Archive for the papers Category

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 April 2014 by Ben

Following is the transcript of my talk for Morrisville State College’s Science, Technology, and Society Symposium on monsters. I was given the topic “Abominations” and, as you will see, chose to speak about werewolves, among other things. I am definitely humming some of the hard parts here, but will leave it at that. You can download a PDF of the talk here.

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Benjamin J Robertson

My epigraph is from Angela Carter’s short story, “The company of wolves:

Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops–of all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, orgres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal tables, the wolf is the worst, for he cannot listen to reason.

Introduction: why talk about werewolves?

It’s weird to me to be talking about werewolves, because they terrify me. Or perhaps it’s not so weird. Perhaps I am talking about them because they terrify me. In a short encyclopedia entry on the relationship between horror and science fiction, Leslie Fiedler writes:

[I]f many of us tend to speak apologetically, defensively, self-mockingly about our fondness for horror fantasy, this is primarily because of a cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of our response, a conflict deep in our psyches between what we, as heirs to the Age of Reason, think we know to be so and what we ambivalently wish or fear to be true. We are convinced that the universe we inhabit is fully explicable in terms of ‘natural’ cause and effect and that once we understand their ‘laws’ we will be the masters of our fate. But we also suspect that we are the playthings of occult forces that we can never understand and that, therefore, will always control our destinies.

Perhaps I am talking about werewolves despite the fact that my father let me watch An American Werewolf in London when I was far too young. Perhaps I am talking about them despite the fact that I still get a tiny bit creeped out by the full moon when I am walking my dog late at night. Perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves today despite the fact that doing so forces me, a grown man in theory, to acknowledge my own fear of something I know for certain not to be real.

Or perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves because of all of these things, because such discussion is productive, because it reveals something important about who we are in 2014, about what we think, about what we are capable of. Perhaps, along with Fiedler, I am talking about werewolves because I believe that if I understand them, if I understand horror, I will become master of my fate. If knowledge of equates with control over, then perhaps I believe, along with humanity, that I can avoid horror altogether by knowing it. I take as one of my core assumptions that humans do precisely this: order the world for themselves so that they might escape or ignore horror, so that they might forever forget that existence is not their understanding of it.

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Paper for ICFA 35: Empires of Disbelief

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing on 20 March 2014 by Ben

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.
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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.

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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.

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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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