Sunday, 4 March 2012

'Vampire, see Serbia'

'Vampire, see Serbia', is what you find if you look up the word Vampyr in Dr. Christian Wilhelm Hufeland's encyclopedia on apparent death, Der Scheintod, oder Sammlung der wichtigsten Thatsachen und Bemerckungen darüber, from 1808.

The entry on Serbia, which incidentally follows an entry on the apparently dead eating themselves (das Selbstverzehren der Scheintodten: 'Man hat Beispiele von Todten, welche im Sarge sich selbst zu verzehren angefangen haben sollen...'), actually carries the title: 'Servien's Scheintodten-Ereignisse', the incidents involving apparently dead persons in Serbia. The entry concerns the incidents in Medvedja in the winter of 1731-2, although here erroneously dated 1733. Hufeland states that Emperor Charles VI asked Dr. Beyer to write an analysis of the matter, which however has not been published, but was probably suppressed by the Church ('Dieses ist aber, so sehr das Publicum auch darauf wartete, niemals öffentlich bekannt gemacht und warscheinlich durch den Kaiserlichen Beichtsvater, nach dessen Sinne es nicht ausgefallen seyn mochte, unterdrückt worden').

Hufeland finds that the vampires were in fact persons who became afflicted with some local disease and were presumed dead, and consequently  prematurely buried. Well, all things considered, it is not exactly a satisfactory theory, but that is the reason why Serbia and vampires are included in Hufeland's book.

But Hufeland is not the only one to identify Serbia with vampirism, and vice versa. In a recent book, Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2011), Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at the University of Winsconsin, Tomislav Z. Longinovic, writes:

'Until the Bulldozer Revolution in October 2000, global media networks and the public relations industry profiled 'the serbs' as avatars of post-communist violence in the Balkans. Despite the burden of all too real war crimes committed during the 1990s in the name of collective survival of their own territorial identity, global media excessively emphasized 'the serbs' as the incarnation of an exemplary and exceptional form of evil not proper to Europe, a vision that gradually excluded this imaginary assemblage from the sphere of civilization. Despite the fact that 'the serbs' belong geographically to the very core of Europe, symbolically and territorially, their borderline position was constructed as a projection of the Eurocentric fantasy about a cruel Orient in Europe.' (p. 5-6)

'The perception of pathological fixation of Eastern Europe in general and of the Balkans in particular, on the "old centuries" voiced by Stoker at the end of the nineteenth century through the persona of Dracula* is symptomatic of a cultural vision based on an interesting intersection of local and global discourses of violence. The past and its bloody memories define a refusal to yield to modernity imputed to the countries of the Balkan region, whose resistance to civilization and its laws are naturalized as inherently evil to oppose the advances of the Enlightenment and its technologies of mediation. The narrative projected onto the vampire as a beast within, enslaved to the undying, bloody past, serves as a national fetish underlying the repressed origins of Europe proper.

A small nation such as 'the serbs' is by definition led by a mysterious, degenerate leader who is ready to sacrifice others and commit bloodshed only to prolong his political power. During the 1990s, this vision of the other Europe reinforced an imaginary relationship that extended the vampire metaphor from the realm of the Gothic period's horror genre to the mundane practice of global politics, strategically deploying violence to advance civilization and the rule of law in the Wild East of Europe. The signifier that will forever sink into historical oblivion - Yugoslavia, the proper name of the country that was erased to deny the striving of culturally heterogeneous populations to live in a common state - has been assaulted by differentialist logic of the "clash of civilization" to enforce local insecurity by bringing about a collective return to the ideology of the vampire nation.

Stoker's Dracula, which founded the literary discourse of the Gothic imaginary, appears as the incarnation of those old centuries that refuse to fade away in the face of modernizing Europe. This imaginary, sparked by a belated Romantic mourning for the glory of the past boundaries of Europe, uses violence with the automatism of the beast who has no other choice but to feed itself on the blood of others. This hungry being is always engendered in zones of intense cultural and linguistic hybridization and simultaneously is imbued with the pathos of a race submerged in the narratives of its own past and viewed as a herald of a cruel modernity at hand.

Many "national" histories written and taught in the Balkans and in the rest of "Oriental" Europe are saturated with a celebration of violence that is monumentalized as just revenge and sacrifice offered to the glory of cultural life and survival. Small nationalisms contain this imaginary economy; they appear colorful but ostensibly irrational, steeped in gore despite enlightened intentions and dominated by discourses of masculine injury that claim the victim's right to feed on the blood of others as the only way to sustain survival.' (p. 19-20)

'The discourse of stolen blood reveals how the imaginary lens crafted by Stoker persists in the West as a cultural filter that defines alterity: Eastern Europe is a location where sex and violence know no limits. The image produced in British popular culture at the end of the nineteenth century has traveled to the end of the twentieth century to establish political discourses that the U.S.-led West sustains when it deals with new yet old types of revenant nationalism: the specter of 'the serbs' as the global vampires who deserve a well-guided stake of democracy.

This Gothic vision defines the boundaries of proper identity and its civilizatoinal other within Europe, a location where bad but sharp teeth, carnage, and fornication abound. The other Europe is an extension of the notorious count's ruined castle, where excessive passions and "old centuries" conspire to halt the progress and enlightenment proper only to the superior technology of the West. One of the most symptomatic returns of this Gothic vision is the mediated emergence of 'the serbs' as a phantasm of a vampire community governed by an excess of malignant historical imagination that is alien to the values of Europe and the "civilized world."

Firmly rooted in political and cultural ideals inherited from the best European traditions of nationalism and liberalism, 'the serbs' share military rationality and territorial logic of the nation-state with Europe proper. In fact, the Yugoslav tragedies of the 1990s are a legacy of the violence that formed the foundation of modern Europe: the political and cultural ideals made flesh and blood in the uncanny law binding the nation-state. The temporal disjunction between the "other" Europe steeped in old centuries of its historical imagination and the hypermodern amnesia of the U.S.-led West is at the root of this interpellated subjectivity structuring the Gothic emergence of 'the serbs'.' (p. 10)

Europe according to USA, from Mapping Stereortypes

'The extraordinary success of Twilight among youth in the United States appears as a global symptom of chronic hunger for attention from others and a craving for freedom that, paradoxically, shrinks under an invisible yet omnipresent force based on consumption and concealed forms of violence inherent in the developed modes of the current economy. Images of vampires have persisted in popular culture as a remnant of that undying demand for the extraordinary established by the Romantics and reveal, with symptomatic ambiguity, ever more powerful yet abstinent revenants who can control their craving for the blood of the ones they love. The disgusting, corpse-like appearance of the vampire has been sublimated into beauty in Goth subcultures, lending esthetic currency to the love of death that is overcome by the ever increasing levels of consumption demanded from ordinary humans.

In fact, the global media gaze that has discovered the cradle of European violence among 'the serbs' continues to act as a stake to put other vampire nations out for good. The skill of the vampire slayer equals that of the exterminator, acting with rational violence against the irrational one of the nations deemed below civilization's dividing line. The imaginary of minor and peripheral cultures of southeastern Europe has been interpellated by the political discourse based on that gaze to produce a variety of strategies of resistance to both domestic and foreign attempts at appropriation. While 'the serbs' face up to the unflattering task of confronting the real crimes committed in their name, the sublimation of the vampire on the global entertainment scene points to the displacement of Balkan topoi to account for the return of imperial desire to its rightful source.' (p. 186-7)

'In the global landscape where the force of capital naturalizes its existence to appear as the omnipotent and invisible source of death-in-life, the vampire perhaps remains the only true face of a being lost in the speculations of Western metaphysics. Its imaginary journey from the undead creature of Balkan folklore to the antihero of Hollywood blockbusters tells the story of our post-human future, shared by the most peripheral of European cultures and the political and economic centers of the West, to account for the increasing acceptance of humanity's transformation since mass ideologies of emancipation failed in 1989. The status of the vampire in popular culture suggests that the naturalized state of predation inherent in the global order of consumption marks a transition of humanity to a new stage of development in which it gradually accepts and covertly celebrates the violence whose origins remain hidden by the ruins of Dracula's castle. The notion of the nation as an effect of bourgeois liberalism that originated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment has given birth to a vampire whose current transformations manifest a dawn of a different subjectivity, detaching itself from the nation to enter the global stage of free play, and offer a model identification that transcends humanism.

The vampire as a theoretical hybrid between political science and psychoanalysis offers a kind of lay philosophy that transcends both the model of the machine and that of the animal commonly utilized by theoreticians of the post-human. The power of this hybrid to incarnate the subjectivity to come builds on the conventions that, in previous centuries, posited the vampire as the opponent of the common human subject. The precognition inherent in the imaginary flights of popular culture speaks the truth about a political unconscious that has found its incarnation in both the phantasm of 'the serbs' as a vampire nation and the vampire as a new model for the global order of being - an order that is all too (post)human.' (p. 188-9)

I have only dipped into this complex, and I think it fair to say: far from easy to read book, so in the words of another blogger I will be cautious when commenting on Vampire Nation'I will let others more knowledgeable than I opine on how successfully Longinović applies critical theory to historical analysis. In any case his book makes a provocative addition to the literature on the Yugoslav wars.'

The popular and globalized vampire of Western fiction is, of course, probably as popular in Serbia as in so many other parts of the world, so there is even a Vampires Serbia magazine containing photos of the stars from Twilight and other vampire films and TV series. We love Twilight, we love True Blood, and we love The Vampire Diaries in Serbia as well.

*) Longinovic refers to Jonathan Harker's diary in Stoker's Dracula where Harker while in Dracula's castle writes: 'It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have powers of their own which mere "modernity" cannot kill.'

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