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The Postwar Era, Anti-Communism, and Posthumanism
“They’re already here, you’re next!", one simple line from the classic sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers was able to capture one of the greatest fears during the 1940s and the 1950s; the idea that Communist spies or subversives were already scattered throughout society and were taking over step by step. And not just taking over the country, but slowly turning the country into one of theirs as well.
As a consequence, a countermovement suddenly found greater support than ever. McCarthyism flourished for ten years, between 1946 and 1956(2). Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy became a household name after his announcement at a women’s club in Wheeling, West-Virginia, that 205 communists held office at the state department. The ensuing witch-hunt for Communist subversives shook the country to its core, involving every political sphere from left to right(3).
Indeed, as Michael Rogin identified, this countersubversive imagination or tradition had its hay-day during the postwar era. The notion existed that “some kind of alien external force had entered the body politic and threatened to destroy it from within”(4). Needless to say, this trend did not go unnoticed and many artists, moviemakers and writers, criticized the hysteria. As Bryan Vizzini argues, this deep-seated social and political conservatism shaped the decade along with its cinematic productions (5).
Specifically, many political critics found a voice in the science fiction genre. Peter Nicholls argues that because of its insignificance, sci-fi allowed for political criticism that elsewhere might have drawn the House Un-American Activities’ attention (6). The genre was still seen as an underground movement with no base for mainstream audience yet. However, partly because of the support it received during the postwar era, the science fiction genre flourished and produced some of its landmark movies.
As a result of this anti-Communist policy, a long line of science fiction movies containing subtle – or sometimes even not so subtle – criticism of the anti-communist policy came into being. Schrecker explains that Communists “were stigmatized, portrayed as members of an illegal conspiracy that somehow threatened America’s very existence. Stereotypes prevailed, turning individual Communists into alien beings whose destruction was, therefore, easy to justify”(7). Yes, the Communist became an alien entity that was for the most part unhuman and even slowly edged into the realm of the posthuman.
In her book, How We Became Posthuman, N, Katherine Hayles gives a historical overview of how we as a society grew slowly more posthuman (8). According to Hayles, the posthumanist perspective considers embodiment in a biological substrate as an accident of history, not a consequence of life. Furthermore, the posthuman view sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon, that is only a minor sideshow rather than the major sign of life. Also, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate. Extending or replacing parts of the body with other prostheses is a continuation of a process that began before we were born.
In addition, the posthuman perspective challenges the liberal humanist subject that has dominated scientific thinking for centuries (9). Hayles cites C.B. Macpherson’s analysis of possessive individualism to provide a clear example of this challenge. According to Macpherson, “Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them… The human essence is freedom from the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.”
Therefore, human essence is considered freedom from others’ will. The posthuman is “post” because there is no a priori way to clearly distinguish a self-will from an other-will.
Echoingly, 1950s society feared a loss of freedom and autonomy. The posthuman perspective is a direct opposite from the values of postwar America. Rather than impeding on the autonomy and liberalism of the American citizen, the posthumanist view believes there is nothing to impede on. Whereas postwar America felt safe in a boundary-volatile society, posthumanism is a destroyer of boundaries.
The loss of boundaries was only one of the many things postwar Americans were fearful of. Indeed, it felt as if their entire civilization was falling apart(10). Eugene Thacker, in his analysis of philosophy in the supernatural horror genre, looks into and beyond the boundaries of human subjectivity(11). He believes that “in spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part”. Postwar society could not be better portrayed.
Furthermore, Thacker argues that this world beyond the subjective knowable world is a place of horror, a place he refers to as “the unthinkable world”(12). To dwell on this invokes a sense of horror, a sense of vulnerability. And whereas in olden times people would respond to the idea of, for lack of a better name, post-human by creating mythology or looking at theology, in modernity the response is “primarily existential – a questioning of the role of human individuals and human groups in light of modern science, high technology, industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and world wars”(13).
Moreover, Thacker suggests that “some disasters are “natural” while others are not implies a hypothetical line between the disaster that can be prevented (and thus controlled) and the disaster that cannot”(14). The Communist threat both externally as well as internally plays on such a level that it is hard to control. Attempts were made, through for example HUAC-hearings, but the idea that the threat was so deep-rooted was terrifying.
And indeed, movie-makers of the postwar era used this existential fear as political criticism on the anti-communist policy. What was the human individual, the true citizen of the United States to do against a threat like Communism?
In two of the era’s most landmark motion pictures, two of the most recognized 1950s fears were portrayed. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the idea of societal invasion, and specifically bodily invasion, is probed. During the high tide of McCarthyism, citizens were afraid of their neighbors, and even asked to report any suspicious behavior that would indicate Communist party sympathy(15). Even though the initial production of the movie did not intend to portray this, many scholars find it a fitting example of the contemporary paranoia(16), and that is why this movie will be used to examine the phenomenon of fear of bodily invasion.
In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a rational fear of mental invasion is examined.
It was not unusual for Communist party members to blindly act on instructions from Moscow (17). But in The Manchurian Candidate, several POWs in the Korean war of 1954 are brainwashed into becoming sleeper weapons. This paranoia. that anyone may receive instructions from the Communist party and act as a weapon in the name of Communism, was rational during the 1950s.
The following chapters will look into the use of bodily and mental invasion in Invasion and Manchurian Candidate as criticism on the 1950s hysteria regarding external and internal Communist invasion. Specifically, it argues that the Communists are portrayed as Unhuman zombies to emphasize their Otherness. It will also look into aspects of the posthumanist perspective that opposes the liberal humanist subject and the loss of boundaries.