ICFA Fantasy Theory Roundtable: James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy

Posted in Uncategorized on 21 January 2019 by Ben

Here is the proposal (since accepted) I put together fora fantasy theory roundtable at  ICFA 2019. The SF division has been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and I have been discussing doing one for the fantasy division for some time with division heads and some other interested parties. Thanks to Tim Murphy, who helped get me going this; Dan Creed, who offered advice and enthusiasm; and James Gifford, who wrote the book we will be discussing and agreed to come be a respondent to the panel.

As of now, the panel is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, 2019 4:15-5:45 p.m. at ICFA in Orlando. Hope to see you there.

If you need the reading, send me an email (to your right) or  find me on Twitter. I think that the reading will be made available through the IAFA site at some point as well, likely here (login required).

The Proposal

James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (2018) eschews the impulse to define or taxonomize genre fantasy that preoccupies so much of the scholarly work on the topic. Rather, it engages directly with criticisms, mainly from historical materialist scholars, that genre fantasy offers no politics and, thus, no engagement with capitalism or the labor of history. Gifford argues that a good deal of fantasy before Tolkien, and a fair bit that comes after Tolkien, exhibits a form of subjectivity and a challenge to authority very similar to those offered by anarchism. Marxian historical materialism, which tends to ignore the role of the individual in political contexts in favor of a consideration of class and the widespread determination of the superstructure by the base, has a long history of dismissing anarchist politics. In Gifford’s argument, this dismissal is of a piece with the dismissal of fantasy from this very same school of thought. This argument, therefore, opens up fantasy to political readings and distinguishes the genre from science fiction in a manner that avoids claims about its inherent inferiority. Beyond this important work, Gifford also offers in A Modernist Fantasy a close reading of the genre’s history, one focused on writers (from Morris and Mirrlees to Treece and Peake and on to Le Guin and Delany) who mainly exist outside of the generic conventions and constraints most readers know through Tolkien. Thus Gifford offers a theoretical paradigm through which to understand the genre by way of considering an understudied period of the genre’s history. Moreover, Gifford’s focus on the political possibilities of fantasy and the scholarly argument over those possibilities, fits well with the conference’s theme, “Politics and Conflict.”

For the roundtable itself, participants will be asked to read an excerpt from chapter one of A Modernist Fantasy. This section of chapter one, about 35 pages long, focuses on how the understanding of magic in several popular fantasies (by Brooks, Eddings, and Le Guin, for example) mirrors anarchism’s understanding of radical subjectivity. This reading would, I believe, be of great interest to members of ICFA’s fantasy division insofar as it takes up and engages with historical materialist readings of fantasy even as it moves past them. At the same time, it offers numerous readings of specific fantasy texts that will be recognizable to this group.

This session will be run as a discussion. I would offer a very brief opening remark about why I chose this reading and then open the floor to a conversation that, ideally, would be directed by the interests and desires of session attendees. James Gifford plans to attend the conference and is willing to be a respondent at the session. As such, I would set aside ten minutes at the end of the session for his comments and any final responses to those comments.

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Remarks for Avengers vs. Jedi Roundtable

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

Some opening remarks for a roundtable I was just on for SFRA 2018. The topic was Avengers vs. Jedi and mainly focused on the problem of franchise and media consolidation in late late post post modern capitalism or whatever we are calling it these days.

Also, to be clear, I coined the term “naustalgia.”

patent-pending

More seriously, one of the ways I think we might distinguish between Star Wars and the MCU as franchises is by recognizing a difference between the former’s nostalgic logic and the latter’s easter egg logic. Franchises, I think, have to manage an audience’s affective response in order to maintain that audience’s interest in a sprawling storyworld and the media properties that express it. We all know that A New Hope is a key example of the nostalgia film insofar as it referred to eariler media properties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I have argued and would continue to argue that, very simply put, the challenge for Stars Wars in the Disney era has to do with producing and managing nostalgia for earlier iterations of the franchise even as it produces and manages novelty. To be clear, I am drawing a distinction between nostalgia for previous but distinct media objects and nostalgia for the media objects that belong to an extant franchise. With this distinction in mind, we can see that the MCU has not had to worry about franchise nostalgia quite yet as it has come into existence and sprawled so quickly—18 going on 19 films in about a decade. There is, of course, nostalgia in it for fans of comics and fans of these characters, but there is no nostalgia yet for past iterations of the MCU (although I can imagine that coming shortly and I wonder what the effect will be). There are, however, easter eggs (and note that I am probably using the term in a somewhat heterodox manner here). Some of these easter eggs are minor in terms of the overall MCU arc but are cool for fans of the comics, such as Howard the Duck’s appearance in the end credit scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I am not sure there is any nostalgia there, but if there is, again, it’s not for the MCU but for some pre-MCU media object. Some of the easter eggs are more significant for an anticipatory quality that becomes clearer in retrospect, such as the appearance of what turns out to be the fake Infinity Gauntlet in Thor. Finally, some of them are tremendously consequential for both their revelation of the present and their determination of the future, such as the appearance of Thanos in a post-credit scene at the end of The Avengers—which also includes a cool but inconsequential easter egg for comics fans, the mention of “courting death” by the Other as he describes the battle with humanity that just took place. (And I would note that the proliferation of end credit scenes is an escalation of the easter egg logic behind the MCU.) I want to keep this short, so I will refrain from theorizing the distinctions between nostalgia and easter egg as logics, but suffice it to say I think that they are at odds with one another in terms of how they manage audience’s affective expectations in relation to the coherence of the overall franchise. And, finally, I will note that one of the reasons Solo is so terrible is that it tries to introduce easter egg logic to a franchise structured by nostalgia, a nostalgia especially complex with regard to the iconic character whose name is in the title despite being, it turns out, an utterly random easter egg.

My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

This is the paper I gave yesterday at SFRA 2018 in Milwaukee. It’s part of a future project on the franchise as form. It’s a bit rough, but some of the broad strokes are there I think.

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

I am going to start with two quotes from within the MCU that speak to my interest in franchise. The first is from Hawkeye, in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The second is from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, in an end-credits scene to The Winter Soldier “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” I will come back to these quotes below, but for now suffice it to say that what holds the MCU together is not its genre or its historicity, but the fact that it does not make sense. This is miraculous.

So, I am interested in how we interpret a franchise, what methods we use, and how those methods must necessarily challenge older methods that privilege objects whose relative stability derives from their clear date of publication, release, or whatever. I am not primarily interested, here anyway, in franchise as a production model or as a means to leverage fan engagement. But when we speak of interpreting franchise we must ask what we are interpreting exactly. Can we can call a franchise, such as the MCU, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, a text? It would be difficult, I think, to call a franchise of any size a text, although we can say that franchises are made up of texts (all of which can be interpreted as such). We have other concepts available, including that of form. However, I am also not certain that franchises share clear formal characteristics such that we can easily compare them or establish a methodology that can account for all of them. Star Wars and Star Trek operate according to very different logics, I think, when we think about them at the level of franchise. Although they have both changed considerably over the courses of their respective histories, Star Trek begins with an episodic structure that still informs its overall development. By contrast, Star Wars begins with aspirations to a continuity and coherence of narrative that presents problems for its filmic iterations today. I realize that these are gross generalizations.

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Fragment on M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 June 2018 by Ben

I love Viriconium so much, and alas I can’t say as much about it in Here at the end of all things as I would like. So here is a fragment from some older writing that was meant for HATEOAT but must fall to the cutting room floor. It’s not really complete, or even coherent without the apparatus I built to explain it, but I hate just putting it in the “misc” file and forgetting about it.

Viriconium, or amnesia of the soul

The novellas and stories which make up Viriconium were published between 1971 and 1985, and thus operate in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. Certain parts of the overall text, especially The Pastel City, suggest Harrison’s knowledge of Tolkien. Nonetheless, in terms of tone and narrative, the Viriconium and The Lord of the Rings remain antithetical to one another. Most significantly, whereas The Lord of the Rings, like much fantasy, narrates the avoidance (or attempted avoidance) of some end, Viriconium takes that end as a given and begins in its aftermath, some indeterminate time after the fall of the so-called “Afternoon Cultures” and the high technology thereof:

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of the Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.i

The Middle Period of the Earth” carries with it an echo of The Lord of the Rings, but in Viriconium “Middle” indicates the height from which the world has fallen rather than a mere transition away from fecundity and towards the end: the historical apotheosis of society, but importantly an apotheosis that was always unsustainable, one governed by an inevitable decay, and one antithetical to return.ii That is to say, this decay remains always irremediable. With no immortal elves to remember forever the events of the past with perfect clarity and guarantee their historicity, knowledge of the past mainly disappears. Even when the past reemerges, it remains unknowable, some shift in the world caused by the past itself giving rise to a failure of science, philosophy, literature, and all of the other means by which the human comes to understand itself by narrating the movement between no longer and not yet. Thus the desire to recover the past is, as one character puts it, foolish, drastic changes in the material conditions of the world wrought by history, a history only felt in its material effects and always incomprehensible in terms of its meaning, having made it so: “‘We should not strive too hard to imitate the Afternoon Cultures […] They killed this place with industry and left it for the big monitors. In part, if not in whole, they fell because they exhausted the land. We mine the metal they once used, for instance, because there is no ore left in the earth.’” He continues, “‘And in using it all up, they dictated that our achievements should be of a different quality to their—’”iii The survivors of whatever apocalypse did this to the world (or, if not apocalypse, the simple passage of time—the cause of this world’s aftermath remains unknown and unknowable). The current generation scavenges ruins for technology so “advanced” (despite its being historical) that it may as well be magic. As new problems arise, they can be dealt with on a local or immediate level at best. There are no more longterm solutions or trajectories any more than there is the possibility of going back to before it all happened. This is aftermath, when there remains nothing but problem.

The first of the novels and stories collected in Viriconium, The Pastel City, relates how a usurper to the throne of the realm, in the words of one of the realm’s defenders, “‘has woken something we cannot handle,’”iv something from the Afternoon Cultures that the Evening Cultures do not understand and cannot defeat, autonomous killing machines called the geteit chemosit: “All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim—but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution to political problems. They hate life. This is the way they were built.”v The quest to stop these automata and prevent the usurper from placing herself on the throne appears to be very similar to that of The Lord of the Rings and other such fantasies which task themselves with staving off the end of all things. However, the conflict with the geteit chemosit reveals an important difference between Viriconium and such fantasies, namely that in this world story is unknown and unknowable. The reasons, in fact the reason (in the sense of “rationale”), behind the quest are misunderstood. These automata are not evil in any way, as is the Ring finally and unequivocally, but technologies built in such a way that they might do one thing or another (the Ring only does one thing in the end, corrupt the world). Even if those in the present understand the two-edgedness of the geteit chemosit, they do not understand the nature of this two-edgedness, how it fits into story’s dictation of events. Later, we learn as much when one character reveals that they were not created to destroy, but rather to preserve, and that their present rampage arose because of a misunderstanding of their original function and the possibilities that original function might produce under new circumstances. Once this understanding is achieved, they are shut down. This solution, however, is the sort of solution that happens in aftermath: it produces nothing better, no new insight, no return (or even arrival).

This plotline negatively demonstrates the fundamental comprehensibility of the secondary world in much fantasy. However, of greater interest here is what comes of it. In the course of shutting down the geteit chemosit, one character resurrects individuals of the Afternoon Cultures, dubbed later “The Reborn Men.” As another character puts it, these individuals, for whom time will always be out of joint, present an even greater threat to the Evening Cultures than did the just defeated rampaging automata: “‘They are too beautiful […]; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire—instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.’”vi This claim will turn out to be correct: there will be no new empire, but not for the reason stated. Return is impossible for the Evening Cultures; they exist after the end and cannot go back to before the ending. Nor, whatever claims to the contrary, can the Afternoon Cultures themselves return. Their historical existence concluded, their very being finds itself radically out of place after the end. Several of the Reborn Men feature in the sequel to The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, in which their states of mind slowly decay: “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning for them: taunted by amnesia of the soul.”vii

iHarrison, Viriconium, 3.

iiNote that in The Lord of the Rings, Sarumon (as quoted by Gandalf), describes the forward movement of time in terms opposite those of Viriconium: “‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning” JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 339.

iiiHarrison, Viriconium, 42.

ivHarrison, Viriconium, 39.

vHarrison, 78.

viHarrison, 104.

viiHarrison, 113.

None of this is normal is going to be a real live book

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 3 May 2018 by Ben

There is a page for it at the University of Minnesota website and everything.

See also the U of Minnesota P Fall 2018 catalog (PDF link) where it takes pride of place behind Brian Massumi, Allen Ginsberg, Werner Herzog, and a local Minnesota novel.

And, of course, you can pre-order it from Amazon and other fine and not-so-fine booksellers: B&N, BAM, IndieBound.

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.”

 

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