From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 September 2016 by Ben

The text of my paper for the Fantastic Now conference, held in Munster, Germany from 22 – 24 September 2016.

From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present
Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper represents a very nascent project, something I thought I would be working on full time when I proposed it, but which has been pushed back in the queue by other, newly arisen opportunities. Nonetheless, I still plan someday to write a book called The ends of genre, which describes  a shift in our critical understanding of the world. This shift has moved criticism and theory away from a model functionally similar to science fiction and towards a model functionally similar to horror. Whereas science fiction assumes the human as well as historical and scientific progress, even if only as objects of critique, horror denies all of this in order to say that the human, history, science, progress, and even critique are contrivances developed and deployed by hairless apes to delude themselves into believing that their allotment of time means something. This shift has become visible in the work of, for example, theorists associated with speculative realism generally and Object Oriented Ontology specifically. It tracks with a rise in para-academic publishing on so-called “horror of philosophy” and claims that we live in the “age of Lovecraft.” It accounts for our fascination with the Anthropocene and our concomitant understanding that we cannot make sense of it according to the forms of meaning making we inherit and inhabit. It understands that, in the words of Bruno Latour, critique has run out of steam.

In the service of this larger argument, and very briefly put, I am interested today in recent discussions and descriptions, in contemporary environmental and media theory, of what lies above and below the threshold of human perception as well as the connection of such to narrative forms. This discussion suggests a possible understanding of what horror might be now even if this understanding of horror remains an ideal one insofar as it exceeds our capacities to represent it, or fails to rise to the level of human representation. In my definition, horror deals with a particular aspect of that which cannot be represented, a state of total problem called aftermath, which I shall discuss in a moment in the context of John Clute’s four-part grammar of the genre. I then move to my primary topic: contemporary discourses of the super and the sub, namely with regard to the Anthropocene and our present media ecology. Both of these discourses foreground time rather than space, the ways in which we are made small by cosmological timescales or rendered ignorant of the data of which we are constructed and by which we are controlled by technological timescales which remain without designation. If the super cannot be reduced to a human scale, the sub does not rise to that scale. However, whereas the super can be measured in terms of human temporal markers, the sub cannot. Both the super and the sub, as with much horror, suggest in their own ways an endless present of which we cannot make sense.

Based on John Clute’s four stage grammar of horror, I offer the following definition, which I will briefly justify. And note that I am aware of competing definitions, which I do not have time to discuss. So, horror is that form of narrative which seeks to reveal that narrative only ever serves as an attempt grant meaning to a fundamentally meaningless planet in order to make that planet amenable to human being. This definition is an ideal one, its very structure suggesting an insuperable contradiction, namely the narrativization of what cannot be narrativized. But this contradiction is precisely the point as it itself dramatizes the confrontation between the human and its meaning-making techniques, on the one hand, and something so vast or so small that narrative cannot face it on the other.

In The Darkening Garden, Clute claims that the horror narrative begins with sighting, moves on to thickening and then to revel, before concluding with aftermath. A character sights something in the world that does not conform to her understanding of it. She realizes that there is, in fact, MORE to the world than she had previously imagined. Thickening is the process in which this “more” further reveals itself, defeating the human character’s attempts to square the newly seen with her science, history, or other meaning-making techniques. During revel, the character either accepts or attempts to deny the single truth, namely that she can no longer establish any truth, even temporarily. Her intoxication marks her ironic celebration or her sincere attempt to forget. Aftermath is the state of total problem in which she is left, a state in which meaning can no longer be found or produced. This narrative structure implies a process or a sequentiality, but this implication is misleading. The process only refers to a individual or group becoming aware of what already is. Aftermath does not complete a sequence so much as represent what has always already been true. As such, horror denies what we refer to the past and the future, denies them as narrative conventions that allow those in medias res to make sense of their lives and their poems, to quote from literary critic Frank Kermode. As opposed to science fiction’s dreams of the future and fantasy’s longing for the past, horror conceives a permanent present out of which humanity carves small segments in order to make meaning and produce difference out of an undifferentiated mass. In this respect, the human is the small opposed to the large, the speck dwarfed by the cosmos, the finite faced with infinity.

Significantly, although horror can and does contemplate the spatial, in this definition it has more to do with time. Again, aftermath does not begin or conclude, origins and endings being part and parcel of narrative and therefore entirely conventions designed to grant meaning to human existence. Horror, however, does not imply any eternity, any permanence. That is, it does not represent an unchanging or stable world. Rather, it seeks to represent a state of total problem in which there can be no progress, no movement forward, no goal-directed action. We might do things, but in aftermath these things accomplish nothing of any consequence. Writing in 1778—roughly the moment of the advent of the Anthropocene as we now understand it and also that of the birth of fantastika, when the human, for Clute, became aware of its role in a planetary drama—James Hutton explains this point: “Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon the globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession.” Although I am thinking here of certain objective understandings of time, Hutton’s point is well taken: time is a human construction, one that serves to make sense of human limits but only, in the end, serves to reveal them more fully as those limits encounter the apparently unlimited scope of nature.

I had wanted to say a bit more about the super and the sub, that which is above and beyond and that which is below, at this point, but I think my time is better spent on the contemporary issues I am tracking in this paper. So, I hope it won’t be too controversial to say that that which is above and beyond—gods, nature, society, capitalism, networks—has long been a challenge to humanity, what animates many types of human narratives. One particular instance of the super, the supernatural, has long been an issue for the fantastic, for fantasy, for the weird, and for horror. Likewise, that which lies below has also animated various forms of narrative, although in rather different ways and, to my mind, often less effectively. Although I can’t defend this claim right now, I suspect that humanity has, historically, been better at imagining its confrontation with the super than it has imagining its confrontation with the sub. I am not sure this has changed precisely, but the sub, what lies below the threshold of human perception rather than above it, is of much more recent discovery than its opposite.

Over the past several decades, but mainly in the last ten years, the human confronts the super in the form of the Anthropocene, the designation for the contemporary geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on climate and the geological record. Dating this era remains a contest, with some suggesting it begins with the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, making it exactly the same as what we have heretofore called the Holocene, and others dating it as recently as the late eighteenth century, with the advent of industrial capitalism and the beginnings of our consumption of fossil fuels. What no one debates, however, is the fact that humans have, in the space of just over two centuries, released into the world energy that the world has been storing for hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. The needs of humanity, at historical and individual timescales, here confront the realities of a planet that exists at a geological timescale in the context of a cosmological one. In his account of the “geology of media,” the way in which our built environment impacts the so-called natural world at the level of the earth itself, Jussi Parikka writes, “The time of human concerns differs from geological time, which is argued to be a radical dynamic force that affects life across the boundaries of the organic and the inorganic.” In short, the human confrontation with inhuman timescales draws into relationships objects, subjects, forces, processes of which the human is but dimly aware, if at all. The individual human is made small on a spatial scale in the midst of all of these forces. More to the point here, the lifespan of the individual human or even of the human institution becomes insignificant when compared to geological time. Human beginnings and endings mean nothing in the context of what seems an endless present.

In the introduction to their recent edited collection on HP Lovercraft, Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Weinstock speak of the current importance of the weird in general and Lovecraft in particular in terms apposite the issue of the Anthropocene. They write, “what [Lovecraft’s] fiction tells us is that, however grand we consider human accomplishment, it will all inevitably disappear into the unplumbable depths of deep time. Put another way, Lovecraft’s significance to key philosophical debates rests on his assertions of human infinitesimality.” Clearly, as it has been seemingly forever, if in different terms and through different forms,, human finitude continues to be a problem in the face of the super, that which is larger than the human, that which is too big and too close perhaps to see, that which our narratives cannot contain and we cannot fully comprehend. The timescale of the individual is tiny, so the individual connects itself to historical timescales to give itself meaning. History, in turn, can be inserted into larger timescales in order to telescope between human scale events and geological and cosmological ones. However, as critics such as Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and McKenzie Wark, among others, have pointed out, the stories so constructed remain irresolvably and problematically anthropocentric. They remain tales of progress, of becoming ever more modern and knowledgeable about the world, the way it works, and how the human belongs to it or in it. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz make clear that this narrative of coming to knowledge, the narrative of the historical novel as well as that of science fiction, remains inadequate to Anthropocene: “The story of awakening is a fable. The opposition between a blind past and a clear-sighted present, besides being historically false, depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It serves above all to credit our own excellence.” Modern forms of narrative, in which I include science fiction, fail. Postmodern, or perhaps post-historical, forms of narrative such as horror, in which human infinitesimality does not add up to a meaning called “history,” replace them.

But this issue of an uncaring world operating according to laws and at scales incommensurate with individual and historical time only addresses part of the issue I am trying to get at here. The other part, and the relationship of each part to each other, is significantly weirder, and even less amenable to our understanding. The super seems so material and obvious in whatever form it takes and the human, smaller than the super, able to fit within it as a unit of measurement, whether that fitting in takes the form of embrace or suffocation being another question entirely. But below the threshold of our perception lies the sub, that which does not rise to the human scale and therefore remains ungraspable to the techniques meaning making humans use to fend off the horror of the world.

Cultural theorist Steven Shaviro has argued that consciousness is “cognitively expensive,” that it costs a great deal more energy than it is worth. In short, we do not need to be aware of what we think in order to think it, although modern sensibilities related to Kant’s critical faculty demand this awareness at all times as a ward against ideology and dogmatism. Shaviro argues this point based on studies that suggest that humans actually make decisions before they are aware of having made them, that suggest we begin to act even before we know of what we have “chosen” to do, that suggest we react to stimuli of which we are not conscious. Along very similar lines, media theorist Mark Hansen claims that “Human experience is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation caused by the complex entanglement of humans within networks of media technologies that operate predominantly, if not almost entirely, outside the scope of human modes of awareness (consciousness, attention, sense perception, etc.).” Hansen further argues that twenty-first century media systems “help us—embodied, minded, enworlded macroscale beings that we are—to access and to act on the microtemporality of experience, [and] they do so precisely and only because they bypass consciousness and embodiment, which is really to say because they bypass the limitations of consciousness and embodiment.” Hansen’s argument tends to be optimistic about the potential consequences of human involvement with these media systems, but we need not take that optimism without a grain of salt. That grain of salt makes clear that there exists, all around us on a daily basis, a microworld of data and sensibility to which we have no access. The temporality of this world is calculated on the order of fragments of seconds. Moreover, this subcultural world—created in some respect by humans but manifest at a scale into which the human is too big to fit—exerts considerable control over the human. Any smartphone, for example, is capable of not only perceiving information we cannot, but also of compiling, configuring, coordinating this information into forms legible to human perception and thereby enjoining us to act upon this information. At the scale of the super, our inherited techniques of making meaning fail even if they do so knowingly, even if they narrativize their failures as narrative. At the level of the sub, these meaning making operations do not so much fail as they never have the chance to even begin to work. They are too blunt as instruments, unable to grasp the granularity of data and temporality of nanoseconds. In the absence of human narrative, inhuman narrative—those written by tablets, networks, communication technologies—take over.

So the human lies below that which is above and above that which is below. This situation remains true in contexts other than that of the Anthropocene and twenty-first century media. However, these two contexts share a peculiar relationship with one another, one only becoming visible now. The world, it seems, is thickening as a result of our understanding of our intervention into it, an intervention which we surely no longer control and perhaps remain incapable of perceiving in its manifold consequences or in real time. Benjamin Bratton describes what he calls an “accidental megastructure,” the Stack, made up of six layers: the Earth, the Cloud, the City, the Address, the Interface, and the User. I can’t describe each of these layers, but note that they are decidedly anti-humanist. Minerals and netbots have as much agency as users as do humans, the latter being an increasingly marginalized element of the total structure. Importantly, Bratton makes clear that even if much of the Stack was constructed, it does not obey any single authority and largely defies the political, epistemological, and even ontological categories and methods of definition we inherit from modernity. Most importantly, and most horrifyingly, for the present argument is Bratton’s explanation of the ways in which the Earth, the physical planet itself, feeds the twenty-first century media that control us. He writes that, in the Stack, “the Earth is the Earth—a physical planet—not a metaphor for ‘nature.’ There is no planetary-scale computation, now a vast network of many billions of little Turing machines, that does not intake and absorb the Earth’s chemistry in order to function.” Moreover, “there is no Stack without a vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities. The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones.” In other words, the human, in some ways unknowingly, contributes to the Anthropocene as a consequence of its production of those devices that mediate our knowledge of the world in ways that cannot perceive. The human inserts its time and interests into supernatural time and interests in order to manifest a subcultural field of fragmented moments that cannot be be made to mean anything to the human. This is contemporary horror, the experience of an endless present, the experience of an existence situated between the alpha and omega of inhumanity. Horror, as a genre, has not yet caught up to what we have already done to ourselves. We no doubt have some place in this circuit, but, to use a woefully outdated metaphor, that place seems to be between the hammer and the anvil.

None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer

Posted in Uncategorized on 9 September 2016 by Ben

Here is the proposal I wrote for None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, which is now under contract with the University of Minnesota Press. If you like your book proposals in PDF form, then click here.

Overview

None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer contributes to literary and cultural studies in three ways and speaks to several audiences. First and foremost, and at the level of greatest detail, it will be the first scholarly examination of Jeff VanderMeer (an increasingly important and popular, yet understudied writer), namely in terms of his development of “fantastic materialism” beginning in his early fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s, continuing in the Ambergris novels (2002 – 2009), and culminating in the Southern Reach trilogy (2014). As such, the book will be of interest to students and critics of VanderMeer, as well as to readers of the middle-brow venues that have helped to put him on the mainstream cultural map. Second, and at a somewhat more abstract level, this book extends and broadens, by way of this examination of VanderMeer’s fantastic materialism, ongoing critical discussions of recent trends in genre fiction and the theoretical questions that surround it, namely those having to do with how particular forms react to and frame specific historical moments. Thus the book will address scholars of genre fiction as well as other scholars who occasionally write about genre fiction without adequate background in its history, conventions, or critical context. Finally, and most broadly, it connects both VanderMeer and the issue of genre to a broader historical context. In an era concerned with the Anthropocene and characterized by pessimistic fictions and critical theories, new generic forms have become prominent. They offer a potential means of complementing or extending theoretical and scientific discussions of the Anthropocene and a means by which to overcome the pessimism that often pervades these discussions. This aspect of the book will be of interest to scholars of post-1945 literature and culture who have worked in recent years to connect literary/artistic form (including realism, meta-fiction, and generic structure) to contemporary political, cultural, social, and ecological issues, including the Anthropocene and climate change.

VanderMeer has become an important figure in contemporary fiction, and a crucial voice in discussions of how humanity interacts with natural and cultural environments, by blending science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the weird without reducing himself to any of these categories. He established himself in mainstream literary circles in 2014 with the publication of his Southern Reach trilogy by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, after first publishing in small, independent venues, and earning acclaim from readers of genre fiction. The merits of the trilogy were extolled in such middle-brow venues as The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New Yorker (the latter of which calls VanderMeer “the weird Thoreau”). Popular venues also praised the trilogy. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best books of the year, attesting to VanderMeer’s sudden visibility as a writer as well as to the newfound commercial viability of genre writing that defies conventional designations. Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina, writer and producer of 28 Days Later) is directing the film adaptation of the trilogy’s first book, Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. The film will be released in 2017. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux acquired the follow-up to the Southern Reach trilogy (Borne, to be published in 2017) for a six-figure deal. Both the film and the new novel suggest that VanderMeer will continue to be a major writer and a driving force for the genres in which he works for the foreseeable future.

Little scholarship on VanderMeer has appeared to date, despite his success, and despite considerable popular and critical attention paid to horror and weird fiction in recent years. For example, in 2015 Penguin re-issued Thomas Ligotti’s first two volumes of fiction with an introduction by VanderMeer. This volume followed from True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto’s claim that his show was influenced by Ligotti. Similarly, in the last decade, VanderMeer (with his wife Ann VanderMeer) has published major surveys of weird and New Weird fiction. Scholarly journals such as Genre and Paradoxa will publish special issues on weird fiction in 2016 and there are cottage industries devoted to theorizing horror (via Zero Books and others) and New Weird writer China Miéville. None of This is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer fills a gap in the critical discussion of horror and the weird as it focuses on how VanderMeer’s fictions, as well as the genres he works within and deforms, interact with the current historical moment. On one hand, these fictions and genres react to a world that, in contrast to the promises of modern science, has become increasingly inhospitable to human knowledge—whether scientific or humanistic. On the other hand, it offers glimpses of new frameworks for thinking about that world. These frameworks exist outside of norms familiar to the reader and are therefore neither beholden to those norms nor to the pessimism to which they are often joined. These frameworks arise from the native logics of VanderMeer’s fictional worlds, logics alien to sensibilities grounded in the reader’s world. VanderMeer’s stories, novellas, and novels stand in contrast to the cognitive/rationalist science fiction of the past, to the critical discussions of genre that continue to celebrate such science fiction by dismissing texts that do not clearly connect to the reader’s world or exhibit a logic reducible to it, and to the current pessimistic trend in theory and criticism surrounding the Anthropocene and such discourses as Object Oriented Ontology.

I frame the book in terms of the crisis of scientific and humanistic knowledge revealed by the “Anthropocene,” the proposed name for the current geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on its environment. As recent theoretical work by Donna Haraway, Timothy Morton, Jussi Parrika, Peter Van Wyck, Heather Davis, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, among others, shows, the Anthropocene demands that humanity rethink its relationship to what we can variously call nature, the environment, or ecology. At the same time, critics such as Stephanie LeMenager and Kate Marshall have sought to identify adequate literary forms for representing this evolving relationship or, in the case of Dana Phillips, have claimed that the Anthropocene always escapes representation (in whatever form). Despite their differences, these thinkers make clear that scientific knowledge does not fully grasp the Anthropocene’s complexities, nor does any extant humanistic practice adequately narrate them. As such, humanity needs new modes of thought, new forms, new genres, especially ones capable of being more than pessimistic treatises on the failures of humanity. By paying close attention to the specific sort of estrangement VanderMeer produces for his readers—by way of what I call fantastic materialism—as well as to the generic, critical, and cultural contexts in which he writes, I explain how VanderMeer offers a glimpse of what new modes of thought might look like and how they suggest escape routes from our current pessimism.

“Fantastic materialism” assumes altogether different realities out of which manifest altogether different subjectivities and modes of thought. The term “fantastic” highlights how this materialism is based in something historical materialism (mainly of a Marxist sort) deems impossible. Fantasy, in Tolkien’s argument, ideally instills in the reader belief in a secondary world, the rules of which are quite different than the primary world in which the reader reads. However, this belief renders any thought which would challenge belief, especially critical thought, impossible. Starting in his earliest fiction and reaching a culmination in the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer borrows from generic fantasy in order to create secondary worlds divorced from the primary world of the reader. However, even as he solicits the reader’s belief in these worlds, he calls them into question, thus both asserting their materiality but also rendering impossible any total understanding of them. Moreover, and here is the key point, VanderMeer questions these worlds not from the outside, not from the point of view of someone located in the primary world. Such questioning would render them other in opposition to established norms—as merely fantastic. Rather, he questions his secondary worlds from within, from points of view manifested in and by the worlds themselves, thus establishing for each a particular and fantastic materiality. That is, the points of view from which these worlds are presented and questioned are grounded in the worlds themselves, according to the particular modes of knowledge these worlds manifest by way of their specificities. Such ways of thinking must always be alien to a reader conditioned by a very different materiality, the one in which she reads—thus the title of the book, None of This is Normal, taken from a passage in 2009’s Finch. To be clear: VanderMeer’s worlds cannot be understood according to norms operative for a reader situated in the primary world because these worlds’ alien materialities create different norms. At the same time, these alien norms are neither complete, coherent, nor singular, but are always partial, contradictory, and multiple.

I argue that the estrangements fantastic materialism creates and maintains—not only estranging worlds and environments, but also understandings of that environment which are themselves estranged and estranging—are appropriate for, necessary for, an historical moment in which historical thought fails. Such thought, often involved with conventional realism and the scientific empiricism related to it, is the legacy of modernity. It might be understood not simply as a failed attempt to make sense of the Anthropocene. Rather, insofar as it derives from and feeds into certain forms of anthropocentrism, it actually serves to obscure the Anthropocene as it has developed and thus plays a role in our incomprehension of it in the first place. VanderMeer’s fiction, of course, remains the product of a human mind and human history, and thus remains burdened by many of the shortcomings thereof. However, rather than affording a pessimism that remains humanist by virtue of being unable to see its way past human modes of thought, it seeks to describe what inhuman worlds might look like, as well as the different subjectivities, histories, and espistemologies these worlds might manifest.

Little scholarship on VanderMeer has been published to date (although there is at least one essay forthcoming later this year in a special issue of Paradoxa on “Global Weirding”). As such, no books directly compare with the one proposed here. Nonetheless, a book on VanderMeer would not only be timely (given his current popularity), but it would also greatly contribute to a field that has already received considerable attention in terms of general theorizing and with regard to two specific writers. Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy trilogy (Zero Books 2011 – 14) does an excellent job establishing horror and the weird as contemporary cultural concerns and informs my work here. However, Thacker spends little time addressing specific writers or texts, even if he sets the stage for such considerations. He also contributes to the pessimism VanderMeer helps us understand and overcome. Other critical texts do address specific writers of weird fiction, but mainly only two: H.P. Lovecraft and China Miéville. Graham Harman’s H.P. Lovecraft: Weird Realism (Zero Books 2012) offers an engagement with Lovecraft that says a great deal more about Harman’s interest in Object Oriented Ontology than it does about the weird as a genre or its resurgence in the current cultural moment. The Age of Lovecraft (Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, eds.; U of Minnesota P 2016) and New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft (D. Simon, ed.; Palgrave 2013) have something to say about genre beyond their specific object of inquiry and therefore only demonstrate the need for further work in the field, especially with regard to writers other than Lovecraft and topics beyond the Cthulhu mythos. Along similar lines, China Miéville: Critical Essays (Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds.; Gylphi 2015) offers excellent readings of weird fiction from multiple perspectives and in manifold contexts, but, again, only with regard to a single writer. Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (Carl Freedman; Gylphi 2015), while excellent in its own right, remains tied to a cognitive/rationalist approach to genre that ignores the weird altogether, along with horror and fantasy. It reduces Miéville’s fiction by way of a Marxist understanding of science fiction which remains grounded in outmoded understandings of historical materialism. Weird fiction generally, and VanderMeer specifically, seek to overcome such modernist logic.

Continue reading

A glossary for Here at the end of all things

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 September 2016 by Ben

No one asked for this, but here is a glossary for my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. Among other things, the project develops a complex vocabulary for thinking about fantasy as a discourse both in its own terms and in relation to science fiction and horror (in the context of history). These are some of the key terms, many of which are adopted and adapted from other writers (especially John Clute and Bernard Stiegler).

In any case, they may not mean very much on their own, but taken together I think they are suggestive:

affectivity: the nature of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts

aftermath: the final stage of disappointment characterized by a permanent state of problem and a final and irrevocable sundering of meaning and being, i.e. subsistence (adapted from Clute’s term)

arrival: the final stage of paradigm characterized by the final joining of meaning and being and therefore an end to existence (replaces Clute’s term “topia”)

cognition: the third stage of paradigm in which the subject assimilates to the novelty produced by the novum—willingly or unwillingly, for good or for ill—which had previously caused her to feel estrangement (replaces Clute’s term “conceptual breakthrough,” which he borrows from Peter Nicholls)

consistence: the perfect congruity of meaning and being characteristic of story and destroyed by paradigm (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

desirability: the elimination of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts, held always in abeyance and never arriving, but ideally achieved by either by return or in aftermath

disappointment: the grammar of horror which begins with sighting and proceeds to thickening, revel, and aftermath; a process of moving from existence to subsistence although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with anti-history (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

estrangement: the second stage of paradigm in which the subject becomes confused by the novelty brought into the world by the novum (replaces Clute’s term “cognitive estrangement,” which he borrows from Darko Suvin)

existence: an out-of-syncness of meaning and being, but ideally a temporary one that paradigm overcomes (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

fantastika: the collective name for the genres inaugurated by the Enlightenment, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror; its various genres react to the Enlightenment and its rationality in various ways (adapted from Clute’s term, although used by many)

fantasy: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and its historical mode of thought as a corruption of story, the true essential state of the world and the grammar of fantasy

horror: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and historical thought as falsehoods which hide the fact that meaning and being are always already permanently out-of-sync; the grammar of horror is called disappointment

novum: the first stage of paradigm in which novelty is introduced to the world which transforms the history of that world in a fundamental, totalizing fashion (adapted from Clute’s term, borrowed from Darko Suvin and Ernst Bloch)

paradigm: the grammar of science fiction which begins with novum and proceeds to estrangement, cognition, and arrival; a process of moving from existence to more existence, although it promises consistence; associated with history (adapted from Peter Nicholls and, more so, Thomas Kuhn)

positivity: both the fact of story as something with a history as well as its relationship with other historical objects and concepts

recognition: the third stage of story in which the subject comes to understand her place within story, which is to say that her being and meaning are at one with one another (adapted from Clute’s term)

return: the final stage of story in which the subject no longer exists but consists (adapted from Clute’s term, which replaced “healing”)

revel: the third stage of disappointment in which the subject accepts her subsistence and either celebrates this acceptance or laments it, either of which likely involves inebriation (adapted from Clute’s term)

science fiction: the genre of fantastika which accepts the Enlightenment and modernity as both problem and the solution to problem; the grammar of science fiction is called paradigm

sighting: the first stage of horror characterized by the subject becoming aware of something already present in the world that conflicts with and thereby destroys the fictions by which she gave meaning to her being (adapted from Clute’s term)

story: the grammar of fantasy which begins with wrongness and proceeds to thinning, recognition, and return; a process of moving from existence to consistence, although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with ahistory (adapted from Clute’s term)

subsistence: the final and irrevocable sundering of being from meaning characteristic of disappointment and feared by existence which tends to produce it nonetheless (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

thickening: the second stage of disappointment characterized by the subject becoming increasingly aware that there is more to the world than can be accounted for by the narratives she tells about it, including the narrative called history (adapted from Clute’s term)

thinning: the second stage of story characterized by the subject becoming aware that the world is becoming less than it was during its prelapsarian period prior to wrongness (adapted from Clute’s term)

wrongness: the first stage of story in which the subject becomes aware of a corruption of the world’s essential truth that has caused it to fall from consistence into existence (adapted from Clute’s term)

“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.