Journée d'étude, 8 avril 2011

Holes, Cracks, Fissures and “True Blood”: the Undead and Social Networks

Katharine Streip
Érotique du vampire contemporain, événement organisé par Antonio Dominguez Leiva

Dans le cadre de la journée d’étude «Érotique du vampire contemporain», Katharine Streip a présenté une communication intitulée «Holes, Cracks, Fissures and True Blood: the Undead and Social Networks». Katharine Streip a obtenu un Ph.D. en littérature comparée de la University of California à Berkeley. Elle a publié des essais sur Marcel Proust, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth et William S. Burroughs. Ses recherches portent sur la comédie, le roman, le Paris du XIXe siècle et le modernisme. Elle est présentement professeure associée au Liberal Arts College de l’Université Concordia.

Son article est publié à la suite de la vidéo (audio seulement).

Holes, Cracks, Fissures and True Blood: the Undead and Social Networks

Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels may be a “great mix of horror, romance, drama, comedy and sex,” however, the first season of the television series True Blood complicates the narrative with its insistent portrayal of how media networks shape characters’ identities.   In the first episode, Arlene’s kids call her at Merlotte’s to complain that René has told them that they are too young to watch a scary movie on HBO.  In the final episode of season one, Arlene’s kids have found René’s hidden pornography stash and are avidly watching.  In the first episode, Jason and Maudette watch Maudette have sex with a vampire on video and are then filmed by a hidden camera as they have sex.  We watch Nan Flanagan, representative of the American Vampire League, interviewed on television.  We see a newspaper front page announcing that Angelina Jolie has adopted a vampire baby.  Although two years ago, according to the series, people didn’t even know there were vampires, now this knowledge seems to be everywhere – in episode 3, when Jason turns on the TV and starts channel surfing, every show refers to vampires.

This information about vampires is carefully managed.  In episode one, when vampire Bill lacks strength from being drained, he asks Sookie not to talk about his experience because “we don’t like for our weaknesses to be made public knowledge.” When Bill’s blood helps Sookie to recover from a beating, she asks if doctors know that vampire blood has this power?  “No,” Bill replies.  “We want to keep it that way.”   Hepatitis D, the only blood born pathogen to which vampires are susceptible, has also been kept out of the media because “you don’t want your weaknesses to be public knowledge.”  The vampires insist, “We have to moderate our behavior now that we are out in the open.”  Indeed, this management of information has been going on for a while – as Bill explains, “We started these myths long ago” (episode 7).  Vampires are acutely aware of the power of social media.

Everyone in the series consumes and disseminates information in various forms.   When we first see Tara, she is reading The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.  The series presents an active information economy, and, as Richard Doyle comments, “Information economies enable little more than the acceleration and amplification of that most ancient of media: the rumor” (Doyle, 195).   Rumors travel quickly in Bon Temps, the little Louisiana town where True Blood takes place.  When Sookie says she has to tell her grandmother about her brother Jason’s most recent arrest, Sam reassures her, “It’s Bon Temps. She already knows” (episode 4).  Everyone seems to find out right away about the murder of Maudette Pickens and the arrest of Jason Stackhouse through gossip networks.  Dawn is surprised when Sookie does not know right away that her brother has been arrested.  “I am not psychic,” explains Sookie (episode 1).    She cannot foresee the future, but telepathic Sookie is a vivid example of the consequences of too much information and she even protests at the overload: “I am not a short wave radio” (episode 12).  When Sookie waits on people at Merlotte’s, she works in an ocean of voices. Sookie lives the fantasy of transparent information, and she is either exhausted with too much stimuli or overwhelmed. As Sookie explains, “I hear everyone’s deepest darkest secrets.  I am sorry, that’s just too much information” (episode 3). When Arlene, in the final episode of series one, asks Sookie to vet any future boyfriend – to “look into his head and tell me everything you see, because I have the worst taste in men,” Sookie explains that her gift, or her disability, does not work this way.  Sookie implies that information and knowledge are not the same and that you need knowledge for genuine intimacy.  Indeed, too much information is not helpful for intimate relations.  When Sookie hears what people are thinking at her grandmother’s funeral, she shouts, “Shut the fuck up” and is viewed as crazy by the onlookers – her audience thinks they should lock her up and throw away the key (episode 6).

True Blood poses the problem of information versus knowledge – what happens when you have too much information?   Clarifying this distinction, Bernard Stiegler comments “The value of information as commodity drops precipitously with time (in contrast to that of knowledge, which remains constant or increases over time) (Stiegler, 78).  Stiegler connects knowledge to literal historical time and information to immediacy – information loses its value after its first use and is not repeatable.  The news is only news today.

Contemporary social networks offer continuous news and lots of information.  We know what people eat, where they sleep, what parties they have attended, who are their friends, what are their favorites.  Why does True Blood suggest it is easier to be intimate with a vampire than with humans within social networks?  Why introduce vampires into human social networks?

The answer may have to do with the privileged status of information in the contemporary age.  The human dream of transcending materiality, of preventing the decay of material reality, persists through a vision of “information as a kind of immaterial fluid that circulates effortlessly around the globe while still retaining the solidity of a reified concept” (Hayles 246).  Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, argues that the Cartesian mind/body distinction reappears as the distinction between materiality and information to a point where physical embodiment seems to be beside the point (Brown, 55).   Disembodiment of information allows for fast and easy translation across different systems.  The body is no longer needed; its wetware (flesh and blood) is an obstacle to be overcome through such techniques as cryonics (maintain the body and life at low temperatures) or computational reembodiment (download microthin brain layers onto a hard drive).  What happens when “life” is understood as being essentially informational, as Eugene Thacker asks (Thacker, 117)?  The very term wetware can be seen as a rhetorical ploy to reduce the necessary relation between intelligence and embodiment by picturing body and mind as analogues of computer hardware and software.  The informational approach makes the relation between body and mind purely functional.  Since the middle of the 20th century, cybernetic discourses have contributed to this framing of the body/mind problem: the body as material substance is compared to a machine, while its mental capacities are figured as programs.  This position creates cyberfantasies of radical disembodiment and transcendence in technocultural fads like “extropianism,” a transhumanist philosophy for improving the human condition through advances in science and technology that will let humans live indefinitely, or cryogenics, or other projects for extending life.  As Katherine Hayles explains,“The posthuman view privileges information pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment is seen as an accident of history rather than inevitable.  This view regards consciousness as the site of human identity, and the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate” (Hayles, 2-3).

With this insight into the privileging of consciousness and the subordination of the body, we can consider the question, why are vampires good for humans?  What do vampires tell us about the “material, affective and rhetorical ecologies within which we live” (Doyle, 58)?   “Why on earth should I continue seeing you?” Sookie asks Bill, and he responds, “Because you will never find a human man you can be yourself with” (episode 3). As to why Sookie needs a relationship with a vampire in order to be herself, vampires have played a significant role in popular culture for centuries.  It is no accident that so many contemporary vampires can be found in the American South.  The South, as Jennifer Rae Greeson explains, “is a term of the imagination, a site of national fantasy” (Greeson, 1), whether fantasy as a mode of psychological desire or psychological defense (Greeson, note 1, pg. 291).  The American South is wonderful for generating works of the imagination because it offers a conceptual structure, an internal other for the United States, just as vampires offer a conceptual structure for humans.

What does the vampire fantasy enable for humans?  In the case of True Blood, think of how networks are based on components and connectivity.  Ecosystems with too much connectivity have low adaptive fitness, according to Stuart Kauffman (cited by Doyle, 5). The highest fitness levels are “at the edge of chaos.”  Ordered networks near the boundary of chaos may be able to perform the most complex tasks and have the greatest capacity to evolve in a changing world. It might be healthy to show hospitality to an inhuman form, to integrate an alien entity into one’s own habitat.  When she is around Bill, Sookie says, “I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but I almost feel normal” (6).  And part of this “almost normal” feeling must be due to the fact that vampires are emphatically not human, as they keep insisting throughout True Blood.

Cornelius Castoriadis has argued that individuals apprehend materiality through a specific “socialization of the psyche,” a “corporeal imagination” shaped by history and culture (Brown, 60).  Our culture’s corporeal imagination tends to devalue the body in favor of the mind. While clumsily carrying Dawn’s dead body in the series, one undertaker says to another, “You don’t need to be too careful, you are not going to hurt her” (episode 4).  Sookie is criticized for covering Dawn’s body and compromising police information. Within a culture where form and matter (like mind and body) have been differentiated so powerfully, often it is only a breakdown in habitual interactions that makes the world’s materiality suddenly meaningful  (Brown 60).   Bill is literally a blank but physical space for Sookie – she cannot hear his thoughts.  Vampires offer the opportunity to make materiality meaningful again.   They provide a paradox for thought, someone who is both dead and alive, someone who does not age and still exists within a temporal flow.  They suggest the possibility of a very long existence that is still subject to extinction, as vampires are reduced to their corporeal remains quite frequently in True Blood.

As the embodiment of a paradox, “the living dead,” that circulates within a human cultural network, the vampires in True Blood remind us how life itself has become a challenged category in contemporary thought.   “Biologists no longer study life today” writes the Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist Francois Jacob, “they study living systems” (Doyle, 21).  The field of genetics shows that biological life depends on the storage and processing of information to the point where it now makes sense to wonder whether the body is best understood as a network, raising the questions, how is something alive and how do I know?  (Brown, 58). Organisms have always already been networks, says theoretical biologist Marcello Barbieri (Doyle 23). The possibility of artificial life makes the border between life and nonlife, flesh and machine, seductively uncertain (Doyle 9).  Connections and blockages within systems can have more significance than the autonomous interiority of an organism (Doyle 21).  Vampires embody these liminal states: they are dead – they have no brain waves, no heart beat, no need to breathe – and yet they can talk to you and they offer great sex.  They are mysterious – “How do you digest blood?” Sookie asks Bill (episode 3).  Sex with vampires means stepping outside of the reproductive economy.  They disturb categories of identity.  “Do you realize that every person in this establishment is staring at us right now,” Bill asks Sookie when they are seated at Merlotte’s.  “They are staring at us because I am a vampire and you are a mortal” (episode 1).

Vampires upset the material, emotional and rhetorical ecologies of Bon Temps in the series True Blood and they put identity into question.  When vampires share a nest, they become more cruel, more wicked, they become a law unto themselves. Vampires who live alone are more likely to hang on to some semblance of humanity, according to Bill.  Bill is trying to mainstream, to live like a human, although even that category is not entirely clear-cut, for Sookie complains, “Sucking the blood out of police officers is not mainstreaming.  Hosting orgies is not mainstreaming.  Listening to crazy Chinese gargling is not mainstreaming.” Bill explains that he is listening to Tuvan throat singing, and admonishes, “You cannot be frightened of everything you don’t know in this world” (episode 5). The desire to police identity is clear from the very first scene of the series, when a vampire tells a human, if you ever pretend to be one of us again, I will kill you (episode 1).  We are confronted by the visual management of what is human and what is alive – the definition and borders of living systems.  Think of Jason’s erotic dance while wearing a Laura Bush mask as Lafayette tapes him in exchange for V-juice or vampire blood, or Jason wearing a mask and pretending to be a vampire in order to scare Dawn.  Jason in turn hallucinates that Dawn turns into a scary vampire while he has sex with her.  Identity is associated with an invisibility of the institutions and communities that enable it (Doyle 57), and True Blood  helps us to see this mediation.

Jason Stackhouse does not know if he is a killer and needs evidence from videotapes to assure him that he is not.  Vampire Eddie, when discussing his decision to become a vampire, says that you reach a point in life when you realize that you don’t know what you are – it is all conditioning (episode 9).  Sam, the owner of Merlotte’s, turns out to be a shape shifter, but he is not the only shape shifter.  State senator David Finch buys V from Lafayette and then makes speeches against vampires.  Lafayette, in turn, dresses up as a straight black man to confront him and takes advantage of a photo opp (episode 11).  Lafayette is a short order cook, works on a road crew, has a side business dealing drugs and V and changes his style of dress as he assumes different identities.  Perhaps the greatest shape shifter is René, the serial killer.  We, the audience, suspect his identity as the murderer of his sister Cindy through a photo sent by fax.  Arlene learns the man she has been sleeping with and plans to marry is different from who she imagines when she looks at his book, “Cajun Accents for Actors” (episode 12).  “His name, his accent – how could I not know?” she asks after she catches her children watching his porn tapes.  But again, information is not the same as knowledge. Materiality exposes René, when smell tells Sam that René is the killer (episode 12).

Given the power of mediation, what constitutes identity?  Cryonists, people who freeze their bodies and brains in the hopes of future awakening, store tapes and CD ROMs along with their bodies to “remind” them who they are upon revival (Doyle 114).  It could be, as Richard Doyle points out, that the basis of identity is not even located, strictly speaking, in the body.  Identity “could be an ecological event […] most organisms we consider emerging out of an ecology.  They evolve not as individuals but in relation to other organisms.  Since I assume that the self- circuit evolved, then the question arises whether or not this ‘self’ can be localized in an individual human body or if it is an event that emerges in an ecology” (Doyle 114).  True Blood speculates about what happens to individual identity when vampires are introduced into a human network.

The introduction of vampires into the ecology of Bon Temps emphasizes questions raised by Bernadette Wegenstein about what the body means in a culture, how does the body produce culture, and to what extent does culture produce bodies (Wegenstein, 19).  What is the function of the highly adaptable vampire fantasy here?  Vampires materialize our understanding.    A vampire, as Mary Hallab explains, conveys a kind of meaningful materiality to history (Hallab, 39).  The vampire embodies the not-so-dead past, insisting on the interconnectedness of our origins and our present selves (Hallab, 14), as we see when Bill discusses the civil war with the community of Bon Temps.  The vampire is flesh without transcendence, body without human soul.  Curiously, Sookie is unable to have sex with Bill until her grandmother is murdered (episode 6). Vampires remind us and reassure us of our materiality.  There’s vampire in your cleavage, someone observes to Sookie (episode 9).  When Jason and his girlfriend Amy decide to “harvest” Eddie by draining him for his blood, Jason asks his girlfriend about how they should treat the kidnapped vampire.  “Shouldn’t we feed him?”  Jason asks. “He is not a person,” Amy replies. “But I feed my truck with gas,” Jason responds (episode 9).  The kidnapped vampire is screaming in the background while this dialogue goes on.  Look at the exchange between Jason and Amy while they are cleaning up Eddie’s remains after Amy kills Eddie.  Amy insists, “He was already dead.  He was not a man.  He was a predator,” while Jason throws up.  “What we have is beautiful,” Amy insists.  The camera pauses on a shot of Eddie’s innards (episode 11), a comment on the intimacy between Amy and Jason.

Indeed, the inclusion of vampires into human social networks highlights the difficulty of intimacy.  This problem of intimacy is emphasized throughout True Blood.  “I have a hard time opening up,” Sam tells Tara (episode 3) “It is scary opening your heart up to anyone,” says Sookie’s grandmother (episode 3).  Of course, it is literally scary opening your heart up to a vampire, when presumably, in an intimate relationship, your vampire partner is feeding on you.    According to Alan Ball, True Blood is about the perils of intimacy, the terrors of intimacy, the connection that exists between people.  As Sookie says to Bill, “Bill, you were just licking blood out of my head.  I don’t think it gets more personal than that” (episode 2).

The camera in True Blood lingers on perforation marks on necks and thighs as material evidence of past contact with a vampire.  The sheriff of Cindy’s town asks Sookie, “Those vampire bites?”  (episode 11).  Jason notices puncture marks on Maudette’s thighs, although she insists that they are just mosquito bites (episode 1).  The arrival of vampires in Bon Temps cracks discourse itself open into a proliferations of holes, cracks and fissures provoked by these encounters with the living dead.

The brand name “True Blood” (which is actually artificial, synthetic blood) helps us to think beyond the nature-artifice paradigm at the core of Western science and philosophy (Thacker 128).   The synthetic concoction “True Blood” is an example of biotechnology, combining what has  historically and philosophically been separate: life (bios) from technology (techne), nature from artifice, living from nonliving.  In this series, nature and artifice, living and nonliving, information and knowledge uncomfortably coexist. Vampires need human blood, humans crave vampire blood as a prosthetic technology – it enhances their senses, makes them stronger, increases their libido.  Through the introduction of vampires into human social networks, True Blood questions the appeal of information as a form of disembodiment through its own relentless portrayal of corporeality.  Vampires become a source of knowledge in True Blood.  They remind us of our desire for spiritual transcendence and express the necessary embodiment and context of that desire.

— Katharine Streip, 2011.

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