Archive for history

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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Epigraphs to Here at the End of All Things, chapter 1

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 12 August 2014 by Ben

These are the three epigraphs to the first chapter of Here at the End of All Things, entitled “Regressive Futures: An Archaeology of Fantasy”:

I never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse. And that was not solely because I saw horses daily, but never even the footprint of a worm. The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.1


There were dragons in the sky and, within him, a mirroring desire to get closer to the glory of their flight, to feel the laminar flow of their unimaginable power and magic as close to his skin as possible. It was a kind of mania. It was a kind of need.2


Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies.3

1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 39 – 40 original emphasis.
2 Michael Swanwick, The Dragons of Babel (New York: Tor Fantasy, 2009), 2.
3 Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 59.

Horror after history: Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, The Generic, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 27 September 2013 by Ben

Text of a talk I gave at the 2013 &NOW Conference. Warning: rough edges.

There is a moment in the life of concepts when they lose their immediate intelligibility and can then, like all empty terms, be overburdened with contradictory meanings.

—Agamben, Homo Sacer

This paper is about horror—both what we feel and the genre known as such—and history. The intersection of these two terms in this paper involves the claim that horror—both the feeling and the genre—has a history and that history in one of its most prevalent senses—that being the sense that history is progressive—horrifies. I will not come to a strong conclusion.

The Last Werewolf is potboiler full of sex and violence (although, truth be told, in both quality and quantity not so much, contra the breathless reviews). Glen Duncan, like so many who have written genre fiction, appears in this context to be, as Melville once said satirically of Hawthorne, a man who means no meanings. Of course to be a man who means no meanings at the end of history, is simply to be a man. Or an animal, as to be a man means to mean meanings and to mean meanings means to be a man. After the end of history, after meaning has ceased, one can no longer be a man properly so-called. Nor can one be beast. Such distinctions are part and parcel of history and the meaning, the technology or the means of meaning which it affords. After history, the genres such distinctions create and maintain—genres which must be created and maintained because they have no inherent reality—disappear. No more human and animal. No more horror, sf, fantasy. No more potboilers and no more literature.

In The Open, Agamben discusses a messianic and a modern account of the reconciliation of the human to the animal, each of which involves the end times or the end of history. In the messianic account, what survives the last judgment is the purely human, the human exclusive of its embodiment, its physicality, its animality. In the modern account, which comes out of Hegel on Kojeve’s reading and very much determines popular and populist notions of history to the present insofar as it’s underpinned by “progres”, the end of history involves the “disappearance of Man properly so-called,” the end of “Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.” At the conclusion of History, “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or Given being.” In other words, at the end of history the human loses what makes it human; the animalization of the human takes place through the exclusion of humanity.

Later, in Homo Sacer, in a chapter entitled “The Ban and the Wolf,” Agamben returns to his discussion of animality in the context of the political conditions of modernity. He notes that the werewolf, in its origin, is closely related to the figure of homo sacer, or sacred man, who, in contradiction to his title, can be killed but not sacrificed. He notes that Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources define the bandit (who is excluded from the polis and the laws that protect the demos such that anyone may kill him) as a wolf-man. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.” Notably, for all of its etymological inquiries, for all of genealogical tracings of an obscure figure of ancient law, Homo Sacer concerns itself first and foremost with what Agamben calls “the nomos of the modern,” under which the state of exception (which can be traced back first to sacred man and then to the werewolf) becomes permanent.

Agamben notes that, as a term, “homo sacer” makes almost no sense, burdened as it is with so many contradictory meanings. For example, if the man in question is sacred—that is, if he belongs to the gods—why may he be killed by anyone? To come to some understanding of the term, although this definition does not account for its complexity entirely, we might articulate it with a concept of history and say that homo sacer is excluded from all humanity, including that which we call history. Homo sacer, in other words, cannot be made meaningful, cannot be included in the city, in the purview of “Man properly so-called.” In some sense, homo sacer is already removed from such profanity, from human use and is therefore already sacred, but cannot partake in a becoming sacred that meaning requires. If this point seems contradictory, it is. That meaning is human is part and parcel of Hegel’s notion of history, but at the same time this meaning, history itself, requires spirit, something fundamentally non-human, in order to mean.

Glen Duncan’s title refers literally to Jacob Marlowe, the last of his kind. However, I can’t hear it or read it without thinking of Fukuyama’s the last man who comes at the end of history or of Nietzsche’s last man who heralds the arrival of what comes after the human. However, this echo raises the question of whether Marlowe is the last wer and the last wolf, the last human (or at least the last man) as well as the last beast or if he is the last werewolf, the last intersection of the two? That is, with his conclusion does the distinction between human and animal cease or is it completed? Whatever the case, he is both human and beast, an animal in an urban world, a creature whose fleshly (dare I say natural?) appetites—which include well-aged scotch and constant sexual intercourse—can only be satiated by the conveniences of modern culture. He lives always in a human world, but apart from humanity. He is integrated in the system of culture through his investments, but has few friends and a life that has no value whatsoever. he may be captured and tortured without consequence, killed by those who hate and fear him without anyone knowing or caring.

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