Occupy the Hellmouth! Or, School Sucks, Work Sucks, So Why Not Slay Your Demons?

A slightly belated, bemused and in-progress post on what the Occupy movement and Buffy the Vampire Slayer might learn with and from each other.


Sometimes it's hard to be a Slayer, what with the grinding anti-demonic activity, sense of isolation, and stains that never wash out. But if the BuffyVerse shows us one thing, it's why it's worth being a Slayer, or the friend/ally of a Slayer (henceforth: Scooby). Gaining knowledge (through research) of systemic injustice, and putting one's body on the line to stop it, may suck sometimes beyond the telling of it -- but returning to ignorance and passivity is null, even if a facade of ignorance and passivity earns you a culturally privileged position.


In Buffy's words, from episode "Normal Again," where she faces, at her lowest ebb, the choice of continuing her activism or returning to protected oblivion:


'Cause what's more real? A sick girl in an institution? Or some kind of supergirl, chosen to fight demons and save the world?


On a daily basis, many of us (myself included) opt for the first, claiming realism/pragmatism/earning a living, etc. In many ways, it's safer to be a sick girl in an institution. In the AsylumVerse to which Buffy is transported by a demon's venom, both of her parents are alive, and married to each other. She has spent six years (the six seasons of the show) sedated and strapped down. The doctor holds out to her the possibility of returning to "normal," a world in which she is the privileged daughter of a white, middle-class nuclear family: a former cheerleader, a blonde teenage girl, a classic icon of consumer power. She can accept her institutionalisation (including the fantasy of care and cure) or return to her psychosis, in which, as another character will inform her in Season 7's "Conversations with Dead People," she has an inferiority complex about her (Slayer-related) superiority complex. In accepting her unique responsibility (defined by its aloneness), Buffy is abjected by it.


It's a burn-out that many of us face (with fewer phantasmatic resources, including less possibility for physically slaying our demons -- I'll say more about violence later) -- and the choice to Occupy the Hellmouth seems foolish, masochistic, and hopeless. The Asylum, with its cosy bed of dreamy unconsciousness and institutional promise of nurture, is manifestly tempting. Who doesn't want to go back to bed rather than struggling?


On the other hand: the real world sucks. What looks like privilege - being the object of attention and focus of the market - is actually abjection. So why not slay some demons? Buffy draws a crucial distinction between privilege (being born a Slayer, or a white, upper-middle class woman) and Power (that thing that confers privilege, and uses the privileged to its ends) - and suggests a third term, which I'm calling "power with a small p" (paraphrasing Jo Shapcott), and which feminist scholars have called agency. It's a form of resistance, a way of acting that doesn't imitate Power (very tempting) but can confront it.


Four months ago, I had the opportunity to talk about these issues and ideas with a group of MA students at the University of Cambridge. It was the height of the Occupy movement's public visibility -- in fact, I was talking to the students about an hour before the university became a site of occupation (caused by the presence of David Willetts, not me). And then I had the opportunity to talk about the talk with friends on and offline, and I got very excited about the idea of transmuting my ephemeral notes and thoughts into type.


So, ahem, four months later, as Occupy London is being dismantled physically but reconfigured psychically, recalling why those thoughts mattered, here is that transmutation. I was going to turn it into a fancy blog with posts organised by intellectual discipline (History, Psychology, etc), but the raw-and-ready seems more appropriate. More open to your comments, thoughts, contributions, suggestions, interventions, YouTube clips, TLDR comments, etc. And also true to the SlayerVerse.


Useful lesson #1: Improvise: the fight is everywhere & everything's a weapon (especially knowledge)


One thing that stymied me in the seasonal quest to write this post was the overarching sense of Occupy, of revolution: the idea that it is a complete act, a major historical event, locatable and with a classical dramatic form. That to take part you had to be there and then. I wasn't, I didn't -- and yet I felt connected. How to describe my participation in Occupation? Writing about giving a silly seminar on a TV show to a group of privileged students hardly seemed adequate. I became embarrassed about my lack of committed activism.


But then a conversation on fb reminded me this week that part of being a Slayer (and part of the Occupy movement) is making a stand where you are -- not letting go of the importance of collectively inhabiting public space and performing concerted and co-ordinated actions of high visibility, but not forgetting that, equally, intervention is possible in any time, space, group, text... because the demon/problem/system is always there to be confronted, in every interaction and location. And that the classroom, as part of the educational institution (and thus hegemonic power) but also a site for critical thinking (and thus the potential to undermine hegemonic power) is a central space for occupation.


Even though Buffy the Vampire Slayer is built on the classical narrative arc, rising to a climactic confrontation at a site of power, the episodic nature of the show makes a feature of the diffuse nature of activism/struggle. While it has particular flashpoints (as Willow says to Buffy at the end of Season 1, the flashpoint for her is the invasion of school grounds by vampires: "They took our world and made it theirs, and they had fun."), the truth of being a Slayer (or Scooby) is that of being a Scout: "Be prepared." The struggle against hegemonic power might occur in the girls' bathroom, across the dinner table, or in the classroom.


That's the one that catches my attention, being that I spend a lot of time there. The show is set in high school (and then on a university campus) for many reasons, but at least one is the dual nature of the classroom: on the one hand, a site of potential empowerment through skills such as critical thinking, research and active listening; on the other, a deadening hand of institutional discipline, sometimes tending towards apathy and sometimes even towards malevolent disinformation (and building evil robots). Teaching is where I take my stand/make my stance as an activist: it's the space I Occupy, somewhat uncertainly.


Educational institutions and skills are hugely significant in the show -- but Buffy, never a classroom scholar, learns and uses her research and critical thinking skills subversively. In fact, putting in library time (where research is self-directed, urgent, rhizomatic, late-night, multimedia, intuituve, and often involves naps and donuts) leads Buffy and the Scoobies to undermine the institution's claim to absolute power -- quite literally to head into the hidden spaces below, where the less savoury basis of its power-over is located.Which seems like a simple and honourable equation, exhibited in every detective movie and conspiracy theory: follow the knowledge and find the power. But what Buffy and the Scoobies learn is that knowledge is ALWAYS imbricated with power. Even if it leads to challenging that power, it is always also dependent on it in some way -- which makes power vulnerable.


Where is the Hellmouth? Directly underneath the school library (Seasons 1-3) or the Principal's Office (Season 7). Destroying the power source also obliterates, in both cases, the secret resources that gave the Scoobies the knowledge to do their work. Knowledge's location in public space, its connections to power and privilege, are problematic, and Buffy is a figure of this: she is both resistant to and has recourse to the books, strategically. She "flunked the written," and the final season in particular is structured by a series of revelations that cannot come from books, but from oral history (particularly associated with female forebears).


Useful Lesson #1b: Every technology is a weapon - if you hold it right


The ambiguous status of knowledge can be seen, as well, in the show's relationship to technology. Set not far from Silicon Valley (part of Season 4 was filmed at its heart, on the Stanford University campus), BtVS embraced its technological moment, with a virtuous cycle of online fandom and diegetic geeklove, particularly embodied in two female characters, Jenny Calendar and her mentee Willow Rosenberg (who both bear out Asimov's assertion about the meeting point of high technology and magic). A cell phone given to a teenage girl can be a weapon, rather than an enfolding into consumer media: but only because Dawn (Buffy's younger sister) uses it to assist (excluded) others -- and doesn't stop at the call, but fashions a weapon from a satchel and some bricks. 


At the same time, technology, like education, can be one more brick in the wall. C3I, military-industrial complex credentials make it deeply suspect: a debate that continues around the importance and effectiveness of the internet in organising and even driving current revolutions. Can the master's tool be used to dismantle the master's house? In BtVS, weapons are often at their most powerful because they have been re-appropriated from hegemonic power (hacked, stolen, given new meanings or functions) but also because, being stolen, the contingent nature of their power is recognised. Buffy doesn't cling to her rocket launcher: she doesn't even cling to the Scythe, the ultimate stolen object of power. In the final episode, the Scythe's power lies in it being the opposite of the phallus -- being, in fact, like the gift. Its power is in its transferability, in being on the move.


As Maggie Walsh, Season 4's army scientist and Buffy's university lecturer points out, Buffy and the Scoobies refuse to imitate the institution in order to fight it: she remains an improviser, intuitive and reactive, picking up and discarding, rather than a planner with a commitment to rules, hierarchies and systems. (The real US army noted something similar in a study of the show commissioned before the invasion of Afghanistan, which I now cannot locate via Google or my paper archives). She conducts her campaign like guerilla warfare: knowing her territory, turning what's at hand into a weapon (from a pencil to a rocket launcher), and dropping it when it's used. She even describes that most unstable of things, her emotions, as "totally an asset" to her activism.


Useful lesson #2: Feelings & friends, or The Personal is Always Political


Yes, that old feminist chestnut. But it's true -- and easy to forget in the never-ending list of Things That Must Change, is that we need to Make It Better: to create a counter-public space in which affect (and vulnerability, of which more in a moment) has a place -- not derided as feminised, queer, uncivilised, or any of the Othered identities with which emotion and its open expression are traditionally associated in the West (it's worth noting, although several critics have usefully complicated this, that Buffy addresses her comment about emotions being an asset to Kendra, a Caribbean Slayer who is extremely disciplined to be unemotional -- a reversal of ethnic stereotypes; in many other ways, the show fails Kendra horribly, presenting her as the figure of the 'tragic mulatta.')


The SlayerVerse is such a counter-public sphere, in which insurgent affect takes (its) place in the classroom, the library, the military base, and the church -- and conversely, political activism is always live in intimate situations and locations. In her article about Occupy and the Arab Spring, Judith Butler notes that there is no such thing as a public space -- only spaces that can be claimed as and by a temporary public, in the face of opposition (she also notes that this requires the "line" on which the body places itself to shift as each public space is established: once Tahrir Square is formally public space, then the surrounding streets and even homes became opened up to being the "line," marking the way in which domestic and commercial spaces are always-already political and used by a public; hence, se above re: taking a stand where you stand).


This is something the show demonstrates repeatedly, as the fragile and contingent identity of Sunnydale as "public space" is repeatedly contested by demonic forces -- the contingency and fragility becomes most visible at the moment of greatest threat, and thus most valuable -- and defensible. When the demonic forces enter (in order to close down) public space (vampires rising after darkness, for example) they mobilise the Scoobies' defensive counter-formation; by attacking, they invite resistance. By attempting to wound, they enter the space of vulnerability.


I can't really summarise it, so I'll just say to go and read Adriana Cavarero's Horrorism on the connections of vulnerability and public space. It's really brilliant, and brings a new reading to Buffy -- and particularly a question I was asked in the seminar about Buffy's body and vulnerability. The superheroic stereotype is invulnerable, but therefore inhuman -- Buffy subverts this. Even though she has supernatural strength and healing powers, she is woundable, physically (perhaps more so because her abilities cause her to act fearlessly: bruises, cuts and bloodstains are frequent features of Buffy's onscreen presentation) but perhaps more crucially, affectively.


As the show frequently emphasises, Buffy has made a choice to live differently from previous Slayers: she has an intimate life that includes family, friends, mentors, lovers (and occasionally enemies, on which more below). It is in the realm of intimacy that Buffy is most woundable, both by her intimates, and by harm, or the threat of it, being visited upon them. It is her connection to the human world -- to that about which she has feelings -- that renders Buffy vulnerable. It is, for example, Angel (her lover/evil ex/not-quite-friend/eternal passion/annoying mentor) who leaves the only permanent scar on her body: tooth-marks on her neck, a wound of _her_ love for him (her blood saves his life).


So having friends, lovers, family, dependents, or students, like accepting the role of Slayer, is dangerous. It puts one's body (physical/affective) on the line. Scars emerge from relationality, which makes us vulnerable. Both The Master and The Mayor, villains in Seasons 1 and 3 respectively (oh, and Magie Walsh as Mother) present twisted models of heteronormative family -- twisted insofar as they reveal the asymmetrical structure, lines of dominance and abjection within the 'normal' family. By Season 7, in comparison, the Scoobies have become an alternative, multi-generational, transnational family that includes a lesbian couple, an ex-con, a vampire, an ex-demon, a British librarian, and Slayers-in-training from around the world. Straight, gay and undefined; living, dead and in between; good, evil and "it's complicated" -- 1630 Revello (rebel-o!) Drive has room for them all.


Useful lesson #2b: No Such Place as Home Safe


Buffy makes a nonsense of the concept of Homeland Security (cack-handedly in its political attempt to voice something in line with the "Homeland Security: Fighting Terorism Since 1492" pan-Native campaign, in the episode Pangs, which deals -- or rather, trips over its own inability to deal -- with a vengeful Chumash warrior spirit) in its presentation of the suburban family home. Subject to invasion by vampires, zombies, untrustworthy robot boyfriend/serial killers, Buffy's home is porous, and retreating behind its walls never works. The most painful and difficult attacks come from those already within its intimate borders.


After two seasons of struggling, realistically (and presaging the mortgage crisis that would occur 5 years later), to afford her home, as well as to defend it, Buffy lets go the notion of settlement, enclosure, home security, and the Manifest Destiny of house-holding, when she witnesses the town of Sunnydale being destroyed, falling into (and thus closing) the Hellmouth (Dawn is upset, of course, that the mall is gone -- but the mall had been a frequent site of evil. In a neat joke, every episode with the word "Bad" in its title featured an act of consumption gone wrong, and Dawn's own paradigmatic adolescent crime is shop-lifting). What would it mean for all of us to give up the idea of home as a fixed location of safety and ownership?


Or: to ask another way. What would it mean to think about home as a site of vulnerability because it is open?


Useful lesson #3: The scar is(n't) who you are


Inasmuch as the Scoby Gang becomes an alternative family that pushes the boundary of the word, so it also pushes at the idea of 'human.' Or to conjoin family and human, at the idea of 'kin,' that word at the root of kind and kindness. This is most visible in considering the ethical limits of violence in Buffy's world. I should say first that the show is couched from the outset in the tropes of genre fiction/TV, making it clear that all violence is performed within an allegory. Several times, characters pun on the psychological metaphor, "fighting one's demons." One of the satisfactions, and frustrations, of the show, is that it gives physical, and therefore fightable, form to abstractions such as power, despair, oppression, greed, hatred, etc. It never asserts that the human bearers of these abstractions - either representatives such as the police and army, or individuals motivated by them - are acceptable subjects for physical violence.


The line of violence - and deciding who is its acceptable subject - is the line on which Buffy puts her body. Far from being rigid, judicial and normative, it is subjective (a problem frequently addressed in show) and expansive. The notion of who is kin, and therefore deserving of kindnes, expands impressively. In one moving scene, Buffy challenges Spike's claim that he is beyond the pale, given his violent past; she argues that it is an easy way out to exclude himself from the responsibility that comes with being kin.


As Andrew (probably the most anomalous figure in the season 7 family: a hostage/"guest"age whose incorporation into Revello Drive life is an implicit critique of the US' failure to afford full kin status to those it has taken hostage) remarks, "Confidentially, some of her top people are murderers." Buffy herself stabbed Faith, almost fatally. But, in what's a strongly secular show (Slayer knowledge doesn't run to the existence of the monotheist God; other gods and magical beings exist; many kinds of magic have power), redemption remains a powerful narrative force. Change is what the show believes in, rooting social change in individual actions -- not as a replay of atomised, self-help culture, but a constant renegotiation of the self in relation to the past in order to emerge into a present community.


Giles notes in Season 1 that Buffy's grades are suffering in History, because "Buffy is very much about the now, and History is very much about the then." The skills of response that make Buffy a strong guerilla fighter also imperil her, and the show traces her growing connection with history; or rather, understanding of herself as a historical being - through her meeting with Dracula and research into the history of the Slayers, to her final encounter with the Guardian, a feminist re-visioning of Slayer history. By Season 6, she can joke to Dawn: "she who fails history? Condemned to repeat it in summer school." Whatever their sense of occasion, the immediacy of protests and revolutions allows little time for engagement with history -- often demanding a focus on the urgency of the moment, and often leading to an erasure of pasts that disagree with or don't support revolutionary ideals.


The extended temporality of a serial television show allows for historical investigation - and revisitation of aspects of the show's own history - in ways that a film does not. Buffy uses seriality to investigate repetition, and to show how to avoid it: it is always conscious of its characters' scars in a way that rewrites trauma theory. Characters do often, as Cathy Caruth remarks, speak from the wound - but what they speak is often a determination not to fight for the sake of revenge, but for change. When Buffy is given the opportunity to erase all the scars of six years (in exchange for one considerable 'scar' or social stigma of having been institutionalised for a mental illness), she refuses.


Useful lesson #4: So here's the part where you make a choice


To fall back into the AsylumVerse is to reinstate dominant culture's limits on the human: no sisters who are made of mystical energy by monks (a great relief to some viewers, who should read the brilliant "The Wrath of Dawn" in _Geektastic_), no ex-demons, no lesbian witches, no ensouled vampires. Nothing, in fact, beyond the nuclear family with its patriarchal structure, so creepily parodied by the Master, and by the Mayor's paternalistic relationship with Faith. And no supergirls chosen to fight demons.


On the one hand, it appears to mean giving up the illusion of our super-unique individualism, the sense of specialness derived from the Me Generation, or an overtly religiose sense of mission/vocation. But in fact, it's when Buffy comes up against such a vocation in Season 7, in the person of Caleb, a preacher allied with the First Evil, (as well as up against a vendetta pursued by Robin Wood), that she begins to redefine the scar of Slayerdom. The AsylumVerse held out a duality, a choice of opposites: be a sick girl (and let the institution of the heteronormative family make you better), or a supergirl (condemned to isolation). In Season 7, Buffy sees a third possibility: to share her power, to make it power-with rather than power-over. It takes her a long time to make it work (Slaying by consensus is difficult), but what she realises is that there can be no power-with in an asymmetrical relationship.


Some critics felt that Buffy's and Willow's spell at the end of Season 7 -- wherein they broke the tradition of there being one Slayer to bring every girl with Slayer potential into her power -- was a disappointment, as it didn't extend beyond the TV screen and turn them into Slayers. While this speaks to the high level of fan investment, it also misses part of the show's point, which (as discussed on the section on technology) is to militate against the passive viewer. Buffy says:


So here's the part where you make a choice.


A line that confused me, as Slayers coming into their power have no choice, sometimes destructively (as explored in the Season 8 comics). The "you" can only refer to either a) the potential Slayers in Buffy's living room at that moment, whose choice is to give up, or to join Buffy at the Hellmouth, and b) to the viewer (referring back, perhaps, to the fourth wall-breaking line in the musical episode: "And you [push in close-up on Buffy looking directly to camera] can sing along.")


Choice, the show suggests, is performative and collaborative (sing/along). To choose to be a Slayer means overturning the idea of heredity, hierarchy, tradition (Slayers aren't made, they are born, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir). It makes the skills and qualities of the Slayer - taking a stand where you stand, putting your body on the line, dismantling power wherever it's encountered, being more than (but also) the sum of your scars - accessible if you're prepared to make the choice. As Butler writes in Frames of War, choice is active and continual. She gives as her example non-violence, arguing that it is only efective as a political strategy insofar as it is a choice you keep making; it is like coming out in that it is as a continual, lifelong action -- a rededication at every moment. It doesn't preclude other choices, and it helps to doubt/question yourself.


Useful lesson #5: Flunking the written


Which I do all the time (which is not to assert that I'm a Slayer). Summing up these thoughts in writing feels like a failure: a failure to honour the incredible responses, support and engagement that I've been privileged to share in and out of the seminar room on these topics. But I'm trying to think like Occupy - and like Buffy - that this is not a definitive statement, but an opening; not my sole responsibility, but a shared enterprise in which, like Faith, "I go first" but trust you all to "sing along." Because what I learned from Buffy, most importantly, is that you are never alone.


Further Reading


Judith Butler, "Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street."

---. Frames of War.

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience.

Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism (trans. William McCuaig).

Cynthia and Greg Leitich, "The Wrath of Dawn," Geektastic.