Paris

Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.—Walter Benjamin

We own a dog—he is with us as a slave and inferior because we wish him to be. But we entertain a cat—he adorns our hearth as a guest, fellow-lodger, and equal because he wishes to be there. It is no compliment to be the stupidly idolised master of a dog whose instinct it is to idolise, but it is a very distinct tribute to be chosen as the friend and confidant of a cat.—H. P. Lovecraft

Paris is a city of bread fat pigeons and salad thin people. Along the Seine vendors hawk miniature Eiffel Towers and posters of absinthe, impressionist paintings and nineteenth century Montmartre district bohemian cabarets like Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge; further in, on alleyway corners, crêperies prominently display rows of a French favourite, Nutella chocolate spread. Parisian capitalism is more subtly attractive than its Anglo variant and I, who have not enjoyed shopping for at least five years, rediscovered the decadence of browsing enough to buy some decorative kitsch, a mock Soviet flask and early Twentieth Century compass. I have never enjoyed a tea shop as much as Dammann Frères, in which one takes olfactory tastes of potential purchases in a dark mahogany setting decorated by eastern sets and floor-to-ceiling shelves of the assorted selection. The owner of one tiny store selling quaint wooden toys and music boxes—a commonplace with street sellers too—was paradigmatic of the enthusiasm of service; she told me, my mum and brother stories about her items including an anecdote of a ninety four year old woman’s nostalgic joy in playing with the replica zoetrope on sale.

My stay was ambivalently exciting and melancholic; framed by the death of Molly, a warm, humorous feline and vital fixture of the last decade of my life whose absence on returning home made no expressible sense, and reading the end of Peter McPhee’s biography Robespierre whose subject lived an existence structured like a tragedy and whose vividly described, brutal demise, after a gun shot wound to the jaw, haunted my stay:

It was only at 6.00 p.m. that three carts with their twenty-two prisoners began a long and interrupted journey through taunting crowds along Rue Honoré and along the Duplays […] At 7.30 p.m. the executions commenced. Maximilien was the twenty-first to die: his agony had lasted seventeen hours. After he had managed to climb the steps of the scaffold, his head wrapped in a bloody and filthy bandage, he had a final torment to endure before execution. The executioner ripped off the bandage; the lower jaw fell away, eliciting a hideous roar of pain.

Apart from the ruins of the Bastille, a reductively small plaque detailing the Paris Commune of 1871 and certain statuary there is little explicit trace of revolution, at least á la Year II; the more monumental changes documented in another of my holiday reads, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (History of Civilization), constituting something now invisibly ubiquitous. It is much more the city of conquering Napoleon than fateful Robespierre, who has been outdone in public even by the omnipresent image of el Che, a logo as commonplace as the McCafé ‘M’ and globally distinctive smell of Subways. During my stay I never saw a single protester; what were noticeable were the homeless in a place whose narratives are often tailored to the margins; Hugo’s miserable, Benjamin’s flâneur and Orwell’s down and out. Representations of ideals could be found; Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple and, embossed in stone over an unpopulated side street window, ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Reminding me of these hopes, I liked the twin, dark experiences of Hugo’s sombre home—replete with his gothic artwork and soulful whispering voices played from the floor—and the Rodin museum, where Hugo reappears amongst ragged figures tormented by chains and whose work lends truth to clichés about sculpture blossoming (or other organic metaphors) from marble and iron.

Certainly those locations were relatively enhanced by the behaviour of art admirers in the Louvre, where people principally come to shove round the cord guarded Mona Lisa to click pictures—while in imitation young children crawl past legs with inexpensive throwaways and snap their own poorly angled mementos. A woman in bright pink and stockings even lurched past security and struck an unpractised pose in front of Leonardo’s masterpiece for a more timid friend to immortalise, as the museum staff smiled and waved her away. Cameras are permitted everywhere except aimed at art shop windows and, although places like the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica ostensibly ban flash, nobody takes vocal offense at the more impetuous tourists who flaunt tact even in a building of worship. Perhaps when the Catholic Church sells medallions from vending machines it becomes too difficult to distinguish the line between sacred and profane. I experienced the former most powerfully in the tritest location; neither the Romano-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur nor the Gothic Notre Dame, but standing atop the Eiffel Tower of Exposition Universelle (1889) sightseeing a sprawl of night lit buildings that collectively amounted to the manmade sublime. It was there I recognised a strange affinity for one set of fellow foreigners; the nervous and awestruck Japanese who appeared to regard each detail with shy deference. I have read that their embassy sometimes provides help for a syndrome du voyageur almost particular to the Japanese, syndrome de Paris, characterised by a kind of psychotic weltschmerz.

Details were all; as London gives me an impression of impersonal, menacing, but seductive scale, Paris (at least the centre areas where I spent the longest) was intimate and fascinating in the twirling, spiralling flourishes of its buildings, lampposts recalling Proust, primary coloured window shutters, the elaborate and bold use of gold. On that last note, as much as the revolution is tucked away, Talleyrand’s sweet Ancien Régime is still boldly displayed vis-à-vis its attachments to power and hierarchy; notably on both sides of the art nouveau Pont Alexandre III: Champs-Élysées and Les Invalides. It’s a vast and oddly barren space, somehow dead and as far from any ideals of egalitarianism as Buckingham Palace. In contrast nowhere are the minutiae as exquisitely fascinating as the passages couverts de Paris, places mostly swept away by Napoleon III’s infamous civic planner Haussmann and the primary material for Benjamin’s nineteenth century history, Arcades Project; the cover for the English translation showing Galerie Vivienne, which I loved strolling and admiring.

It was at the wonderful Shakespeare and Company that I picked up a copy of Benjamin’s book, displayed on the counter not far from a range of philosophy superior to any I have seen outside Cambridge: an eclectic sample from Badiou to Midgley. Originally we had planned to hear live jazz at a bar, but constraints conspired; however, after a reading and signing for Adam Thirlwell’s whimsical Kapow (an experimental novel on the Arab Spring) at that more English than English bookshop, we did hear an all women’s American acapella group from Yale sing titles like ‘Why don’t you do right?’ and ‘Black Coffee’. Moreover, we were in Paris for the traditional midsummer Fête de La Musique and joined crowds for live songs as we traversed the city after leaving Musée d’Orsay. A day of impressionists (Monet, Manet, Degas) and post-impressionists (Van Goth, Lautrec) culminated in trumpets, drums, guitars, etc. The artwork I most remember from there was not the most powerful, but somehow so peculiar as to create a permanent mark, Henri Rousseau’s mythological War or the Ride of Discord. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette inspired the thought that this artist perfectly depicted a historically specific social atomism for which Proust provides literary equivalence, an ambience in which each person is their own self-narrated story encountering, detaching and reencountering other’s. This can be contrasted to periods in which people are shown as a coherent, subsumed part of a single, cohesive moment—especially true in religious and mythic art.

Eating and travel took a lot of time, but both were superb. Against claims of its superiority I would argue that the Metro was neither better nor worse than the Underground, perhaps the absence of abusive and ageist security personnel giving it a minor edge. A Batobus along the Seine is an effective if obvious way to get a sense of the spectacle of the place; I have a fondness for restful boats. Still, walking predominated; firm, treading rhythms, the rhythms of each day, which ended in the best type of sleep, physical fatigue. Food is both as expensive and as marvellous as popular opinion suggests, but against the sense given by films like Amélie, Before Sunset, Midnight in Paris and even An American Werewolf in Paris it is often hard to find low key places that just serve drinks. Their soupe à l’oignon, an onion soup topped with cheese, was a favourite entrée that I unfortunately (given a strong preference for maintaining a pescetarian diet) later discovered is cooked in beef stock. For mains I had poisson such as salmon and once scallops. And for desert I chose either alcohol (rum or some liqueur) coated crêpes or else a fruit salad in mint sauce. Mint rivalled the popularity of Nutella, but I admit to acquiring their fondness for the plant and developing an especial attachment to le thé vert à la menthe. Only once did we manage to eat really cheap, a three course set meal that started with oysters for about eighteen euros per head not including drinks. And breakfasts of croissants and eggs were affordably satisfying. The best meal was served with the sort of theatricality you would expect in the movies and was memorably fun; I recommend Les Chiméres (133 rue St-Antoine).

On the long train home I read my third and fourth books: Gilbert Adair’s disturbing The Dreamers, about the dangerous sexual and dissenting experiments of a set of cinephile teenagers in Paris during May ’68, and A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: the End of the Gods, which combines cataclysmic Nordic mythology with a third person limited account of a thin young girl making sense of the Second World War through a basic, childish scepticism and storytelling, or retelling. Both are intriguing, but neither distracted me from the dour prospect of a catless Tanygrisiau from which unpacking, an activity I enjoy as much as most loathe, eventually offered respite. Meirion House, which I still feel to be more Molly’s than mine, is less alive, but it is also restful and I am exhausted, as I notice is common after a vacation, and from which work provides necessary relaxation until the next.

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A Reading of ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

Although William James introduces the book as a humble psychology, it might be more accurate to characterise The Varieties of Religious Experience as a proto-phenomenology with a broad sweep of philosophical consequence. Motivated by an aversion for a perceived shallowness of the scientific attitude taken in isolation and a sense that, ‘as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.’ (p.424). His is a method that deploys a basic epoché (ἐποχή), an ‘attitude[…] of impartial onlookers’ (p.138) with respect to facts, ‘spiritual judgement‘ (p.5), the sciences—’we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue’ (P.11)—and, ‘the institutional branch’ (p.25) of religion to focus exclusively on, ‘the purely existential point of view from which[…] the phenomena of religious experience must be considered.’ (p.6). James thereby commits to a holistic first person, perhaps historically sedimented, religious subject, which he peruses by confining himself, ‘to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully conscious men [and they are predominantly male], in works of piety or autobiography.’ (p.4). It is a process informed by the pragmatist criterion of truth; judging by results over origin, permitting a dispassionate account of origin; and here we begin to see how James humility is profitably misleading in the wider implications that so offended analytic contemporaries like Russell.

Of greater interest is a fault not rooted in the more debated issues of epistemology; James’ undervaluing of group experience. Indeed, he reserves Kierkegaardian and distinctly Protestant bile for institutionally mediated religion, ‘made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined by fixed forms of imitation, and retained by habit.’ (pp.6-7). His individualism and its concomitant romantic preoccupation for the turmoil of isolated genius do a sustained injustice to the influence of religion on solidarity—not so casually disregarded by James’ geniuses. It’s a partiality evident throughout, but especially when James enters a judgemental frame, ‘it is difficult even imaginatively to comprehend how men possessed of an inner life[…]have come to think the subjection of its will to that of other finite creatures recommendable.’ (p.266). It has malign consequences for James view of human nature, as when he claims ‘the instinct of ownership is fundamental’ (p.270). Most crucially he fails to see that universalism is the benevolent twin of the tribalism for which he faults, ‘religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion.’ (p.289). Even at the phenomenal level, dismissing ritual neglects the Pascalian-Husserlian insight into habit’s constitutive role; the primordial lifeworld faith as substrate from which a committed faith must act on and spring forth hermeneutically and corporeally; a more convincing account than that subjective, ‘personal religion should still seem the primordial thing,’ (p.26). James even peripherally recognises habit’s importance, in the conversion psycho-concept, ‘habitual centre of his personal energy.’ (p.168). Moreover James attitude is inconsistent with a positive reading of his account of much religious experience qua recognition of something greater than self, ‘a willingness to close our mouths and be a nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.’ (p.40). Or, more widely, the thinner Godlike (p.29) that encompasses atheistic (scientific, humanistic, Buddhist) devotion. Pascal says, ‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’ James proves small minded in his reluctance to apply his clear descriptions to ordinary devotees; it is to his credit that in some sections—’Mystical Experiences: Examples’ (pp.56-9)—he cannot stay within the confines of his self-imposed limits.

Subtlety of thought is more evident in the distinctions James makes between the healthy and sick souled, which he openly appropriates from Francis W. Newman’s scheme of once and twice-born Christians (p.69). Here James posits a categorisation reminiscent in analysis to Nietzsche (or at least a side of Nietzsche, one quite contradictory from that more familiar presented in Varieties on pp.315-7), ‘Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance.’ (Human, All Too Human, §224) For Newman and James there are those whose dispositions predispose them to a boundless optimism, an aggressive refusal to encompass evil per se. And these ‘once-born’ are complemented by those who are of, ‘the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.’ (p.112) A process that, in being twice-born, involves a maturing unification of a divided self in a hard won spirituality through a volitional or, more commonly, and similar to Proust’s memory distinction, self-surrendering (p.176) conversion experience—one that leads to saintliness. This key contribution can be faulted—e.g. with a condescending gender essentialism that closely identifies the once-born with the feminine and vice versa—but it nonetheless has convincing applicability; as in the examinations of the respectively paradigmatic Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy. Moreover, as is seen when James quotes a healthy minded example from Luther’s writings while still reading the reformation and Luther as second-born, he does not allow a neat system (clear cut reductive divides) to overcome the complexities and nuances of his material, ‘in many instances it is quite arbitrary whether we class the individual as a once-born or a twice-born subject.’ (p.415).

While the first half of the book is mostly devoted to setting up abstract tools, aided by numerous in-depth illustrations, the latter moves towards a concern for results and their bases, ‘We must, therefore, first describe the fruits of the religious life, and then we must judge them.’ (p.221). These ‘fruits’ are achieved via mystic experiences that have four qualities, such lists characterising much of the rest of the book: ineffability, noesis (insight), transiency and passivity (p.322). As these cohere generally to a character they are dubbed ‘saintliness’, identifiable again by four facets: submission of the self to an Unseen ideal (God, utopia, science, humanity…); a notion of the ideals continuousness qua benevolence; free jubilation in the loss of self and a new affirmative love, which have the (yet another) four practical results of asceticism, strength of soul, purity and charity (pp.231-3). Unfortunately, when analysing the desirability of all these qualities, facets and results, James merely takes a vulgar Aristotelian ethical perspective, ‘much that is legitimate to admire in this field need nevertheless not be imitated, and that religious phenomena, like all other human phenomena, are subject to the law of the golden mean.’ (p.290). He therefore cautions away from excess (radicalism) in all cases and towards a piecemeal reformism of character more aligned to his empirical-pragmatist episteme, which increasingly cannot fully include the ideas and experiences of the people he studies. And so while it is favourable that James does not content himself, ‘with superficial medical talk,’ (p.352) his actual focus, coloured by his own preoccupations, proves no less distorting.

However, as much as James attempts to avoid writing traditional theology, he cannot accomplish his circumnavigations completely and thereby often hits on his best ideas. What emerges is an engaged preoccupation with negative (apophatic) theology that sits well with his pragmatism, although marking a departure from his customary prose style as when he accounts for the way in which a seemingly negative attitude is affirmative in its true character, ‘So we deny the ‘this’, negating the negation which it seems to us to imply, in the interests in the higher affirmative attitude by which we are possessed.’ (p.355). This dialectic mode is openly informed by Hegel’s philosophy, who makes a pronounced appearance, ‘Like Hegel in his logic, mystics journey to the positive pole of truth only by the Methode der Absoluten Negativität.’ (ibid). However, the biggest acknowledged influence here is Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatist prescription stated by James as, ‘practical consequences is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.’ (p.378). A straightforward reiteration of Pierce’s maxim to, ‘Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’ The role philosophy has to play in religion is to restrain any tendency to exceed practicality and, ‘eliminate the local and the accidental’ (p.386), to counteract parochialisms. This is the ground for James’ unique and influential fideism (joining the ranks of Pascal, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein) and his negative theology, one that is disinterested in the scholastic attempts to prove the divine or logically deduce God’s attributes as not, ‘of the smallest consequence to us religiously[…]’ (p.378). Except maybe as a purely aesthetic (framed as a patronising take on Catholicism contra Protestantism) ‘hymn of praise and service of glory’ (p.389) manifested in the ecclesiastic dimensions of sacrifice, confession and prayer (p.392)—only the last of which is of much interest for James, for which he constructs a final substantive list, one of ‘degrees’: beggarly (pp.397-400), led (pp.401-4) and revelatory (pp.404-6).

It would be a mistake to concentrate on the content so as to pass over the quality of James presentation, which is arguably his chief talent—rivalled only by a philosophic flair for uniting ideas systematically while eschewing too much of a system. James does not immediately strike the reader with his unpretentious prose and what can come across as a rambling tone, especially a reader acquainted with the whimsical appeals of the majority of surviving twentieth century philosophy, but as with that characteristic humility that cleverly undersells his ideas, here is a style that undersells its own forcefulness, clarity and a capacity to join the thoughts of an audience and to carry them along the processes of the author—he therefore builds up a terminology (first-born, divided self, saintliness, theopathic) that aids comprehension against obscurantist temptations and that gives his work a direct relevance. It is a style that is neither dry nor ego driven. And, with his inexhaustible, erudite quotes, a style supplemented by an aptitude for seamlessly threading his examples into this mix; the voices of his religious writers permeates and textures the book, which is almost an anthology of their spiritual accounts. Without the pretence of deliberate profundity or a need to stamp his own perspective on all of his work—and for all his shortcomings—James is a revelatory delight today and his original lectures must have been powerfully persuasive when first delivered at the University of Edinburgh.

Note: page numbers refer to Folio Society edition.

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Vampires and Class Migration

One of our boogiemen has changed. Vampires were conceived as an evil aristocracy, but in new mythopoeia they are recast as morally ambiguous lumpenproletariat, Marx’s, ‘swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society’—more flatteringly describable as the opt-outs, bohemians, out-of-work intelligentsia… This is an understandable transition: the US, from which much vampire entertainment stems, does not (officially) have an aristocracy and our malignant rulers are far removed from evil counts living in Gothic castles; they are often incompetent, self-pitying CEOs (the upper-echelons of the managerial class) spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, in an age of cynical ‘post-ideology’ our (media directed) perceived threats do not always come from above.

We do not fear aristocracy, which are constitutionally impotent or govern marginalised countries with hard-to-remember names. These relics are too kitsch; Weber’s disenchantment, the process by which modernity replaces medievalist mysticism with bureaucratic rationalism, has made Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck more camp than frightening. We are no longer living in the world of Bram Stoker; his readers’ anxieties are historical (that is dead, rather than undead) curiosities. However, as Owen Jones contends in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, we are terrified by our social dregs, the victims of neoliberalism; by the chilling anecdotes we tell each other about a mass of unruly, drunken, hedonistic, drug-addled, NEET youth that graffiti, pickpocket, shoplift and engage in other such crimes against humanity. If horror is an expression of our anxieties (and sublimated desires) it can be argued that contemporary vampires have a lot to say about class.

In the eighties Kathryn Bigelow’s cult classic Near Dark conceived vampires as drifters on a crime spree and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys depicted them as teenage hoodlums. The genre was reimagined so that while vampires were still alluring predators, they also stood-in for something as alien to monarchs as they always were to the middle-classes. Rather than enigmatically dominating our lives from the local mountain fort, they plague back alleys and cheap bars; the new haunts of fantastic nightmares. Films like these began a trend, shifting the way vampires are portrayed; no longer are they ancient entities of primordial terror, today they are urban myths about the evils (illicit freedoms) of the downtrodden. They retain only their fundamental character as parasites; they still feed on the innocent.

The trend is not universal; Francis Ford Coppola’s nineties adaptation of Dracula and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Låt den rätte komma in are examples of vampire stories that ignore the vogue in favour of tradition or unique subversions. Japanese anime and manga have also been relatively unaffected: Hellsing revamps Dracula (or ‘Alucard’) as an anti-hero working for a priem ostranenie fanatical Anglican Church, but otherwise leaves conventions intact. Black Blood Brothers is more mixed; depicting the old aristocratic vampires as heroes against evil gangster vamps and—somewhat in bad taste—Trinity Blood recounts conflicts between the human Vatican and the vampire Byzantium, a typical clash-of-civilizations replete with unfortunate stereotypes. Irrespective, it is narratives like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, Underworld, Daybreakers et al. that defines these creatures for most audiences. And they predominantly share the new model, albeit in different configurations.

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer flattens evil, robbing if of its elusive Romantic dimension and remoulding it as silly, tangible and postmodern. The ‘Big Bad’ of the first series, The Master, is an apocalypstian Nosferatu, visually reminiscent of the monster from F. W. Murnau’s German Expressionist silent movie. This creature is nostalgic, outmoded and conservative, comically juxtaposed (along with almost every threat from the early episodes) with the contemporary titular heroine. Thereafter the arch-threat goes from demonic mayor to teenage geeks and finishes with a glibly witty reification of evil. However it is the transition from vampire to vampire in the second series that sets the trend and illustrates my thesis. The Master is defeated; replaced by his heir apparent The Anointed One, a regal vampire child (satirising puer aeternus and messiah archetypes) who speaks in riddles and obsesses over ceremony. The Ancien Régime is here to stay, but then Spike and Drusilla enter stage. Inspired by punk couple Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, these undead eccentrics are the epitome of the lumpenproletariat and quickly slide from irreverent mockery to unashamed regicide. It is not long before Spike exposes The Anointed One to sunlight, an act he follows up with the nonchalant suggestion, in self-referential parody, to, ‘Let’s see what’s on TV.’

Spike’s philosophy is expounded during his initial alliance with Buffy (in what becomes a redemptive-romantic subplot), in which he helps save the world because ‘We like to talk big, vampires do. “I’m going to destroy the world.” It’s just tough guy talk. Struttin’ around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got… dog racing, Manchester United, and you’ve got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It’s all right here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real… passion for destruction.’ He is not evil for its own sake, Kant’s ‘demonic evil’; for Spike if it’s not entertaining, pleasurable or liberating, there’s no point. Spike is a slave to the Lacanian Superego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’ He is not propelled by any ideas or agenda; he is a substanceless menace. So when he takes power Spike proclaims, ‘From now on, we’re gonna have a little less ritual… and a little more fun around here.’ Spike is scary not because he is a monster, but because he is—to borrow Nietzsche’s words—all too human. He lives a fantasy version of the life of a lumpenproletariat, playing a Carnivalesque Lord of Misrule—he even used to be an unsuccessful high-society poet. And perhaps Spike is redeemed because that way we can simultaneously revile and embrace his attractive, but taboo, bohemianism.

Angel, the other redemptive/sociopathic vampire of the series (and eventually his own), begins life as a drunken libertine, becomes a monster and is then cursed by gypsies with a soul, which he occasionally looses like the proverbial car keys. A less convincing Byronic hero than Spike, he is motivated by ideals of either extreme nobility or aestheticised ruination. The duality of his evil (Angelus) and good (Angel) sides lends him a Jekyll and Hyde motif, but in both incarnations he is still a social outcast more than a dictatorial power—even when he believes otherwise. Appropriately he evolves into an existentialist noir detective beset by shadowy conspiracies and nefarious machinations, seedy criminals and desperate poverty, forever realising that his struggle is worthwhile despite being unwinnable. He becomes an adherent of the Beckettian logic of, ‘Ever tired. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Most importantly, he spends his time helping the dispossessed, battling against authority in aid of the impoverished, hated and forgotten.

Alan Ball’s Southern Gothic series True Blood (adapted from Charlaine Harris’ books The Southern Vampire Mysteries) is even more overt in the way that it uses vampires as a metaphor for social inequality; here they are homosexuals (‘God hates Fangs’), the criminal underclass (they operate in gangs, cooperate with drug dealers, manage strip clubs, resort to terrorism) and a fading monarchy that has sunken into debauchery from desperation. The dichotomy between Spike and The Anointed One is now the dichotomy between the bureaucratic Authority (again, see Weber) and the antagonist Russell Edgington, the vampire king of Mississippi. It is not so much that lumpenproletariat vampires usurp the sovereign as that the aristocrat becomes the lumpenproletariat, which Marx did describe as a ‘refuse of all classes’. Edgington wages war against the human status quo and a new Kafkaesque vampire overclass; liberal, public relations experts who enjoy TV debates with televangelists, defer responsibility and poorly comprehend social realities. Even Edgington’s foot soldiers fit this analysis; they are a blood-addict gang of werewolves (a monster that has always been at home at the bottom of society) with past ties to the SS and a penchant for Dionysian overindulgence.

As befits an authentic gothic, the tone of True Blood is decidedly Romantic; a celebration of libertinage, radical subjectivity, mortality, aesthetes, transgression. Nobody is entirely innocent (passionate loves, hatreds, fears and desires forbids them to be so blandly Christian), but sin is not entirely ‘evil’ either. As much trouble is caused by puritanical repression (the anti-vampire church Fellowship of the Sun) as the excesses of the unrestrained id. Sex, torture and general decadence are prominent features of every episode as the characters try to find meaning amidst an eternal orgy—meaning that is attained though new heights of pleasure, of reciprocally destructive affairs, etc. If Spike mitigates the middle-classes taboo obsession with the lumpenproletariat, then True Blood simply ignores any cognitive dissonance and directly reprimands its audience’s puritanical reservations.

On the surface Stephenie Meyer’s phenomenon Twilight contrasts sharply with True Blood. Dubbed ‘abstinence porn’ by culture critic Christine Seifert, the ‘teen’ romance between Bella and Edward is framed by implacable restraint, fetishised guilt and repression, but it is cleverly exploiting a lack of sexual material for young women in the entertainment industry. The central dynamic is Christianized delayed gratification and self-sacrifice with sadly misogynistic overtones—Bella eventually gives up her humanity to save her monstrous vampire-human progeny and finds that she quite enjoys masochistic sex with her true love, presumably because it breaks up the monotony. Restrained desire, however, is still desire; as Baudrillard once put it, ‘There is no aphrodisiac like innocence.’ And again Vampires straddle (pardon all punning) the divide between their old manifestation as aristocrats (The Volturi) and their new, more humble station as the threatening lower-class hoards; James’s Coven in general and Victoria’s army of Seatle vampires in particular.  Yet again the supernatural are symbolic of the marginalised.

The Underworld movie franchise takes another approach to the new manifestation of vampires; it blends the roles together as if to suggest that there is not much separating a parasitical overclass from an underclass. Vampires are lead by an aristocracy, live in gothic mansions and have a medieval lineage, but they also (as the title hints) exist in their own underground world (so hermetically sealed it barely references humanity) and fight urban gang wars against werewolves. There’s plenty hubristic science, but it is folksy—that is, not at all modernist. The interplay of old aesthetics with new roles and contexts is camp, which becomes palpable in the ye olde days prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans—a Spartacusesque fable of lycan revolt against feudal vamps. The latest instalment, to be released next year, follows more closely the progression of vampires from sinister conspirators to subjugated minority, ‘Kate Beckinsale, star of the first two films, returns in her lead role as the vampire warrioress Selene, who escapes imprisonment to find herself in a world where humans have discovered the existence of both Vampire and Lycan clans, and are conducting an all-out war to eradicate both immortal species.’

Another film that plays with the developing function of the vampire, but does not lie so comfortably in my Procrustean bed, is the Spierig brothers’ Daybreakers. This inverts the contemporary trend by imagining a dystopic society in which almost everyone has become a vampire and the surviving humans are farmed by corporations for their blood; a Malthusian dystopia in which us mortals are reduced to terrorists or food in a war against an evil establishment that is (in opposition to Underworld) not at all aristocratic, but entirely disenchanted. These vampires are like True Blood‘s Authority; an elite struggling to retain power over a lower order that they poorly understand. The film has a radical dimension in unproblematically aligning audience sympathies with a group of oppressed terrorists against an unjust social order that is analogous to late capitalism. And the metaphor of undeath is most direct; a Juvenalian look at Fukuyama’s end of history qua an eternity of sterile, monotonous misery.

Vampires are a symbol of many things and like all fictions they are not neatly consistent. However a general pattern emerges from the way they are increasingly perceived; a class migration that speaks to, or even helps shape, the attitudes of contemporary audiences. They have lost the legitimacy of their old power and discarded the pretence of radical conservativism; they have adapted. And as vampires continue to be remoulded to emerging contexts, it is worth being mindful that an epoch’s monsters have a lot to say about its humanity.

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It’s a Riot

It is an understatement to say that in this society injustices abound: in truth, it is itself the quintessence of injustice.—Emil Cioran

Beat them, impose martial law, they deserve what they get; they’re thugs! Get the water canons! Baton rounds! Impose curfews! Explanation is justification; they’re mindless, thoughtless, reasonless, motiveless, essentially—somehow—ex nihilo. To say otherwise is an unforgivable violation of a bipartisan consensus; only maddened rage and stunned melancholy are permissible. Perhaps there was a reason initially, one that can be appropriately dissected only after the issue is no longer relevant, but at this point they can only be said to have arrived out of the ether—without raison d’être—to break our otherwise perfect society; they are a sickness, a disease that demands an unforgiving cure. And, let me stress, nobody saw it coming:

I said, nobody:

Shut up, stop explaining, we should shoot on sight! Until someone does get killed by another dumb cop, then investigate police brutality. Right now though, kill! Blood, blood, blood. Cure the sickness in our midst.

Subconsciously we have seen this coming for a while, projecting our Jungian shadow on the unruly masses. Our narrative daydreams are replete with the monster the rioters so quickly recall; Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, The Crazies, I Am Legend, Resident Evil and, speaking of films adapted from games, the Resident Evil console series, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty: World at War, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and on and on; after the Red Dead Redemption DLC Undead Nightmare the number of zombie games is becoming a joke. It’s a cultural tendency that has not been entirely missed. It’s the image of the shambling hoard, of the rotting sleepwalkers; the archetypal dispossessed. They move as a greedy mass, consuming. They are amoral, hunger machines that cannot be tackled without a hefty flamethrower.

However, before I despair at the violent mythic overlay, let’s cursorily, concretely examine these UK rioters. They were raised in the worst country in the industrial world in which to be a child. Few would dispute that they largely belong to the lowest social classes amidst massive inequality and high unemployment, with low expectations. Additionally, despite lacking the means, their society measures them by their capacity to consume and bombards them with hyperreal fantasies of materialistic life from every direction: billboards, online pop ups, TV ads, magazines, films, email spam, etc. The few institutions that served them are being pulled back; everyone has to do their bit in the age of austerity, even if everyone means the young, old, disabled, unemployed and impoverished. The standard of their education is appalling. They live in communities in which the peoples’ relationship to subpar police has broken down.

And let’s not indulge too readily in hypocrisy; if the underclass (collective guilt is in vogue) has been shamed, they have only joined the ranks of the political class (expenses, cablegate, complicity with Murdoch press…), police (brutality, draconian suppression of protest…) media (phone hacking, woeful factual inadequacy, demonization of the vulnerable…), the army (complicity in torture, the orchestration of devastating and immoral wars…) and the whole of society (unwillingness to challenge power, prioritising capital punishment above correcting humanitarian, ecological and economic disasters…).

If these residents of poverty traps are guilty of a consumerism that puts morality to one side, then so is every person (including moi) whose purchases help continue the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Congo, China, etc. So too is every politician who ‘bent’ the rules to steal their bit of public money. So too is every corporation that sells unsustainable dreams; inducing young girls to anorexia as surely as they reduce the world to a barren wasteland. I would not suggest that one evil excuses another, but evils should be taken together; the middle classes are angry, but only because they are feeling some of the pain.

To return to the rioters; they have no investment in our ‘big’ society, which already hated them. At best they get condescending pity; mostly, the media calls them chavs and the voters regard them with ageist, classist suspicion—contempt. They are the ‘lumpenproletariat’ and their anger does have a context, even though their actions can be inexcusable.

Vince Cable is quick to argue that the causes of the riots are not economic and therefore not about the policies of Coalition government; that is, he wants to make it clear that this is not political à la Greece. Superficially that appears right; most of the rioters can only offer an incoherent mass of clichés to justify their looting. And some offer no comprehendible justification at all. Yes it is mad to look for a complex underlining political theory urging arsonists and muggers to realise a recognisable utopic vision against a carefully defined enemy. However, that is a somewhat narrow definition of political—let alone economic. Look at the situation, not at poorly expressed intentions.

This is a rising to the surface of the contradictions inherent to the superstructure of the status quo. It is more the failure of parliamentary democracy and capitalism per se, than the Coalition or British government in particular. As usual; families, poor communities, those on the peripheries are paying the most for the actions of the least.

So what should we do? Blindly looking to the PM to set the mood (of ‘tough love’) and return us to the normal is inexcusably cretinous and invites us to stay on the same miserable trajectory. Further empowering the poisonous police  is a bit like responding to violently abused and violently abusive children by locking them in a room with a Rottweiler—tough love indeed. In fact, with a new bent on draconianism, policing for the lower orders may be the new justification for curtailing civil rights for everyone. Much as terrorism has been the excuse for power to exert its natural tendencies.

So shall we continue in the way we have? Do we really degrade our society one more time and deem the rioters’ mere mindless zombies, arisen ex nihilo, controllable only through a police state? Alternatively, do we radically cut across divides and consolidate against the general condition of consumerist greed that is the true sickness of our society?

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