Against Vampire Slaying: Reflections on Identity Politics, the Left and Monstrosity

by Patrick F. Walter on November 29, 2013

Marxism has always been fond of vampiric metaphors.  In the Capital Vol. 1, Marx famously wrote, “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (342).  Marx’s figure of the vampire, however, has a complicated relationship to the bloodsuckers imagined by certain of his contemporaries, namely Gothic writers creating bourgeois horror stories of fanged monsters.  In short, vampire hunting has never been without its complexities and ambiguities.  In his recent article, Mark Fisher carries on this tradition of Marxist vampire slaying by attempting to drive a stake through what he terms the “vampires’ castle” of ressentiment-propagating identity politics.  Fisher’s blog has restarted a rather familiar debate about the potentially vampiric relationship between the Leftist political project and critical theories of race, gender and sexuality.  In what follows, I will argue that the seeming insolvability of this argument between “leftists” and “identitarian politicians” resides in the specific figuration of the vampire that has less to do with Marx and more to do with those Gothicists for whom the monster primarily threatened – but by in doing so extolled – the bourgeois fantasy of a unitary, individuated self.  Insofar as the argument between “leftists” and “identitarian politicians” consists of both sides negatively characterizing each other as such vampires, it is doomed to a recursive repetition.  Thus, once again the “leftists” accuse the “identitarian politicians” of effacing class and engaging in a politics of ressentiment, and the “identitarians” respond by accusing the “leftists” of effacing social identity and engaging in a politics of unchecked privilege.  To break this circuit, I propose a qualified affirmation of vampirism that runs counter to the recent tendency of Leftist scholarship to deploy negative figurations of zombies, witches, and other creatures of the night.  For the very reason that these monsters originally reflected a bourgeois anxiety about the fate of the individual in the context of modernity, they offer us sites through which to imagine social relations that are not based on a reified individualism.  At the very least, the negative deployment monstrosity has a very limited use to any project for which communism is the ultimate horizon.

Don't Stake Me, Bro

Don’t Stake Me, Bro

I want to begin my discussion of Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampires’ Castle,” and Jodi Dean’s subsequent defense of Fisher entitled “Comrades,” by emphasizing that Fisher and Dean are absolutely correct to critique a ressentiment and essentialism plaguing certain accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, particularly in the context of social media.   Fisher correctly decries the phenomenon wherein a person’s “whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioral slip.”  Indeed, such rhetorical slights of hand impede any solidarity or revolutionary project; this essentializating shift from critiquing what a person says to making assumptions about who a person is can only end in a recursive loop of resentment and victimization precisely because the person being accused of being an essentialist can always accuse the accuser of being an essentialist, and so on.  We might add that such discourse also does a disservice to activism around race, gender, queerness or disability.  To my mind, vlogger Jay Smooth, in discussing how to talk about racism, offers one of the most cogent critiques of this shift from the “what a person says” conversation to the “what a person is” conversation.

While Fisher and Dean highlight this politically stultifying loop of accusation, victimization and essentialism, the manner in which they do so does not finally break the circuit of ressentiment precisely because of how the trope of the vampire plays out in their respective critiques.  By appealing either directly or tacitly, to the vampiric, Fisher and Dean develop a contradictory position with respect to the individual.  Overtly, both Fisher and Dean argue that individualism is one of the key elements of the sort of “bourgeois identitarianism” they are contesting.  For Fisher, “The first law of the Vampires’ castle is:  Individualise and privatise everything.”  Vampiric identitarianism supposedly operates by attacking individuals rather than analyzing structures of inequality.  Similarly, Dean suggests that in the overzealous “drive” to resist the bourgeois fetish of individuality, the left attempts to assault individuals, “to destroy any individual who emerges out of the left as someone exciting, someone to hear and read.”  Capitalism can then continue on, unchallenged, because the Left has become mired in attacking individual Leftists.

At the same time as they level this completely valid critique of individuality, however, Fisher and Dean also reassert a certain individualism through the prowling shadow of vampiric impulses.  Vampires are often understood as forces of enervation, sucking vitality from their victims, and indeed, this seems to be the case for Fisher who opens his essay describing himself as a sort of Jonathan Harker of the Left, having been repeatedly fed upon by the identity politicians of Twitter, and now languishing in a somnolent haze, reduced to silence by the fear of being further attacked by the moralizing vampires who would induce further trances of guilt. “Exhausted through overwork, incapable of productive activity,” Fisher tells us, “I found myself drifting through the social networks, feeling my depression and exhaustion increasing.”

Damn all these vampires!

Damn all these vampires!

Fisher is only able to escape the “depressive stupor” of this “miserable, dispiriting zone” of “‘Left-wing’ Twitter” by, first, getting off of Twitter (perhaps never a bad idea) and going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich and, second, encountering the inspirational figures of Owen Jones and Russell Brand.  Fisher describes Brand’s now famous takedown of Jeremy Paxman as “moving, miraculous.”  Brand seems to restore the affect that had been sapped by the moralizing, identitarian left.  We are told, “Brand makes people feel good about themselves; whereas the moralising left specialises in making people feel bad, and is not happy until their heads are bent in guilt and self-loathing.”  So, the fundamental problem with the moralising, identitarian Left is not that they fail to remain focused on structural inequality but rather that they induce a political ennui; they are a buzz-kill.

Now, affect is indeed a key and often overlooked component of political change.  Any political movement requires a propeller of enthusiasm, and, indeed, Brand’s public performances have been invaluable in this regard.  The irony, however, is that while purporting to critique an identitarian discourse that relies on individual victimization and essentialism, Fisher has in fact established another discourse of victimization and essentialism in which the “vampires” attempt to sap him of his enthusiasm for Brand.  And thus, we find ourselves back in the circuit of ressentiment; after all, what could be more essentializing than referring to certain subjects as vampires?

Examples of this sort of recursivity plague Fisher’s and Dean’s texts.  Perhaps most tellingly, Fisher claims that one anonymous Facebook post criticizing Brand sounded “horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient.”  I presume here that Fisher rejects not only the “tone” of the Facebook post but also, more fundamentally, the sort of didactic, individual psycho-pathologization at work anytime we shift from talking about what a person said to who a person is.  And again, this shift and the pathologization it entails should be rejected by any project interested, finally, in communization.  Fisher, however, quickly follows this rejection of such psychiatric discourse by identifying “two libidinal-discursive configurations” supposedly motivating the ressentiment of the identitarian left, one of which is the vampire.  That is to say, Fisher admonishes the pathologizing tendancies of the identitarian left by pathologizing these tendencies as vampiric.

Similarly, Dean diagnoses the identitarian left’s attacks on individuals as the symptom of an excessive “drive.”  Dean says, “In this urge to destroy, we find the intensity, the excess, of desire. It’s desire that is absolute, unconditioned, out of proportion, desire that abolishes the dimension of the other.”  Supposedly, then, the identitarian left succumbs to a “drive” that leads them to destroy certain individuals who are falsely equated with capital.  Here, Dean pinpoints a certain mechanism that Jacques-Alain Miller associated with racism:  the equation of a certain group of people with the jouissance of the big Other.  That is, the confusion of the other, in the form of any neighbor whatsoever, with the Other that is finally formal –in Dean’s case the Other of capitalism.  And, indeed, quite ironically, certain identity politicians also carry out this conflation whilst purportedly attempting to critique someone’s racist discourse.  But, by attributing this conflation to the “identitarian left’s” supposed excessive desire, Dean repeats the very conflation of other and Other she purports to critique.  The “identitarian Left” become figures of an improper, destructive desire, whose criticisms of certain individuals amount to “getting off a little bit.”  In other words, the “identitarian Left” again emerges as a vampiric impulse whose monstrously excessive “drive” threatens to devour the enthusiasm and vitality – the proper enjoyment – of the Left.  This is a particularly volatile formulation because many of those who feel interpellated by this term “identitarian left” are precisely those queers, people of color and women – those others – who have so often been made to stand in for the jouissance of the Other.

By now the repetitions of this frustrating circuit hopefully appear as maddening and familiar as they in fact are.   To put the matter more plainly, what we’ve been describing here is the theoretical architecture of what is more commonly known as the “privileged Marxists” v.s. the “resentful identitarians” cage-match in which nobody wins, no body gets out, and everybody becomes increasingly bloody and hateful. Fisher and Dean are absolutely spot-on to express a real exasperation with this stalemate.  But the negative figuration of the vampire through which they express this exasperation already forecloses upon any way to break this sleeper hold.  To understand why this is, it is important, as always, to return to Marx and his contemporaries, the Gothic writers of vampire fiction.

For the Gothicists, the vampire is fundamentally bound to that which it threatens, namely the unitary ego of the bourgeois individual.  This vampire is a metaphor for that excessive drive that threatens to destroy the ego and its “proper” desires.  Think Dracula and the psychic threat he posed to bourgeois women.  As Franco Morretti has famously shown, this threat was, in a sense, indexed to capitalism; when Dracula, that figure of insatiable consumption, is stabbed, he bleeds money.  But it is ultimately a bourgeois system of values that is threatened, and thus exalted, through this particular, negative, myth of the vampire.  Through these fanged creatures, the bourgeois subject develops a monstrous figuration for the inherent brutality of capital to which bourgeois identity is bound.  In Dracula, the resolution to the problem of bats in the attic is certainly not communist disillusion of the classes.  Rather, it is a fantastical, outrageously paradoxical, notion that the bourgeois subject can return to sort of pre-capitalist wholeness while still being a bourgeois subject, that it can eliminate the monstrousness upon which its identity is based without simultaneously destroying itself.

It is debatable whether or in what way Marx’s use of the vampire as a metaphor for capital corresponds to the vampires of Gothic fiction.  Indeed, the figure of the vampire in Marx has a couple of different functions.  As Matthew MacLellan observes, “the Marxian vampire is not a singular or monolithic heuristic device but rather manifests dually in Marx’s work:  at times the vampire stands in for capitalists or the bourgeoisie; at other times it stands in for capital itself” (550).  For MacLellan, the Manichean interpretation of the Marxian vampire as a metaphor for the capitalist or bourgeoisie monster who sucks “living labor” from the human worker “is incompatible with Marx’s immanent analysis of the capitalist mode of production” (551).  Although this interpretation of the monster, which I would argue is ultimately closest to Fisher’s version of the monster, accurately captures the antagonist relationship between the classes, it posits a return to some pre-capitalist condition of reified “living labor” as the solution to this antagonism.  Communism then appears as a reactionary prelapsarian fantasy.  As MacLellan puts it, “By equating living labor with the vampire’s human victims, this reading of the metaphor sets up a problematic parallel whereby the transformative role of the proletariat as described by Marx is supplanted by a populist and even reactionary logic in which the victims of exploitation strive to return to a state of natural completeness or wholeness” (558).

Against this dominant interpretation of the Marxian vampire, MacLellan proposes that we read the vampire not as a metaphor for the bourgeoisie but instead as a metaphor for the totality of the value form.  While such a reading of the “vampire-as-value” doesn’t offer us a neat gothic narrative of monsters vs. humans, it does “den[y] any attempt, even implicitly, to situate living labor in an exogenous position with respect to capital” (563).  Whatever this notion of the vampire-as-value might entail, it does not evoke some pre-vampiric state to which we can return.  To posit the vampire-as-value, we must affirm our status as irrevocability bitten.  There is no return to some pre-capitalist fantasy of reified use value.  There is no “proper enjoyment.”  Contra Stoker, there is no blood transfusion that can cure us.  Whatever communism might be, it cannot be the return to some pre-capitalist wholeness of the ego.  To dissolve class antagonisms is not to return to some ideal time before classes.

These two versions of the vampire that MacLellan discerns in Marxism help us to understand how this monstrous figure tends to leave us in the strictures of ressentiment characteristic of the debate between “Leftists” and “identity politics,” even when, as is the case with Fisher and Dean, we are attempting to resolve this conflict.  If the vampire is set up as a hostile bourgeois figure who, through its abhorrent “drive,” threatens the “proper” enjoyment of certain working class leftists, as seems to be at least implicitly the case in Fisher’s and Dean’s essays, then we inevitably end up longing a for some condition of wholeness for the working class and its individual egos.  To put the matter simply, class becomes identity.  And, without a doubt, certain critiques of social identity make a similar move with respect to race, gender or sexuality –i.e. imagining some return to an “authentic” identity that miraculously exists prior to or “outside of” the system that inaugurated these identities in the first place.

What would happen then if we translated the totalized “vampire-as-value” figure in terms of this debate between “Leftists” and “identitarian politicians”?  First of all, no single side could be aligned either with the vampire or the human, either with “drive” or “proper desire.”  Instead, vampirism would stand in for the totality of the debate itself, characterizing a situation in which both sides feed off of each other, reducing and exploiting each other’s positions in order to bolster their own through a seeming endless series of Twitter wars and Facebook screeds.  Keep in mind, the vampire never actually desires the destruction of its host but instead an immortal, parasitical relationship with this host.  When I suggest that this relationship needs to be affirmed, I’m not saying that it should be the stopping point.  This is finally a poisonous relationship not because either party will finally be destroyed but precisely because it maintains a false opposition between them.  There is no “identitarian” Left anymore than there is a “proper” Left.  Rather, I am suggesting that we need to acknowledge the extent to which Marxism requires critiques of race, gender and sexuality and vice versa.  Neither of these positions makes sense independent of the other.  What we might salvage from the vampire metaphor, then, is the very notion of the vampire as a non-individualistic figure.  Indeed, vampires, like other monsters, exist in packs, in makeshift communes; they are unheard of symbiotic creatures.  What is monstrous about the vampire is its relation which, in denying individualistic wholeness, also defies bourgeois social formations.  This vampirism, which has always been understood as exploitation and enervation, might be rethought as a mutual dependence, a profound solidarity that has never been without its pleasures and that might properly terrorize capital.

Comrades?

Comrades?


Dean, Jodi.  “Comrades.”  The North Star.  25 Nov. 2013.  Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Fisher, Mark.  “Exiting the Vampire Castle.”  22. Nov. 2013.  Web. 27. Nov. 2013.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. “Extimité.”  Lacanian Theory of Discourse:  Subject, Structure and Society.  Ed. Mark Bracher, Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., Roland J. Corthell and Françoise Massardier-Kenny.  Trans.  Françoise Massardier-Kenney.  New York:  New York UP, 1994.  74-87.

MacLellan, Matthew,  “Marx’s Vampires:  An Althusserian Critique.”  Rethinking Marxism:  A Journal of Economics, Culture and Society, 35:4 (2013):  549-565.

Marx, Karl.  Capital Volume 1:  A Critique of Political Economy.  Trans.  Ben Fowkes. New York:  Penguin, 1976.

Moretti, Franco.  Signs Taken for Wonders.  Trans. Fischer, Forgacs and Miller. London:  Verso.  1983.

Smooth, Jay.  “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.” 21 July 2008.  Youtube.  27 Nov. 2013.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jodi Dean November 30, 2013 at 8:13 pm

It seems like you may not understand my little essay. I am not critical of desire. In my recent work, I’ve been arguing for desire over drive. In contrast with some readings of Zizek as asserting the priority of drive over desire, I view drive as the structure of the dominant ideology of communicative capitalism and think that it is necessary to assert the gap of desire. So, when I mention the intensity of desire, I am not doing so critically but positively. The problem is that our setting in communicative capitalism means that our desire gets captured in networks of drive. The very excess that can revolutionary politics gets caught in drive, in the more readily available sources of expression and satisfaction. Also, you may not have noticed, but I don’t use vampire imagery.

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Reza Lustig December 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Can we officially have a moratorium on these “Vampire” essay responses to Mark Fisher’s piece? I think you guys all got the point across :P

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