Bela Lugosi’s dead: A Reply to Mark Fisher

by Sam Kriss on November 28, 2013

The story, as it’s usually told, goes something like this. Your coach approaches the vampire’s castle right on the tipping point of twilight. Heavy clouds crowd the horizon, gleaming sickly purple: they seem to be closing in, as if the entire sky is contracting. There’s no gentle dusk chorus here, only the screeching panic of a thousand creatures flapping in the woods either side of you. Your stomach lurches, and you try to pretend it’s because of the pitted road and the skittish horses. You try not to remember the people you met at the inn, who turned white when you told them where you were going and pressed crucifixes into your hand. Finally, the coach crests a hill and you see its fractured outline against the sullen sky. The horses rear up, eyes rolling, lips flared, straining with horror; even after a few lashes of the driver’s whip they’re reluctant to go on. Walter Benjamin writes that architecture “has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction,” but unlike you Walter Benjamin never visited the vampire’s castle on a lonely evening. It commands attention. On you go, to the gate. Somewhere below the fear, you’re dimly aware of a surging desire. You want to see the castle for yourself.

In towns and cities architecture is noted in an incidental fashion, but the vampire’s castle isn’t strictly architectural; it’s more a blasphemous outcrop of the rock on which it’s built. It isn’t a defensive structure, it’s the focal point in a system of (dis)organisation that extends for miles in every direction; it’s not a molar object but a dense knot in a sprawling network of relations. You can feel the vampire’s castle long before you see the building itself: it’s there in the thunderclouds overhead and the chilly air, the lurid yellow wheatfields and the tenebrous forests. The domain of the vampire isn’t his castle but the land, of which the building you’re about to enter is only an intensity – he is, after all, a feudal aristocrat. He can’t enter private homes without invitation, but the wind-worn heaths that surround them are his and his alone. You are already in his castle. You’ve been there for days.

At the same time it does have an inside. The vampire’s castle doesn’t operate according to laws and schemas; it has crypts and caverns, long candle-lit corridors and decaying halls with fraying carpets hanging on the walls. None of these tiny whirling cavities are arranged according to any particular order, and their position isn’t really determined by anything that could be called spatiality – it’s a psychological rather than a logical system, one that responds precisely to your desires. You feel impulsive, and an enticing hallway stretches out in front of you. You grow afraid, and only then do the shadows grow longer and more menacing. The vampire’s castle isn’t a stronghold: it’s infinitely permeable, and the power that intensifies around its walls is one of seduction. You are drawn into it, and not always by force; vampires have always been sexy. From Dracula to Castlevania, the castle is that which you enter. “Welcome to my house!” the count proclaims. “Enter of your own free will!” Baudrillard describes the vampire’s castle precisely: “the strategy of seduction consists of drawing the other within your area of weakness, which is also his or hers.” After all, for all the dangers of the place it’s only once you’re in the castle that you can start deploying garlic effectively. It’s quite possible to form a very crude (and sexist) Freudian understanding: from the outside the vampire’s castle is erect and imposing, but within it’s full of undulating passages and chambers where the Brides of Dracula play their coquettish games…

Vampires have been with us for a long time, and it’s not hard to see a connection between the folk myths of bloodsucking monsters – those that extend their powers through the land, obsess over taxonomy and ritual, and have a privileged connection with rites of death – and the feudalistic mode of production. Similarly the German vampire panics at the time of the Enlightenment and the rise of the English vampire novel with industrialisation could be seen as the newly triumphant bourgeoisie turning its aristocratic predecessors into monstrous parodies of themselves. Every castle is a vampire’s castle. At the same time, there’s something that doesn’t quite work here. Vampires aren’t just parasites: they reproduce themselves by contagion and by seduction. Anyone can become a vampire, and this hardly reflects the heavily codified class society of the anciens régimes. Similarly the vampire’s need to count every poppy seed in its path is a property of instrumental reason; a feudal vampire would generally be happy to just scoop up as many as he wanted. Vampirism represents all the ideological self-delusions of capitalism reflected in their full horror. Less than fifty years separate Polidori’s The Vampyre from Marx’s observation in Volume I of Capital that “capital is dead labour that, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” It’s as if the vampires had been waiting for three thousand years for capitalism to arrive and give them form. The vampire’s castle could only be properly described, committed to the page, after the advent of industrial capitalism, because only then had the vampire’s castle taken over the world.

Where are the vampires’ castles of today? Once they were factories: reshaping the land around them, taking in people and drawing a precise amount of surplus-blood every working day. In much of the world, they still are. But the thing about vampire’s castles is that their topologies are always elastic, and they now take on innumerable forms. Shanghai is a vampire’s castle, the payday loan industry is a vampire’s castle, televised talent shows are vampires’ castles, and the internet is fast becoming one. For Mark Fisher, it’s the academy. In his essay Exiting the Vampire Castle, he uses the necrocastrilian metaphor to refer to a perceived tendency within the contemporary left: one that operates by substituting a politics of identity for one of commonality, deprivileging class as the fundamental basis of radical solidarity, individualising and essentialising opposition, and converting the actual suffering of the marginalised into academic capital. There’s plenty here that’s worthy of critique (the somewhat idealist argument that discursive paradigms can lead to the ‘disappearance’ of the left as an agent in class struggle, the paradoxical statement that class identity can be asserted with the aim of the eradication of the class structure but that ‘identitarianism’ needs must be rigid and ossified, and the implied idea that women and members of ethnic and sexual minorities who belong to the tendency he identifies are somehow unnatural and monstrous) but to properly understand why his argument fails it’s important to approach it on the level of its metaphor.

It’s not that Fisher and I are talking about completely different things when we invoke the vampires: if you describe something as a castle it should at least be expected to have some vaguely castle-y properties. The vampire’s castle isn’t fortified but fully open: it doesn’t just interact with its environment; it is its environment. In Fisher’s essay, the castle is reduced to an exteriority; it becomes two-dimensional, a cardboard prop. Despite the theme of an exit, there’s never an entrance. The castle is only approached as a looming malevolent presence on the horizon. He writes that the castle “is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd” – but the point of a vampire’s castle is that it’s driven by the desires of those it draws in, not those of its inhabitants. Vampires don’t have desire: the thirst for blood (or surplus-value) isn’t based on a transcendent object but a carnal need without any element of jouissance.

The castle is presented as a “priestly” operation that radiates guilt beyond its walls; however the danger of the vampire’s castle isn’t in its forbidding or “condemning” appearance but the fact that despite its obvious evil you want to enter it anyway. Fisher identifies five “laws’ of the vampire’s castle”, but again vampiric seduction doesn’t operate according to laws – its operation is immediate, immanent, and inevitable (whereas the law is transcendental and explicit.) Most glaringly, Fisher invokes the exteriority of the castle and its phallic unity to attack what he sees as a general tendency towards atomised individualism. He identifies, admittedly, a ‘vampiric’ procedure in which another’s actual suffering is converted into academic capital, but doesn’t at any point show exactly how and where this hematophagy takes place. Nothing adds up. Fisher’s castle cannot be a castle.

All this stuff about castles and monsters isn’t just window-dressing; it’s important. The vampire’s castle is a powerful and complex image; it’s a shame to see it used to describe people being less than civil about Owen Jones on the internet. The political use of gothic metaphors draws from a long and noble leftist bloodline: Marx himself filled his works with spirits and hobgoblins, vampires and werewolves, inanimate objects given ungodly life, the chilling laugh of the commodity as it finally reveals itself in its true form. It’s not simply a rhetorical matter of demonising your enemies. Capital presents itself as an inexplicable and mystical law; the behaviour of the markets is at once a ‘supernatural’ plane above our daily existences and the substantive content of the world. Of course, it requires regular sacrifices in the form of lives and livelihoods. The strategy is to take capital at its word. If it presents itself as an unknowable Lovecraftian horror, we describe exactly how this presentation is correct, and once this is done it loses its powers of unknowability. As always, supernatural horror is invoked precisely to make the world more comprehensible and tolerable. With all this power there comes, naturally, a good deal of responsibility. Accusations of witchcraft and devilry have always been a weapon in the arsenal of power against the marginalised. This is dangerous stuff, and it’s taken lives in the past. For the gothic-Marxist metaphor to work properly, it needs to be directed properly: against oppression. The fact that Fisher’s castle analogy fails so spectacularly as an image might suggest that it’s being aimed at the wrong target.

It’s frustrating, because I don’t necessarily disagree with all of what Fisher says. A leftist movement should be built explicitly on class analysis (without forgetting all the ways in which race, gender, sexuality and disability can serve to constitute class). Communism must involve a fidelity to an absolute and an appeal to what we have in common rather than what particularises us. (It’s an open question whether too many people are actually positing the inverse, or if Fisher’s tilting at windmills and calling them giants and castles.) At the same time I’m unconvinced that snarky behaviour on Twitter has more of a capacity to destroy the left than actual material forces, or that it makes sense to evaluate which individual people are doing the most to raise class consciousness. I’m particularly unconvinced that a call for comradeship and unity requires marginalised people to abandon their own solidarities, especially when faced with the constant threat of actual physical violence.

In other words, I’m unconvinced that our task is to exit the vampire’s castle. Fisher writes that “outside the Vampires’ Castle, anything is possible” – but the outside of the vampire’s castle is the vampires castle. In Dracula Jonathan Harker barely escapes with his life, but the count inevitably follows him to London. Exiting is for haunted houses, not vampires’ castles (and even there it doesn’t always work). Fisher’s castle is entirely flattened; he imagines himself to be outside it when he remains entirely within its realm. Perhaps this is why his essay seems to exhibit so many of the qualities he identifies as being part of the castle-complex: he attacks individuals (albeit in the guise of an impersonal structure), he essentialises through the monolith of his metaphor, most of all he attempts to portray himself as the victim of those who would portray themselves as victims. Of course, this response is only doing more of the same, but I hope it can be taken in the spirit of disagreement without excommunication (otherwise known as the Marxist weapon of criticism and self-criticism) that he invokes.

The vampire’s castle of capital has environs that now cover every square inch of the globe. When he invites marginalised people to remove themselves from the castle, Fisher is inviting them to ignore the ways in which an alienated class society works its powers of seduction and exploitation on them. This is poor praxis: the problem is that radical movements aren’t formed out of an academic commitment to a cause; they grow out of the direct experiential fact of oppression. It may be true, as Fisher suggests, that the ‘identitarian’ form he identifies is a product of the generalised atomisation of neoliberalism; it’s less sensible to claim (as he does) that the emergence of ‘neo-anarchism’ was deliberately facilitated by capital or that this perceived shift has actually immobilised the left. The point to remember is that the castle is dead, that the vampire is dead. The bats have left the belltower, the victims have been bled, red velvet lines the black box. Vampires don’t desire; they proceed not by plans and laws but through the ceaseless expansion of their sanguimania. It’s a constant improvisation, but it’s one that has improvised its way into a topological monopoly. No gothic horror story ever ends with a simple exit; there can be no exit. The hulking corpse of the vampire’s castle towers over us, but it is at its heart a place of weakness. It’s a spatio-political form that encodes the conditions for its own destruction. What is to be done? We must either die within its walls, or else tear the whole thing down.

Sam Kriss is a writer. He blogs at Idiot Joy Showland.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sam November 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm

What?

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JF November 29, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Cultural studies.

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Dave December 1, 2013 at 12:01 am

Wtf are you even talking about?! Was this written by Mark Fisher as a False Flag to proove his original point? Lol!

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Dan Harrington December 2, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Excellently written (I must confess I had to check my dictionary a couple of times!), and thoughtful.

I have to say I am somewhat undecided on the matter at this point. I think ressentiment is one of the major issues today. But I must think about this before making a foolish point.

Reply

Steve December 3, 2013 at 2:56 am

I confess I speed read it so it was only about 50 seconds, but please stop wasting everyone’s time

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K March 19, 2017 at 2:36 pm

Good shit

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