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ICFA 2020 paper, on Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted in Conferences, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 20 November 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper proposal, now accepted, for ICFA 41, in March 2020. It’s for the horror division, which is new for me even though I work on horror. I usually propose to the fantasy division, but this paper didn’t really fit there in my opinion.

I do have another proposal in to the fantasy division, for a theory roundtable, but I will wait to hear on that before saying any more.

Anyway:

“Infrastructures of Horror: Race, Neoliberalism, American Literature, and the Anthropocene in Mat Johnson’s Pym

In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters tells us that “Ontology is usually just forgotten infrastructure.” In other words, what we often take for natural structures or systems are in fact constructions we no longer see or understand as constructions. Humans, who exist at scales that render such infrastructure invisible to us, operate therefore under conditions they cannot always, or perhaps ever, discern or comprehend. In Pym, Mat Johnson investigates the naturalized structure of American literary history by way of a narrative about neoliberalism, catastrophic climate change and related disasters, and the position of the racialized subject within such systems. Specifically, Johnson provides a revision and sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Johnson’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, describes as “A book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both.” As he investigates the history of Poe’s Pym, Jaynes navigates the power of neoliberal economics (which asks him to become a brand for personal gain), a world increasingly defined by disaster (some real, some imagined), the iniquities of American literary history, and the ongoing power of whiteness (which binds all of these other structures together materially and conceptually).

This paper discusses Johnson’s Pym as an instance of the new weird, but one especially attuned to the problematic legacy of weird fiction. For HP Lovecraft, Poe served as a major antecedent to the weird fiction of the haute weird period, roughly 1880 – 1940 in ST Joshi’s account. As such, Poe—whose racism anticipates and informs Lovecraft’s—serves as a forgotten infrastructure, as an apparent “ontological” ground for both American literature and a certain variety of horror fiction. In the present, novelists such as Mat Johnson and characters such as Chris Jaynes operate “in the wake” (to borrow Christina Sharpe’s term) and under the power of structures that determine their lives and the potential meanings of these lives despite the invisibility of these structures. As Johnson makes clear, they are not invisible because they are too small but rather because they are too big, because they are self-identical with the world itself in its present configuration. For Jaynes, in Pym, the first step in addressing this problem is to render the invisible visible. However, as this paper makes clear, such a project may always be doomed to failure insofar as the tools available to us (prose fiction, critical thought) are part and parcel of the very structures that remain hidden from us.

ASAP/11 seminar paper: The Stillness as Land, The Broken Earth as Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 October 2019 by Ben

This is my contribution to a seminar at ASAP/11 this past weekend in College Park, MD on NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, a text that, I am sure, needs no introduction.

The seminar was amazing and I want to thank Leif Sorensen and Jessica Hurley for organizing it and inviting me to be part of it. The other contributions were great and the conversation was among the best I have ever had at a conference–both very smart and very much a geeking out session.

In my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, I begin by theorizing the relationship among fantasy, science fiction ,and horror in order to examine what avenues for thought each genre opens and closes. This theorization leads a reconsideration of fantasy’s development and reception as a genre, especially insofar as fantasy, in its fullest expression, actualizes a ground for history that history cannot provide for itself (a problem historicist genres such as sf often fail to acknowledge and one that antihistoricist genres such as horror do not acknowledge as a problem so much as a given). Fantasy thus acts as a foil for neoliberal capitalism, especially with regard to the latter’s antihistoricist operations, which dovetail with certain aspects of science fiction and, in the end, come to resemble horror. Here, I think about The Broken Earth as fantasy in the context of another of this century’s greatest crises (or constellation of interconnected crises), what we conceptualize by way of “the Anthropocene.” Under the Anthropocene (or one of the many terms competing to identify the broader concept), humanity and its institutions come to understand how the destabilization of the conditions of their history and, thereby, the destabilization of those processes of valorization or meaning-making dependent on historicist and critical thought. The Anthropocene not only reveals the impermanence or finitude of human subjectivity, institutions, nations, and so on—the very impermanence and finitiude that under whose shadow anthropocentric valorziation becomes necessary and possible. The Anthropocene also reveals the impermanence and finitude of the condition for human subjectivities, institutions, nations, and so on—the allegedly stable or “set” materialities that subtend all life on this planet. (Of course, the responsibility for, awareness of, and consequences of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed across the abstraction “humanity,” to say the least.)
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SFRA 2019 paper: A teaching, and a remembrance: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on 22 June 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper for SFRA 2019, which is a highly edited version of the first half of chapter 7 in Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. (Which is to say: the first half of chapter 7 in the project’s current form, which is a bit different than what the proposal linked here describes).

To start, my thesis: Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder deploys a pedagogy of active presence through which subjects come to understand their places in a larger whole. In contrast to certain Eurowestern understanding;s of subjectivity, notably those influenced by Hegel, this subjectivity is neither abstract and therefore exchangeable, nor is it reliant upon a granting authority. I will clarify all of this in a bit.

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A myth that creates itself: The Consistence of Story in The Kingkiller Chronicle

Posted in papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 March 2019 by Ben

Here is the text of a talk I gave today for the Literary Buffs, CU English’s undergrad club. It is written as a talk, and there remain in here some cues for me about time, so feel free to ignore all that. It’s a bit light on citation and the conclusion is not great, but I think it captures something of what I see Rothfuss doing. In any case, this is some very basic preliminary work for the final chapter of Here at the end of all things, which concludes with a chapter on Rothfuss’s and Okorafor’s respective actualization of story by way of of what I call positivity, or the becoming-toldness of story. If that makes no sense in this context, never fear. It likely won’t make sense in future contexts either. Hahaha.

Anyway, here is the talk:

After I give you my basic thesis and a sense of where we are headed, I am going to break this up into two parts. The first, about twelve minutes long, will deal with the context for the more specific argument in the second part of the talk, which is about twenty two minutes long. In short, I will summarize the critical discussion of fantasy into which I am intervening and my basic position on fantasy as a genre. In the second part, which is about twenty minutes long, I will discuss Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle. If we want, I can pause after part one for a few minutes in case people have questions they would rather know the answer to now rather rather than later.

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ICFA Fantasy Theory Roundtable: James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy

Posted in Uncategorized on 21 January 2019 by Ben

Here is the proposal (since accepted) I put together fora fantasy theory roundtable at  ICFA 2019. The SF division has been doing this sort of thing for a long time, and I have been discussing doing one for the fantasy division for some time with division heads and some other interested parties. Thanks to Tim Murphy, who helped get me going this; Dan Creed, who offered advice and enthusiasm; and James Gifford, who wrote the book we will be discussing and agreed to come be a respondent to the panel.

As of now, the panel is scheduled for Thursday, March 14, 2019 4:15-5:45 p.m. at ICFA in Orlando. Hope to see you there.

If you need the reading, send me an email (to your right) or  find me on Twitter. I think that the reading will be made available through the IAFA site at some point as well, likely here (login required).

The Proposal

James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (2018) eschews the impulse to define or taxonomize genre fantasy that preoccupies so much of the scholarly work on the topic. Rather, it engages directly with criticisms, mainly from historical materialist scholars, that genre fantasy offers no politics and, thus, no engagement with capitalism or the labor of history. Gifford argues that a good deal of fantasy before Tolkien, and a fair bit that comes after Tolkien, exhibits a form of subjectivity and a challenge to authority very similar to those offered by anarchism. Marxian historical materialism, which tends to ignore the role of the individual in political contexts in favor of a consideration of class and the widespread determination of the superstructure by the base, has a long history of dismissing anarchist politics. In Gifford’s argument, this dismissal is of a piece with the dismissal of fantasy from this very same school of thought. This argument, therefore, opens up fantasy to political readings and distinguishes the genre from science fiction in a manner that avoids claims about its inherent inferiority. Beyond this important work, Gifford also offers in A Modernist Fantasy a close reading of the genre’s history, one focused on writers (from Morris and Mirrlees to Treece and Peake and on to Le Guin and Delany) who mainly exist outside of the generic conventions and constraints most readers know through Tolkien. Thus Gifford offers a theoretical paradigm through which to understand the genre by way of considering an understudied period of the genre’s history. Moreover, Gifford’s focus on the political possibilities of fantasy and the scholarly argument over those possibilities, fits well with the conference’s theme, “Politics and Conflict.”

For the roundtable itself, participants will be asked to read an excerpt from chapter one of A Modernist Fantasy. This section of chapter one, about 35 pages long, focuses on how the understanding of magic in several popular fantasies (by Brooks, Eddings, and Le Guin, for example) mirrors anarchism’s understanding of radical subjectivity. This reading would, I believe, be of great interest to members of ICFA’s fantasy division insofar as it takes up and engages with historical materialist readings of fantasy even as it moves past them. At the same time, it offers numerous readings of specific fantasy texts that will be recognizable to this group.

This session will be run as a discussion. I would offer a very brief opening remark about why I chose this reading and then open the floor to a conversation that, ideally, would be directed by the interests and desires of session attendees. James Gifford plans to attend the conference and is willing to be a respondent at the session. As such, I would set aside ten minutes at the end of the session for his comments and any final responses to those comments.

Remarks for Avengers vs. Jedi Roundtable

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

Some opening remarks for a roundtable I was just on for SFRA 2018. The topic was Avengers vs. Jedi and mainly focused on the problem of franchise and media consolidation in late late post post modern capitalism or whatever we are calling it these days.

Also, to be clear, I coined the term “naustalgia.”

patent-pending

More seriously, one of the ways I think we might distinguish between Star Wars and the MCU as franchises is by recognizing a difference between the former’s nostalgic logic and the latter’s easter egg logic. Franchises, I think, have to manage an audience’s affective response in order to maintain that audience’s interest in a sprawling storyworld and the media properties that express it. We all know that A New Hope is a key example of the nostalgia film insofar as it referred to eariler media properties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I have argued and would continue to argue that, very simply put, the challenge for Stars Wars in the Disney era has to do with producing and managing nostalgia for earlier iterations of the franchise even as it produces and manages novelty. To be clear, I am drawing a distinction between nostalgia for previous but distinct media objects and nostalgia for the media objects that belong to an extant franchise. With this distinction in mind, we can see that the MCU has not had to worry about franchise nostalgia quite yet as it has come into existence and sprawled so quickly—18 going on 19 films in about a decade. There is, of course, nostalgia in it for fans of comics and fans of these characters, but there is no nostalgia yet for past iterations of the MCU (although I can imagine that coming shortly and I wonder what the effect will be). There are, however, easter eggs (and note that I am probably using the term in a somewhat heterodox manner here). Some of these easter eggs are minor in terms of the overall MCU arc but are cool for fans of the comics, such as Howard the Duck’s appearance in the end credit scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I am not sure there is any nostalgia there, but if there is, again, it’s not for the MCU but for some pre-MCU media object. Some of the easter eggs are more significant for an anticipatory quality that becomes clearer in retrospect, such as the appearance of what turns out to be the fake Infinity Gauntlet in Thor. Finally, some of them are tremendously consequential for both their revelation of the present and their determination of the future, such as the appearance of Thanos in a post-credit scene at the end of The Avengers—which also includes a cool but inconsequential easter egg for comics fans, the mention of “courting death” by the Other as he describes the battle with humanity that just took place. (And I would note that the proliferation of end credit scenes is an escalation of the easter egg logic behind the MCU.) I want to keep this short, so I will refrain from theorizing the distinctions between nostalgia and easter egg as logics, but suffice it to say I think that they are at odds with one another in terms of how they manage audience’s affective expectations in relation to the coherence of the overall franchise. And, finally, I will note that one of the reasons Solo is so terrible is that it tries to introduce easter egg logic to a franchise structured by nostalgia, a nostalgia especially complex with regard to the iconic character whose name is in the title despite being, it turns out, an utterly random easter egg.

My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

This is the paper I gave yesterday at SFRA 2018 in Milwaukee. It’s part of a future project on the franchise as form. It’s a bit rough, but some of the broad strokes are there I think.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I am going to start with two quotes from within the MCU that speak to my interest in franchise. The first is from Hawkeye, in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The second is from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, in an end-credits scene to The Winter Soldier “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” I will come back to these quotes below, but for now suffice it to say that what holds the MCU together is not its genre or its historicity, but the fact that it does not make sense. This is miraculous.

So, I am interested in how we interpret a franchise, what methods we use, and how those methods must necessarily challenge older methods that privilege objects whose relative stability derives from their clear date of publication, release, or whatever. I am not primarily interested, here anyway, in franchise as a production model or as a means to leverage fan engagement. But when we speak of interpreting franchise we must ask what we are interpreting exactly. Can we can call a franchise, such as the MCU, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, a text? It would be difficult, I think, to call a franchise of any size a text, although we can say that franchises are made up of texts (all of which can be interpreted as such). We have other concepts available, including that of form. However, I am also not certain that franchises share clear formal characteristics such that we can easily compare them or establish a methodology that can account for all of them. Star Wars and Star Trek operate according to very different logics, I think, when we think about them at the level of franchise. Although they have both changed considerably over the courses of their respective histories, Star Trek begins with an episodic structure that still informs its overall development. By contrast, Star Wars begins with aspirations to a continuity and coherence of narrative that presents problems for its filmic iterations today. I realize that these are gross generalizations.

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