Looks good on paper…

Home » academia » Buffy vs Dracula’s legacy

Buffy vs Dracula’s legacy

As a change is as good as a rest, I thought I would take some time away from thesis redrafting to write something here about vampires from a media theory perspective. Yes. Vampires. Media theory. Settle in!

One of Friedrich Kittler‘s few extended literary analyses applies toBram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), wherein Kittler invites us to see Dracula’s fight as primarily against new mediums, particularly the typewriter and the gramophone. Here, I want to put Kittler’s reading of Dracula against one of the most influential vampire stories of our own turn of the century, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999 in English, 1986 in German), Kittler calls Bram Stoker’s Dracula “that perenially misjudged heroic epic of the final victory of technological media over the blood-sucking despots of old Europe” (p.86). The novel teeters at the epistemic break between what Kittler identifies as discourse network 1800—characterised by Goethe and the monopoly of literature—and discourse network 1900—characterised by modernism and the end of the written word’s monopoly in favour of sound and film recordings. To Kittler, then, the novel registers the particular technological shocks of that period of transition, or break with the old medial order.

Although Dracula receives a passing mention in his ‘Gramophone’ section, it is in ‘Typewriter’ that the novel is most fully analysed. Kittler argues that, following the rise of the typewriter, writing became “no longer a natural extension of humans who bring forth their voice, soul, individuality through the handwriting”; rather, people “turn from the agency of writing to become an inscription surface” while the “agency of writing passes on in its violence to an inhuman media engineer who will soon be called up by Stoker’s Dracula (p.210).

Kittler provides a much fuller account of the novel in his earlier essay ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, printed in 1989 in English (in the Stanford Humanities Review, ed. 1, far trickier to source than Gramophone) and in his 1993 book Draculas Vermaechtnis: Technische Schriften.

Kittler therefore posits the vampire to end (or begin) all vampires as defeated by the increased efficiency of data-processing at the fin de siècle. He highlights the role of Mina Harker, as many critics have done, but in particular her function as a ‘typewriter’ (the term having once applied equally to the machine and its usually female operative, Gramophone, p.183). He notes that Mina spends “half the novel” “collect[ing], record[ing], typ[ing], and carbon-cop[ying] all discourses on Dracula until the latter has been done away with” (p.220), and it is only this collation—only Mina’s work—that means the “counterattack of the empire” has any hope of success (‘Legacy’, p.162).

In the TV series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which began in 1997 and concluded in 2003, the apparent medial advance of Stoker’s novel, Mina and her typewriter, has been rolled back. The loyal assistant and faithful support of the vampire hunter(s) is now male—the delightful Rupert Giles—and a librarian. The archive of manuscripts returns, along with the vampires themselves. By hearkening back to the monastic archival practices of the discourse network 1800, and before, with its collective of Watchers, Buffy elides the developments of Stoker’s novel. Women have—it rewrites history—always been the vampire slayers. However, the technological engagement that emancipated Mina, in contrast to her friend Lucy, are erased in this leap backward (what Kittler might have called a recursion), although much of the context of the fight between “the empire” and the vampire remains the same, such as the manifestation of that fight as “a war between two secret services”, kept underground, its eruptions minimised, veiled, and buried (p.162).

The Slayers may have taken the place of Van Helsing in that they now wield the stakes, but they remain—like Mina—the vehicles by which the (male) Watchers’ texts act in the world. Kittler notes that once Jonathan Harker’s diary of his trip to Transylvania is “hooked up to phongraphs and typewriters, autopsies and newspaper reports”, it will “kill the Lord of the East and the Night” (p.148). While Mina effects this networking of manuscripts and printed texts in order to direct the work of Stoker’s vampire slayers, Buffy becomes the directed weapon of the Watchers Council’s network. 

In part, this follows the remediatising of the vampire-hunting story, from a novel with a defined end—to the story and to the vampire—and a TV series with a built-in commercial requirement to self-perpetuate for as long as possible (call me a cynic…). Buffy turns away from the effects of technological advancement and focuses our attention on a nostalgic attitude towards how the good fight demons. For example, the IT teacher, Jenny Calendar, techno-pagan and member of a cyber-coven, is fairly swiftly killed off in season 2. Although her relationship with the scholarly bibliophile Giles had become one of love and mutual respect, and her work is restored by Willow in order to defeat Angelus, these facts do not significantly disturb the gang’s way of working. Willow remains a computer whizz, but the focus of their information gathering remains Giles’ library, and later The Magic Box, Giles’ magic shop replete with magical artefacts and texts, with Willow’s technical skills highlighted only really when her magical powers are absent. Again, the show’s clear preference is for ancient arcana over modern.

The show’s narrative resistance to being medially updated is powerfully played out in the re-appearance of Dracula in the Buffy-verse. The premiere of season 5 is ‘Buffy vs Dracula’. The episode borrows heavily from Stoker’s original: Dracula arrives in Sunnydale in a box of earth, he possesses hypnotic powers, and he brings with him the Three Sisters, or Brides. In the background of that episode, however, is the decay of the old structures within which Buffy has so far operated. ‘Buffy vs Dracula’ plays with a set of uncertainties about Giles’ place in the group that become an increasingly prominent feature of later series. At the beginning of the episode, Giles intends to return to England, and he and Willow are beginning to digitise those of his books that the group might find useful after his departure. This process of digitisation focuses solely on the objects themselves, as though the transfer of their contents from the printed medium to the digital is lossless, and the digitised versions might need no interpretation from Giles in order to prove useful. However, the ending of the episode appears to turn its back on these assumptions, with Buffy asking Giles to become her Watcher again in order to help her learn more about the history of her powers.

It is fitting that Buffy’s desire to stay within the old interpretive framework of knowledge being provided by a bookish, learned scholar arises out of her encounter with the canonical Count Dracula, but the door that has been opened by the physical act of data transfer from book to computer cannot be closed. Willow, an increasingly powerful character in her own right, begins to take on the position of Mina in Stoker’s original, a conduit for the types of knowledge that Giles alone initially possessed, both with her bent for the technological and her magical abilities. Series 5 is the last series in which Giles is omnipresent. In series 6 and series 7, he appears in only about half of the episodes, having appeared in each one for the first five series. As the show progresses into the twenty-first century, even its nostalgic reaching back towards what Kittler calls “the monopoly of language” proves unsustainable. We might say, then, that ‘Buffy vs Dracula’, aired on 5 January 2001, is the show registering the shocks of the new millenium and its own period of transition.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. […] concerned with how history is represented, in particular in book form. As I noted in my post about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is an inclination for vampire narratives to focus on old media, manuscripts and books, and […]

  2. […] twist on the tale, familiar from vampire narratives such as Interview with the Vampire and Buffy: the vampire-turned-good. So, Carmilla joins forces with a set of rebellious students against the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: