Mark Steven, Splatter Capital: The Political Economy of Gore Films. London: Repeater Books, 2017; 171 pages. ISBN 978-1910924954.
Review by Joshua Moufawad-Paul, York University.
In the past decade there has been a surfeit of philosophy books dedicated to the problematic of horror. From the reactionary ravings of Nick Land, to the philosophical attempts of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, to the anti-natalist tendency in both continental and analytic philosophy, to Ray Brassier’s treatment of nihilism, to Eugene Thacker’s “philosophy of horror” trilogy, to Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011), horror is becoming a genre rife for theoretical appropriation. It is in this context that Mark Steven’s Splatter Capital is a necessary Marxist intervention. Although Williams’ earlier work claimed to be Marxist it was compromised by its “Luciferian” conceit which was more libertarian than Marxist and thus lacked the clear-minded understanding of political economy that structures Steven’s engagement with horror.
The understanding that capitalism is fundamentally a violent and gory system motivates Steven’s treatment of horror, particularly the “splatter” sub-genre of horror: “capitalist accumulation is and has always been a nightmare of systematized bloodshed.” (13) His central theme, then, is to read splatter films as symbolic “of what capital is doing to all of us, all of the time––how predators are consuming our life-substances; of production and the matrices of exchange; and of how, as participants of an internecine conflict, our lives are always already precarious.” (13) The “splatter” sub-genre is treated by Steven as a particular topos of horror––different from other gore sub-genres such as slasher or pseudo-snuff––that “capture[s] in loving detail the abject moment when human bodies are destroyed irreparably. Splatter invites us to wallow in the gore, and to take pleasure in doing so.” (14) This invitation to “wallow,” according to Steven, is also driven by a class politics since, unlike its slasher and snuff cousins, “splatter films regularly concern themselves with violence enacted by the economically disenfranchised and the socially marginalized, and regularly against the beneficiaries of that system which ensures their status as underclass.” (15)
These two levels of analysis––capitalism as splatter and splatter film as a critique of capitalism––define the momentum of the book. They are not always easily unified, though they may in fact possess dialectical tension here and there, but Steven does an admirable job moving back and forth between these two frames. Early on, and this is still one of the most stunning aspects of Splatter Capital, the author provides a down and dirty summary of the labour theory of value, fixed and variable capital, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and accumulation and crisis in only four pages using the rubric of chainsaw and knife factories. (19–22) Whether or not this “moving contradiction” provides Steven the basis for moving between his conceptualization of capitalist horror and progressive uses of horror cinema, however, remains unresolved. Granting that capitalism is equivalent to slaughter, that Marx used splatter metaphors to explain capital, makes complete sense. Accepting that splatter cinema pursues this critique, that it locates its pre-history in Eisenstein (46–50), and functions progressively beyond this critique, might requires more theoretical leg work—although Steven works overtime to make the links.
The book’s strength predominantly lies within the frame of capitalism as splatter. From Steven’s conceptualization of the everyday horror of capitalism that obliterates bodies, to his discussion of how this horror demands a greater horror of revolutionary violence to break its cycle, this level of analysis is extremely thorough. Referencing Lenin’s conceptualization of capital as “horror without end,” and the “globalized apotheosis” of the violence of imperialist war, Steven uses his analogy to make a salient point about the necessity of violence raised against violence: “But horror also emanates from the fact of a readily perceptible endlessness: from our realization that, without forceful intervention against the system of capitalist accumulation, humankind will be subject everlastingly to the extraction of value via industrial torture.” (37) This insight serves as the bridge to his second frame, splatter film as a critique of capitalism, since Steven is convinced that this genre is driven by a violent anti-capitalist revenge fantasy. That is, splatter films not only reveal the truth that capitalism is and has always been horror, and invite recognition of this fact, but go further by encouraging the audience to identify with the violence visited upon capitalist horror.
By structuring the evolution of splatter film according to the development of modern capitalism, Steven provides a genealogy of capitalism that is an unfolding of horror. First of all, early splatter films such as Blood Feast and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre coincide with the emergence of 1970s “stagflation” and economic recession, and represent “the extirpation of industrial labour,” and represent the violence of this period through cannibalism and the power tools of a laid off industrial workforce. Romero’s zombie films from that period present a similar reading of recession. Zombies become the symbol of workers where “the exuberant excess of splatter once more attaches itself to that moment when a ruling-class subject is torn apart and made into food. This is the experience of labour in a time of crisis, when the moving contradiction bites down upon its occupants, now turned back against those that seek to exploit their circumstances.” (84)
Secondly, the body horror of 1980s films such as Videodrome and Hellraiser speak to the era of Reagan and Thatcher; the horror, here, conveys a “clear sense of a society shorn to nothing by the profit nexus.” (109) The consummation of this period of capitalist horror can be observed in the film Society that “stage[s] the depraved hedonism of the ruling class immediately before the inevitable decline into a skull-crushing hangover.” (114) Steven draws upon Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “body without organs” in order to conceptualize body horror “as a grotesque caricature of neoliberalism…[that] points up the horror that inhabits the willingly networked individual.” (119)
Finally, Steven investigates the splatter films made after the fall of the socialist bloc and the proclamation that capitalism was “the end of history.” The primary horror of these films is located in the far more horrific claim that the slaughterhouse of capitalist society has declared itself synonymous with reality itself, that there is no other option, and hence they represent a nihilistic disillusionment with existence. The Hostel and Saw franchises thus represent the “post-socialist murder factories” (133) presided over by triumphant capitalism. In this context, The Human Centipede films, that concern victims being medically sutured together ass-to-mouth into a singular grotesque organism, become a perfect metaphor for the consummation of capitalist horror: “[s]olidarity is bisected into unrecognizable yet absolutely interdependent parts, with digestion serving as socially necessary labour time, all of which produces a social being for which the only available collective is not liberating but utterly horrifying.” (153) The existence of this human centipede grotesquerie is our existence, Steven asserts, the perfect metaphor for a time in which capitalist barbarism reigns supreme and all challenges to its hegemony have been classified as failures. “It’s the most horrible and horrifying story you can ever imagine,” he writes: “We’re all in it, stitched together. Ass to mouth. It’s name is capitalism and it’s choking to death on its own shit.” (156)
Despite this genealogy where the unfolding horror of capitalism is interrogated through the symbolic register of splatter cinema, the author’s insistence that such cinema possesses a progressive anti-capitalist kernel is not entirely convincing. Although Steven is careful to qualify this claim by distancing splatter from the slasher sub-genre while also admitting that splatter, due to its roots in smut film, is generally regressive in its treatment of women, his claim still remains tenuous. The fact that the murderers are an underclass wreaking their revenge upon bourgeois and petty-bourgeois victims does not necessarily signal revolutionary violence enacted upon the ruling class on the part of the system’s wretched of the earth. Indeed, it seems more likely that these murderers are depicted in accordance to reactionaries’ fear of the poor and oppressed, particularly since they are also embedded in a Hobbesian narrative about society. In some of the films Steven names (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel, etc.) violence is enacted in lawless regions, where the rules of civilization are suspended, and the solution is to either escape these regions or bring in the symbolic order of the law. These narratives share common ground with colonial fears of the native other, policing discourses, and a view of the world that depicts the spectacle of working class or lumpen violence so as to valorize capitalist and imperialist civilization. Hence, the wall Steven erects between “slasher” and “splatter” films is not politically inviolable, pre-history in Eisenstein notwithstanding, and it is worth noting that those splatter films that challenge this Hobbesian trope (Martyrs and Frontier(s), for example) are only mentioned in passing.
The above problem slightly undermines what is otherwise a very compelling project. As a reader I could not help but feel that the “intermission” parts of the book, where Steven talked about his childhood to early adult impressions of watching splatter films, explained why he did not think through the above problem; it read as if he wanted to over-valorize the movies he loved as a teenager. And yet, at the same time, I found this structural convention to be compelling because the “intermissions” functioned as a parallel memoir of political consciousness, the way in which the author’s understanding of the shifting capitalist state of affairs was motivated by an attention to genre.
The strength of Splatter Capitalism, then, is that it functions as a reading of capitalism through violent horror films so as to demonstrate capitalism’s persistence as the most bloody mode of production and world system that has ever existed. This book is a necessary and timely creative engagement for two reasons. First of all, it uses the genre of splatter cinema to unveil the horror of the everyday that, because we are socialized to accept it as normative, is hidden behind successive veils of “common sense” ideology. Thinking capitalism according to horror cinema is a useful corrective because it helps tear asunder these veils, revealing the violence that is at the heart of business as usual. Secondly, Splatter Capital functions as a work of popular philosophy that refuses to simplify its politics and use of theory, encouraging engagement with philosophical ideas. That is, the fact that Steven draws upon genre conventions to clearly explain Marx’s conception of the labour theory of value or Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the body without organs––to cite just two examples––speaks to the author’s skill of bridging the gap between the popular and academic. We need more engagements like Splatter Capital, especially if we hope that radical political philosophy should not be locked within the ivory tower.