Vampires: a structural analysis

Daniel R. Smith

A homage to the memory of Christopher Lee. Dracula.

In his recent The Utopia of Rules (2015), David Graeber has – somewhat unwittingly but completely fortuitously – given popular voice and defence to a structural analysis in popular culture. His analysis of fantasy novels, films, TV shows and video-games as the fantasy-escape, but ultimately inverted yet homologous bureaucratic universe, to our working lives is surely one of the best diagnoses for the secret pleasure, and utopian fantasy to our everyday bureaucratic existences. Science fiction is the new social realism (Jameson, 2013).

But it is his incidental analysis of vampires in the essay ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’ that really intrigues me for a revival of the structuralist technique in popular culture. (Something I have been trying to ‘re-vamp’ myself (Smith, 2014a; Smith, 2014b). The essence of structuralist thinking is “simplifying and schematizing complex material in such a way as to be able to say something unexpected.” (Graeber, 2015:77) Instead of leaving social reality, as we experience it, ‘complex’, ‘ambiguous’ and ‘nuanced’, structuralism simplifies reality, breaking it down into component parts, for internal formal analysis of its binary oppositions. The aim or result is counter-intuitive realisations on the meanings of social practices, figures and symbols. Then we simply move into a further analysis of inversions, oppositions, antinomies and hierarchies. So, take vampires.

Graeber proceeds as follows:

  1. Vampires exist within the western horror imagination.
  2. The opposite of a Vampire is a Werewolf.
  3. So how are they inversions of each other?

Graeber details the inversions but here I have produced a table to schematise the homologies and oppositions, expanding on them a little.

Vampires vs. Werewolves

Homology

Vampire as monster Werewolf as monster
Creature of the Night Only exist during the full-moon
Bite victims to turn them into themselves Bite victims to turn them into themselves

Inversions

Vampire as allegory Werewolf as allegory 
Aristocratic Plebeian
The vampire is autochthonous.

Spatially fixed (‘haunt’)

Dwell in castles and crypts with ancestors.

The werewolf is nomadic.

Spatially dispersed (‘roam’)

Nomadically wander as vagabonds and outcasts.

The vampire’s timeline is linear. The werewolf’s timeline is cyclical.
Charismatic personality.

Influence others (humans, other creatures)

Feral personality.

Loose self-control. 

Negation

Vampire (symbolic denouement) Werewolf (symbolic denouement)
Killed by plebeian weapon : ‘the stake’ (what peasants widdle and make fences out of) Killed by aristocratic weapon: ‘silver bullet’ (what aristocrats inherit (‘family silver’)).
The vampire is the figure of power – of attraction and repulsion. The werewolf is the figure of instinct – of libidinal energy and vitally.

  

The really interesting thing about schematising the vampire / werewolf – as a Team Edward or Team Jacob – is that homologies reveal the similarity of the monster whereas the inversions demonstrate the allegorical meaning of the monster, as a social figure. While the negations demonstrate what these allegorical figures tells us about a sociological contradiction which the figures dramatizes. Within the negation of the monster, we glimpse our own political unconscious, which the symbolic act of popular fiction – from Twilight, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Dracula – aims to resolve at an aesthetic level (Jameson, 1981).

Once this analysis has been produced, the next stage is to continue the ‘spiral’ which mythemes produce. To explore how there are inversions-within-inversions, how there are hierarchies within fields, and how there are mediations, antinomies, contradictions and opposing terms which come out of the field.

Are all vampires the same? If they are different, how does this come to help our understanding of their function within narratives?

Or, to put it another way: what happens when popular narratives ‘characterise’ vampires? Myths do not have ‘characters’, rather they have figures with functions; characters are modern inventions; they are ‘heroes’. They have points of view, they have internal depth and feelings; they are sites for audience identification, empathy and desire (Jameson, 1981:147). Namely, they have ‘souls’.

Angel vs. Spike

Angel Spike
Homology (vampirism)
Aristocratic Aristocratic
Charismatic Charismatic
Mourning Mourning
Inversion (existential)
Cursed (soul returned by gypsy curse) Salvaged (soul returned by demon trails)
Sartean (exists in a state of nausea (‘broods’)) Camusian (exists as an outsider (‘denied feeling’))
Oedipal 1: kills father Anti-Oedipal 1: kills (sire’s) mother / kills vampire mother
Oedipal 2: produces child by sired mother (Darla) Anti-Oedipal 2: folie a deux with sired mother (Drusilla)
Hyper-masculine Over-sensitive
Asexual (‘fear of losing soul’ / ‘opposite of human existence’) Oversexed (‘womaniser’/ ‘opposite of human existence’)
Violence is ‘reactive’ (detective). Violence is ‘prohibited’ or ‘ad hoc’ (‘chip’, ‘soul’, ‘ghost’, ‘outsider’).
Negation (romantic)
Buffy (‘vampire slayer’)  Buffy (‘vampire slayer’)

 

So what happens when we conduct a structural analysis of vampire characters. In the Buffy-verse (the universe of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) we can see that the two central, romantic leads – Angel and Spike – in both Buffy and Angel are, while both homologous to one another as ‘vampires with souls’, also inversions of one-another. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, the inversions concern existential states. Adler (2014:42-43) has pointed out that Buffy is a ‘mourning-play without the mourning’, where only vampires with souls mourn. These vampires-with-souls live in a state of perpetual adolescence; aware of their own infinitude, they are mourning their own lack of finiteness.

It is telling that these vampires, Angel and Spike, can be seen as inversions of each other as two rival existential camps: Angel is Sartre, as he broods in his crypt reading Nausea and Spike, the Punk Rock, Sid Vicious ‘outsider’ stands for Camus’ Outsider/Stranger. Much like adolescent men whose angst finds its expression in the voices of French existentialism, these vampires are, too, gothic and ‘subcultural’ punks. But more seriously these vampires are the perfect subjects for understanding an atheistic existential philosophy. Whereas humans suffer a sickness-unto-death as they have a sense of their own finitude (death) and immortality (souls) (as found in the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard); vampires suffer a sickness-unto-nothing because, as beings who cannot die, they become irreparably aware of their own infinitude. Their being is unto nothing; it is endless. As Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude says, “It nothing must!” They are necessarily nothing as their soul and body are immortal, negating and cancelling each other out. And they are, literally, no-thing: they look into the mirror, they see no-thing.

And these two opposed existential states continue into further inversions in their psycho-sexual states. While Angel is a classic, almost vampiric equivalent of Oedipus, Spike is Anti-Oedipal. While Angel commits the classic deeds of Oedipus; killing father and marrying the (sired) mother and having a child by her, Spike – who is a proto-Sid Vicious – commits a two-hundred year folie a deux with his spired mother, Drusilla, after he has overcome his Oedipal complex by siring then staking his mortal mother. Typically, then, these traits come to be expressed in opposed forms of masculinity: Angel the brooding, asexual whose violence is reactive; Spike whose womanising is sublimated violence and torture of himself and his victims.

Of course their own negation comes from the prophetic figure whose purpose is their own downfall, a romantic investment in loving that which is the only thing whose reason for being is ending their own infinitude – a vampire slayer.

Bibliography:

Adler, Anthony (2014), The Afterlife of Genre: Remnants of the Trauerspeil in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (New York: Puncton Books)

Graeber, David (2015), The Utopia of Rules, (New York: Melville House)

Jameson, Fredric (2013), The Antinomies of Realism, (London: Verso)

Jameson, Fredric (1991), Postmodernism; or the cultural logic of late-capitalism (London: Verso)

Smith, Daniel (2014a), ‘Charlie is so English like: nationality and the branded-celebrity person in the age of YouTube’, Celebrity Studies, 5(3):256-274.

Smith, Daniel (2014b), ‘The Gent-rification of English masculinities: class, race and nation in contemporary consumption’, Social Identities: journal for the study of race, nation and culture, 20(4-5):391-406.

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