“Horror and the Egressive Present”: Proposal for Timescales conference

Posted in Uncategorized on 28 April 2016 by Ben

Here is my proposal for the upcoming Timescales conference at UPenn this fall. I have been thinking about applying for a while, then decided not to, then decided to do it anyway. This is rather last minute, although based on things I have been thinking about for a while. It’s definitely not the best example of the proposal genre, seeming to both promise too much and to be very abstract at the same time. Alas. We will see.

Proposal for Timescales conference

Benjamin J. Robertson

“Horror and the Egressive Present”

Scholars of science fiction, such as Fredric Jameson and Carl Freedman, note that, in the mid to late nineteenth century, the genre replaced the historical novel as the form most engaged with historical difference, reorienting the focus of that difference away from the past and towards the future. In the twentieth century, science fiction (and less generic forms such as the systems novel) explored the world’s increasingly pervasive technical environment as decentering (or further decentering) human being and its desires. In the aftermath of such decentering, both at the hands of these cultural productions and at the hands of the antihumanist theory of the past fifty or so years, we see the rise of a deflationary realism, a sense that any new thing that the human might imagine has already been “premediated” (in Richard Grusin’s term) by the technical systems of capitalism: TINA, or There Is No Alternative. Absent an ability to imagine a past or a future, a different past or future, and concomitant with an increasing awareness of the ways our interactions with our natural and technical environments exist both temporally above and below our thresholds of perception, cultural and critical production each seem increasingly willing to abandon the models that the historical novel and science fiction provide. There is no historical past upon which to base our actions, nor is there any future towards which they might be directed. There is only a present, out of step with itself.

This paper centers on the structure of horror fiction developed by John Clute in The Darkening Garden, especially Clute’s conception of Aftermath, the point in the horror story in which all that remains is problem, problem without any potential solution. The term “Aftermath” is a bit of a misnomer, given that horror does not so much narrate a movement towards such a state, a movement from a past to a present and towards a future, but rather reveals that Aftermath has always existed, contrary to the narratives of progress and meaning that humans tell themselves. Aftermath must be understood as an egressive present, a present out of step with itself insofar as it produces neither past nor future and insofar as it encompasses both the vast timescales of cosmology and geology (as examined in Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth after Us and Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media) and the microtemporal events of contemporary media technologies (described in Mark Hansen’s Feed-Forward and Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack), each of which determine human being in ways that being never fully grasps. In the end, this paper describes a present moment characterized by a fascination with horror—both in cultural production (as exemplified by a return to Lovecraft and the popularity of New Weird writers such as Jeff Vandermeer) and critical discussions (as exemplified by the prominence of object oriented ontology, speculative realism, and the burgeoning industry in academic books on the anthropocene). This fascination, I argue, derives from a desire to make sense of the “unconformity” between human timescales and those of the planet on which we live.

Notes from ICFA roundtable on The Force Awakens, on cast, nostalgia, and franchise

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 March 2016 by Ben

In addition to my paper on fantasy scholarship, I was honored this past weekend to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a panel with some very smart people. Here are the sketchy notes for the talk, which I hope to turn into an essay and then a book chapter.

  • this is from a longer project called The Ends of Genre, a chapter called “It’s just us now”: Nostalgia and the Star Wars Universe
  • two deaths
    • TFA is framed by two deaths, although only one of them registers perhaps as meaningful for the franchise immediately, which is to say the latter, to which I shall come in a moment
    • the first is the death of Lor San Tekka, a character few of us would be familiar with prior to the film, and a character of which we still know very little
    • and yet, when he confronts Tekka, Kylo Ren says to him, “Look how old you’ve become”
    • of course, this is a reference to a larger backstory we do not yet know
    • at the same time, in terms of the franchise, Ren’s line tells us that this world has moved on in ways we can’t quite grasp, that even as the narrative froze for the viewer with the defeat of the empire at the conclusion of Jedi, time passed in the real world and people grew old
    • moreover, events transpired in the fictional universe that rendered our knowledge of the franchise wrong, incommensurate with its present, a present determined both by the passage of three decades and by the prequels, which precede the original trilogy in terms of narrative but succeed it in terms of franchise
    • Lor San Tekka’s death may seem relatively uninteresting, but is subtly complex
    • he is played by Max von Sydow, who also once upon a time played Ming the Merciless in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon, the property George Lucas wanted to turn into a film but was unable to secure rights to, forcing him to make Star Wars instead
    • of course Lucas made Star Wars in part as an homage to and with nostalgia for the Flash Gordon serials of Hollywood’s so-called golden age
    • Star Wars’ success, in part, made possible the Flash Gordon movie
    • thus we have a young character, Kylo Ren, not only killing an old one (and one who is nostalgic for PRINCESS Leia), but also a young actor, Adam Driver, claiming this franchise for himself and his cohort against several layers of nostalgia
  • Franchise as interpretive unit
    • as a standalone text, TFA has problems, as we all know
    • likewise, Star Wars has problems as sf
      • which this film exacerbates, greatly
    • I’m interested in thinking about TFA not as a standalone text, nor as part of a genre, although both contexts will also work and are related to the context I wish to think about
    • that is: franchise
      • obviously, there are discussions of franchise already, but they mainly focus on political economy or transformations of production models (away from the blockbuster and to the tentpole, for example)
      • I am interested in thinking about franchise as a unit of interpretation insofar as franchises have concerns as franchises that often stand at odds with individual texts or genres
      • this object of interpretation dovetails with previous discussions of franchises as well as with discussions of genre
  • some issues of franchise
    • I won’t be able to address each of these issues in my brief discussion of TFA, but all play a role in my thinking about it
    • first: each franchise is unique
      • that is, no two franchises work quite the same way
      • it’s not so much that they have different conventions or points of view on similar issues (as with sf and fantasy, for example)
      • it’s rather that, because we must always consider, for example, intellectual property law, the differences between properties prior to their development as franchises, etc., each franchise develops a logic that cannot provide a model for another
      • understanding one franchise will tell us little about another, except perhaps insofar as we find contrast
      • this difference is clearest for us, perhaps, in the different logics at work in the Star Trek and Star Wars “reboots”, which Gerry discusses so brilliantly in a forthcoming essay
    • second: franchises are often (perhaps always) generic
      • but they tend to take from a commons (i.e. the conventions of a genre) and make them proprietary, by turning away from the genre itself and developing them in unique ways
      • they thus are able to often solve generic problems even while introducing other problems to genre
    • third: franchises do not leverage narratives so much as worlds (or universes)
      • these worlds are described mainly in narratives, but the development of the world itself is what allows for future narratives, whether in a “main” storyline or in interstitial ones
      • these worlds also make possible non-narrative franchise elements, such as calendars, action figures, role playing games, candy, etc., which do not need to take part in set narratives directly, but benefit from their existence and the world that they involve
    • fourth: franchise narratives seem to exist in their own time and are therefore inhuman
      • the time of the franchise is not quite historical nor is it personal, but more an institutional time inflected by fictional history
        • we can see here how franchises can be so different from one another: this issue is different in Star Wars than in Star Trek than in James Bond than in Dr. Who than in The Lord of the Rings
      • in any case, we leave a franchise and its narrative freezes, but the world around it continues to move
      • when we return, we discover that characters have aged without a process of aging being visible
      • likewise, we may get prequels, in which older stories are told later, filling in the past
      • this filling in, however, is not simply analepsis; it also advances the franchise in franchise time
      • for example, there is going to be a film about the young Han Solo film; I would argue that Harrison Ford’s Han had to die because two actors can’t play Han Solo at the same time, according to the logic of this franchise
      • again, this has to do with the fact that the narrative stands at odds with the world around it, not only in terms of aging stars, but in terms of viewer’s perceptions and feelings
      • and, it should be noted, that the name Starkiller Base has less to do with its status as a weapon capable of destroying worlds than with the fact that it’s there that the star dies
  • nostalgia, casting, and TFA
    • Abrams had a heck of a hill to climb insofar as he had to bring back old characters, introduce new ones, reclaim the glory of the first trilogy while washing away the bad taste of the second one, find a new narrative thread after the conclusion to episode six, and do so while satisfying at least three generations of fans, each with different sorts of expectations
    • more specifically, he had to, for the first time in 30 years, create a Star Wars film which we did not already understand, even before seeing it
      • while we may not have known particulars about what would happen in the prequels, we knew that Anakin would become Darth Vader
    • moreover, he also had to create the first Star Wars film since Empire—and only the second ever, really—which ended with real questions about what had happened and what would happen next
      • we are certainly not used to that, because of the logic of this franchise
    • but perhaps the biggest problem Abrams had was that of casting
      • people missed Han Solo, or perhaps, better, Harrison Ford, who had long claimed that he would never play that character again
      • it’s Solo/Ford that seems to be missing from the prequels (although I would argue it’s also lack of stakes; the lightsaber battles there barely rise to the level of video game in comparison to those of Empire, Jedi, and TFA)
      • especially for the oldest generation of fans, for whom Han definitely shot first, it seemed that it was Han and NOT, say, Obi-wan who was our only hope
      • however, he has gotten old and weak while his adversaries have become young and strong
      • when the franchise froze at its end in 1983, so too did our image of Han
      • however, Harrison Ford got older even as the logics of Hollywood casting demanded younger and younger stars
      • Star Wars can no longer look to him as a savior, although whether Luke will be one remains to be seen
      • as Kylo Ren says, “Han Solo would have disappointed you as a father”
      • nor does it seem that the franchise can turn to conventional action stars; instead we get Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, each of which comes out of a rather different background than we might expect for Star Wars
      • although it does remind me somewhat of Ford’s pre-Star Wars background
      • the franchise both needed Solo/Ford and needed to be rid of him, to move on by first looking back
      • and now, as Ren says to Rey, “It’s just us now”

A new vocabulary for fantasy scholarship

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 March 2016 by Ben

Here is my yearly post to this blog, my ICFA paper. There’s a handout and a PDF version if you’d like/rather.

When I speak of a new vocabulary for fantasy scholarship, I don’t mean new words. Nor do I mean the importation of words from extant discourses into this scholarship. I mean the development of a set of integrated concepts apposite the object in question as it exists in and/or interacts with contemporary political economy, cultural production, subjectivities, knowledge practices, power, etc. Of course these concepts will refer back to older ones, connect with contemporary ones, and may even share the same name as concepts from other fields. They must nonetheless be thought and rethought to be relevant now and with regard to this object. There is a pressing, threefold need for this vocabulary having to with first, the continuing erosion of sf as a means to understand the world and think a way past it, second, the rise of horror to fill this vacuum, and third, the inability of much of the inherited vocabulary of fantasy scholarship to make itself relevant in this context.

Science fiction has long been the subgenre of the fantastic that has driven theoretical debates about the fantastic and afforded scholars the opportunity to demonstrate a relationship between what was once merely low culture and, to take but one concept, the political unconscious. Otherwise put, science fiction has, as Carl Freedman might note if for different reasons, found particular connection with critical theory, namely because both discourses, at their best, become meta-historical—not only engaged with history, but productive of history through the questioning of history itself. As Fredric Jameson would note, however, we no longer think in terms of history. Freedman might agree, insofar as critical theory, which is dialectical, gave way to a post-dialectical thought sometime in the 1960s or 70s. And yet, the world moves on, even if our tools of analysis are no longer adequate to it. Whatever some might claim to the contrary, Capital teaches us more about the nineteenth century that produced it than it does about cultural and political situations Marx could never have imagined. As McKenzie Wark notes somewhere, we should read it as a classic, that which helps us understand our past and where we came from rather than where we are and where we are going. Likewise, science fiction and its related concepts—progress, utopia, dystopia, futurity, the horizon, reason, the novum, cognitive estrangement—seem less relevant to our day to day existence and to our future than they do to our past, as perhaps the bearers of our nostalgia. We long for a time in which we could disagree politically, dialectically, and not simply shout past one another, trapped in the confines of our personal disciplines and discourses. Darko Suvin, in re-examining his claims of the late 1970s, notes a certain optimism behind his understanding of sf at that time, in which he implies that the novum and the cognitive estrangement it produces, as the elements of history, imply a forward progress that might move us beyond our present state of existence. But sf not produce socialism, nor did it manifest by way of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Freedman transforms cognition into the cognition effect which, as China Mieville might remind us, transforms dialectic into sophistry. Hardly dialectical at all. Now our deflationary realisms, our capitalist realisms, can only imagine the end of the world, and not the end of capitalism itself.

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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.
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