Archive for the Conferences Category

ICFA 36: Fantasy, theory, and arguing

Posted in Conferences, The Profession with tags , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

So, at ICFA this past weekend I ran afoul of the old saw about academic arguments being combative in inverse proportion to the size of their stakes. I mainly followed the Fantasy Literature stream of the conference, which meant I was in the same sessions with the same people for the duration. The Fantasy division, in my humble opinion, seems to suffer from an inferiority complex stemming from the lack of regard that fantasy, as an object of study, has within the academy generally and within the study of fantastika specifically, vis-a-vis science fiction. I won’t name names here, but here are some of my thoughts following the conference on fantasy scholarship and theory and whatever.

  1. Fantasy scholarship needs theory. Badly. I don’t mean criticism, of which there is plenty. Rather, I mean an engagement with a related but separate discourse. SF studies benefit greatly from engagements with Marx and media studies, for example. Fantasy scholarship tends to think about fantasy in terms of fantasy. Engagements with folklore studies, myth studies, and philology/linguistics exist, but not enough to force the field to progress as none of these engagements offer fantasy scholars tools to think about fantasy as a contemporary phenomena, in the context of late capitalism, the society of the spectacle, etc. Of course, sf and Marxism have a somewhat happy relationship as they “move in the same direction,” that is, they both think about questions of progress and history and tend to do so in similar manners (not always, I know). Fantasy does not enjoy such a relationship with any type of theory as theory itself tends towards the progressive and fantasy tends towards the conservative. But we’re smart and we can figure this out.
  2. I have thoughts on what type of theory fantasy might need, but more to the point here: whatever theory it chooses, it needs to use that theory to develop critical terms for the study of fantasy. We seem to be relying still on terms Tolkien gave us in the 1940s. John Clute has developed a complex and rich vocabulary for discussing fantasy, in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, but no one really seems to take it too seriously, which is a shame. I don’t always think Clute is “right” and believe that his terms could be developed, but he is always provocative and provides a very useful place to start conversations about what fantasy is and can do (especially in relation to sf and horror).
  3. But “critical” I mean “not deriving simply from the poetics of fantasy.” It seems that the critics tend to use terms given us by writers. I want to have a productive dialogue with writers, but we can’t simply accept the distinction between primary/secondary worlds or the notion of “world-building” as it comes to us from the production side of the discussion. One audience member at one session mentioned the theological dimensions to these terms and that maybe we need to develop them (or, again, new ones), after which another audience member said that she forgot about the theology so therefore does not worry about it. The latter attitude is, to me, a problem. We can’t, of course, keep all ideas in our heads at the same time, but we can’t simply accept what is given to us because we have not bothered to think hard about it.
  4. I mentioned, at the conclusion of my talk, that fantasy tends to be conservative. At another panel, someone mentioned that I mentioned this (although I guess he could have been referring to someone else) in such a way that seemed to me to suggest that he thought I am wrong. Fair enough. I very well could be. However, I want to make clear that I don’t mean that fantasy writers are voting Republican or that Frodo wants to seal the borders of the Shire against illegal immigration from Bree (although he might). Rather, fantasy, as a genre, tends to seek the past, some form of restoration. It need not do this, but when it becomes progressive it works against a central tendency in the genre, the manner in which it has been stated (by Tolkien, by its medieval settings, by positing worlds in which all forms of progress-technological, political, social–have stopped at some point in the past). I think that fantasy’s conservatism is a sort of strength, not because I identify with it but because I don’t. Given that many notions of history, many modern philosophies, conceive of the world as progressing in some form or another and given that we can;t seem to  imagine a way out of history (and capitalism) by going forward, perhaps fantasy–the tendency of which runs counter to progress, again–offers at the very least a model of thought that would help disrupt historical/progressive thought.
  5. All of this said, and all of my arguments aside (some here, some at the conference), I have nothing but the highest respect for the people I met and listened to, even when I do not agree with them. In fact, I suspect I am in greater agreement with them than I think (some discussions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning confirm as much). What is and was frustrating about the whole thing was my sense that we were speaking very different languages and that I was not able to make myself understood. I guess there is always next year.

Some more thoughts on other matters:

  • Apropos of nothing but the fact that I was at a conference: during the first paper of the first session I attend at every conference I have ever been to, I think: “This is a really weird thing we do as academics. Everyone is sitting silently, some with looks of boredom-if-not-pain on their faces, listening to someone read something they don’t really care about so that other people will do them a similar courtesy in a few hours or days.” I can only imagine an alien-anthropologist explaining this ritual to its peers.
  • I very much enjoyed my panel on “Mere Genre,” which featured Gerry Canavan and Lisa Swanstrom. Gerry and I are editing a special issue of Extrapolation on this theme and have already done an MLA panel on it. Given the quality of the papers I have heard so far, it promises to be awesome. At ICFA, Lisa talked about Sweet Valley High as a kind of horror text, in the context of an idealized capitalist society. It was brilliant and super interesting. Can’t wait for the essays to start rolling in shortly.

That’s it.

Advertisements

ICFA 36 paper: Here at the end of all things: An Archaeology of Return

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 March 2015 by Ben

Here is my paper from this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, on the problem of ending in fantasy and John Clute’s conception of return.

Here at the end of all things”: An Archaeology of Return

Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper considers the final stage of John Clute’s grammar of “full fantasy,” first known as healing in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and renamed as of 2011 when Clute questions “healing” as a useful term in Pardon this Intrusion and substitutes “return” as a “placeholder.” (116). It argues, first, that return is an irreducibly problematic and contradictory concept—not necessarily through any fault of Clute’s, but because of the historical problem of the end to which return is bound—and, second, that the extent to which fantasy involves return derives from its own historical condition.

Continue reading

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 April 2014 by Ben

Following is the transcript of my talk for Morrisville State College’s Science, Technology, and Society Symposium on monsters. I was given the topic “Abominations” and, as you will see, chose to speak about werewolves, among other things. I am definitely humming some of the hard parts here, but will leave it at that. You can download a PDF of the talk here.

What we talk about when we talk about werewolves: Genre and Genus, Wer- and Wolf

Benjamin J Robertson

My epigraph is from Angela Carter’s short story, “The company of wolves:

Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops–of all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, orgres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal tables, the wolf is the worst, for he cannot listen to reason.

Introduction: why talk about werewolves?

It’s weird to me to be talking about werewolves, because they terrify me. Or perhaps it’s not so weird. Perhaps I am talking about them because they terrify me. In a short encyclopedia entry on the relationship between horror and science fiction, Leslie Fiedler writes:

[I]f many of us tend to speak apologetically, defensively, self-mockingly about our fondness for horror fantasy, this is primarily because of a cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of our response, a conflict deep in our psyches between what we, as heirs to the Age of Reason, think we know to be so and what we ambivalently wish or fear to be true. We are convinced that the universe we inhabit is fully explicable in terms of ‘natural’ cause and effect and that once we understand their ‘laws’ we will be the masters of our fate. But we also suspect that we are the playthings of occult forces that we can never understand and that, therefore, will always control our destinies.

Perhaps I am talking about werewolves despite the fact that my father let me watch An American Werewolf in London when I was far too young. Perhaps I am talking about them despite the fact that I still get a tiny bit creeped out by the full moon when I am walking my dog late at night. Perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves today despite the fact that doing so forces me, a grown man in theory, to acknowledge my own fear of something I know for certain not to be real.

Or perhaps I am talking to you about werewolves because of all of these things, because such discussion is productive, because it reveals something important about who we are in 2014, about what we think, about what we are capable of. Perhaps, along with Fiedler, I am talking about werewolves because I believe that if I understand them, if I understand horror, I will become master of my fate. If knowledge of equates with control over, then perhaps I believe, along with humanity, that I can avoid horror altogether by knowing it. I take as one of my core assumptions that humans do precisely this: order the world for themselves so that they might escape or ignore horror, so that they might forever forget that existence is not their understanding of it.

Continue reading

some thoughts on fantasy after ICFA 35

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, The Profession, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 March 2014 by Ben

So ICFA 35 was the first conference I have ever attended at which there was a strong and ongoing discussion of fantasy literature. I have only recently returned to reading fantasy at great length and only even more recently started teaching it and writing about it. I had taught sf for years, and had written a bit about it, but SFRA last year was my first conference on that subject. Point being: I am rather new to being amongst people talking about the issue of genre and these specific genres. Since I am writing about sf, fantasy, and horror in Here at the end of all things, perhaps this moment is long overdue. Better late than never.

In any case, several rather unfinished thoughts from the conference.

Continue reading

Paper for ICFA 35: Empires of Disbelief

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing on 20 March 2014 by Ben

Here is the paper I delivered for ICFA 35, entitled “Empires of Disbelief.” Sorry, but the formatting was lost in translation between Libreoffice and here.

Several mostly recent fantasies—including Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Mieville’s The Scar—render intelligible discontinuities endemic to Tolkien, or, better, endemic to a conception of the quest fantasy visible in Tolkien, even if this conception by no means exhausts The Lord of the Rings. As Clute notes, and as Lord of the Rings seems to replicate, full fantasy begins in wrongness and proceeds through thinning, recognition, and healing or return. I am concerned with this last step.

Of course, Clute also notes that healing and return are the story that fantasy wishes it could tell, and the ur-text of generic quest fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, no more fulfills this wish than any other. The world remains fallen, is perhaps even more fallen, at the end; the heroes of the realm may have saved the world, but not for themselves. They cannot be healed within the scope of the story and must seek their completion or salvation in a beyond that the story cannot include. Whatever empire is restored or established, the premises upon which the Captains of the West found it are divorced from a vision of the future that affords a completed humanity. Each of the aforementioned texts deals with this exclusion of healing in its own way and offer us the opportunity to consider what is at stake in the quest fantasy.
Continue reading

Empires of Disbelief: ICFA 35 proposal

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 October 2013 by Ben

I’m working in this general area right now for Here at the end of all things. I actually used the voice recorder on my phone to take notes on this subject as I walked to school yesterday. First time I have ever done that. I would do it again.

Empires of Disbelief

This paper begins with the remarkable coincidence of several historical events (“historical”, here, in a Foucauldian sense). First, John Clute argues in Pardon this Intrusion that fantastika can be traced to the early nineteenth century; the genres of fantastika “are intimately connected with the becoming visible of the engine of history, round about 1800, when the future began.” Second, we have Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, first published in 1807 and a singular influence on Western notions of history as progressive and significant. Third, Foucault traces the advent of disciplinary power to roughly the same period. As the human being entered History (Hegel) as an individual who is the same as all other individuals (Foucault), it began to narrativize its position within that history through forms that could face the end whether that end was understood to be apocalyptic or Paradisaical. These accounts dovetail, I argue, with the project of Western Empires to at once offer a sort of carrot to individuals in the form of a promise of meaning for their lives (the completion of humanity, the Rapture—what Clute would call Healing or Return) as well as the the constant denial of such an end in order to maintain their existence (humanity is never complete, history never actually ends in its perfection, the Rapture never occurs). Over the course of the past two centuries, individuals in the West (a term I use advisedly not to refer to a given unity but to a construction) have been denied what they have been promised so often that rather than believing in the future, they find themselves in a state of what Bernard Stiegler calls “disbelief.”

With reference to key fantasy texts from the last several decades—such as Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, China Miéville’s The Scar and Iron Council, Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre—as well as secondary/theoretical texts from Clute, Foucault, Deleuze, and Stiegler, this paper investigates how the Story that fantasy “wishes to tell” (of Healing, in Clute’s sense of the term) has, despite constant retellings, become impossible. Of course, Healing has always been impossible, but I argue that Empire now no longer even requires it as a carrot. Whereas the West formerly relied on coherent individuals (in Foucault’s sense) who desire insertion into the History (or Story) or Empire as individuals , it now maintains itself despite the fact that people (as what Deleuze calls “dividuals”) no longer believe in such metanrratives of progress and freedom. With seemingly no possible way out of this situation, we can turn to the impossibilities of fantasies such as those listed here (among others) as models for ways of thinking that resist and overcome our disbelief.

Primary sources

Gilman, Felix. The Half-made World. New York: Tor, 2011. Print.

McKillip, Patricia A. In the Forests of Serre. New York: Ace Books, 2003. Print.

Miéville, China. Iron Council: a Novel. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

—. The Scar. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Morgan, Richard K. The Steel Remains. Del Ray trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print.

Secondary sources

Clute, John. Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm. N. p. Print.

Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print. Agora Paperback Editions.

Stiegler, Bernard. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print. Meridian : Crossing Aesthetics.

—. Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals. Trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Print. Disbelief and Discredit 2.

Horror after history: Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 27 September 2013 by Ben

Text of a talk I gave at the 2013 &NOW Conference. Warning: rough edges.

There is a moment in the life of concepts when they lose their immediate intelligibility and can then, like all empty terms, be overburdened with contradictory meanings.

—Agamben, Homo Sacer

This paper is about horror—both what we feel and the genre known as such—and history. The intersection of these two terms in this paper involves the claim that horror—both the feeling and the genre—has a history and that history in one of its most prevalent senses—that being the sense that history is progressive—horrifies. I will not come to a strong conclusion.

The Last Werewolf is potboiler full of sex and violence (although, truth be told, in both quality and quantity not so much, contra the breathless reviews). Glen Duncan, like so many who have written genre fiction, appears in this context to be, as Melville once said satirically of Hawthorne, a man who means no meanings. Of course to be a man who means no meanings at the end of history, is simply to be a man. Or an animal, as to be a man means to mean meanings and to mean meanings means to be a man. After the end of history, after meaning has ceased, one can no longer be a man properly so-called. Nor can one be beast. Such distinctions are part and parcel of history and the meaning, the technology or the means of meaning which it affords. After history, the genres such distinctions create and maintain—genres which must be created and maintained because they have no inherent reality—disappear. No more human and animal. No more horror, sf, fantasy. No more potboilers and no more literature.

In The Open, Agamben discusses a messianic and a modern account of the reconciliation of the human to the animal, each of which involves the end times or the end of history. In the messianic account, what survives the last judgment is the purely human, the human exclusive of its embodiment, its physicality, its animality. In the modern account, which comes out of Hegel on Kojeve’s reading and very much determines popular and populist notions of history to the present insofar as it’s underpinned by “progres”, the end of history involves the “disappearance of Man properly so-called,” the end of “Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.” At the conclusion of History, “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or Given being.” In other words, at the end of history the human loses what makes it human; the animalization of the human takes place through the exclusion of humanity.

Later, in Homo Sacer, in a chapter entitled “The Ban and the Wolf,” Agamben returns to his discussion of animality in the context of the political conditions of modernity. He notes that the werewolf, in its origin, is closely related to the figure of homo sacer, or sacred man, who, in contradiction to his title, can be killed but not sacrificed. He notes that Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources define the bandit (who is excluded from the polis and the laws that protect the demos such that anyone may kill him) as a wolf-man. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.” Notably, for all of its etymological inquiries, for all of genealogical tracings of an obscure figure of ancient law, Homo Sacer concerns itself first and foremost with what Agamben calls “the nomos of the modern,” under which the state of exception (which can be traced back first to sacred man and then to the werewolf) becomes permanent.

Agamben notes that, as a term, “homo sacer” makes almost no sense, burdened as it is with so many contradictory meanings. For example, if the man in question is sacred—that is, if he belongs to the gods—why may he be killed by anyone? To come to some understanding of the term, although this definition does not account for its complexity entirely, we might articulate it with a concept of history and say that homo sacer is excluded from all humanity, including that which we call history. Homo sacer, in other words, cannot be made meaningful, cannot be included in the city, in the purview of “Man properly so-called.” In some sense, homo sacer is already removed from such profanity, from human use and is therefore already sacred, but cannot partake in a becoming sacred that meaning requires. If this point seems contradictory, it is. That meaning is human is part and parcel of Hegel’s notion of history, but at the same time this meaning, history itself, requires spirit, something fundamentally non-human, in order to mean.

Glen Duncan’s title refers literally to Jacob Marlowe, the last of his kind. However, I can’t hear it or read it without thinking of Fukuyama’s the last man who comes at the end of history or of Nietzsche’s last man who heralds the arrival of what comes after the human. However, this echo raises the question of whether Marlowe is the last wer and the last wolf, the last human (or at least the last man) as well as the last beast or if he is the last werewolf, the last intersection of the two? That is, with his conclusion does the distinction between human and animal cease or is it completed? Whatever the case, he is both human and beast, an animal in an urban world, a creature whose fleshly (dare I say natural?) appetites—which include well-aged scotch and constant sexual intercourse—can only be satiated by the conveniences of modern culture. He lives always in a human world, but apart from humanity. He is integrated in the system of culture through his investments, but has few friends and a life that has no value whatsoever. he may be captured and tortured without consequence, killed by those who hate and fear him without anyone knowing or caring.

Continue reading