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My next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History

Posted in Uncategorized on 27 November 2017 by Ben

Now that the final revisions to None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer are done, I can feel good about announcing my next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, which is under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press. If you know me, you also know that I have been working on this project approximately forever, or at least since 2011, when I fist encountered Rochard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could teach a class on fantasy that was more than fan appreciation for a genre.

The project has undergone numerous iterations. There was a time when I conceived a larger project, The Generic, that would be seven books long.I have long since climbed down from that ledge, with help from colleagues and friends. More recently, I thought that this book would be a compartive study of fantasy, sf, and horror, with each genre read through the work of John Clute and understood as a means by which modernity deals with history. There is still a good deal of that here, but sf and horror are now firmly subordinated to the discussion of fantasy. It was simply too much to try to do all of that work in one book.

Sf is just fine in terms of criticism, and horror has new life as the muse of cultural geologists (in Mark McGurl’s potent phrase). In any case, while there is great fantasy scholarship out there (see Ryan Vu’s “Fantasy after Representation,” forthcoming in Extrapolation 58.2-3, edited by Gerry Canavan and yours truly), there is no theoretical investigation of the genre that articulates it with sf and horror as a means for thinking about history (or about ahistory, as it were). Much fantasy scholarship remains taxonomic to some extent, or insists that fantasy is too historicist and critical. I find both approaches limited insofar as they turn inward and ignore fantasy’s place in a larger conversation about modernity or reduce fantasy, all of its (admittedly problematic) peculiarities to having the same critical dimensions as those genres that stand opposed to it.

In any case, here is the proposal I sent to JHUP. I expect that some things will change here (for example, I now think that part one will be three chapters long, each shorter than those proposed here). Feedback is invited and welcome. Many thanks to those who have already provided feedback. It is dult noted and my gratitude will be expressed mre specifically in the acknowledgements.

Here is the proposal as a PDF.

You can also read the proposal below the fold.

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On the history of fantasy scholarship

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 18 October 2016 by Ben

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

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From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 September 2016 by Ben

The text of my paper for the Fantastic Now conference, held in Munster, Germany from 22 – 24 September 2016.

From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present
Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper represents a very nascent project, something I thought I would be working on full time when I proposed it, but which has been pushed back in the queue by other, newly arisen opportunities. Nonetheless, I still plan someday to write a book called The ends of genre, which describes  a shift in our critical understanding of the world. This shift has moved criticism and theory away from a model functionally similar to science fiction and towards a model functionally similar to horror. Whereas science fiction assumes the human as well as historical and scientific progress, even if only as objects of critique, horror denies all of this in order to say that the human, history, science, progress, and even critique are contrivances developed and deployed by hairless apes to delude themselves into believing that their allotment of time means something. This shift has become visible in the work of, for example, theorists associated with speculative realism generally and Object Oriented Ontology specifically. It tracks with a rise in para-academic publishing on so-called “horror of philosophy” and claims that we live in the “age of Lovecraft.” It accounts for our fascination with the Anthropocene and our concomitant understanding that we cannot make sense of it according to the forms of meaning making we inherit and inhabit. It understands that, in the words of Bruno Latour, critique has run out of steam.

In the service of this larger argument, and very briefly put, I am interested today in recent discussions and descriptions, in contemporary environmental and media theory, of what lies above and below the threshold of human perception as well as the connection of such to narrative forms. This discussion suggests a possible understanding of what horror might be now even if this understanding of horror remains an ideal one insofar as it exceeds our capacities to represent it, or fails to rise to the level of human representation. In my definition, horror deals with a particular aspect of that which cannot be represented, a state of total problem called aftermath, which I shall discuss in a moment in the context of John Clute’s four-part grammar of the genre. I then move to my primary topic: contemporary discourses of the super and the sub, namely with regard to the Anthropocene and our present media ecology. Both of these discourses foreground time rather than space, the ways in which we are made small by cosmological timescales or rendered ignorant of the data of which we are constructed and by which we are controlled by technological timescales which remain without designation. If the super cannot be reduced to a human scale, the sub does not rise to that scale. However, whereas the super can be measured in terms of human temporal markers, the sub cannot. Both the super and the sub, as with much horror, suggest in their own ways an endless present of which we cannot make sense.

Based on John Clute’s four stage grammar of horror, I offer the following definition, which I will briefly justify. And note that I am aware of competing definitions, which I do not have time to discuss. So, horror is that form of narrative which seeks to reveal that narrative only ever serves as an attempt grant meaning to a fundamentally meaningless planet in order to make that planet amenable to human being. This definition is an ideal one, its very structure suggesting an insuperable contradiction, namely the narrativization of what cannot be narrativized. But this contradiction is precisely the point as it itself dramatizes the confrontation between the human and its meaning-making techniques, on the one hand, and something so vast or so small that narrative cannot face it on the other.

In The Darkening Garden, Clute claims that the horror narrative begins with sighting, moves on to thickening and then to revel, before concluding with aftermath. A character sights something in the world that does not conform to her understanding of it. She realizes that there is, in fact, MORE to the world than she had previously imagined. Thickening is the process in which this “more” further reveals itself, defeating the human character’s attempts to square the newly seen with her science, history, or other meaning-making techniques. During revel, the character either accepts or attempts to deny the single truth, namely that she can no longer establish any truth, even temporarily. Her intoxication marks her ironic celebration or her sincere attempt to forget. Aftermath is the state of total problem in which she is left, a state in which meaning can no longer be found or produced. This narrative structure implies a process or a sequentiality, but this implication is misleading. The process only refers to a individual or group becoming aware of what already is. Aftermath does not complete a sequence so much as represent what has always already been true. As such, horror denies what we refer to the past and the future, denies them as narrative conventions that allow those in medias res to make sense of their lives and their poems, to quote from literary critic Frank Kermode. As opposed to science fiction’s dreams of the future and fantasy’s longing for the past, horror conceives a permanent present out of which humanity carves small segments in order to make meaning and produce difference out of an undifferentiated mass. In this respect, the human is the small opposed to the large, the speck dwarfed by the cosmos, the finite faced with infinity.

Significantly, although horror can and does contemplate the spatial, in this definition it has more to do with time. Again, aftermath does not begin or conclude, origins and endings being part and parcel of narrative and therefore entirely conventions designed to grant meaning to human existence. Horror, however, does not imply any eternity, any permanence. That is, it does not represent an unchanging or stable world. Rather, it seeks to represent a state of total problem in which there can be no progress, no movement forward, no goal-directed action. We might do things, but in aftermath these things accomplish nothing of any consequence. Writing in 1778—roughly the moment of the advent of the Anthropocene as we now understand it and also that of the birth of fantastika, when the human, for Clute, became aware of its role in a planetary drama—James Hutton explains this point: “Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon the globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession.” Although I am thinking here of certain objective understandings of time, Hutton’s point is well taken: time is a human construction, one that serves to make sense of human limits but only, in the end, serves to reveal them more fully as those limits encounter the apparently unlimited scope of nature.

I had wanted to say a bit more about the super and the sub, that which is above and beyond and that which is below, at this point, but I think my time is better spent on the contemporary issues I am tracking in this paper. So, I hope it won’t be too controversial to say that that which is above and beyond—gods, nature, society, capitalism, networks—has long been a challenge to humanity, what animates many types of human narratives. One particular instance of the super, the supernatural, has long been an issue for the fantastic, for fantasy, for the weird, and for horror. Likewise, that which lies below has also animated various forms of narrative, although in rather different ways and, to my mind, often less effectively. Although I can’t defend this claim right now, I suspect that humanity has, historically, been better at imagining its confrontation with the super than it has imagining its confrontation with the sub. I am not sure this has changed precisely, but the sub, what lies below the threshold of human perception rather than above it, is of much more recent discovery than its opposite.

Over the past several decades, but mainly in the last ten years, the human confronts the super in the form of the Anthropocene, the designation for the contemporary geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on climate and the geological record. Dating this era remains a contest, with some suggesting it begins with the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, making it exactly the same as what we have heretofore called the Holocene, and others dating it as recently as the late eighteenth century, with the advent of industrial capitalism and the beginnings of our consumption of fossil fuels. What no one debates, however, is the fact that humans have, in the space of just over two centuries, released into the world energy that the world has been storing for hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. The needs of humanity, at historical and individual timescales, here confront the realities of a planet that exists at a geological timescale in the context of a cosmological one. In his account of the “geology of media,” the way in which our built environment impacts the so-called natural world at the level of the earth itself, Jussi Parikka writes, “The time of human concerns differs from geological time, which is argued to be a radical dynamic force that affects life across the boundaries of the organic and the inorganic.” In short, the human confrontation with inhuman timescales draws into relationships objects, subjects, forces, processes of which the human is but dimly aware, if at all. The individual human is made small on a spatial scale in the midst of all of these forces. More to the point here, the lifespan of the individual human or even of the human institution becomes insignificant when compared to geological time. Human beginnings and endings mean nothing in the context of what seems an endless present.

In the introduction to their recent edited collection on HP Lovercraft, Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Weinstock speak of the current importance of the weird in general and Lovecraft in particular in terms apposite the issue of the Anthropocene. They write, “what [Lovecraft’s] fiction tells us is that, however grand we consider human accomplishment, it will all inevitably disappear into the unplumbable depths of deep time. Put another way, Lovecraft’s significance to key philosophical debates rests on his assertions of human infinitesimality.” Clearly, as it has been seemingly forever, if in different terms and through different forms,, human finitude continues to be a problem in the face of the super, that which is larger than the human, that which is too big and too close perhaps to see, that which our narratives cannot contain and we cannot fully comprehend. The timescale of the individual is tiny, so the individual connects itself to historical timescales to give itself meaning. History, in turn, can be inserted into larger timescales in order to telescope between human scale events and geological and cosmological ones. However, as critics such as Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and McKenzie Wark, among others, have pointed out, the stories so constructed remain irresolvably and problematically anthropocentric. They remain tales of progress, of becoming ever more modern and knowledgeable about the world, the way it works, and how the human belongs to it or in it. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz make clear that this narrative of coming to knowledge, the narrative of the historical novel as well as that of science fiction, remains inadequate to Anthropocene: “The story of awakening is a fable. The opposition between a blind past and a clear-sighted present, besides being historically false, depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It serves above all to credit our own excellence.” Modern forms of narrative, in which I include science fiction, fail. Postmodern, or perhaps post-historical, forms of narrative such as horror, in which human infinitesimality does not add up to a meaning called “history,” replace them.

But this issue of an uncaring world operating according to laws and at scales incommensurate with individual and historical time only addresses part of the issue I am trying to get at here. The other part, and the relationship of each part to each other, is significantly weirder, and even less amenable to our understanding. The super seems so material and obvious in whatever form it takes and the human, smaller than the super, able to fit within it as a unit of measurement, whether that fitting in takes the form of embrace or suffocation being another question entirely. But below the threshold of our perception lies the sub, that which does not rise to the human scale and therefore remains ungraspable to the techniques meaning making humans use to fend off the horror of the world.

Cultural theorist Steven Shaviro has argued that consciousness is “cognitively expensive,” that it costs a great deal more energy than it is worth. In short, we do not need to be aware of what we think in order to think it, although modern sensibilities related to Kant’s critical faculty demand this awareness at all times as a ward against ideology and dogmatism. Shaviro argues this point based on studies that suggest that humans actually make decisions before they are aware of having made them, that suggest we begin to act even before we know of what we have “chosen” to do, that suggest we react to stimuli of which we are not conscious. Along very similar lines, media theorist Mark Hansen claims that “Human experience is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation caused by the complex entanglement of humans within networks of media technologies that operate predominantly, if not almost entirely, outside the scope of human modes of awareness (consciousness, attention, sense perception, etc.).” Hansen further argues that twenty-first century media systems “help us—embodied, minded, enworlded macroscale beings that we are—to access and to act on the microtemporality of experience, [and] they do so precisely and only because they bypass consciousness and embodiment, which is really to say because they bypass the limitations of consciousness and embodiment.” Hansen’s argument tends to be optimistic about the potential consequences of human involvement with these media systems, but we need not take that optimism without a grain of salt. That grain of salt makes clear that there exists, all around us on a daily basis, a microworld of data and sensibility to which we have no access. The temporality of this world is calculated on the order of fragments of seconds. Moreover, this subcultural world—created in some respect by humans but manifest at a scale into which the human is too big to fit—exerts considerable control over the human. Any smartphone, for example, is capable of not only perceiving information we cannot, but also of compiling, configuring, coordinating this information into forms legible to human perception and thereby enjoining us to act upon this information. At the scale of the super, our inherited techniques of making meaning fail even if they do so knowingly, even if they narrativize their failures as narrative. At the level of the sub, these meaning making operations do not so much fail as they never have the chance to even begin to work. They are too blunt as instruments, unable to grasp the granularity of data and temporality of nanoseconds. In the absence of human narrative, inhuman narrative—those written by tablets, networks, communication technologies—take over.

So the human lies below that which is above and above that which is below. This situation remains true in contexts other than that of the Anthropocene and twenty-first century media. However, these two contexts share a peculiar relationship with one another, one only becoming visible now. The world, it seems, is thickening as a result of our understanding of our intervention into it, an intervention which we surely no longer control and perhaps remain incapable of perceiving in its manifold consequences or in real time. Benjamin Bratton describes what he calls an “accidental megastructure,” the Stack, made up of six layers: the Earth, the Cloud, the City, the Address, the Interface, and the User. I can’t describe each of these layers, but note that they are decidedly anti-humanist. Minerals and netbots have as much agency as users as do humans, the latter being an increasingly marginalized element of the total structure. Importantly, Bratton makes clear that even if much of the Stack was constructed, it does not obey any single authority and largely defies the political, epistemological, and even ontological categories and methods of definition we inherit from modernity. Most importantly, and most horrifyingly, for the present argument is Bratton’s explanation of the ways in which the Earth, the physical planet itself, feeds the twenty-first century media that control us. He writes that, in the Stack, “the Earth is the Earth—a physical planet—not a metaphor for ‘nature.’ There is no planetary-scale computation, now a vast network of many billions of little Turing machines, that does not intake and absorb the Earth’s chemistry in order to function.” Moreover, “there is no Stack without a vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities. The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones.” In other words, the human, in some ways unknowingly, contributes to the Anthropocene as a consequence of its production of those devices that mediate our knowledge of the world in ways that cannot perceive. The human inserts its time and interests into supernatural time and interests in order to manifest a subcultural field of fragmented moments that cannot be be made to mean anything to the human. This is contemporary horror, the experience of an endless present, the experience of an existence situated between the alpha and omega of inhumanity. Horror, as a genre, has not yet caught up to what we have already done to ourselves. We no doubt have some place in this circuit, but, to use a woefully outdated metaphor, that place seems to be between the hammer and the anvil.

A glossary for Here at the end of all things

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 September 2016 by Ben

No one asked for this, but here is a glossary for my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. Among other things, the project develops a complex vocabulary for thinking about fantasy as a discourse both in its own terms and in relation to science fiction and horror (in the context of history). These are some of the key terms, many of which are adopted and adapted from other writers (especially John Clute and Bernard Stiegler).

In any case, they may not mean very much on their own, but taken together I think they are suggestive:

affectivity: the nature of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts

aftermath: the final stage of disappointment characterized by a permanent state of problem and a final and irrevocable sundering of meaning and being, i.e. subsistence (adapted from Clute’s term)

arrival: the final stage of paradigm characterized by the final joining of meaning and being and therefore an end to existence (replaces Clute’s term “topia”)

cognition: the third stage of paradigm in which the subject assimilates to the novelty produced by the novum—willingly or unwillingly, for good or for ill—which had previously caused her to feel estrangement (replaces Clute’s term “conceptual breakthrough,” which he borrows from Peter Nicholls)

consistence: the perfect congruity of meaning and being characteristic of story and destroyed by paradigm (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

desirability: the elimination of story’s relationship with other historical objects and concepts, held always in abeyance and never arriving, but ideally achieved by either by return or in aftermath

disappointment: the grammar of horror which begins with sighting and proceeds to thickening, revel, and aftermath; a process of moving from existence to subsistence although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with anti-history (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

estrangement: the second stage of paradigm in which the subject becomes confused by the novelty brought into the world by the novum (replaces Clute’s term “cognitive estrangement,” which he borrows from Darko Suvin)

existence: an out-of-syncness of meaning and being, but ideally a temporary one that paradigm overcomes (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

fantastika: the collective name for the genres inaugurated by the Enlightenment, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror; its various genres react to the Enlightenment and its rationality in various ways (adapted from Clute’s term, although used by many)

fantasy: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and its historical mode of thought as a corruption of story, the true essential state of the world and the grammar of fantasy

horror: the genre of fantastika which rejects the Enlightenment and historical thought as falsehoods which hide the fact that meaning and being are always already permanently out-of-sync; the grammar of horror is called disappointment

novum: the first stage of paradigm in which novelty is introduced to the world which transforms the history of that world in a fundamental, totalizing fashion (adapted from Clute’s term, borrowed from Darko Suvin and Ernst Bloch)

paradigm: the grammar of science fiction which begins with novum and proceeds to estrangement, cognition, and arrival; a process of moving from existence to more existence, although it promises consistence; associated with history (adapted from Peter Nicholls and, more so, Thomas Kuhn)

positivity: both the fact of story as something with a history as well as its relationship with other historical objects and concepts

recognition: the third stage of story in which the subject comes to understand her place within story, which is to say that her being and meaning are at one with one another (adapted from Clute’s term)

return: the final stage of story in which the subject no longer exists but consists (adapted from Clute’s term, which replaced “healing”)

revel: the third stage of disappointment in which the subject accepts her subsistence and either celebrates this acceptance or laments it, either of which likely involves inebriation (adapted from Clute’s term)

science fiction: the genre of fantastika which accepts the Enlightenment and modernity as both problem and the solution to problem; the grammar of science fiction is called paradigm

sighting: the first stage of horror characterized by the subject becoming aware of something already present in the world that conflicts with and thereby destroys the fictions by which she gave meaning to her being (adapted from Clute’s term)

story: the grammar of fantasy which begins with wrongness and proceeds to thinning, recognition, and return; a process of moving from existence to consistence, although this movement is, in the end, finally unrepresentable; associated with ahistory (adapted from Clute’s term)

subsistence: the final and irrevocable sundering of being from meaning characteristic of disappointment and feared by existence which tends to produce it nonetheless (adapted from Bernard Stiegler)

thickening: the second stage of disappointment characterized by the subject becoming increasingly aware that there is more to the world than can be accounted for by the narratives she tells about it, including the narrative called history (adapted from Clute’s term)

thinning: the second stage of story characterized by the subject becoming aware that the world is becoming less than it was during its prelapsarian period prior to wrongness (adapted from Clute’s term)

wrongness: the first stage of story in which the subject becomes aware of a corruption of the world’s essential truth that has caused it to fall from consistence into existence (adapted from Clute’s term)

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

Posted in Uncategorized on 28 April 2016 by Ben

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.

Notes from ICFA roundtable on The Force Awakens, on cast, nostalgia, and franchise

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 March 2016 by Ben

In addition to my paper on fantasy scholarship, I was honored this past weekend to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a panel with some very smart people. Here are the sketchy notes for the talk, which I hope to turn into an essay and then a book chapter.

  • this is from a longer project called The Ends of Genre, a chapter called “It’s just us now”: Nostalgia and the Star Wars Universe
  • two deaths
    • TFA is framed by two deaths, although only one of them registers perhaps as meaningful for the franchise immediately, which is to say the latter, to which I shall come in a moment
    • the first is the death of Lor San Tekka, a character few of us would be familiar with prior to the film, and a character of which we still know very little
    • and yet, when he confronts Tekka, Kylo Ren says to him, “Look how old you’ve become”
    • of course, this is a reference to a larger backstory we do not yet know
    • at the same time, in terms of the franchise, Ren’s line tells us that this world has moved on in ways we can’t quite grasp, that even as the narrative froze for the viewer with the defeat of the empire at the conclusion of Jedi, time passed in the real world and people grew old
    • moreover, events transpired in the fictional universe that rendered our knowledge of the franchise wrong, incommensurate with its present, a present determined both by the passage of three decades and by the prequels, which precede the original trilogy in terms of narrative but succeed it in terms of franchise
    • Lor San Tekka’s death may seem relatively uninteresting, but is subtly complex
    • he is played by Max von Sydow, who also once upon a time played Ming the Merciless in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon, the property George Lucas wanted to turn into a film but was unable to secure rights to, forcing him to make Star Wars instead
    • of course Lucas made Star Wars in part as an homage to and with nostalgia for the Flash Gordon serials of Hollywood’s so-called golden age
    • Star Wars’ success, in part, made possible the Flash Gordon movie
    • thus we have a young character, Kylo Ren, not only killing an old one (and one who is nostalgic for PRINCESS Leia), but also a young actor, Adam Driver, claiming this franchise for himself and his cohort against several layers of nostalgia
  • Franchise as interpretive unit
    • as a standalone text, TFA has problems, as we all know
    • likewise, Star Wars has problems as sf
      • which this film exacerbates, greatly
    • I’m interested in thinking about TFA not as a standalone text, nor as part of a genre, although both contexts will also work and are related to the context I wish to think about
    • that is: franchise
      • obviously, there are discussions of franchise already, but they mainly focus on political economy or transformations of production models (away from the blockbuster and to the tentpole, for example)
      • I am interested in thinking about franchise as a unit of interpretation insofar as franchises have concerns as franchises that often stand at odds with individual texts or genres
      • this object of interpretation dovetails with previous discussions of franchises as well as with discussions of genre
  • some issues of franchise
    • I won’t be able to address each of these issues in my brief discussion of TFA, but all play a role in my thinking about it
    • first: each franchise is unique
      • that is, no two franchises work quite the same way
      • it’s not so much that they have different conventions or points of view on similar issues (as with sf and fantasy, for example)
      • it’s rather that, because we must always consider, for example, intellectual property law, the differences between properties prior to their development as franchises, etc., each franchise develops a logic that cannot provide a model for another
      • understanding one franchise will tell us little about another, except perhaps insofar as we find contrast
      • this difference is clearest for us, perhaps, in the different logics at work in the Star Trek and Star Wars “reboots”, which Gerry discusses so brilliantly in a forthcoming essay
    • second: franchises are often (perhaps always) generic
      • but they tend to take from a commons (i.e. the conventions of a genre) and make them proprietary, by turning away from the genre itself and developing them in unique ways
      • they thus are able to often solve generic problems even while introducing other problems to genre
    • third: franchises do not leverage narratives so much as worlds (or universes)
      • these worlds are described mainly in narratives, but the development of the world itself is what allows for future narratives, whether in a “main” storyline or in interstitial ones
      • these worlds also make possible non-narrative franchise elements, such as calendars, action figures, role playing games, candy, etc., which do not need to take part in set narratives directly, but benefit from their existence and the world that they involve
    • fourth: franchise narratives seem to exist in their own time and are therefore inhuman
      • the time of the franchise is not quite historical nor is it personal, but more an institutional time inflected by fictional history
        • we can see here how franchises can be so different from one another: this issue is different in Star Wars than in Star Trek than in James Bond than in Dr. Who than in The Lord of the Rings
      • in any case, we leave a franchise and its narrative freezes, but the world around it continues to move
      • when we return, we discover that characters have aged without a process of aging being visible
      • likewise, we may get prequels, in which older stories are told later, filling in the past
      • this filling in, however, is not simply analepsis; it also advances the franchise in franchise time
      • for example, there is going to be a film about the young Han Solo film; I would argue that Harrison Ford’s Han had to die because two actors can’t play Han Solo at the same time, according to the logic of this franchise
      • again, this has to do with the fact that the narrative stands at odds with the world around it, not only in terms of aging stars, but in terms of viewer’s perceptions and feelings
      • and, it should be noted, that the name Starkiller Base has less to do with its status as a weapon capable of destroying worlds than with the fact that it’s there that the star dies
  • nostalgia, casting, and TFA
    • Abrams had a heck of a hill to climb insofar as he had to bring back old characters, introduce new ones, reclaim the glory of the first trilogy while washing away the bad taste of the second one, find a new narrative thread after the conclusion to episode six, and do so while satisfying at least three generations of fans, each with different sorts of expectations
    • more specifically, he had to, for the first time in 30 years, create a Star Wars film which we did not already understand, even before seeing it
      • while we may not have known particulars about what would happen in the prequels, we knew that Anakin would become Darth Vader
    • moreover, he also had to create the first Star Wars film since Empire—and only the second ever, really—which ended with real questions about what had happened and what would happen next
      • we are certainly not used to that, because of the logic of this franchise
    • but perhaps the biggest problem Abrams had was that of casting
      • people missed Han Solo, or perhaps, better, Harrison Ford, who had long claimed that he would never play that character again
      • it’s Solo/Ford that seems to be missing from the prequels (although I would argue it’s also lack of stakes; the lightsaber battles there barely rise to the level of video game in comparison to those of Empire, Jedi, and TFA)
      • especially for the oldest generation of fans, for whom Han definitely shot first, it seemed that it was Han and NOT, say, Obi-wan who was our only hope
      • however, he has gotten old and weak while his adversaries have become young and strong
      • when the franchise froze at its end in 1983, so too did our image of Han
      • however, Harrison Ford got older even as the logics of Hollywood casting demanded younger and younger stars
      • Star Wars can no longer look to him as a savior, although whether Luke will be one remains to be seen
      • as Kylo Ren says, “Han Solo would have disappointed you as a father”
      • nor does it seem that the franchise can turn to conventional action stars; instead we get Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, each of which comes out of a rather different background than we might expect for Star Wars
      • although it does remind me somewhat of Ford’s pre-Star Wars background
      • the franchise both needed Solo/Ford and needed to be rid of him, to move on by first looking back
      • and now, as Ren says to Rey, “It’s just us now”

A new vocabulary for fantasy scholarship

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 March 2016 by Ben

Here is my yearly post to this blog, my ICFA paper. There’s a handout and a PDF version if you’d like/rather.

When I speak of a new vocabulary for fantasy scholarship, I don’t mean new words. Nor do I mean the importation of words from extant discourses into this scholarship. I mean the development of a set of integrated concepts apposite the object in question as it exists in and/or interacts with contemporary political economy, cultural production, subjectivities, knowledge practices, power, etc. Of course these concepts will refer back to older ones, connect with contemporary ones, and may even share the same name as concepts from other fields. They must nonetheless be thought and rethought to be relevant now and with regard to this object. There is a pressing, threefold need for this vocabulary having to with first, the continuing erosion of sf as a means to understand the world and think a way past it, second, the rise of horror to fill this vacuum, and third, the inability of much of the inherited vocabulary of fantasy scholarship to make itself relevant in this context.

Science fiction has long been the subgenre of the fantastic that has driven theoretical debates about the fantastic and afforded scholars the opportunity to demonstrate a relationship between what was once merely low culture and, to take but one concept, the political unconscious. Otherwise put, science fiction has, as Carl Freedman might note if for different reasons, found particular connection with critical theory, namely because both discourses, at their best, become meta-historical—not only engaged with history, but productive of history through the questioning of history itself. As Fredric Jameson would note, however, we no longer think in terms of history. Freedman might agree, insofar as critical theory, which is dialectical, gave way to a post-dialectical thought sometime in the 1960s or 70s. And yet, the world moves on, even if our tools of analysis are no longer adequate to it. Whatever some might claim to the contrary, Capital teaches us more about the nineteenth century that produced it than it does about cultural and political situations Marx could never have imagined. As McKenzie Wark notes somewhere, we should read it as a classic, that which helps us understand our past and where we came from rather than where we are and where we are going. Likewise, science fiction and its related concepts—progress, utopia, dystopia, futurity, the horizon, reason, the novum, cognitive estrangement—seem less relevant to our day to day existence and to our future than they do to our past, as perhaps the bearers of our nostalgia. We long for a time in which we could disagree politically, dialectically, and not simply shout past one another, trapped in the confines of our personal disciplines and discourses. Darko Suvin, in re-examining his claims of the late 1970s, notes a certain optimism behind his understanding of sf at that time, in which he implies that the novum and the cognitive estrangement it produces, as the elements of history, imply a forward progress that might move us beyond our present state of existence. But sf not produce socialism, nor did it manifest by way of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Freedman transforms cognition into the cognition effect which, as China Mieville might remind us, transforms dialectic into sophistry. Hardly dialectical at all. Now our deflationary realisms, our capitalist realisms, can only imagine the end of the world, and not the end of capitalism itself.

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