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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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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?

“There is no dark side of the digital really”: My proposal for The Dark Side of the Digital

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on 6 January 2013 by Ben

Here is my (late as it were) proposal for the upcoming Dark Side of the Digital Conference. (edit: I’m calling this my page of writing for the day, even if it’ snot quite a page.)

There is no dark side of the digital really”

Benjamin J Robertson

In a recent blog post, Jussi Parrika suggests that we should read the “dark” in “dark side of the digital” in terms of “the dark side of the moon” rather than “dark side of the force.” Instead of the evil or malevolent “side” of digitality we should, with Pink Floyd, address the fact that “There is no dark side of the moon really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark.”

These two approaches to this conference theme are not at all at odds with one another. This paper argues that among the darkest (as in the force) aspects of the digital is its darkness (as in the moon) by design if not by nature. That is, the digital is closed to us, an inhuman space much in the manner that Galloway and Thacker suggest that networks stand opposed to humanity. Drawing from Galloway and Thacker—as well as upon Stiegler’s notions of default, disbelief, and discredit—this paper describes the dark side of the digital through nine short discussions:

  • Speak to Me: when we communicate through digital tools, what else do we communicate with?
  • Breathe: the digital gives us so much room, but none in which to pause.
  • On the Run: as in “on the digital”: the pharmacology of speed.
  • Time: history and futurity in the age of hypersynchronization.
  • The Great Gig in the Sky: where is the cloud?
  • Money: not too much credit but too much discredit—no investment where no belief.
  • Us and Them: there is no us and no them—the digital has neither “side” nor “sides”.
  • Any Colour You Like: the perils of choice; hyper-demography—all content directed to the individual.
  • Brain Damage: how damaged? is the digital now the default?
  • Eclipse: the end of the Enlightenment, even the parts we “like”, such as privacy.

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen (Page a Day day 1)

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on 1 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Watchmen is framed by two Dylan songs. The title of the first chapter, “At midnight, all the agents…”, derives from 1965’s “Desolation Row.” The epigraph which concludes this chapter provides greater context for the title: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” At the end of the interchapter (an interview with “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt) that follows the penultimate chapter, “Look my works, ye mighty,” appear, as copy for an cologne advertisement, “The times they are a ‘changing [sic].” The chorus to Dylan’s 1963 (released 1964) song is printed in several “futuristic” fonts which stand in juxtaposition with the advertised cologne, Nostalgia by Vedit.

Although music does not play a major role in Watchmen’s narrative, both historical and fictional artists, songs, and events inform its recurring themes of nostalgia and progress, as well as the conflict within the text between the establishment and the counterculture. References to Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo serve to illustrate the changing nature of American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s as rock music becomes increasingly popular and older musicians such as Presley—once though to threaten the moral fabric of the nation—become part of a simplified past and are subsequently replaced with newer acts who have doubled-down on strangeness or offensiveness in an apparent effort to penetrate the numbness of nostalgia and assert the present and future.

This essay explores the manner in which Dylan specifically and music generally informs Watchmen. I argue here that the two aforementioned songs (“Desolation Row” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) make clear the function of nostalgia in the novel: a force of simplification whereby the past becomes increasingly purer and safer and the present cum future increasingly more complex and threatening.