When Play Becomes Work

Ok, know I said this was just a hobby, and this was technically true for about 3 months. Longer, if you date my interest in romance back to March 2007, which is when I read my first one.

But I have always been interested in vampires, and when I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse books, it was all over.

I submitted two conference abstracts today. I have no idea whether they will be accepted, of course. And if they are not, I will simply delete this blog entry and pretend none of this ever happened. And the usual caveat is that they could have been much better if I had more time. But as a mentor once told me, “Your best work is the best you produce in the time you have.”

The first one is for the Popular Culture Association annual conference in April in New Orleans. That’s one venue where many of the romance academics from Teach Me Tonight share their work.  I was limited to 250 words, a real killer. Here it is:

The Intersection of Moral and Romantic Identities in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries

Charlaine Harris’s “Southern Vampire Mysteries” follow the adventures of 25 year old waitress Sookie Stackhouse in rural Louisiana as she negotiates a new social world where vampires have begun to live openly among humans. The initial books in the series focus on Sookie’ s first romantic relationship. Because her partner, Bill, is not only an older, more experienced hero, but a vampire, Sookie’s love for him challenges not just her “small town good girl” self-image, but her implicit moral schema, according to which to be human is to be a member of the moral community, and to be nonhuman is to be beyond any comprehensible moral code. Vampires are like humans, but because they lack one of the essential features of humanity, mortality, they are irrevocably Other. Sookie confronts the question of whether there exists a transcendent morality in which vampires can participate or rather immanent moralities localized to ways of existence, human or vampiric.

This paper argues that Sookie’s journey of personal growth is an ethical journey, and, more importantly, one made possible by her love for a unique individual. The Southern Vampire Mysteries have had tremendous crossover appeal for romance readers, despite breaking many of the “rules” of the genre. While this is likely a spillover effect of the popularity of the paranormal romance, I contend that Harris presents a view of the transformative power of romantic love, namely, its power to encourage and enhance ethical reflection and growth —  which is a core theme of the genre.

The second one is for a June 2009 conference in London, where I will be spending part of next summer (one of the perks of being married to a British historian). Per the theme of the conference, I had to work in a Deleuzean concept, rhizomes, and this submission (partly due to its pop culture subject) is a real long shot. I’m not at all sure it’s intelligible (even to me), but here it is:

Charlaine Harris’s “Southern Vampire Mysteries” follow the adventures of 25 year old waitress Sookie Stackhouse in present day Louisiana as she negotiates her own personal relationships (platonic, sexual, romantic, and working) with vampires. According to Harris’s unique paranormal mythology, vampires, a persecuted minority, have recently won legal recognition and constitutional protections in the United States, which, while falling short of the privileges and rights granted to human beings, serve to destabilize social fault lines and their attending moral norms. Vampires are like humans – they were human once – but because they lack one of the essential features of humanity, mortality, they are irrevocably Other.  As do her cohorts in rural Bon Temps, and indeed, as does the entire nation, Sookie confronts the question of whether there exists a transcendent morality in which vampires can participate or rather immanent moralities localized to ways of existence, human or vampiric. This paper argues that Sookie’s journey of personal growth is an ethical journey, but one best understood in terms of Deleuze’s ethic of immanence. Further, the model of ethical growth  — what it means to gain new ethical knowledge — is in, fact rhizomatic.
For Deleuze, the basic ethical question is not “What should I do?” but rather “What am I able to do, given my degree of power?”.  From this perspective, transcendent ethics, whether based on a conception of a divine being or of rational agency, separate us artificially from the power of acting.  Ultimately, for Deleuze, what is ethically significant is not the moment of deliberation and conscious choice, but rather the immanent capabilities of a given mode of existence. The multiple and conflicting drives and inclinations that make up the conditions of agency cannot be corralled or gotten round (as the age old opposition of desire and reason in philosophical ethics suggests). Hence Deleuze’s well known claim that “Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—it is not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors.”
At first, Sookie begins to attempt to assimilate vampires into her Judeo-Christian transcendent ethic. She reasons that “they are just like us”, and, conversely, that humans themselves can be guilty of the same kinds of evil acts of which vampires are often accused. At this point, moral growth is portrayed “aborescent thought” in Deleuzean terms: logical, quantitative (human = vampire), unified. Eventually however, when confronted with the irreducible Otherness of the vampires (themselves a kind of rhizome: risen from the ground, a bizarre grafting of the posthuman onto the human, living in “hives” rather than hierarchical political units), Sookie comes to recognize a new kind of ethic without morality. It is neither unified nor total, a multiplicity of drives, powers, and ways of being which cannot be separated or divided without jeopardizing or changing their intrinsic nature. Rather than an ethic which one can learn by a rational process and then apply to particular situations, Sookie comes to understand ethics as incomplete and always in the process of ‘becoming’.
The rhizomatic thought introduced by and instantiated by the vampires permits Sookie to  bear ambivalence, allegory, chaos and diversity. She becomes detached from official structure, rigid patterns, and released from an imposed and straightforward stream of thought. I contend that the promise (and this is a new sense in which vampires may be understood as “alluring”) and relentless challenge posed to Sookie, and to the changing southern culture she inhabits by the newly “mainstreamed” vampires, invites a type of “counter-thought” which encourages ethical imagination and creativity, breaking down the barriers not just between the species (human and vampire), but between moral and other types of goodness, and between good and evil.

These are as far as I’ve gotten with either theme, so the final papers may not bear a strong resemblance to what I am promising to do in either case, but it was a fun way to spend the day!

None of this bears much relation to my other work, but as another one of my mentors told me, tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.

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Published in: on November 1, 2008 at 3:48 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. How very cool and interesting!! So you see Sookie on an ethical journey. That is something really I never considered. Do you think she is uniquely capable of this because of her own otherness?

    “Rather than an ethic which one can learn by a rational process and then apply to particular situations, Sookie comes to understand ethics as incomplete and always in the process of ‘becoming’.”

    I always sucked in theory/lit crit, so this may not add up and maybe, just maybe this is my bias toward Eric showing through, but I think he exemplifies ethics as this process of becoming quite well, too. In fact, when you point to “a new kind of ethic without morality. It is neither unified nor total, a multiplicity of drives, powers, and ways of being which cannot be separated or divided without jeopardizing or changing their intrinsic nature.” I think Eric totally exemplifies that, whereas stupid Bill won’t quite own that. Eric is unapologetically who he is. Though he becomes a lot less dangerous when he loses his memory.

    I wonder if you’re thinking a lot about when Sookie was imprisoned by that anti vamp cult, and witnessing that guy going into the sun.

    Anyway, good luck!!

  2. They sound interesting to me, even though I don’t understand the more technical philosophical bits.

    I can’t resist saying “welcome to the dark side” since you’ve been lured into studying not just romance but, more specifically, paranormal romance.

  3. Laura — thanks! Dark side indeed!

    Carolyn Jean — I haven’t gotten to the memory loss yet (I’ve only just started Club Dead, Book 3), but I already prefer him to Bill as a romantic partner. I’m going to write a review of Book 2 this weekend and say more about what I find lacking in Bill, but I agree with you that, in addition to the problem of being humorless and boring, he is neither here nor there, just unformed in some way that is not attractive in a person who has had so much time to work out the meaning of his existence. I would love to know his origin story — maybe we get that in a later book.

    What I was thinking about in terms of Sookie’s moral growth was that initially she wanted to accept vampires because “they are just like us humans” — assimilate vamps into the existing Judeo-Christian framework — but eventually she realizes that (a) they are not human, and (b) vampires cannot be evaluated as a group any more than humans can. Things get complicated for her in interesting and difficult ways, and the case of the vampire meeting the sun was a great example of that.

    He’s a child molester and murderer. How does that rank against humans willing to kill vampires just for not being human? Sookie is dealing with kinds of evil she has no way to account for. She tries to categorize them but comes to the idea that they are incomparable and gives up. There is no master system, already worked out, by which all the sins can be ranked and rated. She realizes that she has to evaluate each case separately, given its unique circumstances and as part of that individual’s personal narrative. Because of my own commitment to anti-theory (non ideal theory) in ethics, I view this as a step forward for her.

    But I also think it’s her relationship with Bill that is not just the motivator in an obvious way (you date a vamp, you get thrust into the vamp world) but also provides a safe “place” to explore some of these questions and a cushion against some of the harsher truths she has to learn. The social script for romantic, sexual love is so positive and compelling that she follows it into places she might never in other circumstances. And the sexual potency of Bill and the highly sexual nature of their relationship acts as a kind of draw and balm as she negotiates unfamiliar and dangerous terrain.

    This is pretty inchoate, I realize. More to follow one day!

  4. Oh, I see. And yes, I think the lack of a master system for ranking and rating holds through the books. Stuff that happens with Bill toward the end of book 4, Alcide’s book, in particular. Oh, you haven’t gotten to the best books yet!

    This sounds like a great paper. I hope you get to deliver it!!


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