Sunday, December 29, 2013

Author Interview: UVA's Paul A. Cantor on zombies and liberty in popular culture

Professor Paul A. Cantor
Speaking at the Mercatus Center on the Arlington campus of George Mason University last November about the topic, “The Economics of Apocalypse: Flying Saucers, Alien Invasions, and the Walking Dead,” University of Virginia English professor Paul A. Cantor drew upon his research on popular culture to discuss opposing visions of individualism and collectivism in contemporary catastrophe narratives in film and television.

Cantor, a Shakespeare scholar, is author of a recent book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV, a follow-up to Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, published in 2001.

Cantor is also co-editor, with San Diego State University professor Stephen Cox, of the 2010 volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. He and Cox (who is also editor of Liberty magazine, now an on-line publication) are perhaps the most prominent libertarian thinkers working in the field of English literature today.

After his lecture and a discussion moderated by Reason magazine's Jesse Walker, Cantor explained to me why he was looking into the presence of zombie themes in pop culture today.

“These zombie stories are a very interesting way of exploring questions that Americans are interested in,” he said.

What he has noticed in zombie stories, he explained, is that “almost the first thing that results from the zombie apocalypse is the collapse of the federal government. These stories explore what life would be like in a world that was more like the American western, more like the frontier, in which people are forced to rely on their own resources.”

Sometimes, he said, those situations are “frightening but for many of the characters, particularly in The Walking Dead, the experience is empowering. They develop a sense of self-reliance, they face a a challenge, and they meet it.”

In his book, Cantor traces recurring themes in film and TV since the 1950s, a time when there were just three television channels available to most viewers, compared with the hundreds available through cable and satellite services today.

The proliferation of channels, he said, “has really opened up the creativity in television.”

Citing The Simpsons and The X-Files as pertinent examples, Cantor explained that “a lot of shows almost certainly wouldn't have made it onto television in the era of the three networks. It was the Fox Network, the fourth network, that really opened things up.”

Despite the increase in the number of networks and shows, he said, “there's a lot of continuity. Again, what I'm seeing in these contemporary zombie narratives is in many ways a reconstitution of what westerns were like in the Fifties. What we certainly have now is greater variety and, frankly, greater quality because people are able to take more creative chances.”

Cantor's new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, he said, “carries on some of the same issues” addressed in Gilligan Unbound.

One section of the more recent work “is devoted to globalization,” the primary theme of Gilligan Unbound, which was published the same week as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

“This book has given me a chance to see how things have played out in popular culture” over the past decade, Cantor said.

Writing the book gave him an opportunity to ask “how shows like Fringe, V, Invasion, [and] Falling Skies have reacted to developments since 9/11 and [a] world with a threat of terrorism but also the problems created by the war on terrorism.”

He was also able to compare and contrast pop culture during the Cold War and during the post-9/11 era.

“I look at flying saucer movies in the 1950s,” he noted.

In those days, Cantor said, “the invaders are an image of real foreigners. It's Soviet Communism that's showing up in the flying saucers.”

By contrast, he pointed out, “when you look at shows like V, The Event, Invasion, [and] especially Fringe, the people invading us are us. 'We've met the enemy and he is us.' These shows explore a disturbing image of the American government as having moved in totalitarian directions.”

With so many choices of movies and TV shows to watch, Cantor sometimes relies on serendipity to find what he's looking for.

“It's chancy,” he said.

“Sometimes I just like a show, often because I like the characters or the actors in it. Sometimes I force myself to watch a show because it's obvious it's raising the kind of questions I'm interested in. For example, The Walking Dead, I really just like. It's really well-made, well-done.”

On the other hand, he watches Revolution on NBC “even though I don't think it's such a good show because it fits into my thesis and I've got to consider the evidence” as he continues exploration of libertarian and apocalyptic themes in popular culture.

(An earlier version of this interview appeared on

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