The Vampire in an Age of Wars around Terror and Economic Anemia


by Bryan Alexander

The vampire is traditionally a figure of personal violence, both committing acts of transgressive penetration and in eliciting destructive responses. When Jonathan Harker first attacks Dracula, his shovel strikes only a glancing blow off of the vampire's head. The attack fails in most senses, revealing Harker's weak will, and leaving a mark, deferred for later recognition. Some months later, with allies, Harker attacks again, and this time penetrates Dracula's outer layers, causing money, not blood, to gout from the monster's body. Finally, the heroic band cows and slaughters the count's auxiliaries, then stabs the Transylvanian into disintegration.

Yet each of these somatic incursions is overdetermined spatially. When Harker stabs, it is with a Gurkha knife designed, or built, in India, in a clear use of empire as defensive sign. This occurs in London, within Harker's domestic space, representing both the vampire's depth of invasion, and his ejection. Earlier, clobbering the vampire with the shovel occurs in the depths of Dracula's ancient home, deep within a mixture of the Freudian Gothic's basement of id and real estate (Dracula is, after all, an aristocrat, and this is his land). The vampire's spatialisation goes beyond Lefebvre's insistence on the spatial grounding of meaning; the monster's eruption into social space is an ontological move, threatening the space of narrative and norm. It is not a local error, a restricted omission of rules. The vampire is a plague-form, like Shelley's monster, capable of virusing the world. Like the arrival of a radiation-spawned giant insect [1], signalled by the etymological hint of 'monster' as monere, 'to warn', the vampire is a sign that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with the world.

Let us return to Dracula's shower of gold, struck by Harker's imperial knife. What better metaphor for the present state of capital's confusion? Kenneth Lay, CEO of Enron, before the United States Congress, strides and stares in the finest clothing and demeanour money can buy. He falls protectively silent in the face of accusations of theft, of having stolen the deferred rewards of employees, bleeding funds dry, eventually sucking the vitality from the American market. Notice that Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson are not clearly producers of wealth in the nineteenth-century or modernist senses. They are not factory systems. They are instead manipulators of money, secondary or support creatures, in old Marxist language, parasites. Marx wrote about this in his ferocious Gothic mode – while capital acts monstrously ('If money, according to Augier, 'comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,' capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt'), it maintains a public face of fine style, which it itself underpins. [2] Indeed, Enron made its initial success by controlling energy, quite literally.

The Gothic is the zone of haunted spaces. Return to spatialised vampirism: the time of the twenty-first century's (first) capital implosion is also the time of confusion over land and territory. The dot.com collapse follows the rapid transformation of real estate in areas with strong new media populations (San Francisco, New York, Silicon Valley, also London) during the 1990s, where shops with science fiction names appeared, and kid millionaires gentrified neighbourhoods. The dot.bomb to a degree allows for the return of pre-Web ownership. But, more significantly, as venture capital calls in its chits and withdraws support, these reterritorialisations now deterritorialize, becoming zones pointing towards the old west's ghost towns, postmodern mini-Detroits [3]. In this context, Dracula's threat of alien land ownership continues to appear. While American businesses head for cheaper climes, foreign investment arrives steadily. Nike opens up factories in Vietnam, and Hong Kong capital buys up buildings and firms in California. Detroit is now partly led by Daimler-Chrysler, a figure out of William Gibson's Gothic cyberpunk future. Land ownership is increasingly mobile, liquid, non local, and the properties so owned gradually empty out.

These spaces, and many others, are at the same time steadily shifting into a new ontology, imbricating themselves with an interpenetrating second layer of information space. All of this capital is already digital, of course, both in the electronic revision of financial streams and the grudging/frantic flight to cyberspace. But what is changing now is the ubiquity of these digital zones. Formerly confined to desktops and laptops plugged into walls, the cyber has cut loose via wireless, with laptops pulling down global information grids, cell phones knitting conversations in the midst of rooms, Palm Pilots beaming files to each other. Computing devices increase in number, often grow smaller, and diversify in space. In Michael Heim's terms, we're approaching a space of 'avatecture', where the virtual and the physical coexist, overlapping, interlacing [4]. Electronic (and electric media) have always been uncanny, but physically pinned down [5]. Networked mobility and wirelessness means all of the cathected anxieties of cyberspace, that monstrous playground of ids unleashed by screens, are now seeping into, or from, walls and rooms. A chat room overlays onto several physical rooms of conversation. A teenage boy types from his bedroom to a sexual predator in his car, while mom and dad track data flows from their machines by sniffing packets from their wireless hub. Attackers can use the digital world to track prey in the physical – in a recent Australian case, a group of men stalked potential rape victims by a network of mobile phones. The women reported hearing cells ringing in the city space around them, listening to phone talk triangulate around them.

Bruce Sterling calls this 'terrorspace', and imagines situations where citizens consent to their own tracking through ubiquitous computing in order to protect themselves, and their property [6]. While this clearly aids in the immediate Gothic problem of avoiding a monster, it remains to be seen if the creation of a terrorspace defensive network serves as garlic for the larger, vampiric monsters of state and capital [7]. Sterling's argument is clearly a post-9-11 move, addressing an American audience much more willing to surrender liberties in the classic discourse of freedom/security trade-off. Microsoft's much-parodied slogan, 'Where do you want to go today?', now fully acquires its inquisitorial edge.

Down on the ground, September 11th and its aftermath contain a profound element of land ownership and terror, even beyond the sacralisation of Ground Zero. Bin Laden's family made its bones, as we say, through grand property development; symmetrically, bin Laden's 2001 attack is one of property destruction. One recalls, perhaps, his videotaped discussion of the World Trade Center's collapse, where the al-Qaeda leader used his building construction background to analyse the fall of the towers (the phrase is Samuel Delany's). He and his organisation, of course, are famously more liquid and mobile than static buildings allow, remaining, as of this writing, uncaught. Like Hassan i Sabah, they lurk in power's interstices, non state actors that are the terror of states, personal threats to leaderships (think of the fourth plane's likely target) and spectres for populations [8]. At the same time, the networked organisation retains its global reach, knitting resources out of complex networks, able to coalesce at unpredictable, nomadic points. We should expect vampiric metaphors to be attached to bin Laden in popular discourse, especially as he remains unkilled, uncaught. 'How do you kill a monster that cannot die?' (Craig Baldwin, on the CIA plots against Castro, Tribulation 99 [9])

While the purpose of the 9-11 attacks is partly geopolitical spatial (the withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia, support from Israel), the effects in the United States are a national version of terrorspace, both literally and rhetorically. The notorious Ad Council series of 'Freedom' commercials [10] are carefully organised to terrify by constructing a series of places: 'Main Street USA', 'Church', 'Library', 'Diner'. Airports, federal buildings, monuments, the occasional and politically useful bridge, have become zones of intensified surveillance and policing.

If you've been in airports recently, I believe you are seeing a pretty apt, early version of Terrorspace. At any random moment, you can have your possessions rifled through by strangers. Your shoes are scanned, and various small but vital objects in your pockets can be confiscated by semi- educated security geeks. They're either pathetically under-trained for the job (in which case you certainly feel no safer), or else they are intelligent and capable people (in which case you pity them and wish they had some other job, for the sake of general human happiness and the GNP). Rather than making us any safer, Terrorspace airports serve as political indoctrination centres that humiliate our voting population on a broad scale. They are meant to inure us to ever-escalating levels of governmental clumsiness and general harm. (Sterling, '911.net')

Remember the interpenetration of data and the physical world. All of these spaces are gridded by data, patrolled by mobile information units, interlocked by searched databases. Identity profiles parallel the motions of the persons they describe, carefully maintained ghosts. Jonathan Harker's second attack on Dracula is a quite accurate image for this reterritorialisation, revealing the stream of finance which circulates through the apparatus concerned with terror.

Through these spaces, then, move the cargoes of information, of bodies, of incipient destruction, intertwined in multiple layers of communication and exchange. Networks of control, regulation, monitoring, and of course discipline wrap around these objects, sagging under their weight, at times. The question is to what degree they have superceded the land.

Bryan Alexander is associate director of the Center for Educational Technologyin the US and researches and teaches on cyberculture, computer-mediated learning, and the Gothic.

 

Originally published inhouse at RAID projects, Los Angeles for exhibition of 500 Pounds of Common Earth.. 2001.



1 Thomas Zummer, 'What the Hell is That?' http://microtitles.com/microt-Item03.html [back]
2 Karl Marx, Capital I. Penguin, 925-6 [back]
3 The term is from Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [back]
4 Michael Heim, 'The Feng Shui of Virtual Reality', http://crossings.tcd.ie/issues/1.1/Heim/ [back]
5 cf Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. London: Royal College of Art, 1999; Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000 [back]
6 '911.net', http://www.viridiandesign.org/notes/301-350/00324_911.net.html [back]
7 David Brin, in The Transparent Society, does make a case for universal surveillance – including popular, citizen-mounted observation and collection of data – weakening the ability of elites to commit crimes. (New York: Addison Wesley, 1998)[back]
8 Cf, for example, Peter Lamborn Wilson's well-known 'Secrets of the Assassins' (http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/Articles/Secrets%20of%20the%20Assassins.html). [back]
9 (1992). http://us.imdb.com/Title?0105639; also its home page, http://www.othercinema.com/filmography/trib99.html.[back]
10 http://www.adcouncil.org/campaigns/campaign_for_freedom/ [back]