“What interested me most, though, in the case of vampires, and which turned out to be unavoidable, is that they make manifest an enduring association not so much of blood and life (this is an old and complicated matter which I try to interrogate as well in the book), but of blood and love.” – Gil Anidjar
This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. Today, we have a blog post by Gil Anidjar on the somewhat complicated relationship between vampires and blood in popular culture.
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My Thoughts Be Bloody
By Gil Anidjar
I had thought I would stay away from vampires.
Which generally might seem like a good idea. Still, I have no particular investment in or animus against them. After all, they are said to be found in many ages and in all kinds of places, and not always nocturnal. Seriously though, Blood was growing, and growing (like a relentless, not necessarily battery-operated, monster), whereas I had already learned from Luise White’s wonderful book, Speaking with Vampires, which addresses the apparently fantastic and widespread stories of vampire firemen found in Africa. Why firemen? In a situation like this, one rarely asks: why vampires? White does. She compellingly argues that these stories constitute complex translations of a deep understanding of Western colonial power, leaving little doubt that there was — still is — something peculiar about Western powers and about their tenacious projections of vampirism in multifarious manifestations. I had nothing to add. Besides, one would have had to be locked away in a cave (or in a coffin) to miss the explosion of vampirism in popular culture, its recent accelerations, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade, from True Blood to (what else?) Twilight. By the way, I am pretty certain this was all around the time I noticed an ad for the New York Lottery that suggestively assimilated this seemingly benign form of gold lust to vampiric desire (but it was meant in a good way). But it was before another public service announcement, by the New York City Office of Emergency Management, rethought the image it had disseminated of a child hanging in a stormy sky to propose safe modes of good parenting as alternatives to throwing you into a disaster zone (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin, “They may not mean to, but they do”). If you see something . . . But I digress. Today, who would disagree that, whether ancient or modern, vampires are good to think with?
Vampires then. But what is it that we are thinking about? I would not want to argue that vampires are somehow unambiguous ciphers of anything in particular. They have rightly been seen as occasions to reflect on death and immortality (duh!), erotic projections of Orientalist anxieties, early versions of a kind of mechanic or technological unconscious, or uncanny instantiations of serious food disorders — unless it is the normalization of cannibalism. Speaking of food for thought: consider that Twilight’s Cullen family is “vegetarian,” which in this indubitably perverse case of resignification means that they do not consume human, only animal, blood. According to this popular lexicon, your average BBQ loving carnivore would have to be called, well, a vampire. The circuits of identification, which have been followed most meticulously by Lawrence Rickels in his dazzling Vampire Lectures are, one can easily see, quite rich.
More generally, and much more simply, vampires undoubtedly testify to the ubiquity of blood in our imagination. And if you think of it, not only in our imagination. In their widespread literality, they make manifest the strange presence of blood in our most quotidian existence. Blood drives, for instance, are the original “product (red),” whereby commodification (and militarization) is cloaked with generosity (or vice-versa). Like the citizen in a great game of Monopoly, the blood flows into blood banks, named so because banks are such trustworthy institutions, so where else would you want to keep your most valued dispossessions? Marx had a lot to say about this connection between money and blood, between capitalism and vampirism, and he was by no means the only one. And what to make of the fact that our family bonds are insistently thought of as “blood ties”? It quickly became imperative to spend a little more time with the history of anthropology (and the place of kinship in it), to address the figure of blood in political discourse (I linger, for instance, on the infamous “one drop rule” which marks the less glorious history of this country). What interested me most, though, in the case of vampires, and which turned out to be unavoidable, is that they make manifest an enduring association not so much of blood and life (this is an old and complicated matter which I try to interrogate as well in the book), but of blood and love.
After listening to my colleague Sarah Cole, who kindly insisted we read Bram Stoker’s Dracula over the course of a seminar on blood, I became convinced that here was another opportunity to reflect on Christianity as a lover’s discourse (in an earlier book, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, I attended to Christian love — and hate — and tried to take the measure of this incredible commandment, to love the enemy). It is not that Christianity has a monopoly on love, only that it has peculiarly attached its thinking of love to a thinking of blood. Catherine of Sienna, Shylock and Stoker too, understood this well. In this way too, Christianity is revealed as something else than a religion in the narrow definition that continues to govern our understanding. Through all its transformative, indeed, protean history, Christianity has maintained itself as a lover’s discourse (read Tomaž Mastnak on Crusading Peace and think of current forms of benevolent, military humanitarianism). This is something that seems to become more explicit as vampiric production grows and as blood continues to flow — literally. And I think it tells us something about our modernity, about our Christianity. As Rickels puts it in The Vampire Lectures, “under the double barrel of Christian love, the demand that one love one’s neighbor as one’s self (or as Christ loves us one and all), we already find ourselves marrying modern group psychology.”