Archive for the Here at the End of All Things Category

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.

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Some thoughts on magic in Peake’s Gormenghast

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 31 August 2013 by Ben

One of the questions that preoccupies criticism of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels is whether they are generic fantasy. Of course, they were written and published at a time when there was no such thing–or no such thing in the sense that we mean today. That they are often referred to as a trilogy–despite numerous facts that run contrary to such a designation–implies a desire on the part of critics, reviewers, and capitalists to recuperate Peake under a generic, and therefore valorzing heading that will thus allow for further commodification. “Like Tolkien? You’ll LOVE Titus Groan! Please ignore all of the ways in which it is different… mumble… mumble… look over there! Yoink!” [Steals money, runs away.]

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Stefan Ekman on polders

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 14 August 2013 by Ben

A polder is, simply put, a space in fantasy literature protected from the outside (think Lothlórien, for example).

Following from Clute, who writes, “Polders change only when they are being devoured from without”, Stefan Ekman argues (in Here Be Dragons):

In other words, for a polder, the internal and external realities are set up as opposing forces, and as long as the polder is successfully maintained, it does not change. The world outside does, however, and its change widens the temporal gap between the two realities. The polder becomes a maintained anachronism–that is, an anachronism opposed to the time of the surrounding world, actively if not consciously (because it begs the question: whose consciousness?). The external time is, and must be, the wrong time, since, in a polder, any time but its own is wrong. Hence a polder must not only be maintained but also defended from external influence. (100)

It is always interesting to me the way in which theoretical discussions of genre mirror debates about the legitimacy of generic fiction. For example, we might consider Literature a polder, artificially protected from the ravages of genre and history, frozen (as if by one of the three rings for eleven kings) in place and rendered incorruptible–except that Literature is presented as the world and generic fiction as something foreign to that world, which seems to me opposite how the polder tends to work (at least in Tolkien). This is the Generic at work.

Knowing in Middle-earth

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , on 26 July 2013 by Ben

In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury writes:

“By this point it should be clear that a theme is emerging from the analysis. If The Lord of the Rings stands at a tangent to the novel as a genre, it is not because of a general abstention from realism or archaism of style–neither of which can really be attributed to it–but because of a highly specific feature for which precedents are hardly to be found in the novel tradition: the complex, and to an extent, systemic, elaboration of an imaginary world” (25)

He goes on to say that even SF does not go so far in such world building, and I think that  it is likely true that no other fantasy goes this far either. However, it is precisely this point that is deceiving because we do noy, in fact, know everything about Middle-earth. If we do, we have to admit that there is actually very little to know, because we in fact know so little of, for example, the common people. If we do know everything, the world is not actually all that complex. If we don’t know everything, then we are deceived into believing we do. The issue here involves the idea that everything in Middle-earth can be known, is knowable, which is not even true of our own world (or planet, as it were, in Eugene Thacker’s terms).  What Middle-earth lacks is horror, the discovery of what should not be, what cannot be knowable according to prevailing ways of knowing.

Symmetry and meaning in Lord of the Rings

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic with tags , , , , , on 25 July 2013 by Ben

Tom Shippey’s overall argument (in JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century)  involves explaining the consistency in Tolkien, against charges by CN Manlove for example (in Modern Fantasy and elsewhere). Manlove argues that Tolkien’s conception of evil is inconsistent, that the Ring does not affect everyone equally nor does it do what it is supposed to do (destroy Frodo’s mind, for example). Shippey notes that Tolkien began Fellowship with little sense of the overall story and that, as a result (he discovers after studying drafts of the text in The History of Middle Earth), often in the first book certain things are less than they come to be. For example, he notes that the Black Riders are not nearly so frightening, and that they do not appear powerful as they move through the Shire. Manlove also notes this inconsistency. (I thought this was partially explained by the fact that Sauron had not yet refound much power and that the Riders therefore were lacking at this point; however, it is strange that they did not use a bit more force as capturing the ring would have solved the problem of a lack of power.) In any case, Shippey notes this inconsistency and, while not exactly excusing it, makes clear that it might be a result of the writing process Tolkien went through.

However, in the overall argument Shippey seems to do too much to make everything in LotR explained and explainable. Whereas Manlove goes too far demanding explanations he thinks are impossible to find, Shippey goes too far I think in finding them. This is not to say that either is wrong. Manlove is operating under assumptions of “literature”, namely the realist novel. Shippey is operating from a position of deep knowledge  (that Manlove would not have had access to in 1976, even if he would have wanted it, which is unclear): that knowledge provided him by the publication of the History of Middle Earth and seemingly having know Tolkien. Shippey also “benefits” from his training in philology, and therefore his attention to the languages of Middle Earth. In both cases, however, the question of explanation is problematic if we want the text to do something other than what literature does.

For, it seems, that Manlove is content to exclude Tolkien from literature (and indeed most if not all fantasy, even if some, such as Peake, is better than others–he says Tolkien is the worst in Modern Fantasy). And, it seems, Shippey desires to place Tolkien in an expanded field of literature, one not guarded by critics such as Manlove, but one dedicated to the complexity of the individual work and the voice of public opinion. But, again, to do more the work of fantasy cannot rest on the commonplace, cannot be for or against literature, but must be other than it, must refute the Generic not directly, as in historical conflict, but by existing either beyond its horizon or by escaping (forever escaping, never escaped) over that horizon even as the world turns and meridians pass under our feet and thereby we include ever more within the known.

My Eaton/SFRA 2013 Paper: Media Theory and Genre

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 April 2013 by Ben

Here is my paper for the 2013 Eaton/SFRA conference, as part of the panel on “Mediation and Transmedia” with Scott Selisker (“Transmedia Automatism: Cinematic Motion in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl“) and Veronica Hollinger (“The Dis/enchantments of the Mediated Real”).

Media Theory and Genre

This paper is sort of chasing a certain claim, a double inversion of Arthur C. Clarke, although I cannot address it in any depth here: “Any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

So, this boringly-titled talk opens a discussion of genre as media and genre’s relation to other media. By “genre,” I mean at the start something fairly non-controversial, I hope: a set of texts, however blurry the boundaries around that set, the conventions of which take on meaning within the set and without historicity. By “media,” I follow McLuhan who more or less understands a medium as a thing, in the broadest possible sense. At times the term “technics,” which here is closely aligned with media but takes on Stiegler’s definition as “organized inorganic matter,” will supplement or replace “media.”

There are a number of strands of thought here that I hope to weave together. First, I am interested in theorizing fantasy as a genre, especially in relation with science fiction and horror, although the latter will not be present here. I am not interested in defining fantasy with regard to dragons or magic or elves and, likewise I am not interested in SF insofar as it involves technology or aliens, nor horror insofar as it involves vampires or transformation. We all “know” fantasy, SF, and horror when we see them, even if we continue to argue about many specific cases and definitive boundaries. Rather than ask “what is fantasy?” I wish to ask “what does, or perhaps better can, it do?” I shall draw shortly on a talk China Mieville gave in 2009 to help articulate this theorization.

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more notes on Parable of the Talents: entering history and the books of the living

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Teaching with tags , , , , , , , on 10 February 2013 by Ben

Some more thoughts on the Butler novel. Still thinking about the relationship between history and media, with some implication of how SF fits into this whole thing.

taking part in history

  • last time we defined history not as what happened but rather the account of what happened
  • today, we refine that definition
    • history is not simply the account of what happened, but specifically human progress
    • while history as a concept has a long history, most contemporary understandings of history owe at least something to Hegel’s theory as described by Alexandre Kojeve
    • Kojeve, following Hegel, argued that History is the “space” of meaning
    • history is human conflict and the meaning that derives from that conflict
    • only in history is there meaning
      • animals exist outside of history because they have no meaning and they have no meaning because they are outside of history
    • Kojeve, again following Hegel, understands history to be progressive, that humans are working towards the fulfillment or end of history, a time when there will be no more conflict and therefore no more meaning (no more art, etc)
      • things will still happen but they will no longer be meaningful because human destiny (not his word or concept) will have been fulfilled
      • Hegel understood this to have happened after the Battle of Jena in 1806
      • more recently, Francis Fukuyama understood this to happen with the end of the Cold War, which Butler had thematized quite dramatically in Xenogenesis
  • in any case, we must understand the context in which the events of this novel take place
    • the glory years to which Jarret refers are the 1950s, which we have discussed as being uniformly white in their representation and in our “memories”
    • more that that, they were also the start of the Cold War and the start of American world dominance
    • in part that dominance came about because America was competing with the Soviet Union
      • we put a man on the moon to make sure we were the first to do so
      • spending on defense drove the national economy and educational initiatives in science, engineering, and later computer science
      • we have the Cold War to thank for the Internet
  • Jarret becomes president in 2032, some four decades after the end of the Cold War
    • Butler writing in 1998 was well aware of the problems that the fall of the Berlin Wall meant for the US, which found itself for the first time in half a century without an enemy and therefore without an identity
    • history was over with the end of this conflict and with it went meaning
    • we might speculate that this is the reason that Bankole says the Pox began in the late 20th century, because it was at that moment that the US had lost its identity, its reason for existence
    • it took forty years in this fiction, but Jarret comes along to give America its identity back
  • one of the primary questions facing Americans generally and Acorn specifically is whether to re-enter history
    • people debate whether they should use the truck they acquire to trade or if they should withdraw further into the mountains
    • Lauren believes that they need to trade
      • of course, Lauren also believes in a sort of destiny, although whether her goal involves re-entering history or surpassing it is an open question
      • as is whether there is any difference between these two ideas is another open question
  • and here we can revisit Butler’s thematization of the connection between past and future, and the way that Bankole and Lauren come into conflict with regard to this issue
    • see 62 – 64
    • see also 66: looking back/looking forward discussion
    • B and L argue because he thinks the world used to be good and is getting worse
    • she thinks it can get better, but the idea that it was better in the past is something of a fiction
      • hence her personal dislike for Jarret, who to her lies about past greatness
    • see 133 where Lauren describes Bankole’s anger with her
      • she is “unrealistic”, in contrast with what she thinks of herself
    • we will come back to the question of realism at a future date, but note that the conflict here has to do with how one re-enters history
      • Bankole wants to return to history, to the past, to what no longer exists
      • that is meaning to him
      • Lauren wants to shape the future, to MAKE history (again, maybe to leave it behind altogether or to surpass it in some way)
    • see also 215: Bankole’s trust in law and order
      • he is afraid of the world and believes that adhering to old standards will save them
      • could be returning to town
      • could be having a will
      • one of the things Butler has always known is that text is inconsequential when one does not have power
      • but see 234: element of horror: should not have happened here
        • the rational belief in law confronts the law’s lack of power
  • there is a similar tension between Lauren and Marcos
    • see 109
    • he thinks that the world WAS better, got worse, and can return to past glory
    • Lauren thinks that it can only get better by leaving that past behind
    • see 111, where daughter calls Marcos a “realist”, in tension with Lauren’s claim to the same earlier (page 97)
    • Marcos also wants to return to the past, but unlike Bankole wants to shape the future into that past where Bankole only wants to return
  • also note that “god is change” is predicated on the notion of looking forward and the painful truth that Lauren often refers to is related to the issue that humans want things to remain the same, to NOT change, to not progress or move forward
    • see page 72 for example of this
      • one of the conflicts of the novel has to do with to what extent Acorn should be a part of human history
    • one of the thing that the west is about is progress, and history has often been the story of that progress
    • however, times change but times do not always progress
      • see 75: things will settle into a NEW norm
      • see also 86: negative change
      • 87
      • 115: how much it hurts to change
    • sometimes they get worse, or they might get better for or in the opinion of some people even as they get worse for or in the opinion of others
      • history is uneven
      • see 67 and discussion of what civilization is
      • also see 69 where some people buy into older notions of progress
      • it may be that Lauren also buys into progress, as she buys into SF and the notion of progress it implicitly contains
      • see 70 where Lauren imagines Acorn much as the founding fathers imagined America
  • as I mentioned, one of the conflicts in the novel is whether Acorn should take part in history
    • this is expressed by those who wish to remain apart from society and to ignore the world in the hopes that the world ignores them
    • we have seen that the world will not ignore them, that the world often if not always insists that everyone take part in history either as the master or the slave
      • and, it should be noted that Hegel developed this idea along with our most prominent theory of history
    • 81: news media; related to whether Acorn should join history (some people do not want detailed news, which is the stuff of history, perhaps feeling it’s not important to their situation)
    • and it is here that we should
      • first, note that Lauren wants to enter human history but also transform it
        • (although perhaps only augment it)
      • and second that we can see a connection between the issue of history and that of media in the novel

Earthseed: books of the living

  • the writings on Earthseed are referred to as “books of the living”
    • we should note that it’s not clear whether only the verse from the start of each chapter comes from the Earthseed books, or if all of each chapter does
      • thus it’s unclear whether these books are compiled solely by Lauren or if Larkin has a hand in them as well
    • in any case, it’s an important reminder that we are reading a book (called Parable of the Talents) and that this book is itself composed of a number of fictional books, including: Lauren’s journal, Bankole’s journal, Marcos’ journal, and Larkin’s editorial notes
  • and it’s important to note what books are: they are, first and foremost accounts of what has happened
    • of course, SF speculates about what will happen, but it does so based on the present, which to say the very recent past
    • this is something Butler more or less tells us when we read Bankole’s introduction
      • PotT may be about the 2030s, but it begins in 1998, or very shortly before 1998
    • thus we may say that books are always looking back
    • and we might say that they are part and parcel of truth, that which shapes and creates the truth of the past
    • books are, in some sense, always books of the dead
  • among the many books mentioned in PotS, perhaps the most important is the King James Bible
    • on one hand, like all books, the Bible is a book of the dead
    • it is about times past
    • but, I think that the Bible as a book does not so much refer to death in the strict sense as it does to the eternal
    • thus the books of the living, Earthseed (which refer of course to a sort of groundedness as well as life, which is never eternal) are opposed to permanence, to transcendence, to timelessness
  • Earthseed is about building a future, about shaping change, about embracing change (no matter how difficult it may be to do so)
    • it is therefore about leaving the past behind
    • it has no business with what has come before, whether it’s Jarret’s vision of the 1950s or Bankole’s notion of safety (which itself is very similar to Jarret’s vision of the 1950s
    • 260: Earthseed not very comforting
  • 185: a record of what Earthseed has survived
    • for the future
    • is this a history? a looking back?
    • or is it an opportunity for learning?
    • is there ever a book that is not a history?
    • is Earthseed rather humanist then?
    • it does seem that Lauren is at least as driven (what we would have once called monomaniacal) as her brother or Jarret
    • she buys into SF and SF-logic, which I think you could say is that of the book with its forward looking based on present conditions
    • see also 213: Lauren making copies of her writing