ICFA 36: Fantasy, theory, and arguing

Posted in Conferences, The Profession with tags , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

So, at ICFA this past weekend I ran afoul of the old saw about academic arguments being combative in inverse proportion to the size of their stakes. I mainly followed the Fantasy Literature stream of the conference, which meant I was in the same sessions with the same people for the duration. The Fantasy division, in my humble opinion, seems to suffer from an inferiority complex stemming from the lack of regard that fantasy, as an object of study, has within the academy generally and within the study of fantastika specifically, vis-a-vis science fiction. I won’t name names here, but here are some of my thoughts following the conference on fantasy scholarship and theory and whatever.

  1. Fantasy scholarship needs theory. Badly. I don’t mean criticism, of which there is plenty. Rather, I mean an engagement with a related but separate discourse. SF studies benefit greatly from engagements with Marx and media studies, for example. Fantasy scholarship tends to think about fantasy in terms of fantasy. Engagements with folklore studies, myth studies, and philology/linguistics exist, but not enough to force the field to progress as none of these engagements offer fantasy scholars tools to think about fantasy as a contemporary phenomena, in the context of late capitalism, the society of the spectacle, etc. Of course, sf and Marxism have a somewhat happy relationship as they “move in the same direction,” that is, they both think about questions of progress and history and tend to do so in similar manners (not always, I know). Fantasy does not enjoy such a relationship with any type of theory as theory itself tends towards the progressive and fantasy tends towards the conservative. But we’re smart and we can figure this out.
  2. I have thoughts on what type of theory fantasy might need, but more to the point here: whatever theory it chooses, it needs to use that theory to develop critical terms for the study of fantasy. We seem to be relying still on terms Tolkien gave us in the 1940s. John Clute has developed a complex and rich vocabulary for discussing fantasy, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, but no one really seems to take it too seriously, which is a shame. I don’t always think Clute is “right” and believe that his terms could be developed, but he is always provocative and provides a very useful place to start conversations about what fantasy is and can do (especially in relation to sf and horror).
  3. But “critical” I mean “not deriving simply from the poetics of fantasy.” It seems that the critics tend to use terms given us by writers. I want to have a productive dialogue with writers, but we can’t simply accept the distinction between primary/secondary worlds or the notion of “world-building” as it comes to us from the production side of the discussion. One audience member at one session mentioned the theological dimensions to these terms and that maybe we need to develop them (or, again, new ones), after which another audience member said that she forgot about the theology so therefore does not worry about it. The latter attitude is, to me, a problem. We can’t, of course, keep all ideas in our heads at the same time, but we can’t simply accept what is given to us because we have not bothered to think hard about it.
  4. I mentioned, at the conclusion of my talk, that fantasy tends to be conservative. At another panel, someone mentioned that I mentioned this (although I guess he could have been referring to someone else) in such a way that seemed to me to suggest that he thought I am wrong. Fair enough. I very well could be. However, I want to make clear that I don’t mean that fantasy writers are voting Republican or that Frodo wants to seal the borders of the Shire against illegal immigration from Bree (although he might). Rather, fantasy, as a genre, tends to seek the past, some form of restoration. It need not do this, but when it becomes progressive it works against a central tendency in the genre, the manner in which it has been stated (by Tolkien, by its medieval settings, by positing worlds in which all forms of progress-technological, political, social–have stopped at some point in the past). I think that fantasy’s conservatism is a sort of strength, not because I identify with it but because I don’t. Given that many notions of history, many modern philosophies, conceive of the world as progressing in some form or another and given that we can;t seem to  imagine a way out of history (and capitalism) by going forward, perhaps fantasy–the tendency of which runs counter to progress, again–offers at the very least a model of thought that would help disrupt historical/progressive thought.
  5. All of this said, and all of my arguments aside (some here, some at the conference), I have nothing but the highest respect for the people I met and listened to, even when I do not agree with them. In fact, I suspect I am in greater agreement with them than I think (some discussions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning confirm as much). What is and was frustrating about the whole thing was my sense that we were speaking very different languages and that I was not able to make myself understood. I guess there is always next year.

Some more thoughts on other matters:

  • Apropos of nothing but the fact that I was at a conference: during the first paper of the first session I attend at every conference I have ever been to, I think: “This is a really weird thing we do as academics. Everyone is sitting silently, some with looks of boredom-if-not-pain on their faces, listening to someone read something they don’t really care about so that other people will do them a similar courtesy in a few hours or days.” I can only imagine an alien-anthropologist explaining this ritual to its peers.
  • I very much enjoyed my panel on “Mere Genre,” which featured Gerry Canavan and Lisa Swanstrom. Gerry and I are editing a special issue of Extrapolation on this theme and have already done an MLA panel on it. Given the quality of the papers I have heard so far, it promises to be awesome. At ICFA, Lisa talked about Sweet Valley High as a kind of horror text, in the context of an idealized capitalist society. It was brilliant and super interesting. Can’t wait for the essays to start rolling in shortly.

That’s it.

ICFA 36 paper: Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of Return

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

Here is my paper from this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, on the problem of ending in fantasy and John Clute’s conception of return.

Here at the end of all things”: An Archaeology of Return

Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper considers the final stage of John Clute’s grammar of “full fantasy,” first known as healing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and renamed as of 2011 when Clute questions “healing” as a useful term in Pardon this Intrusion and substitutes “return” as a “placeholder.” (116). It argues, first, that return is an irreducibly problematic and contradictory concept—not necessarily through any fault of Clute’s, but because of the historical problem of the end to which return is bound—and, second, that the extent to which fantasy involves return derives from its own historical condition.

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“the end of all things”

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 13 August 2014 by Ben

Here is a paragraph from chapter one in Here at the End of All Things in which I trace the uses of the phrase”the end of all things” in fantasy. Probably needs some revision, but I wanted to share:

The second way fantasy pursues the end has to do with its avoidance of the end of all things, a central preoccupation for fantasy in the heroic/epic/portal-quest tradition that begins with Tolkien. References to such ends abound in fantasy, including numerous direct citations of the statement made by The Lord of the Rings as Frodo lies on Mt. Doom anticipating his own death and the permanent loss of vitality Middle-earth will experience with the destruction of the ring: “For the Quest is achieved and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

  • Jewel the unicorn offers the following, in The Last Battle: “This is the end of all things.”
  • Par Ohmsford experiences the following in The Scions of Shannara: “He felt himself buffeted and tossed, thrown like a dried leaf across the earth, and he sensed it was the end of all things.”
  • As Jane prepares to assault the Sprial Tower, we read this in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter: “They were embarked on a quest of destruction, going up against the greatest Enemy of all, to die and in death seek the obliteration of history. It was the end of all things.”
  • In The Runes of the Earth, Esmer states, “The Dancers of the Sea desire the end of all things.” (The third volume in the series that contains Runes, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is entitled Against All Things Ending, reminding us yet again of the tension between one sort end and the other.)
  • The following comes from The Hero of Ages: “‘If this truly is the the end of all things, then the Resolution will soon be hers.”
  • We have this from Shadowplay: “Of course he did not belong, here at the end of all things.”
  • We find the following in the final volume of The Wheel of Time: “‘they will keep on searching, but these notes contain everything we could gather on the seals, the prison and the Dark One. If we break the seals at the wrong time, I fear it would mean the end of all things.”

Dalben offers a strangely punctuated variation on the theme, more apposite the sort of ending fantasy desires: “The Book of Three can say no more than ‘if’ until at the end, of all things that might have been, one becomes what really is.”

Epigraphs to Here at the End of All Things, chapter 1

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 August 2014 by Ben

These are the three epigraphs to the first chapter of Here at the End of All Things, entitled “Regressive Futures: An Archaeology of Fantasy”:

I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.1

 

There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.2

 

Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies.3

1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 39 – 40 original emphasis.
2 Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel (New York: Tor Fantasy, 2009), 2.
3 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 59.

Summer 14 course materials: Introduction to Literary Theory

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , , , , , , on 25 May 2014 by Ben

This summer, during the June  ‘A’ Term, I will be teaching (for the second time ever), ENGL 2112: Introduction to Literary Theory. You can find the description of my previous stab at it here along with some course documents. This time things will be a bit different, as I am eschewing the “know a few things well” approach that I tried to employ last time even if I am trying not to teach according either to the “canonical theory” or “theory cafeteria” models which seem to prevail in many such courses.

Download the schedule (ENGL_2112_Schedule_2), the syllabus(ENGL_2112_Syllabus), and the daily worksheet assignment (Daily_worksheet_assignment) if you like. Looking them over as you read will be helpful.

So, in what follows I want to explain and perhaps rationalize the schedule and shape of the course. Note that in the last version of the course we read books of theory, D+G’s Kafka book, for example. Here we are using the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Thoery and Criticism as our only text for two reasons. First, cost/efficiency. It’s a spendy book, yes, but it has resale value to students and could be less than five or six university press titles we won’t even be able to finish. Plus, everyone knows where the readings are and what to bring to class every day. The second reason is that by limiting myself to the Norton, just as with limiting myself to post-1980 theory, I am adding a helpful constraint. I don’t have to think about everything. I don’t think of this as being derelict in my duty as I would have to leave things out no matter what, whether I am drawing from ALL of theory or just from the selections in the anthology. I guess I could add another reason, namely that dealing with an anthology offers us a chance to think about the politics of anthologies, a major point of contention in the culture wars of the 1980s. In any case, I know there are drawbacks to the “antho-logical” approach (not the least of which is the appearance of “cafeteria”style theory), but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this experiment in course design. (I think. I hope.)

More below the fold.

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on trigger warnings

Posted in Teaching, The Profession with tags , , on 20 May 2014 by Ben

A discussion on Twitter (although “discussion” is, of course, a rather problematic concept in that context, natch), prompts the following.

I painted myself into a corner by coming out against trigger warnings on syllabuses. I have no interest in rehashing the conversation in which this happened, and I am pretty sure I was making one or two (or eight) wrong assumptions about what other people were saying when I entered the conversation, which prompts me to think that joining any conversation only happens under a condition of misreading the conversation in its extant form, in the way that Bloom talks about misreading, except for social media rather than poetry (and I suppose that the lyric poem was social media before social media; “Watching the cows again. I am such an I.”)

In any case, I have no problems with professors who wish to include trigger warnings on a syllabus, or who wish to warn students in lecture about violent or other graphic content in a film, novel, artwork, etc. (I assume that sound I am hearing is everyone breathing a sigh of relief). I do exactly the latter when I teach Ballard’s Crash or Ellis’ American Psycho. No doubt I could do so with other texts as well. I offer these warnings because I think it’s good pedagogy for me to do so. As someone on Twitter mentioned, we need to prepare students to read difficult things. That’s part of the job, or maybe just “that’s the job”. At the same time, as other people mentioned (mainly me I think), we need to assume that students have some background that allows them to read difficult material. It seems to me that warnings need to find a balance between such things. As such, it will be (and should be I think) difficult to discern between texts that need warnings and those that don’t (or simply need them less).

Complicating this issue is the fact that students come to the class with very different backgrounds, and not only in terms of education. Such difference defeats our expectations as teachers to the point where having any expectation might come back to haunt us. (A common refrain department meetings, in my experience, has to do with how bad at writing English majors are. Faculty discover this every term, after the first written assignment for the most part and are dismayed, again every term, that they have to teach some writing, that their expectations were not in line with reality. I recall a David Foster Wallace essay on bad grammar and how he winds up turning every course into a writing course after he discovers, yet again, how bad students are at writing after collecting their first bit of written work.) To say as much is perhaps as banal as can be, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it will be difficult if not impossible to accommodate everyone’s triggers a priori. As such, students need to participate in their own education to some degree and help the professor understand what their specific situations are, especially when it comes to texts in those greyer areas alluded to above. I am fully aware that even the students most motivated to such participation will have difficulty in this regard, but on the other side professors have the same difficulty. Of course, I also realize that it’s the professor’s job to deal with such issues, but I also believe that education must be active rather than passive. The blanket call for trigger warnings (which were not being made by my Twitter interlocutors, my misunderstanding to the contrary) seems to go hand in hand, in my mind, with not only a broad sanitizing of culture, but also with the production of passive readers. More on this below.

First, note that the active engagement on the part of students, and their capacity to tell instructors about what might cause them trauma (or offense) opens up a further complication, namely that the classroom experience can begin to cater to increasingly the specific whims of individuals. Lest there be any confusion: Survivors of rape and other violence do not have “whims” about their pasts or their traumas. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. Full stop. Knowing that there are such legititmate concerns in a given classroom will be difficult for instructors, but difficulty here is no excuse to not think or work hard to make the classroom a space of learning rather than one of shock (I believe the latter inhibits the former). As such, it is wise and necessary to prepare students for the material, but again in the name and vocabulary of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry rather than that of “triggers” and the potentially offensive.

However, there are what to my mind non-controversial facts (or what ought to be non-controversial facts) that have become so highly politicized that they can cause offense to people on the other side of the “debate” (you can guess at these if you like). When “affluenza” is a thing, one upon which the outcome of court cases can hinge, how can the individual professor know what is and is not a legitimate condition? (Affluenza is merely an example here from broader culture, not an example of something that will come up in this narrower context.) How can a professor know in every case, or even a preponderance of cases, what texts might need a warning, what representations are so graphic that they need comment? To be clear again: there are many instances of trauma that cannot and should be questioned here. Anyone who questions a rape survivor or someone with PTSD of one origin or another, or who cannot recognize why American Psycho is a problematic text (or numerous others) is beneath contempt. Full stop. But what about the greyer areas? And what about political objections? What about a student who reacts badly to material but who has no previous history or trauma? I realize that I have fallen into “just asking questions” mode, and that is not my intent. I would very much like to know, and am very receptive to thoughts from others, on how to make distinctions between texts that need warnings and those which do not, as well as on how to distinguish students’ legitimate conditions from personal whim or mere belief, however sincerely held (this last point an important one given that several experts expect Hobby Lobby to be successful in their suit demanding their right to deny contraception coverage under the ACA because of their “sincerely held belief” that such a thing is wrong).

To return to an earlier point, and with all awareness that claims about “slippery slopes” should not be mistaken for truths, the increased focus on the trigger warning seems to me part of a larger process by which, on the one hand, culture becomes sanitized and, on the other, readers become increasingly passive. The two issue are directly related to one another. I tend to offer warnings to students when we read texts that have forced me to think hard and in ways that make me uncomfortable. Is Mark Twain racist? Is Ellis a misogynist, or satirizing misogyny? Does Ballard create the very inhumanity he seems to be critiquing? Should we allow ourselves to be educated by difficult texts into new modes of knowing or being, or should we judge them according to older modes? What older modes? How do we know that the time has come for a new one? What power does the new one serve? If I find myself asking these questions, I find myself thinking that students might need a warning and I also find myself knowing that students need to read these texts, with the caveat that some students might need to be excused for legitimate reasons. They need to read these texts because these texts produce active readings, even if that reading begins only with “I hate it.” Asking why one hates something is a productive question and getting beyond “just because” or “it’s stupid” requires and leads to very good conversation (for the most part–someone will always say “That novel was stupid” on the FCQs, even for relatively non-problematic texts such as The Great Gatsby or The Return of the King). When we focus on “trigger warnings” and notions of offensiveness, we move the conversation outside the parameters of education and debate and into the realm of the radical individual whose tastes determine all. Education does not take place outside the context of a we, and a we cannot obtain when individuals do not discuss. I am not referring here to “snowflake millennials” but rather to American culture broadly, in which having it “your way” has become the norm for any segment of society privileged enough to have or afford a way of its own (a segment of society from which a  fair number of college students come) and the incommensurability of the points of view espoused by talking heads on cable news is taken for granted, with the answer always being “in the middle” or a “third way” that is idealized as a view from nowhere but actually never found or produced. Since privileged segments of society–the very ones that claim this view from nowhere–drive the agenda and have become commonplace in my experience as a watcher of news and as a teacher (cf numerous students who have told me in one context or another how they pay my salary), we run a risk of allowing the privileged to not ever confront what they  find offensive to their privilege.

Finally, the idea of the trigger warning seems to me to grant far too much power to representation and, when it is called a “trigger warning,” implies that texts in fact have a certain amount of control over us. I see myself as someone who helps people overcome representation, someone who helps people understand how representations work against implicit and explicit (video games make us serial killers and what not) cultural claims that representations are dangerous and must be regulated in some manner. I am not worried about being censored as a teacher here, and do not think that this issue is one of censorship in this respect. Rather, I think it has to do with the issue of representation itself, how much power we grant it, and the critical tools we need to understand it. This issue seems pressing to me in a time when representations such as “fair and balanced” are asserted and made to be or taken true without regard to any sort of actual truth.

Again, and for the final time, I am not arguing in any way against legitimate trauma as a reason for excusing a student from an assignment or against thinking hard about what texts need warnings. Moreover, I worry very much about my own capacities to make such judgements and about the ways my own very real privileges might blind me to the situations of other people who have lived through such trauma. In the end I too (following someone on Twitter) am arguing for a “thinking harder” about this issue. What I am trying to add to the conversation (I did not see it earlier today on Twitter, although I expect most will agree with me here), is the idea that part of this “thinking harder” includes a contextual shift that focuses on pedagogy and the situation of the “trigger warning” in broader cultural issues having to do with the manner in which culture is made safe and how this safety produces passive readers rather than active ones.

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 April 2014 by Ben

Following is the transcript of my talk for Morrisville State College’s Science, Technology, and Society Symposium on monsters. I was given the topic “Abominations” and, as you will see, chose to speak about werewolves, among other things. I am definitely humming some of the hard parts here, but will leave it at that. You can download a PDF of the talk here.

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Benjamin J Robertson

My epigraph is from Angela Carter’s short story, “The company of wolves:

Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops–of all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, orgres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal tables, the wolf is the worst, for he cannot listen to reason.

Introduction: why talk about werewolves?

It’s weird to me to be talking about werewolves, because they terrify me. Or perhaps it’s not so weird. Perhaps I am talking about them because they terrify me. In a short encyclopedia entry on the relationship between horror and science fiction, Leslie Fiedler writes:

[I]f many of us tend to speak apologetically, defensively, self-mockingly about our fondness for horror fantasy, this is primarily because of a cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of our response, a conflict deep in our psyches between what we, as heirs to the Age of Reason, think we know to be so and what we ambivalently wish or fear to be true. We are convinced that the universe we inhabit is fully explicable in terms of ‘natural’ cause and effect and that once we understand their ‘laws’ we will be the masters of our fate. But we also suspect that we are the playthings of occult forces that we can never understand and that, therefore, will always control our destinies.

Perhaps I am talking about werewolves despite the fact that my father let me watch An American Werewolf in London when I was far too young. Perhaps I am talking about them despite the fact that I still get a tiny bit creeped out by the full moon when I am walking my dog late at night. Perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves today despite the fact that doing so forces me, a grown man in theory, to acknowledge my own fear of something I know for certain not to be real.

Or perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves because of all of these things, because such discussion is productive, because it reveals something important about who we are in 2014, about what we think, about what we are capable of. Perhaps, along with Fiedler, I am talking about werewolves because I believe that if I understand them, if I understand horror, I will become master of my fate. If knowledge of equates with control over, then perhaps I believe, along with humanity, that I can avoid horror altogether by knowing it. I take as one of my core assumptions that humans do precisely this: order the world for themselves so that they might escape or ignore horror, so that they might forever forget that existence is not their understanding of it.

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