How to Win Friends and Zombify People

Zombification in Russia is also an idea based on an outdated understanding of the media.  When cultural and media elites express anxiety over the presumably pernicious effects of a given mass media phenomenon, they  rely on an implicit anthropology of the people on whom the media acts.  In the early days of both media panics and media studies in the West, this imagined viewer, reader, or listener was likely assumed to be impressionable and unsophisticated, an entirely passive vessel for the media’s messages.  

Thus the Media Effects School, whose ideas are so closely associated with moral panics about the dangers of comic books in the 1950s, assumes the helplessness of media victims.  To borrow from a metaphor from popular biology, a given media risk group (usually children or teens) lacks the immune system necessary to fight off an invasive media attack.  Among scholars, the Media Effects School is now largely dismissed, though it survives on daytime talk shows and the local nightly news.  Instead, critics now focus on the ways in which audiences wrest and create possibly unintended meanings from the media they consume.  Zombification in Russia combines a belief in sinister manipulation with the naiveté of the Media Effects school to create a passive, vulnerable subject that is always ready to be duped.

The 1990s, by spreading the zombification meme far and wide, effectively domesticated the postsocialist metaphorical zombie.  The media disseminated a wide varieties of messages, as one would expect from any developed media culture, but one of the main metamessages was about the porousness and vulnerability of the self to external influence.  

We see this metamessage in the rise of imported advice and lifestyle tracts; indeed, in this context, Dale Carnegie’s seminal How to Win Friends and Influence People (a post-perestroika runaway bestseller) takes on a slightly sinister ring.  Mind control (often KGB-derived) was a recurring trope across the spectrum of crime and adventure fiction, from action novels involving zombifying cults, brainwashed “Robots of Death” (Beshennyi), and even multiple manifestations of mad science in the works of the decade’s most popular crime novelist, Alexandra Marinina (the behavior-modifying electromagnetic waves of Death for Death’s Sake:  An Infinity of Evil).

The red/brown conspiratorial novel, whose roots go back to both the Brezhnev-era crackpot theory of the American “Dulles Plan” to corrupt Soviet minds and morals, as well as to the remarkably inventive paranoid ravings of Andrei Klimov (who identified a Jewish, homosexual cabal behind a “Harvard Project” that was working to destroy Russia by introducing genetic sources of evil into the country’s gene pool), took zombification as an article of faith (Sergei Norka’s Inquisitor trilogy, and, in a more complicated fashion, Alexander Prokhanov’s Mister Hexagon). Sergei Kara-Murza would produce two humongous tracts about the role of “the manipulation of consciousness” in postsocialist Russia.  But the bard of zombification was, of course, Victor Pelevin.

Pelevin introduces the topic in a 1994 essay entitled “zombificatsiia” (a term that would quickly be supplanted by зомбирование).  After a rather lengthy overview of voodoo tradition, Pelevin makes the rather easy argument that everyday life in the Soviet Union was, in itself, an ongoing zombification project.  Pelevin, however, would quickly adapt zombification to post-Soviet reality (or, at least, for what passes as reality in Pelevin’s deliberately elusive fiction). Mind control through media manipulation is a recurring motif in Pelevin’s novels, achieving its ideal form in his 1999 novel Generation P (Homo Zapiens): Pelevin’s hero discovers that the post-Soviet mass media are part of a political and mystical conspiracy to rule (and dupe) the country’s population (even Yeltsin turns out to be nothing more than a hologram).  Tellingly, the hero’s journey to consciousness (imagine the Allegory of the Cave + Photoshop and holograms) starts with Dale Carnegie, moves through the basics of Western advertising, and culminates in his understanding of the deceptive unreality of the mediated world that he himself has helped maintain.  Though Generation P shares many tropes with other post-Soviet conspiratorial novels, it differs radically in tone.  Norka and Prokhanov are sounding the alarm, while Pelevin is registering a mixture of admiration, amusement, and disdain.  

Instead, Pelevin is taking part the corrosive cynicism of the post-Soviet era, tacitly encouraging his readers to assume all speech, particularly political speech, is suspect precisely because it is trying to be persuasive. The rhetoric of mind control  is a powerful persuasive weapon that devalues the persuasive political speech and ideals of one’s opponent, consigning all those who believe what they are told (by people one abhors) to the realm of the zombified.  

 Tuesday: Everybody's Talking (and No One Says a Word)