Archive for genre

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.

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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.”

–Hawkeye

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.”

 

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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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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