Tragic Vampire

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

There is something tragic, pathetic even, about the character of the vampire. Strangely for these creatures of ultimate darkness and evil, vampires exude very little libidinal energy. Their demeanor, both in novels and on screen, resembles more a libertine courtesan from eighteenth century novels than a medieval demon. Calculated, careful and weirdly joyless in their games and façades that lure victims into what should have been orgiastic death drive celebration, the ‘pure evil’ of vampires is not uncivilized. While the pleasure they derive often comes from playing these games well, from setting clever traps and patiently waiting for their victim to sink deeper into them, there is no immediate satisfaction in this cold and premeditated seduction and murder.  Open and real enjoyment in violence is replaced in most vampire narratives with more of a shameful and hidden relationship of co-dependency between them and their victims: a slow, meticulous and exhausting bleeding to death where both sides seem rather powerless.

This calculated and cold nature of the vampire is very evident when compared with the werewolf. In the werewolf, the human cum predatory animal has no real necessity to kill. It does not need to consume other lives in order to survive and returns to its human form without fear of starvation and even without much knowledge of its nocturnal misdeeds in the full moon. When it kills, it is purely in excess of their human form, a pure transgression of social norms without constructing a different social economy around the act of killing, a night out on the woods with no strings attached. The full moon itself is also significant, as it is a contingent and external natural power that forces the transformation, not an innate need and certainly not a free choice.

Giorgio Agamben reads the werewolf as a political figure that functions in parallel with the bandit in Roman law – a symbol for the one who is ejected from the city-state, from civil law and its protection. Thrown into the uncivilized wilderness, the werewolf signifies a state of nature. But this state of nature does not precede society as an original stage from which civil law developed but rather is born out of it, as a suspension of its own laws:

What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city -- the werewolf -- is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city. That such a man is defined as a wolf-man and not simply as a wolf (the expression caput lupinum has the form of a juridical statute) is decisive here. The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It is, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man, physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.

The werewolf is for Agamben also an ancestral echo of homo sacer, the one “who may be killed but not sacrificed”. A sacrifice is an act of exchange – for example, the life of a first born in exchange for a decisive win in a battle or the offering of a prime cut of fatty beef in exchange for protection against harvest failure. The werewolf is outside of this political economy, it owes nothing to the social order and is both free of the law’s own violence and beyond its protection. The werewolf is not a sacrificial figure because its life is not taken in exchange for anything, and its killing does not disturb any balance or economy. So, as a werewolf you are liberated for a short period from the confines of the law to kill or be killed in the moonlit woods without consequences, an exception that demarcates the rule.

The vampire is a very different creature. Killing is for vampires not spontaneous at all. It is a slow, methodical act, grounded in performative and affective labour: they talk, charm and attract, they enter into a relationship with their victims and gain their delirious dependence while patiently sucking the life out of them. Dracula commands a hierarchical structure of minions, carefully building up sophisticated and dense layers of deceit, myth and coercion in order to hide his murderous practice. In other words, there is nothing liberating or transgressive about the violence of the vampire. If the werewolf is the spontaneous suspension of the law according to Agamben, the vampire, or rather the violence of the vampire, is the law. With his organizational capacities, his weaving of historical myth, his hypnotic power over an almost willing victim, Dracula is the law of Capital, operating through structural violence, ideological a-historical myth and the ‘free choice’ of labourers to enter into a relationship of domination. The fact that the vampire commands his victims to desire beyond what is healthy for them, that they are expected to not only be drained of blood every night but to return to their oppressor for more, is the ideological core of capitalism.

Marx, whose fondness for gothic literature and ghost stories is embedded in the imagery of Das Kapital used the vampire several times as a metaphor for capital. The best-known quote, taken from the chapter where Marx describes the struggle between workers and capitalists over the definition of what constitute a day of work, runs:

The capitalist has his own views of this ultima Thule [the outermost limit], the necessary limit of the working-day. As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.
Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

In short, both the vampire and the capitalist actually trade in time, and are bio-political in essence. The capitalist takes living labour and converts it to surplus value, or in other words, takes time offered without compensation by the workers and accumulates it in the form of capital. The vampire drinks the blood of victims whose life power is accumulated more literally in the infinite life span of the vampire himself.

Vampires are frequently understood to be relics of an ancien regime, decadent aristocratic remnants of a pre-capitalist order ill at ease with modernity, ensconced in castles furnished with hereditary wealth, albeit cut off from this lineage in their immortal but infertile eternity. But there is nevertheless good reason to read the vampire as a metaphor for industrial capital, not only because of the economy of draining and accumulating life/time, but also because of the manner in which it subsists at a bare minimum. Marx shows how capitalism, through what he called the law of the falling rate of profit, always operates on the threshold of collapse. It is structured in such a way that it will eventually tend to fewer and fewer profits for the capitalist owners and will attempt to extract as much surplus value out of workers as possible, thus reducing them to a ‘bare life’ at the point where they are just able to reproduce their laboring power and not much more. Capital, despite its historically unparalleled global reach, its levels of technological complexity and its incredibly sophisticated ability to absorb nearly everything, is built on this structural weakness. The vampire, similarly, is surrounded by pomp and grandeur and exudes an aura of omnipotence. But in reality, without sucking blood for even a short period, the vampire deteriorates and is left between life and death in its coffin, its immortality becoming a kind of unending dying. Like the ‘boxed lovers’ in the attic from the last scene of The Hunger, in the end the Vampire is horrific not because it is impossibly powerful but, on the contrary, because it is pathetic: it will suck your life away slowly and methodically and joylessly because it is itself a living death at the threshold of survival.

This is the essence of George Bataille’s complaint against the bourgeoisie in his essay “The Notion of Expenditure”: when it replaced the aristocracy as the leading historical class, the middle class abandoned the aristocratic wastefulness of wealth and the shameless display of publicly-facing grotesque expenditure and replaced them with a rational, private and guilty form of consumption. The vampire, like the capitalist middle classes, does not enjoy its power or its wasting of life. It is driven by a weak and terrified consumption of surplus time that is experienced as a duty in the service of an economy and never leads to true satisfaction. It is true that the vampire is often represented in literature as belonging to the aristocratic class but he is a fallen, decadent aristocrat. His wealth and status are reduced to a mere performance of refined aristocratic taste: hardly an exuberant ‘Blue Beard’, the vampire is a pale imitation of this murderous decadent enjoyment. This hollowed out act is the source of a lot of the humorous innuendo in vampire films - for example, Bela Lugosi’s famous “I never drink… wine” from Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula. It is an important sentence not because of the obvious ironic joke at its heart but because the sentiment of bourgeois abstinence really is the correct image of the vampire’s actions. In this sense, the vampire and its victim are both trapped in a morbid mutual dependency and both are condemned to the same lackluster morality where pleasure is carefully utilized and controlled . This is also why the banker-hate of recent discussions around crony capitalism and the 1% is futile, the bankers being equally trapped by the machine logic of capital as the rest of us.

However, if current discussions around the acceleration of late capitalism would have us believe that this machine logic of our coming overlords is the product of ultra-sleek technologies fashioned after the unstoppable and remorseless liquid Terminator, in reality the horror of the faceless machine is far more pathetic. The machine we are confronted with is not some superior AI, but rather the failed transporter of David Cronenberg’s 1986 film, The Fly. It has always struck us that the worst, most terrifying horror is never the predator in pursuit, who merely elicits a fight or flight reaction. Rather it is the helpless monster, pathetic in its alien abjection, unable to kill or die but stranded somewhere between the two, neither human nor totally belonging to any other category that would settle the mind. In the Fly, this horror is personified by the Brundlefly, the amalgamation of Jeff Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle and the common fly he merges with when attempting to use the transporter. The machine that creates this aberration is neither sentient nor intended to produce such a monstrosity, but rather it is the platform from which this pathetic creature emerges. In much the same way, capitalism 2.0, resting as it does on ubiquitous internet platforms for all manner of human exchanges is not merely the deliberate product of the greedy few, but nor is it a superior machinic construction above human agency. At once weaker and more horrific for it, the vampire that sucks the living labour out of us all is increasingly not a distinct class, but a condition in which we are all entangled. This doesn’t mean class (and race and gender) differences don’t impact on our position within this platform, nor that social structures are divorced from the political decisions of specific people. But it does mean that extricating ourselves from this pathetic embrace must entail collective social reorganization on an unprecedented scale, the likes of which localized struggles are unlikely to achieve on their own. Without new conceptualisations of the subject in excess of concepts like citizen and consumer (increasingly conflated), we are unlikely to break away from the vampire’s deadly kiss.