Thursday, July 21, 2005

Capitalism’s vampires

I thought this post from the Vancouver weekly The Republic made an excellent point about the Vampire motif in popular culture that made up for it's abscence from my article Gothic Capitalism. So I thought I would post an excerpt here.

The Vampire who preyed on peasants such as the historical Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad Tepes, the impaler, gave rise to these legends among the peasants and rising bourgoise of Europe. The subtext was always the same, and of course had some truth in it. The aristocracy were living off the peasants, some became literal bloodsuckers in the declining period of fudealism and the rise of capitalism.

But the aristocracy was always bloodsuckers which is why fudealism declined. Now capital itself has become the bloodsucker of our time and labour, and it lives on eternally in the commodification of our lives.

Nobles are confronted by ample evidence of their fundamental identity with the people they oppress. Try though they might, they can't escape the human condition, a condition marked by suffering, decay, and death.

In the transition from complex societies to modern states, the taste for exploitation was retained

by Michael Nenonen

I used to be one of Anne Rice's most committed fans. Interview With A Vampire (1976) hooked me, and for years thereafter I let Rice's imagination mould my own. By the time I finished reading Lasher (1993), though, I'd had my fill. Her cuisine remained the same, but my palate hadn't. After reading Eli Sagan's At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origin of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the State (Knopf, 1985), I understand why.

Before discussing Sagan's work, I should offer some idea of what Rice's novels are about—or at least the thirteen I've read. Until 1993, at any rate, Rice was writing about beautiful vampires even when she was supposedly writing about witches and mummies, upper-class nymphettes and sadomasochistic aristocrats. Vampirism isn't restricted to literal bloodsucking; it occurs whenever we steal another person's vitality, regardless of how the theft is carried out. This theft was the centerpiece of Rice's fiction.

Her protagonists were typically talented and gorgeous, wealthy and amoral. Some were superhuman. By the early 90s the vampire Lestat could fly and lift many tonnes; he might as well have been from Krypton. Whether they were drinking blood or enjoying fine art, her characters' tastes were invariably expensive. The plight of the characters forced to feed those tastes was paid little heed; the poor and ugly were regularly exploited, humiliated, and literally devoured. Her protagonists' virtue was highlighted by the material, intellectual, aesthetic, and psychological poverty of the people beneath their feet.

Rice's influence upon the S&M and Goth subcultures has been remarkable. Much like Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, her fiction inspires a way of life, though few of her fans seem to understand the classism underlying that fiction. Though she certainly celebrates the power of beauty, Rice also promotes the beauty of power.

Let's turn to Sagan's work, which explores the psychosocial transformations that accompanied the rise of complex societies. These are transitional societies, existing between early tribal societies on the one side and literate state societies on the other. Complex societies are marked by kingship and aristocracy, phenomena unknown in previous stages of social development. Whereas tribal societies maintain order through the informal pressures of kinship networks, in complex societies the nobility escapes the bonds of collective existence.

The most vicious feature of complex societies, and one that's particularly relevant for Anne Rice's work, is their nearly universal practice of human sacrifice, a practice that's rare in tribal societies and that dies out as complex societies give way to literate states.

Ritually sacrificing the powerless reinforces the class structure of complex societies and makes it easier for the nobility to psychologically dissociate itself from kinship ties. Nobles must, after all, believe they have qualities that set them apart from base commoners. To be "noble" is to be superhuman, with all the privileges due to such an elevated condition and without any of the moral fetters binding the inferior classes. Nobles define themselves in contrast to commoners. Commoners are ugly, while nobles are beautiful; commoners are stupid, while nobles are wise; commoners are poor, while nobles are rich; commoners are weak, while nobles are mighty. Human sacrifice enshrines this division between the lordly and the contemptible. Vampires like Lestat are perfect embodiments of noble fantasy.

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