Posts Tagged ‘ joseph laycock ’

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.

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Joseph Laycock’s “Vampires Today” – a review

So a few days before the winter solstice i finally got my copy of “Vampires Today” by Joseph Laycock [1], and read it during the winter break. You might remember that i’ve already written about the book several times before, from the original book announcement via interview links to speculations about identity and ontology. After all that i feel that i owe a proper review of the book, not to mention that writing one will hopefully help me get a clearer understanding of the book as well.

(If all this is too long, here’s the short version: if you’re interested in the vampire community and only have time for one book, this is the one to read.)

First impressions, as others have pointed out the cover is marvellously garish, making me rather reluctant to leave it lying around. I’d be less bothered if it had a more restrained, academic-looking cover. There are a small number of illustrations which i could take or leave, and unfortunately a number of typos which shouldn’t have passed editing. Extensive notes and a very complete bibliography are included as is to be expected from a scholarly work, and the addition of an index does not come amiss. The writing is pleasant and lucid and mostly devoid of jargon, and as such should be accessible to most readers (though i might have missed some jargon in as much as i use it myself).

So what’s in the book? In the first chapter Laycock gives us an overview of the various types of vampires. He does a review of previous attempts at categorisation, which he rejects as being unhelpful in understanding modern vampires. What he proposes instead are three axes along which to sort self-identified vampires. The first is between lifestylers and real vampires, while the second axis goes between feeding types (psi and sang). The third distinguishes between awakened and initiated models of vampirism. Most of my involvement with the vampire community has been with groups and individuals who follow the awakened model, where there is a strong tendency to reject initiatory models out of hand, so Laycock’s inclusion of these made me hesitate for a bit. However in a later chapter he returns to the initiatory model at length, which led me to understand that segment of the vampire community much better.

In the second chapter Laycock asks why and how people come to identify as vampires. He examines better and less known popular theories such as the porphyria myth, “renfield syndrome”, “clinical vampirism”, but also the idea of pathological narcissism or that it’s an escapist fantasy taken too far (or roleplaying taken too far). He quickly shows that the clinical and psychiatric models don’t actually match the experience described by vampires, and also rejects the escapist fantasy theory. Instead he proposes to distinguish between the vampire milieu which is formed of the collective cultural concept of vampires on one hand, and on the other hand the vampire community which is formed of those people identifying as vampires. The vampire milieu then functions as a toolkit (one of many) with which people in our hyper-individualistic society create a more or less coherent and meaningful identity and narrative of the self. With this theoretical framework in place he can avoid the ontological question [2]. Instead he can look at how the vampire milieu evolved to the point where it could become an identity toolkit, and how in the last decade or so the vampire community has become strong enough to feed into and become an actor in the development of the vampire milieu.

With this in mind it becomes evident that the next chapter needs to examine the vampire milieu. In other words this is where Laycock describes the toolkit out of which vampire identities are constructed. This is the second longest chapter and to me one of the most interesting, but i must say that i know relatively little about vampires in literature and film and so on (at least for a member of the vampire community [3]). Somebody who’s more deeply fascinated by how vampires have been represented over time will probably not learn that much, but it should still be a good and thorough recapitulation. A long section is dedicated to vampires in literature, film and tv, from the very earliest offerings in the 19th century right up to the near-present. He pays particular attention to the moments when the image of the vampire changes, becoming aristocratic with Bram Stoker’s (and then Bela Lugosi’s) “Dracula”, and in particular the first tragic vampires in the sixties. Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend” is significant as the first work interpreting vampirism as the effect of a virus [4]. Further sections are dedicated to vampires in occult writing and in metaphysics/holistic health, and again Laycock traces the development over a century and more. For those of us who follow an awakened model of vampirism the inclusion of these occult subjects might be a bit off-putting, but they have also shaped the vampire milieu significantly, and have helped me understand certain parts of the vampire culture better. The last section in this chapter considers the part of role-playing in shaping the vampire milieu, while being itself influenced by the vampire community. Here as well as in other places he makes the important point that the vampire community is now an important factor in shaping the vampire milieu.

The fourth and fifth chapter are dedicated to the two main directions in the modern vampire community: the later titled “The Vampire Community” considers awakened vampires, who form a large part of the publicly visible community today; the former examines the initiatory vampire groups. This last one is particularly interesting. I have a tendency, which i seem to share with a large segment of the awakened vampire community, to dismiss the religious crowd as delusional and to ridicule them. If you want an example of that you might consult the transcripts of the VVC global community chat on vampirism and religion [5]. Considering that awakened and initiatory groups give significantly different meanings to being a vampire it is not really surprising that they are a bit antagonistic; this chapter at least gives an understanding of the internally quite coherent place where initiatory groups come from. I would recommend this chapter in particular for anybody coming from an awakened model who has business with initiatory groups.

Though the fifth chapter isn’t dedicated exclusively to awakened groups, they do make up the majority of the visible community, both because they are more numerous and because initiatory groups are often quite secretive (even more so than other vampires). Laycock calls this a “speculative history”, as much is only vaguely documented and/or relies on oral histories. Very interesting is the concept of womb communities: communities which aren’t directly related to vampirism, but in which early self-identified vampires were more or less at home and could learn to express themselves and form their identities. These created protected environments in which the first vampire communities could form. The current community is described fairly well, though i didn’t find much new for somebody already involved in the community. For an outsider this would certainly also be very informative.

Laycock is a scholar of religion, and thus the sixth chapter is a discussion of vampires and religion. He points out that when talking to his peers most of what he does is show how vampirism is not a religion, which is what he does here too. I do find the sociology of religion to be fairly interesting, but for me the concept of “real vampires” has never been crossed with religion anyway. So for me reading this chapter was more of a “people really say that?” experience, and sometimes it felt like Laycock was building up the arguments just to have something to demolish. I’m not saying that he did that on purpose, but it was the least interesting chapter for me.

Unfortunately the next chapter was only slightly more interesting. It is unfortunate that vampires mostly appear in the media when they are the subject of scandal, but i’m frankly just not that interested in rehashing old scandals and celebrity news. He does make the point, with which i wholeheartedly agree, that the vampire community is at a point where it is being made public whether we want to or not. As a community we have written too much and our forums are too public and open for it to be possible to crawl back into the coffin. The vampire community is out – it is now up to us to decide how to present ourselves.

Concluding, Laycock speculates about what the emergence of vampire as an identity signifies for the rest of society. As i’ve also previously done in this blog he makes a comparison with the trans community, which just like the vampire community claims a socially disputed ontological identity. He makes another comparison to the autistic community, which like the vampire community has done a lot to define itself from the inside, instead of having a definition imposed on it from the outside. An interesting point Laycock makes is that as vampires (and therianthropes and otherkin [6]) emerge into the public view, this gives others the identity of “non-vampire” (or “non-kin” or “non-therian”). Unfortunately i think that this is a rather idealistic view; the privileged identity-group tends to ignore the non-privileged groups, and assume that by default everybody is like them (white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, healthy, wealthy… you get the idea). In contrast, members of non-privileged groups are almost constantly made aware that they are different, and cannot forget it. A ciswoman [7] does not have to worry about her identity as a woman (though she can’t forget that she is a woman, while a man can readily equate “man” with “human”), but she will hardly ever think about being a ciswoman. It is easy for her to assume that her experience as woman applies to all women. On the other hand a transwoman can hardly ever forget that she is trans, and not cis. Similarly most people who become aware of vampires as an identity group will rarely consider how that puts their identity of human into question. We, the vampires and therians and otherkin, we can’t forget that we are different from the mundanes.

It is tricky to write about an identity as an outsider, there is a big danger of telling people what and who you think they are. This doesn’t only risk affronting your subjects, but in a foundational work (and i think this could be such a work concerning vampirism) you also risk prejudicing future researchers. In this regard i think Laycock did good work, he seems to have approached the subject with a very unprejudiced mind. Perhaps it was lucky that he had his first contact with vampires at the AVA (Atlanta Vampire Association), one of the most down to earth vampire groups currently active. If his first encounters with real vampires had played out in the courts of Gotham [8] or with one of the religious groups we might well have been left with a very different book.

By concentrating on the vampire as an identity group Laycock also deftly avoids the ontological question: are modern real vampires actually “real”, do they really have this need for psi-energy or blood which other humans don’t have? Are the symptoms described by vamps who haven’t fed enough based on an actual need, or are they perhaps “only” [9] psychosomatic? Unfortunately we can’t answer these questions. Assuming psi phenomena were real, we still have no tools to examine them with, nor even have a theoretical framework in which to place them. The experience of sanguinarians would be accessible to modern medicine, but the hope of anybody investing the kind of resources needed for that kind of research seems fanciful at best. With this in mind Laycock’s approach is excellent, but i remain convinced that the ontological question will raise it’s head again sooner or later [10].

As expected he hardly writes about donors, and when he does it is about what vampires do with donors. Vampires feed from donors, they have relationships with donors, and so on; the donor in there is entirely passive and denied any agency. Of course this is a donor blog, and i’m a donor, so i’m certainly a bit biased, but i remain convinced that by overlooking donors and our identities so thoroughly he and others are missing an important aspect of the community. The vampire identity would hardly be what it is today if there were no donors. Even with the central question of the book being how vampires have evolved from eastern european monsters to a valid identity group and how the vampire milieu functions today as an identity toolkit, disregarding donors so completely is problematic. While reading it occurred to me that this critique might be extended to the larger community. The diverse vampire communities are made up not just of vampires, nor just vampires and donors. Most of the vampire groups i’ve seen contain large numbers of non-vampires, and in writing about vampire communities it might well be illuminating to consider who besides vampires forms the communities.

But even with this lack i can only repeat that i consider this to be an excellent book, and wholeheartedly recommend it to any interested readers. It should be required reading for any outsiders involved with the vampire community or doing work on the community. Many vampires would also profit from reading it, at least for an understanding of the different currents and interpretations of “vampire” and for the roots of those differences in the community.

[1] Laycock, Joseph; Vampires Today: the Truth about Modern Vampirism, 2009, Praeger
[2] More on the ontological question later.
[3] I’ve been accused of having read too much vampire fiction. If that accusation had come from outside the vampire community, i might have agreed. But compared to most of the vampire community i find myself relatively uninterested in vampire fiction.
[4] You might have seen the recent movie adaptation, but i’d heartily recommend the book. I think a point could be made that Matheson’s vampires have more in common with modern zombies than vampires. It’s also interesting that the protagonist in “I am Legend” – the only human in the story – is much more monstrous than the vampires. But i’m getting sidetracked.
[5] I just noticed that the transcripts aren’t yet posted. They will be available on the site of the VVC.
[6] Laycock has said in interviews that he is doing work on therians and otherkin, and that he’d planned a chapter on us for this book which was removed for editorial reasons.
[7] “Cis” is a prefix gaining use in the trans community for men and women who were assigned the gender which they still identify with. Their gender identity is just as constructed as that of trans people, and the prefix cis allows us to talk of them without having to refer to them as “normal” (i’m speaking as a transwoman here).
[8] Otherwise known as New York.
[9] It is petty to say that something is “only” psychosomatic. The suffering experienced is just as real whether the need is “real” or in the sufferer’s head. I’ve witnessed both the suffering of thirsting vampires and the relief brought by feeding often enough to affirm that both are real.
[10] The ontological question will eventually rear its head and require some kind of answer anyway, but there’s nothing we can do about it for now.

Laycock review tomorrow

It’s 4:50 am, and i’ve just finished the review of Vampires Today. i desperately need to proofread it, and have somebody else check it too, but i should have it ready for posting tomorrow. Sorry for the long wait, but i think it ought to be worth it.

I’ve got one or two other posts lined up, so there ought to be a little more activity here.

Laycock for the fourth

so i’m posting about Laycock again*, the fourth time actually, and somehow i think not the last. i finally ordered the book at the end of july; they said three weeks, but it hadn’t yet arrived in the store when i checked by today. they said they would text me when it arrived, “by the end of the months” – not much time, guys, that’s monday. i hope to have it, and have it read, by the time i visit my sang again, and i will certainly post a critical review of it here.

coincidentally yesterday also saw the publication of another interview with Laycock. i continue to be impressed by the lucid style of his writing, and really hope that will also be present in the book.

as i was also in chat, we talked a little bit about what the book might or might not bring. one thing which was regretted was that Laycock totally avoids the ontological question (or at least that is the very strong impression one gets). i’m not sure that is a bad thing; he is concentrating on that which he knows how to do – ethnography – and leaving aside that which he can’t say anything about, which is both the metaphysical and the biological aspects of vampirism. on the other hand, to really understand vampirism one would have to include those two aspects.

a possible analogy is gender and sex. if we write about gender we can write an awful lot about the social construction of gender, about identity politics, can do anthropological and ethnographic work, psychological studies. but sooner or later we are going to be confronted by biology. and for all that it was popular (for a while) to say that it was all social construction, that the only difference was gender, and sex was negligible, we’ve had to accept that biological sex is complicated and powerful and can not be dismissed. not only that, if we presume that it’s simple, or use ideologically tainted ideas of sex, our work on gender will be falsified and corrupted. consequently, we either have to very carefully delineate what we can write about – and stay conscious of that during our whole writing – or we have to study medicine and biology in some detail as well.**

when it comes to vampirism, we have that problem writ large. we have an identity of vampire, but then we have sanguinarian blood-drinking and the strong claim by many sangs that it is a physical, biological need. this issue would be open research – if vampirism were taken seriously by the medical community. even more intractable are the metaphysical questions about psi-feeding – we currently don’t have any scientific tools with which to examine the question, and are left with mystical or religious explanations.

with a masters in theological studies Laycock ought to be very aware of how far he can take the ethnographic approach, and where he has to admit that he doesn’t have the tools to talk about things. it is one of the most important lessons one learns when studying religion scientifically.

so yeah, i’m hopeful that the book will be good at what it’s supposed to be, i.e. vampire community and vampire identity, and will carefully acknowledge the questions it can’t deal with. and i promise that this is my last major post about Laycock’s book until i’ve read it.

*for those who don’t remember or are new to my blog/the vampire community, Joseph Laycock wrote “Vampires Today: the truth about modern vampirism“, an ethnographic study about real vampires. i’ve mentioned him in at least three previous posts.

**the same problem presents itself to people studying sex instead of gender, they too come to a point where they have to include gender in their studies.

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.

call for papers

i received the following about a week ago in my inbox:

PROTEUS: A Journal of Ideas

CALL FOR PAPERS

Vampires, Parasites, and Invaders in Nature and Society Bloodsucking, parasitism and invasion have long haunted our human imaginations and played a crucial role in shaping our natural world. Proteus: A Journal of Ideas seeks essays and scholarly articles that explore the themes of parasitism and alien invasion from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives–including those of biology, cultural studies, sociology, philosophy, psychology, economics, and literary theory. Articles might analyze how authors and/or societies have represented vampires in literature, folklore, or the media. Or the biological processes underlying parasitism or alien invasion among individual or multiple species within an ecosystem. Articles that discuss the economic, social, and biological impact of parasites and invasive species on human populations are encouraged. Theme-related photographs, poetry, and creative writing are welcome.

Manuscripts accepted — NOW until AUGUST 17, 2009

Perferred format – Chicago Manual of Style, in text with endnotes.

Publication date October 2009.

Submit manuscripts electronically to proteus@ship.edu.

Proteus (717) 477-1206

proteus@ship.edu

for an academic (that’s me!*) who is interested in vampirism (anybody?) that looks very tempting, doesn’t it? and seeing as there’s been one or two recent publications on the subject of real vampires (see my previous post) i’m thinking that there might be scope for an article on the subject.

i’m mentally sketching out two possibilities. the first would involve talking with the folk at suscitatio enterprises about whether and to what extent non-vamp (or also vamp) donors had responded to the VEWRS & AVEWRS questionnaires. if we have even just 50 non-vamp donors it’d probably be enough to do something with it (and going by anecdotal evidence i think a fairly important contingent of vampires are also at least occasionnally donors, so there would have to be something, but i would prefer to work on non-vamp donors). also, i would dearly love to get my hands on their database.

the second approach would be ethnographic, and closer to what i’m doing anyway. i would be using publicly available documents and discussions (e.g. the forum at blackswanhaven) and perhaps (if the powers could be made to agree) from closed spaces (e.g. the vcmb). i’d also want to interview a number of donors. from that one could construct a narrative of what it is to be a donor. perhaps an extra advantage would be that, while e.g. Laycock had to prevent himself from “going native”, i am already native in both communities.

the only real problem i see is that i’m also supposed to be finishing my research project by late august. doing both would be a considerable job.

here’s the final detail, which is rather neat: you know who forwarded me that CFP? my little sister. she really is neat. (though now i wonder how much she knows about what i get up to at night…).

*okay, i’m still working on finishing my degree, i need to do my research project over summer. i’ve started blogging it at assisted dying. afterwards i’ll be a sociologist – allegedly.

book announcement

this is the first time i do this, mention specific community-wide “news” elements. i reckon most of the interested people in the vampire community will learn these things through the grapevine or by the people who spread news wide in the community. but i liked this one in particular:

Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism” by one Joseph Laycock.

it is an academic book about real vampires and the communities they (we!) have formed. the writer is a scholar of religion and (apparently) an ethnographer, the book is certainly a work of ethnography. in an interview (here) about the book he mentions his approach and the basic ideas (including a reference to foucault, which tickles me) he was pursuing. of the various reviews etc. that i’ve seen on the book the interview is definitely the text which most makes me want to read the book.

from what i’ve understood of the content (by what others have mentioned) the author concentrates on the offline vampire communities, and seems to have (as so many others) utterly ignored us donors. i have not seen the word “donor” mentioned once in association with this book. if that is indeed so, then it is a huge shame. the other subject which he actually wanted to include was therianthropy and otherkin; again a shame, because we are present throughout the community, but this seems to have been a decision of his editor.

nevertheless this is potentially a fundamental work in the scientific study of vampirism, and i for one would very much like to read it.

p.s. i wish i had a possibility to shop online. is somebody looking for a gift for me? *bats eyelashes all prettily*