September 2008

That’s right, my friends. I’m off to potentially sunnier, probably cloudier, definitely deliciously rougher climes for about two weeks. I’ll be back then with my overly involved take on why Half Life roolz Bioshock so hard it hurts. That’s right, kids, this is theory central, this is 😉 Take care, one and all!

O I’ve mentioned already that I’m adoring my students this term, and for the most part, this is true. There’s a couple of points, though, at which I’m banging my head up against a brick wall with a couple of them. Now before this sounds like a straightforward bitch about students, I want to say that that’s not quite it. It’s actually that the whole experience is making me reflect on how tenacious a particular conception of ontology and epistemology is. It manifests itself in these particular students as a complete resistance to the idea that there might not really be such a thing as ‘the natural body’; or rather, that ‘the natural body’ is just as much a construction as anything else. It echoes through the week on disability (‘some people just are disabled’) and fatness (‘but some things just will make you fat, and fat is bad!’) and so on. But all of this is premised on a really particular understanding of the world: of the world as something out there, something at a distance. Something static, immoveable, unchangeable. Something which has been there, just less well comprehended, for those who came ‘before’ us in history. Something firm; something foundational; something to anchor the world.

This isn’t rare, not at all. And it’s a hard conception to shift. Our commonsense sense of representation works this way too: there’s the thing itself, and then there’s the word for the thing. It’s echoed by truth: truth is thought as the adequation of knowledge to the thing itself. The thing itself, though, is ‘out there,’ existing all by its lonesome, unchanging and forever just the way it is.

What’s intriguing, I think, is the hard work it takes to sustain an alternative conception, at least for a while. I have seen students grasp the complexity of, say, the idea that the body doesn’t exist prior to culture and then enter into it, but only becomes a ‘body’ within a given cultural context. Then, the next week, they’re back to arguing that this conception doesn’t make sense. Most often, these claims are premised on the assumption that in order for what I’m teaching to be ‘true’ (and it needs to be true, for them; some even stick with calling what we’re learning ‘objective’) it needs to cohere with what ‘science’ (and this, I think, has less to do with science itself, which is often much more circumspect about such claims, and more to do with the authorisation of what has become commonsense).

There’s also some funny stuff that happens about not just the idea of truth, but the comfort of the idea of truth. I’ve watched a few students get wider and wider of eye, and I can see what’s happening. They’re falling for what I call ‘dumb existentialism’ (which by the by the mainstream media seems to think postmodernism is all about) in which the moment we lose a big-t Truth, the world slowly starts to dwindle into chaos. Meaning is gone. The world is everything and nothing. It’s all very deep, and I remember those conversations over beer when I was an undergrad.

(Hilarious side point: I remember talking to one particular guy. He was hot, he knew it (but unfortunately the hot faded, potentially because of this conversation). We talked cultural studies and I was taken that he was taken with it. Then I suggested that ‘who I really am’ isn’t so much given by some essence, but by the people around me (my attempt at a less depersonalised sense of ‘context’). He suggested that this was because I felt the demands that other people made on me too much, and that what I needed to do was go off to a Buddhist retreat like he did. Coz he found himself. He really did; he found some core, deep deep down, you know, just himself, his real self… and I thought of Foucault… and I thought of Butler… and I thought…OMG. Pretty or not, it was so hard to hold my tongue, coz man it was going to be biting.)

But back to my existential crisising students. What they usually forget, of course, is that ‘discovering’ there’s no big-t Truth is not the same as losing big-t Truth. When they freak out, they freak out as if now there’s no meaning. But the same significances still exist for them, just as they always did, because they never did depend on a big outside Truth. All it shows is that truth is given within a context, by a set of shared discourses; not that it’s any less true. But you know, that’s kinda less sexy than the artistic soul’s pit of despair on discovering that nothing means anything.

In other words, there’s a semi-willingness to challenge ideas of Truth. But there’s a less sustained attention to how and why particular things are made to count as truth, or why we might live as if they are, and so on. It’s like the stories about postmodernism the mainstream media likes to tell: it just destroys everything. They miss the construct in deconstruct; and they miss that deconstruction is not about making things false, it’s about highlighting their contingency. This issue comes up a lot: it’s like deconstruction has to be set back within a world view in which it is possible for things to be true or false, and deconstruction will tell us which is which. Strange, but it happens a lot. In conversation with someone online a while ago, I suggested that there were strategic ways that one could attempt to tell big-t-style Truths as a way of negotiating with the political efficacy of big-t Truth, whilst at the same time critiquing and deconstructing both the ‘truth’ and what let it count as truth, and the fact that it was politically effective. My interlocutor commented that this was disingenuous: to claim things were true because it was politically efficacious, but not thinking them actually true was to be, in essence, false. This line has been kicking around in my head with all this other stuff for a while now, and it just intrigues me how notions of authenticity and truth seem to remain throughout a critical approach. My interlocutor was very far from foolish, and grasped much of poststructuralist theory. But nonetheless, this theory was implicitly, it seems, set back within an ontology and an epistemology: in which there was a world out there that we couldn’t really touch but could use words that were adequate to it, represent it, and that that adequation bore with it a political and moral responsibility.

I don’t have much of great profundity to say about this. It does, though, seem to point out how thoroughly our habitual styles of being-in-the-world are inflected by these ontologies. My students come to class, and for some of them at least, their perception is shaken up. Yet they leave, and go and order coffee, and sit with friends, and chat and read and catch the bus and sleep and cook and work… and when they come back to class, their perception has settled again. There are those, of course, for whom the shaking up is too exciting to leave alone. They prod the ideas, turn them over, return to them; maybe even do what I as an undergrad used to do, which is talk endlessly about them to my friends. For them, poking and prodding and turning their own assumptions, their own habits around in their hands becomes… fun, addictive, exciting, terrifying… There’s nothing quite like discovering that the world is not out there. It’s in always already here, intimate of intimates; and you’re out there, too, distant and dreamt-of.

OR those of you who have been readers of this blog for a while, you’ll know that vampires tend to crop up around me… well, in the pop culture I like to consume. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a big, long-standing favourite with me, for example. And I reviewed Elizabeth Knox’s Daylight a while back. And as I mentioned there (I think?), Sue Ellen Case grounds a lot of this fascination for me. In ‘Tracking the Vampire’ she argued (this was a while ago now) that vampires inhabit a liminal space, figured primarily as life and death. Given the tendency to homologise our binaries (oh yeah, baby, give me more, always more ;-P) this turned into a bigger ontological challenge, blurring the lines between a whole series of differences: between straight and gay, between male and female, between reproductive and non-reproductive and so on… and this, she argued, was precisely queer.

This is part of what fascinated me about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part of why I think the stories about sexuality recounted in around and through BtVS are more complex than at least some people seem to think. I still remember a film student friend of mine gasping at all the symbolic significance of Spike (under the influence of the First Evil (caps necessary)) oh-so-sensually mouthing at a gash in Buffy’s arm. Mmm hmm. Kids’ TV? Nothin’ to see here, folks, move along. 😉

So a while back now, I saw the pilot for True Blood. Ooh! Alan Ball! All cool with the Six-Feet-Under-ness of him! Ooh! Anna Paquin! All dark eyes and kissable (or is it?) mouth! Ooh! Vampires! I decided that I would give into my trashy urges and try vampire fiction again. Who knew, maybe someone could do something with a slightly less puritannical heroine than Anita Blake (maybe she got better, but ugh, save me from a girl with too clear a sense of right and wrong!). So in quick succession (I can’t really imagine reading them any other way) I read the Sookie Stackhouse series. Or, as it’s also known, the Southern Vampire series, by Charlaine Harris. These are the books Alan Ball is basing this new TV series on.

The books are, in themselves, that kind of easy-to-read, fun, never-going-to-be-high-lit-thank-fuck stories which made me dream of lazy holidays. They play on the down-home-ness of the American South, as well as the violence and racism of it. But they draw out some interesting things about the figure of the vampire in contemporary pop culture, and that’s one of the things I want to talk about.

It’s not unusual to see BtVS critiqued (and totally fairly) for its whiteness. There’s a particular line of argument which suggests that vampires and demons are taken as representatives of racialised others, the otherness which is consistently situated as threatening and (at least by Buffy) threatened by our heroes. I’m never entirely sure about this slippage between other-worldly and race, not least because I think that vampires manage to encapsulate, to different degrees in different spaces, a variety of forms of difference. They shape shift according to the work they’re being made to do.

But in Charlaine Harris’ books, the parallel is explicit. The setting of the American South is, I think, no accident. But it’s not just race. Vampires have recently ‘come out of the coffin’ (aheh aheh) and are now lobbying to have the same rights as humans (through the passing of the Vampire Rights Act). What precipitated this coming out? The development of artificial blood by a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Our brand spanking new blond heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, has numerous arguments with lots of different people about not being prejudiced against vampires. In the extra-long opening credits, which involve images of sex and death and Southernness (rivers and road kill and crocodiles and white trash sexy-dancing, and kids in KKK hoods and gospel-singing black people and mostly-naked girls, bar brawls and baptisms) set all in amongst each other to the tune of Jace Everett’s ‘Bad Things’, there’s a shot of a backlit sign that says ‘God Hates Fangs.’ Hilariously, and this really did make me laugh out loud, we catch a glimpse in episode two of a newspaper bearing the headline ‘Angelina adopts vampire baby.’ In fact, I can’t remember if it’s in the book, but in the series, she responds to her (Black) friend Tara warning her that all a vampire wants is to suck your blood by saying ‘Yes, and all Blacks are lazy and Jews all have horns.’ Except that as she’s reminded, drinking artificial blood is probably comparable to living on SlimFast… Sookie’s defence of vampire rights seems to be at least partly premised on a denial of this particular threat, especially when she’s defending her decisions to others: she argues that they can, will and should assimilate… while drinking lots of fake blood and having small kitchens (coz they don’t need to cook). But this isn’t the whole story: she also wants, and I mean wants, the vampire of her small town of Bon Temps. His name, my friends, is Bill. [giggle]

She’s drawn to him. Part of this plays out through another supernatural phenomenon: our friend Sookie is not only a waitress, she’s a telepath. Makes dating, amongst numerous other things, a bit of a bitch. (‘Is she a natural blond, nothing worse than a big black bush,’ ‘Maybe she’ll stop me dreaming about Matt Damon,’ ‘Wow, never thought those thighs would be quite that size,’ or ‘Wow, I wish she’d stop talking, she’s really annoying,’ or ‘I just want sex right now’ etc; though they stick with the earlier two, coz they’re funnier… (and maybe less critical of conventional masculinity?)). Vampires, though, don’t send out brain waves, so it’s kinda peaceful for our Sook, being around them. In some sense, it’s an unusual take on thinking about relationships in contemporary culture, which is usually ‘communicate every fucking little thing’…

But she is drawn to him. Scott Winant’s direction of this relies on long close-up shots of Anna Paquin looking wide-eyed, mostly, and lots of pregnant silences. Oh, and Stephen Moyer, playing Bill, looking mysterious, a bit pale, and mostly up from under his eyebrows. Hey, if an evil sexy look works, I say work it. In a moment that recalls the scene from BtVS described above, though, Bill offers Sookie his blood when she is mortally injured. She at first rejects it, not wanting to become a vampire, but once he reassures her this won’t happen, she suckles on down on his wrist. And wow… if my old friend Katy thought Spike’s lipping of Buffy’s wound evoked cunnilingus, I wonder what she thought of this: the moment is Loooong, and despite Sookie’s battered state, both her hands wrap around Bill’s wrist, capturing, drawing him closer, stroking, while her mouth does some serious work. They’re both half-frowning. There’s no missing the significance (well, okay, maybe I’m just dirty-minded or have read too much psychoanalysis, but c’mon!).

Of course, what’s particularly interesting about this is that it inverts the usual ‘first taste’ story—and there’s a Fiona Apple nod later in the episode, albeit evoking Sookie’s desire for sex/vampire suckage. But at least in this case, this isn’t about sweet virginal Sookie getting penetrated and made into a bad, evil, undead thing. Instead, she drinks deep. Bill’s maleness becomes complicated by a site that penetrates the supposedly inviolate male body (and there’s something intriguing, I think, about the fact that he bites himself so that she can drink). The sexualising of this shifts away from simple reproductive het sex, and into something queerer (as Sue Ellen Case would suggest).

But what’s also interesting is the effects of this queer exchange (and yes, he ‘cleans her up’, licking away the blood that covers her face (apart from, in a shot I suspect was not intended this way, but which I found cool and amusing anyway, a moustachioed crusting of dried blood)). As Bill explains to her later on, not only does this let her heal, but it heightens her senses and her – cue his cute Southern embarrassment – libido. In the book, it enhances her attractiveness, making her skin glow, her hair lighter, her eyes brighter… but I guess Anna Paquin doesn’t get much better? 😉 But intriguingly here, we have something other than assimilation happening: we have the blond white mortal girl altered by her interaction with the vampire. She’s made other than what she was. And in turn, he is altered by her blood: he knows where she is, and how she’s feeling. There’s a blurring, then, of the lines between Sookie and Bill, between their different ‘races’, between their self-contained identities. She shares in some of his sense of the world as her senses sharpen. He shares in her emotional state. As she says to him, “You were just licking blood out of my head. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.” (And Bill’s thinking “You ain’t see nothin’ yet, honey,” I’m sure. Lucky about that non-telepathic with vampires thing, huh?)

This will get more complicated as the series progresses: there are more vampires, there’s more blood-sucking, and some other fun stuff (shape shifters! werewolves! fairies (both magical and queer!)! maenads! dwarves! and so on). Sookie meets more vampires, shares her blood with them, and has some of their blood too. (Bill’s not going to be all that forever). Each of these is significant. She gets a decent amount of sexin’ from various males of various speices round about the place, and each of these ties bind, in different ways and to different extents.There’s more evocation of the ties between folks through the sharing of blood or magic. For example, Sookie’s brother, Jason, winds up bitten by a werepanther (thereby producing not a genuine shape-shifter, but a half-man, half-panther combo) because this werepanther wants the girl (also a werepanther) that Jason is sleeping with; Jason is preferable because he comes from outside their shared  community of shapeshifters, which has become so inbred many are permanently caught as half-panther beings. So the werepanther seeks to bind Jason into the community and thereby make him less attractive to the girl werepanther so that Jason won’t be the better choice anymore. (Confusing, huh?).

And I suppose in the end, this is what is intriguing to me: the supernatural, and particularly horror-focused evocations of it, seems to focus so clearly on undermining the self-containment of the liberal humanist individual. It makes the intercorporeal literal in the sharing of blood, and in the consequences of that sharing. This is, of course, Kristeva’s point, when she talks about how the abject functions: it dwells in the space between subject and object: both me and not-me, testifying to the incompleteness, the necessary permeability of my boundaries. For her, the edges of the body represent the containment and delineation of the subject. Thus the abject is both the condition for the possibility of my being an individual, and testimony to its impossibility too. And the powers of horror, as the essay is titled, lie in this dual function: the loss of self and the origination of it, the powerful seductiveness of losing the sense of the edges of the self, and the terror of precisely that. The queering of identity is often enacted through the vampire, through the werewolf, through the individual-becoming-other-through-the-other’s-gift. These are the stories that draw me to them. And it’s only partly about the sex. I think. 😉

owdy to all those loyal enough to have me feeded. 😉 I’ve been gone for such a long time now, I’ll be surprised if anyone remembers I exist. This hiatus extended on into something more like a never-blog! I’m trying not to feel guilty for that.

So the lovely Nate prodded me a while back, wondering what post-PhD life was like. And this strange kind of limbo-land I’m in… well, for the moment, it’s pretty pleasant. Apart from the occasionally breath-taking bout of anxiety that strikes me whenever I think about the thesis, life is feeling pretty sunny. I have more time for my friends, more space for being someone other than a thesis-writer, which is kinda nice, and I’m convening a course I adore. And the students in said course seem brighter than your average bear, which makes for a nice change to the endless frustration of people last semester (Student: ‘But… well, I just think it’s wrong.’ Me: ‘What’s wrong?’ Student: ‘Homosexuality.’ Me: ‘[gape, thinking but we’re 6 weeks in, this is a queer theory course, we’ve talked all about this for weeks on end, and that’s all you got?] Ooookay, well, perhaps we might try thinking about why you think it’s wrong…’ [in head: again]). The other day, in a tutorial about donation of bodily tissues, I had the following (approximate) conversation take place:

Me: So what do you think of current ways of thinking about donation? Are they fair? Are they exploitative?

Student 1: Well, they’re pretty exploitative, a lot of them. And unfair.

Student 2: But that’s because of the commodification of bodily tissues.

Me: Okay, so are there alternatives you can imagine?

Student 3: Well, I can’t really see any, but commodification does seem to be the main problem. But it’s hard to imagine any other ways of doing things.

Student 2: That’s because of capitalism. Capitalism is the real problem.

Me: And my work here is done.

So yes, I am enjoying my students. It’s nice, first of all, to be doing both lectures and tutes, because it means that whatever it is that I teach them, that’s what they are meant to be learning. There’s less uncertainty for me, in that regard: it means that I’m not second-guessing my grasp of someone else’s explanations/theorisations/positions. But second, it’s really really fun to be running the course. I added in a week on the concept of ‘choice’: what counts as choice and what doesn’t, and how this works to naturalise particular kinds of interventions into the body, and raise others as political (or ethical, or social…) issues. It’s hard work, too. Even though the woman who is employing me gave me all of her lectures, this week (week 6) is the first week that I’ve really used them. I’m trying to take this opportunity to build up a bit of a backlog of lecture materials, slides and so on. So it’s all very useful, but hard work too.

I’m also having to think about The Future. Which I dislike and try to de-capitalise as much as possible. I need to publish, and am just heading into starting to feel guilt about that, so I think I should really just start writing. I have a few things arising from the thesis which need to be written shortly, and a few papers up-coming: a chapter for a book, a review essay on Judith Butler (has anyone else noticed the simply nutty number of books ‘on’ her that have just come out? Craziness!), and two planned articles for two special issues due early next year. I need to publish more than that, of course, but it’ll be good (hard) work to just do that, methinks. I’m helping to organise a conference, too… And somewhere in the midst of all of that, I want to apply for various fellowships at various places, and write a book proposal for the thesis (or, y’know, the book of the thesis… like the film of the book, y’know… ). In amongst all of that is the awareness that I desperately need to organise employment for over the summer. It’s easy to forget that it’s about four months potentially without money. I might wind up doing data entry, but I’m crossing fingers for something more exciting. Cross them with me?

In general, my currently post-grad friends, post-thesis life is much funner, at least for me. I keep trying to explain it to people, but most don’t get it: I felt like I was procrastinating all the time at the end of the PhD. Even when I was teaching. Even when I was doing other work. Hell, even when I was working on the thesis I was convinced there was something else more important, more signficant, more urgent about the thesis that I should be working on. This is a strange and stupid frame of mind, I am aware (and was aware at the time), but it is sincerely how I felt. Not feeling like my entire life is one big, lazy procrastination is extraordinarily liberating. Yes, I am much happier. It’s good! And as much as I panic about examiners’ reports, and the potential culture clash of American academics marking my work, and the potential GAPING HOLES in my argument… I am, for the most part, able to set it aside. We’ll see how I go when I get closer to when the reports come back, but yeah…

So yes, I am hoping to start blogging again. I am writing a fair bit at the moment, what with lectures and (ahem) fiction (shh, don’t tell anyone) and with the articles that I’m meant to be doing. But I’ve been hanging around posting long comments on various blogs (mostly grumping at anti-trans*, trans*phobic radfems) which is probably a good sign that I should be doing more writing back at home.

And yeah, I’ve totally missed you lot. 🙂