Q&A with Jeremiah Morelock, Author of Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction

Jeremiah Morelock is an instructor of sociology at Boston College’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences and Woods College of Advancing Studies, and a Project Coordinator at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing. He is the editor of Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism and How to Critique Authoritarian Populism: Methodologies of the Frankfurt School.

With a focus on I Am Legend and Day of the Dead—two series of film remakes of popular science fiction stories— Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction addresses the social origins of the recent surge in authoritarian and populist social movements. An engaging study of popular culture that sheds light on contemporary political attitudes, the book will appeal to scholars of sociology, social theory, and cultural studies with interests in critical theory, film studies, and science fiction.

Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction is due to release on March 21st, and is currently available for pre-order via Routledge and Amazon.com.

Interview by Shiv Issar

1: Your book focuses upon two series of cinematic remakes that broadly emerge from the genres of dystopian and biological horror. Could you tell us about how science fiction might help us better understand social movements that are both, authoritarian and populist? 

The fantasy element in science fiction also brings a unique expansiveness to what themes can be addressed, and through what metaphors they can be represented. This is the genre where hopes, fears, and projections about utopia, dystopia, apocalypse, and so on, are commonly expressed. My approach is in the vein of psychoanalytic critical theory, that extends from Siegfried Kracauer to Douglas Kellner and Robin Wood. Essentially the approach is to view the film in a similar way to how Freud viewed dreams, that is, treating manifest content as expressing latent attitudes through condensation and displacement. The difference is that for Freud, the latent attitudes were of the individual. For Kracauer, the latent attitudes were of society, in historical context. In the book I identify 3 elements of authoritarian populism as tribalism, distrust of rational elites and their institutions, and willingness to engage in violent coercion. These three elements are also very prominent in science fiction, more so than in any other genre of fiction. And so in examining their changing portrayal in science fiction films, we can extrapolate some indication of how these elements developed over time in the collective mind.

2: Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction presents a broad conceptualization of zombies, mutants, aliens, and viruses as “Biological Others”. What led you towards critiquing the threats presented by them through the lens of medicine, military, and morality?

It was really an inductive process that started when I began studying pandemics from a sociological perspective following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Once I decided to use popular film as my data source, I approached the films with a wide range of questions concerning themes and representations. I discovered medicine, military, and morality to be more consistent and richer for analysis than other themes. I also couldn’t help but see that the connection between pandemics and Biological Others in these films was extremely prevalent. The combination of the two is typically the central threat in zombie films, for instance, and the zombie genre has exploded in the twenty-first century, but it is by no means limited to the zombie genre. While I was putting the project together, the Black Lives Matter movement really started to get powerful and the 2016 election happened, so I had racism and authoritarian populism in the front of my mind. The connection was just glaring to me between the drama surrounding Biological or Diseased Others in these films, and real life problems of racism and xenophobia.

3: With respect to methodological concerns, what are your comments on treating a series of cinematic remakes as a case study? What challenges did you face while using “Diseased Others films” to explore the “narrative fusion of pandemics and elements of authoritarian populism”, as you’ve put it? 

Cinematic remakes tend to be of films that were popular enough to be remade, and usually the renditions happen a decade or decades apart, so you can really see how the story, whose core narrative is still pertinent enough that the film was remade, is given new inflections, connotations, lessons, etc. at different points in time. Challenges for this method would be first of all that the options to select from are pretty slim, in comparison with just looking at popular films in general – although as time goes on, the number of films remade is growing. It is also sometimes a tricky judgment call to make whether this or that film should be counted. For instance, there was a prequel to Day of the Dead, but it had very little to do with the original story. And there was another remake of I Am Legend remade around the same time as the Will Smith version. But this other version was so terrible, was never shown in theatres, and so on.

4: You’ve worked extensively on the sociology of health and medicine, and the domain of critical theory. How did your prior research inform your work on Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction?

This book is a revamped presentation of my dissertation research, embellished with more historical context and theoretical connections. Other than that, I’ve been focusing a lot on far-right populism through the lens(es) of critical theory. I’ve edited a couple of volumes bringing these topics together: Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism was the first one, and the second is How to Critique Authoritarian Populism: Methodologies of the Frankfurt School, which will be coming out this Spring as well. A good amount of my own writing on these topics has been in collaboration with Felipe Ziotti Narita, from Sao Paulo State University in Brazil. We have a short book together called O Problema do Populismo which is dedicated to these topics.

5: What do you see as the emergent policy implications for Pandemics, Authoritarian Populism, and Science Fiction?

It’s not the type of book to lend itself directly to policy implications, but there is a part in the concluding section where I talk about different theories of demographic change and how they may all simultaneously be feeding into the growth of authoritarian populism today. These are, briefly, deprivileging, social sorting, and declining social capital. If we consider authoritarian populism as something to be overcome (and I do), then understanding what social forces generate it is really important. If these demographic changes are coming together in a way that is fueling it, then it is possible that policies could be implemented on the level of demographic change, especially in ways that help build community and diversity within community. This sounds very familiar, but it’s not just because those things are nice or valuable – it’s because the stakes of doing so or not doing so – if these connections are real, and it looks likely that they are – the stakes of doing so or failing to do so are very high, as recent events should make clear.

6: Is there any advice that you would like to give to doctoral students and other early-career sociologists regarding interdisciplinarity and the process of using experimental methods? Moreover, could you tell us a bit about what you have planned for the future?

Right now, I’m working with a couple of co-authors on a content analysis of Boris Johnson’s public statements about COVID-19, highlighting his ambivalent mixture of moral logics. And Felipe and I are just now finishing up a manuscript connecting social media and far-right populism, called The Society of the Selfie: Social Media and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy. He and I will soon after be working on a qualitative content analysis of conspiracy theory discourse in connection with COVID-19 and anti-vaccination.

Learn more about Jeremiah Morelock’s work by visiting their personal website.

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