Paper for ICFA 35: Empires of Disbelief

Here is the paper I delivered for ICFA 35, entitled “Empires of Disbelief.” Sorry, but the formatting was lost in translation between Libreoffice and here.

Several mostly recent fantasies—including Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Mieville’s The Scar—render intelligible discontinuities endemic to Tolkien, or, better, endemic to a conception of the quest fantasy visible in Tolkien, even if this conception by no means exhausts The Lord of the Rings. As Clute notes, and as Lord of the Rings seems to replicate, full fantasy begins in wrongness and proceeds through thinning, recognition, and healing or return. I am concerned with this last step.

Of course, Clute also notes that healing and return are the story that fantasy wishes it could tell, and the ur-text of generic quest fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, no more fulfills this wish than any other. The world remains fallen, is perhaps even more fallen, at the end; the heroes of the realm may have saved the world, but not for themselves. They cannot be healed within the scope of the story and must seek their completion or salvation in a beyond that the story cannot include. Whatever empire is restored or established, the premises upon which the Captains of the West found it are divorced from a vision of the future that affords a completed humanity. Each of the aforementioned texts deals with this exclusion of healing in its own way and offer us the opportunity to consider what is at stake in the quest fantasy.

Through his assertion that fantasy wishes to tell, perhaps wishes it could tell, a story of healing and return Clute implies that fantasy dramatizes the potential for a redeemed, completed, or saved humanity. The world of fantasy involves disappointment in the double sense of, on the one hand, a being-let-down and, on the other hand, a removal from a privileged or otherwise elevated position, a dis-appointment. Fantasy such as that of Tolkien thus makes visible a modern desire for Story and belief, a belief compromised by the collapse of modern institutions of enclosure, institutions such as the family, the nation, the school, and the church, each of which offered means through which humans might become subjects, become individuals, which is to say become discrete beings identical to other discrete beings in a collectivity that transforms a group of Is into a we. Such collectivities stand as bulwarks against a secular world in which the human has been disappointed from its position as the center of the universe. As Clute notes, the advent of the modern genres of the fantastic occurs at the end of the 18th century, roughly contemporaneously with the innovation of these institutions in the modern form.

French philosopher of technology and politics Bernard Stiegler notes that the contemporary disbelief characteristic of what he calls the decadence of industrial democracy, but which you and I know as post-modernity or moment of late capitalism, can in part be traced to a subsequent disappointment, namely that done in the name of a certain anti-humanism of the 1970s. Stiegler seems to be referring, for example, to critical projects by Althusser and Foucault, each of whom address the manner in which certain modern institutions produce problematic subjectivities. Foucault especially, for all of the value Stiegler finds in his project, comes under fire for the manner in which he disappoints human being—the description of the disappearance of the face in the sand at the end of The Order of Things comes to mind here.

There can be no doubt that the Foucault of the archaeological writings is interested in disappointment insofar as he deploys discontinuity as a tool to disrupt the logic of historical practices that establish smooth narratives of history and seamless moments of harmony amongst various groups at particular moments. For Stiegler, however, such a project, while certainly not the single or even primary cause of the mass disappointment of the second half of the twentieth century, cannot serve as the basis for a new politics of belief. Stiegler endeavors, in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations as well as the multi-volume work Disbelief and Discredit, to establish contemporary belief through a return to certain modern, Enlightenment practices of literacy and the production of collectivities, updated for a society characterized by its lack of attention and fragmentation. At once committed to a certain Kantian notion of critique as well as a Platonism through which he would establish an aristocracy (that is a rule by the best, a sort of return of the philosopher king), Stiegler understands the problem of contemporary capitalism to be grounded in our lack of belief, a disbelief that makes impossible collective projects of nation or people. The world that had fallen from a religious understanding of itself with the advent of modernity, has further fallen post modernity to the point at which it can no longer even believe in large scale secular symbols.

As this disbelief was becoming increasingly common in the post-war period, generic fantasy begins in earnest with the publication and popularization of The Lord of the Rings, in which we might find (again, among other things that trouble such a simple reading) Tolkien’s noted insistence on secondary belief and the eucatastrophe that would at least nod towards a redeemed humanity and a potential return it to an unfallen state.

This paper is, of course, part of  a longer project on the issue of disbelief, the status of the ending, and the genres of the fantastic in the context of late capitalism. It argues, broadly, that Quest, History, Story are technologies through which Empires justify the present, are the “lies the keepers keep their power by” in the words of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These technologies consume everything, transform all that is other into the same. Genre itself, still derided in some circles as paraliterature, as low, has been consumed by that single Genre we might call the Western, the story that capitalism tells of itself and that it teaches us to tell of it from the moment of we are born.

This longer project is entitled Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of the Generic. I take this title from Frodo’s lament as he lies on Mt. Doom following the destruction of the ring: “For the Quest is achieved and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” This statement—statement in the Foucauldian sense, a language act that creates a state—what this statement states is the field of the quest fantasy as that which assumes or at the very least seeks completion, that which puts together what has been taken apart through the advance of history and the critical projects that drive history as a discipline. As an aside, this reading dovetails with my understanding of quest fantasy as being about a stable morality (good vs. evil remains constant) standing in the face of a decadent world. Science fiction and horror have different relationships to the question of morality and progress.

Frodo, in his understanding, has finished the story. There is nothing left, perhaps neither subject nor object (no THING), at the end of the world. Frodo, no more than Tolkien or any of us, can see past the end of the story, an end that appears to him as an end even with several chapters left for us to read. As Frank Kermode once wrotes, “Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.” Of course, we know well before Frodo does that this is not the end, and many critics have rightly insisted on the importance of “The Scouring of the Shire” for the way in which it deals with a further conclusion to the story. But of course even that chapter does not provide the end. Bilbo, who went there and back again in a literal sense but never truly returned, once turned over the Red Book to Frodo. And of course Frodo went there and back again, but did not return, was not healed. He saved the world, but not for himself. So he turns over the Red Book to Sam, for whom he has saved the final chapter. But even Sam’s chapter is not final and not included anyway in the story itself except as a reference in the appendix, a part of the novel that comes after the end in an attempt to complete what could not be completed within the Story itself. Wherever “here” is, it would seem, it is not at the end of all things, or even any thing.

Stiegler refers to three states of being: subsistence, existence, and consistence. Subsistence is the being of the animal (although Stiegler does not refer to animality as such): mere being, a being in which one’s being is completely out of alignment with meaning, a being, when humans are reduced to it, characterized by the absence of all belief. Subsistence has no future, no possibility of an end. Existence is the being proper to humans, in which mere being seeks its meaning in the symbol. Symbols have consistence, a being that is at one with meaning. Symbols, according to this logic, do not exist in the double sense that there are no “real” symbols and that symbols do not need to chase their meaning. Symbols only have a positive being insofar as humans believe in them and belief in the symbol, which has its being in the future and beyond the scope of the individual existence, allows the I to join with a We that is larger than the I; this collectivization thereby allows the human to live past finite being, past the end, which, in the current argument, is the only possible time of completion. When symbols are destroyed, when they become in Stiegler’s provocative and yet frustrating language “diaboles”, this “after the end” becomes an extension or permanent thinning of the present, a time of subsistence, a time in which meaning has become impossible, when there is no collectivity, and no belief in a we, a nation, a people, etc. Clute would call this time “aftermath”.

The Lord of the Rings dramatizes the encounter with such an “after the end.” No matter how many times it states an ending, there is always another ending. Sam himself will turn over the Red Book to his daughter, who no doubt will add to it some account that even the appendices cannot contain. On the one hand, the novel seems to insist that a proper ending, a completion, remains possible, that consistence might be achieved, but at every turn is thwarted by a story that insists on continuing past the point of meaning. In this fashion, we see how generic fantasy states a desire to tell the story of healing and return, how fantasy seeks to put everything back together that modernity had taken apart. By contrast, however, The Lord of the Rings clearly imagines the destruction of symbol, the Ring in which Sauron’s being and meaning became one. The novel seems to know that consistence has become impossible. Tolkien’s fantasy is not naïve.

This point notwithstanding, however, The Lord of the Rings states the quest fantasy as that which seeks completion, and those who allow themselves to be so stated rarely come to satisfactory conclusions. one cannot help but read the second trilogy, the “prequel”, the neverending series, as symptoms of a failure to learn the lesson that here at the end of all things nothing ever ends. Tolkien may not have been  naïve, but the Tolkienistas find impossible getting outside of the state he has left for them to navigate.

For the remainder of this paper I will look very briefly at four texts that, if not escape this statement, nonetheless make visible and describe this statement as a statement:  Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Mieville’s The Scar.

The iron dragon’s daughter
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter might frustrate readers (or, at least, amazon reviewers) for being episodic. This charge, if not the evaluation it implies, may be fair. Alternatively, the story that novel tells may be too complex for either its human readers or Jane, its changeling protagonist, to see in its entirety. Jane is constantly manipulated by Melanchthon, the eponymous Iron Dragon, the Baldwynn, and, the Goddess at the center of everything. As Jane and Melanchthon’s assault the Spiral Castle, which houses the Goddess, Swanwick writes, in a restating of Frodo’s lament to Sam, “They were embarked on a quest of destruction, going up against the greatest Enemy of all, to die and in death seek the obliteration of history. It was the end of all things.”

Jane and Melanchthon fail in their quest, or so it would seem. As the dragon disintegrates in the midst of its great rage, the assault ends, with a simple sentence: “Then she died.” But Jane does not die. Rather, she meets the Baldwynn, an ancient elf who seems to run the world, or at least has a hand in running it, and finally the Goddess herself. However, rather than learning the meaning of everything (Jane will eventually ask about the necessity of pain, why the world is one way and not another, etc.), she discovers that the Goddess is nothing but a child who has “helped” Jane only insofar as she has manipulated Jane to play a certain role in a story that is not precisely her own. The Goddess wanted Jane to perform a quest, a story that encompasses everything into its meaning to the extent that individual actors no longer matter, even if the quest offers a certain consistence in its promise of the possibility of completion. The quest ends, but only insofar as Jane abandons it in her having refused to play the role the Goddess demanded of her. After the end, after the end of the quest (which again is never complete, except for, perhaps, Melanchthon, whose existence involved the pursuit of destruction as meaning), Jane is returned to our world (her world before she traveled through the portal and began to take part in a quest the contours of which she could never fully perceive) to perhaps live the same series of events, or ones very much like them, all over once again.

In the forests of Serre
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter seems to me the most realistic (in the sense that it would describe a condition or instance of disbelief rather than evaluate it). By contrast, In the Forests of Serre seems the most optimistic. Whereas Swanwick offers a world in which the quest ends by way of our deviation from it, through our refusal of our role in it), McKillip offers one in which the true state of affairs involves a proliferation of story rather than a singular one. The forests of the title are a sort of refracted polder, Clute’s term for areas of “toughened reality” that defy the thinning of the world that signals the conflict of the full fantasy. Lothlórien and Rivendell are bulwarks against the encroaching darkness, the fallenness, of Middle-earth. They are the world’s stability, its touchstone to a fuller, richer past, even as they fail. They maintain the story, the morality, of the world, even if it is an inhuman one. McKillip’s forests, by contrast, offer a rather toughened reality. In the forests of Serre one finds not a single story that the fantasy wishes it could tell and conclude, but rather myriad stories that intersect and never resolve. Stories shift in terms of meaning and consequence depending on where one is and what one does. As Unciel the wizard puts it, “Never underestimate the power of a tale. What you put aside as fantasy in one land can kill you in the next.” The impossibility so many critics note as being constitutive of fantasy shifts, the story never once and for all (or just so), but manifold and contingent (an as if irreducible to just so).

The assault upon the forests and the story it would tell comes from King Ferus, who, in trying to conquer the world, would render all stories (all symbols, all consistency) as the single story of Serre. At one point Princess Sidonie of Dacia, pledged to marry Prince Ronan of Serre to prevent the conquest of her homeland, tells another wizard, Gyre, “What the King of Serre fears is truly not much more than legend.” What the King of Serre fears is legend itself, a story that escapes the logic of his story. In the Forests of Serre makes visible that aspect of the quest narrative, stated by Tolkien, that all stories become a single story and in so doing articulates a greater freedom in the impossible, namely the freedom to explore multiple, even contradictory, stories at one and the same time. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter demonstrates that we maintain our belief at our peril, and perhaps in this manner enacts rather than overcomes the logic of postmodernity Stiegler decries. In the Forests of Serre demands of us a perhaps more powerful, if Romantic, belief, namely the belief in the multiplicity of the world, its essential difference from itself.

The steel remains
Early in The Steel Remains, the first volume in Richard Morgan’s series A Land Fit for Heroes and the most cynical of the texts I discuss here, Ringil Eskiath—hero of the realm and shunned homosexual—states with great irony, “My days of fighting for the cause of justice, truth, and light are done, Mother.” This statement, along with much of the rest of the book, establishes the fact that what Clute calls “full fantasy” is over. There has been, in the past, Wrongness, Thinning, Recognition, and Return. The heroes, including Ringil, defeated the scaled folk only to witness the strange and powerful Kiriath leave the world. The land was “healed” and Ringil and his companions “returned” to their homes.

This structure, complete before The Steel Remains begins, mirrors that of The Lord of the Rings. Wherea we may see it, anachronistically to be sure, as a structuring principle for The Lord of the Rings, Morgan implies this structure as prologue to an aftermath of fantasy in order to explore the problematic aspects  “Return” or “Healing”. Whereas Frodo and Bilbo must leave Middle-earth because of the pain they endured as the result of their respective quests, Morgan’s characters live in world denuded of its power (the Kiriath, like the elves of Middle-earth, take something essential with them when they leave) and deal with what Donald Elgin identifies as the comic aspect of the fantasy epic: the fact that evil is never defeated finally or forever.

Moreover, Ringil’s pronouncement about being done with the noble causes one supposedly fights for in the full fantasy reveals their essential hollowness, specifically with regard to the manner in which they entice the young and gullible into action and fail them after the fact. To be clear, Ringil and his companions become the heroes of the realm in part in response to these noble truths, these symbols, deployed cynically or otherwise by ruling powers against an existential threat. As heroes, they are fit, adequate to the task, but the land they return to is not fit for them: it rejects them, whether for their homosexuality (in Ringil’s case), for their newfound cosmopolitanism, or their residual otherness (these last two refer to his primary companions). They achieve not consistence, or even existence. They continue to be, but only in a state of subsistence in which the live but see no meaning. Morgan begins in what Clute calls Aftermath, which carries with it “an awareness that Story is done”, which might therefore involve a world in which “justice, truth, and light” are revealed to be merely the cynical tools of a land that does not deserve the Story its heroes deliver it.

The scar
It would be hard to catalog in a work of any length the ways in which The Scar restates the portal quest fantasy. Mieville makes clear in interviews, for example, his disdain for Tolkien and Tolkienism. Beyond the explicit, we have several moments in which the novel makes clear that, whatever Bellis Coldwine’s understanding of events, she is not the protagonist, not the chosen one, not the liberal human subject who moves through history, through the quest, through the story, as an autonomous, agential, and discrete individual whose life means through here participation in events. Uther Doul makes as much clear to here when he subtly reveals his manipulation of her near the end of the novel. Silas Fennec’s pronounces as much to her when she visits him as he awaits his fate after being discovered as the betrayer of Armada to New Crobuzon:

You’re not going to learn anything from me, Bellis. […] You’re not going to get anything out of this. This won’t be catharsis, and you won’t feel better when you leave. […] There’s nothing special about you, Bellis: you were one of many. I treated you no differently from anyone else. I thought of you no more and no less. The only difference between you and any of the others is that you’re here now. And you think there’s some point to you being here. That you had to… what? Have it out? […] There’s no it, Bellis”

She understood something very much like this as she awaited her own trial for the roel she played in Fennec’s betrayal: “I have knowledge that I cannot use, on a journey I cannot control, the aims of which I do not share or understand, and I am longing for a home I fled, and for a place I have never seen.”

But all of this remains cynical. We are not subjects. Story is an illusion, cobbled together by a selfish consciousness seeking to matter in the face of nothing or deployed by the powers that be for the purpose of creating powerful bodies in the service of the state, religion, power generally. Mieville, however, does not finally remain cynical. The conclusion of this quest remains forever indeterminate. On the one hand, we never reach the Scar and find out what it is, whether it exists, what secrets it might reveal about the world and the place of the subject within that world. Armada turns around before it achieves its adopted mission (adopted in the face of the Brucoloc’s claim that the city is not for that, not for adventures of this sort). At the same time, however, we do reach the Scar, through Hedrigall’s story, which has, I would argue, no more or less reality to it than the rest of the novel, which at the same time can be read nonetheless as the frame tale through which we see the completion of the quest itself. By both giving us and denying us completion, Mieville gives us existence and steers us away from subsistence. We may never consist, but we can believe in the impossible nonetheless.


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