Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption

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From the novels of Anne Rice to The Lost Boys, from The Terminator to cyberpunk science fiction, vampires and cyborgs have become strikingly visible figures within American popular culture, especially youth culture. In Consuming Youth, Rob Latham explains why, showing how fiction, film, and other media deploy these ambiguous monsters to embody and work through the implications of a capitalist system in which youth both consume and are consumed.

Inspired by Marx's use of the cyborg vampire as a metaphor for the objectification of physical labor in the factory, Latham shows how contemporary images of vampires and cyborgs illuminate the contradictory processes of empowerment and exploitation that characterize the youth-consumer system. While the vampire is a voracious consumer driven by a hunger for perpetual youth, the cyborg has incorporated the machineries of consumption into its own flesh. Powerful fusions of technology and desire, these paired images symbolize the forms of labor and leisure that American society has staked out for contemporary youth.

A startling look at youth in our time, Consuming Youth will interest anyone concerned with film, television, and popular culture.

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Editorial Reviews

The value Latham’s study provides . . . lies in his resolutely rational voice in a field that often provokes hysteria, and his insistence on placing these over-theorized . . . icons of popular culture in a social and economic context. . . . Vampires and cyborgs, the undead and the human machine, are not as far apart as their temporal locations in Gothic past and Science Fiction future might indicate. They share the same logic: figures who consume, serially offered up for our eager consumption.”

— Catherine Spooner

MLR - Catherine Spooner
“The value Latham’s study provides . . . lies in his resolutely rational voice in a field that often provokes hysteria, and his insistence on placing these over-theorized . . . icons of popular culture in a social and economic context. . . . Vampires and cyborgs, the undead and the human machine, are not as far apart as their temporal locations in Gothic past and Science Fiction future might indicate. They share the same logic: figures who consume, serially offered up for our eager consumption.”
N. Katherine Hayles
Consuming Youth is a near-encyclopedic work. Latham’s nuanced readings connect vampires, with their associations of exploitation, blood-sucking, and undead existence, to cyborgs, who like vampires deconstruct the normal behaviors of the autonomous subject through the joining of human and machine. This important book will make a valuable contribution to cultural studies, contemporary literary theory, and neo-Marxist criticism in general.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226468921
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Rob Latham is an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Iowa. He is coeditor of the journal Science Fiction Studies and of Modes of the Fantastic, a collection of essays on fantastic fiction and film.

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Read an Excerpt

Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption

By Rob Latham

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Rob Latham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226468925



In my introduction I focused principally on the political-economic implications of Marx's metaphor of the vampire-cyborg: how it allows a critique of the capitalist factory as an undead machine that feeds upon and incorporates workers' living substance. In this chapter I would like to shift my attention more explicitly to the libidinal economy of this complex figure, the model of desire it encodes. If one attends carefully to Marx's rhetoric, it is clear that what he finds most terrible about the factory is not that it is a lifeless mechanism leeching surplus value, but that this activity gives it aneerie semblance of life: avid for the accumulation of profit, the factory seems driven by a remorseless hunger that resembles a corrupt form of human desire. In Marx's words, "the capitalist devours the labour-power of the worker, or appropriates his living labour as the life-blood of capitalism. ...By incorporating living labour-power into the material constituents of capital [i.e., the factory], the latter becomes an animated monster and it starts to act 'as if consumed by love."'

Marx's allusion hereis to Goethe's Faust, specifically to the refrain of a drinking song about a corpulent rat that is poisoned by a cook and becomes wildly maddened, "as if "--in Walter Kaufman's translation-- "love gnawed his vitals." The desire Marx speaks of here is, then, only a parody of amorousness; in reality, it is gluttony transformed into tortured death throes. Through this sly allusion, Marx implies that capital's uncontrollable lust for self-valorization will be its undoing, that the vampiric hunger of capital will culminate in a paroxysm of self-consuming destruction. The valiant proletarian cook will slay the demonic capitalist rat, thus freeing the forces of production to nourish truly human needs.

Much of twentieth-century marxist thought has involved attempts to explain why this outcome was forestalled, why the vampire of capital has managed again and again to rise from the grave of economic crisis to batten on the living. Marxist critics--often tutored by Freudians of one stripe or another--have been compelled to admit that the desire animating capitalism is more complex than mindless gluttony, that the vampiric relationship between capital and labor involves a libidinal investment, an erotic complicity. As with Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (1897), the laborer-victim seems in some measure to will the capitalist-vampire's parasitical aggression, to take pleasure in the surrender of substance and identity to a remorseless force. This is a possibility Marx himself never expressly acknowledged, yet it is often implicit in his rhetoric, which persistently returns to metaphors of seduction to describe the capital-labor relationship. Of course, this sexualized language is intended satirically: after all, how could workers ever truly be seduced by the vision of an undead machine lusting after them body and soul?

As I noted in my introduction, Marx's concept of the vampire is basically the hideous animate corpse of central European folklore--"dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt"--not the playful seducer of the literary tradition. What drives Marx's vampire is pure and simple bloodlust, and its seeming amorousness is only a sham, a coy pretense that cannot disguise its exploitative aims. Given the miserable conditions under which the bulk of the industrial proletariat lived and worked during Marx's time, these assumptions are unsurprising; one would surely be hard pressed to imagine the Victorian factory as a site of quasi-erotic courtship. More interesting from our contemporary perspective is the fact that Marx evokes the arena of the marketplace in libidinal terms as well: in his discussion of how profit is realized in monetary exchange, Marx refers to prices as "those wooing glances cast at money by commodities" (1 : 205). Indulging again his penchant for literary allusion (this time to Shakespeare), Marx comments, "commodities are in love with money, but...'the course of true love never did run smooth' " (1 : 202). His purpose in this passage is to lay bare the contradiction between use value and exchange value that informs every mundane act of buying and selling. Although his erotic vocabulary continues to serve essentially satiric ends, his remarks take on added significance in light of modern advertising campaigns, with their more or less explicitly eroticized appeals to consumer appetite and pleasure seeking. In the century since Marx wrote, the capitalist marketplace has become quite brazen in its tactics of seduction--to the frank exasperation of marxist critics, who have generally seen this development as a ploy to ensure the continuing docility of the working class.

The notion of the libidinous complicity of labor in its own subjection has informed analyses of consumer institutions and practices written from a leftist perspective since at least the work of the Frankfurt school. Stuart Ewen's influential historical studies of the evolution of an American mass market, for example, argue that this self-surrendering desire was meticulously produced through the image-based apparatuses of product design, fashion, and advertising and directed toward an endless project of consumption, thus effecting what Richard Hoggart has called (in a similar analysis of the British context) the "consumerization" of the working class. Inbrief, the capitalist-vampire made willing accomplices of its laborer-victims by soliciting their desire with seductive promises--for example, perpetual youth--and profitably attaching that desire to an ever-expanding realm of commodities, thus installing a capitalist logic of accumulation within working-class hearts and households. Note the vampiric metaphors built into Ewen's description of the results, inhis book Channels of Desire: "Consumerism engendered passivity and conformity within this supposedly ever-expanding realm . . . which put leisure, beauty, and pleasure in the reach of all.. . . [T]he logic of consumption embroiled inour intimacies; tattooed uponour hopes; demanding of our energies. ...The insatiable urge for new things . . . " As I detailed in my introduction, Ewen's work contends that since the 1920s the figure of youth has functioned as the perfect emblem of this rampant consumerist ethos; indeed, the "symbolic ascendancy of youth represents the corporate infiltration of daily life and the creationof a family structure that might be ruled through the young, or through people's acceptance of a youthful ideal."

Building on such views, Sut Jhally has argued in The Codes of Advertising that the extraction of surplus value incontemporary capitalism extends beyond the factory into the realm of popular leisure, encompassing everyday interactions with consumer technologies. For Jhally, the mechanisms of mass media, especially television advertising, are directly analogous in their operations and effects to the marxist factory system, and infact (in an argument similar to Baudrillard's, reviewed in my introduction) constitute "a higher stage in the development of the value-form of capital." Capital's self-valorization, accomplished in the factory through the incorporation of workers' labor into machinery, is effected in contemporary consumer culture through the conscription of viewing by the televisual apparatus: viewing becomes "watching labour," a consumption of advertising messages that is ultimately productive of profit. Thus, "the process of consciousness becomes valorised" (p. 121), and desirous subjectivity is preyed upon in much the same way as the objective exertions of muscles and nerves are vampirized in the factory. In Jhally's words, "The movement of value invades the symbolic/material processes of human needing" itself (p. 205; emphasis in original).

The result is a new kind of commodity fetishism in which the use value of viewing--its capacity to generate meanings from coded messages--is subsumed and subordinated by its exchange value--its profitability within a system of market relations. Viewing becomes fetishized, a kind of alienated "compulsion," an "enforced participation"(p. 186; emphasis in original) that only seems a freely chosen exercise of one's leisure time. Like wage labor in Marx's analysis, "watching is formally free but practically compelled" (p. 188), and "the search for meaning [is] directed towards the marketplace as the only means of meaning-fulfilment" (p. 204). Significantly for my youth-cultural focus here, the most highly perfected institutional form of this fetishized consciousness is, for Jhally, the Music Television Network (MTV):

On MTV the "blurring" of the content between programs [use value] and advertising [exchange value] is complete on both the objective and subjective levels. On the objective level we cansee that, viewed from an economic perspective, everything on MTV is a commercial. Videos are promotional pieces for record albums while the commercials that appear between these are promotions for other commodities.. . . [Subjectively, in] the actual viewing of the messages transmitted by MTV it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between programming and non-programming, between video and advertisements. Style, pacing, visual techniques, fantasies and desires are all interchangeable.(pp. 96-97)
The effect is of a "pure environment"(p. 101) saturated with the ethos of consumption, in which exchange value has triumphed over use value and fetishized, compulsive viewing reigns supreme ("I Want My MTV").

The broader ethical-political implications of such an argument have been drawn out by W. F. Haug. Further deploying and updating Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, Haug alleges that, in advertising, the actual use value of a product is systematically replaced by its "promise of use-value," its appealingly designed and fashionably constructed appearance, which functions as a kind of sensual bait for the consumer. "Sensuality in this context becomes the vehicle of an . . . economically functional fascination" (p. 17) that permits exchange value to assert its priority over use value and thus to usurp and distort the very structure of human needs, producing an "addicted buyer who rushes headlong after mere images" (p. 35). The manifold apparatuses of advertising thus incarnate a "technocracy of sensuality" in which "the fascinated individual is dominated by his or her own senses" (p. 45), by the incorporation of psychic impulses toward aesthetic and sensual gratification into a gigantic economic machine of capital accumulation. The result is a transformation of humanity at a virtually anthropological level: "The corrupting use-value [use value as mere appearance] feeds back to the needs-structure of the consumers, whom it brings down to a corrupt standpoint of use-value.. . . People seem to have had their consciousnesses bought off " (p. 53). Thus, as in Baudrillard, progress in technical means dovetails with the capacity for social domination, conspiring "to warp the progressive tendency in human instincts" (p. 53) into a "compulsive fixation [that] threatens to cut off completely the possibility of direct pleasure" (p. 55), substituting instead mass-produced desires and their prepackaged satisfaction. Even human sexuality is compromised by this invasive, colonizing system, since commodity aesthetics' quasi-erotic appeal to consumers, its tactics of seduction, is not a liberation of repressed desires but a technique of manipulation, "a means of solving certain problems in valorization and capital realization" (p. 54).

Again, as with Ewen and Jhally, youth culture becomes a prominent site of advertisement's social hegemony. In Haug's analysis, a major strategy of commodity aesthetics is the sensual appeal of aesthetic innovation, in which an economic goal of exchange value (the necessity for a rapid turnover of goods) is manifested as a (seeming) psychological use value in the consciousness of consumers (a desire for new and fashionable objects). Thus, commodities themselves come to follow a generational logic in which their "determining aim is the outdating of what exists, its denunciation, devaluation, and replacement" (p. 42). The result Haug calls "youth fetishism"--a notion that, as he develops it, closely resembles the three meanings of consuming youth adumbrated in my introduction. Youth fetishism refers at once to (1) "the compulsive character of the young"--that is, the specific consumerist practices of young people, their tendency both to set and follow fashion; (2) sensualized images of youth that serve to provoke consumer appetite; and (3) a pervasive ideology of youthfulness, which "subjects the whole world of useful things, in which people articulate their needs in the language of commercial products, to an incessant aesthetic revolution" (p. 44). Thus, youth as aesthetic innovation constitutes "a moment of direct anthropological power and influence, in that it continually changes humankind as a species in their sensual organization, in their real orientation and material lifestyle" (p. 44). For Haug, then, youth is the perfect image of consumption envisioned as a form of vampirism: a figure of invasion, infection, corruption, and transformation that, like Dracula himself, "becomes completely disembodied and drifts unencumbered ...into every household....No one is safe any longer from its amorous glances" (p. 50)--save perhaps for those rare few who refuse to invite it inside because they don't own television sets, listen to radios, surf the Web, or buy magazines.

In these various analyses, the individual laborer has been irreversibly penetrated by and infected with consumerist desire, an unquenchable, acquisitive lust at once sustained by and sustaining of the institutions of consumer culture. Among the most important of these institutions, one that has become the lightning rod for much of the neomarxist critique of consumption (and one that I will foreground in the balance of this chapter) is the shopping mall, perhaps the most characteristic architectural form of Fordist capitalism. The basics of the marxist argument against the shopping mall have recently been rehearsed by Mark Gottdiener and Lauren Langman. Claiming that malls are designed "to disguise the instrumental exchange relation between producer and consumer," Gottdiener critiques the mall structure as "an integrated facade which facilitates consumption acts by the stimulation of consumer fantasies"--fantasies that "are primed by years of conditioning deriving from exposure to advertising and the mass media." Langman, following Haug, draws a more cutting inference, alleging that the very desires and emotions of consumers "are now mass produced and distributed in the shops, theatres and food centres of shopping malls," which, like television and other consumer apparatuses, have come to "control norms of affective gratification . . . in everyday life." Unsurprisingly, Langman deploys animplicitly vampiric metaphor to describe the process:"everyday life in amusement society proceeds within a dialectic of enfeeblement and empowerment"-- enfeeblement because the vampiric regime has usurped the autonomy of individual experience, empowerment because consumption becomes the sole driving motivation. Thus, to return to Marx, the gluttonous capitalist rat has been transformed, under Fordism, into an army of consuming mallrats, denizens of what Langman--updating Max Weber for the postmodern era--calls the "neon cages" of consumer society.

This transformation has been cleverly staged, appropriately enough, in Francis Ford Coppola's popular film Bram Stoker's Dracula, wherein the master vampire converts himself into a multitude of rodents to elude capture. This visually arresting image culminates a scene in which Dracula--whose association with mass culture has already been established in earlier scenes set at Castle Dracula, a site dominated by filmic trickery, and in a cinematograph theater--promises Mina Harker an eternal life of pathological consumption, an ambivalent empowerment/curse that the young woman avidly seeks. Indeed, she even has to persuade Dracula of her committed desire, a major change from Stoker's original, where she was his meek, passive victim. For the mallrats watching Coppola's film (a staple of mall multiplexes inthe summer of 1992), seeing teen idol Winona Ryder as Mina affirm her libidinal complicity with consumer capitalism could only, from the draconian critical perspective outlined above, serve to damn them to a similar fate.

This sort of judgment illustrates the extent to which the rigid neomarxist view of the culture of consumption partakes of what Fredric Jameson has identified as "left puritanism"; the problem becomes "Who is to break the news to them [consumers] that their conscious experience of leisure products--their conscious 'pleasure' in consumption--is in reality nothing but false consciousness?" In other words, who is to drive the stake of critique through the vile, undead heart of consumerist desire?


Excerpted from Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption by Rob Latham Copyright © 2002 by Rob Latham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
The Cybernetic Vampire of Consumer
Youth Culture
The Factory of the Code
Fordism, Post-Fordism, and Youth
Consuming Youth
Youth Fetishism: The Lost Boys
Cruise Mallworld
The Dual Metaphorics of Consumer Vampirism
The Trauma of Consumption
Vidkids Go Malling
Teen Idols, Fashion Victims, and Proletarian Shoppers
Dreams of Social Flying: The Yuppie-Slacker
Morbid Economies
The Phenomenology of Unbridled Consumption
Punk Nihilists and Donner Party Barbies
Voracious Androgynes: The Vampire
Lestat on MTV
Insatiable Narcissism
The Consuming Hungers of Ziggy Stardust
Two Queer Nations
Microserfing the Third Wave: The Dark Side
of the Sunrise Industries
Postindustrialism and “Flexible” Capitalism
Homebrews and Burnouts in Silicon Valley
Modular Selves and Posthuman Consumers
Fast Sofas and Cyborg Couch Potatoes:
Generation X on the Infobahn
Couch Commandos versus Zombie Systems
Bar-Coding Digital Youth
On the Road and On the Screen
Information Road Narratives
Teenage Mutant Cyborg Vampires:
Consumption As Prosthesis
Hacking the Codez of Digital Capitalism
Cyberpunks and Technopagans
Live-Wired Teen Idols and Pretty Boy Crossovers
Decadent Utopias of Hyperconsumerism

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