Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dina Khapaeva's "The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture"

Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture discusses post-Soviet literary and cinematographic monsters as an extreme example of the popular culture movement that she termed the cult of death. In particular, this page examines the attitudes to people in the cult series Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko. In this universe ruled by two vampires clans, Dark and Light, bloodsuckers hunt people and kill them for food. As in countless other vampire sagas, both Western and Russian, the story’s first-person narrator is a vampire, with whom the audiences are supposed to identify and whose denigrating attitudes to people they are meant to share.

On this magical page, I argue:
People can never become vampires, or werewolves or magicians (other important protagonists in the novel). Those monsters’ abilities are innate, making them a whole different species. Even the choice of name for the vampires in Night Watch is telling: they are called Others, to emphasize the ontological gap that separates them from humans. At the beginning of the novel, the Dark vampires are portrayed as more human-friendly than the Light vampires, but the reader soon recognizes that the behavior of both Light and Dark toward humans is essentially the same: cynical and cruel. Unlike the Light vampires, the Dark vampires avoid forcibly drinking human blood, using instead willingly donated or animal blood. But both clans eagerly suck up the mental energy, both positive and negative, that humans produce. All vampires respect the treaty that governs the rules for hunting humans, but humans can still be killed for food, so long as it is all done by the book.
The “Page 99 Test” illustrates one of the book’s most important thesis: the murderous monsters of popular culture – vampires, werewolves, zombies, serial killers, and cannibals – can no longer be interpreted exceptionally as expressions of criticism of capitalist society, Western colonization, gender, race, or economic inequality. Since the early 1990s, they have acquired a radically different cultural function: to dehumanize humanity. For the first time in the Western cultural history, these contemporary icons are instrumental in representing people as legitimate food for other (even if imaginary) species. In the narratives featuring these monsters, they are idealized as superior creatures, while humans are considered an inferior species. Joining this superior species by rejecting one’s humanity, or “being turned,” is the utmost desire of human protagonists, as it is, for example, the case of Bella in the Twilight Saga. Monsters, the main heroes of a new popular culture movement, the cult of death, offer antihumanism as a popular commodity and symbolize the rejection of human exceptionalism. The cult of death dehumanizes humanity in general, rather than any particular social group or ethnicity, as it was the case with communism and fascism in the twentieth century. It offers the fascination with violent death as an expression of a profound contempt for the human race.

What distinguishes post-Soviet vampires from their Western counterparts is a much more straightforward analogy between vampire rule and the structure of a concentration camp. Differently from English-speaking vampires, who are marginalized in the imaginary Western society, post-Soviet monsters govern the world of humans. In this Russian fantasy, “people are deprived of all initiative and denied any political life. They are regarded as an inferior species whose dignity, morality, and freedom are at best a joke.”

Post-Soviet fiction reflects the emergence of a new political regime in Putin’s Russia. Gothic monsters provide an imagery and a vocabulary to make antihumanism a political motto and to reconsider the concept of citizenship in that country. And although the neomedieval society of orders that is taking shape in Russia has its undeniable specifics, it shows real social and political potential of the commodification of antihumanism.
Learn more about The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue