Reviews: Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires
I have watched with joy and dismay as my friend Joe Laycock, with whom I attended Hampshire College, by dint of research and training, rapidly exceeded my own ad-hoc and eclectic folkloric knowledge. Joy because it’s good to know a guy that knows about this stuff; dismay because I hate the idea that people are better at things than me.
Joe’s book, Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires, is a piece that I could have never written. It is an ethnographic study of modern, self-identified “vampires,” and it is exhaustive, clear, intelligent, and wholly non-judgmental.
[UPDATE: Another review about the book, this time from a community insider, here.]
This is about all there is to say about it because, like I said, it’s an ethnographic study. Exhaustive, clear, intelligent, and wholly non-judmental are the four categories by which an ethnographic study is evaluated, and there you have it.
(Just to be clear: I could probably do the intelligent part, but exhaustive? No way. Joe, you are a better man than I am.)
Do you want to know what modern vampires are like? You’ll probably be disappointed to discover that they’re basically like regular people, only slightly kookier, and more committed to their lifestyle than you are. And, in fact, they’re not even that much kookier than, say, die-hard Phillies fans, whose obsession influences their style of dress, behaviors, and makes their lives rife with superstition. (No doubt once the Phillies won the pennant, ten thousand new post/propter fallacies were given validity, just like with Skinner and those pigeons.)
The two things that especially fascinated me (in light of a post I’m going to do this week about my first zazen session) were: 1) the technology of self. 2) Self-narrative.
Actually, wait, let me do (2) first. Joe offers up a theory that modern self-identified vampires are participating in a kind of self-directed autonarrative: that because we live in a world in which our positions are not defined, expectations are unclear, our faith in authority has waned, and our experiences are not always satisfactorily explained, modern human beings must create a narrative of self-identity themselves.
The process appears to work both ways. A person has an experience, chooses the cultural context from “the vampire millieu” (for whatever reason), and in turn continues to define and refine their experience according to those terms. It’s a process that seems to lend itself to an oscillation between conformity and radical individualism, as contextual elements are reinterpreted according to individual elements.
What’s doubly fascinating, of course, are the circumstances of psychologists trying to define the “vampire condition”–using the word “vampire” in a new context to describe individuals who have repurposed the word “vampire” to be commensurate with their own context; which word itself was coined to describe a different condition entirely. Civilization is revealed to be a series of increasingly elaborate metaphors designed to explain the failures of the previous metaphors.
It’s interesting to look at vampire self-identification as a kind of pathology, though not really fruitful, as most self-identified vampires don’t appear to be pathological. I mean this in a very specific sense, I guess–a fear of spiders isn’t a psychological disorder; spiders are weird, and sometimes dangerous. Arachnophobia–an uncontrollable, paralyzing terror of spiders–is a psychological disorder, because the fear is not commensurate with the reality (spiders, after all, aren’t that dangerous).
Self-identifying as a vampire, I think, probably is a kind of escape-fantasy, but not a pathological one–it’s no different than any of the many, many, many fantasies we concoct for ourselves to divorce our personal narrative from the reality of the world. The process of needing to identify ourselves as individuals with special characteristics and with commonalities with other individuals is a natural, native human tendency, and the combination of Internets, the Age of Enlightenment, and Universal Pictures has just made it possible for that tendency to find expression in vampirism.
However, one of the interesting things about being a vampire is how it leads back to (1) the technology of the self. That is this: we build ourselves. In the old days, we probably didn’t have to as much; because there were fewer choices available to people about EVERYTHING, the need to know about and have opinions about things was much lower.
But now not only do I have to decide what church I’m going to, I’ve got to decide what shoes I’ll wear, what music I like, what movies I’ll go to, who I want to date, where I want to live, what my favorite kind of sandwich is, do I want coffee this morning and if I do WHAT KIND?
All of this yields to a correspondingly-greater need for a specific individual identity.
Moreover, there’s also an innate human need for (or, at least, satisfaction in) self-improvement and self-discipline. The modern vampire social context provides a vast array of tools with which to build self-identity at a psychological, emotional, and even physical level.
I like this idea of the technology of self, it is fascinating to me; a kind of personal alchemy that underlies all of those old esoteric lodges and your church sleepaway camps and martial arts and self-help books and Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha. In virtually all respects, the commitment is more important than the object of that commitment.
So, good on you, modern vampires. You have found the thing that I haven’t invented yet.