WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 June 2021 by Ben

What follows are my notes for my SFRA talk this past weekend.

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

So I have been interested in franchise for a while and have been presenting on the subject at SFRA and elsewhere for the past few years. In these presentations and in a few roundtables I have mainly discussed filmic instances of franchise, such as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the Iron Man and Captain America trilogies. My shift here to a discussion of what used to be called television has to do with what seem to me new ways franchises are making use of the medium and our nostalgia for it. Examples of this shift to original serialized streaming content that develop franchise storyworlds at critical moments in the history of a franchise include WandaVision and the Mandalorian and, more recently, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki. My cautious and perhaps vague thesis regarding these “shows” states that they represent processes within Star Wars and the MCU distinct from older instances of franchise television such as Star Trek: The Original Series or The Next Generation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or even Marvel’s Agents of Shield.

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Two conference proposals: on WandaVision and The Mandalorian (for SFRA 2021) and on Afropessimism, Afrofuturism, and History (for Imagining the Impossible)

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 10 February 2021 by Ben

Benjamin J. Robertson

Proposal for SFRA 2021

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

Recent instances of franchise on the small screen, such as Marvel’s WandaVision and Star Wars’s The Madalorian, demonstrate the challenges scholars of genre and media face when analyzing franchise texts. Specifically, insofar as they participate in older/other media forms, here television but elsewhere film or video games, instances of franchise obscure their participation in franchise itself, a production model that we can trace back to at least the first James Bond films that has now evolved into something more like a narrative form. This obfuscation occurs not on the levels of production, marketing, or consumption. It occurs at the level of meaning and interpretation. As a quasi-narrative forms, franchise is difficult if not impossible to analyze and understand all at once as complete texts (and individual franchises present their own, unique difficulties to critics). At the same time, individual texts within the franchise remain difficult to understand outside of the franchise framework that conditions them whatever meaning they possess.

This paper takes WandaVision and The Madalorian as case studies of the franchise form’s new incursion into television programming in the context of streaming services such as Disney+. Previous instances of franchise on television (such as Marvel’s Daredevil or Star Wars’s The Clone Wars) follow the production models of conventional television programming. WandaVision and The Madalorian challenge such models in several ways. Most importantly, each demonstrates the potential of franchise to incorporate perhaps any aspect of cultural production into itself even as it undermines the conventional limits and affordances of various media. WandaVision remediates the American television sitcom as a container for social conflicts, one that evolves over the course of its lifespan starting with the rather banal narratives of the 1950s and moving through subsequent decades that saw the sitcom form deal with questions of race, gender, sexuality, death, and so on. At the same time, complexities and conflicts specific to the MCU cannot be contained by the sitcom at all and force WandaVision into the meta-discourse of franchise and thus destroy our capacity to understand it or interpret it as television. The Mandalorian remediates its own franchise by way of the toys that have always been at its commercial heart. Individual episodes of the show seem less concerned with advancing an overall franchise narrative (or even presenting new narrative ideas for each episode) than they do with providing backdrops against which action figures, speeder bikes, and sandcrawlers perform the set pieces at the heart of the sort of play nostalgic fans participated in as children. Taken together, and in relation to other new instances of franchise, these shows underscore our need for new interpretive frameworks, new theories of media, and a new concern for monopolies on cultural production. This last concern is no longer simply about one or two corporations that control the production, distribution, and exhibition of texts. It is now a concern that these corporations are coming to own the very forms these texts take.

Benjamin J. Robertson

Proposal for Imagining the Impossible

Afropessmism and Afrofuturism: Re-imagining Fantastika after History

The scholarly discourses on Afropessmism, by Frank Wilderson and Christina Sharpe, for example, and Afrofuturism, by Kodwo Eshun and Alondra Nelson, for example, implicitly and explicitly adopt concepts and structures that derive from the several subgenres of fantastika, especially fantasy, science fiction, and horror. However, insofar as these discourses reject progress (Afropessmism) or seek to rethink the narrative threads that connect past to present and future (Afrofuturism), they also demonstrate the limitations and problems inherent to these subgenres, including fantasy’s nostalgia for a past of plenitude, science fiction’s imagining of a truly novel future that will break with the past, progress, and horror’s dismissal of all narrative structure and meaning. These problems, I argue, derive from fantastika’s origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as described by John Clute, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman, among others. Insofar as fantastika emerges in response to the advent of historical consciousness in the wakes of the bourgeois revolutions in France and North America and of industrial capitalism, it reflects on three basic understandings of history—that history is but is bad (fantasy), that history is and is good (science fiction), and that history is not (horror)—while only rarely reflecting on the historicity of history itself, on the fact that our idea of history was and is historically determined. Now, after the end of the metanarratives of the Enlightenment (Lyotard) and of history itself (Fukuyama, Flusser), fantastika continues to reflect the concerns of those who write and read it even as it undergoes transformations that challenge some of its original tendencies. This paper investigates Afropessimism and Afrofuturism as discourses that adopt, adapt, and undermine the historically conditioned “truths” of fantastika by way of points of view, concepts, and narratives structurally excluded from fantastika by way of the historical moment of its birth and the historical consciousness of that moment.

Course materials for Black Feminist Speculative Fiction

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , on 12 January 2021 by Ben

People on Twitter asked for the course materials for my upcoming Multicultural Literature class on Black Feminist Speculative Fiction, so here it is.

I wish there was a more coherent narrative to the course, but I realized how little time I left myself for getting it ready and rather than try to make it perfect I just tried to work in all of the materials I wanted to get to.

We are not really reading much on genre, although this is course on genre in many respects. Rather than focusing on how genres have been defined, largely by white critics and scholars, we will be looking at how black women have revised genre and how black feminists have set the stage for discussion of these revisions and their place within generic, national, and world histories. I wanted to include only women writers, but did wind up including three secondary texts by black men, from Wilderson, Eshun, and Sarr, because of how they introduce three topics crucial for the class (Afropessimism, Afrofuturism, and African modernity).

That all said, I think it came out pretty well. Here are the docs:

Reading list and schedule for my graduate class on Weird and New Weird Fiction

Posted in Teaching, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 27 July 2020 by Ben

In case anyone is interested, here is the mostly finalized reading list and schedule for ENGL 5529-002, on Weird and New Weird Fiction, which starts up in a few weeks. Some small things might change, but this is the gist of it.

I chose not to do a chronological survey. Rather, I have organized the readings around methods, genre, and themes (for lack of a better word). The primary texts are very roughly chronologically organized, but in some cases I thought the approach I ended up with made for a better overall flow to a course that caters to young scholars with their own research plans. This organization, I think, will also make for some more interesting comparisons across historical moments in the development of the weird than would a strictly chronological approach.

I deeply regret leaving certain things off the syllabus, especially Anna Kavan’s Ice (which is not generally considered a weird book, even if it is weird) and Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, which did not really fit into the course as well as I would have liked and I left off to make room for Yamashita and some of the other stuff towards the end. Even if some of this stuff is not, strictly speaking, weird, it nonetheless will provide a larger context for weird fiction through its international scope. Or so I hope.

Thanks to my Twitter crew for advice on some grad-course-related issues.

ENGL 5529-002 Preliminary Reading List and Schedule

My bibliography/works cited for None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 22 July 2020 by Ben

I know everyone likes endnotes, but if you have ever wanted my list of works cited for None of this is normal all in one place, well this is for you.

PDF here. HTML below the fold.

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Poetry, Postcritqiue, and the Consistence of Story

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 25 January 2020 by Ben

Resources for my talk on chapter three of Here at the end of all things.

These are all pdfs.

Utah talk outline, quotes, bibliography

Utah talk full notes

Utah talk slides

ICFA 2020 paper, on Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted in Conferences, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 20 November 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper proposal, now accepted, for ICFA 41, in March 2020. It’s for the horror division, which is new for me even though I work on horror. I usually propose to the fantasy division, but this paper didn’t really fit there in my opinion.

I do have another proposal in to the fantasy division, for a theory roundtable, but I will wait to hear on that before saying any more.

Anyway:

“Infrastructures of Horror: Race, Neoliberalism, American Literature, and the Anthropocene in Mat Johnson’s Pym

In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters tells us that “Ontology is usually just forgotten infrastructure.” In other words, what we often take for natural structures or systems are in fact constructions we no longer see or understand as constructions. Humans, who exist at scales that render such infrastructure invisible to us, operate therefore under conditions they cannot always, or perhaps ever, discern or comprehend. In Pym, Mat Johnson investigates the naturalized structure of American literary history by way of a narrative about neoliberalism, catastrophic climate change and related disasters, and the position of the racialized subject within such systems. Specifically, Johnson provides a revision and sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Johnson’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, describes as “A book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both.” As he investigates the history of Poe’s Pym, Jaynes navigates the power of neoliberal economics (which asks him to become a brand for personal gain), a world increasingly defined by disaster (some real, some imagined), the iniquities of American literary history, and the ongoing power of whiteness (which binds all of these other structures together materially and conceptually).

This paper discusses Johnson’s Pym as an instance of the new weird, but one especially attuned to the problematic legacy of weird fiction. For HP Lovecraft, Poe served as a major antecedent to the weird fiction of the haute weird period, roughly 1880 – 1940 in ST Joshi’s account. As such, Poe—whose racism anticipates and informs Lovecraft’s—serves as a forgotten infrastructure, as an apparent “ontological” ground for both American literature and a certain variety of horror fiction. In the present, novelists such as Mat Johnson and characters such as Chris Jaynes operate “in the wake” (to borrow Christina Sharpe’s term) and under the power of structures that determine their lives and the potential meanings of these lives despite the invisibility of these structures. As Johnson makes clear, they are not invisible because they are too small but rather because they are too big, because they are self-identical with the world itself in its present configuration. For Jaynes, in Pym, the first step in addressing this problem is to render the invisible visible. However, as this paper makes clear, such a project may always be doomed to failure insofar as the tools available to us (prose fiction, critical thought) are part and parcel of the very structures that remain hidden from us.

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 October 2019 by Ben

Here is the first paragraph to my contribution to Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction, edited by Laura Shackelford and Louise Economides, on Jeff VanderMeer’s Predator novel. You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read the whole thing…

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

In the context of Jeff VanderMeer’s larger body of work, which so often imagines and describes the incompatibility of the human with the alien or monstrous, perhaps the least interesting aspect of Predator: South China Sea (hereafter P:SCS) is the Predator itself. In a recent tweet, VanderMeer makes clear why such is the case: “Oh, memories. My personal favorite part of writing [Predator: South China Sea], besides characters exploding into fungi…was having a scene with the Predator just lounging in his spaceship, farting and burping. I thought for sure Dark Horse/20th Century Fox would make me cut that. Buuuut they didn’t.” The Predator most familiar to a mass audience is that of the film series, which introduces it as an invisible and nigh-unstoppable killing machine. VanderMeer’s flatulent alien may be amusing to this audience, or to the smaller audience of the extended franchise. However, this moment of lowbrow humor also demonstrates the degree to which the Predator can be understood according to anthropocentric and anthropomorphic norms, especially insofar as this novel (and other texts and films in the series) makes clear how valuable Predator technology will be to world governments seeking to kill other humans with just as much enthusiasm as the Predator itself, if for allegedly different reasons. Of course, VanderMeer would have been constrained in how he was allowed to imagine and deploy the Predator given the fact that this novel participates in a larger storyworld determined by a history and physics he would have had to obey to avoid damaging that storyworld’s consistency and potential as a venue for future franchise development and profit. The effects of such constraints on a writer whose previous and subsequent work has been defined by ignoring constraints (those imposed by generic boundaries, for example) are certainly worth further study. However, I begin with this issue as a means to stage a confrontation between the anthropomorphic monster at the heart of the Predator series—an anthropomorphism that needs the monster to stand in this position insofar as it allows the series’s ongoingness and the staging of conflict after conflict between the Predator and the human—and the inhumanity of the larger universe in which that monster and the human exist.

ASAP/11 seminar paper: The Stillness as Land, The Broken Earth as Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 October 2019 by Ben

This is my contribution to a seminar at ASAP/11 this past weekend in College Park, MD on NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, a text that, I am sure, needs no introduction.

The seminar was amazing and I want to thank Leif Sorensen and Jessica Hurley for organizing it and inviting me to be part of it. The other contributions were great and the conversation was among the best I have ever had at a conference–both very smart and very much a geeking out session.

In my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, I begin by theorizing the relationship among fantasy, science fiction ,and horror in order to examine what avenues for thought each genre opens and closes. This theorization leads a reconsideration of fantasy’s development and reception as a genre, especially insofar as fantasy, in its fullest expression, actualizes a ground for history that history cannot provide for itself (a problem historicist genres such as sf often fail to acknowledge and one that antihistoricist genres such as horror do not acknowledge as a problem so much as a given). Fantasy thus acts as a foil for neoliberal capitalism, especially with regard to the latter’s antihistoricist operations, which dovetail with certain aspects of science fiction and, in the end, come to resemble horror. Here, I think about The Broken Earth as fantasy in the context of another of this century’s greatest crises (or constellation of interconnected crises), what we conceptualize by way of “the Anthropocene.” Under the Anthropocene (or one of the many terms competing to identify the broader concept), humanity and its institutions come to understand how the destabilization of the conditions of their history and, thereby, the destabilization of those processes of valorization or meaning-making dependent on historicist and critical thought. The Anthropocene not only reveals the impermanence or finitude of human subjectivity, institutions, nations, and so on—the very impermanence and finitiude that under whose shadow anthropocentric valorziation becomes necessary and possible. The Anthropocene also reveals the impermanence and finitude of the condition for human subjectivities, institutions, nations, and so on—the allegedly stable or “set” materialities that subtend all life on this planet. (Of course, the responsibility for, awareness of, and consequences of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed across the abstraction “humanity,” to say the least.)
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SFRA 2019 paper: A teaching, and a remembrance: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on 22 June 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper for SFRA 2019, which is a highly edited version of the first half of chapter 7 in Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. (Which is to say: the first half of chapter 7 in the project’s current form, which is a bit different than what the proposal linked here describes).

To start, my thesis: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder deploys a pedagogy of active presence through which subjects come to understand their places in a larger whole. In contrast to certain Eurowestern understanding;s of subjectivity, notably those influenced by Hegel, this subjectivity is neither abstract and therefore exchangeable, nor is it reliant upon a granting authority. I will clarify all of this in a bit.

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