New History Professor talks zombies, pop culture, media representation, and the relentless myth of the North American Frontier

By Nick Ward

This summer, Professor Mark Cronlund Anderson will be making his Carleton University debut as a new hire in the Department of History.

As a historian, Anderson’s area of research is rather unique—he concentrates on representations of peoples and cultures through media with a specific focus on the grander theme of historical popular culture in North America.

Born in Minneapolis and raised in Kenora, Ontario, Anderson received a Ph.D. in Latin American History from the University of California.

Anderson has written four books which all centre around notions of representation through popular culture, but interestingly, they each concern disparate North American zeitgeists. His first book, Pancho Villa’s Revolution by Headlines (2001), explores propaganda during the Mexican Revolution. His second, award winning book Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film (2007), interrogates the classic American frontier myth in films, while his third book, the celebrated Seeing Red, A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers (2011; co-authored with Carmen Robertson), examines the Canadian press’ portrayal of Indigenous peoples since 1867. Most recently, he published Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s which takes a deep dive to provide an in-depth explanation of America’s frontier wars spanning from the Alamo to 9/11, and how Canadian and American magazines have represented Indigenous people since the end of the Civil War.

If the aforementioned scope of Anderson’s previous work does not seem extensive enough, in recent years, his curiosity and expertise surrounding the frontier has taken him down a few more unforeseen paths.

These days, Anderson finds himself thinking a lot about (and subsequently, teaching and writing on) the apocalyptic zombie trope which is so prevalent in present day popular culture.

His other current research priority is even more dystopian than zombies. Like many people around the world, Anderson has been trying to sort out what exactly occurred in the 2017 American election campaign. To do so, he has been analyzing the phenomenon using frontier themes.

In an attempt to square Professor Anderson’s captivating research on popular culture and the frontier themes which are so poignant for our current cultural moment, FASSinate sat down with the newest member of Carleton’s Department of History to chat about Canada, culture, conflict, media, politics, and, of course … zombies.

Hi Professor Anderson, thanks for doing this. First things first—could you provide a brief rundown on the broader concentration and common threads of your academic career to date?

I have seldom paused to consider my career in the mirror. It’s only when looking at it that way that I recognize any kind of direction.

I think that I have just followed where curiosity has led me. That said, an active career requires blending the pursuit of interests, whatever they may be, always with an eye toward publication. That’s the nature of the business. Of course, it invariably leads you down dead ends. So, in those cases, you take what you can get and move on.

Much of your work seems to look at representations of people, practices, and culture, and how these narratives fail or are mythologized. Why do you find these storytelling schisms and chasms so interesting?

You’re right. That’s how things have turned out. But I never saw it coming.

Somehow, I have become a historian apparently fixated with representation, with a particular focus on historical popular culture in North America. My first book explored propaganda operations during the fiercest hours of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 through 1915. One of the chapters examined how Mexicans were portrayed in the American press. And I guess from that modest beginning the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I think the study of popular culture is crucial, especially now because we are awash in it today like never before, and particularly so in the era of so-called fake news.

The media quite clearly dominates and lends shape to our worldviews. Some are deeply alarmed by the influence of social media. You hear this from Noam Chomsky to George Soros to Jordan Peterson. Yet pop culture still is sometimes dismissed as trivial or, at best, a bit of dog’s breakfast that does not lend itself readily to critical analysis. But neither of these propositions is accurate.

Hundreds of Indigenous people rally in support of Idle No More movement protesting government treatment of First Nations groups in Vancouver, Canada, January 5, 2013.

Hundreds of Indigenous people rally in support of Idle No More movement protesting government treatment of First Nations groups in Vancouver, Canada, January 5, 2013.

Your book with Carmen Robertson Seeing Red concluded that a colonial disposition continues to dictate the portrayal of Indigenous peoples. Since the book was released in 2011, have you seen any broader changes in media theme or tone when representing Indigeneity? What responsibilities do the Canadian press have in covering this systemic oppression?

Things have changed because things always change, but with respect to the depiction of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s newspapers, little to nothing has improved.

It depends a little bit on where one shops. A close examination of media discourse since the book was published demonstrates quite clearly that improvement remains elusive. But it’s a great question because, and this speaks to a basic Canadian myth, there’s a sense, and it’s promoted widely in the press and by politicians, that things are always improving and, in particular, have somehow improved sharply just because we elected a touchy feely Liberal Prime Minister. To give you a specific example, the book will be reissued on its tenth anniversary in 2021 with new material exploring the very topics you mention, such as coverage of Idle No More or reportage about the Missing and Murdered Women and Children initiative or the Colten Boushie story that has rocked the country.

I’ve already published a chapter on Idle No More in a book edited by David McNab at York. It’s pretty depressing. But that’s the power of settler nation-building myth, contained in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that give meaning to our collective existence. This has surfaced with raw intensity in recent days because of the Boushie verdict. How and what a nation forgets may be as telling and revealing as how and what it chooses to remember.

In the case of how the printed press overwhelmingly stands in for settler, or colonial Canada myths elevate and energize and champion as they simultaneously elude and degrade and dehumanize. For instance, if you want to stop a conversation in its tracks, just randomly ask somebody how they feel about the fact that every piece of this country was taken away from Indigenous people. Or ask why the federal government has consistently failed to live up to its treaty obligations, despite the largely empty rhetoric about reconciliation. I mean, that’s the historical reality but, sad thing is, empirical history typically pales in the face of myth. You know, we can do better.

Mark Cronlund Anderson’s celebrated 2016 book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s.

Mark Cronlund Anderson’s celebrated 2016 book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s.

What is it about dystopian zombie fiction that resonates with so many people?

At their core, zombie tales are about two things. First, keeping the barbarians outside the gates—but, oh no, they have broken through! So, what happens now?

That’s roughly the basic starting point to every zombie film.

Of great interest to me, zombie stories share common mythical ground with Westerns. Westerns, too, are grounded in keeping imagined savages at bay, a role conveniently filled by Indigenous people since the arrival of the Puritans—but Black people have also been cast in. this role. Muslims have too, especially since 9/11.

And, by the way, if you compile a list of basic zombie characteristics, which I require my students to do in my History of Zombies course, you know, do it on the back of a napkin, and then list the common stereotypes of Indigenous people, or Black people or Muslims. You will invariably find, if one allows a bit of history to creep in, that they are essentially the same. An imagined savage is an imagined savage.

The second similarity is that both genres—and remember, there’s an awful lot of room to maneuver within a genre—is that they effectively derive their semiotic power from their role as narratives of rebirth. Deeply Christian, right? In the western, you’ve got the west as a veritable Eden, and its dramatic heroes invariably take the shape of some sort of Adam or Christ-like figure. You also see this artfully expressed in the hit zombie series The Walking Dead, which imaginatively blends the two genres. The difference between them, of course, is that the Western harkened nostalgically to the past and the certainty of white victory —that is, imagined savages are readily contained—as the stories were set against the backdrop of “winning” the west.

The zombie genre began in the 1930s by focusing on white terror of imagined Blackness. For example, the first Hollywood zombie flick, White Zombie (1932), is basically an old-fashioned captivity narrative, which traditionally highlighted the imagined savagery of Indigenous men directed at idealized white females.

Zombie tales today, and we owe a debt here to Night of the Living Dead (1968), pit small groups led by white males fighting savage zombies and rebuilding the world. So, you may then well imagine why the number of zombie shows and movies really exploded after 9/11.

The comforting certainties of the Western will no longer sustain us, despite Dances With Wolves and Avatar and other films. And horror, after all, operates by throwing our deepest fears back at us. In this way, zombies are widely understood as representative of the things many people commonly, if not necessarily consciously, fear. Today this includes refugees, or Muslims, the horror of late stage capitalist conformity run amok, consumerism munching away at our brains, or fear of medical contagion or imagined racial contaminations such as AIDS, SARS and, again, immigrants, those sorts of things.

Frontier

You’ve written a lot about the concept of frontierism. How might it relate to our present day brand of North American politics and ideology?

Perhaps Donald Trump’s most basic pitch took the form of a captivity narrative, a wildly popular literary genre in colonial America that continues to thrive to this day. Think of the Taken film series, Nintendo’s Mario and the abduction of Princess Peach, or the Rambo films.

Typically, such stories feature “savage” coloured males kidnapping and abusing, usually sexually, and otherwise tormenting and effectively ruining white females, who were considered to represent everything good and true and pure to white Christian proto-Americans, even as white women were in reality treated abysmally … but never mind that, we’re in myth country here.

In time, Black people also served a similar community building function for white settlers, perhaps even more so as people of African descent came quickly to outnumber Indigenous people.

Enter Donald Trump who, you may recall, coughed up rhetoric specifically asking Americans to consider the present day by contrasting it to a mythical past where whites ruled. The slogan, “make American great again,” was a kind of racist call to arms and better understood as, “make America white again.”

Trump employed an updated kind of captivity narrative in which America the good and true and innocent had been stolen away by a Black man (Barack Obama) and women who don’t know their place—led by a harpy named Hillary Clinton, two of the oldest tropes in America’s mythical playbook.

And let’s not forget Mexicans, long imagined in American culture by those ugly racist terms “half-breeds” and “greasers.” Trump referred to them as drug dealers and rapists. Central to the captivity narrative, and indeed to the frontier myth that grew from it, is the idea of a line separating “civilization” from savagery. And what typifies this better than the call to build a wall between Mexico and the United States?

Trump employed an updated kind of captivity narrative in which America the good and true and innocent had been stolen away by a Black man (Barack Obama) and women who don’t know their place—led by a harpy named Hillary Clinton, two of the oldest tropes in America’s mythical playbook.

As a pop culture enthusiast, what titles do you most enjoy?

I am fairly omnivorous, but do not watch much television because I find it fairly dull. That said, I am a big fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I find hilarious. I got drawn into The Walking Dead and the Game of Thrones because of obvious things such as zombies and frontiers. I love the films of Charlie Chaplin because they are funny and filled with biting social commentary, and films by Francis Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket, in particular, dismantles the frontier myth in a way that few scholars even come close to). Or take a film like Howard Hawks’ 1948 western Red River. It features some of the best things that a film can do. At one level it’s just the story of a guy who carves out a cattle empire in early Texas and then drives his herd to the train station. But it’s also a story of manifest destiny, that is, Americana’s imagined divine sanction for its imperial project. It’s simply superb. It takes the Mexican War, from which the United States harvested California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and more, and condenses the rationale and the conflict itself in a scene that lasts maybe three minutes. As for contemporary literature, I highly recommend Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, especially her collections of stories, and the music of Lucinda Williams, Junior Wells, 80’s Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bettye Lavette, and everything by Cormac McCarthy.

You know, in the late nineteenth century, Canadian cowboys used to engage in memory contests by reading things like the labels on tin cans. That’s what they had at hand. What I take from this is: read everything you can…sorry for the lousy pun.

What research do you expect to be working on upon your arrival in Carleton’s Department of History?

In addition to revising Seeing Red, Carmen and I are writing a kind of follow up to it that explores some the core Canadian myths about Indigenous people in Canada.

For example, take the false and wrong headed notion that Indigenous get everything for free. I have literally heard this all my life, from when I was a kid growing up in Kenora to ongoing bellyaching in the comments section to stories in major Canadian daily newspapers. Or chew over the allegation that Indigenous people are disproportionately inclined to alcoholism or to committing violent crime. These assertions are demonstrably untrue, yet widely believed and still promoted in the press—as in the way that newspaper comments sections have reactions to the Boushie verdict story. This is a monster with many tentacles.

The second project is the zombie book.

And finally, Professor Anderson, what are you looking forward to about coming to Carleton? What do you hope to impart to your students?

I am delighted and excited by the move. You know, I grew up in Kenora, so I am an Ontario fan generally. But I was also a kid with ADD, couldn’t sit still, was labelled a bad egg because I did not listen properly or, maybe, because I listened in a variety of wrong ways. I found school mostly tedious, unnecessarily repetitious, and often simply unbearable. But at university when I discovered that public school was designed deliberately to be that way, you know, a light went on. And, not to sound cryptic or obscure, I guess I have pursued that light.

Monday, August 27, 2018 in , ,
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