Review: Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood: Bloodlines

Posted by Alexandra Campbell on November 28, 2014 in Alexandra Campbell, Blog tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood: Bloodlines

By Aspasia Stephanou

Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood


Across the past two decades the classic Gothic figure of the Vampire has – despite their iconic solitary, elusive and secretive nature – hardly been out of the public eye since the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. Since the early 1990s, Vampires of all shapes and leather-clad sizes have hit our small and big screens with varying levels of cult-pop impact: Interview with A Vampire (1994); Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Series, 1997-2003); Blade Trilogy (1998-2004); Ultraviolet  (Series, 1998); Angel (Series, 1999-2004) Underworld (Film Series, 2003-2012); Van Helsing (2004); True Blood (2008-2014); though I am loathe to include it, the notorious Twilight Saga (2008-2012); Daybreakers (2009); and of course the still ongoing teen-angst-fuelled The Vampire Diaries (2009-?). It would appear that Vampires have infected every vein of cultural output since their first literary appearance in Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819.It is with this massive cultural circulation in mind that Aspasia Stephanou enters into a masterful discussion of the most iconic Vampiric substance: blood.

Across six chapters, Stephanou observes the ebb and flow of metaphor, symbol and physiology associated with blood, recognising the ‘liquidity and transformation of symbols and metaphors, as they bleed from early modernity into the complex arterial network of global and corporate culture’ (Pg. 1).  Seeking to re-enchant the dry landscape of Vampire scholarship, her Introduction (Blood Bank: A History of the Symbolics of Blood) works to reach back into the ether of medieval and early modern conceptions of blood, revealing the dualistic character of blood as ‘both filthy and vital matter, sacred and profane, low and high’ (Pg. 4). This historic duality of blood is furthered by Stephanou to include modern schisms between the symbolic and the simulated; questioning how and why the once ‘metaphoric’ and ‘monstrous’ has become nothing more than a metonymic reality of capitalist consumption. The impetus of Stephanou’s argument rests on the dangers of de-occluding blood and vampirism as metaphors, showing how during their transfusion from the reverent ‘depths of early modernity to the sleek surfaces of global neoliberalism, they are bled dry’ (Pg. 20). These sharply drawn historical and genealogical ‘bloodlines’ are intricately exposed by Stephanou to reveal ‘vascular connections’ which question the means by which blood has come to stain our understanding of identity and the body in the modern day.

The scope of Stephanou’s study is expansive without being strained. The chapters encompass analyses of classic Victorian literature and modern film, alongside ‘real’ vampire communities and vampiric systems such as modern biotechnology and mechanised medical systems in which blood is ‘put to work’.  In Chapter 1 (A Matter of Life and Death: Transfusing Blood from a Supernatural Past to Scientific Modernity and Vampiric Technology) primary focus is drawn to the aforementioned transfusion from metaphor to metonymy. This intriguing chapter works to draw out the competing discourses of science and supernatural embedded in the vitalism of blood. With its vigour of scientific thought, steampunk mechanics and exciting medical advancement the Victorian Era is viewed by Stephanou as the beginning of the end for the perception of blood as an occult substance. Imbricating a medical-humanities framework by tracing the discovery of the circulatory system (1628), the first transfusion experiments (1667), and the ‘late 1880s medicalisation of blood’ (pg. 30) alongside literary analyses of Mary Louise Braddon’s ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ (1896), Stephanou exhibits how medical advancement in the late nineteenth century began to reify blood into a fractional and empirical material. Consequently for Stephanou, as a result of increasingly detached biomedical processes, blood becomes bonded to a form of medical immortality propelled forward by neoliberal ideologies and vampiric capitalism.

Engagements with the sexual and racial aspects of blood metaphors initially covered in the introduction are expanded upon in Chapters 3 (‘Tis My Heart, Be Sure, She Eats for Her Food: Female Consumptives and Female Consumers) and 4 (‘Race as Biology is Fiction’: The Bad Blood of the Vampire). Although the dimensions of abjection, infection, and corruption are interesting within these sections, they are far less innovative than arguments surrounding modern neoliberal biotechnologies covered in chapters 2 (The Biopolitics of the Vampire: Vampire Epidemics, AIDS and bioterrorism) and 5 (‘The Sunset of Humankind is the Dawn of the Blood Harvest’: Blood Banks, Synthetic Blood and Heamocommerce). Within these chapters, Stephanou deftly outlines the ways in which blood has become not only (bio)politicised, but profitable. Focusing analysis on modern films and TV series such as True Blood, Underworld, and Daybreakers Stephanou works to reveal how  in contemporary vampire narratives ‘blood is increasingly commodified, desacralised and separated from one’s body’ (pg. 137). Consequently for Stephanou, the once mythical, metaphorical, and terrifying vampire figure comes to ‘resemble more and more the capitalist and the passive, apolitical and indifferent consumer’ (pg.137).  In line with Marx’s assessment that capital is nothing more than ‘dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor’ (pg. 129) these chapters build to expose current cultural and clinical appropriations of blood as a means of depersonalisation and dehu(eamo)manisation.

Contemporary vampire narratives thus pose for Stephanou a means to take the pulse of modern conceptions of self and other. Providing access into fascinating contemporary biopolitical discourses which are utilised to reinvigorate the study of classic vampire texts by Braddon, Le Fanu, Hoffman, Marryat, and of course, Stoker the book works to counter-act the critical coagulation of academic interest in Vampire narratives. With her sharp incisive examination of cultural ‘bloodlines’ through an economically minded medical-humanities framework, Stephanou’s study has done precisely what it sets out to do. It has ‘opened new veins’ in the scholarship of gothic fiction, creating the opportunity for new academic entry points into the body of Vampire literature, film, and culture.

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