Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Kung fu, Vampire and Capital (Part 1)

Still from Mr Vampire (dir. Ricky Lau, HK, 1985)

I have of late been reading David McNally's book, Monsters of the Market, a fascinating - if not methodologically unproblematic - exploration of the figures of the zombie and the vampire since early modernity, read in the light of the growth of capital. In McNally's reading, under conditions of capitalism, labourers are treated (and thus imagined in capitalist culture) as objectified, living-dead bodies, placed into a mindless, zombie-like regime of wage-slavery (or, in more recent days, consumption). Rather than such a figure of the zombie, other literature (and the literary texture of Marx's work in particular) registers and displaces the vampire-like qualities of capital, as dead labour dominating and sucking the life out of its subjects.

The rather unstable figure of the monster runs throughout the book, uniting these two figures of the undead – the vampire and the zombie – each forming an opposing pole of a single cultural complex. For McNally (at least as far as I understand the drive of his book), the 'monstrous' is an ambivalent category in modern culture, signifying on the one hand the monstrous and disordering powers of capital itself, but also projecting these onto the labouring classes as a formless, dangerous mass that threatens the law and the metaphysical order of the Universe and the social fabric. The monstrous body of the modern poor is a disordered, disarticulated, chaotic body, decomposing into its constituent parts. It's the body, of course, of Frankenstein's monster in Mary Shelley's famous book. Shelley's creature is itself a body – McNally's book insists – composed from the grave-robbed, undead, reanimated bodies of the criminalised working classes, subject as they were in the eighteenth century to being dismembered after death and set to work as objects of knowledge (and moral examples) at the hands of dissectors. Working class bodies were, furthermore, of course, already bodies 'dissected' and 'decomposed' into their constituent parts, by the processes of disciplined labour (the worker as a 'hand'), and by the processes of abstraction which robbed them of any organic unity.  

In the last and most interesting chapter of McNally's book he turns away from European history to consider the contemporary phenomenon of an explosion of zombie myths in Sub-Saharan Africa. These, McNally insists, cannot be understood simply as some form of pre-modern throwback, a survival of old modes of superstition. In fact, McNally discusses the ways that contemporary narratives of witchcraft in Africa are radically discontinuous with older varieties of this, and whatever superficial similarities there may be between old and new iconographies, the meaning of such stories is now something quite different. McNally proposes that modern witchcraft and zombie stories should be read as an attempt to figure – in however a transformed guise – the horrors of globalised, neoliberal economics, as this reconfigures African cultures and societies. As such a figuration, there is a certain resistant value in vampire myth, as it makes uncanny that logic which capitalism would like to make normal, and which it has succeeded in the West as normalising to a far greater degree.

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Slaves in East Africa, c.1900
The zombie, in fact, he suggests is not an old figure in many of the cultures where it appears. Instead, it is a figure which arrives in the contemporary African vernacular primarily through Hollywood, and, in the longer run through histories of slavery in the West Indies (the slave as zombie - as a person without will or soul, reduced only to primary functions of work). What emeges in recent years in Africa are myths, urban rumours and popular literature or cinema about (poor) victims being resurrected by demonic (rich) sorcerers in order to be put to work, with the zombie-master accumulating all the wages earned by the possessed body. Other stories tell of enchanted bodies who open their mouths to vomit out coins, and are thus turned into "human cash machines" whose very material substance can be transformed into ready cash. For McNally, of course, these are to be read as allegories, metaphors or displaced expressions of fears about the exploitative nature of capitalism.

One of the questions that interests me is how McNally's schema might help us think about the rather different zombie/vampire bodies that became so popular in Hong Kong cinema during the late 1980s (and, I suppose, in the run-up to reunification with the mainland).

There are, of course, some small commonalities and some huge differences between Hong Kong in the 80s and twenty-first century Africa. The legacy of Western colonial and Imperial domination serving to form, to a certain degree, a baseline of shared experience, however different this historical trajectory has been in China and Africa. We might also note the 'belated' modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation of both societies, with a significant load of cultural material being brought to Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s by its massive influx of immigrants, largely from still relatively 'traditional' rural societies. In both cases, and though at somewhat different moments, and with different effects, we are also dealing with the absorption of the culture in question with processes of globalisation and neoliberal accumulation. Hong Kong was an early 'globaliser', starting as it did as a colonial trading hub, and only then diversifying in the 60s and 70s as a manufacturing base. Hong Kong – even its poor inhabitants – also rapidly drew a large amount of wealth from its insertion into global markets, and by the 1980s was looking a quite different economic and social reality from the societies we would usually tend to imagine as 'Third World'... In this regard, the growth of cinematic stories of the supernatural in the eighties is interesting precisely with regard to this being a moment where a decisive distance is marked from 'traditional' culture, and (with a population largely born and raised on the island, quite probably for most people already at a generation's distance from mainland origins) in which Hong Kong's self-image is distictively 'urban', independent and autocthonous.

What to make, then of the films? Perhaps the place to start is with some more basic description of the genre in question - the 'hopping corpse' or 殭屍 (jiangshi in Mandarin / geongsi in Cantonese) movie. Jiangshi is usually translated into English as '(Chinese) vampire', or, somewhat less commonly, as '(Chinese) zombie'. The word, however, literally means 'stiff corpse' - and it is this stiffness (a rigor mortis that survives the reanimation of the dead) that determines the distinctive gait of the jiangshi, as it makes ungainly two-legged hops, hands rigidly outstretched in front of it - in pursuit of its victims.

Interestingly enough given McNally's typology, the jiangshi shares certain properties of both vampire and zombie, or exists within a continuum somewhere between the two poles of the figure of the monster. If the zombie is a will-less body controlled by another (or just rambling around without a master), and the vampire marks a kind of undead and absolute, demonic will, the jiangshi is both and neither. Uncontrolled, the jiangshi may be a kind of a terrible and monstrous demon; controlled it becomes a comic and ultimately pathetic tool, and the jiangshi switches easily from state to state (by applying or detaching a spell written on a sheet of paper to its forehead, for example). In this regard, it may at first sight seem to fit quite badly with a figure either of worker's body or the horrors of capital.

Jiangshi in Mr Vampire – the undead transformed into an army of docile, controlled bodies

In relation to the question of the particular moment in which the vampire films appeared, described above as one at which the relation to the past was being released, at which Hong Kong identity was being set up as modern and Western in opposition to an imagined 'backward' mainland, and at a moment of the dim rise of anxieties about reunification with Communist China, it's interesting that the hopping vampire – usually clothed in the archaic funeral clothes of a Qing-dynasty official – seems to mark a complex and ambivalent relation to a past that is at once desired and hated, owned and disavowed. In this much it's interesting that the Chinese title of the most popular and genre-defining of the Vampire films of the 80s, which is translated into English by its distributors as Mr Vampire, is in fact better translated literally as Uncle Vampire (僵屍先生). This is a genre of film, then, which is profoundly about a relation to patriarchy and tradition.

Indeed, the first of the Mr Vampire films (it was a film so popular it spawned a series of sequels as well as a flood of imitations) is clearly set around problems of descent and the relation to ancestors (not to mention land and money). The heroes of the film are a long-suffering Taoist priest, Master Kao (played by one of my favourite actors and martial arts performers, Lam Ching-ying), and his rather unruly apprentices. He is called by a client, a rich businessman who is having problems with his business, to examine the burial of his father. On examination of the grave, Kao comes to the conclusion that the businessman's father had been given very bad advice in laying out the feng shui for his chosen burial site and that this is causing a problem. When he probes the matter, Kao discovers that the land for the grave had been bought from the same fortune-teller who had advised on the burial – and that underhand financial means had been applied to force him to sell the land cheaply. The bad advice on burying the body was the fortune-teller's revenge, and it is this that causes the dead patriarch to return from the dead to pursue his own descendants - killing and making a vampire first of his son, and then pursuing his niece (who the film's heroes endeavour to rescue), hence becoming the 'Uncle Vampire' of the original Cantonese title. What we have, then is a relationship to the past, to ancestors, and to a legacy (one which is both financial and familial, magical and cultural) that has become unnatural and toxic through the intervention of the distorting powers of money. In this regard, we are very close to many of the metaphors which McNally values so much in Marx (and which Marx in turn seems to draw from Shalespeare and from a Gothic tradition of literature), whereby money makes live things into dead ones, and animates the inanimate; where traditions are destroyed; where hierarchies are inverted; and order made basely disorderly.

Lam Ching-ying strikes a pose as the Taoist priest in Mr Vampire

What perhaps complicates the picture here, however, is the relation to the 'mainland' and to traditional Chinese culture which seems to be set up. The Qing-dynasty costume of the undead seems to hint on the one hand at a history of colonial rule and foreign domination. The vampire in this sense is something 'alien'. However, it seems also to hint at an alienness which is intimately 'homely'. Might this remind us of  Freud's discussion of the odd collapse of the difference between the Heimlich and the Unheimlich – whereby what is most terrible and alien turns out to have at its core something repressed that comes from within, and from the most private, primal and forgotten parts of the self which have only become so emphatically foreign because we cannot, on the most terrible pain, admit them into consciousness as a core of the self and its formative history. The Qing-era costumes of the vampire – and all the evocation of even older ancient myth and superstition that surrounds the vampire – seem to evoke a more diffuse sense of Chinese tradition – a set of beliefs that have been left behind (certainly enough to make them an entertainingly comedic spectacle) but which still haunt to the degree that unease can amplify the power of laughter. What, I wonder is the relation of the mainland to this figure – I cannot also help reading in these films the presence of China itself (in the guise of the PRC) as a land of forefathers for the Hong Kong people that also threatens to swallow up and suck the life from the 'young' and 'modern' (and capitalistic) island-city. But how would this square with a reading of the unease figured in the film, too about what I take as capitalist values?

Wrestling with the Patriarch? Still from Mr Vampire

Any thoughts from anyone reading this would be gratefully received! Either pop them in the comments below or email me! Thanks!

(To be continued...)

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