Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, my SFRA proposal)

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 25 March 2018 by Ben

Here is my proposal for SFRA 2018, in Milwaukee.  As with nearly all of my conference proposals, this one is a bit rough and is more a promise to think about something than the actual thought itself. In any case, I am planning to be done with Here at the end of all things in the first half of the summer, and this paper (along with my essay on Dragonlance and my review essay on The Force Awakens) represents a new research direction in which I consider franchise as form.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”

–Hawkeye

In the “Fragment on Machines,” Marx claims, “The development of fixed capital [i.e. machines] indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself has come under the control of the general intellect and has been transformed in accordance with it.” Otherwise put, the knowledge objectified or “stored” in fixed capital animates production itself. Moreover, the material lives of human beings are subsequently transformed by this transformation of production. Ideally, the production of machines would lead to a reduction in labor time and an increase in leisure. This revolution, of course, has never come to pass.

This paper considers franchiseas fixed capital. Franchise has become machinic in that it objectifies, stores, and privatizes the general intellect, most notably generic forms invented and deployed by a wide range of producers working within a cultural commons. Far from decreasing or eliminating socially necessary labor time, franchises leverage their worlds in order to demand more creative labor from producers. Moreover, they require increased expenditures of time and money from consumers who “labor” not only to see films, read comics, and play games that appear under this or that franchise’s auspices, but also to understand and interpret the world these texts produce and assume, one that cannot rely on a fixed reality to hold itself together. In this context, Hawkeye’s lament about his limitations and the lack of sense in the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes a clear admission that the fixed capital of franchise serves to increase socially necessary labor time rather than “leisure.”

As a test case for thinking about about franchise as fixed capital and the effects thereof, I take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is characterized by extreme abstraction. Every franchise develops its own internal logics as it borrows and then turns away from genre and other aspects of the general intellect. The MCU is largely built upon the incompatibility of its world with itself. Alien invasions and the existence of gods should transform the world, as should Tony Stark’s cell phone all by itself. Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) lives within pastoral bliss, on a farm, even as he fights the greatest threats the universe can throw at Earth. And yet, the world, compartmentalized into different spaces each with no apparent relation to any other space, continues in its day to day operations as if nothing is happening.None of it fits together; none of this makes sense. And yet, as the franchise offers us new material at an ever increasing pace (at least four films in 2018 alone), producers and consumers work harder and harder to keep up. As Hawkeye says, immediately after the line cited above, “I’m going back out there because it’s my job.”

 

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Book cover!!!!!

Posted in None of this is normal, Uncategorized with tags , , on 18 March 2018 by Ben

This image will likely be updated slightly before the book is released, but here is the cover for None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, coming this fall from University of Minnesota Press.

I have asked for the name of the designer(s) who produced the cover and will update this post when I know.

Edit: the cover was designed by Michel Vrana, who tweets from @MichelVrana.

In any case, it’s amazing and does exactly what I wanted in terms of capturing what the book is about without in any way being what I anticipated. That’s just the best.

NOTIN Cover

1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 March 2018 by Ben

I gave a talk at ICFA 39 on this topic, which was carved from a longer talk I had given a few weeks earlier. This material comprises part of chapters 3 and 7 of Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. The HTML below is the long version. You can download PDFs of the short version or the long version if you like.

1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy

I call this one 1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy.

There are some handouts going around that contain the quotations I will use in this talk, which is in three parts.

Part 1: Here at the end of all things and the problem of history

My current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press, seeks to usefully theorize genre fantasy, a task made difficult by strong tendencies within fantasy that, while irreducibly modern themselves, oppose themselves to modernity and modern thought. Science fiction and horror work somewhat differently. We no doubt all know the extent to which science fiction has been accepted by scholars of literature as a worthwhile object of inquiry. Science fiction studies not only dominates the discourse on fantastika generally, but includes numerous subdisciplines devoted to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and more within the larger field. Gothic horror has enjoyed wide consideration by scholars of literature and culture, especially in its nineteenth-century incarnations. More recently, the Weird and New Weird have—in part because of the rise of Object Oriented Ontology, Speculative Realism, and related discourses—achieved a privileged position within literary and cultural studies. Lovecraft criticism has become nearly an industry unto itself, not coincidentally at roughly the same moment the Anthropocene has become something of a cause within the arts and humanities. Fantasy has not enjoyed similar attention, despite its ongoing popularity—populatrrity demonstrated by both its continued production by generic and mainstream writers alike and the countless television programs and films that fall under its purview.

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The Last Jedi’s Anti-nostalgia and Anti-Salvation

Posted in papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 19 December 2017 by Ben

I assume I was the last person to actually see The Last Jedi, or at least the last person who wrote a review of The Force Awakens about the way the franchise is developing and therefore has some sort of intellectual stake in this whole thing to actually see The Last Jedi. As such, I have mainly avoided all of the reviews and discussions of the film. So, if I say anything that’s been said or seem redundant to overall conversation, oh well I guess.

In my review of TFA for Science Fiction Film and Television, I made a case for interpreting Star Wars as a franchise. Plenty of work has been done to understand the nature of the media franchise in terms of world-building, production models, economics, multi-platform distribution, etc. However, less work (basically no work?) has been done to address the difficulty of how to interpret a given franchise, especially given the fact that every major franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, the MCU, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) is unique unto itself, developing its own internal logics according to manifold pressures both “internal” to it (the foundational narrative, the physics of the story world, etc.) and “external” to it (intellectual property law, the vagaries of corporate ownership, the visions of multiple creators, fan expectations, etc.). Needless to say the distinction between internal and external is blurry at best, and these pressures combine and re-combine in ways that are impossible to fully appreciate. In any case, while we have seen a lot of discussion of what happens in a franchise such as Star Wars as it expands across films, television, video games, novels and short stories, comics, toys, etc., we have not really developed a way to “close read” the resulting narratives in their complex relationship to one another.

In my review essay of The Force Awakens I suggested a focus on worlds in the context of the production history and reception of the Star Wars franchise. (Also, note that Gerry Canavan and I have just completed work on a special double issue of Extrapolation, on the question of “Mere Genre”, which attempts to think about how we, as critics, might deal with massive text sets of varying quality, such as Dragonlance, Star Wars and Star Trek, Blondie (the serial comic), Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones.) In my essay, I make a case that TFA had to clear the slate for future Star Wars films–hence its repetition of so many devices and plot lines that Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise (another Death Star, another hero’s journey, etc.). Moreover, TFA had to satisfy the contradictory expectations and desires of at least three groups of fans: the “original” fans of episodes IV, V, and VI, who very often hated episodes I, II, and III; the generation of fans who grew up with episodes I, II, and III and who may not have hated them because they were givens of a franchise rather than intrusions into one; and the fans who would first encounter Star Wars through TFA. there are other groups of course, including the hardcore fans of what are now know as Star Wars Legends (the former expanded universe, which has become non-canonical in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of the franchise). Likewise, every generation of fans is internally diverse. Nonetheless, I think that the logic holds: Disney and Abrams had to create a film that could allow the franchise to move forward and maintain/revive older fandoms while creating new ones. Oh yeah, it also had to do all of this with an aging cast from the original trilogy, not all of whom were happy to be a part of the next generation.

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My next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History

Posted in Uncategorized on 27 November 2017 by Ben

Now that the final revisions to None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer are done, I can feel good about announcing my next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, which is under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press. If you know me, you also know that I have been working on this project approximately forever, or at least since 2011, when I fist encountered Rochard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could teach a class on fantasy that was more than fan appreciation for a genre.

The project has undergone numerous iterations. There was a time when I conceived a larger project, The Generic, that would be seven books long.I have long since climbed down from that ledge, with help from colleagues and friends. More recently, I thought that this book would be a compartive study of fantasy, sf, and horror, with each genre read through the work of John Clute and understood as a means by which modernity deals with history. There is still a good deal of that here, but sf and horror are now firmly subordinated to the discussion of fantasy. It was simply too much to try to do all of that work in one book.

Sf is just fine in terms of criticism, and horror has new life as the muse of cultural geologists (in Mark McGurl’s potent phrase). In any case, while there is great fantasy scholarship out there (see Ryan Vu’s “Fantasy after Representation,” forthcoming in Extrapolation 58.2-3, edited by Gerry Canavan and yours truly), there is no theoretical investigation of the genre that articulates it with sf and horror as a means for thinking about history (or about ahistory, as it were). Much fantasy scholarship remains taxonomic to some extent, or insists that fantasy is too historicist and critical. I find both approaches limited insofar as they turn inward and ignore fantasy’s place in a larger conversation about modernity or reduce fantasy, all of its (admittedly problematic) peculiarities to having the same critical dimensions as those genres that stand opposed to it.

In any case, here is the proposal I sent to JHUP. I expect that some things will change here (for example, I now think that part one will be three chapters long, each shorter than those proposed here). Feedback is invited and welcome. Many thanks to those who have already provided feedback. It is dult noted and my gratitude will be expressed mre specifically in the acknowledgements.

Here is the proposal as a PDF.

You can also read the proposal below the fold.

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On Dradin, in Love; or, VanderMeer ephemera

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 13 July 2017 by Ben

Part of the reason I wanted to write about Jeff VanderMeer is Dradin, in Love, the 1996 novella that became the first section of “The Book of Ambergris” in City of Saints and Madmen. It is a very strange story insofar as it is set in a secondary world but includes few of the trappings of fantasy. I am currently trying to wrap up my chapter on the Ambergris novels and was committed to shoe-horning my thoughts on Dradin in there somewhere. Overall, the chapter discusses how the Ambergris books take up both postmodernist poetics and the secondary world-building of fantasy. These two things do not exist with one another easily, as the skepticism endemic to postmodernist fiction tends to destroy the naive worlds found in fantasy. However, I argue that Ambergris is a world, a materiality, entirely made up of its textuality. Whereas in fictions such as House of Leaves, textuality becomes an abyss without a bottom into which characters and events might fall, in City of Saints and Madmen this textuality is the bottom, the condition. You will have to read the book to get more about that.

That all said, I am so focused in the chapter on Duncan Shriek that maintaining the discussion of Dradin became untenable. As such, I have cut it and provide it here, for your consideration and amusement. Enjoy. Or not. (BTW, the last line of this refers to the title of this subsection of the chapter, “This is Ambergris,” which is a line from “The Strange Case of X,” the fourth section of City of Saints and Madmen.)

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On the history of fantasy scholarship

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 18 October 2016 by Ben

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

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