Over at New APPS, Catarina links to and comments on a New Scientist article about fMRIs and female sexuality. When my comment grew to be so unwieldy (sigh), I decided to post it over here instead…

Mmm, interesting post – thanks Catarina! And Mark, you’re entirely right… but I think this point has more to say in this context…

Whilst I understand and also reject the Freudian model of understanding ‘mature’ female sexual pleasure (a thesis shocking in its persistent) as lying in being a ‘lodging place for the penis’ (as Irigaray puts it), I’m also hesitant about suggesting that female sexual pleasure arises primarily from the clitoris and that this is unsurprising because it is the homologue with the penis. Again this seems to centre a very particular masculine imagining of sexual pleasure (one, I might add, not necessarily experienced by all men), with feminine versions then imagined as a mirror image. I understand not wanting to buy into a Freudian model, but as Irigaray points out, challenging Freud lies not just in saying ‘my sex is not nothing’, nor ‘my sex is one’, but in elaborating a feminine experience of multiple sites of pleasure, sites which are both distinct and unable to be fully distinguished. The acknowledgement that nipples might also activate ‘genital regions’ (it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant the apparently clearly distinct vaginal or clitoral areas) seems to me to appeal interestingly to such ideas.

Part of the reason I find Irigaray’s focus on the multiple interesting is because it also helps do justice to the voices of other women, who are often treated as if they – like all those immature women out there failing to have vaginal orgasms! – must be, as Mark put it in comments on Catarina’s post, lying. One example is those women who have experienced some form of genital cutting, as Catarina alludes to in the post linked to above. There are a thousand different elements to the debate about female genital cutting, but voices claiming sexual pleasure, like those of the women in this study,  are often dismissed (see also Njambi’s assessment of the how and why these debates often play out this way). There are lots of ways of considering how sexual pleasure can occur in these situations – and the authors focus on the way that, as Catarina pointed out, clitoral tissue is ‘iceberg-like’, spread far further below the surface than most acknowledge. This is legitimate and even expected from scientific types, but it is also probably worth analysing how the experience of erogenousness might be modified by changes to the body.  ( I’ll note that ‘activation’ in the fMRI linked to above can’t really, as far as I understand, be equated with ‘being turned on’ except through the subjective experience of the individual woman – the ones whose accounts, it would seem, may not be able to be fully trusted unlike the Truthiness of the colourful scans – but this is an ongoing issue with fMRI studies, as far as I can tell).

But I also think that the experiences of those with spinal cord injuries have something to contribute here. There’s some evidence [pdf] that orgasmic stimulation does not necessarily, in all cases, require direct contact with the genitals: other parts of the body, such as the skin above the site of spinal cord injury may become intensely erogenous, even to the point of producing orgasm; and in certain cases, women can experience ‘thought orgasms’ with no physical stimulation whatever. Such orgasms are only sometimes experienced as ‘connected’ to genitalia (in much the same way as the nipple example above, I think?) but the fMRI, despite the initial dubiousness of the neuroscientists – because let’s not just actually believe people when they tell you what they experience, amirite? – demonstrates very few differences between those experiencing orgasm through direct vaginal/clitoral contact (they squoosh these two in together, which is clearly a problem) and those having ‘thought-orgasms’.

The point of this is that many of those theorising accounts of sexuality and eroticism which don’t match ‘common sense’ – such as those of BDSM practitioners, trans people and people with spinal cord injury – via contemporary theories of the body talk about ‘remapping’ erogenous zones.  Often, though not always, they’re building on Foucault’s argument about pleasure in relation to sadomasochism, which que(e)ries the ‘virilisation’ of pleasure, that is, questioning the account of sexuality not just the focussed on the genitals, although this is part of it, but focussed on the penis-king. In this sense, Foucault’s account shares some terrain with Irigaray’s, undermining Freud’s focus on the penis and its speculuum-sheath, but also helping to make eroticism and pleasure flexible and multiple, that is, understanding pleasure as capable of modification. He particularly discusses fisting and the role/power-play aspects of sadomasochism, but his point is really: there are pleasures to be produced that exceed heteronormative common sense.

As far as I can see, the accounts offered by these studies of fMRI (well, and their popular representations, which are probably the real site of the problem) would do well to maintain a level of complexity in negotiating with the Truthiness of their studies. Not only do they need to be circumspect in the claims they make about the relationship between the brain and experience (the key difficulty with this kind of neuroscience, I think) but they also need to be more thoroughly aware of the specific embodiment of sexuality of those they are ‘testing,’ and the role that this is playing in a supposedly generalisable ‘neuroscience of sexuality’ (and – sigh – we’re back to Ogg and Gaddam territory). In taking a particular cohort as potentially universalisable, not only are alternative experiences of sexuality excluded or rendered derivative or ‘unnatural’, but the contingency of those dominant, ‘common-sense’-compatible experiences of sexuality are obscured – for example, perhaps the connection between the activation of nipples and genitals is related to the sexualisation of breasts and genitals in contemporary Western culture; and perhaps the continued activation of ‘genital’ areas of the brain in people with SCIs says more about the lingering effects of genitocentric sexuality than about a necessary nerve connection to the genitals (the Vagus nerve really came into its own in the Komisaruk and Whipple paper!) . And, as Foucault seemed profoundly concerned to elaborate, the denial of this contingency, when it becomes truth, also works to deny everyone the proliferating possiblities of pleasures (and the political challenge that that brings – but that’s another chapter in this story, to be told another day).

It’s interesting, the disorientation of new spaces. Having just been re-reading Sara Ahmed talking about orientations (from Queer Phenomenology), I’m thinking about the ways that privilege lies in the ‘matching’ of a subject’s comportment and the space within which that subject operates. And thinking about how I feel about my work. Yes, mes amis, I’m afraid so: it’s going to be one of those posts!

I am, obviously, in a new space. I’ve left behind Sydneytown, and Canberratown, and Australia generally, for the low horizons, narrow streets, and streetside windows of a Dutch town. I expected all kinds of disorientation, reveled in much of them (see my Going Dutch post), and told myself not to worry about others (a friend wrote me today mentioning that she remembered moving into an office job and couldn’t work out the etiquette around whether one says goodbye to one’s colleagues at the end of a day. Yep, that one too!). And now, I’ve been in my workplace for about 3 and a half weeks…

I decided to kick-start my time here by reworking the paper I gave at the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association, a paper which I’d had positive feedback on, at the conference, and some positive feedback on from people here on the blog, and from a few other places. I like its argument, and I like bringing some larger questions of harm and suffering and law and medicine, to bear on a very specific case. I like, too, that I feel like I managed to suggest that there’s a way of arguing that we need to pay attention to the reception of new technologies, without alluding to the damage done to some ahistorical human nature, or biologically determined self, or whatever. I thought I’d said, fairly clearly, right, there’s nothing inherent to new tech that makes it problematic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problematic effects, and that’s usually because of how they get configured, given existing cultural logics, so let’s have a chat about them.

I like the argument; it’s been part of my approach to new tech for a long time, part of my orientation towards my work, towards the world, towards the new tech I’m talking about. It’s also grounded in some shared intellectual styles — feminism, critical race and whiteness theory, feminist theories of the body, feminist phenomenology, postconventional bioethics, queer theory — I can name them because I’ve had to, because part of what one writes when one is writing grant applications, is about these orientations, except they become ‘methodologies’, tools set ready-to-hand, not bodily styles that disappear in their perpetual use, that are soaked up like water in a sponge, that become part of me, to the extent that there is a ‘me’. It’s not that I’ve really had an intellectual home, in lots of ways — too feminist for one space, too philosophical for another, too critical for another, too, too, too to be at home in lots of spaces. But there have been home-ish-nesses, unexpected affirmations of my approach… But one of the largest disorientations in my new space has been around these intellectual styles.

In some ways, this isn’t that shocking, really. I knew in advance I’d probably be made anxious about my specific kind of interdisciplinarity, anxious about my work, anxious that for all that I didn’t conceal myself in my application, I would turn out to not be what they wanted, or expected, or…. uncertain about my legitimacy. It’s a pretty common experience for academics, especially women, so much so that they’ve ‘syndromised’ it: imposter syndrome. I had hoped that the affirmations of my orientations in academic spaces more generally — from my examiners’ comments on my thesis, through to the VC’s award, through to the smallest comments from peers or students — had given me a small space I could take with me, to keep my at-home-ness a little, if only to soothe me while I work out how my orientations can fit with the new space.

Part of the issue, of course, is that I don’t know this space. I can’t know the points at which I line up, or at which I am orthogonal, or at which I sit at the diagonal or even not on the field at all. They do, my colleagues (my lovely colleagues!): they know the space, know each other’s orientations, know where they line up and where they don’t. It’s part of the familiarity one gets from working together for a while, no doubt. I will one day have that settled-ness, I know. But at the moment, the disorientation is making me anxious. Two weeks ago, I wanted to share my work now, I wanted to let people get to know me and my work — felt open and cheerful and easy with it. Now, I feel profoundly uncertain, and I’m trying to articulate why. I know that my work will be read by lots of people as radical. I never quite feel it is, but there’s the at-home-ness again. The radical bit is okay; the potential for the overly interrogative space that arises from the perception of radical-ness is more troubling, however much it’s a catastrophising mirage.

Part of the complexity of new spaces, I think, is that the disorientation induced by the not-at-home-ness is rarely located in the space. I feel, in my attempt to settle, that it’s in me. I have an hour and a half next week to present the longer version of the AWGSA paper, and I’m anxious about how much I will have to justify. A colleague — one of my really wonderfully welcoming colleagues! — commented today that she felt she had to defend liberalism. I was asked why I referred to ‘the rape survivor’ as ‘she’. I was asked what other possible way there was for dealing with rape. I was asked what a judge is meant to do about the possibility that women regret sex and lie. I was asked why I held liberalism responsible when ‘it doesn’t rape people.’ The thing is, I have answers to all of these questions, to all of them. My approach was not carelessly or swiftly shaped; my orientations not simple matters of decision, but of a long period of pressing myself up against all different kinds of arguments and allowing them to shape me (in different ways: some I refuse), of living through them, of testing them over and again. I have responses to make, arguments to pose, yes. But providing lots of answers feels, first of all, defensive, and I really don’t want to be. It also reminds me of how much out of my space I am, that I have to make arguments, again, that in my slightly-more-at-home spaces are taken-for-granted. But it’s also that, in this disorienting space, these questions and their answers feel all too proximate. It feels like a test of whether I can line myself up (sufficiently) with the space. I should add, of course, that I have been told by various people, some my colleagues, that they know what my work is, and that’s why I was selected. And the anxieties still linger.

It’s strange to me, I think, because I knew disorientation was coming, and I knew that some of it would be hard, and I knew that some of it would be valuable and useful, and I knew that some would be fun. I suppose I hoped that my existing and persistent uncertainties about how I fit into academic spaces wouldn’t be such a strong site of vulnerability to disorientation. It feels, in some ways, like I’m sharing too much with my new colleagues, giving them too much of myself. And I want to be brave enough that I can feel like that and do it anyway…. which, of course, I will, because that’s my orientation towards disorientation… ;-P

Disorientation, yes, but probably lack of sleep too. Tonight, I’m going to aim for a kidlet’s bedtime! Apologies, my friends, if this post was too intimate or seekritly whingey behind the aca-talk. One of my aims with the move was to try to track some of how the move felt, and this is it…

In amongst the very fun discussion about kick arse women on TV which has been happening over at Hoyden About Town, the wonderful su suggested that I might be interested in an article which takes its place in the world of Whedon-verse fan-academia. Given that I spent a sizeable proportion of thesis-writing time refusing to allow myself to engage in Whedonverse academia, I was rather cheery to be able to read it. “Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, by Dee Amy-Chin (Feminist Media Studies 6(2), 175-189) is a good article in lots of ways. It sets itself a task, and it works it through: is Inara, from Joss Whedon’s Firefly really a feminist depiction of prostitution, as some have thought? Few articles really succeed in doing this, so it’s nice in that regard. I should say from the get-go that Amy-Chin reckons Whedon fails at feminist prostitution. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps surprisingly, I disagree with a number of her claims. Part of this, again perhaps unsurprisingly, is because I stand by what I said about Buffy all that time ago: first, that it is a text like any other, with multiple meanings at work at any given time; second, that what makes a text feminist is not that it depicts a feminist utopia. So I’m just going to run through a few of Amy-Chin’s more memorable points and point out my responses. (When I say memorable, I kinda mean ‘I’m doing this off the top of my head coz I’m feeling rool lazy and elsewise this post will not get written. So correct me if I’m wrong, won’t you please?’)

She claims that the way that Inara is filmed reproduces her as an object under the male gaze. Her focus (I think she’s borrowing someone else’s work, from memory) is on one of our first encounters with Inara. After having been used by Mal to make a preacher uncomfortable, and been called a ‘whore’ yet again by him, she is knelt on the floor and bathing herself with a sponge. In some ways, and Amy-Chin notes this, the scene can be understood as voyeuristic. Inara’s attention is turned in on itself, and displays no awareness of the viewer. This is where Amy-Chin suggests the male gaze is permitted to take hold: Inara doesn’t glance back. But what’s interesting to me is that Amy-Chin simply by-passes what for me were the really interesting elements of the way that Inara is filmed in the pilot episode: the shots are paused. I’m not sure if you all remember what I’m talking about here, but as she squeezes the sponge out over the container of water, there’s a split-second pause, where the water hangs in the air, suspended. There’s a shot, too, of water dripping down her back, of her graceful movement, and this too pauses. This echoes earlier, where she is ‘servicing’ a client, and the shots stutter again, pausing as she glances away when he asks about her home (indeed, it’s unclear in this earlier part whether she actually is looking away, or if it’s a physical rendering of her internal reaction to his question). Now the question is, is this stuttered temporality significant? To me, yes. The action pauses, giving space for reflection. The reflection may be Inara’s, but for me at least, it was also mine. It asks you to dwell with her at that moment; not in simple observation of her body, but in a wondering about what is especially significant here. It offers breaks in what could be otherwise a simple voyeuristic gaze. Inara might not gaze back at the gazer, but a sense of intimacy is engendered because the shot is no longer about how hot she is (although she totes is ;-)).

But the real bulk of Amy-Chin’s argument engages with existing feminist writings about prostitution. She explores, briefly, positive theorisations of prostitution that have been offered by a range of feminists. From my recollection, the main elements of these are: that the woman (we’ll let the gender thing slip in this context, but I do know there are boyz who do this too, k?) ought to be able to choose whether or not she engages in prostitution, that prostitution ought not to be a matter of stigma, that she should be able to maintain the distinction between public and private, and that the focus of health testing should fall on clients, not on prostitutes themselves. This last one I won’t look at, really, except to note that Inara does undergo a health check, and there’s nothing that really suggests she checks out her clients for their health record.

It’s pretty clear throughout the series that Inara chooses her clients, and has a great deal of control over who she services, under what circumstances. The Guild is mostly what makes this possible: when a client turns nasty, she tells him that he won’t be able to get a Companion to contract with him ever again, as he will have a black mark against his name. So far, so feminist, it would seem, right? Well, if we’re being entirely fair, we should point out that whilst she has the capacity to respond to bad behaviour on the part of her clients, she is nonetheless subject to it. Which leads us to the next issue that needs addressing: the question of stigma.

It’s certainly true that the stigma remains attached to prostitution in the universe of Firefly. Mal continually displays his disapproval of her way of making money, to which Inara’s rejoinder is that at least her way of making money is legal, unlike his. He refuses to name her as Companion, the name in the Firefly universe for a woman who has undergone training, is a member of the Companions’ Guild, and sexually services her clients. Instead, he refers to her habitually a ‘whore’, even when she grumps at him about it.

Shepherd Book appears uncomfortable with her and her choice of profession, although it is to her that he turns at the end of the first episode when he has a crisis of faith. This produces the rather lovely image (Amy-Chin argues it’s not so great because it draws on a history of prosititutes providing spiritual support) of Inara’s hand resting on Book’s head in benediction. I personally like the inversion; it challenges the Christian disapproval of prostitutes. Indeed, we can even read this as speaking back to the stories of Mary Magdalene: maybe she wasn’t grateful to Jesus for ‘allowing’ her to escape her ‘sins’, but he was grateful to her… (this is all quite aside from the question of whether Magdalene was actually a prostitute at all; probably not seems the current scholarly understanding, but she was powerful in the early Church (and had a Gospel all of her very own) and so her influence had to be diminished: whoredom, clearly the key!). This is interesting because it’s fairly clear that a recognisable form of Christianity has persisted into the future Firefly depicts; and oh, thank all that’s holy (sarcasm, mes amis), it’s evangelical.

Now, see, Amy-Chin thinks that this stigma, clearly still at play in this universe, means that Whedon isn’t depicting feminist prostitution. To me this isn’t the case at all. I am a little (just a teensy bit) bit over the idea that the only way for something to be making an activist point (feminist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, whatevs) in a TV show is by showing the perfected version of the world. It supposes that, in order to be feminist, a show should depict how the world would be if it were… what? equal? different-but-with-respect? Whatever. The point being, Amy-Chin thinks that Whedon is failing to do something feminist with the Inara character because she is stigmatised, because the world is not ideal. Personally, I think that a world not-yet-perfected allows us to see the continuity between that future and here, but also allows us to imagine another way that prostitution could be done. One in which to some at least, the prostitute may be conceived of as a respectable woman, in which her work is not thought to be an inherent violation and derogation. Indeed, in one episode it is her status that allows her to intervene in the acts of government officials, a situation that is especially tricky for the crew of the Serenity (and which as a result keeps coming up). A world in which the prostitute is given sufficient control and support of her own work that she can choose her clients and respond when they do not give her the respect she deserves. But a world which still has a perhaps exacerbated version of the dissonant understanding of sex work we currently live with. A world, though, through which we are encouraged to work it out…

More to come…

(PS I have not edited this properly, so apologies for that…)

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. 😉