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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The Dark Tower and the sense of non-endings

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 29 March 2014 by Ben

A series of epigraphs for the last section of Here at the end of all things, “The Sense of Non-Endings”, which focuses on how fantastika’s failure to ever end is the very stuff of sense. I’m not sure what that means yet.

When the Emperour his justice hath achieved,
His mighty wrath’s abated from its heat,
And Bramimunde has christening received;
Passes the day, the darkness is grown deep,
And now that King in ‘s vaulted chamber sleeps.
Saint Gabriel is come from God, and speaks:
“Summon the hosts, Charles, of thine Empire,
Go thou by force into the land of Bire,
King Vivien thou’lt succour there, at Imphe,
In the city which pagans have besieged.
The Christians there implore thee and beseech.”
Right loth to go, that Emperour was he:
“God!” said the King: “My life is hard indeed!”
Tears filled his eyes, he tore his snowy beard.

SO ENDS THE TALE WHICH TUROLD HATH CONCEIVED.

The Song of Roland

 

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

–Robert Browning, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

 

“Strike then, Bogle, if thou darest,” shouted out Childe Rowland, and rushed to meet him with his good brand that never yet did fail. They fought, and they fought, and they fought, till Childe Rowland beat the King of Elfland down on to his knees, and caused him to yield and beg for mercy. “I grant thee mercy,” said Childe Rowland, “release my sister from thy spells and raise my brothers to life, and let us all go free, and thou shalt be spared.” “I agree,” said the Elfin King, and rising up he went to a chest from which he took a phial filled with a blood-red liquor. With this he anointed the ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finger-tips, of the two brothers, and they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned. The Elfin king then said some words to Burd Ellen, and she was disenchanted, and they all four passed out of the hall, through the long passage, and turned their back on the Dark Tower, never to return again. And they reached home, and the good queen, their mother, and Burd Ellen never went round a church widershins again.

–Joseph Jacobs, “Childe Rowland”

 

What do you mean?
To this there was no answer, but the knob turned beneath his hand, and perhaps that was an answer. Roland opened the door at the top of the Dark Tower.
He saw it at once and understood, the knowledge falling upon him in a hammerblow, hot as the sun of the desert that was the apotheosis of all deserts. How many times had he climbed these stairs only to find himself peeled back, curved back, turned back? Not to the beginning (when things might have been changed and time’s curse lifted), but to the moment in the Mohaine Desert when he had finally understood that his thoughtless, questionless quest would immediately succeed? How many times had he traveled a loop like the one in the clip that had once pinched off his navel, his own tet-ka can Gan? How many times would he travel it?

–Stephen King, The Dark Tower 827

 

There was a peculiar inevitability to everything I did, as if the air around me was gently coercing my movements, from raising the Macallen to climbing the stairs to laboring through “Childe Roland” last night. I couldn’t shake the poem. It was like a maddening soft mental loop: The Dark Tower is the end … The point of getting to the end is to realise you’ve got to the end … The quest has no purpose … The Dark Tower is the end … The end is the fulfillment … My first thought was, he lied in every word …

–Glen Duncan, By Blood We Live 296

some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 March 2014 by Ben

So ICFA 35 was the first conference I have ever attended at which there was a strong and ongoing discussion of fantasy literature. I have only recently returned to reading fantasy at great length and only even more recently started teaching it and writing about it. I had taught sf for years, and had written a bit about it, but SFRA last year was my first conference on that subject. Point being: I am rather new to being amongst people talking about the issue of genre and these specific genres. Since I am writing about sf, fantasy, and horror in Here at the end of all things, perhaps this moment is long overdue. Better late than never.

In any case, several rather unfinished thoughts from the conference.

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Paper for ICFA 35: Empires of Disbelief

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing on 20 March 2014 by Ben

Here is the paper I delivered for ICFA 35, entitled “Empires of Disbelief.” Sorry, but the formatting was lost in translation between Libreoffice and here.

Several mostly recent fantasies—including Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Mieville’s The Scar—render intelligible discontinuities endemic to Tolkien, or, better, endemic to a conception of the quest fantasy visible in Tolkien, even if this conception by no means exhausts The Lord of the Rings. As Clute notes, and as Lord of the Rings seems to replicate, full fantasy begins in wrongness and proceeds through thinning, recognition, and healing or return. I am concerned with this last step.

Of course, Clute also notes that healing and return are the story that fantasy wishes it could tell, and the ur-text of generic quest fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, no more fulfills this wish than any other. The world remains fallen, is perhaps even more fallen, at the end; the heroes of the realm may have saved the world, but not for themselves. They cannot be healed within the scope of the story and must seek their completion or salvation in a beyond that the story cannot include. Whatever empire is restored or established, the premises upon which the Captains of the West found it are divorced from a vision of the future that affords a completed humanity. Each of the aforementioned texts deals with this exclusion of healing in its own way and offer us the opportunity to consider what is at stake in the quest fantasy.
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Old syllabus: Posthuman Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 February 2014 by Ben

Following a discussion with Marc Weidenbaum via Twitter, here is the syllabus for an old course: Posthuman Media.

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule_-_Revised_3

Spring 2014 course materials: Music and Digital Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 5 January 2014 by Ben

Some people on Twitter asked me to post this stuff, so here it is.

Although I think the class will work well, I don’t pretend that it’s comprehensive. Rather, it is rather idiosyncratic. Since it’s a theory class according to the English Department (ENGL 3116: Topics in Advanced Theory), the Wark seems necessary to me. It makes sense anyway, but does provide a broad theoretical background to some of the issues we will discuss, one that is largely absent otherwise.

I realized while constructing this syllabus 1) how much things have changed since I last taught this course in 2011, not only with regard to music itself, but also with regard to the industry (do they still sue downloaders? is this still a thing?) and media studies generally; and 2) with regard to these changes mentioned in 1,  that I am rather behind on the scholarship in the field. More accurately, I would say that I am more aware than ever of what it means to be an expert on something, and find now what I once considered to be my expertise in this field, while still adequate in some respects, somewhat less than I would like. Oh well, when I finish Here at the end of all things I can rectify that issue as I prepare for The Age of the World Playlist.

So here is the syllabus (with course policies) and the schedule. Note that the schedule is mostly organized as follows: Mondays are for theory, Wednesdays are for texts on music and/or media, and Fridays are given to listening. Mostly. There are probably more exceptions than I would like to know about.

ENGL_3116_Syllabus

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule

Empires of Disbelief: ICFA 35 proposal

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 October 2013 by Ben

I’m working in this general area right now for Here at the end of all things. I actually used the voice recorder on my phone to take notes on this subject as I walked to school yesterday. First time I have ever done that. I would do it again.

Empires of Disbelief

This paper begins with the remarkable coincidence of several historical events (“historical”, here, in a Foucauldian sense). First, John Clute argues in Pardon this Intrusion that fantastika can be traced to the early nineteenth century; the genres of fantastika “are intimately connected with the becoming visible of the engine of history, round about 1800, when the future began.” Second, we have Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, first published in 1807 and a singular influence on Western notions of history as progressive and significant. Third, Foucault traces the advent of disciplinary power to roughly the same period. As the human being entered History (Hegel) as an individual who is the same as all other individuals (Foucault), it began to narrativize its position within that history through forms that could face the end whether that end was understood to be apocalyptic or Paradisaical. These accounts dovetail, I argue, with the project of Western Empires to at once offer a sort of carrot to individuals in the form of a promise of meaning for their lives (the completion of humanity, the Rapture—what Clute would call Healing or Return) as well as the the constant denial of such an end in order to maintain their existence (humanity is never complete, history never actually ends in its perfection, the Rapture never occurs). Over the course of the past two centuries, individuals in the West (a term I use advisedly not to refer to a given unity but to a construction) have been denied what they have been promised so often that rather than believing in the future, they find themselves in a state of what Bernard Stiegler calls “disbelief.”

With reference to key fantasy texts from the last several decades—such as Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, China Miéville’s The Scar and Iron Council, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre—as well as secondary/theoretical texts from Clute, Foucault, Deleuze, and Stiegler, this paper investigates how the Story that fantasy “wishes to tell” (of Healing, in Clute’s sense of the term) has, despite constant retellings, become impossible. Of course, Healing has always been impossible, but I argue that Empire now no longer even requires it as a carrot. Whereas the West formerly relied on coherent individuals (in Foucault’s sense) who desire insertion into the History (or Story) or Empire as individuals , it now maintains itself despite the fact that people (as what Deleuze calls “dividuals”) no longer believe in such metanrratives of progress and freedom. With seemingly no possible way out of this situation, we can turn to the impossibilities of fantasies such as those listed here (among others) as models for ways of thinking that resist and overcome our disbelief.

Primary sources

Gilman, Felix. The Half-made World. New York: Tor, 2011. Print.

McKillip, Patricia A. In the Forests of Serre. New York: Ace Books, 2003. Print.

Miéville, China. Iron Council: a Novel. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

—. The Scar. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Morgan, Richard K. The Steel Remains. Del Ray trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print.

Secondary sources

Clute, John. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. N. p. Print.

Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print. Agora Paperback Editions.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print. Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics.

—. Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print. Disbelief and Discredit 2.

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