A Vampiric Rhetoric

...a paper written in reaction to Stone's The War of Desire and Technology At the Close of the Mechanical Age


       Night falls; the sun sinks below the horizon in its habitual cycle; the day ends and the night begins. Vampires, if you believe in that sort of thing, awaken.

       I awaken.

      Every creature that lives concerns itself with survival matters - what to prey on and how best to do it is the eternal question, the one that is faced every day by everyone on the planet. For the vampire, those questions are inextricably linked to a third - what role to play while doing so. The vampire rummages through the closet of roles, selecting that attire which best allows successful completion of the hunt. Seductive paramour...? Good Samaritan...? The choice always depends on the prey - what social gathering might the prey be found in? How are those around the prey likely to react to the role? What props and mannerisms are likely to ease any qualms the victim might have about accompanying the vampire....? The successful vampire, the survivable vampire, considers them all, and chooses accordingly.
       Considering all this, I think of the One who came to me whispering about the Dark Gift, and the vision it imparts. That one, mysterious, androgynous, spoke teasingly of a different order of vision than the one most of us are used to... spoke of multiple ways of seeing, and of seeing details and connections unavailable to those without the Gift. But I hesitate, toes over that huge and yawning abyss, thinking of the things unsaid. The viewpoint of the vampire is an empowering one to be sure; the vampire is always fully conscious of the roles that most take for granted. That awareness alone is tremendously empowering, when one has it while those around one do not. But that sort of power can easily lead to a cynical and predatory approach to such interaction. Shouldn’t something as powerful as the Dark Gift be used for something more than survival or amusement?
       Thinking on this, I consider a new role... I can accept Stone’s offer of the Dark Gift, and in turn become able to consciously play with roles, but perhaps I can do some good with it...? Become Louis to Stone’s Lestat...? And perhaps find a place for an ethical application of the Gift?
       But the abyss yawns too deeply, in the end; for now, I lack the courage to take that irrevocable dive. As Stone has said, once one accepts the Dark Gift, one can never go back to being mortal...
       ....And so I drop out of the hyper-dramatic style that Stone quite deliberately and consciously uses at times to inform her work. The risk of taking on a dramatic persona in this particular hunting ground is just too great; one runs the risk of alienating those one depends on for nourishment, and thus going hungry.
       Stone’s vampire-metaphor is an incredibly useful one, I think, to us as rhetoricians. On so many different levels, it contains parallels to our work and our difficulties, some of which she herself might not be aware of. Stone uses Lestat as her central identifying figure in constructing the metaphor, presenting him as a philosopher of sorts (which he is, in Rice’s books); he’s the one who searches for what it means to be a vampire, and tries to grapple with the new abilities that the Dark Gift has given him. Louis, the Rice character I mention above, is the one Lestat passes the Gift to; Louis’ concern is how to retain his ethics, his morality, while still being a vampire and acknowledging the necessities of vampiric survival. Louis tends to see in Lestat a disturbing acceptance of the predatory life, an ease with using a vampire’s multiple subjectivities for personal advantage with which Louis himself is never quite comfortable.
       While I’m not trying to suggest that Stone is as coldly predatory as Lestat, I do think that if we are to take up her vampire metaphor, and become fully conscious of our multiple subjectivities and their uses, I think those uses need to be informed by a discussion of ethics. Like Louis with Lestat, I was amazed at the ease with which Stone shifted style and tone throughout her work in a completely conscious way. Her example is both inspiring and frightening. I will leave the gosh-wow aside for the moment, and skip directly to the frightening parts.
       Louis’ main concern was, “How do I use my vampiric abilities so as not to do too much harm to those around me?” He still felt himself to be human, which Lestat did not. There lies Danger #1, in my opinion. We have to find ways of using the viewpoints afforded by conscious, assumed subjectivity without losing our connection to those around us. If everything is a consciously assumed role, it can be very easy to become jaded or cynical about things which other people see as essential, and which still retain importance for them. We have to remember that, while it might well all be “an act,” that “act” is still real, with real effects and consequences, and does not exist in some detatched, artificial framework.
      Both Stone and Lestat take pride in their status outside traditional subjectivities; Stone describes her position as living “by choice in the boundaries between subject positions.” The trick, as Louis would point out, is to do so while retaining empathy for those who are still inside those boundaries. Lestat was content to remain in the grey areas, sampling human interaction on his terms and never immersing himself completely in it; that position let him avoid some of the ethical questions that would naturally follow from such “sampling.” Louis, however, could never shut down his empathy to do so. He was constantly worried about the impact of his actions, and, I would argue, so should we be.
       To take this from the ethereal down to the concrete, we as teachers of composition should carefully examine how the roles we consciously assume in class might affect our students. If we decide to experiment with, say, putting control of the class in the hands of the students for a week, we need to examine beforehand how that role of “powerlessness” will affect the students, both during that week and then afterwards when we re-assume the traditional role of teacher. If we put out the persona of a sympathetic advisor to whom the student can bring any and all troubles during office hours, how will that affect the student when grading-time rolls around and we now have to be to some extent judgemental? We need to be aware not only of how our chosen roles aid or hinder us, but how those conscious choices impact those around us.
       Similarly, as teachers we need to be aware of how our teaching of this new awareness is taken by our students. If we are to give the Dark Gift to our students, don’t we have an obligation to make them aware of its potential dangers as well as its benefits? While postmodern theorists might argue that (what with relativity and diversity being the watchwords) we cannot dictate to our students how they ought to act, I think most composition teachers might agree in practice that there are certain ethical standards we wish our students to accept. For example, I think very few teachers would think it a good thing if one of their students, taking the principles of persuasive writing and identification to heart, proceeded to turn those talents to conning the elderly out of their savings. Since, as human beings, we are enmeshed in social groups, and thus have shared values, it would be foolish to pretend that those values aren’t there the moment we walk into a classroom. While we can’t impose our standards on others, neither can we be wholly relativist and claim those standards are of no importance. In doing so we run the risk of shutting down our own empathic abilities. If we are to step between boundaries, like Stone and Lestat, and sample the various interactions available, we have to also remember, as Louis does, that we ourselves once stood inside those boundaries, and retain our common links to the people still there. I think that such an approach can only help promote an eventual understanding of what it’s like to cross those boundaries.

       Louis, by the way, is almost universally less well-liked by Anne Rice readers than is Lestat; his constant questioning of ethical matters does not exactly endear him to the readership, who perceive him as a bit of a whiner, and far too critical of the more dynamic and dramatic Lestat. I’m one of those readers, in fact. However, Louis isn’t so much being as critical of Lestat the person as questioning issues he sees Lestat as not confronting. Similarly, I’m not trying to imply in this essay that Stone is being either callous or incomplete; I’m simply trying to pick up where an amazing and inspiring writer has left off for the moment, and work out some of the details of a very engaging, potentially useful metaphor. If, like Louis, I seem less courageous than the one I am questioning, less willing to jump into the vampiric point of view with both feet, well.... guilty as charged, I guess.

For now.

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