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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.

Continue reading

Epigraphs to Here at the End of All Things, chapter 1

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 August 2014 by Ben

These are the three epigraphs to the first chapter of Here at the End of All Things, entitled “Regressive Futures: An Archaeology of Fantasy”:

I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.1

 

There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.2

 

Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies.3

1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 39 – 40 original emphasis.
2 Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel (New York: Tor Fantasy, 2009), 2.
3 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 59.

Miss RSS Pie (with apologies to Don McLean)

Posted in Uncategorized on 4 July 2013 by Ben

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that newsfeed used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my say
That I could make that reader stay
And maybe we’d be informed for a while

But July 1st made me shiver
With every story it delivered
Bad news from the dev team
Google reader had lost its steam

I can’t remember if I cried
When all subscriptions were denied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Did Slate write the book of love
And do you have faith in Drudge above
If Politico tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll
Can Pitchfork save your mortal soul
And can you teach me how to read real slow?

Well, I know that you’re followin’ him
‘Cause I saw you Skypin’ in the gym
You both logged into chat
Man, who has time for that?

I was a lonely thorysomething readin’ buck
With a Wordplus bog and Google Plus
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Now for two days we’ve been on our own
And news unread becomes the unknonwn
But that’s not how it used to be
When Sergey thought about baud rate
In a coat he borrowed from Bill Gates
With metadata that came from you and me

Oh, and while Livejournal was looking down
Zuckerberg stole its emo crown
The chatroom was dispelled
Godwin’s law was upheld

And while Lessig wrote a book on code
Or newsfeeds went in the commode
And we blogged about Mad Men episodes
The day the reader died

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
Civil right were on the run to a fallout shelter
Snowden knew and they were falling fast
They landed foul on the grass
“Leftists” tried to give Obama a pass
With Greenwald on the sidelines in a cast

Now the hypocrisy was sweet perfume
While the journalists marchd to the marching tune
We all got up to need
Oh, but Google didn’t see the need

‘Cause the citizens tried to take the field
The journalists still refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the reader died?

So bye-bye, Miss RSS feed
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in Face-
Book–no time left to start again
So come on, Page be nimble, Page be quick
Larry Page sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

Oh, and as I watched him on the blog
My keys were stalled, it was a slog
No Feedly born in Hell
Could break that reader’s spell

And as the flamewars climbed into the night
Arguments were seen as impolite and
I saw Brin and Page laughing with delight
The day the reader died

They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

I met a girl who said lean in
And I asked her if it would ever come again
But she just sneered and turned away
I went down to Google Play
Where I’d downloaded the reader years before
But the bot there said the reader wouldn’t play

And on the web, the bloggers screamed
The tweeters tweeted and the Beliebers dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The Atom feeds all were broken

And all the aps I admire most
For email, blogs, and all the rest
We were shown that they might not last
The day the reader died

And they were singin’ bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

So bye-bye, Miss RSS Pie
Point my Chrome to the HOME page but the homepage was dry
And them good old boys were linkin’ Facebook and lies
Tweetin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

The Singularity (with apologies to Yeats)

Posted in Uncategorized on 21 February 2013 by Ben

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The admins cannot hear the faculty;
Things fall apart; the future will not stop;
Mere job training is loosed upon the (first)world,
The educated tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of employment is drowned;
The best lack all grant funding, while the worst
Are full of passionate Shirkyosity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Singularity is at hand.
The Singularity! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of the Chronicle
Troubles my sight: a waste of pixels;
A shape with Kurzweil body and the head of a borg,
A gaze brute and guileless as the endowment,
Is moving its slow bureaucracy, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant PhDs.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That two centuries of universities
Were vexed to complacency by an ahistorcial professoriate,
And what rough MOOC, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards the Internet to be born?