Archive for American Literature

ICFA 2020 paper, on Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted in Conferences, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 20 November 2019 by Ben

Here is my paper proposal, now accepted, for ICFA 41, in March 2020. It’s for the horror division, which is new for me even though I work on horror. I usually propose to the fantasy division, but this paper didn’t really fit there in my opinion.

I do have another proposal in to the fantasy division, for a theory roundtable, but I will wait to hear on that before saying any more.


“Infrastructures of Horror: Race, Neoliberalism, American Literature, and the Anthropocene in Mat Johnson’s Pym

In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters tells us that “Ontology is usually just forgotten infrastructure.” In other words, what we often take for natural structures or systems are in fact constructions we no longer see or understand as constructions. Humans, who exist at scales that render such infrastructure invisible to us, operate therefore under conditions they cannot always, or perhaps ever, discern or comprehend. In Pym, Mat Johnson investigates the naturalized structure of American literary history by way of a narrative about neoliberalism, catastrophic climate change and related disasters, and the position of the racialized subject within such systems. Specifically, Johnson provides a revision and sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Johnson’s narrator, Chris Jaynes, describes as “A book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both.” As he investigates the history of Poe’s Pym, Jaynes navigates the power of neoliberal economics (which asks him to become a brand for personal gain), a world increasingly defined by disaster (some real, some imagined), the iniquities of American literary history, and the ongoing power of whiteness (which binds all of these other structures together materially and conceptually).

This paper discusses Johnson’s Pym as an instance of the new weird, but one especially attuned to the problematic legacy of weird fiction. For HP Lovecraft, Poe served as a major antecedent to the weird fiction of the haute weird period, roughly 1880 – 1940 in ST Joshi’s account. As such, Poe—whose racism anticipates and informs Lovecraft’s—serves as a forgotten infrastructure, as an apparent “ontological” ground for both American literature and a certain variety of horror fiction. In the present, novelists such as Mat Johnson and characters such as Chris Jaynes operate “in the wake” (to borrow Christina Sharpe’s term) and under the power of structures that determine their lives and the potential meanings of these lives despite the invisibility of these structures. As Johnson makes clear, they are not invisible because they are too small but rather because they are too big, because they are self-identical with the world itself in its present configuration. For Jaynes, in Pym, the first step in addressing this problem is to render the invisible visible. However, as this paper makes clear, such a project may always be doomed to failure insofar as the tools available to us (prose fiction, critical thought) are part and parcel of the very structures that remain hidden from us.