the feral crowd is something I’ve been fascinated by for ages.

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