Archive for history

ASAP/11 seminar paper: The Stillness as Land, The Broken Earth as Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 14 October 2019 by Ben

This is my contribution to a seminar at ASAP/11 this past weekend in College Park, MD on NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, a text that, I am sure, needs no introduction.

The seminar was amazing and I want to thank Leif Sorensen and Jessica Hurley for organizing it and inviting me to be part of it. The other contributions were great and the conversation was among the best I have ever had at a conference–both very smart and very much a geeking out session.

In my current book project, Here at the end of all things: Fantasy after History, I begin by theorizing the relationship among fantasy, science fiction ,and horror in order to examine what avenues for thought each genre opens and closes. This theorization leads a reconsideration of fantasy’s development and reception as a genre, especially insofar as fantasy, in its fullest expression, actualizes a ground for history that history cannot provide for itself (a problem historicist genres such as sf often fail to acknowledge and one that antihistoricist genres such as horror do not acknowledge as a problem so much as a given). Fantasy thus acts as a foil for neoliberal capitalism, especially with regard to the latter’s antihistoricist operations, which dovetail with certain aspects of science fiction and, in the end, come to resemble horror. Here, I think about The Broken Earth as fantasy in the context of another of this century’s greatest crises (or constellation of interconnected crises), what we conceptualize by way of “the Anthropocene.” Under the Anthropocene (or one of the many terms competing to identify the broader concept), humanity and its institutions come to understand how the destabilization of the conditions of their history and, thereby, the destabilization of those processes of valorization or meaning-making dependent on historicist and critical thought. The Anthropocene not only reveals the impermanence or finitude of human subjectivity, institutions, nations, and so on—the very impermanence and finitiude that under whose shadow anthropocentric valorziation becomes necessary and possible. The Anthropocene also reveals the impermanence and finitude of the condition for human subjectivities, institutions, nations, and so on—the allegedly stable or “set” materialities that subtend all life on this planet. (Of course, the responsibility for, awareness of, and consequences of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed across the abstraction “humanity,” to say the least.)
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The End of all Things and Amnesia of the Soul: Moorcock, Harrison, and the Possibilities of Fantasy

Posted in Conferences, Here at the End of All Things, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 March 2019 by Ben

This is my ICFA 2019 paper, which in part is taken from Here at the end of all things. At ICFA, it was presented on a panel on Michael Moorcock, along with papers by Tim Murphy and Mark Scroggins. The opening paragraphs here summarize much of part one of HATEOAT, while the paragraphs on Moorcock and Harrison are taken from part two, which deals with what I call the Tolkien Event and how it helped to cause the real subsumption of fantasy.

This paper describes how Michael Moorcock, in Stormbringer, and M. John Harrison, in Viriconium actualize certain concepts inherent to fantasy in ways that oppose their more conventional actualizations in the fantasy that follows from Tolkien. In the larger project from which I draw the following discussion, I define three key concepts important to what Brian Attebery once called the full fantasy tale: affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Of course, few if any fantasies fully embody or exhibit these concepts. They stand, rather, as tendencies within fantasy that help distinguish it from science fiction and other allegedly historicist genres. As the argument goes, science fiction, at its best, deals in historical problems and historical solutions to those problems. The novum, for example, creates a totalizing moment in a science fictional society whereby that society is transformed on a fundamental level. A world with time travel is not simply the same world with one more technology, but a world that is re-configured from the ground up with a new form of economy and politics and new social and cultural norms and institutions. The conflict of such science fiction often centers on attempts by this world or someone within it to come to grips with this new situation. At the end, the characters of this science fiction will arrive in a new place, albeit one they might understand as either good or bad depending on their position within it. Following Bernard Stiegler, I call this form of life, in which one makes use of one’s being to produce meaning, existence. In fantasy, so the argument goes, characters seek to return to a previous world, one prior to or outside of history and its conflicts and meanings, rather than arrive in a new one. Again following Stiegler, I call a form of life in which being and meaning are utterly congruent with one another consistence, and I argue that fantasy seeks such a state. Of course, it cannot produce such a state, since production requires and depends upon existence. Rather, it actualizes it in the reading process, by way of telling story. As John Clute would remind us, stories are narratives that are told and whose meaning emerges in the telling. This meaning is not abstractable. A story does not contain meaning, but is the meaning itself. And for Clute. the grammar of the full fantasy tale is called story.

However, I believe that we lack adequate concepts for describing how story works. Moreover, I do not believe that Clute’s four part structure of story—which moves from wrongness to thinning to recognition to return—takes us as far as we might go here because it implies four discrete steps that must be taken and therefore implies something altogether too rectilinear to adequately describe the circularity of story. In my larger project I therefore develop terms that describe how story works, terms that refer to relationships rather than to discrete steps or moments in a fantasy. I apologize for the number of terms I am throwing at you, but they come as a set and, I think, are far easier to understand in relation to one another than on their own. I refer to these concepts as affectivity, desirability, and positivity. Briefly put, affectivity binds characters to their worlds and readers to texts. Affectivity is a becoming, an openended process by which subjects become aware of their environments and the conflicts that surround them. Affectivity actualizes a relationship between subject and object, a meaningful one tantamount to magic. Desirability is not, as one might assume, a characteristic of a particular object we might covet. Rather, it refers to the conclusion of the conflict established by way of affectivity, As such it involves the liquidation and disappearance of the subjects and objects that took part in that conflict. Because they have fulfilled their desires, they are no longer necessary. Positivity, then, is the relationship between affectivity and desirability, the relationship of the becoming in which the subject-object pair discovers itself and the liquidation of that pair as discrete things. To put all of this another way, we might understand affectivity as the process of reading, of understanding the world. Likewise, we can understand desirability as the possession of knowledge that reading affords. Thus if affectivity involves the power of becoming, desirability is the quality of toldness. Positivity is the becoming-toldness of story.

In a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings—or in many other conventional portal-quest fantasies—this becoming-toldness is quite easy to understand. Frodo and other ignorant or innocent characters are constantly told the story of Middle-Earth, which is to say they are given to understand its essential nature by way of a narrative that connects the distant past to the present and future in an honest and upstanding manner. In this context, affectivity amounts to their capacity to bind themselves to this story and the truths and dangers it involves. Ideally, this becoming, in which they are not only given facts to know but a hermaneutic and moral system by which they can systematize those facts, gives way to toldness, to their having knowledge of the world and how it works. The full possession of this knowledge, which is in Tolkien’s metaphysics always true and good, should allow for the loss of subjectivity that arrives with a fully inhabited belief. In reality, this process can never be completed in the material world or before you close the cover to the trilogy. It can only be achieved after the end, or in Valinor. In any case, the full movement, this becoming-toldness, provides an ideal for a certain type of fantasy, although it remains difficult to actualize. Many inferior fantasies, by Brooks or Eddings or McKiernan, rely on established tropes to suggest it but fail to achieve what Tolkien did.

Of course, Tolkien was not the first to work along these lines and we can find examples of other actualizations of affectivity, desirability, and positivity in fantasies that precede the trilogy, are contemporary to it, and that follow from it. In the larger project I discuss what I call the Tolkien event, by which the history of fantasy is understood as what leads to and follows from The Lord of the Rings. The texts I discuss here, and others by Mirlees, Dunsany, Peake, Anderson, Le Guin, and McKillip, make clear the extent to which there have always been movements in fantasy that remain unsubsumed and unsubsumable by dominant narratives of history and, moreover, actualizations of these concepts that depart from or even stand opposed to what Tolkien accomplished. As Moorcock once put it, “Generally speaking, fantasy stories can fall into two broad categories. There is the kind that permanently disturbs and the kind that comforts.” Of course, Moorcock would place Tolkien in the latter category even as he sought to produce examples of the former. However, despite his well-known hatred of Tolkien, I think that here Moorcock leaves the door open for a number of approaches to fantasy, an opening that this paper and the larger project take interest in. So, in the time that remains I will discuss Moorcock and Harrison in the context of the terms I hope I just made clear.

Moorcock’s Stormbringer, a full-length novel about the albino prince Elric of Melniboné, comprises stories first published in 1963 and 1964. It appears relatively early in Elric’s publication history, but serves as a chronological end to the narrative of Elric’s life. In fact, Stormbringer ends with the world utterly destroyed despite the apparent triumph of Elric and his companions, who have in the end only made possible a renewed Balance of Chaos and Law that must exclude everything that has led to this moment. The novel ends on a lifeless planet:

The world seemed a corpse, given life in corruption by virtue of the vermin which fed upon it.

Of mankind nothing was left, save for the three mounted on the dragons.

The conclusion of Elric’s narrative involves a world destroyed rather than one simply lacking magic and the consistence magic promises, a much more literal and final end than the one Frodo envisions or experiences when he speaks of “the end of all things” to Sam as they lay upon Mt. Doom awaiting what seems to them inevitable death. When Elric asks whether he shall ever see one of his companions again, that companion responds: “‘No, for we are both truly dead. Our age has gone.’” Another companion, Elric’s oldest and most loyal friend Moonglum, sacrifices himself to give Elric the strength to blow the Horn of Fate and bring the world to its conclusion finally and absolutely. Elric’s sword, the sentient, vampiric Stormbringer, then kills him and provides an inhuman witness to this end. This inhuman point of view, the novel Stormbringer itself, and the larger mythology of the multiverse in which Elric exists make clear that this end of all things will not be a permanent state in which literally nothing exists or takes place. There will be a new world, a new history, and new subjects of history, but all of this will be truly and radically new rather than a restoration of something previously fallen. The new world will never know the events that produced it, nor can the new world be known by those who lived through those events.

That this ending comes so early in Elric’s publication history means that it always awaits Elric and the reader in the future, as something impossible to avoid, and as something that provides a totalizing context for events even as they take place in the “present” of another tale. Moorcock thus does something uncommon in quest fantasy (and although the Elric stories have been conventionally understood as sword-and-sorcery Stormbringer can be productively understood in relation to the quest). By not only killing Elric, but utterly destroying his world and the very conditions that produced that world, Moorcock severs a certain relationship between the subject and the reader of fantasy. In Eddings, we see the problem of a rote prophecy that renders all action meaningless to both characters and to readers. After Stormbringer, the reader knows what Elric cannot: that his very being will end along with everything that made that being possible. As such, Elric experiences a grim desirability the reader cannot know. The reader will be forced to go on, knowing the limits of this going on and what these limits mean. Elric lives without this knowledge. This disjunction manifests, for example, in 1972’s Elric of Melnibone, which tells of events that take place early in Elric’s life. At the start of Book Three of this novel, Moorcock asks, “Was there ever a point where [Elric] might have turned off this road to despair, damnation and destruction?” In the context of this single text, this question refers to immediate events and their consequences, knowledge of which Elric may already possess or intuit. But in the larger context, already known to the reader but unknown and unknowable to Elric, we discover a gap between a desirability Elric inhabits but does not know and one that the reader knows but cannot inhabit. Later in the text, we discover something similar but even more specific when Elric contemplates Stormbringer: “Stormbringer needed to fight, for that was its reason for existence. Stormbringer needed to kill, for that was its source of energy, the living souls of men, demons—even gods.” Insofar as it severs the relation between protagonist and reader we come to expect from much fantasy—a relationship that tends to comfort rather than disturb—Moorcock’s desirability is rather different than Tolkien’s. Positivity, the becoming-toldness of story, if we can find it at all in Stormbringer, does not actualize for a subject of fantasy capable of grasping it. Story thus serves only as something unreachable and unknowable—even in the imagination. Moorcock’s multiverse can never know, live, or even represent consistence—nor can Moorcock’s reader, who always already understands that after the end there will be another beginning unknowable for those who live on this side of the divide.

M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City understands story in a manner contrary to both Moorcock’s Elric narratives and other fantasies of the era, such as Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Like these other fantasies, The Pastel City decenters and even disappoints the human. Unlike these other fantasies, it does not even offer a hope for consistence, whether in the form of an objective universal renewal that forecloses knowledge of the past and thus of what was renewed, as in Moorcock, or in the form of a subjectivization of the non-human world that simultaneously upholds the radical difference among all subjectivities, as in Le Guin. In fact, Harrison may reject Tolkien more than even Moorcock. In a 2003 editorial published in the midst of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003), Harrison eviscerates Tolkien and his legacy, at one point simply stating, “Tolkien is no longer an influence on the innovators of the genre he invented.” On the condition of the genre generally, Harrison writes, “The real mistake of the fantasy factory was to cuckoo every other kind of fantasy out of the nest, to empty the category of genuine imagination, to turn it from a bazaar of the bizarre into the Do It All of ‘world building’ and pseudo history.” In short, the fantasy factory—what I understand as the production model characteristic of the genre’s real subsumption in 1977—insisted that all fantasy take its cues from Tolkien and start with world-building (what Tolkien called “subcreation”) and the facile implication of a deep history that world-building provides.

The world of Harrison’s Viriconium stories, of which The Pastel City is the first, could not be more different than Middle-earth. It has no higher purpose and has no capacity for progress. It has no history that anyone within it can know and seems to be in many respects “unbuilt.” Readers may struggle from one Viriconium text to the next to understand how they connect with one another, how any historical process could have produced the world of In Viriconium (1982) out of the world of A Storm of Wings (1980), for example. More often than not, characters in these stories struggle to know facts about the world. Moreover, they struggle even to grasp the extent of their ignorance about the principles that govern that world. As one character, someone who has spent his life trying to understand the dead and dying technologies that surround him is heard to say late in his life, “‘We waste our lives on half truths and nonsense. We waste them.’” Another character puts it this way: “‘You will not deny me this: no one who comes after [the height of human civilization] could read what is written there. All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.’” Indeed, in the second Viriconium novel, A Storm of Wings, the Reborn Men from the height of human achievement (the so-called Afternoon Cultures), fail to successfully integrate themselves into the fallen world of the Evening Cultures. That later world has not simply come into being by way of a movement along an identifiable line according to comprehensible laws. Rather it has become something altogether different, something unknowable to them. Harrison writes, “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 to them: haunted by an amnesia of the soul.”

As Clute tells us, amnesia is common in fantasy. Conventionally, its presence bespeaks absent knowledge that is nonetheless fully recoverable. He writes, “Fantasy amnesia—unless it is imposed at the end of a tale in order to protect the protagonist, or the world, or the god—exists in order to be removed. Amnesia, in other words, is almost invariably a form of suspense.” There is no suspense in Viriconium, or at least not the suspense engendered by a looming end that might actualize desirability and thus the reconciliation of being and meaning. The end has already happened; there can be no recovery because there can be no knowledge of what might be recovered. By way of its utter denial of historical continuity with the past, the world of Viriconium mirrors the one whose rebirth is implied at the end of Stormbringer. However, the world of Viriconium denies any possibility of further renewal and does not acknowledge a punctual event that caused the rebirth to begin with. In short, Harrison’s world does not know, cannot know, and has never known itself. It remains unbuilt, outside of human knowledge, and without any history, real or otherwise. There is no way for the Reborn Men to remember, to understand (much less bridge) the gap between the world in which they died and the world in which they have been granted new life. Like the present denizens of the Evening Cultures, who cannot understand the past and can never hope to rebuild it, the Reborn Men can never go back nor can they bring the past forward into this new time. The material conditions of the world make both movements impossible. Viriconium suggests that, if story ever existed (debatable or even unlikely), the failure of history to provide a condition for permanent knowledge leads to horror’s aftermath and destroys the possibility of typical fantasy return, or even science fiction’s arrival. In Viriconium, the methods and products of modern knowledge techniques are nothing in and of themselves. They require something more that can never be and has never been, a fundamental link between being and space-time. In the ruins of the world, in a global salvage yard containing nothing but the remnants of the cultures that destroyed that world, there can be no understanding because there can be no essential memory of an existence through which one learned affectivity or pursued desirability, much less of a consistence that finally revealed them both in the light of positivity.

As we see, both Moorcock and Harrison oppose Tolkien and the sorts of relationships he actualized between subjects and worlds, between readers and texts. And yet, I think they remain within the fantasy genre (at least in these texts) for the fact that they engage with such relationships, either transforming them into something disturbing or acknowledging them in order to destroy them. In other words, Moorcock and Harrison don’t so much sweep Tolkien away but rather demonstrate other directions for fantasy, even if these directions suggest something that may depart from fantasy as we know it. The point here is not to denigrate Tolkien, although you may do as you wish on that front, of course. Rather, the point here is to discover something in fantasy that remains unsubsumed by neoliberal capitalism, something that cannot be exchanged in the context of history or posthistory. If affectivity, desirability, and positivity do not exist, but only consist in the process of reading, then they, I think, cannot be exchanged. They therefore remain insoluable to the logic of late capitalism, or semiocapitalism, or whatever term you like. Tolkien managed to actualize these concepts, but I think that many of his followers rely far too much on what we already know from The Lord of the Rings and therefore are part and parcel of the real subsumption of fantasy that was accomplished in 1977. However, Moorcock and Harrison—not to mention China Mieville, Daniel Heath Justice, NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick Rothfuss, and many many others—demonstrate that there are other ways that we might actualize affectivity, desirability, and positivity and that, in fact, history might not be over yet. Thank you.

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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