Zombie Culture and the American Presidency

After receiving valuable feedback regarding my case study on the Mount Rushmore float, one of my former peers brought to my attention the fact that there are many other ways that Mount Rushmore circulates and is re-purposed in American culture. In his response, he directed my attention to two images/objects that I honestly had not seen. To provide context, here is the comment/question that was posed:

“Do you plan to also consider other ways that the memories are repurposed, other than in service to a capitalist, consumer culture?

For example, the images below ARE for a product that is for sale, but I think the repurposing of Mt. Rushmore in this case is different:”

The objects in question are displayed below:

Courtesy of nerdtasticdesigns.com

Courtesy of nerdtasticdesigns.com

Courtesy of neatoshop.com

Courtesy of neatoshop.com

I found these images, along with my colleague’s comment, to be intriguing. I knew that he had a point – that the repurposing of Mount Rushmore in this way serves a rhetorical function other than just simply using the Presidency (and Zombie Culture for that matter) as a way to promote consumerism – but I was having trouble figuring out what other rhetorical work was being done by these images.

Then the light bulb came on. Well, at least I think it did.

First, it is important to note that objects can have multiple rhetorical functions and people can have many different valid interpretations of the meanings of those objects. In this case, I believe that the objects under discussion confirm my thesis that memories, particularly of presidents, do indeed serve the interests of consumer culture. After all, the objects are indeed for sale, and it is the blending of zombie culture with Mount Rushmore that enables the consumption of the presidency to reach a culture that otherwise would not be inclined to purchase presidential souvenirs.

While the pairing of zombie culture with the presidency may seem odd at first, there is at least one important character trait that they both share: they each have a ubiquitous presence in pop culture. With regard to the presidency, Diane Rubenstein makes this case by detailing the myriad ways that presidents are represented in pop culture in the introduction to This is Not a President. Similarly, Stephen Marche makes a similar claim regarding zombies. You can read the entire article here, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to simply note that he makes a compelling case for his over-arching thesis that “zombies are everywhere.” If we are to accept the claim made by Horkheimer and Adorno that culture is an “industry” with inherently capitalist underpinnings, then the fact that both zombies and presidents share a strong presence in American culture seems to suggest that the memories evoked by not just the Rushmore Float, but by all representations of Mt. Rushmore, ultimately serve capitalist interests. Combining zombie culture with the presidency increases consumption of presidential memories by appealing to a fast-growing zombie culture that has already generated a high amount of revenue as Marche explains in his article.

Yet, there is still other rhetorical work being done by the “zombification” of Mt. Rushmore. While I am sure there are multiple other readings of these objects I argue that of primary importance to my project is the way that these objects function to justify the study of the commemoration and memories of American Presidents by exposing the way that memories of past presidents continue to circulate and wield political influence in the present. This argument – that referencing the past is done for the purposes of present – is a widely supported theory by nearly every scholar of public memory. By placing Mt. Rushmore within the context of zombie culture, it more specifically exposes the fact that dead presidents are never really dead.

To say that a dead president is not dead may seem counterintuitive or just downright contradictory, so let me explain. There is a second similarity between zombies and presidents that becomes much clearer when these two ubiquitous presences in popular culture collide. Since zombies are familiarly known as “the living dead,” then it seems interesting that the presidents are, in this case, turned into zombies, and therefore turned in to the living dead. This clearly points to the influence that presidents can have in society years and even centuries after their death. It is important to note, though, that these objects are not the only context in which presidents should be understood as zombies. Whether they appear in zombie form or not, the perpetuation of the memories of presidents makes them zombies because they continue to exist even after they cease to physically live. Therefore, just like zombies, presidents are, and always have been, a form of the “living dead.” These objects simply make that observation apparent.