“Horror and the Egressive Present”: Proposal for Timescales conference

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.

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