Archive for Here at the End of All Things

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.

Attebery on Tolkien, or Lord of the Rings as the returning king

Posted in The Generic with tags , , , , , , , on 28 June 2013 by Ben

Brian Attebery, in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, writes: “J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, compared to others, is an achievement of such magnitude and assurance that it seems to reshape all definitions of fantasy to fit itself. Indeed, no important work of fantasy written After [sic] Tolkien is free of his influence, and many are merely halting imitations of his style and substance.” Later, in a chapter entitled “After Tolkien,” Attebery continues this line of thought, stating how the publication of LotR

changed the position of fantasy in this country. Even before it became a bestseller and the object of a cult, Tolkien’s story was noted by critics sympathetic to the genre as the workd they had been waiting for, the first extensive exploration of the possibilities of modern fantasy. It seemed on the one hand to sum up the whole Western tradition of the marvelous, with its echoes of Homer, Dantae, and Wagner and its outright borrowings from the Kalevala, the Scandinavian Eddas, Beowulf, the Mabinogion, George MacDonald, and William Morris. On the other hand, the trilogy was an integrated story with a perception and a point of view that many readers found appropriate to the contemporary world: that is, it was not only a culminating work but also a seminal one, a challenge to the reader to go out and create something equally grand and equally magical.

Attebury writes here without irony and without any apparent thought with regard to the way that the reception of Tolkien in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) mirrors the very conventions of the quest fantasy that Lord of the Rings more established singlehandedly. That is,insanely enough, the reception of LotR, as a sort of prophecied chosen one, fits with the quest narrative that it establishes: the “return” of the king who promises a new reign of justice and peace (but who cannot, perhaps given the merely generic nature of what follows [looking at you Terry Brooks], of course, live forever and sets the stage for the disappointment that is his offspring). I don’t mean to fault Attebery here, as he is working on a much different issue than what I am thinking about. I just find it interesting.

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.

Continue reading

Paper Proposal for 2013 &Now Conference

Posted in Conferences, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 2 April 2013 by Ben

Second proposal of the night. If it weren’t for the last second and all that. This one is for the 2013 &Now Conference, this September in Boulder. I wish this proposal was a bit more fleshed out, but that’s the way it is.

Horror after History: Glenn Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Proposal for &Now 7

Benjamin J. Robertson

Jake Marlowe is, as the title of Glenn Duncan’s 2011 novel suggests, The Last Werewolf—and he dreams of suicide. Jake’s life, perhaps never meaningful, has become unbearable in its absurdity. Despite the pleas of his single friend, he prepares to end his centuries-long existence in the knowledge that his death will be as meaningless as his life.

According to Kojève, following Hegel, at culmination of modernity, the end of history, the human, having achieved its perfection and without the possibility of art and therefore meaning, will revert to animality. Similar to Marlowe’s understanding of his imminent death, the disappearance of the human has little consequence for the universe: “The disappearance of Man at the end of history is not a catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains live as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called.”

This paper investigates, through a consideration of The Last Werewolf, the horror genre in relation to questions of history, knowledge, and human being. Far from returning the human to a state of nature, in The Last Werewolf, the animal ‘inside’ the human takes the human out of sync with itself and undermines the notion of history’s end by undermining the notion of history itself in the manner that Kojève pace Hegel understood it, Specifically, I consider Marlowe’s statements, made with regard to his soon-to-be werewolf lover Talulla: “Thus she’s discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it. […] You do what you do because it’s that or death.” This short passage moves the horror genre beyond the knowledge practices of modernity, in which horror derives from a challenge to positive knowledge and rationality, a challenge to our deepest epistemological assumptions. Here, horror becomes the groundless ground of being, an ontological “truth” that renders all meaning impossible, including the meaning of one’s life and the meaning of one’s death.

 

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

Further notes on Parable of the Talents

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

Some further thoughts on Butler’s novel, with regard to the question of entering history.

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)
  • 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

some notes on media and history in Octavia Buter’s Parable of the Talents

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

These are some half-finished teaching notes on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. I write lots of teaching notes, but I am posting these because they are becoming central to my thinking for my upcoming SFRA paper on genre and media as well as to my ongoing project on genre, Here at the End of All Things. What follows in this post are part of the notes for a class last week. In the next post I will continue some further thoughts on history that intersect with the issue of writing and media.

Again, these are notes. I fill in a lot when I speak and skip some stuff that does not work with the direction class discussion takes.

reading, writing, and media in PotT

  • I noted last time that this is a somewhat more complex novel than many of Butler’s previous ones
    • many if not all of her novels to this point were narrated by a single person from a rather consistent point of view
      • some of these characters were men and some women (one was neither)
      • some were human and some were not (most were something in between)
      • all of these texts were narrated, but none of them (to my recollection) were WRITTEN (except for PotS, which was entirely Lauren’s journals and Earthseed writings)
    • but this text is comprised of various WRITTEN texts (by Bankole, by Lauren, now by Marcos, and by Lauren’s daughter) and compiled by an editor (Lauren’s daughter
      • we can go even further and distinguish between Lauren’s journal and her Earthseed writings as well
    • other texts thematize writing
      • Dawn deals in part with Lilith’s need to write and the fact that the Oankali won’t let her at first
        • and it MAY be that that book is written, but not clear that this is the case
      • Kindred is very much about writing, but it does not make clear that the book is written
  • in any case, the fact is that this novel is composed of writing, and this is very significant for both what it means and for how it works, the latter being relevant for your paper
    • the question that springs immediately to mind is, who are we in this novel?
      • that is, how does the novel position us as readers?
      • WHEN are we reading this novel, given that it has been written down and edited?
  • we are, in fact, FUTURE readers of these texts, no?
    • and we are future readers after an era of mass illiteracy
      • we know that illiteracy is widespread in 2032 and 2033, when the novel takes place
      • 19: mass illiteracy (related to fantasies theme of decline in which skills are lost)
      • relates to the “horrible and ordinary”: 56

 

history in PotT

  • Butler often thematizes history, perhaps most obviously in Kindred and Wild Seed but also in Xenogenesis (which is a novel that takes place after history in several respects)
  • when we hear the word “history” here we should not understand it to refer to WHAT happened, but the writing down of what happened in the form of a narrative
    • history is, by one definition, human time
    • what is recorded is history, and what is not is prehistorical or ahistorical, before or outside of history
    • when we refer to history we are referring to the human construction of time and the time in which meaningful events take place
      • meaning only takes place within history and for those who take part in history
      • for example, according to Western thought animals do not take part in history because for them the world has no meaning; things simple happen
  • and because history is involved with meaning, it is always involved with interpretation, bias, choice, and power
    • history is never simply “true”
    • we can see examples of conflicting and conflicted histories at several points early in the text
      • Jarret on “a simpler time”: 19
      • mythical golden age of mid 20th c: 52
    • history here is subject to interpretation and the person with the most power has the greatest authority to interpret history, has the greatest ability to make that interpretation stick