Monday, August 19, 2013


"Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping ... waiting ... and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir ... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us ... guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love ... the clarity of hatred ... the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we'd be truly dead." - Buffy Summers 

"You know, I always say that a day without an autopsy is like a day without sunshine." -- Buffy Summers

"I think I speak for everyone here when I say, "huh?"  - Buffy Summers

Today's Scission is NOT what one expects to find here at all.  I know some of you will just take one pass and move along, but what can I say.  The truth is the only reason it is here is that I happen to be the oldest big fan of the too long gone TV series,  Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  That's right I loved Buffy and the gang.  I thought, still do, think it was one of the better series ever to appear on regular old TV.  This wasn't some big HBO drama or anything, just a weekly program that dealt with real issues of real importance in the real lives of all of us, but probably even more so of adolescents.  But again, I was already well into my forties when I began a fan and the program said some things to me, too.  Most teenage TV or movies, I can live without.  I do really like Pump Up the Volume.  I also liked the Breakfast Club.  Still they were movies, not just some crappy little TV series.

Buffy was different.  I am not even sure how to describe why.  I guess that is one reason I am running the post below.  The author of the article which appears on the Toast.

There is more to life then politics, economics, war, social justice, racism, and prison.  There is more to life then THE STRUGGLE.  There is the other struggle which is life, your own personal life.  There is love and fear and joy and despair.  Life is full of ups and downs and often lacks any reason or any answers.  Somehow every one of us has to deal with life in our own ways in our own time.  For some of us life is a hell of a lot harder than it is for others.  They say money isn't everything, but you know it can make life a lot more simple and eliminate a lot of hardships.  The rich may piss and moan, but the rich mostly haven't met the poor.  They don't know and they don't care.

The issues of growing up, of trying to figure out who the hell you are, or why the hell you or where the hell you are going (issues which we face ALL of our lives) may seem trite to those of us who call ourselves serious Marxists, communists, activists, etc. etc. etc.  However, most of us know when you are in the middle of these "trite" little times, they sure as hell seem anything but.

Does any of this matter?  Well, yes it does matter.  However, is it worth a spot here, does it make sense for me to be spending time today and offering this up to you?  I don't know really.  You will have to be the judge of that.

And I won't even get into the slayer known as Faith.....

Anyway, like baseball, Scission plays a long season, so every now and then I am entitled to come up with something like this, don't you think?

Anyway, here we go...


A New Version of You

buffyIn 1998, as Joey and Dawson shared their first kiss and Felicity agonized over Ben and Noel, poor Buffy Summers murdered the love of her life. Watching that episode some 15 years later, as a woman well into my 30s, I cried bitter tears. As Buffy made out with her ex-boyfriend, stabbed him in the stomach, and looked on in horror as he got sucked into Hell, it struck me as the most harrowing and realistic breakup in television history, the whole idea that anyone would ever fall for a big lunk like Angel notwithstanding.

The motivation for their split, of course, was to prevent worldwide human annihilation. Those were the stakes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which rightfully portrayed the process of growing up as a series of encounters with total fucking apocalypse. Because it perfectly captured the histrionic milieu of high school—and because it was on the WB network—people tend to talk about Buffy as a coming-of-age story. But the show’s real artistic achievement was in its flat rejection of the notion we can ever come to know ourselves, much less someone else.

Unlike most teen dramas, Buffy wasn’t a narrative about finding an identity; it was always about having a lot of them. Okay, sure, Season 1, with its mean girls and first dates and cheerleading tryouts, was a straightforward dramatization of the trials of young adulthood. (No social problem was ever so great that it couldn’t be fixed, however improbably, by killing some vampires.) But as the show progressed, and the Scoobies coped variously with sordid pasts, spells gone wrong, and a horrifying spectrum of abusive boyfriends, its moral universe grew more complex. Identities and alliances shifted and relationships grew ever more muddled as evil—no longer relegated to the Big Bad in the basement—was embodied by familiar faces.

On Felicity“a new version of you” meant that you got a haircut or switched majors. On Buffy, it usually meant that you were operating under the influence of a malevolent spirit, spell, curse, or hypnotic trance. Frequently, characters were demonically possessed, supernaturally compelled, or otherwise not themselves. Doubles abounded: Angel and his alter ego Angelus, Buffy and her “dark mirror” Faith, Willow and her murderous “kinda gay” doppelgänger, Buffy and the Buffybot, the two Xanders. Life on the Hellmouth required a certain amount of flexibility. You might, for instance, spend 19 years of your life as an only child, only to one day find you have an annoying little sister that monks made out of mystical energy. At any given moment, you might turn into a rat, a demon, a werewolf, or a lesbian. In Sunnydale, no one was ever what they seemed, and by the time you’d figured someone out, they had already turned into someone else.

The problem of identity came to a head in Season 4, when (not for nothing) the Big Bad was an existential Frankenstein figure named Adam. One by one, the central characters went through their own identity crisis. Having been stripped of his station as a Watcher and a librarian, poor Giles played sad guitar at open mic nights. Buffy, in a bid to redefine herself after killing Angel, slept with a womanizer whose bad behavior she couldn’t redress with a sword to the stomach. Oz boffed some werewolf on accident. (Then, whoops! He killed her.) Willow found herself in a delightful, witchy same-sex relationship, Spike started helping the good guys, Xander switched jobs every week, and Anya tried to adjust to life as a human after hundreds of years as a vengeance demon. While remaining a tight-knit group, the Scoobies continually surprised themselves—and each other—with their capacity for change.

As a culture, we place a lot of emphasis on the coming-of-age story, as though it’s something that happens just once, early in life. The series finales of teen dramas tend to perpetuate that myth by suggesting that we emerge into adulthood somewhat inexperienced, but more or less fully formed. How many series end with the female lead finally (“finally”) locking down her soul mate? In 2002-2003, during Buffy’s seventh and final season, both Dawson’s Creek and Felicity fast-forwarded into the future to assure us that Joey ended up with Pacey and Felicity ended up with Ben. Meanwhile, in her finale, Buffy lost not one but two boyfriends and also saved the world, no big. Like most of the show’s episodes, which eschewed cliffhangers or closure in favor of stopping on a quiet, awkward beat, the series ended on a moment of silence as our heroine was asked to contemplate her future. What would Buffy do next? Even she didn’t know.

Over its long (and admittedly uneven) run, the show itself played with the notion of identity. The magic ofBuffy was not just in combining influences as diverse as John Hughes, classic horror, Broadway, and comic books, but also in its ability to dip into straight genre—as in episodes like “Hush” and “Once More, With Feeling”—and still seem utterly like itself. Joss Whedon is known as (among other things) a champion of nerd culture, but his biggest contribution has been in demonstrating that teen drama (one of the most maligned of all genres) was sophisticated and capacious enough to accommodate rigorous emotional honesty, offbeat humor, and instantaneous shifts in tone.

Coming-of-age stories tend to portray young adulthood as a time when we “find ourselves,” whatever that means. But that model ignores the fact that, for better or worse, the very stuff of our selves—our personalities, our preferences, and even our core values—has a remarkable capacity for change. Our task is to make sure that some semblance of self stays intact as we age. It’s hard because we tend to renounce our Past Selves (those haircuts!), and we have a hard time envisioning our Future Selves at all. In real life, this proliferation of selves can cause continuity problems. (Certainly I don’t recognize the Me who once owned a pink pleather skirt.) On Buffy, despite the limitations of its 45-minute format, the characters juggled multiple versions of themselves all the time, constantly grappling with the contradictions, anxiety, and consequences surrounding who they had been, who they were, and who they would become in a surprisingly cogent way.

After floundering for a time, most of Buffy’s contemporaries (Felicity, Rory from Gilmore Girls) found themselves by the time they graduated college. However much I loved those shows, their journeys did not speak to me. The life of a vampire slayer—gritty and exhausting, with bouts of immaturity, ill-advised romantic entanglements, and the occasional need to kill an evil bug—is the one that I actually recognize, the one that maps onto some semblance of life. It’s a model that makes just as much sense when you’re 15 as when you’re 35, because who ever actually figures it out, really?

The thing is, Buffy was never about a girl coming of age. In her universe, as in ours, no one ever finds herself, at least not for long. With its relentless parade of Big Bads, demonic possessions, and fug leather pants, Buffy shows us how to face life’s central challenge: accepting the monsters we have all had to be, and those we have yet to become.


Gothic capitalism: Marx, monsters and Buffy

 by Lena Wånggren 

These days, I often feel as if we live in some kind of dystopian fantasy: the divide between poor and rich increases every day because of deliberate government policy, with half a million people in Britain today being forced to use food banks, and racists organising demonstrations in our streets while neoliberal politicians employ the same xenophobic discourse. The economic and social structures in which we live are frightening – indeed gothic. This blog post, the final of my three ones, will explore the economic system in which we live through the metaphor of the monster, examining such economic monsters both in Marx and in a more recent popular text: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

'Buffy the Anarcho-Syndicalist: Capitalism Bites'

As Franco Moretti claims, ‘monsters are metaphors’ (105); their bodies standing in for the fears of a certain time and place. Jessie Givner in fact argues that it is the monster’s ability to be seen as a metaphor that makes the creature particularly monstrous (274). Likewise, Judith Halberstam argues that excessive interpretability is the hallmark of monstrosity; monsters are ‘meaning machines’ that can represent gender, race, nationality, class, and sexuality in one body: ‘The monster functions as monster, when it is able to condense as many fear-producing traits as possible into one body’ (21-22). Its ability to be seen as a metaphor can be seen as a part of what makes it monstrous.

Capitalism, with its seemingly magical market movements, lends itself well to metaphorical description. Karl Marx famously describes the gothic character of capitalism, in various of his works, through monstrous metaphors: werewolves and other creatures abound. He specifically and repeatedly uses the metaphor of the vampire to describe the capitalist, and the functions of capitalism. There are also numerous other descriptions in his works with imagery deriving from the vampire metaphor, such as mentions of blood and blood-sucking (Neocleous 669). In the Grundrisse (1857) Marx explains: ‘Capital posits the permanence of value (to a certain degree) by incarnating itself in fleeting commodities and taking on their form, but at the same time changing them just as constantly; alternates between its eternal form in money and its passing form in commodities; … But capital obtains this ability only by constantly sucking in living labour as its soul, vampire-like’ (646). As Halberstam notes, Marx here describes the economic system in which we live, capitalism, as gothic in itself; it is gothic ‘in its ability to transfer matter into commodity, commodity into value and value into capitalism’ (103).

As David McNally notes in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2010), ‘the idea that something monstrous is at work in the operations of global capitalism is never far from the surface today’ (9), in politics, journalism and popular culture. One specific text making full use of the metaphoricity of the monster is the 1997-2003 tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With its abundance of monsters – ranging from vampires, werevolves and various other kinds of demons, to human-made creatures – the series presents many opportunities for analysing the social and political significance of the monster, and for examining what McNally calls the ‘monstrous forms of every-day life in a capitalist world system’ (2).

The series’s creator Joss Whedon is outspoken about his political values – we saw them recently in his satirical zombie-themed anti-Romney (Zomney) video before the last US election. Romney, Whedon tells us, will bring the country quickly towards a zombie apocalypse: ‘Romney is ready to make the deep rollbacks in health care, education, social services, reproductive rights that will guarantee poverty, unemployment, overpopulation, disease, rioting: all crucial elements in creating a nightmare zombie wasteland. But it’s his commitment to ungoverned corporate privilege that will nosedive this economy into true insolvency and chaos, the kind of chaos you can’t buy back. Money is only so much paper to the undead.’ Whedon’s description of capitalism as a kind of zombie economics is not new; it is made explicit in John Quiggin’s recent Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (2010), in which he examines the persistence of market-based ideas among politicians and economists, despite the failure of market liberalism. Even after the financial crisis, the dead ideas behind market-based ideology still stalk the land, walking among us – and must, Quiggin argues, be killed off once and for all.

Coming back to Whedon, and Buffy, and the gothic capitalism described in the series. We find one of the most explicit thematisations of monstrous capitalism in Buffy in the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Anne’. Having killed her vampire boyfriend Angel in the previous season, Buffy in this episode is hiding in an unknown city, posing as an anonymous ‘Anne’ and working in a dingy diner.

Already at the beginning of the episode we see the focus on the social faults in the current economic system, when Buffy on the way home from work walks past several destitute and homeless people in the streets, people with no social safety net, several of them begging, many of them telling Buffy: ‘I am noone’. Only one person in this city seems to care about these impoverished people: a director of a local centre, the ‘Family Home’, which welcomes everyone, offering food and support.

However, the director, calling himself Ken, is not the person he claims to be. When Buffy is contacted by an old acquaintance, Lily, whose boyfriend has gone missing, she discovers a whole machinery of exploitation beneath the city. Buffy finds the missing boyfriend among a group of people sleeping rough – but the boyfriend is dead, and seems to have aged about 60-70 years, ‘like something drained the life out of him’. Not drained by a vampire – that could not have accelerated the ageing process – but by something different.

As it turns out, the seemingly altruistic Ken is in fact a demon, not a benefactor. (So much for ‘caring capitalism’!) Buffy rips off his human mask, which reveals underneath it the face of a demon.

The local centre turns out to be an underground workplace, where people are being used as slave labour, forced to work in order to survive. Ken – now in his demon shape – tells Buffy: ‘Welcome to my world’. In this slavery den, the unwanted, the casualised, the precariat, exist. Here time moves more quickly, and everyone ages faster – which explains the death of Lily’s prematurely aged boyfriend.

In a passage from the chapter on the working day, Marx in Capital (vol.1) (1876) explains the vampiric nature of capitalism:

‘Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.’ (342)

Here, the capitalist demon sucks the life out of the workers, consuming their labour-power so as to make as much profit as possible. But still, this system ‘only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’ (Capital 367). While the worker might think that they dispose of themselves freely, Marx writes, once they have sold their labour-power to the capitalist, ‘it was discovered that he was no “free agent”, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go “while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited”‘ (415-416). As Buffy understands: ‘You just work us ’til we’re too old and then spit us back out?’

The people taken here by the ‘caring capitalist’ demon Ken are chosen precisely because of their precarious situation; they have no one who cares about them in the other world, so will not be missed. In this gothic capitalist world, the workers have no identity – their sole purpose is to work. As one of the guards tells the labourers: ‘You work, and you live – that is all. You do not complain, or laugh, or do anything besides work. Whatever you thought, whatever you were, does not matter. You are no one now.’ The slave-labourers are forced to repeat this, in order to avoid getting beaten. This mantra, ‘I am noone’, is what we earlier heard the impoverished people say to Buffy when above ground – one of them, we find out, having been Lily’s boyfriend. The labourers are worthless commodities in this system.

Buffy of course does not respond well to the guard’s bullying: she strikes the guard, takes her group of fellow prisoners and prepares to flee their enslavement. Having sent off some of the workers to the surface, Buffy kills off guard after guard, while demon capitalist Ken watches his system of exploitation collapse: ‘Humans don’t fight back… Humans don’t fight back! That’s how this works!’ That might be true; as McNally states, perhaps the most monstrous aspect of gothic capitalism is the way in which this exploitative system becomes ‘normalised and naturalised via its colonisation of the essential fabric of every-day life’ (2). There is some beautifully over-the-top imagery here, as Buffy takes the weapons of the guards she defeats: from one of the first guards, she takes a hammer; from another one, she takes a sickle-like knife. With the traditional hammer and sickle – the classic symbols of communism, representing the unity between industrial and agricultural workers – she fights off the last demons of capitalism before bringing the freed workers to the surface of the city.

The anticapitalist imagery from the ‘Anne’ episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken a step further in the detourned comic Buffy the Anarcho-Syndicalist: Capitalism Bites. Featuring Buffy as anarcho-syndicalist hero, and her Watcher Giles as a hardened revolutionary, together with other comrades from outside of the usual Buffy characters, the story presents the slayer fighting the evil vampire capitalist CEO of Blood Red Enterprises.

Of course, since Buffy is an anticapitalist vampire slayer, she defeats the gothic capitalists in Sunnydale. But there are many more metaphorical and and some very real monsters out there. So join a trade union (Boris Karloff style! [1]), fight some neoliberal vampires, organise against zombie economics.

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