Posts Tagged ‘ identity ’

Laycock on Vampires as an Identity Group – a review

Joseph Laycock has been at it again, this time with an academic article: Real Vampires as an Identity Group [1]. My regular readers will know that i’m a bit of a fangirl of Laycock’s [2], so i was quite excited when the article was announced, and already planning an eventual review here. Getting some direct encouragement from a prominent member of the VC (vampire community) decided the case and moved it up on my priority list.

In this article Laycock describes his anthropological work with the AVA (Atlanta Vampire Alliance), and the VEWRS (Vampire and Energy Work Research Survey) which the AVA was conducting. He then discusses how this survey is contributing to the construction of vampire as an identity group. It is interesting to read his description of his research, which gives a much more vivid image of his time amongst vampires than one draws from “Vampires Today” [3]. I will first comment on a few of his observations, then dig into the core of his arguments, before finishing of with some critical comments.

Laycock remarks that one vampire told him he would prefer to be like everybody else, as a demonstration that vampires see the vampirism as inherent, and not a choice. In my experience this attitude is far from unique. Quite a few vampires have expressed the same desire to me, and i’m at the point where i tend to be at least a little doubtful of vampires who do not express a certain ambivalence towards their vampirism.

I enthusiastically agree with the observation that vampires (and other members of the community) are quite comfortable talking about vampirism in public, at least when we’re in a group. The “dessert” story took place in public, and when recently at a public conference the speaker greeted his “special guests, the vampires” we all cheered loudly [4].

If the relationship between real vampires and roleplayers is quite strained in the US, my experience with the german VC so far indicates a much more relaxed attitude towards roleplaying. I know several vampires in the german VC who enthusiastically participate in vampire LARPs, and some describe meeting other vampires there. When at the WGT we got a chance to participate in a LARP many of us wanted to go.

Laycock also notes how there is quite some antagonism between the more occult vampire groups and the dominant discourse which describes vampirism as inherent; i might even go farther and say that they are incompatible. A sanguinarian who used to be an active member of the temple of Set described to me how they found very little of interest to them in the order of the vampyre, and preferred to pursue advancement in other orders. Similarly in conversation with “father” Todd i found almost no common ground between his conception of vampirism and that of the vampires i usually frequent, and his discourse denied their identity as vampires.

Now though the subject of Laycock’s anthropological research was the vampire community, the argument he makes in this article is only incidentally related to vampirism. So we need to make an excursion into the theory of identity construction.

A long-standing argument in social sciences is whether social categories are socially constructed or based on objective criteria. The later says that (to use an overly exaggerated example) boys and girls are objectively different (at least anatomically), and their differing interests in toys results from this. The former say that children are basically all pretty similar, and their differing interests in toys results from social conditioning (pink toys for girls, blue ones for boys) [5]. Both sides of this argument aren’t really satisfying intellectually, but the concept of dynamic nominalism allows the two to be joined. When a concept of a kind of person comes into existence (in this case vampires) that kind of person starts identifying as that kind of person. Those people exist independently of the category, but without the category the objective criteria which includes them in that category cannot be understood in that way.

There is an ongoing sociological debate in europe on whether class still exists as a meaningful social category which i think illustrates this concept quite well. French citizens tend to have a keen and detailed understanding of their socio-economic class, while german citizens tend to all consider themselves “middle class”. When presented with pictures of people of different socio-economic status and asked to group them, they create very similar groups, even though they aren’t given any instructions on how to group them. When the experimenters then explain that they are doing a study on class, and ask the subjects if they wish to change any of their groupings accordingly, the french make a few adjustments, resulting in groupings which correspond very precisely with the socio-economic class of the people on the photographs, while the germans leave their groupings untouched and don’t see what adjustments might even make sense. The french can also explain why they created the groupings they made, while the germans can’t. Now france, in a bid to pursue “égalité” (equality, one of their revolutionary ideals) officially keeps track of socio-economic class, and has laws aiming to equalise chances for kids of differing class, while germany since bismarckian times (well over a century) tracks status as “beamter” (functionary, a state-employed person), employee, or employer/owner. Germans, lacking the categories to describe class, still group people according to class – despite strong discourse against it, class still exists in germany. However, class does not constitute an identity group, unlike in neighbouring france, as there is no category with which individuals could identify.

In a roundabout way my own experience as a dragon might also help to illustrate this relatively complicated concept: i have known for almost two decades that “dragon” is a large part of my identity. I experienced mental and emotional shifts and the sensation of phantom limbs long before i ever heard of otherkin or therians. It was always “interesting” to try to explain these experiences. At a time i was in very intense psychiatric treatment, which contributed to regular and powerful shifts; here my experiences were quite positively treated as a kind of meaningful self-narrative, however that never really covered the “realness” of my identity. Later, when i grew close to several people with DID (dissociative identity disorder) i began identifying dragon as an alter [6]. This was already much closer to how i perceived myself, as this allowed me to perceive dragon as part of myself. It was only when i started exploring the vampire community that i encountered the concepts of otherkin and therian. One could understand that as being the moment those categories came into existence for me, and my identification as dragon was almost instant. Whereas before i was “some kind of crazy”, afterwards i was a dragon.

Laycock argues that the vampire community forms such an identity group. For vampires, vampirism is an inherent condition, while the identity and social category of “vampire” has been emerging mostly since the seventies and eighties (though Laycock traces the beginnings of this back into the 19th century) [7]. But the vampire community does not have any central leadership, its members are joined in small groups or not affiliated with any group, many don’t even use the same vocabulary [8]. Laycock calls it an acephalous entity, literally “headless”. Furthermore, vampires have had very little control over how they have been represented in media and academia (try finding an article in press which doesn’t somehow sensationalise vampirism).

In this situation the VEWRS fulfils two obvious functions. On the one hand it makes it much harder for people to claim things about vampires. We now have actual data on who and what vampires are. On the other, it creates a mirror for vampires to see and recognise themselves in. But though the AVA members state that they do not intend to, through the survey, create a definition of what a vampire is, it is quite inevitable that the VEWRS does influence the definition of vampirism. The data from the VEWRS is the only available quantitative data on vampires [9]. I only joined the VC when much of the preliminary data published was already available, and i find it difficult to imagine not having this data to fall back on. In this sense the VEWRS is actually a very strong defining force; it and the people behind it (analysing and publishing the data) have become knowledge creators, participating in constructing the social category of vampire.

There is no doubt that the VEWRS constitutes an important contribution to constructing the category of real vampire, and it is remarkable in that it is vampires defining themselves. I also totally understand that other groups, e.g. otherkin or therians, express a desire for such surveys in their own communities. Personally i would love to get my grubby little fingers on the data of those non-vamps in there who are donors [10].

But i can’t help but feel that some of Laycock’s thoughts on the impact the VEWRS has are overly optimistic. He claims that it de-otherizes vampires, but i can only partly agree with that. Again a short excursion into theory is necessary, as the “other” is a major concept in social sciences. An “other” is created when a perceived or actual difference is used to construct not just differing social categories, but when one of these categories is designated “normal” and the other “different”. In this process it is always the more powerful category which designates itself as the normal, and enforces that normality, while the “different” category, even if it is numerically superior, is punished in various ways for showing its otherness.

Imagine for a moment, if you’re a vamp, that nobody would think it unusual if you stared at pulsing veins, the shops were all open at night but tended to close during the day (assuming that you’re nocturnal), and you could get away with assaulting and feeding from non-vamps (but judge, s/he was asking for it, going around with their neck uncovered like that). That’s what it’s like when you’re the dominant category, when you’re “normal” [11].

When you’re the “other”, well, it’s less fun. If you’re lucky you just don’t get taken seriously and labeled a roleplayer. But you might also get kicked out of your church when somebody outs you, in a divorce proceeding your ex only has to hint at the v-word and you’re lucky to even get visitation rights with your kids, and if blood-drinking is legal at all in your jurisdiction then it still is fraught with risks, and people will assume that you’re certainly guilty of something.

De-othering happens on two or even three levels. The individual and the community can come to understand that they are actually quite okay, and don’t deserve to be treated that way. They can come to understand themselves as different, but not other [12]. However, as long as the dominant group continues to otherize and more or less systematically disadvantage you, having de-othered yourself internally at best gives you a limited advantage. Perhaps importantly, it can help in allying with other othered groups, as exemplified in the witches vs. vampires softball match which Laycock mentions [13].

The VEWRS is certainly very useful for the internal and individual de-othering. But when the community is so thoroughly othered that not even its way of understanding itself is recognised (Laycock calls the concept of “subtle” energy “subjugated knowledge”, and the sangs who believe that they suffer from a physical condition are hardly closer to recognition by doctors), it is going to be a long and arduous process before the community achieves a “different, but not other” status.

Similarly, when Laycock says that by calling the non-awakened folk “mundanes” or “muggles” we are creating an oppositional outsider, i get the impression that he is speaking from the position of the dominant normal and failing to understand the position of the “other”. The concept of “oppositional outsider” comes quite directly from studies on deviance, which are extremely marked by dominant “normal” people studying and even creating new categories of “others”. When we use cis-gendered in the trans community we’re not trying to create an opposition, we just need a different word than “normal” to be able to stop othering ourselves whenever we talk about cis-gendered people. Whenever we say “normal people” we participate in othering ourselves, we need a designation to which makes both us and them different but normal. Mundane does the job nicely [14].

Finally, i think that Laycock misses the point when he says that, as vampires become an established identity group, everybody else becomes non-vampires. The members of the dominant group are by default not conscious of the privileges which being normal constitutes, after all it is normal to have them. The othered group however is usually acutely conscious of the ways in which not being “normal” disadvantages them. Perhaps the biggest privilege of belonging to the “normal” group is that you can be blind to the privilege you receive, you are never confronted with it. As such, all the others consider themselves “normal”, and will continue to consider themselves “normal” even after vampires become well known.

If the above sounds rather critical that is not supposed to diminish the importance of Laycock’s work for the vampire community. He is the only scholar so far who has approached the VC with an open mind, willing to see what is actually there instead of what he wants to see [15]. His work is consistently respectful of his subjects, which is very gratifying to experience.

In this article Laycock calls the members of the AVA knowledge creators, giving the community – through the VEWRS – an image of who and what they are. It seems to me that he has himself become a knowledge creator, that his work has also become a significant contribution to how vampires perceive themselves. Seen not as an academic, but as a member of the VC, this is perhaps the most important aspect of his work.

In any case i will continue to follow his work. I understand that he has an article on otherkin and therians in the pipeline, which i am eagerly awaiting, and certainly intend to review here when it is published.

[1] Laycock, Joseph; “Real Vampires as an Identity Group: Analyzing Causes and Effects of an Introspective Survey by the Vampire Community” Nova Religio – The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions; August 2010, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pages 4-23
[2] Idea: maybe i could interview him someday for this blog?
[3] This article was almost two years awaiting publication, so it’s writing pre-dates “Vampires Today”.
[4] “Dessert” is an earlier post on this blog, and the speaker was Dr Benecke, whom i still owe you an entry about. It is mostly written already, but i’ve been rather distracted.
[5] This example is almost a caricature of the issue, i am fully aware of that.
[6] Alters are the various personae of a person living with multiple identities, i.e. with DID.
[7] Incidentally, this approach neatly answers the recurrent question of “where are all these vampires coming from, and why weren’t there any half a century ago?” The people with the vampiric condition were there, but there was nothing they could identify with.
[8] Laycock says that the basic categories of sanguinarian, psi-vamp, and hybrid are generally agreed upon, but in my experience even these are still disputed (never mind the vocabulary: he uses “psychic vampire”).
[9] The vampire sarasvati is currently compiling the data from her own survey of vampires, but the scale of her project is much smaller and as of yet no data has been formally published.
[10] We’re not an obvious candidate for an identity group, at least not one based on inherent criteria. But nobody knows who we are, and we too would like to be able to say “this is who we are“.
[11] And i think that’s one reason quite a few vamps i know like Daybreakers. Because there the vamps are the normal ones.
[12] An example from a slogan for lgbt-rights: heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common.
[13] I wonder if they had rules about “no magick, no draining”, or if it was more freestyle…
[14] cheshirecatman, whom i must thank for proofreading this article, comments that: “I think this is a form of empowerment too. Not so much creating an opponent but creating a term for them just as they did for us.”
[15] I still wonder how different Laycock’s experience would have been if his first experience with vampires had been with e.g. the strigoii vii and their very narrow and mystical definition of vampirism instead of the AVA.

Laycock interviews

for those who haven’t realised yet, Laycock is the guy who wrote Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism. i still haven’t read it, due to not having acces to a credit-card or other means of ordering it online, and also because of being quite broke. but he’s given two more interviews recently, and each time i read those i want to read the book even more.

the first of the two is at the New Orleans Vampire Film Festival. note the following paragraph, i think it is essential to understanding the difference between “vampire-as-an-identity” and “vampire-as-a-condition”:

Neither real or lifestyle vampires claim to be undead or immortals.  The idea that a vampire could be a living person actually goes back to the 19th century and an occult group called the Theosophical Society.  The Theosophical Society traveled to India where they re-imagined European vampire legends by drawing on Indian ideas of vital energy and holistic medicine.  I have met Hindus and students of Chinese medicine who acknowledge that some people need to borrow or take energy from others to be healthy––they just don’t think of this as vampirism.

i am convinced that vampires-as-a-condition, both those who feed on energy and blood, have been around for as long as the human species has existed (several hundreds of thousands of years) and quite possibly could be found in our ancestor species. however, like Laycock says, even today the condition isn’t necessarily equated with vampires-as-an-identity. it is only in our post-modern society that we can construct an identity around the condition. i think it is also this difference between the condition and identity of vampires which fuels the discussion which sometimes rises in the communities around names.

he makes a similar argument in the bostonist, in an interview titled “We All Become Non-Vampires”. here he makes an analogy to how gay became an identity:

There used to be no concept of homosexuality. If you’re a man, you’re supposed to have sex with women; if you have sex with a man, then you’ve sinned. And if you have sex with lots and lots of men, then you’re a sinner. But you’re not “gay.” You’re not different from other people, you’re just bad.

Now we have this category of “gay,” and all of us start thinking of ourselves as “straight,” whereas before there was no concept of “straight.”

you see how this argument works; i personally really like it, because it allows us to talk about “vampire-as-an-identity” – and by consequence about vampire communities or subcultures – without having to answer the tricky question of what “vampire-as-a-condition” actually ontologically is. furthermore this construction of new identities is a subject which i find intensely interesting, both academically and personally (as donor, otherkin, and queer transperson).

on the other hand, i want to remark on his response (in the first interview) when asked whether he interviewed donors. it’s becoming more and more obvious that he didn’t have more than casual contact with donors, and clearly didn’t include us in his research. we end up with the same issue i remarked upon earlier (scroll down to where i mention the “true true blood” article), that we have people talking about donors but not actually letting donors speak for themselves.

this is even more astounding as the basic concept of his book is to go out and talk to the communities, instead of relying on second-hand accounts. it’s even more astounding as overlooking a part of the community is one of the basic errors in ethnography. one of the classic examples is a researcher noting in his logbook that “everybody left to go hunting, and we were left alone in the village. only the women and children remained” (i forget who exactly it was, and the quote is paraphrased, sorry). it also makes me a bit angry, because those people which are excluded in that “everybody” (the women and children, the donors, the queer people, the trans-folk) become non-people, become people who don’t have an identity. and that is frankly something i’ve dealt with long enough.

perhaps i’m being hasty in my opinion on how he treats donors; as i said, i haven’t yet been able to read Vampires Today. maybe the bookstore could order it for me, i think i’ll have to go check it out. but so far i unfortunately haven’t seen anything which contradicts my opinion.

i originally wanted to write something about the recent public chat held by the VVC, but as this has already grown much longer than i intended i’m going to leave that for a future post.