Archive for the papers Category

Empires of Disbelief: ICFA 35 proposal

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 October 2013 by Ben

I’m working in this general area right now for Here at the end of all things. I actually used the voice recorder on my phone to take notes on this subject as I walked to school yesterday. First time I have ever done that. I would do it again.

Empires of Disbelief

This paper begins with the remarkable coincidence of several historical events (“historical”, here, in a Foucauldian sense). First, John Clute argues in Pardon this Intrusion that fantastika can be traced to the early nineteenth century; the genres of fantastika “are intimately connected with the becoming visible of the engine of history, round about 1800, when the future began.” Second, we have Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, first published in 1807 and a singular influence on Western notions of history as progressive and significant. Third, Foucault traces the advent of disciplinary power to roughly the same period. As the human being entered History (Hegel) as an individual who is the same as all other individuals (Foucault), it began to narrativize its position within that history through forms that could face the end whether that end was understood to be apocalyptic or Paradisaical. These accounts dovetail, I argue, with the project of Western Empires to at once offer a sort of carrot to individuals in the form of a promise of meaning for their lives (the completion of humanity, the Rapture—what Clute would call Healing or Return) as well as the the constant denial of such an end in order to maintain their existence (humanity is never complete, history never actually ends in its perfection, the Rapture never occurs). Over the course of the past two centuries, individuals in the West (a term I use advisedly not to refer to a given unity but to a construction) have been denied what they have been promised so often that rather than believing in the future, they find themselves in a state of what Bernard Stiegler calls “disbelief.”

With reference to key fantasy texts from the last several decades—such as Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, China Miéville’s The Scar and Iron Council, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre—as well as secondary/theoretical texts from Clute, Foucault, Deleuze, and Stiegler, this paper investigates how the Story that fantasy “wishes to tell” (of Healing, in Clute’s sense of the term) has, despite constant retellings, become impossible. Of course, Healing has always been impossible, but I argue that Empire now no longer even requires it as a carrot. Whereas the West formerly relied on coherent individuals (in Foucault’s sense) who desire insertion into the History (or Story) or Empire as individuals , it now maintains itself despite the fact that people (as what Deleuze calls “dividuals”) no longer believe in such metanrratives of progress and freedom. With seemingly no possible way out of this situation, we can turn to the impossibilities of fantasies such as those listed here (among others) as models for ways of thinking that resist and overcome our disbelief.

Primary sources

Gilman, Felix. The Half-made World. New York: Tor, 2011. Print.

McKillip, Patricia A. In the Forests of Serre. New York: Ace Books, 2003. Print.

Miéville, China. Iron Council: a Novel. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

—. The Scar. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Morgan, Richard K. The Steel Remains. Del Ray trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print.

Secondary sources

Clute, John. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. N. p. Print.

Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print. Agora Paperback Editions.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print. Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics.

—. Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print. Disbelief and Discredit 2.


My Eaton/SFRA 2013 Paper: Media Theory and Genre

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 April 2013 by Ben

Here is my paper for the 2013 Eaton/SFRA conference, as part of the panel on “Mediation and Transmedia” with Scott Selisker (“Transmedia Automatism: Cinematic Motion in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl“) and Veronica Hollinger (“The Dis/enchantments of the Mediated Real”).

Media Theory and Genre

This paper is sort of chasing a certain claim, a double inversion of Arthur C. Clarke, although I cannot address it in any depth here: “Any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

So, this boringly-titled talk opens a discussion of genre as media and genre’s relation to other media. By “genre,” I mean at the start something fairly non-controversial, I hope: a set of texts, however blurry the boundaries around that set, the conventions of which take on meaning within the set and without historicity. By “media,” I follow McLuhan who more or less understands a medium as a thing, in the broadest possible sense. At times the term “technics,” which here is closely aligned with media but takes on Stiegler’s definition as “organized inorganic matter,” will supplement or replace “media.”

There are a number of strands of thought here that I hope to weave together. First, I am interested in theorizing fantasy as a genre, especially in relation with science fiction and horror, although the latter will not be present here. I am not interested in defining fantasy with regard to dragons or magic or elves and, likewise I am not interested in SF insofar as it involves technology or aliens, nor horror insofar as it involves vampires or transformation. We all “know” fantasy, SF, and horror when we see them, even if we continue to argue about many specific cases and definitive boundaries. Rather than ask “what is fantasy?” I wish to ask “what does, or perhaps better can, it do?” I shall draw shortly on a talk China Mieville gave in 2009 to help articulate this theorization.

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Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell: My Proposal for ROMOCOCO:

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 1 March 2013 by Ben

It’s not quite BI-MON-SCI-FI-CON (“Be there and be square!”), but ROMOCOCO (The Rocky Mountain Comic Convention) has a great name. and now it has this proposal to consider.

Everything looks worse in black and white: Graphic Violence in From Hell

Benjamin J. Robertson

In the early 1970s, I recall looking through HBO’s monthly guide and discovering that among the reasons a film might be rated R was something called “graphic violence.” My parents explained that graphic violence involved a lot of blood. For years I understood the word graphic to mean something like “gratuitous and visual.”

From Hell is an unquestionably violent text and a certain amount of this violence seems to be graphic in the manner of those movies on HBO after the kids are sent to bed. Absent, of course, in From Hell’s black-and-white artwork, are the red of the blood and the sheen of the guts of Sir William Gull’s victims. And while HBO’s definition of “graphic” applies to this text, its another form of “graphic violence” that is all the more notable in it.

This paper investigates the manner in which From Hell’s black-and-white artwork interacts with, underscores, and augments the text’s themes of violence and history. The most violent aspect of the text is not its portrayal of the relentlessness of William Gull but the relentlessness of its representational strategy. Moore and Campbell offer no respite from the onslaught of rough black-and-white images, images which assault the reader with their sameness and with their inability to render any clarity. Far from offering the simplicity or morality that “black and white” implies (following from, for example, the nostalgia we feel for the image of the 1950s given us in the television reruns from that era), From Hell instead offers the past as an elaborate sketch. Indeed, From Hell appears to the reader as more of a study for some as yet incompletely imagined work than it does a finished product.

The Illegible and the Interface

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another conference paper (given two or three times) from the vaults that never went anywhere more productive. I don’t know what happens at the end. So many of these papers just sort of trail off. The session must have been starting and I had to “finish” writing.


Derrida, in Dissemination: “a readability without a signified (which will be decreed to be an unreadability by the reflexes of fright)” (253)

Bremer - Untitled

Claus Bremer – Untitled

In an early critical evaluation of concrete poetry, RP Draper writes:

In European printed language it is an automatic assumption that letters forming words are separated by space from other letters forming words, that these letters march across the page from left to right, and that the lines so formed are strictly parallel and progress downwards at equal intervals. Concrete poetry plays upon these expectations, but itself takes nothing for granted.

Among his many examples of this “taking nothing for granted, Draper notes that the spacing between words may be erased, as in Ilse and Pierre Garnier’s “cinema”, shown here

Garniers - cinema

Ilse and Pierre Garnier – “cinema”

[Sorry for the quality of the scan]

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MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.


My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

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MLA 08 paper: Corruption and Sameness in the Twenty-First-Century Oil Narrative

Posted in papers, Writing on 24 February 2013 by Ben

I’m forever bumping into old work that, while interesting to me at the time and even today, simply never went anywhere in terms of publication or as part of  a longer term project. I had been focused for a couple of years on a project called Corruption and Sameness, before I turned my attention to media and science fiction (separately and together. This was to be part of that, but it never got past the conference paper stage.

The first three sections are fairly coherent, even if they do not naturally transition into and out of one another. At the end, as is the case when I write anything, but especially conference papers, there is some miscellaneous stuff that I never had a chance to get into the body (for whatever reason–thanks Agamben). It breaks down a bit at the end of the second section and then again at the end of the third, during which I extemporized a bit–relying on my natural charm to see me through. I added in the two videos for this post.

I can only refer to this as a “paper” in the loosest sense of the term. It’s more a series of ideas. Or perhaps three propositions in search of an argument.

Part I: Technologies of the Same

The present state of affairs with regard to US energy policy/oil dependency, is, to me, untenable. That point is, it seems, unexceptionable in reasonable contexts, as demonstrated in documentaries such as A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, A History of Oil, An Inconvenient Truth, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room. Of course, those contexts that count are, it seems, hardly reasonable, and, given those contexts, these texts are able to do little more than document problems; that is, they in no way set or even advise energy policy. This issue is not so much tied to this issue of rightness or wrongness, but rather to the fact that these truths are inconvenient.

The means by which these inconveniences are overcome, ignored, reconciled with other truths upon which they can gain no purchase, are what I call technologies of the same. They do nothing but sustain, even in the certain knowledge of, in fact the demonstration, unsustainability. I will discuss shortly Syriana, a film in which these technologies are on full display. Let me first mention an anecdote from the book upon which Syriana is based, ex-CIA field operative Robert Baer’s See No Evil. What’s odd about the fact that the film is based on the book is that the book has almost nothing to do with oil and is only at times about the Middle East. It is, instead, a personal history of time spent as an agent in CIA: recruiting assets and trying to get Washington to pay attention to what is actually happening in the world. Of such a moment, Baer writes: “But the point was that Washington’s fantasy about a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam helped the big thinkers there to sleep at night, and since we had no human resources inside or even near Saddam’s circle—none—there was nothing to bring them back down to earth” (175). Here Baer is not referring to the relatively recent “greetings with flowers” Cheney and Rumsfeld described, but rather to the political climate in 1995. Later, in reference to a coup attempt in Iraq that same year, one that failed largely because of a US refusal of support, Baer writes, “I knew enough about the way Washington worked to know that when it didn’t like some piece of information, it did everything in its power to discredit the messengers, which in this case were Chalabi and the general. So the corporate line in Washington was that nothing had happened in Iraq on March 4, nothing at all. Frankly, at that point, I wondered if Washington was right” (205). Perhaps it is, after postmodernism, too easy to state that these examples demonstrate yet again that representations often trump materiality, that discourse shapes the world. However, it cannot be said often enough that such representations clearly serve the interests of those with power. Most important, what must also be thought is the nature of these interests, which are not interests in the sense that they will pay actual dividends. That is, they are not financial interests, so to speak, just as we are not here discussing energy futures but rather the future of energy. We must think of these interests as something like what Ralph Ellison calls, in one of my favorite lines, “those lies [the] keepers keep their power by” (439). In other words, these present no opportunity for gain, as Washington’s inaction in 1995 demonstrate—whatever you think about outsing Saddam Hussein, you must recognize that such an event would have represented progress of some sort for Washington in 1995; rather than gain, they merely present the opportunity for more of the same, for the powerful to do what they do: congratulate each other for being powerful for the sake of being powerful over cognac and cigars.

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MLA 12 paper: Digital Anamnesis

Posted in papers on 6 January 2012 by Ben

Here is my paper from session 87, Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?

Thanks to David Golumbia for organizing it and to my co-speaker John Zuern.

The end of this (after the 1st 2 sections of the last section) get a bit “draft-y” or perhaps “notes-y”. I am working on that stuff, having to do with the political economy of academic instruction and production, for the upcoming Marxism and New Media conference at Duke.

Digital Anamnesis


This paper grows out of my ongoing concern with how we produce the future rather than the futuristic, how we produce a to-come that is not merely an extension of the past. I have for the past several years been thinking of this issue in the context of the mashup, a form of sonic collage that remixes the music from one song with the vocals from another. I’ve been thinking about how the logic of mashup, and that of the playlist, changes our relationship to the archive of recorded human knowledge, that knowledge that Bernard Stiegler understands to be stored within what he calls, following Husserl, tertiary retentions. He also refers to this recording as hypomnesis, or memory outside of memory.

This remix logic, creates a new human disposition towards the archive. Instead of historical knowledge, in which information is disposed in its wider synchronic and diachronic contexts, the archive now presents to us what Garageband calls loops, Vilem Flusser calls particles, and Stiegler might call grams: small bits of information whose purpose is not to exist according to historical dispositions, but rather to be disposed in new arrangements without regard for such contexts. I am not sure if these rearrangements do, in fact, break with the past, if they create a future that is not the futuristic no matter how startling the juxtapositions they manifest. Nonetheless, I continue to hope for such a possibility even as I am concerned about what would happen to historical meaning and thereby sanctioned knowledge practices when everything becomes a mashup, playlist, or remix. With regard to a future that is not futuristic I remain in a state of hesitation. If we break with the past, how will we understand the future? Of course, that I even ask this question, that such a question remains my concern, indicates the extent to which I am and likely will remain unable to actually break with the past, indicates the extent of my hesitation.

Thus, I turn to the paper at hand, and shift from the mashup to practices of knowledge production and sanctioning in academia. And to be clear, I do not mean to simply equate mashups with scholarship except insofar as they are both practices of meaning-making and insofar as they both involve, at this present date, new media technologies. So, I will do two things today and point towards a third. First, I will discuss Bernard Stiegler’s engagement with Plato’s concept of anamnesis in order to further elaborate the problem of the new and the manner in which that new threatens knowledge practices, especially for Stiegler. Second, I will tie this discussion to the section in the recent issue of Profession on evaluating digital scholarship. Finally, and most briefly, I will suggest that this discussion might be elaborated by thinking of it as a discussion of a political economy of academic instruction and production.

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