Written by Bradley Tuck
Photography by Eloise Pannett
Model: Bradley Tuck
Intermission film by Bradley Tuck
Starring Eloise Pannett and Bradley Tuck
“I’ve never encountered anyone whose work has so much anxiety around sensual erotic pleasure as yours does, because every time there’s anything in a performance you do or a film that you do that has sensuality in it, it is always tied to something being disrupted, something devolving into chaos, addiction, exclusion, people being trapped like heroin addicts. It never seems like it celebrates desire and eroticism, it seems like it is always playing with anxieties about eroticism.”
Greg Scorzo interviewing Bradley Tuck
Dr Cleaveland: You’re a different race from us, a different species, a different class. You’re not one of us. You have to be born into the society.
Bill: Alien Scum!
Dr. Cleaveland: No, we’re not from Outerspace or anything like that. We have been here as long as you have. […] It’s a matter of good breeding really.
At the end of the 1989 cult horror film Society we are presented with the horror of the class solidarity of the rich represented as an orgiastic cannibal feast in which the sacrifice of ‘the lower classes’ is presented as a merging of bodies. Rather than being ingested orally, the human sacrifice is melded into the very skin of the rich. The rich, themselves, come to fuse their bodies in a weird ‘physiological collectivism’, where all appear to become one. Yet this “becoming one” is not egalitarian collectivism. On the contrary, all become one in order to feed off of the lower classes.
Here the class solidarity of high society is presented as both eroticism and horror. Eroticism in the sense that the film concerns the orgiastic communion of bodies in which the self dissolves into sensual pleasure. Horror in the sense that what we are witnessing is not merely sensual and communal delight, but the murderous feasting on ‘other classes’.
There is often a fine line between eroticism and horror. If eroticism concerns the rhythmic sensualities of joy, desire and their anticipation, horror concerns the rhythmic sensualities of disgust, suffering, annihilation and its anticipation. These two apparent opposites form a kind of palindromic relation when we stand at the threshold where desire can become disgust, pleasure can become pain, and jouissance can become annihilation.
Such an act of class solidarity should be contrasted with Alexander Bogdanov’s account of physiological collectivism. Alexander Bogdanov was an early member of the Russian Bolsheviks and rival to Lenin, a science fiction writer, philosopher of science, key figure in the Proletkult Movement and pioneer of blood transfusion. In his 1927 book The Struggle for Viability, written whilst heading the world’s first Institute for Blood Transfusion, Bogdanov attempted to lay the foundations for collectivism through blood exchange. Towards the end of the book Bogdanov tells us that
In our time, the ruling culture is individualistic. Its atmosphere is not beneficial to our method or to the point of view it is based upon. The collectivism of labour, its proper soil, is still only struggling into existence. When it becomes victorious, difficulties and hindrances now standing in the path of physiological collectivism will be removed, and then it will blossom. i
These thoughts concerning the relationship between collectivism and blood transfusion were not new to Bogdanov. About two decades earlier, in his 1908 science fiction novel Red Star, Communist Martians, politically, socially and scientifically advanced in comparison to Earthlings, have already embraced blood exchange as a way to prolong, repair and rejuvenate life. At one point, one Martian, Netti, when asked why blood transfusion never developed in the same way on Earth, ponders,
I don’t know. Perhaps there are organic factors which render the method ineffective for Earthlings. Or perhaps it is merely due to your predominantly individualistic psychology, which isolates people from each other so completely that the thought of fusing them is almost incomprehensible to your scientists. Also, on Earth there are many common diseases that poison the blood—diseases of which they sometimes simply try to conceal. The blood transfusion presently performed by your medicine somehow smacks of philanthropy: people who have a lot of blood give some of it to others who need it desperately due to, say, injuries. We, of course, do the same, but we do not stop here. Quite in keeping with the nature of our entire system, our regular comradely exchange of life extends beyond the ideological dimension into the physiological one. ii
What makes Red Star a fascinating book is the way it weaves together a range of different utopian aspirations and gives us an idea of where Bogdanov’s vision for the revolution might take us. In Red Star Communist Martians have reorganised society, overthrown the wage-labour relationship, abolished the family and monogamy, transformed the workplace and utilised automation. Through blood transfusion, Martians have evolved to a state where biological sex differences are almost untraceable and the Martian
lifespan has been drastically extended. As Red Star suggests, Bogdanov’s philosophy of collectivism was not confined to the social realm. Advances in social collectivism would help bring about advances in physiological collectivism, and vice versa. The two were essentially intertwined.
The connection between collectivism and blood exchange also appears in the Christian communion. As Jesus says in John 6:53-56 ESV. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my drink is the true food, and my blood the true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” It is tempting to interpret this passage through the lens of the Russian Cosmist Nikolai Fedorovich Federov. Developing his thought in Russia at the end of the 19th Century, Federov reacted against a romantic conception of nature. George M. Young notes that “In describing the Russian natural landscape, Federov writes that it is better for the soul that Russia has no spectacular scenery, no Alpine grandeur or charming Italianate vistas to lull the Russian into complacency, to tempt him towards aesthetic delight, lead him to sublime repose, and distract him from his transformative task. For Federov any form of nature worship is viewed essentially as a death wish.”iii In waging a war against nature, Federov calls on us to undertake a common task of transformation. Federov’s task is decidedly Christian, through the uses of the sciences Federov sought what he perceived as the realistic aims of overcoming death, resurrecting the dead (the recreation of a whole person from the least trace of ancestral dust), and space travel in order to colonise the cosmos for our resurrected ancestors. Although Federov’s work often appears absurd, his work is, in principle, material and scientific. The resurrection and eternal life no longer appear miraculous and otherworldly, but rather something that can be mastered through science and technology. In Federov, Christian themes of the resurrection, eternal life and the kingdom of God are achievable through the practice of scientific investigation. If we interpret biblical descriptions of communion from a Federovian perspective, it begins to sound distinctly Bogdanovian. Rather than blood being a metaphor or symbolic representation of union with Christ, it sounds like a plea for blood transfusion as a means to revitalise and prolong life. The Christian message becomes a plea for physiological collectivism based on blood exchange.
Bogdanov contrasted collectivism to authoritarianism and individualism. All three elements, for Bogdanov, could be found in worker relations under existing systems of production. As Zenovia A. Sochor writes,
The attitudes (or “cultural principles,” as Bogdanov called them) that typified worker relations were individualism, authoritarianism, and collectivism. The first referred to the workers’ experiences in the labor market, where they were pitted against each other as competitors. The second described the workers’ relationship to the boss and supervisor: subordination. The third depicted the workers’ interrelations with one another in the workplace. Here there was evidence of genuine equality, in Bogdanov’s opinion, on the basis of common interest, rather than antagonism or subordination. iv
It is in the final set of workplace relations of comradely cooperations that Bogdanov perceives the pregnant potential for a new society based on collectivism. In this respect, collectivism is not subservient obedience to a glorious leader, rather it must emerge from the workers themselves. By building their own culture based on comradely co-operation, workers would set a new course for the sciences. These renewed sciences, freed from their previous individualism, would not only discover a social
collectivism, but also a physiological one.
If Bogdanov provides us with a theory of collectivism, Adam Smith is often seen as advocating a kind of individualism. In The Wealth of Nations, he writes that
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he [the capitalist] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner that its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention.v
This description of the invisible hand of the market is often taken as an expression of capitalist individualism. Everyone acts based upon their own self-interest such that, to quote Mandeville’s Fable
of the Bees, “every part was full of vice, Yet the whole mass a Paradise.” vi Everyone acts upon their self-interest, but what emerges serves the common good. However, it is important for us not to miss the collectivist dimension of this analogy. Whilst everyone acts based on their individual self-interest, the market serves as a kind of collective mechanism that through its invisible hand unites individual self-interest into a common task. In this respect the problem of capitalism is not that it lacks a form of
collectivism, the problem is the way it distorts self-interest. The distortions of the market are not expressions of what Oscar Wilde called “the great actual individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.”vii But instead self-denial.
In describing capitalism Marx tells us that “Self-denial, the denial of life and of all human needs, is its principle doctrine.”viii The capitalist market abstracts the use and indulgence in things and concerns itself instead with “that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital.”ix In focusing upon exchange value rather than use, the market creates incentives that work against us. This gives us a sense of why Marx’s critique of capital is replete with references to werewolves and vampires, capital begins to sound more like demonic possession than classical liberal ideals of maximising individual self-interest. In describing the capitalist class, Marx writes that “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”x
In modern mythologies of the vampire, the vampire exists in a state of possession and contagion. Their will is not their own, they are either overcome with a kind of demonic possession, or a hunger for blood that feels more like addiction and infects those that they cannot kill. Like Jesus’ fellowship of blood which grants eternal life, the vampire attains eternal life through blood, but this time sucked from the necks of virgins. If Jesus’ fellowship is founded upon the communal sharing of blood, the vampire’s is founded on the parasitic extraction of blood. Drenched with undertones of blood, sex and death, the blood sucking parasite is driven by an invisible demonic hand that induces a craving that only blood can quell. Through this blood sacrifice the vampire cheats the sacrament and achieves eternal life.
Likewise, for Marx, the capitalist is driven by an invisible hand that in substituting exchange value for use value must attend only to the demands of profit in the case of the capitalist, and subsistence in the case of the worker. Unlike Smith, where the invisible hand serves to unite competing interests into a common good, the invisible hand distorts self-interest. As Marx writes, “in its blind unrestrainable passion, its ware-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day.”xi In order to maximise profits, the capitalist must extract more surplus from the labourer by paying lower wages or increasing the working day. For the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, money is used to buy labour to make goods that are used to make a profit. The labouring class, the proletariat, is employed to labour by the hour, and use their wage for their own sustenance. The demand for higher wages and the demand for greater profits come into a conflict that forms the basis of the class antagonism at the heart of capitalist society. In order to fulfil their obligations to the invisible hand, the capitalist must extract more and more from the workers. In drawing out this process of extraction, Marx recasts the workings of capital as Gothic horror.
Almost a century after Bogdanov founded the first research institute into blood transfusion, scientific researchers are returning to the possibility of using blood transfusion to combat ageing. In rediscovering the restorative power of blood from young mice on older mice, dreams of extended life through blood exchange seem a renewed possibility, but this time not achieved through Martian communism or workers’ collectivism, but Silicon Valley. Adam Piore acknowledges some people’s worries, “Some [treatments] are already appearing on the gray market, raising concerns that hucksters are peddling anti-aging snake oil. Others, meanwhile, worry what might happen if these drugs actually do deliver on their
promise: Will poor young people be coerced into selling their blood to elderly billionaires? Will magical anti-aging pills become the province of the Park Avenue and Hollywood rich, like facelifts, hair plugs and botox injections? Will the rest of us senile peasants be forced to watch them age backwards as we are left to wither and die?”xii Anxieties about the future of anti-aging technologies moves us from Marx’s metaphorical vampires to literal vampires who achieve eternal life by living off of the blood of the poor and the young. Whether we face a future plague of vampires leaching off of our our blood, or whether this is overblown concern, would be far easier to judge from the perspective of the future. Nonetheless, the anxieties it raises are not without an anchor. Such fears speak to the fact that the search for Knowledge, science and innovation have become untethered from the demos, and that a world of drastic expanding inequality might not be the best setting for ‘collectivism’ through blood exchange.
The vampire is also a metaphor for the anxieties of desire. In Sheridan le Fanu’s 1872 short vampire novella, Carmilla, the young female protagonist describes her ambivalent attraction to Carmilla, who we later find out is a vampire.
In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling. xiii
The ambivalences of desire expressed in this passage makes us think of love and abhorrence simultaneously. Although it is described as a paradox, it reveals the way eroticism and horror often overlap. In this context, we have both a surface level narrative about vampirism and a barely disguised lesbian subtext. Written from the virginal perspective of the isolated daughter, Carmilla plays on anxieties surrounding female homosexual desire and its repression. The figures of the young daughter and the vampiric Carmilla map onto two literary architypes, the sapphic virgin and the lesbian vampire. Whilst narratives around sapphic virgins and lesbian vampires can come replete with sexist and homophobic baggage, they also come with potential for subversion. In her analysis of 19th Century English literature, Ruth Vanita explores how both the Greek poet Sappho and the virgin Mary inspired English gay and lesbian literature of the Romantic, aesthetic and Bloomsbury periods. She notes that in Protestant England a
connection was constantly established between celibacy, same sex-community, and homosexuality,
overtly in such anonymous publications as the Confessional Unmasked, sent by the Protestant Evangelical Mission and Electoral Union in 1865 to all members of parliament, which claimed that Roman Catholic priests aimed to “convert an Eden into a Sodom,” and implicitly in innumerable attacks by such respectable writers as Charles Kingsley, the proponent of “muscular Christianity,” whose writings […] were intended to renounce Tractarianism’s “unmanly” tendencies. xiv
The association of Catholicism with the outcast and the unmanly imbued it with an appeal for those who stood outside of sexual and gender conventions.
In this context, the Virgin Mary takes on subversive associations. Rather than see virginity as an indictment of patriarchal and conservative sexual norms, virginity is reclaimed as refusal.
According to Vanita,
Mary’s “conceiving,” even thinking of having, a child without a man is audacious insofar as it places her outside and above patriarchal family law, making her unquestionably superior rather than subordinate to her husband. xv
By emphasising Mary’s distance from the patriarchal norms, her matrilineal line, and her importance for female same sex communities such as convents, lesbian and gay writers reclaim Mary as a figure who stood outside of conventions of the heteronomative family.
In her analysis, Vanita turns to Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, which was published in 1873. A contemporary of both Oscar Wilde and Sheridan le Fanu, Pater also uses coding in order to covertly explore issues around homosexuality. In turning his attention to the Renaissance, Pater deploys “suggestive strategies to celebrate the homoeroticism”xvi of Renaissance artists. Pater’s celebration of the Renaissance cast the Renaissance world as being closer to paganism than the protestant reformation. By treating the Renaissance as pagan, Pater was able to draw out vastly different erotic dimensions to that of protestant sexual morality. Whilst much of this book expressed coded male homoerotic themes, Vanita attempts to draw out the lesbian allusions in his text.
Vanita draws upon Pater’s analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Virgin and Child and St. Anne, which depicts Mary sitting on the lap of her mother Saint Anne, whilst she in turn plays with the baby Jesus, who is himself holding a lamb. In contrast to many previous paintings of Mary and her mother, this painting seems unique for the way it presents expressions of intimacy and joy between mother and daughter, as well as the fact that Anne herself appears not to have aged much more than her daughter.
For Pater, Leonardo’s “work was less with the saints than with the living women of Florence.” What may at one level be interpreted as a depiction of St. Anne and her daughter, can also be seen as a painting about the real lives and real relationships of Florence. In describing the youthfulness of St. Anne in Leonardo’s paintings Pater writes “She is older than the rocks amongst which she sits, like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…” xvii
Vanita suggests that Pater’s vampire reference works as code for lesbianism. She notes that Le Fanu’s Carmilla was published a year before Pater’s The Renaissance and that since Coleridge’s Christabel the word vampire had been code for lesbian. Here the images of the sapphic virgin and the lesbian vampire once again converge, and we are opened up to a number of interpretations, associations and over-interpretations. First, we can encounter this painting as an erotic depiction of St. Anne, Mary and Jesus, but erotic here not understood as sexual, but as an expanded field of sensuality, intimacy and joy. Even if we avoid all sexually erotic associations, the sensual intimacy of this scene remains an important factor that makes this painting of St. Anne, her daughter and her grandson unique and compelling. In her book Asexual Erotics xmviii, Ela Przybylo argues for a broader understanding of eroticism than that associated with sex. In line with this, it is tempting to interpret this scene as revealing an expanded nonsexual erotics of the mother-daughter relationship. Secondly, we might see this as a painting about the actual models who posed for it. Whilst we can only speculate about the lives of the models in the painting, we are nonetheless opened up to a broader array of narratives and relationships, which could include friendships and lovers. Thirdly we might see it as a concealed or coded depiction of lesbianism. Vanita’s reference to Le Fanu’s Carmilla almost encourages us to retroactively imagine it as an illustration of the lesbian ‘vampire’ and her ‘virgin’ lover. This could be seen as revealing a horror in the Marian myth. It is tempting to think of Roman Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, which, inverting the Marian myth, imagines the immaculate conception as satanic birth.
Yet Leonardo’s painting is far from the horror of Rosemary’s Baby. Instead, it is tempting to say that Pater’s retroactive vampire interpretation allows us to imagine an alternative ending to La Fanu’s Carmilla. Not one of parasitism, contagion and death, but instead sensuality, intimacy and joy. By supplanting the lesbian vampire myth upon the Marian myth, the lesbian vampire is freed from her curse, and embraces her virgin lover, who in-turn is freed from the ambivalent abhorrence that previously haunted her attraction.
One of the things I find fascinating about the erotics of Martian blood transfusions and lesbian vampires is their shift away from a focus on semen and other fluids needed for reproduction, and the turn towards immaculate conception and blood exchange. Like Bogdanov’s physiological collectivism and the Christian holy communion, the exchange of blood seems almost more intimate or symbolically important than the sexual act.
In the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, the sexual anxieties of mainstream media and the moralism of the new right mirrored the fear of the vampire. If vampirism is a blood contagion, where those that the vampire cannot kill become vampires themselves, then the new vampire of the 80s and 90s was often seen to be gay men, drug users and sex workers, which, for the new right, was contrasted to the safe sex of the married family. In contrast, the activism of ACT UP and other activist groups challenged the media, the church, the state and the scientific and medical establishment, not only challenging the prejudice that underscored the response to the epidemic, but also making important structural demands for universal healthcare. In demanding universal healthcare during the AIDS epidemic, AIDS activists help us perceive a kind of inverted physiological collectivism. Rather than blood exchange being used as a way to extend life, collective mechanisms such as access to healthcare are demanded in order to protect us from blood diseases. Such blood contagions already suggest ways in which we might already be, in a sense, physiologically entwined, and interdependent. What makes AIDS activism so interesting is that it forces us to connect questions of healthcare and access to services and needs, with questions of erotic marginalisation and exclusion.
In contrast, the emerging managerial style of neoliberalism developed a model of inclusion in a different direction. In their book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Chiapello and Boltanski discuss the way that the artistic critique of capitalism was incorporated into new workplace styles of the 1990s. The criticism that capitalism produced inauthenticity, tedium and alienation was incorporated into an emerging workplace managerial style that placed new demands upon the worker. Not only must the worker do their job in the workplace, but also act out a kind of authenticity. In the new spirit of capitalism described by Chiapello and Boltanski, the requirement of being both flexible and living an authentic existence become new demands on the employee, and these new demands produced new anxieties. These new demands on the worker blurred the boundaries between their work-life and their private life.
The new employee was expected to be both flexible and someone who was capable of networking. The demand that workers be flexible, available, adaptable and able to throw themselves into new projects with enthusiasm, required that each worker not have too stable a personality such that they could not meld themselves to each new project with equal vigour. At the same time, having a ‘personality’ was a necessary component for networking. Rather than being judged simply on their workplace performance, the employee as networker had to project a personality that extended beyond the workplace and into their own personal life. In line with Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiasm for the entrepreneurial individual, the image of employee as a social networker who can draw upon their personal authentic existence in order to make themselves more sell-able made possible a reorganisation of the workplace without altering the wage-labour relationship.
In this context, demands for expanded erotic freedoms and inclusion risks being reduced to the demand for the ‘authentic worker’ as a networker. Neoliberalism, in its quest for networked authenticity, seeks a diversity of employees, each with a diversity of lifestyles. Rather than (as in the case of much AIDS activism) questioning existing institutions and demanding an expansive welfare, neoliberal inclusion often places emphasis on symbolic gestures, tokenistic identities and the performance of particular character virtues and personality traits. In this context, erotic liberation can easily become detached from the social and collective mechanisms that make it possible. In this context it is worth heeding this reminder made by Yasmin Nair, “The revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation.”xix
In discussing the relationship between erotics and anxiety, I have chosen to focus, not on orgasms, nor semen, nor sweat, nor the beating of the heart. I’ve ignored moans and groans, I’ve said little about reproduction and some may say that I have hardly touched on sex altogether, but there is something about blood, its circulation and its exchange that makes it almost the perfect representation of the erotics of anxiety and the anxieties of eroticism. As vital life-force, it opens us up to questions of our materiality and our survival in a way that questions of the orgasm does not. It is, somehow, more personal, more intimate, yet shrouded in death. Maybe the strangest thing of all, the metaphor or actuality of blood exchange brings to the fore an array of questions about the erotics of collectivism and exchange. Whether we are talking about the eroticism of horror movies, communist Martian blood exchanges, the holy communion, blood exchange in longevity research, Marx’s vampires, lesbian bloodsuckers, or the AIDS epidemic ideas concerning blood have a strange erotics curdled with life and death, where the boundaries between bodies blur and merge, shift and exchange, where one might find oneself lifted up to a higher collective purpose or feasted upon by a vampiric specter.
i Alexander Bogdanov, The Struggle for Viability: Collectivism through Blood Exchange (Trans. Douglas
W. Huestis. XLIBRIS. 2001) p.209
ii Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia. (Trans. Charles Rougle. Ed. Loren E.
Graham and Richard Stites, Indiana University Press. Indiana. 1984) p86
iii George M. Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Federov and his Followers.
(Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2012) p.60
iv Zenovia A. Sochor, Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy (Cornell University
Press. 1988) p.195
v Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
vi Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees
vii Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
viii Karl Marx, ‘The Political and Economic Manuscripts’
ix Marx ‘The Political and Economic Manuscripts’
x Karl Marx, Capital Vol 1
xi Marx, Capital Vol 1
xii Adam Piore, ‘Can Blood from Young People Slow Aging? Silicon Valley Has Bet Billions It Will
xiii Sheridan le Fanu, Carmilla
xiv Ruth Vanita, Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-sex Love in the English Literary imagination
(Columbia University Press. New York. 1996)
xvii Pater Quoted in Vanita
xviii Ela Przybylo, Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality. (The Ohio State
University Press. 2019)
xix Yasmin Nair, ‘Your Sex is Not Radical’