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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.

The page a day project

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on 1 January 2013 by Ben

Probably this would be no big deal for most people, but since I tend not to write at all unless I think I can get a huge chunk done all at once I have resolved this year to write a page every day. I hope that will allow me to ignore my inclination to save it all for a marathon session, as such sessions rarely materialize with my teaching load and the rest of my life.

I am not concerned with producing finished writing everyday so much as getting thoughts on paper. Likewise, while I plan to produce writing related to my two current projects, I don’t plan to hold myself to doing so every day. Some days my simply see me write about whatever I happen to be reading or thinking about at the time. If it fits into future work, great. If not, that’s cool too.

Whatever I write about, if I can produce 365 pages of writing this year (or likely more as I do hope to get in a few of those marathon sessions) that will be great for me and hopefully be the start of some better writing habits as well as greater engagement with the online academic community, to which I hope to contribute more than snark.

I will post my daily writing here, warts and all. Some days will likely include revisions of previous work, but I hope that there is something new in there each day as well.