Friday, April 9, 2010

Q & A with Bruce A. McClelland, Part 4

For the previous installment, click here.
AH: A few years before you wrote your book, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended its run on television. During its time, there was a resurgence of interest in the vampire hunter (like Blade and Van Helsing) but now we're back in the realm of vampires again with Meyer's Twilight series.

Do you see the vampire hunter coming back into fashion and are there any examples you can think of, which would provide the catalyst for its return?

BAM: As with my answer to question 5, above, the "fashions" or permutations of the main elements of the vampire myth may or may not involve "infinitely malleable signifiers." Among my current interests (see below, q. 8) is to determine what is so marketable about this genre, and what its possible transformations are. I once thought, as a kid (same time as I was watching Hammer films, I suppose) that rock-and-roll also was permanent, and since it lasted into the 90s, by some definitions, and since those vampires The Rolling Stones are still kicking around, it appears that it is possible to hold onto a category, so long as you are willing to extend its boundaries and make it malleable and permeable. But there comes a time when the essential components of the category, which constitute its essence or identity, are no longer visible, at which point it becomes useful to wonder whether you still have the same thing, or something, Monty Pythonesquely, completely different.

Abstractly, your question involves two intersecting dimensions: one has to do with the nature of the cycles of popular culture fashions, the other with the philosophical dynamics that are at the base of the vampire theme. Crudely, the latter is easily represented as a dualistic conflict between good and evil, life and death, light and dark, blah blah. That essential human social drama, like the vampire perhaps, is not going to die, at least in my lifetime. But the specifics of the myth, like those of the defunct mythologies of the Greeks or Egyptians or Hittites or Etruscans or whoever, with their attendant ritual verbiage and gestures, may indeed pass into other forms.

I think the better way to think about it, especially nowadays with global mass media, is that the world's societies are coming into contact more frequently and faster than ever before – much faster than in centuries past – and so the capacities of societies to rearrange their categories and boundaries, in order to update knowledge of who is one of us and who is one of them, are being outpaced by this increasing contact, with its concomitant conflicts of styles and modalities. In the final analysis, the vampire story is essentially about that: who is us (the living, the real, the valuable), and who is them (the dead, the unreal, the worthless or abject). The role of the slayer, as I point out throughout my book, is to validate the boundaries that a society creates in order to exclude (literally excommunicate) certain members. The slayer, the seer, the hunter of vampires is, like a superhero, by definition always on the side of the ostensible Good (Us). And where We may feel guilty about designating certain among us as Other, we need someone to validate our need for a scapegoat without holding Us responsible.

So I think of the dyad of vampire/slayer as a dynamic for expressing a certain range of social tensions, among a drifting palette of other, similar dynamics to represent other types of social tension. In the case of the vampire, as well as the witch, the issue has always been the Enemy Within: someone who is so much like us that he or she might be attractive to us, but is also a threat because he or she is also essentially alien (dead, Communist, what have you). In socioeconomic terms and with respect to the history of vampire cinema/TV, now that Eastern Europeans are starting to look so much like those of us in the NATO world (and I am in Sofia, Bulgaria as I write and attest to that), the image of the terrorist is now starting to absorb much of the semantics of the East European monster of the 1930s. That is, in America at any rate, we must now all take off our shoes to get on an airplane, even 93-year-old half-crippled WASPs like my father-in-law, because any one of us may be a terrorist (or Communist again, if the Republicans have their way in changing the predominant label back to something more familiar). The hunter has to re-emerge. To all extents and purposes, Jack Bauer (of "24") is a vampire hunter: he is outside the system, he is as violent and morally degraded as his enemy (i.e. he can "see" them), yet he is on the Right Side because he allows the rest of the system to wrap its citizens in ignorant comfort, blind to any sense of injustice or moral compromise.)

Whether the fashion of the vampire hunter per se will re-emerge is unclear. Certainly if the dangerous vampire is co-opted and ingested into human (read: European) society, so that he no longer seems so foreign or threatening, then we may be tacitly admitting that there are other stories in which real people (e.g. "terrorists") can be portrayed as much more dangerous than the vampire ever was. In any case, we still seem to need hunters and seers (e.g. Blackwater), people who know who the terrorists are and how to destroy them, so we can stay safe and keep on doing whatever it was we were doing before.

AH: Do you have any upcoming works in the vampire genre? Are there other avenues within it that you'd like to explore?

BAM: Well, as I mentioned above, I just finished a chapter for a new book on True Blood, in which I look at the co-optation of the vampire as the potentially eternal consumer. There are some people urging me now to look at what incentives (social, financial, …) are driving the current reconfiguration of the vampire story into something almost unrecognizable from the early horror and Orientalism of Dracula. I even have a tentative title: "What's Up with All These Vampires? The Truth about the Untruth about the Undead." The point of that subtitle is that, except for the emergence of blogs like yours, and Niels', and Rob Brautigam's Shroudeater and a few others, most people really don't want to understand the sociodynamics, true history, cultural anthropology or even the psychology of the vampire mytheme. There is a reason, going back to your second question above, that people really don't want to look too deeply at the Slavic or folkloric or religious roots of the vampire (a reason, that is, that goes beyond the general Enlightenment chauvinism behind Western European attitudes toward East European culture). The fact that there are so many TV pseudo-documentaries called something like "The Truth about/The Real Story of/behind {Dracula, The Undead, Vampires, Bloodsuckers, etc.}", each consulting the same talking heads with the same talking points (usually taking us all the way back to Vlad the Impaler[!], suggesting this may be a Romanian conspiracy), suggests a kind of cover-up. None of the stories on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel or any of those pseudo-educational televenues (I don't know what you've got in Australia) really goes very far or very deep, and I suspect that's exactly the way people like it.

So I'm interested, vaguely, in that: what is it about vampires (or other phenomena similarly treated) that we don't really want to know? There's something there, some thrill or frisson or furtiveness –eroticism?-- behind our tendency to always prefer the sensational over the actual. This something is what allows the media industry to keep spinning stuff out of the very term 'vampire', even though the vampire's shape has shifted drastically.

Another avenue, if I get the time, is the relationship of the vampire to the early Enlightenment, that period of magia posthuma that Niels is rightfully so gung-ho about. I gave a talk at the University of Chicago in 2008, where I was invited by Bruce Lincoln, who was then teaching a course on vampires at the Divinity School, in which I looked closely at the imperative to explain away the folkloric vampire on the part of both the scientists and clergymen (esp. Dom Calmet) of the day. I'd like to expand on that theme, and look more closely at what I consider a concerted attack on the imagination when it is not in the service of technology, which leads to the death or incipient irrelevance of religion, folklore, etc. It's a critical time, in European intellectual history, and the vampire – once a networked member of an elaborate and confusing South Slavic demonology – plays a significant part.

Otherwise, I'm trying to get back into fiction. I defined myself as a poet for thirty-plus years, and while I don't think I can move back into that space for now, I would like to return to "creative writing." The only long fiction I've ever had published, by the way, was a novel I wrote in Russian (and published in a Petersburg literary journal), which was entitled "Hot War: Memoirs of an American Vampire in Moscow."
I'd like thank Bruce for his time, patience and excellent responses to my questions. I'd also recommend checking out his interview with Chris Detloff, for further discussion on his view of the undead and those who hunt 'em.

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