Fragment on M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 4 June 2018 by Ben

I love Viriconium so much, and alas I can’t say as much about it in Here at the end of all things as I would like. So here is a fragment from some older writing that was meant for HATEOAT but must fall to the cutting room floor. It’s not really complete, or even coherent without the apparatus I built to explain it, but I hate just putting it in the “misc” file and forgetting about it.

Viriconium, or amnesia of the soul

The novellas and stories which make up Viriconium were published between 1971 and 1985, and thus operate in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. Certain parts of the overall text, especially The Pastel City, suggest Harrison’s knowledge of Tolkien. Nonetheless, in terms of tone and narrative, the Viriconium and The Lord of the Rings remain antithetical to one another. Most significantly, whereas The Lord of the Rings, like much fantasy, narrates the avoidance (or attempted avoidance) of some end, Viriconium takes that end as a given and begins in its aftermath, some indeterminate time after the fall of the so-called “Afternoon Cultures” and the high technology thereof:

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of the Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but no one who came later could read it. More important, perhaps, it built enduringly despite its failing strength—leaving certain technologies that, for good or ill, retained their properties of operation for well over over a thousand years. And more important still, it was the last of the Afternoon Cultures, and was followed by Evening, and by Viriconium.i

The Middle Period of the Earth” carries with it an echo of The Lord of the Rings, but in Viriconium “Middle” indicates the height from which the world has fallen rather than a mere transition away from fecundity and towards the end: the historical apotheosis of society, but importantly an apotheosis that was always unsustainable, one governed by an inevitable decay, and one antithetical to return.ii That is to say, this decay remains always irremediable. With no immortal elves to remember forever the events of the past with perfect clarity and guarantee their historicity, knowledge of the past mainly disappears. Even when the past reemerges, it remains unknowable, some shift in the world caused by the past itself giving rise to a failure of science, philosophy, literature, and all of the other means by which the human comes to understand itself by narrating the movement between no longer and not yet. Thus the desire to recover the past is, as one character puts it, foolish, drastic changes in the material conditions of the world wrought by history, a history only felt in its material effects and always incomprehensible in terms of its meaning, having made it so: “‘We should not strive too hard to imitate the Afternoon Cultures […] They killed this place with industry and left it for the big monitors. In part, if not in whole, they fell because they exhausted the land. We mine the metal they once used, for instance, because there is no ore left in the earth.’” He continues, “‘And in using it all up, they dictated that our achievements should be of a different quality to their—’”iii The survivors of whatever apocalypse did this to the world (or, if not apocalypse, the simple passage of time—the cause of this world’s aftermath remains unknown and unknowable). The current generation scavenges ruins for technology so “advanced” (despite its being historical) that it may as well be magic. As new problems arise, they can be dealt with on a local or immediate level at best. There are no more longterm solutions or trajectories any more than there is the possibility of going back to before it all happened. This is aftermath, when there remains nothing but problem.

The first of the novels and stories collected in Viriconium, The Pastel City, relates how a usurper to the throne of the realm, in the words of one of the realm’s defenders, “‘has woken something we cannot handle,’”iv something from the Afternoon Cultures that the Evening Cultures do not understand and cannot defeat, autonomous killing machines called the geteit chemosit: “All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim—but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution to political problems. They hate life. This is the way they were built.”v The quest to stop these automata and prevent the usurper from placing herself on the throne appears to be very similar to that of The Lord of the Rings and other such fantasies which task themselves with staving off the end of all things. However, the conflict with the geteit chemosit reveals an important difference between Viriconium and such fantasies, namely that in this world story is unknown and unknowable. The reasons, in fact the reason (in the sense of “rationale”), behind the quest are misunderstood. These automata are not evil in any way, as is the Ring finally and unequivocally, but technologies built in such a way that they might do one thing or another (the Ring only does one thing in the end, corrupt the world). Even if those in the present understand the two-edgedness of the geteit chemosit, they do not understand the nature of this two-edgedness, how it fits into story’s dictation of events. Later, we learn as much when one character reveals that they were not created to destroy, but rather to preserve, and that their present rampage arose because of a misunderstanding of their original function and the possibilities that original function might produce under new circumstances. Once this understanding is achieved, they are shut down. This solution, however, is the sort of solution that happens in aftermath: it produces nothing better, no new insight, no return (or even arrival).

This plotline negatively demonstrates the fundamental comprehensibility of the secondary world in much fantasy. However, of greater interest here is what comes of it. In the course of shutting down the geteit chemosit, one character resurrects individuals of the Afternoon Cultures, dubbed later “The Reborn Men.” As another character puts it, these individuals, for whom time will always be out of joint, present an even greater threat to the Evening Cultures than did the just defeated rampaging automata: “‘They are too beautiful […]; they are too accomplished. If you go on with this, there will be no new empire—instead, they will absorb us, and after a millennium’s pause, the Afternoon Cultures will resume their long sway over the earth.’”vi This claim will turn out to be correct: there will be no new empire, but not for the reason stated. Return is impossible for the Evening Cultures; they exist after the end and cannot go back to before the ending. Nor, whatever claims to the contrary, can the Afternoon Cultures themselves return. Their historical existence concluded, their very being finds itself radically out of place after the end. Several of the Reborn Men feature in the sequel to The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, in which their states of mind slowly decay: “The Reborn Men do not think as we do. They live in waking dreams, pursued by a past they do not understand, harried by a birthright which has no meaning for them: taunted by amnesia of the soul.”vii

iHarrison, Viriconium, 3.

iiNote that in The Lord of the Rings, Sarumon (as quoted by Gandalf), describes the forward movement of time in terms opposite those of Viriconium: “‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning” JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 339.

iiiHarrison, Viriconium, 42.

ivHarrison, Viriconium, 39.

vHarrison, 78.

viHarrison, 104.

viiHarrison, 113.

None of this is normal is going to be a real live book

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 3 May 2018 by Ben

There is a page for it at the University of Minnesota website and everything.

See also the U of Minnesota P Fall 2018 catalog (PDF link) where it takes pride of place behind Brian Massumi, Allen Ginsberg, Werner Herzog, and a local Minnesota novel.

And, of course, you can pre-order it from Amazon and other fine and not-so-fine booksellers: B&N, BAM, IndieBound.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, my SFRA proposal)

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 25 March 2018 by Ben

Here is my proposal for SFRA 2018, in Milwaukee.  As with nearly all of my conference proposals, this one is a bit rough and is more a promise to think about something than the actual thought itself. In any case, I am planning to be done with Here at the end of all things in the first half of the summer, and this paper (along with my essay on Dragonlance and my review essay on The Force Awakens) represents a new research direction in which I consider franchise as form.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”


In the “Fragment on Machines,” Marx claims, “The development of fixed capital [i.e. machines] indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself has come under the control of the general intellect and has been transformed in accordance with it.” Otherwise put, the knowledge objectified or “stored” in fixed capital animates production itself. Moreover, the material lives of human beings are subsequently transformed by this transformation of production. Ideally, the production of machines would lead to a reduction in labor time and an increase in leisure. This revolution, of course, has never come to pass.

This paper considers franchiseas fixed capital. Franchise has become machinic in that it objectifies, stores, and privatizes the general intellect, most notably generic forms invented and deployed by a wide range of producers working within a cultural commons. Far from decreasing or eliminating socially necessary labor time, franchises leverage their worlds in order to demand more creative labor from producers. Moreover, they require increased expenditures of time and money from consumers who “labor” not only to see films, read comics, and play games that appear under this or that franchise’s auspices, but also to understand and interpret the world these texts produce and assume, one that cannot rely on a fixed reality to hold itself together. In this context, Hawkeye’s lament about his limitations and the lack of sense in the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes a clear admission that the fixed capital of franchise serves to increase socially necessary labor time rather than “leisure.”

As a test case for thinking about about franchise as fixed capital and the effects thereof, I take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is characterized by extreme abstraction. Every franchise develops its own internal logics as it borrows and then turns away from genre and other aspects of the general intellect. The MCU is largely built upon the incompatibility of its world with itself. Alien invasions and the existence of gods should transform the world, as should Tony Stark’s cell phone all by itself. Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) lives within pastoral bliss, on a farm, even as he fights the greatest threats the universe can throw at Earth. And yet, the world, compartmentalized into different spaces each with no apparent relation to any other space, continues in its day to day operations as if nothing is happening.None of it fits together; none of this makes sense. And yet, as the franchise offers us new material at an ever increasing pace (at least four films in 2018 alone), producers and consumers work harder and harder to keep up. As Hawkeye says, immediately after the line cited above, “I’m going back out there because it’s my job.”


Book cover!!!!!

Posted in None of this is normal, Uncategorized with tags , , on 18 March 2018 by Ben

This image will likely be updated slightly before the book is released, but here is the cover for None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, coming this fall from University of Minnesota Press.

I have asked for the name of the designer(s) who produced the cover and will update this post when I know.

Edit: the cover was designed by Michel Vrana, who tweets from @MichelVrana.

In any case, it’s amazing and does exactly what I wanted in terms of capturing what the book is about without in any way being what I anticipated. That’s just the best.


1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 March 2018 by Ben

I gave a talk at ICFA 39 on this topic, which was carved from a longer talk I had given a few weeks earlier. This material comprises part of chapters 3 and 7 of Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History. The HTML below is the long version. You can download PDFs of the short version or the long version if you like.

1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy

I call this one 1977: Semiocapitalism and the Real Subsumption of Fantasy.

There are some handouts going around that contain the quotations I will use in this talk, which is in three parts.

Part 1: Here at the end of all things and the problem of history

My current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press, seeks to usefully theorize genre fantasy, a task made difficult by strong tendencies within fantasy that, while irreducibly modern themselves, oppose themselves to modernity and modern thought. Science fiction and horror work somewhat differently. We no doubt all know the extent to which science fiction has been accepted by scholars of literature as a worthwhile object of inquiry. Science fiction studies not only dominates the discourse on fantastika generally, but includes numerous subdisciplines devoted to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and more within the larger field. Gothic horror has enjoyed wide consideration by scholars of literature and culture, especially in its nineteenth-century incarnations. More recently, the Weird and New Weird have—in part because of the rise of Object Oriented Ontology, Speculative Realism, and related discourses—achieved a privileged position within literary and cultural studies. Lovecraft criticism has become nearly an industry unto itself, not coincidentally at roughly the same moment the Anthropocene has become something of a cause within the arts and humanities. Fantasy has not enjoyed similar attention, despite its ongoing popularity—populatrrity demonstrated by both its continued production by generic and mainstream writers alike and the countless television programs and films that fall under its purview.

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The Last Jedi’s Anti-nostalgia and Anti-Salvation

Posted in papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 19 December 2017 by Ben

I assume I was the last person to actually see The Last Jedi, or at least the last person who wrote a review of The Force Awakens about the way the franchise is developing and therefore has some sort of intellectual stake in this whole thing to actually see The Last Jedi. As such, I have mainly avoided all of the reviews and discussions of the film. So, if I say anything that’s been said or seem redundant to overall conversation, oh well I guess.

In my review of TFA for Science Fiction Film and Television, I made a case for interpreting Star Wars as a franchise. Plenty of work has been done to understand the nature of the media franchise in terms of world-building, production models, economics, multi-platform distribution, etc. However, less work (basically no work?) has been done to address the difficulty of how to interpret a given franchise, especially given the fact that every major franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, the MCU, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) is unique unto itself, developing its own internal logics according to manifold pressures both “internal” to it (the foundational narrative, the physics of the story world, etc.) and “external” to it (intellectual property law, the vagaries of corporate ownership, the visions of multiple creators, fan expectations, etc.). Needless to say the distinction between internal and external is blurry at best, and these pressures combine and re-combine in ways that are impossible to fully appreciate. In any case, while we have seen a lot of discussion of what happens in a franchise such as Star Wars as it expands across films, television, video games, novels and short stories, comics, toys, etc., we have not really developed a way to “close read” the resulting narratives in their complex relationship to one another.

In my review essay of The Force Awakens I suggested a focus on worlds in the context of the production history and reception of the Star Wars franchise. (Also, note that Gerry Canavan and I have just completed work on a special double issue of Extrapolation, on the question of “Mere Genre”, which attempts to think about how we, as critics, might deal with massive text sets of varying quality, such as Dragonlance, Star Wars and Star Trek, Blondie (the serial comic), Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones.) In my essay, I make a case that TFA had to clear the slate for future Star Wars films–hence its repetition of so many devices and plot lines that Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise (another Death Star, another hero’s journey, etc.). Moreover, TFA had to satisfy the contradictory expectations and desires of at least three groups of fans: the “original” fans of episodes IV, V, and VI, who very often hated episodes I, II, and III; the generation of fans who grew up with episodes I, II, and III and who may not have hated them because they were givens of a franchise rather than intrusions into one; and the fans who would first encounter Star Wars through TFA. there are other groups of course, including the hardcore fans of what are now know as Star Wars Legends (the former expanded universe, which has become non-canonical in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of the franchise). Likewise, every generation of fans is internally diverse. Nonetheless, I think that the logic holds: Disney and Abrams had to create a film that could allow the franchise to move forward and maintain/revive older fandoms while creating new ones. Oh yeah, it also had to do all of this with an aging cast from the original trilogy, not all of whom were happy to be a part of the next generation.

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My next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History

Posted in Uncategorized on 27 November 2017 by Ben

Now that the final revisions to None of this is normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer are done, I can feel good about announcing my next book project: Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, which is under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press. If you know me, you also know that I have been working on this project approximately forever, or at least since 2011, when I fist encountered Rochard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could teach a class on fantasy that was more than fan appreciation for a genre.

The project has undergone numerous iterations. There was a time when I conceived a larger project, The Generic, that would be seven books long.I have long since climbed down from that ledge, with help from colleagues and friends. More recently, I thought that this book would be a compartive study of fantasy, sf, and horror, with each genre read through the work of John Clute and understood as a means by which modernity deals with history. There is still a good deal of that here, but sf and horror are now firmly subordinated to the discussion of fantasy. It was simply too much to try to do all of that work in one book.

Sf is just fine in terms of criticism, and horror has new life as the muse of cultural geologists (in Mark McGurl’s potent phrase). In any case, while there is great fantasy scholarship out there (see Ryan Vu’s “Fantasy after Representation,” forthcoming in Extrapolation 58.2-3, edited by Gerry Canavan and yours truly), there is no theoretical investigation of the genre that articulates it with sf and horror as a means for thinking about history (or about ahistory, as it were). Much fantasy scholarship remains taxonomic to some extent, or insists that fantasy is too historicist and critical. I find both approaches limited insofar as they turn inward and ignore fantasy’s place in a larger conversation about modernity or reduce fantasy, all of its (admittedly problematic) peculiarities to having the same critical dimensions as those genres that stand opposed to it.

In any case, here is the proposal I sent to JHUP. I expect that some things will change here (for example, I now think that part one will be three chapters long, each shorter than those proposed here). Feedback is invited and welcome. Many thanks to those who have already provided feedback. It is dult noted and my gratitude will be expressed mre specifically in the acknowledgements.

Here is the proposal as a PDF.

You can also read the proposal below the fold.

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On Dradin, in Love; or, VanderMeer ephemera

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 13 July 2017 by Ben

Part of the reason I wanted to write about Jeff VanderMeer is Dradin, in Love, the 1996 novella that became the first section of “The Book of Ambergris” in City of Saints and Madmen. It is a very strange story insofar as it is set in a secondary world but includes few of the trappings of fantasy. I am currently trying to wrap up my chapter on the Ambergris novels and was committed to shoe-horning my thoughts on Dradin in there somewhere. Overall, the chapter discusses how the Ambergris books take up both postmodernist poetics and the secondary world-building of fantasy. These two things do not exist with one another easily, as the skepticism endemic to postmodernist fiction tends to destroy the naive worlds found in fantasy. However, I argue that Ambergris is a world, a materiality, entirely made up of its textuality. Whereas in fictions such as House of Leaves, textuality becomes an abyss without a bottom into which characters and events might fall, in City of Saints and Madmen this textuality is the bottom, the condition. You will have to read the book to get more about that.

That all said, I am so focused in the chapter on Duncan Shriek that maintaining the discussion of Dradin became untenable. As such, I have cut it and provide it here, for your consideration and amusement. Enjoy. Or not. (BTW, the last line of this refers to the title of this subsection of the chapter, “This is Ambergris,” which is a line from “The Strange Case of X,” the fourth section of City of Saints and Madmen.)

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On the history of fantasy scholarship

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 18 October 2016 by Ben

This is some writing I did for Here at the end of all things that will not make it into the final ms in this form. I have cannibalized quite a bit of it, but much of the overall point of this section was lost as I did so, especially the point about fantasy scholarship largely avoiding any attempt to historicize the genre. This point has become increasingly less necessary as I have developed my argument for the overall project. Nonetheless, I thought someone, somewhere, might find this lit review interesting or useful (or even wrong). There are no doubt some typos and other mistakes here, so I present it as is.

Framing the discussion

If, as I suggested in my introduction and will continue to make clear in below, fantasy suffers vis-à-vis science fiction as a genre incapable of doing what science fiction does, namely think through the problem of history and think through problems in an historical manner, some of the blame for this state of affairs must be placed at the feet of the scholars who have sought to identify what the genre is and describe what it does. Albeit without any ill intent, the critical reception of fantasy has generally not included strong arguments about the genre’s historical status since it (the critical reception) began in earnest in the 1970s. Numerous critics have rightly noted the historically recent invention of mimetic fiction and that fanciful treatments of reality had long been the norm prior to the rise of the novel, even if such treatments should not be taken as generic fantasy or even fantastika in a broader sense of the term. Likewise, and following from this acknowledgement, critics of the genre and related forms have noted that the distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is itself historically determined (arriving at something more similar to its present form than ever before in the late eighteenth century, at the moment when, as Clute suggests, the future becomes visible and therefore threatening). However, such acknowledgements made, the scholarship has tended to focus more on defining what fantasy is than investigating the specific conditions under which it emerged or the ways in which it reacts to those conditions.i In the last decades of the twentieth century, these debates mainly focused on four unevenly distributed topics: the literary history of fantasy, its antecedents in folklore, fairy tales, epics, the romance, the pastoral, etc.; the question of the impossible; the distinctions and relationships between fantasy and the fantastic; and the rhetorical strategies through which fantasy achieves its ends. In recounting this history, as well as its aftermath, I shall focus more on some of these topics than others in order to show how these early discussions set the terms of the debate, terms which not only influence my intervention here, but are themselves interesting from an historical perspective. Even where these terms do not prove to limit such debate absolutely, they nonetheless enjoin the later critic to address them. Such is even more pressing a concern for the critic of fantasy, an object that has yet to enjoy the wide and varied scholarly conversation that has been conducted around, for example, science fiction.

Although early studies of fantasy acknowledge the historicity of the genre (as well as the manner in which distinctions between realist/mimetic fiction and the fantastic generally are products of specific historical formations and conditions), these studies tended to focus more on drawing boundary lines between fantasy and its various others and with defining the positive features of the genre in terms of its formal and conventional properties. In short, these studies tended to be concerned with genre in a relatively ahistorical sense. For example, in his 1976 study The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy, William Irwin notes, “Late in the nineteenth century various authors turned to writing fantasy,” perhaps because they felt confined by the limitations of the social realism that dominated the moment.ii This historicization remains incomplete, however, for the fact that, first, it does not account for the historical transformations of the late eighteenth century which provided the conditions for both social realism and for fantastika or, second, for the distinction between those fantasies which appeared prior to The Lord of the Rings and those which appear after. I argue that only the latter can be included in the genre properly understood (for reasons I shall elaborate in chapters two and three). In any case, Irwin’s goal is not to situate fantasy in its historical moment so much as to describe its formal features, and to do so with an eye towards differentiating between the fantastic (for Irwin something that appears at the level of content) and fantasy (which involves rhetorical devices specific to fantasy as a form). As such, he offers what has become a highly influential definition of the genre as that which “plays the game of the impossible.”iii He goes on to further claim that “a narrative is a fantasy if it presents the persuasive establishment and development of an impossibility, an arbitrary construct of the mind with all under the control of logic and rhetoric. This is the central formal requisite.”iv Irwin not only firmly establishes the concept of the impossible with regard to fantasy scholarship (which I shall further discuss in chapter XXX), but also makes clear in this claim that he is less concerned with the nature of the impossible than with the rhetorical devices which establish impossibility in the mind of the reader. Fantasy is a sort of sophistry insofar as it seeks to trick its readers into imagining impossible things for the sake of a game (however serious) than with the political implications of such thought. As such, history is largely irrelevant, as this game can be played at any time and in any place. That the game comes to be in a specific time and in specific places does not seem to be a concern. Not only would the notion of impossibility (and Irwin’s specific formulation of it) become important in subsequent years to critics of fantasy, but his focus on rhetoric has likewise been influential, as suggested by at the titles of at least three important books on the genre, Rosemary Jackson’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992), and Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) (although each of these later works considers rhetorical form in more sophisticated, and even historico-political, ways).

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From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present

Posted in Uncategorized on 22 September 2016 by Ben

The text of my paper for the Fantastic Now conference, held in Munster, Germany from 22 – 24 September 2016.

From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present
Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper represents a very nascent project, something I thought I would be working on full time when I proposed it, but which has been pushed back in the queue by other, newly arisen opportunities. Nonetheless, I still plan someday to write a book called The ends of genre, which describes  a shift in our critical understanding of the world. This shift has moved criticism and theory away from a model functionally similar to science fiction and towards a model functionally similar to horror. Whereas science fiction assumes the human as well as historical and scientific progress, even if only as objects of critique, horror denies all of this in order to say that the human, history, science, progress, and even critique are contrivances developed and deployed by hairless apes to delude themselves into believing that their allotment of time means something. This shift has become visible in the work of, for example, theorists associated with speculative realism generally and Object Oriented Ontology specifically. It tracks with a rise in para-academic publishing on so-called “horror of philosophy” and claims that we live in the “age of Lovecraft.” It accounts for our fascination with the Anthropocene and our concomitant understanding that we cannot make sense of it according to the forms of meaning making we inherit and inhabit. It understands that, in the words of Bruno Latour, critique has run out of steam.

In the service of this larger argument, and very briefly put, I am interested today in recent discussions and descriptions, in contemporary environmental and media theory, of what lies above and below the threshold of human perception as well as the connection of such to narrative forms. This discussion suggests a possible understanding of what horror might be now even if this understanding of horror remains an ideal one insofar as it exceeds our capacities to represent it, or fails to rise to the level of human representation. In my definition, horror deals with a particular aspect of that which cannot be represented, a state of total problem called aftermath, which I shall discuss in a moment in the context of John Clute’s four-part grammar of the genre. I then move to my primary topic: contemporary discourses of the super and the sub, namely with regard to the Anthropocene and our present media ecology. Both of these discourses foreground time rather than space, the ways in which we are made small by cosmological timescales or rendered ignorant of the data of which we are constructed and by which we are controlled by technological timescales which remain without designation. If the super cannot be reduced to a human scale, the sub does not rise to that scale. However, whereas the super can be measured in terms of human temporal markers, the sub cannot. Both the super and the sub, as with much horror, suggest in their own ways an endless present of which we cannot make sense.

Based on John Clute’s four stage grammar of horror, I offer the following definition, which I will briefly justify. And note that I am aware of competing definitions, which I do not have time to discuss. So, horror is that form of narrative which seeks to reveal that narrative only ever serves as an attempt grant meaning to a fundamentally meaningless planet in order to make that planet amenable to human being. This definition is an ideal one, its very structure suggesting an insuperable contradiction, namely the narrativization of what cannot be narrativized. But this contradiction is precisely the point as it itself dramatizes the confrontation between the human and its meaning-making techniques, on the one hand, and something so vast or so small that narrative cannot face it on the other.

In The Darkening Garden, Clute claims that the horror narrative begins with sighting, moves on to thickening and then to revel, before concluding with aftermath. A character sights something in the world that does not conform to her understanding of it. She realizes that there is, in fact, MORE to the world than she had previously imagined. Thickening is the process in which this “more” further reveals itself, defeating the human character’s attempts to square the newly seen with her science, history, or other meaning-making techniques. During revel, the character either accepts or attempts to deny the single truth, namely that she can no longer establish any truth, even temporarily. Her intoxication marks her ironic celebration or her sincere attempt to forget. Aftermath is the state of total problem in which she is left, a state in which meaning can no longer be found or produced. This narrative structure implies a process or a sequentiality, but this implication is misleading. The process only refers to a individual or group becoming aware of what already is. Aftermath does not complete a sequence so much as represent what has always already been true. As such, horror denies what we refer to the past and the future, denies them as narrative conventions that allow those in medias res to make sense of their lives and their poems, to quote from literary critic Frank Kermode. As opposed to science fiction’s dreams of the future and fantasy’s longing for the past, horror conceives a permanent present out of which humanity carves small segments in order to make meaning and produce difference out of an undifferentiated mass. In this respect, the human is the small opposed to the large, the speck dwarfed by the cosmos, the finite faced with infinity.

Significantly, although horror can and does contemplate the spatial, in this definition it has more to do with time. Again, aftermath does not begin or conclude, origins and endings being part and parcel of narrative and therefore entirely conventions designed to grant meaning to human existence. Horror, however, does not imply any eternity, any permanence. That is, it does not represent an unchanging or stable world. Rather, it seeks to represent a state of total problem in which there can be no progress, no movement forward, no goal-directed action. We might do things, but in aftermath these things accomplish nothing of any consequence. Writing in 1778—roughly the moment of the advent of the Anthropocene as we now understand it and also that of the birth of fantastika, when the human, for Clute, became aware of its role in a planetary drama—James Hutton explains this point: “Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon the globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession.” Although I am thinking here of certain objective understandings of time, Hutton’s point is well taken: time is a human construction, one that serves to make sense of human limits but only, in the end, serves to reveal them more fully as those limits encounter the apparently unlimited scope of nature.

I had wanted to say a bit more about the super and the sub, that which is above and beyond and that which is below, at this point, but I think my time is better spent on the contemporary issues I am tracking in this paper. So, I hope it won’t be too controversial to say that that which is above and beyond—gods, nature, society, capitalism, networks—has long been a challenge to humanity, what animates many types of human narratives. One particular instance of the super, the supernatural, has long been an issue for the fantastic, for fantasy, for the weird, and for horror. Likewise, that which lies below has also animated various forms of narrative, although in rather different ways and, to my mind, often less effectively. Although I can’t defend this claim right now, I suspect that humanity has, historically, been better at imagining its confrontation with the super than it has imagining its confrontation with the sub. I am not sure this has changed precisely, but the sub, what lies below the threshold of human perception rather than above it, is of much more recent discovery than its opposite.

Over the past several decades, but mainly in the last ten years, the human confronts the super in the form of the Anthropocene, the designation for the contemporary geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on climate and the geological record. Dating this era remains a contest, with some suggesting it begins with the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, making it exactly the same as what we have heretofore called the Holocene, and others dating it as recently as the late eighteenth century, with the advent of industrial capitalism and the beginnings of our consumption of fossil fuels. What no one debates, however, is the fact that humans have, in the space of just over two centuries, released into the world energy that the world has been storing for hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. The needs of humanity, at historical and individual timescales, here confront the realities of a planet that exists at a geological timescale in the context of a cosmological one. In his account of the “geology of media,” the way in which our built environment impacts the so-called natural world at the level of the earth itself, Jussi Parikka writes, “The time of human concerns differs from geological time, which is argued to be a radical dynamic force that affects life across the boundaries of the organic and the inorganic.” In short, the human confrontation with inhuman timescales draws into relationships objects, subjects, forces, processes of which the human is but dimly aware, if at all. The individual human is made small on a spatial scale in the midst of all of these forces. More to the point here, the lifespan of the individual human or even of the human institution becomes insignificant when compared to geological time. Human beginnings and endings mean nothing in the context of what seems an endless present.

In the introduction to their recent edited collection on HP Lovercraft, Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Weinstock speak of the current importance of the weird in general and Lovecraft in particular in terms apposite the issue of the Anthropocene. They write, “what [Lovecraft’s] fiction tells us is that, however grand we consider human accomplishment, it will all inevitably disappear into the unplumbable depths of deep time. Put another way, Lovecraft’s significance to key philosophical debates rests on his assertions of human infinitesimality.” Clearly, as it has been seemingly forever, if in different terms and through different forms,, human finitude continues to be a problem in the face of the super, that which is larger than the human, that which is too big and too close perhaps to see, that which our narratives cannot contain and we cannot fully comprehend. The timescale of the individual is tiny, so the individual connects itself to historical timescales to give itself meaning. History, in turn, can be inserted into larger timescales in order to telescope between human scale events and geological and cosmological ones. However, as critics such as Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and McKenzie Wark, among others, have pointed out, the stories so constructed remain irresolvably and problematically anthropocentric. They remain tales of progress, of becoming ever more modern and knowledgeable about the world, the way it works, and how the human belongs to it or in it. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz make clear that this narrative of coming to knowledge, the narrative of the historical novel as well as that of science fiction, remains inadequate to Anthropocene: “The story of awakening is a fable. The opposition between a blind past and a clear-sighted present, besides being historically false, depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It serves above all to credit our own excellence.” Modern forms of narrative, in which I include science fiction, fail. Postmodern, or perhaps post-historical, forms of narrative such as horror, in which human infinitesimality does not add up to a meaning called “history,” replace them.

But this issue of an uncaring world operating according to laws and at scales incommensurate with individual and historical time only addresses part of the issue I am trying to get at here. The other part, and the relationship of each part to each other, is significantly weirder, and even less amenable to our understanding. The super seems so material and obvious in whatever form it takes and the human, smaller than the super, able to fit within it as a unit of measurement, whether that fitting in takes the form of embrace or suffocation being another question entirely. But below the threshold of our perception lies the sub, that which does not rise to the human scale and therefore remains ungraspable to the techniques meaning making humans use to fend off the horror of the world.

Cultural theorist Steven Shaviro has argued that consciousness is “cognitively expensive,” that it costs a great deal more energy than it is worth. In short, we do not need to be aware of what we think in order to think it, although modern sensibilities related to Kant’s critical faculty demand this awareness at all times as a ward against ideology and dogmatism. Shaviro argues this point based on studies that suggest that humans actually make decisions before they are aware of having made them, that suggest we begin to act even before we know of what we have “chosen” to do, that suggest we react to stimuli of which we are not conscious. Along very similar lines, media theorist Mark Hansen claims that “Human experience is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation caused by the complex entanglement of humans within networks of media technologies that operate predominantly, if not almost entirely, outside the scope of human modes of awareness (consciousness, attention, sense perception, etc.).” Hansen further argues that twenty-first century media systems “help us—embodied, minded, enworlded macroscale beings that we are—to access and to act on the microtemporality of experience, [and] they do so precisely and only because they bypass consciousness and embodiment, which is really to say because they bypass the limitations of consciousness and embodiment.” Hansen’s argument tends to be optimistic about the potential consequences of human involvement with these media systems, but we need not take that optimism without a grain of salt. That grain of salt makes clear that there exists, all around us on a daily basis, a microworld of data and sensibility to which we have no access. The temporality of this world is calculated on the order of fragments of seconds. Moreover, this subcultural world—created in some respect by humans but manifest at a scale into which the human is too big to fit—exerts considerable control over the human. Any smartphone, for example, is capable of not only perceiving information we cannot, but also of compiling, configuring, coordinating this information into forms legible to human perception and thereby enjoining us to act upon this information. At the scale of the super, our inherited techniques of making meaning fail even if they do so knowingly, even if they narrativize their failures as narrative. At the level of the sub, these meaning making operations do not so much fail as they never have the chance to even begin to work. They are too blunt as instruments, unable to grasp the granularity of data and temporality of nanoseconds. In the absence of human narrative, inhuman narrative—those written by tablets, networks, communication technologies—take over.

So the human lies below that which is above and above that which is below. This situation remains true in contexts other than that of the Anthropocene and twenty-first century media. However, these two contexts share a peculiar relationship with one another, one only becoming visible now. The world, it seems, is thickening as a result of our understanding of our intervention into it, an intervention which we surely no longer control and perhaps remain incapable of perceiving in its manifold consequences or in real time. Benjamin Bratton describes what he calls an “accidental megastructure,” the Stack, made up of six layers: the Earth, the Cloud, the City, the Address, the Interface, and the User. I can’t describe each of these layers, but note that they are decidedly anti-humanist. Minerals and netbots have as much agency as users as do humans, the latter being an increasingly marginalized element of the total structure. Importantly, Bratton makes clear that even if much of the Stack was constructed, it does not obey any single authority and largely defies the political, epistemological, and even ontological categories and methods of definition we inherit from modernity. Most importantly, and most horrifyingly, for the present argument is Bratton’s explanation of the ways in which the Earth, the physical planet itself, feeds the twenty-first century media that control us. He writes that, in the Stack, “the Earth is the Earth—a physical planet—not a metaphor for ‘nature.’ There is no planetary-scale computation, now a vast network of many billions of little Turing machines, that does not intake and absorb the Earth’s chemistry in order to function.” Moreover, “there is no Stack without a vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities. The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones.” In other words, the human, in some ways unknowingly, contributes to the Anthropocene as a consequence of its production of those devices that mediate our knowledge of the world in ways that cannot perceive. The human inserts its time and interests into supernatural time and interests in order to manifest a subcultural field of fragmented moments that cannot be be made to mean anything to the human. This is contemporary horror, the experience of an endless present, the experience of an existence situated between the alpha and omega of inhumanity. Horror, as a genre, has not yet caught up to what we have already done to ourselves. We no doubt have some place in this circuit, but, to use a woefully outdated metaphor, that place seems to be between the hammer and the anvil.